Sheila Chau is one of the few female wealth technology experts in Canada with more than 15 years of experience, but likely the most delightful to speak to. Despite having worked within enterprise technology and institutional moguls in wealth management - like Dataphile before it was Broadridge, and Broadridge after that, on top of TD Bank, Dundee Wealth Management (now a division of Scotiabank), and Fidelity - Sheila is humble and quietly insightful having witnessed wealth tech innovation from the ground up. She has driven large-scale institutional projects, led process improvement initiatives from the vendor side to the client-side, and has an unparalleled track record that has contributed to the development of powerful financial technology solutions. Her legendary career has continued as Mako Fintech’s VP of Solutions Engineering, and so we couldn’t wait to share some of her fascinating story here.
In this interview with Mako’s VP of Marketing & Communications, Chandal Nolasco da Silva, Sheila shares her story about how she became an expert in wealth technology, thoughts on how the implementation of wealth management software has evolved, and advice for firms who are thinking of going digital.
Mako Fintech: Tell me about your career, how did you get started in wealth management and technology?
Chau: I started out as a QA at Dataphile before it became Broadridge, learning about the Canadian Securities Industry. When I moved from QA to Business Analyst, that was my first true exposure to the world of KYC technology projects. At that time, I could see that KYC had to be customized and as a result was labour intensive. We had to cover a lot of different scenarios, logic and business rules - it was a real eye-opener.
“Agile development wasn’t a thing back then. It was months and months before a client would even see anything.”
A year later, a friend of mine got in touch with me to let me know that a big bank was hiring, so I decided to give that a try. This was my first experience with a real enterprise-level structure for software development lifecycle, and it was a lot of detailed information gathering, and documentation. Agile development hadn’t emerged back then. It was months and months before a client would even see anything.
Eventually, I learned about a conversion project for a book of records that was happening at a private wealth firm through another contact. I thought it was interesting to be on the client’s side in-house and I moved over to what was known as Dundee Wealth at the time. Towards the second half of the project, we started thinking about long-term transition post-launch. That was my first taste of process and policy development where stakeholders had to be acutely aware of everything that the vendor was creating, and engaged if they needed to have any sort of input. These release management processes are still in use at Scotiabank who bought Dundee Wealth.
By this point, I’d seen the industry from the technology vendor’s perspective, from the institution’s perspective, and also from the client's side. I’d moved around the wealth management arena and I was extremely grateful for all the different opportunities my network had provided me. But my career didn’t stop there. One day I got a call from a friend consulting at Fidelity, letting me know they were setting up a clearing business and had openings, so I decided to join that team. They operated like a startup but had the institutional mothership behind them.
“We were forced to get creative, and after a couple of years, it was a well-oiled machine. This velocity was groundbreaking.”
We were onboarding institutional businesses and larger businesses at the time. It was shaky because it was around 2008-2009 and things were on the downturn, so a lot of firms were looking at having their back-office operations carried out by a custodian instead. A couple of years later Penson was closing shop and we had an influx of PMs and introducing brokers looking for a new home. By the end of that period, we must have done about 50-60 conversions onto the Fidelity platform. Introducing brokers were no small feat. It would take at least six weeks from the book of records, which was Dataphile/Broadridge, to do their shell creation and all their batch and overnight jobs. There were also the Fidelity overnight batch jobs and reporting that needed to be done as well. A lot of coordination was also required as to how operations would take in the new introducing broker. We quickly realized that if we were to do the same thing with portfolio managers, they wouldn’t be able to wait the 6-weeks plus for a conversion. So we came up with a nifty solution for portfolio managers, whereby the creation of a shell allowed the conversion to take place in two weeks' time. We were forced to get creative, and after a couple of years, it was a well-oiled machine. This velocity was groundbreaking.
Mako Fintech: Let’s go back to that first implementation project - tell me more about what that was like?
Chau: This was at Dataphile, circa 2004, and it was a system where clients would click through many screens with lots of documentation involved. In that KYC world, everything was wet-signature. The user interface wasn’t very dynamic. There wasn’t any built-in logic that was sophisticated at all. Once the screens were complete, a giant package of forms was created and sent to the client. It would pre-fill the client’s information but would include every single form whether it was required or not.
On top of information overload, there was room for missing pages because these had to be printed out manually, and then they had to be scanned to get it back into the system. Corrections would have to be done manually. It was slightly better than filling it out from scratch, and still labour intensive and barebones.
The process was very waterfall-style, documenting everything, then trying to get developers to understand every single use case. It could be months for even a small subset of users to get access to a beta test.
Mako Fintech: What about regulations, do you feel more supported by regulations now than when you were working on those earlier projects?
Chau: E-signatures wasn’t a thing in those early days. There was definitely a whole slew of regulations and we really had to rely heavily on the compliance interpretation of them. Hence, there’s a lot more customization and differentiation in wealth management, and solution development really wasn’t something you could cookie cut. You still can’t really today. Because of technology’s evolution and because regulators are closing in on a lot of loopholes, it’s better today than it was back then. There’s less risk, and we’re capturing a lot more information like politically exposed persons or trusted contact person from the latest CFR requirements, for example.
Mako Fintech: How have implementation practices evolved since you first started working in wealth tech?
Chau: Fast forward to today’s world at Mako, we’re going a lot faster in the sense that the initial requirements are written, but not fleshed out in hundreds of pages of documentation. We understand the high-level needs and our team takes a deeper dive during implementation, while still following what was agreed upon in the original Business Process Review. During this implementation, we’re delivering incrementally, so the client can see working pieces throughout the development process.
“We can gather feedback from the client along the way, and catch discrepancies much earlier than having to wait until the end of the implementation only to realize it wasn’t what they were looking for.”
The way we do things today is very different from how we were doing things many moons ago. It’s a lot more interactive with our clients. We can gather feedback from the client along the way, and catch discrepancies much earlier than having to wait until the end of the implementation only to realize it wasn’t what they were looking for.
Mako Fintech: What's one thing you wish all implementation teams knew on the client-side?
Chau: Well about implementation, that’s an important responsibility on the client as well. We need them to be continually engaged and involved, and to understand what we’ve been delivering thus far.
I really would like clients to understand that when we’re producing incremental working items, aka sprint releases, their input is absolutely critical. Every working sprint where we release another piece of software to them builds upon what was done before, so if they don’t interject and they don’t give us their feedback early on, it’s that much harder for us to undo and redo something. Having those ongoing conversations is super important. And we know how busy clients are, but waiting to test until the end with that waterfall approach can definitely create major setbacks to the project timeline. Depending on the client, like a fund closing for example, timing can be everything so if we can avoid delays during implementation, we should.
Mako Fintech: Do you think technology is suitable for every firm?
Chau: I believe technology is suitable for every firm but it has to come with a shift in mindset. There is typically a lot of demand for technology and digitization, but the mindset that has to go along with it is that something is going to change. Technology is an opportunity to rethink and reset - like has that process changed because of regulatory updates? or is there a good reason we’re still doing things this way? And how can we tweak this or that to improve it? That’s the key to a successful digital transformation.
What's one piece of advice you would give to firms who are thinking of going digital?
Be open to change, speak up and be involved.
Feature Image and Image 1: Courtesy of Mako Fintech. Not to be reproduced without permission.