Building elite teams to map out the business and customer journey

With a career that spans decades across some of the most recognized brands and companies, Raji Subramanian has been making her mark at San Fransisco-based Opendoor for nearly three years. The prominent digital platform for residential real estate, founded in 2014, has faced testing challenges over the past few years including transactions taking a hit due to the pandemic, a tightening housing market and increasing mortgage rates, but as CTO, Subramanian knows how to cut through all the distractions to galvanize teams to deliver for customers.

“If you look at our sellers, we made the entire process of selling their homes anxiety free, and we tuned in to what the customer needed: a simple and trusted process,” she says. “When you look at the customer journey, many companies say they’re customer obsessed, but you bring that into the DNA by looking at the input metrics that impact the customer experience, not the output metric. Because if you start looking at output metrics that impact the customer experience, it’s too late. You’re looking at the customer in the rearview mirror.”

What enables this ability to have clarity about what customers need stems from a combination of practices and architectures put in place that drives what she calls engineering for excellence.

“When I started as CTO at Opendoor, one of the key things my leadership team and I did was come up with three pillars of vision for the technology organization,” she says. “There’s a larger vision for the entire company, but the role technology plays is first to engineer excellence. The second is how to power the platform, and the third is how to invest in innovation. If you dig deeper into each, engineering for excellence is the foundation. Without it, you can’t do the other two.”

CIO Leadership Live Canada’s Rennick recently spoke with Subramanian about building diverse tech teams, a grounded approach to fulfil enterprise goals, and how gen AI and ML tools enhance productivity. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On career consistency: My entire journey has been around digital transformation and building innovative products. Both of those are very close to my heart. I was one of the pioneering members of Amazon marketplace and Amazon Web Services, and was instrumental building a lot of those foundations and products that grew both those businesses. I had a lot of single threaded leadership roles, but the constant throughout in terms of leadership has always been about doing stuff that matters — in other words, creating customer and business value, which comes down to starting and ending from the customer and then working back from that. If you do that, then you’re doing stuff that matters.

On navigating success: As a leader, it’s important to deliver success despite the odds. I think it’s very important for a leader to be a thinker and problem solver to figure out the path. It doesn’t mean you always do, but you have to figure it out more times than not. Sometimes that also might mean you’re reconfiguring the path itself, as well as looking at the outcomes you think you should achieve If you can deliver success despite the odds. Then it takes you through a very different leadership journey. It doesn’t mean there are no failures along the way, but you find a way to overcome them. One thing my parents shared with me growing up in India is you can do anything you want as long as you’re prepared to face the consequences. And as a leader, I share that with everyone. The skill is if you’re prepared, you don’t fear consequences and you know it’s okay for things to have consequences. Then there’s nothing stopping you from working on any problem you think is important and really matters.

On customer obsession: If you look at the Opendoor journey and our operating principles, one of the things we care most about is customer obsession. It all starts and ends with the customer. That’s the foundation. If you can’t do that, then nothing else matters. And there are two ways how we translate that. The first is working back from the customer. When you work back from the customer, you start with what the outcome of the benefit you want to deliver to the customer is, and then return and connect the dots from that to the products and solutions that will solve that problem. Then it comes down to clear problem identification as to what you’re solving for the customer, and then you thread your entire strategy and roadmap to go ahead. That’s why working back is very powerful versus working forward.

On diversity: If you look at the entire diversity conversation, a lot of bookending discussions have been going on. On the one end, every company has groups focused on diversity and by now, we know diversity is essential to the success of the company. We have a lot of initiatives fostering across the bookends, so at the board level, diversity is increasing. I’ve been deeply involved with it, and even at the organizational level, we’ve created enough forums for employees to come together and have that support network and foundation to succeed. But we need to connect the dots across all levels. So diversity of the board needs to transfer the diversity of the C-suite. I’ve done a lot of research on it and we’ve looked at the data, and while diversity has received so much public thinking and media attention, if you take it one level down board diversity, no needs translate to C-suite roles. That’s critical because the day-to-day management of the company sits with an executive in the C-suite and further down. It needs to start coming in from both bookends so you connect the dots.  

On early AI adoption: We’ve been a pioneer of gen AI and ML since its inception, and have used it to revolutionize the real estate industry — specifically, in terms of how you price homes nationwide, so it’s a very bespoke sort of a product that customers personalize. What’s more remarkable is anchoring innovation to transform and reinvent a very traditional industry. I see companies typically operate along three different sort of journeys in their business: invent, implement, and optimize. Inventors use techniques to try out new ideas and experiment with new value propositions and go after it. Once you find product market fit, you scale, build foundations and implement production lines. Then as your business reaches a certain level of maturity, you optimize. My guidance to leaders is that areas of new technology come in to create means to disrupt. So it’s easy to get complacent and settled into the implement and the optimized zones. But this is a time to reset and rethink the vision, the strategy and the roadmap. It’s not an incremental reset, it’s a fundamental reset. So I feel companies need to reimagine how they’re going do things, whether it’s transforming the customer experience, delivering work and productivity, or becoming operationally excellent while disrupting any industry. I would look at it along productivity and excellence, transform the customer experience, disrupt real estate, and then go back to the drawing board to reinvent again. Companies that do this will thrive.

CTO, Development Tools, Digital Transformation, Diversity and Inclusion, IT Leadership, IT Strategy