The Crucial Link between Digital Transformation and the CDO

Interview with Tracie Cleveland Thomas, Senior Vice President of Digital Transformation, KeyBank

Tracie Cleveland Thomas, a seasoned professional with more than 25 years of expertise in the technology sector, is distinguished by her self-proclaimed title as a "problem solver." Armed with a dual degree in electrical and computer engineering from The Ohio State University, Thomas has held various roles spanning diverse industries, including insurance, government, automotive, and financial services.

She now assumes the title of Senior Vice President of Digital Transformation at KeyBank, one of the nation's largest regional banks.

Throughout her career journey, Thomas has cultivated a deep passion for utilizing her technical expertise to assist companies in attaining their business objectives.

She spoke with Ben Blanquera, Vice President at Rackspace Technology and CDO Magazine Global Editorial Board Member about her role as a digital transformation officer and the challenges of ensuring a seamless digital banking experience for KeyBank customers.

Playbook takeaways: 

  1. Transformation Perspective: Keep focus on the processes and re-engineering - Ensure that the Chief Data Officer is closely aligned to the transformational goals.

  2. Data Management: Assess current datasets - Identify necessary datasets for reducing friction in consumer processes.

  3. Architecture Understanding: Emphasize the understanding of the evolving architecture - Ensure clarity on the direction in which the architecture is moving.

  4. Data Governance and Security: Prioritize data governance - Stress the importance of data quality and security as foundational components.

  5. Collaboration and Communication: Encourage collaboration with architects and the transformation office - Foster ongoing conversations for effective partnership and alignment.

Unlocking Change at KeyBank

KeyBank places a strong emphasis on ensuring seamless consumer experiences, aiming to minimize friction throughout the entire journey. This customer-centric approach involves anticipating individual needs, proposing customized solutions, and considering the entirety of one's financial lifecycle.

Leveraging technology as a powerful enabler, KeyBank is committed to delivering a comprehensive and streamlined experience, dedicated to meeting financial needs at every stage of life.

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The Crucial Link between Digital Transformation and the CDO

In her role, Thomas provides strategic direction and serves as an internal consultant across all segments within the bank’s enterprise. Her focus is on enhancing both client and employee experiences, and she leads a team of engineers who work across three main pillars: people, process, and technology.

Specifically, her team specializes in a technology category known as hyper automation, encompassing various terms and digital tools such as robotic process automation (RPA), low code/no code, intelligent document processing, and more. By integrating these capabilities with core systems, Thomas says, you can optimize the end-to-end experience.

For example, Thomas’ team will engage with engineers, gaining insight into their daily processes and activities. The goal is to understand how the engineers prefer to work, their ideal tool experiences for simplifying tasks, and how they manage client and customer service.

According to Thomas, “By capturing a comprehensive view of internal work processes, we then develop a roadmap to optimize and leverage the hyper automation tool set, ultimately streamlining operations and delivering enhanced value.”

Decoding Success: The Crucial Link Between the CDO and Effective Data Use

Highlighting the crucial connection between effective data utilization, strategic oversight, and successful implementation of data-driven initiatives, Thomas underscores the vital role of closely collaborating with the Chief Data Officer (CDO) and the importance of a strategic partnership with the Chief Architect.

Thomas recommends focusing on three fundamental strategies to streamline this partnership, which she labels as the "three-legged stool" – familiarize yourself with your data architecture, gain a comprehensive understanding of your data, and leverage your own transformative contributions – all aimed at comprehending how data shapes an improved customer experience.

However, beginning this journey requires specific foundational steps:

  • Understanding data location, especially in financial services with legacy systems.

  • Recognizing the evolution of the modernization journey, with a focus on understanding the architectural landscape.

  • Identifying the source of truth, often starting with creating a comprehensive inventory.

In addition, Thomas advocates the adoption of a service-oriented process architecture as a key element for achieving efficient data management. She contends that transitioning from vertical, business-specific concepts to embracing a horizontal perspective is essential for achieving scalability and promoting reusability within the architectural framework.

This is a departure from the conventional vertical approach. Thomas says, “Gone are the days that business strategy is built purely from a vertical perspective, we really have to start thinking horizontal. And I really want to overlay not just the architecture, but the processes and services that utilize that architecture also must be more horizontal.”

She also emphasizes the significance of data aggregators and underscores the pivotal role they play in understanding your consumer base and attaining desired outcomes. She believes the role of the CDO is to help in refining the specific outcomes you aim to achieve with an aggregator.

The key lies in determining how to seamlessly integrate this aggregator into a scalable architectural environment that aligns with your overall landscape. Thomas says the crux of effective data management is accuracy and relevance.

“I particularly appreciate tools that leverage real-time data and employ decision-making processes through digital enablement such as APIs and microservices. The synergy of these elements enables robust validation and verification processes, empowering you to make informed, real-time decisions with confidence,” she says.

KeyBank's Tomorrow: Exploring the Role of AI 

As someone who is passionate about digital transformation, Thomas is thrilled about the prospects of Generative AI (Gen AI). “Bringing this future closer with practical use cases for everyday people is truly exciting. To remain competitive and provide personalized experiences for clients and consumers, integrating some form of Gen AI is essential,” she says.

In the realm of financial services, complexity can arise, especially during significant life events such as entering college, buying a home, or starting a family. The younger generation, for example, values simplicity. Thomas says they prefer a streamlined process where they can make choices effortlessly.

This is where Generative AI becomes valuable, catering to their desire for simplicity and offering options that may not have been immediately apparent.

Thomas believes generative AI has the potential to enhance the financial journey for the younger generation and subsequent generations by simplifying experiences and presenting unforeseen options, providing a holistic view of available choices and ensuring individuals have a clear and secure financial path.

Combining digital enablement with Gen AI not only makes the process enjoyable – akin to the personalized experience of Spotify- -- but also adds intelligence to the decision-making process. This approach instills a sense of security and confidence, reassuring individuals that KeyBank understands, values, and is committed to ensuring a long-lasting and healthy financial journey for them.


Chief Data Officers and other stakeholders should exercise caution against automating flawed processes. Rather than automating the present state, which might lack future readiness, the focus should be on optimizing processes to enhance value, and dedicating time to a comprehensive understanding of existing processes rather than automating potentially outdated methods.

This optimization should prioritize streamlining from both technological and experiential perspectives and incorporate the complexities of the modern consumer journey.

About Ben Blanquera:

Ben Blanquera is a Vice President with Rackspace Technology. Rackspace is a global leading multicloud services provider with specialties in Data/AI, Application Development, Security and Cloud Platform. Ben is passionate about creating amazing business outcomes by leveraging data and analytics. He is on the CDO magazine editorial board and is interviewing global CDOs to gain their insights to create a “playbook” for the industry.

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