CIO Spotlight: Sridhar H Sharma, Mr. Cooper Group

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? "Across all industries, good full-stack engineers and architects are becoming roles that are difficult to fill."

Name: Sridhar H Sharma

Company: Mr. Cooper Group

Job title: Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer

Date started current role: March 2015

Location: Dallas, Texas

Sridhar Sharma is Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Mr. Cooper Group, where he is responsible for applications and technology operations. Sharma has nearly 20 years of experience leading technology and product engineering functions. He previously served as the Chief Technology Officer for Ugam Solutions in Dallas. Before that, he was the Chief Evangelist and Architect for the Products and Platforms group at Infosys.

What was your first job? I got my first job as a software developer in 1998 just after graduation at NTT Data, a global software services company. I was responsible for the design and development of software systems for large global banks. I discovered early on how easy it was to churn out new applications and web pages, and how complicated it was to make it perform and scale well enough to handle millions of user transactions.

Did you always want to work in IT? I love working in the Technology space, but growing up, I always thought I'd be a teacher. The first company that I applied to during our college campus recruiting event happened to be a Software company, and the rest, as they say, is history. Fortunately, the teacher (and student) in me is still alive at Mr. Cooper Group and I play a part in encouraging/incubating new technologies as well as building new solutions to help homeowners navigate the complex world of home loans.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I earned my engineering degree in Electronics and Communications at Mysore, India in 1998. Flash-forward to 2011, I later received an MBA from Cornell University, with distinction, and Queens University in Canada -- I earned my dual degrees simultaneously.

Outside of my higher education degrees, I am also a President Scout in India, the equivalent of being an Eagle Scout in the US. I'm a bit rusty with my outdoor survival skills these days, but I do love the chance to get outdoors.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I took some minor detours right after high school, starting with a brief stint at a school specialising in Hotel and Hospitality Management before switching gears and deciding to become an Engineer. Confusing times for sure, but my parents were extremely patient with me while I tried to figure things out.

I started out as a developer and loved building software systems. I got the chance to travel and work in Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S. building software systems for companies across a variety of industry domains - Financial Services, Telecom, Retail/Supply Chain. Looking back, I learned a lot by being able to observe recurring patterns, as well as nuanced problems, across various industries.

After several years playing an advisory role to CIO's and CTO's as an architect, and being called into rescue many failed projects, I decided to take a shot at being a CIO/CTO and do things differently. I went back to school to earn my MBA from Cornell. This opened a whole new realm in terms of being able to digest a company's financials and in applying different economic models for technology initiatives. In addition to staying sharp on core technology skills, I think technologists benefit by taking the time to understand the basic tenets of the underlying business.

Technology can be fascinating but is also sometimes misunderstood - IT is relegated to a cost centre in many organisations and viewed as a utility. Framed in the right business context, and with proper sponsorship, it can and will continue to be a super powerful catalyst for transformation in any industry.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? At Mr. Cooper Group, we're on a mission to change the face of home loans while keeping the dream of homeownership alive. To do this, it all starts with a digital-first approach and customer-centric experience. We're rapidly investing in streamlining our technology core that is putting us at the forefront for industry innovation and changing how other mortgage servicers approach the business.

  • One initiative Mr. Cooper is heavily investing in is developing tools that will empower homeowners to use their home as a financial asset and give valuable insight to make more intelligent financial decisions. We've integrated a set of tools, what we call Home Intelligence, into our mobile app that provides detailed intel on a home's value, equity and housing trends as well as personal information to let homeowners achieve their goals, whether it's taking a family vacation or paying off debt.
  • We're also fully integrating ML and AI across Mr. Cooper's platform to improve the experience for our team members and customers by digitising troves of unstructured and legacy (paper) artefacts and making it searchable in real time. We're in the early stages, but results are very promising and are delivering significant efficiencies to our back-office processes. While ML techniques are easy to pull off the shelf, we're working with a sustained focus on curation and training.
  • One last investment I'd like to mention is that we're focused on streamlining and simplifying our core architecture and infrastructure. We're doing this to keep our technology ecosystem scalable and efficiently performing by expanding our hybrid-cloud platforms and addressing legacy technology debt in a phased manner.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? One of Mr. Cooper Group's top priorities is to continue to enhance the customer experience, and our IT team is in complete alignment as we work to improve our digital offerings and underlying data platforms. But like other companies in financial services, we are greatly impacted by macro factors such as interest rates, housing policies and natural events/disasters - in that context, we are equally focused on technology projects that continually drive business efficiencies while staying on top of our compliance targets.

By overhauling our IT infrastructure, the entire organisation will be able to better service customers and drive business efficiency in an industry continually facing economic uncertainties.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The role of CIO is constantly evolving. As security breaches become more common, functions such as cyber security now operate as a shared operation for CIOs along with the role of risk in many companies, especially in financial services and in the healthcare sector. However, we're witnessing a more interesting shift with the addition of functions such as core product management, design thinking and the ownership of digital platform ecosystems, which are being housed under the role of the CIO.

The emergence of the Chief Digital Officer role is one such variation of this shift. Just as technology has become pervasive in our daily lives, I personally believe that the line between technology and business will also continue to blend, and the role of the CIO will evolve into that of a catalyst for delivering cutting-edge products and seamless experiences.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Yes, Mr. Cooper is a couple of years into our transformation journey and we've already made significant headway into incorporating technology on our internal and external systems. It began two years ago when Mr. Cooper rebranded and changed our entire business focus on becoming more customer-centric and purpose-driven with a mission to change the face of home loans.

Our digital priorities include customer experience as well as operational efficiencies. The way we are able to balance and deliver both is through a combination of - (1) our focus on building a common core technology and business architecture, and (2) maniacal prioritisation of our key projects. A common core data and API layer helps drive customer experience (by enabling rapid delivery) and driving efficiency through purpose-built tools and automated-workflows for our agents and team members.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Although we are a couple of years into our digital transformation, I would say we are still maturing and learning as an industry. There are still a lot of opportunities waiting to be tapped. The process of buying and selling a house and getting a home loan, is time consuming and sometimes confusing to the average consumer. Influencing customer behaviour requires persistence and an appetite to experiment. We compete with nimble start-ups, while trying to balance the weight of regulatory obligations.

While we do have KPI's to track our digital investments and customer behaviour patterns, not every customer experience initiative translates directly or precisely into a quarterly financial schedule. From an IT perspective, we track software delivery and system metrics, but we do not quantify the value of IT in isolation; rather we look at the performance of the organisation and business value delivered holistically.

We also track how our technology is reducing customer complaints and call times. For example, we found that when onboarding new customers, the process was confusing and stressful, so we developed the "Red Carpet Initiative" which is a tech-enabled omni-channel approach to transferring loans launched in 2017. Essentially, we automated welcome communications and provided additional information upfront for homeowners. Doing so led to onboarding a million new loans with 90% of customers having a problem-free transfer. We also recorded a 24% decrease in customers calling with concerns.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? The aptitude and willingness to learn and unlearn. Don't draw boundaries - be willing to learn and take full stack ownership (vs. confining yourself to a frontend/backend/infra engineer role); ideas and innovation can happen anywhere (not just in a lab); we win or lose as a team (vs. individual glory); when there's a problem, roll up your sleeves and help in whatever way you can (hierarchy or team boundaries don't matter).

One thing to note is that culture cannot be taught in a classroom. It needs to be seen and felt live on the ground every day. When Mr. Cooper began our digital transformation journey, we bootstrapped our engineers, analysts and product managers by pairing them with a core team from a top tier software consulting firm that pioneered agile development. This hands-on immersive pair-programming experience set the culture for that team even after we brought the entire project in-house. We've continued to follow this model internally to encourage other teams and spread the same culture. As a company, we promote learning and innovating through events such as our bi-annual hackathons. Our teams also give back to the community by organising hour-of-code events to teach school-aged children how to code and prepare them for a future where technology will be all-pervasive.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Across all industries, good full-stack engineers and architects are becoming roles that are difficult to fill. I also think data science analysts with good programming/scripting expertise (or vice versa: good programmers with a penchant for data science algorithms and statistical models) will continue to be a challenge for organisations to find.

What's the best career advice you ever received? The two-hour rule - if you ever get a nasty/disturbing email, and you want to fire back, go ahead and type your response if you want to. But don't send it. Wait for two hours. If you still feel the same way after two hours, pick up the phone and talk to the other person. Chances are, you would have calmed down and your response will be much more composed and rational.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Succession plans work both ways. Yes, it means you are grooming someone else to take your place, but it also means you are then able to move up to take another role as well.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Be willing to roll up your sleeves and learn. Take the time to learn the business angle - how your company makes money and where it spends the most money. Then apply your technology skills so that your company can do more of the former and less of the latter.

What has been your greatest career achievement? To date, it's been joining Mr. Cooper Group as CIO. It's been exciting to drive our technical initiatives and I've enjoyed seeing the direct impact we have on helping people achieve the dream of homeownership.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Perfect is the enemy of good - I wish I had adopted that way of thinking earlier in my career and approved of pragmatic solutions vs. fighting for the perfect solution. Oh, and I wish I had bought Amazon stock 15 years ago.

What are you reading now? Calvin and Hobbes (Bill Watterson) - my all-time favourite!

Most people don't know that I… I can speak 5 languages - English (of course) + four prominent Indian languages - Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.

In my spare time, I like to…Catch up on sci-fi movies and courtroom dramas. As a family, we also love to travel.

Ask me to do anything but… Ride a roller coaster!