Top tech orgs all share one similarity—a focus on the customer first

March 22, 2022 Pete Greenley
Former Amazon Engineer busts myths about tech development in financial services being slow-moving and highly constrained.

When you’ve worked in as many engineering organizations as Dennis Suppe has, you start to notice the similarities between approaches more than you notice the differences.  

Dennis, Managing Director of Client Experience Technology at Charles Schwab, has built products across aerospace, industrial controls, mobile, retail, and financial services. And across all of them, he’s noticed a theme: regardless of what problem they’re solving, the most effective engineering organizations all have a relentless focus on the customer.

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You never want to start with just the technology. You have to think about the client and their problem and then work from there. You’d be surprised at how many companies don’t do that.

- Dennis Suppe, Managing Director of Client Experience Technology, Charles Schwab

One organization that does take this approach is Schwab, which Dennis admires for being “extremely client-centric” across its end-to-end product development process. Dennis’ team, which creates retail client-facing experiences across Schwab.com, StreetSmart.com, Active Trader, and Mobile, begins and ends by thinking deeply about the problems clients face. And it’s only when the team can identify a problem worth solving that it begins writing code. “You never want to build solutions for solutions’ sake,” says Dennis.

Working backwards at Amazon and Schwab

When Dennis joined Schwab in 2017, this relentless focus on the end-user wasn’t new to him.  

Previously, he spent nearly four years at Amazon, which has become synonymous with the approach, which founder Jeff Bezos calls “working backwards.” According to Dennis, every single conversation, engineering process, or code tweak needed to answer the same question: “What value does this deliver to customers?” This was true even for teams like Dennis’ that served internal users. “Even when we’re building for each other, we always called our end users our ‘customers’,” he says.

To some engineers, these similarities between the product development process at Amazon and Charles Schwab may come as a surprise. Indeed, financial services firms often carry a reputation for being slow-moving and highly constrained, which is seen as an unavoidable byproduct of operating in a highly regulated industry. Having led engineering at a small financial services technology firm prior to joining Amazon, Dennis knew these constraints well. Yet he was still surprised at how much Charles Schwab and its leadership trusts engineers to get their jobs done.

“The thing that I tell people a lot is the best part about being at Schwab is that my leaders have given me all of the freedom to do what needs to be done, what I feel like needs to be done, to build a great organization,” Dennis says. “That's been really rewarding, to have the latitude and the freedom to do things and to be successful and feel like you're supported all the time.”

Developing people—both inside and outside of work

While there are some strong similarities between Schwab and Dennis’ previous companies, he’s equally passionate about the differences. One of the most significant is Schwab’s commitment to supporting its talent in their personal lives. 

As someone with a highly valuable skill set, Dennis says he constantly declines calls with recruiters from big tech companies that are well-known for their office ping pong tables and other perks. 

While those may have once been a draw for Dennis, over time he recognized that what he really wanted were benefits such as Schwab’s 401(k) program, which offers employee matching the day they start working with the company.

“What I say is, forget about free lunch. I want you to help me with my financial future,” Dennis says.

Schwab’s focus on the career development of its talent is another factor that’s kept Dennis engaged. Internally, Schwab’s leadership often talks about the firm’s “virtuous cycle” approach to hiring and development: Managers can’t just identify and hire the right talent; they also must teach that talent how to spot the right talent themselves. Building and fostering this kind of culture on his team has been one of Dennis’ greatest achievements.

“When you create a culture where all of your high-caliber people are given a high degree of ownership and accountability, your team will always take care of problems before you think about them,” Dennis says. “That’s what really great talent does.”

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