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MOVERS and SHAKERS Interview with Michael K. Levine



Michael K. Levine

Tell us your name and a little about yourself.

My name is Michael Levine. I’ve spent my career (now forty years!) doing large-scale high impact technology management for major US institutions. I love taking on impactful challenges that require the mobilization of large teams and multiple organizations and delivering solutions that make a difference. From early time-sharing systems on rented mainframe terminals to recent public cloud multi-channel solutions, I’ve observed that the real leverage points and challenges are the people, not the technology. I was an early adopter in financial operations and software of lean operational and product development techniques that originated at Toyota, and then of agile as it was promulgated in the Manifesto. My education was liberal arts, and my interest in sharing my insights to help prevent software disasters led me to write a trilogy of books on lean and agile software, culminating in my latest focusing on people and leadership, “People Over Process: Leadership for Agility”.

What exactly does your company do?

I’m wrapping up about nine years at US Bank, where I lead technology for consumer lending and business banking. Prior to that, I spent a decade or so at Wells Fargo doing similar work. I’ve also been a CTO of a software company. Most recently, coming out of the mortgage crisis, we have been focused on improving customer experiences in combined digital/human channels and using data, rules, workflow, and other rapidly developing technology capabilities to improve convenience, speed to results, and lower cost and risk.

What were the biggest challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?

I’ve been blessed with a great family, good health and prosperity, so few personal challenges to speak of. Professionally, leading Wells Fargo Home Mortgage technology and process engineering through the default crisis was far the most challenging. We were rapidly faced with millions of borrowers in trouble we wanted to help, and new approaches and regulations we needed to implement at scale. Building a great team and strong partnerships with business lines and supporting technology firms was key. Not sure we ever fully overcame the challenge so much as survived it.

The other great challenge was the development of a new mortgage lending system at Wells Fargo. My team, which had about a quarter of the program, was lean and agile in the midst of an enormous failed “waterfall” initiative. Our challenge was to succeed at our own work, which we did, and help the broader team succeed as well, which we did not. I personally kind of overcame this by writing the first book of my trilogy, Tale of Two Systems, that aimed to show business leaders how to avoid these kinds of failures. It was cathartic.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you at the start of your career?

If you have a bad boss or a good situation sours, don’t stick around too long. It’s a big world out there. Companies have no loyalty to you, only people have loyalty, so watch out for your own career first. Stay marketable. It’s a harsh truth we don’t like believing, but unfortunately in many cases, it is a reality.

Who are your biggest influences and people you admire and why?

At 63 years old, there have been many. My basic outlook probably emerged out of my family, second-generation Jews after WWII. The strong set of values around freedom, respect for the individual, resistance to oppression, confidence to take control of one’s own life, and tolerance for difference probably set my core, and these no doubt influence how I approach my work as well. I loved Winston Churchill’s writing early on. From a career perspective, it’s been lean out of Toyota and the more recent agile movement, and many friends, colleagues, and team members from whom I have learned.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

At a formative stage in my career, I was enrolled in a leadership seminar with Lucy Buckley. She helped me, and subsequently, my teams, learn to be better leaders and provided the basic leadership framework I’ve applied to the absorbing areas of large-scale business software and am popularizing in my latest book.

At this risk of a bit of caricature, before Lucy, I thought leadership was about figuring out what to do and getting folks to do it. I’ve learned and tried hard to be more of a facilitative leader, emphasizing rigor, alignment, and efficiency. Success in the kind of work I’ve done comes from getting everyone’s head in the game, working through problems and opportunities efficiently in a fact-based way, and having the thousands of individual decisions made aligned to common directions. More effective, more rewarding, and more fun.

What do you see as your greatest success in life?

Having a generally happy marriage for 36 years and two kids of whom I am very proud. Although this is more fairly attributed to my wife Holly.

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Founder & Editor-In-Chief of Kivo Daily Magazine