If one thinks back to the state of information technology within large, traditionally non-technical companies ten or 15 years ago, there was a vast trend to outsource technology. The belief went that much within IT was non-differentiating, and it would be cheaper to have other firms (often in places like India, Mexico, or Eastern Europe) do the work.
Fast forward to today, and this trend is reversing itself tremendously within many companies. Take the example of Chandra Dhandapani, the Chief Digital and Technology Officer of $21 billion revenue CBRE Group. She has been at CBRE for just over three years after spending nearly 14 at Capital One. At the latter company, she held divisional chief information officer and chief digital officer roles. What she came to realize is the power in having both roles at once. As she sees it, “Technology is the ‘how’ in a digital transformation, and digital is the ‘what’ in terms of a business perspective.” As a result, it was important in her next role for her to be able to drive and influence both sides of the house. As technology becomes core to all businesses, Dhandapani argues that more should be insourced in the process.
The digital transformation she has led at CBRE has been remarkable, and it has impacted customer experience profoundly, as she notes in this interview. She has been so successful that her purview now includes executive oversight of Valuations and Advisory Services globally. She describes her career journey and her view of the future of CBRE in great depth herein.
(To listen to an unabridged podcast version of this interview, please click this link. This is the 44th article in the “Beyond CIO” series. To read through past interviews with executives from companies like Waste Management, Biogen, Allstate, Aetna, Marsh & McLennan, and BMO Financial Group, please visit this link. To read future articles in the series, please follow me on Twitter @PeterAHigh.)
Peter High: You are the Chief Digital and Technology Officer of CBRE Group, Inc. [CBRE]. Could you describe the two sides of your digital and technology set of responsibilities and the role you see technology playing in a business such as yours?
Chandra Dhandapani: I initially interviewed with CBRE for the role of the Chief Digital Officer. The conversation focused on whether or not digital and technology should be separate. Having previously worked in both roles at Capital One, I believe that technology is the underpinning of digital. Technology is the “how” in a digital transformation, and digital is the “what” in terms of a business perspective. Technology is the underpinning of how business models are changing and the type of opportunities that are available to our clients or customers. Whether they are products or services that we offer, our capabilities today exceed those from even five years ago based on what is available in the market.
Often people use digital and technology interchangeably. We believe digital relates to the business models, the direction of the business, and the capabilities of the business. I look at it in terms of “outside-in.” Digital is “outside-in,” and technology is “inside-out.”
High: Could you talk about the team you found when you arrived at CBRE as well as the transformation of the team you led from that point forward?
Dhandapani: When I first started at CBRE, the company felt that the world was starting to change and technology was going to become an increasingly important part of this industry. Historically, commercial real estate was not a highly tech-enabled industry. However, it has transformed dramatically over the past two and a half to three years.
We have been a part of that change, and we see a great deal of activity around us whether it is proptech [property technology], startups coming into our ecosystem, or clients looking for greater sophistication of technology and data from service providers. We are moving away from email and spreadsheet-based practices to more advanced technology in the industry.
When I first joined CBRE, the company had invested heavily in what we call “a factory” to equip over 90,000 people with emails, laptops, and other necessary tools across an organization [at] global scale. There was a belief that we needed to focus more on enabling the business. A large part of technology on the enablement side was outsourced. A big shift that we have made in the strategy for the company is to insource talent. We bring in product managers, software engineers, designers, and data specialists who understand what is needed from a business perspective and what our clients are looking for. They can jointly problem solve with our clients and with our professionals.
High: It is interesting to hear you talk about the rise of these skills that are now so important. Generally speaking, there was a rising trend in IT 10 or 15 years ago towards the vast outsourcing of IT. Now, with this rise of algorithms and technologies to help the organization make better decisions and roles to enable them, there is quite a contrast to where people felt IT was headed a decade ago.
Dhandapani: In actuality, I left IT in my previous role because of that phenomenon. I am a big believer that technology is essential and that it needs to be in the heart of the business. It cannot just be an outsourced job. At Capital One Financial Corporation, where I served as the CIO and Digital Transformation Leader, we underwent a big shift to massively insource engineering talent, and it paid off in amazing ways. You can outsource components that are not at the core of your business. Technology has become and is increasingly becoming much more of a core to any business. Therefore, we must ensure that we have the right talent and capabilities in place to enable our businesses.
High: Your responsibilities have expanded to include the executive oversight of Valuations and Advisory Services globally. I imagine this role is the outcome of your strong work in the aforementioned roles and the acknowledgment of a strategic translation of your prior work toward one of the business lines. Can you talk about how this opportunity presented itself and what you foresee there?
Dhandapani: Over the past eight to 10 years, I have focused on how to build integrated, multidisciplinary teams that work together to achieve amazing progress. When I first joined CBRE, I shifted into an Agile method for building and delivering software. In the Agile way of delivering software, technology is not waiting for orders to build software. Rather, collaboration between users and clients creates software capabilities. Our company is recognizing the power in this dynamic approach.
We have multiple lines of business. The Valuations and Advisory Services and other consulting services are used to determine the value of a property. They rely on data that can be highly technology-enabled. We must make sense of the various components of the data that we can access to rapidly assess the value of a particular building or piece of land. My company sees a huge opportunity for somebody with my background to enter this business. I have a unique perspective compared to someone who has been in the valuations business for 25 or 30 years.
A valuations professional with 25 years of experience is reporting to me. He is in a new role where he looks at valuations across our three regions. We are experimenting by blending my digital and technology skills with the skills of an experienced valuations professional to see what our business can achieve when we completely integrate and embed data and technology. We are excited about the opportunities ahead.
High: I imagine you have a strong team that can manage the store as your focus becomes divided between your prior role and new responsibilities. Could you talk about how you built a leadership team that you are confident in to lead this role without you for periods of time?
Dhandapani: The only way I can focus on something that will take a significant part of my time is to have a great leadership team in place. I am proud of the team that is now heading our digital and technology globally. Each of them has a hardcore engineering or technology background and has grown through their careers to identify key points of leverage in whatever business lines they work with. “A” players attract “A” players. They have built great leadership at the next level and within teams. I recently had two of my quarterly business reviews. Every time I meet with my direct reports, I see a quarter’s worth of accomplishments and challenges. It is fun to see them grow and take the businesses forward. I am blessed with a great team that allows me to experiment with other interests on my radar.
High: You mentioned the themes of transitioning technology for it to become a greater enabler for the organization and using data as a key weapon in your arsenal. Could you talk about the methods that you are using and the ecosystem that you have built around this transition, both at CBRE and with other partners?
Dhandapani: My strategy is build, buy, and/or partner. We are unable to build everything ourselves. We have an amazing ecosystem of partnerships. Specific to data, one of the first initiatives I championed was an Enterprise Data Platform at CBRE. We wanted to create a premier, validated property repository using standard data models and several hundred attributes on each property. As experts in this field, we had lots of data in multiple systems. We aggregated this data methodologically using case driven practices. Our clients benefit from receiving new insights from the data, whether they are basic dashboards or advanced judgments on their properties and their portfolios. This has become a differentiator for us.
I am a strong believer in data because data tells you a story that is often not easily received through anecdotes or just touching various one-off elements of a situation. The whole company is massively energized around data and the opportunities ahead for it.
High: During the transformation of a digital immigrant organization, there is often a period of operating under the old technology and practices while simultaneously undergoing the process of transition. Some people refer to this as bimodal IT: two different modes of IT. I am wondering about your vision of that transition process and the extent to which the original vision was to adopt completely new systems, as opposed to having a foot in the old world and the new world.
Dhandapani: I am not a believer in bimodal IT because I believe infrastructure itself has to be an enabler. Vast amounts of legacy systems cannot be transitioned overnight. Culturally, an organization cannot be split between trendy and outdated. For organizations to truly transform, it must be all-in transformation. We have focused on our share of cloud migration, and cloud is an enabler focused on DevOps [software development practices]. Our infrastructure teams have embraced the cloud by learning AWS [Amazon Web Services] and [Microsoft] Azure.
Since we had previously outsourced most of our development, I had the opportunity to hire new software engineers who entered with digital native mindsets and the ability to build software and deploy it on the cloud. We have our set of legacy platforms. However, everything net-new that we build is on the public cloud. It is continuous integration/continuous delivery [CI/CD] and 100% automation in terms of push-button deployment. This must be part of the DNA.
Returning to the cultural aspect, CBRE is an entrepreneurial company. Many companies assert that they are client-focused. Our company lives working back from client needs. We work with some of the best brands in the world in terms of our occupier clients as well as investor clients. They are all experiencing their own transformation, so they are expecting more from us. As time plays out, the company has made several sure-footed moves. I will give three examples:
- The facilities management spaces. We saw that we have dedicated teams of professionals at client sites and that clients were looking for easier access to technicians for distributed portfolios. We acquired a company called FacilitySource, LLC last year and secured cool mobile capabilities. They provided a set of suppliers who we can source on demand, which is a capability that we wanted to invest in. We are now integrating the best of their capabilities with what we already had.
- Tenant experience or experience within buildings. Providing experiences for employees within buildings is an industry trend that we recognized early on through a client RFP [request for proposal] for a tenant experience platform. My product design and engineering teams met with our account team for a three-day prototype hackathon. Instead of presenting typical RFI [request for information] or RFP responses, we showcased the full experience of what could be built for them, and we won the account. This platform was translated into its own business line where people and software come together to enable great experiences for our clients. The company is investing in it, as the demand has been unbelievably positive.
- The product line, Hana, in response to the increased demand for flexible spaces from our clients. Our first building for Hana will be a tech and people enabled set of spaces that clients can leverage on a short-term and long-term basis depending on what they desire.
High: Earlier, you alluded to the importance of Agile and the commitment to becoming a fully Agile team. Could you talk about the process of training the team to this standard and the value you ascribe to that?
Dhandapani: Prior to agile, there was waterfall where efforts would span multiple months or years, and the people who commissioned the efforts typically changed roles. One of the first steps taken with Agile was enlisting help from external providers because we have a global team, and I need the scale to train on Agile across our company. We started by raising awareness in our executive team, and then we formed other teams.
I ripped the Band-Aid off to Agile fast. It took us six months to get the entirety of custom software delivery converted to Agile. This was my third time through this transformation process, so I knew the importance of starting with DevOps. We made certain we had a DevOps center of excellence to train teams. Insourcing talent was important for moving fast to Agile. I asked one of my direct reports, a well-respected leader in the company, to lead the Agile transformation because she knew the culture of the company and pulse of the teams. She had never worked in an Agile environment, but she learned quickly and has since started presenting on Agile Transformation, both internally and externally.
A benefit of Agile is the multidisciplinary integration of teams. Tech companies call them “two pizza teams,” or small teams that are focused on a particular purpose. The ability to backtrack from client and user needs and to rapidly iterate prototype allows us to gauge the functionality of our work quickly. There is less waste and more efficiency.
High: You represent a growing cohort of technology leaders in Dallas/Ft. Worth who are women, including Jody Davids at PepsiCo, Inc, Paola Arbour at Tenet Healthcare Corporation, Diane Schwarz at Hunt Consolidated, Inc, and Jo-Ann Olsovsky, until recently, at BNSF Railway Company, just to name a few. Could you reflect on the present state of the union of women in technology and the extent to which it is something you think about as you groom the next level of future women technology leaders?
Dhandapani: First of all, I know almost all of the women that you mentioned. We do not yet have enough women in technology, and that is well known. I will share that we have an informal group of women CXOs from around the world connected on WhatsApp. It is an unbelievable, growing group. The platform is extremely active and serves as a go-to safe place for highly talented women leaders in technology where we consult each other when we run into specific challenges. There is a lot of power in having that group which is fantastic.
Suja Chandrasekaran, CIO of Kimberly-Clark Corporation, was one of the original pioneers of the group, and we stay closely connected. Building connections among women is key. As we come across new opportunities, we always ask ourselves if we know of any women we can put forward. When there are women leaders in certain roles, you tend to find that women will reach out to you, and the connections keep growing. We need to do more, but we do have a strong set of women leaders around the world who are fronting technology and digital roles in extremely large organizations. We are all doing our part to make sure that this percentage grows.
High: As you look two or three years out in the future, what are some trends relevant to this business that are rising in your mind that you are excited about and either investigating or investing in?
Dhandapani: There are certain trends playing out that are specific to our industry. I mentioned focusing on experience, which is a big trend. Flexible spaces, applying data and analytics, and online marketplaces are others. At the same time, there are a set of technology trends that are transpiring, whether it is AI [artificial intelligence], machine learning, or blockchain.
The exciting part is watching the confluence of these trends over the next two or three years. How will autonomous vehicles, blockchain, AI, and machine learning, or specific trends in a particular industry such as real estate, all come together to shape a future that may look different from what we have today? None of us can predict exactly which trends will play out, but we can position ourselves to invest thoughtfully in areas that we predict will pan out and test along the way. Our Agile teams are constantly learning and iterating so that if the world pivots toward a direction that we are unable to anticipate today, we will be able to catch on quickly and move ahead.
High: There is a thread through this conversation of the work that you have done in the transformation to modernize people, practices, processes, and technologies to enable your organization so it can pivot quickly and seize opportunities. You do not have to predict so far into the future, because it is difficult to pivot the gigantic ship. Rather you have a speedboat that can start to turn more readily to address opportunities as they arise.
Dhandapani: Correct. That said, we are closely surveying the ecosystem. I have a team that has cataloged over 4,000 startups in our industry alone, and we are constantly in dialogue with a smaller number of those. We have invested in venture capital firms such as Fifth Wall Ventures Management, LLC and MetaProp NYC, which are focused on our industry. Disruption does not come all of a sudden. There are enough bread crumbs along the way, so we are observing what is happening in terms of the emerging ecosystem.