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CIO Catalysts John Keddy

CIO Catalysts: Introducing John Keddy, Chief Technology Officer at Security Benefit

  • 25 September 2020 / By Mark Ardito

When it comes to igniting organization-wide change, there’s no role under a brighter spotlight than the CIO. As enterprises face both the exponential upside and daunting operational realities of digital transformation, these senior executives are at the forefront of it all. As a community, we’re shining our spotlight on leaders that aren’t just talking about change, but are actually making it happen.

That’s what Kin + Carta’s new Catalyst series is all about — asking the challenging questions and discovering what motivates and inspires the most senior IT executives.

Our guest for this installment is John Keddy, Chief Technology Officer at Security Benefit, a U.S. based financial services company that is a leading retirement solutions provider. John joined Security Benefit in 2015, bringing deep experience in global IT delivery, financial analysis, organizational change, and project management. In his current role he is responsible for providing overall strategic direction for the company’s technology and information functions. This includes planning, managing and implementing complex infrastructures that support corporate strategies with an emphasis on digital transformation, IT security, emerging technologies and customer engagement.

During our interview, John shared his insights across a range of topics including technology trends and strategy, infrastructure modernization, talent acquisition, and managing change in the age of COVID.

Like any company, we want to broaden our appeal but appeal is changing as demographics change. One 20 something told me, “for me your brand is what I see on my phone — period”. So for any company that thinks the digital focus is going to lessen — they are in for a very unpleasant 21st century.

Can you tell me briefly about your role at Security Benefit, how long have you been there, what your goals are and some of the challenges you’re facing in today’s rapidly evolving market.

KEDDY:

I joined Security Benefit in September 2015, so just a little over five years ago. One of the things that attracted me to the position was the multi-dimensional aspect of the role and the opportunity to build out a contemporary technology infrastructure. It has proven to be a good fit. I’m able to focus on the traditional day-to-day execution but also spend time each week working on innovation, technology strategy and technology advancement. As a mid-sized organization our size and scale puts us in a highly competitive market position. So for Security Benefit, speed and agility is required to respond quickly to market changes and to do that we must stay ahead of the technology curve. I like the old saying “Speed Kills — the competition.” Innovation is critical in all aspects. Whether it’s optimizing the customer experience or strengthening our security defenses, we have to be looking for new ways to solve old problems and new ways to solve new problems. In today’s environment, you can’t stand still. I firmly believe you always are moving forward or slipping back. You can never occupy the ground you are standing on. I see my mission as constantly driving the organization forward and challenging ourselves on every level. How do we improve our services, expand our capabilities, and push our technologies to the next level? These challenges demand new ideas, different approaches and innovative solutions.

You talked about optimizing the customer experience. How are you prioritizing your investments and tailoring your digital solutions for your existing clients versus your next generation of clients?

KEDDY:

It’s interesting because there are multiple aspects to our business. In our traditional areas of focus such as our retirement services, we cater to a somewhat older demographic where intensive online engagement is not an overly large service requirement. Now looking at our mutual fund business, we see a somewhat different demographic and a different competitive landscape. As you know, retirement is a huge economic and social issue right now for all Americans, so obviously it makes sense for Security Benefit to continue to invest in technology and services designed to meet this demand.

Now, Security Benefit is looking to enter a new business in financial services — so check back in 2021! Our entrance point into that business will demand a far more intensive digital engagement than Security Benefit has ever done. We expect to develop capabilities that we can leverage across all of our businesses.

This is really exciting for Security Benefit. Like any company we want to broaden our appeal but appeal is changing as demographics change. One 20 something told me, “for me your brand is what I see on my phone. Period”. So for any company that thinks the digital focus is going to lessen — they are in for a very unpleasant 21st century.

However, in all of our experiences we can not lose sight of items like security and privacy that are required and expected. Consumers in today’s world expect you “have their back” on these topics. The challenges continue to increase but we must increase security — while creating more compelling digital experiences. It's not security or a compelling digital experience — it’s both!

Outdated people wonder about things slowing down. The world is not going to slow down. Things are going to accelerate — significantly.

From what we’ve seen, the financial services sector has generally been slow to transform on a digital level. With the different hats you wear, part of your role is to help drive that transition. How do you push your business counterparts on the need to be innovative and transform while retaining the positive attributes inherent in a stable, traditional, established business?

KEDDY: 

You are exactly right. For us, I think there needs to be an integrated strategy. And to your point, I do think IT has a unique responsibility to demonstrate thought leadership and help drive innovation forward. I recently did a presentation that showed how far cloud computing technology has advanced in the last two to three years and the shift in thinking that is required on the part of technology leaders. It is profound, and “experience” may work against people. For developers and engineers with 25 years of experience working on legacy infrastructure, it can be difficult for them to continually make these drastic and sudden technology leaps. We’ve seen many good, hard-working people unable to make the change in mindset. Cloud Computing is one example that is going to impact all aspects of our business and ripple through our entire economy. Outdated people wonder about things slowing down. The world is not going to slow down. Things are going to accelerate — significantly. We haven’t even started to see the impacts of Cloud and Digital on Financial Services.

Talent retention is about having a compelling work environment and interesting technologies.

I talk to a lot of CIO/CTOs that say, you know what, we’re going to invest in enablement and training because hiring top talent is becoming increasingly more difficult. Because in today’s world you're competing with everybody, right? How do you adjust to that?

KEDDY: 

Throughout my career I’ve lived in different cities where I’ve had to recruit technical staff and I’ve always had people say, “Oh, it’s difficult to get good talent in that market.” Well, the reality is it’s always difficult to get good talent no matter where you are. Now in 2020, with COVID-19, there are a number of new dynamics in play. With the ability to work remotely, I’m suddenly competing on a wider field for the talent we’ve built here―and it’s going to get worse. All things considered, however, I think we’ve done extremely well. Though we’re moderately sized, we offer compelling things to work on in terms of emerging applications and technology. We’ve made some digital investments and work with some really good partners who bring a lot of good ideas and innovations to the mix. For me, talent retention is about having compelling work and interesting technologies. No doubt it is a challenging market right now, but in many respects, in our industry, I think we’re actually ahead of the curve and are moving in the right direction.

So continuing on the challenges that COVID-19 has presented ― obviously this was not something anyone had planned for. First, what has been your playbook in response to these rapidly evolving events and has the pandemic uncovered any particular weaknesses or within your organization that caught you off guard?

KEDDY:

Certainly, I think there is still a long road ahead and things may never be exactly like they were before. But so far, it’s gone really well for us. I know some firms in our market were struggling to keep pace with the demand for laptops and software. Fortunately we sensed some supply chain tightness early in the year and actually jumped ahead with some laptop purchases early on, so we really had no issue there. We did have some concern about the limits of our VPN capabilities but everything has held up rock solid. Part of my role in coming here was to help build out the infrastructure so I don’t want to act like I’m shocked that we did good work! But you never know how good your solutions are until they are stress tested without warning. Everything we engineered held together and came through very well. I say that with humility because there’s a long way for us to go yet, our investment in cloud infrastructure in recent years has proved vital in helping us meet our infrastructure resources and scalability needs.

The riskiest thing to do is to stand still. In fact, you can't even stand still. You move ahead or fall back. Leaders must innovate, lead, partner, and come up with solutions in a world that pauses for no one.

With many organizations today looking to the CIO and CTO to really be the agents of change, considering the work you’ve done here, what advice can you give other senior executives who maybe don’t have a playbook at the ready to become agents of change?

KEDDY: 

For CTOs and CIOs, I think it’s in the job description that you have to be willing to lead change. If you aren't willing to drive change we should take away your CIO membership card or something. At the same time, I would say don’t just change for the sake of change. Change should be driven by where the market is heading and it should be closely aligned with your long-term goals. It’s OK to note your accomplishments and be proud of your team’s achievements, but know there are innovators all around you ready to disrupt everything you have done. For financial services companies, one of our core competencies is about reducing risk. However if your view of risk reduction is doing nothing new or even trying to slow, then you’re putting yourself at greater risk because the world is moving so fast. The riskiest thing to do is to stand still. In fact, you can't even stand still. You move ahead or fall back. Leaders must innovate, lead, partner, and come up with solutions that pause for no one.

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