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Walter Obermeier - Technology Should be Invisible

8 minutes reading time

Walter Obermeier is a Strategic Advisor at FLOWX.AI and before that he was the Area Vice President of Sales for Central Europe at UiPath from 2017 to 2020. He also worked for GENPACT as the Vice President of Sales and Sales Director BPO for Accenture in Germany.

He’s a follower of the KISS principle and the 80/20 Rule. To build towards the future, his vision is that you only need 20% of the functionality you have today in your application, in order to delight 80% of your customers. 

You've previously worked at HP, Accenture and UiPath. I'm interested to know what has guided you through such an adventure. Has there been an idea or a belief that has helped you navigate through all these experiences?

I started my IT journey when I was 16, at a bank in Germany. And I learned very quickly that IT can support business, IT can support management and IT can help you to get where you want to go. So I am always trying to get a little bit beyond the border of what I've learned so far and trying to understand what's next.

I was always restless: Getting more information, gaining a better overview of the technology we have and how we can use technology, and why we should use technology to get to a future state of where we would like to be.

I always had in mind ‘Captain Kirk’ saying, 'Hey computer, please do this'. And somebody did something. And this was a long time ago and yet we're not there, we’re still struggling.

Tell me, as you get familiar with a new company, what makes you think could be the next big thing? Do you have certain characteristics that you're looking for?
 

I have a few principles that I follow. Take the KISS, Keep It Simple. I’ve followed this principle for the past 20, or 30 years. For example, if you explain something to a three-year-old child, it's not that easy because you need to use easy words in an easy language. 

So keep it simple and smart. I'm also curious to understand if this is the next iteration or is it a side step? And if you look into the companies I was lucky to work for, I learned a lot about how to take the next step. And there was never a sidestep like, oh, it's just another job or another challenge in the same area.

And this made me curious when I met FLOWX.AI and Ioan Iacob. Not just the technology, but also the flow of the discussion. We exchanged ideas - back and forth. And suddenly you're three steps further away from where you were before the discussion. And I like those people where you can bounce off each other fast.

Developing a vision, without knowing if it's technically possible just yet plus the right people, makes me very curious and drives me.
So seeing the right people simplify the complex is your investment thesis, right? 
 

Exactly. This might be what's next. And this makes me very sure that leaders like Ioan, like Radu, will have a tremendous story in the upcoming years.

And you pointed out something that's really important to note. And that is when you say you're simplifying something, you are actually taking on a very complex and big challenge, right? 

Absolutely. So for me, the more complex it is, the more I like it. And I think that because I was lucky to learn and to have a global view of things. I love these complex things, but the goal is always: how do I get to a very simple, easy solution so that others don't need to run through complex stories and just make the most of intuitive thinking?

Thinking about the sea of complexity that surrounds banking and the growing competition they face, what would be your advice to them? How should they unlock growth? When they have got so many stakeholders and obligations to meet, how does the bank of today grow and create the bank of tomorrow?
 

That's a good question. It's not easy to solve for banks because of their legacy. I think it means to modernize your applications and shift to the cloud. You also need to go the omnichannel route.

 In my view technology is something that you use in a bank and it's necessary and it's a tool, but it will not deliver growth. Growth is delivered by people. The problem now in banks is that all the focus, at least 50% of the employees in a bank, focus on technology and just running the bank. This creates administration around that focus and takes away the focus from how do we create new products?

How can we sell more? How can we create new distribution channels? How can we do some smart solutions for our clients, which help our customers succeed? 

So let me give you an example: say you develop a mortgage solution in the cloud and decisions are made by AI. This will not create growth. Growth will be created when people like what they do and when people see something that's easy to accomplish. I just clicked once or twice and I already have a new car and I clicked one, two times and I have a new boat for example. This is what people would like to see and not technology hype only. Technology should move to the background. It needs to be there, but not as the most important thing. 

Technology should move to the background. It needs to be there, but not as the most important thing. 
Everyone is obsessed with keeping technology up to date, assuming that growth comes as a result. But the effort needs to be put into the people. You need to put an invisibility cloak on the technology so that you can devote time, not only to customers but to employees too.
 

Yes, let me give you an example from the first bank I used to work for, in Bavaria. There I learned about sales in banking.

My team leader took the paper documents of one of our customers. The documents contained all the cash inflows and outflows. Suddenly, he did something very crazy. He got on the phone, called this guy, and said, ‘Hey, come in I need to talk to you.' The customer came in and we were flipping through all the documents again. My team leader pointed out what this client made, how he doubled some inflows, and also how the bank can help him grow even more. And after one hour or whatever it was, the customer agreed and signed an additional contract with us.

So even if now, 30 years later, we don't use paper anymore, successful sales in a bank is done in the same way - by using data to personalize services and offer valuable advice.

However, the bank is now blocking the bank from doing creative work because everybody is only focusing on day-to-day data. If you ask me how to run a growth story in a bank, it's about understanding the data and helping the clients achieve their goals. 

And not run on the old version of the bank or the existing products in the cloud. If you just put data or products in the cloud, there's nothing new. There is no growth.

And to support your client, you don't need complex applications, which you move into the cloud and make it 100% precise with all the analytics behind it. The more important thing is that you are fast. Because customers need a decision today or tomorrow. There's some disruption going on and you need to be fast and adaptive and help your customers, and not focus on a three-year transformation program to migrate data somewhere with 100% accuracy.

So whenever you think about what needs to be done - think that banks need to get faster and more adaptive on shorter time frames than they do now. 

 
Legacy systems can become a real blocker for banks. And the big question facing any CTO is modernizing this stack so that when the business says they want a new product, it gets delivered in days, not months or years. What is the best way to think about application modernization? 
 

So the best way to think about that is to view an application as a summary of processes. You can summarize 10 processes, you can summarize one thousand processes. The problem is how complex you want to make this application.

Let me give you an analogy. With Office, if you use Office at home with Word, with Excel and whatever, maybe even PowerPoint. Guess how many processes within this application you use daily? You might use 20 or 30 processes. The other two thousand different processes you don’t use. If you think about Excel, who can do Pivot in Excel? How many people can do that? The same happens to the complex systems of banks because it is homegrown, right?

They started to code this process. They added another process. This one, then for regulations, and this is why they're now stuck in these complex old legacy systems and not even being able to change or update them, but in the end, what you need out of these applications is not the process. You need the data, that's all. 

If you now have the possibility to take data out of this application and untie the front-end to the user, untie it where the employees can work with it. Simplify this user interface, and what people see on their screen. Then you have already taken a big step forward because people only see what they need to get the job done. 

This is the first iteration where we see FLOWX.AI delivering a tailored interface for different employees and different areas of the business, but still using the data, which is in the old legacy system. This gives me all the information I need, no matter for which application on old legacy systems it's coming from. 

 Are you making that kind of almost 80/20 distinction? 
 

Absolutely. 

The question is, how do I know what the important data is? What does it look like? How do I identify the 20%? 
 

That's the challenge of the banks. If you focus always on the past, which is 80% of the data. Now you might use that for risk analytics etc. I understand that. But if you focus on new business, you need to focus on the 20% of the data from end customers, which are looking into the future. 

If you always think in the past, and you always have the costs to keep this data alive and stored, it will not help you to move forward. It's all about the future. 

So focus a little bit more on the future. And if you understand how to focus on the future, you will see that you only need 20% of the functionality, which you have today in your application.

It does not mean that everything else we throw away, that the 80% is lost. The person running growth will focus on 20% of the data and 20% of the application processes. And on the risk story, another employee in the back office might use 80% of that data. That's fine. But for growth, you only need this. 

What do you think are the real success drivers of migrating to the cloud, not just doing the migration, but then actually leveraging and exploiting that for growth? 

So let me start with the persons who are relevant here. It's the bank manager and the client itself, right?

Take what we discussed before -  when you give a bank manager 20% of the data and only 20% of the processes that they need to work with, you will free up their time. So they will be able to talk to five times more customers. They will be able to think about five times more customers.

When I was working in banking, people were asking for money. A loan or a better interest rate for a savings account. Today banking is a tool, finance is something you check on a web browser. So you do everything on technology, but what people are really looking for is someone to work with on their strategy, on their enterprise strategy, on their business.

Their business goals, their life goals, right? It's the jobs they're trying to get done that matter.

Absolutely. And if you have consistent data from all the different applications, you can streamline them and consolidate them in an omnichannel way for your clients in a secure environment, people can take it from there. You will see that business will get faster and more adaptive because this is what business people need. They need a bank that is running with them, that is fast and adaptive, which means using fewer data and fewer applications and enabling them to move forward. 

Two years ago with COVID, we had a big bank in Germany that was suddenly facing 30,000 loan applications per month. The challenge was not to create more business. The challenge was an adaptive solution to overcome this workload.

And this is what we delivered, a solution within two days for the end customers that they can apply for that loan and get the decision within three days. And this was a change in IT. And less than seven days, right? And this is what customers need.

This path to being fast and adaptive starts with creating simplicity. Then focus on the people, and make technology invisible.  This will help you create more time for employees to go out and delight your customers. Is this your playbook? 
 

Absolutely, good summary. Because in the end, it means people are talking to people like 30 years ago. Keep it focused on the interface, and the relationships and put technology in the background hiding all the complexity.

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