TIAA’s Sastry Durvasula on advancing AI horizons

Dec 21, 20226 mins
Business IT AlignmentCIODigital Transformation’s Maryfran Johnson chats with TIAA chief information and client services officer Sastry Durvasula about how challenges and innovation intersect during the digital transformation journey.

Sastry Durvasula, chief information & client services officer, TIAA
Credit: TIAA

The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) has grown over the course of a century into a $40 billion organization with $1.2 trillion in assets under management serving the financial needs of people at more than 15,000 institutions across academia, government, medicine, cultural, and other nonprofit organizations. But all that didn’t phase Sastry Durvasula when he joined in February 2022 to fill an unusually broad CIO-plus role, leading the global technology and client services organizations.

“Financial services as an industry has been going through a level of transformation for the last decade with the advent of new technologies, AI and digital disruption,” he says. “I’ve had a front row seat at some of these big transformations. Post-pandemic, every company is now going through it, which is a great thing for the financial services industry largely. The question now is how to empower our colleagues in serving our clients, and how to create new experiences. On one side, you think about the different generations to serve and experiences to curate, whether they’re higher end, medical, research or nonprofit. Then on the asset management side, how to invest to make it work better. So it’s a great opportunity to be part of an iconic forum where we can make a difference.”

Even if priorities shift within business transformation, digital business, or approaches to leverage data and AI, going into 2023, Durvasula always goes back to TIAA’s business strategy as his north star, which is leading lifetime income, delighting clients, and strengthening how they operate.

“In the post-pandemic world, we’re testing the limits of the core,” he says. “Acceleration on its transformation is happening. It probably was gradually but now we have a concerted approach to it. It’s a large undertaking to drive technology or system transformation for a company of our size and heritage. Technical debt, however, never goes away. The goal is to leapfrog in some of these technology layers, and prioritize the top 20 initiatives across these different layers. Some of these things are foundational to the future, and that’s where we’re going to put a lot more energy.”’s Maryfran Johnson recently spoke with Durvasula about overlapping responsibilities, and being respectful, through technology and talent, in changing a long-established and successful business core. Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On a mission statement: Mine is a three-legged stool. One leg is powering the strategic shifts of the business. We want to be a leader in providing lifetime income for all, and we want to delight our clients and strengthen how we operate. The second is fueling innovation. Technology is at the forefront of any business and for our business, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to change, driven by technology. The third leg, which is the most complex and difficult yet most fulfilling, is the transformation of the core. That’s the beauty of a role like this, where you’re part of a 100-year-old firm built through generations of technology. We have the most cutting-edge technology on one side of the spectrum, and then we have data centers, legacy systems and large mainframes still running in the back end. So how do we transform that core to drive forward the vision and the experiences and the innovation. That is a big focus. We have a companywide technology ecosystem transformation initiative underway, which is sponsored by the board and sets a big priority for the firm.

On combined roles: I would say to my friends who are CIOs or going to be CIOs, this is the best time to be in the industry as a technology leader. The rules and horizons for the CIO are changing and my role is a classic example. I had the privilege in my prior roles leading digital and technology or data, AI and technology, or data and digital in AI. I have different competencies, but here I have the opportunity to lead technology and all of the client services. So together, this function I lead as an enterprise shared service for the firm, is close to 60% of our colleagues in the company. And client services colleagues take a call from the client, a participant, all the way to managing complaints and financial claims and fraud management, to a lot of the middle office and back-office operations. There’s great opportunity to enrich the experience for the client, handle complaints through automation, or drive intelligent automation in the back end. So it’s nice to have the technology organization that’s going to drive this.

On finding talent: Finding technology talent in any industry is a challenge. Right now, there’s a lot of demand especially in the new normal we live in post-pandemic, and industries like financial services are on the receiving end of the challenge more than others. But the differentiation that TIAA has, which very few companies can actually talk about, is we are a Fortune 100 company that’s born for purpose. Everything we do is purpose-driven. All the profits we make we are giving to the participants at the end of the day, which is important especially if you think about the next generation of talent, who is fascinated by purpose and serving others. So we have a very compelling story to tell as a brand.

On female representation in tech: The main goal is to reduce the gender gap or eliminate it, and that’s done through empowerment. There’s a lot of work that happens through Girls in Tech where we create mentoring networks. Different industries, age groups, paths, and careers, whether they’re technical or nontechnical, we’ve created a level of mentoring networks and a dialogue that happens. There’s a lot of empowerment through education. We’ve done a lot of workshops, master classes, and we’ve created a job posting set of tools where people who are members of Girls in Tech can actively seek opportunities. That’s one side of the spectrum. The other is advanced research. In my prior role, there was a research study sponsored by McKinsey and Girls in Tech to get to the bottom of some of these core fundamental issues we have. Another is empowering innovators, incubate new ideas and come up with businesses and opportunities, and grading them. The male ally shift is also playing an important role, so a lot of my peers in the industry are leaning in more. Together, I think we can make a big difference.