Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Arjun Dugal, CTO of Financial Services at Capital One
I spoke with Arjun Dugal, CTO of Financial Services at Capital One. Arjun grew up in India and completed his undergraduate degree in Electronics Engineering there. Afterwards, he moved to the US, where he started his career in consulting and then moved into technology leadership roles, most recently at Macy’s, where he was SVP of Systems and Technology. In 2017, the opportunity to join Capital One arose. Arjun found special cultural resonance at the company after meeting with many team members. He felt the company’s values resonated deeply with who he is, and he loved how people first and people centric they are. He also appreciated how audacious and innovative they are in truly reimagining Financial Services. So he joined the team 4 years ago as CTO of Financial Services.
Arjun shared his advice for leading entrepreneurial organizations, learning about new spaces, and cultivating empowering cultures.
Create self-contained, cross-functional teams that are deeply focused on the customer. Each cross-functional unit should have members from all the required disciplines and encouraged to develop deep customer empathy. Customer empathy should not only be the responsibility of product managers and designers, but it should be a priority for everyone. Teams work best with the full end-to-end context and especially with a great understanding of the customer. Ensure all members of a cross-functional unit are driving towards shared outcomes. With concrete, mutual goals, team members are better able to be aligned from the start and work cross functionally.
Empower your team with the right technology. Arjun highlights 3 key parts of building a robust foundation for your teams to iterate swiftly. Provide them with a suite of collaboration and productivity tools that allow them to work seamlessly even remotely. Make sure your underlying architecture is set up in a way that teams can work independently; microservices and micro frontends, if done right, can be key enablers here. Finally, dedicate at least a small part of your organization to focus on servicing the developer. These individuals should think of the developer as their customer and continuously optimize as well as simplify the internal developer workflow.
Get in the weeds. Arjun has worked as a leader in companies across many different organizations across Retail and Financial Services industries. When asked how he learns about new spaces, Arjun highlights the importance of gaining a deep understanding of the end-to-end customer journey. How do customers learn about your brand? When do they transition to becoming a real user? What is their lifecycle of engagement? Roll up your sleeves and observe the inner workings of the operations. Listen to call centers or visit stores. Go behind the scenes and develop the true on-the-ground, tactical, tangible understanding. Everything else you do as a leader is built on this foundation of customer understanding.
Prioritize the truth. When asked about his biggest learning as a leader, Arjun underscores the importance of seeking and understanding the truth. Prioritize finding the truth over being right. Shift your mindset towards one of genuine truth seeking. In doing so, you create much better outcomes for your team.
Focus on the outcome, not the output. Sometimes teams can get so focused on what they are delivering, they lose sight of the customer problem being solved. To ameliorate this tunnel vision, focus on outcomes rather than outputs. Over index on the outcomes when emphasizing priorities and formulating incentive structures for your team.
Give back to communities around you. Incorporate community impact in your agenda and priority stack just as much as any other business goal. Build organizational structures to manifest this prioritization. For example, Capital One runs an annual Coders program where its associates serve as mentors to teach middle school and high school students how to code their own gaming application. Arjun recalls the joy on the faces of these students as they get their first experiences building apps. Similarly, Capital One has developed a Basic TrAIning Bot Camp curriculum that teaches students how to build an AI-powered chatbot.
Be intentional about culture. Looking back on his time at Harvard, Arjun recalls a general management course he took where he learned about shaping the culture of an organization. In particular, he learned about the importance of being aware of what actions you can take to be more deliberate about intentionally shaping the culture of an organization. Ensure clear values are laid out, and reinforce them through recognizing certain behaviors, celebrating particular stories, and driving the flywheel of cultural acceleration. For example. Arjun is hyper-focused on fostering a workplace environment that empowers everyone to have a voice, which directly aligns with Capital One’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging efforts.
Get comfortable with discomfort. It is impossible to be a domain master at all times. Discomfort means growing and learning. Instead of avoiding it, seek it out. Arjun does a discomfort check in with himself regularly, asking himself, “Am I stepping outside of my comfort zone? Have I tried something new? Have I been uncomfortable?”