Lessons from the leaders: How tech experts give back to their tribe
How can senior figures in the technology space best share their knowledge and give back to their tribe? Western Union’s Chief Data Architect and Head of Data explains how he supports the next generation of tech leaders through mentoring presenting, and a human-first management style.
Harveer Singh is Chief Data Architect and Head of Data at Western Union and has been with the business for three years. He has 17 years’ experience in the technology space, of which the last decade has been in financial services advising banks, payments companies and fintechs on technology solutions and data.
“You’re not alone on the journey”
In his time as a tech leader, what are some of the most valuable lessons he’s learned that he can pass on to his tech tribe? Singh said one of the main things he’s learnt is that “you’re not alone on the journey.” What he means by this is that he and his colleagues are all stakeholders in the business and are invested in its success. He gets involved in other parts of the business that are outside his main remit and feels supported to do this because Western Union values entrepreneurship and problem-solving. “I have embarked on projects and taken on problems that are outside my scope of work and solved them through process improvement or bringing in advanced analytic technologies,” he explained.
For example, he harnessed AI technologies to improve Western Union’s customer service chatbot and make it into a conversational bot which can serve customers more effectively. This has saved the company millions of dollars in call centre costs, Singh said. He has also brought in software to help tackle fraud which started as a side project and then became much more important within the business.
“I’m constantly moving people around”
How does Singh pass these learnings back to his team members at Western Union so they too can grow in their roles? He builds cross-functional teams that are responsible for delivering solutions, and then changes the line-up of these teams every few months. By assigning people to different projects, especially new joiners, they get more breadth and depth of experience. “I’m constantly moving people around on projects. For example, if you’ve done some data delivery work, I’d tell you to go and learn AI to see how that data you delivered can be used efficiently.”
The net effect of this culture is that team members feel “empowered to do things and know they will be rewarded”, said Singh. “They go above and beyond their current scope to look at problem areas and gaps.” He pointed to the example of one tech team member who built a fraud-prevention app in his spare time which was embraced by Western Union’s tech centre and now has a patent pending. “We built an e-receipts and e-statements software on [data cloud] Snowflake, which has never been done before. Typically a company would buy something like that, spending millions of dollars to generate these statements. We built it in less than three months because the team felt that they could, and they did.”
“The winner of the scholarship now works for my team”
How else can tech leaders give back to their more junior colleagues and the wider tech community? Mentoring and networking initiatives are an obvious answer. Singh has been involved in several schemes to help young people and those aspiring to a career in tech who might struggle to break into the sector through the traditional routes. He encourages his team to hire through the Western Union Foundation, a charitable organisation supported by the company, which offers scholarships. “The person who won the scholarship through the Foundation last year now works as an analyst in my team,” said Singh, “so we don’t just give out scholarships, we also bring those people in to help them grow their careers.”
The Mark Cuban Foundation runs a programme for teens at risk of dropping out of education to learn about AI, and Western Union hosted some of the young participants in Denver as they took part in projects. Singh has also been building relationships with local universities to encourage participation in AI. “We also have internal programmes where our colleagues give back in some way such as through mentoring,” he explained. Unofficially, he is advising a company called SheJobs which aims to support women who have taken a career break back into the workplace. “We have hired five women out of that group in the last year to support that initiative,” said Singh.
Mentoring, whether official or unofficial, can be a huge help for people starting out in their tech careers. Singh also spends at least an hour or two a month on calls talking about work/life balance, how to implement new technologies, and how to be more customer centric. His aim is to try to teach people how technology can help a business grow and, in turn, improve people’s lives. “You’re not just writing a piece of code, you’re writing a piece of code that enables something to happen, but that end-to-end journey is generally not visible to technology folks and they don’t understand it.”
On top of this, Singh regularly takes part in speaking engagements, which he says provide as much value to him as he gives to others. “I enjoy sharing ideas because knowledge only grows when it’s shared. When you keep it to yourself, it just dies.”
Tips for tech leaders wanting to inspire
- “Pay it forward.” Share knowledge freely and support others as you were once supported.
- A tech team needs to be human-first. “Having a relationship with your team, and understanding their needs is critical. We should not forget that, as leaders, they are the pillars on which we stand. How you treat your staff is extremely important.”
- Be willing to do everything you ask of your team. “If you haven’t done it yourself, you shouldn’t be judging other people’s work.”
- Guide rather than dictate. “You must give people the democratic right to think. Empower them to come up with an answer, and then respect that answer. Understand that you don’t know everything, and your team has more collective knowledge than you.”