How Anil Cheriyan Outsmarts Cyber Bad Guys

CIO Anil Cheriyan pushes SunTrust Banks to innovate for clients’ sakes while keeping cybercriminals at bay

Anil Cheriyan is in the business of balancing simplicity with danger. The banking industry’s digital transformation has dramatically increased convenience for consumers, but it’s also made fraud easier. As CIO of SunTrust Banks Inc., a purpose-driven organization with $205 billion in assets, Cheriyan constantly weighs consumer convenience with risk, security, and fraud and uses technology to position SunTrust as a leader in advancing financial well-being.

That ambition is embodied in the bank’s onUp movement, which empowers people to take steps toward financial confidence through the money management tools, advice, and tips SunTrust makes available to everyone on, regardless of whether or not they are a client. On the site, consumers can find valuable information on everything from building a budget to testing their financial IQ to preparing for the financial aspect of having a child. SunTrust set a goal of capturing five million onUp participants in five years, and as of February 1, it already surpassed the one million mark.

“While the technology makes it easier to do certain things and it’s great for the convenience of our clients, it also makes it easier for the bad guys to do what they do. There is an intense effort on our part to protect our clients’ money through appropriate cybersecurity tools.”     

As the company continues to focus on educating consumers and attracting new clients, it’s hard at work exploring new technologies to improve its processes. At the end of 2015, SunTrust leaders decided they should create an enterprise function that provides an integrated road map for digital capabilities. Within six months, they had come up with fifty-five “digital client journeys,” ranging from client onboarding to opening a new account to digitally issuing credit cards. After review, SunTrust moved forward on fourteen of the highest priority journeys.

MOBILE Medicine

While managing the many IT projects happening simultaneously at SunTrust, Cheriyan has also found time to serve on the board of St. Joseph’s Hospital, which runs a program called Mercy Care that brings medical attention to the region’s homeless population.

Mercy Care’s mobile clinic goes out each week day to provide primary care, behavioral healthcare, and screenings for breast and cervical cancer, HIV, tuberculosis, and vision. The rolling clinic visits shelters, churches, and other organizations that serve the poor and homeless. Three times a month, Mercy Care also provides mammograms on a mobile coach at two locations and as often as possible at health fairs. Cheriyan recently spent four hours with the Mercy Care physicians and St. Joseph’s CEO to see the work up close, and he plans to do the tour again in the near future.

“It was a great experience to watch and participate in the caring for the homeless,” Cheriyan says. “It helped me to understand how homelessness affects all different aspects of their lives.”

“We prioritized those critical journeys by focusing on the need to enhance the client experience and differentiate SunTrust’s capabilities,” Cheriyan explains. “For example, in client onboarding, we are highly focused on meeting our clients’ needs and making it more simple and convenient for them to bank with us.”

Cheriyan is also dedicated to establishing more of an operations mind-set, looking for efficiencies, consolidating locations, and clearly defining processes on an end-to-end basis. Technology is key to accomplishing that, he says. The bank has launched pilot programs to streamline processes via robotics or process automation.

“We believe that if we apply robotics to our major business processes, there is a significant opportunity to become more effective and efficient,” Cheriyan says. “This allows us to focus on meeting even more client needs and improving the way we service and interact with clients.”

Cheriyan is also using technology to help the bank’s capability-building process become more agile through an initiative called the Business Accelerator. He says that SunTrust has hundreds of technology projects going on at any given time. Some of these are based on the old “waterfall methodology,” in which IT development process is seen as flowing linearly, from conception to implementation and maintenance. But a good portion now includes agile projects that are approached with an eye toward flexibility and modularity. SunTrust’s goal is to have the majority of its projects run through the accelerator.

Another cornerstone of the company’s recent innovations is embracing the cloud. When SunTrust launched its cloud initiative two years ago, it focused on improving the utilization of its core infrastructure. Now, the bank has expanded it to the Business Accelerator, too.

“We felt the need to expand the cloud initiative beyond development test and infrastructure and leverage broader APIs and platforms-as-a-service,” Cheriyan says. “We wanted to use it to change the dynamic and speed at which we can deliver our capabilities. The cloud initiative is now embedded in the Business Accelerator initiative. We’re looking at which workloads get moved and how to migrate and integrate them.”

Cheriyan points out that with all the benefits of convenience the digital revolution brings, there is a flip side that requires vigilance. An example is the advent of digital deposits, where consumers can take a photo of a check and deposit it digitally rather than going to the bank in person. He says that while image recognition technology has brought down error rates dramatically, banks still need to stay vigilant on newer methods of check fraud that leverage this new technology.

“There are bad guys out there,” Cheriyan says. “We have to hone our ability to find them. While the technology makes it easier and more convenient for clients, it also makes it easier for the bad guys to do what they do. There is an intense effort on our part to protect our clients’ money through appropriate cybersecurity tools.”

Things are happening fast, and there’s no turning back. Cheriyan says that if he looks ahead five years, he sees the digital revolution continuing to transform the bank and its customer experience.

“I think we’ll use more data to assist our clients to become more proficient in managing their finances,” he says. “We will leverage process automation and robotics to be more client-friendly and responsive. Our technology and operations teams are already more adept in enabling this digital transformation.”

And even though technology is part of his job description, Cheriyan says that it’s important to step back every so often and remember that technology is simply a tool.

“We need our technology and operations teammates to be conversant in the drivers of our clients’ financial well-being,” he says. “While it’s important to understand the relevant merits of Google versus AWS, we are more keenly interested in helping our clients reach financial confidence in a stress-free, convenient way. That’s the talent transformation we are in the process of making.”