Wake-up Call | Adam Lawrence: The Wall Street deserter now building the future of finance business innovation
Adam Lawrence loves to build new worlds — whether designing his home or reprogramming his personal devices — a passion he brings to reinventing business
Traveling the world for IBM, Adam Lawrence and his family have lived in seven cities in the past 20 years — and he’s helped craft each of their homes. “I design everything from outdoor extensions to choosing the furniture,” Lawrence says, laughing. “My wife just says, ‘You handle that stuff.’ I love building things [and] solving problems creatively.”
But this digital pioneer’s mind has also long operated outside the “creative” sphere. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Lawrence grew up moving around the South until he landed in Washington, DC. His interest in technology was an important constant in his itinerant childhood. “I always loved it,” he says. “There is no gray area. In binary, you’re either right or wrong. I’m drawn to solving problems with computers.”
After teaching himself to code as a kid, Lawrence, 41, studied business at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania — and drove to a nearby community college for technical training at night. Upon graduation, Lawrence’s classmates took finance jobs, but he chose a different path: “I was the one guy from my team that went into IT consulting on Wall Street,” Lawrence explains. “I started working on cutting-edge projects for banks and going a million miles an hour, never sleeping until I figured it out. And I’ve kept doing that ever since.”
Today he is the managing director of the IBM partnership with DBS Bank in Singapore, helping to overhaul how the bank does business in the 21st century. In addition to upgrading the bank with technologies like artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, Lawrence is helping revolutionize operations to save money and time while delivering better customer service. It’s the same creative problem-solving he’s been doing since childhood.
How does a passion for architecture translate to technology?
I’m the guy designing everything in my house. I think I was drawn to coding because, to me, it was design. I’ve always found myself drawn to fashion, interior design, architecture and that kind of thing. They’re all related.
Did you really automate all the devices in your house by hand?
I’ve always been ahead of the curve with technology, taking a new thing and combining it with something else to increase the value, and I take that to my clients. We now talk about “home automation,” but my house was fully automated nine years ago, when I personally wired motion sensors and programmed every single light. It would know if I was home and would do something different versus if my wife was home. It’s not just saying, “Oh, that’s a cool thing, and that’s going to work well.” You say, “How do I take these six or seven things and combine them together to get value?”
How have you helped clients automate to improve the client experience and bank operations?
We help banks run smarter. You look across a bank and realize a lot of the work is clerical. That can be automated, freeing up workers to more impactful projects. We’ve instituted an array of process and cognitive technologies in banks. We’re also transforming entire organizations, creating better, more efficient operating models — and generating meaningful insights. Instead of a person filing paperwork, now automation is gathering, storing and logging information, which creates data. Every engagement point creates something that can be analyzed, and we can [therefore] understand why someone did something, what decisions were made, how we can do better next time, and what the risk implications to the individual and bank are. This is helping banks make more informed decisions, and ultimately, run the bank better.
What about with DBS Bank?
DBS is a very intelligent organization. They’re an absolute pleasure to partner and work with given that they have such grand aspirations — and a clear track record in creating joyful client and employee experiences. This helped them win Best Digital Bank in the World in 2016, from EuroMoney. Working together on such transformative and forward-looking projects makes every day exciting, fun and full of innovation.
What do you think is one of the biggest challenges businesses face as we look ahead?
Everyone always wants to find a better way of doing things. It’s easy to sell a widget, but a widget never solves a client’s real problem. What you find at IBM is this quest to try and figure out solutions, to understand the implications of the future. We bring a different level of engagement to understand, empathize and solve — a quest to innovate. We’re looking for a better way to solve problems and drive value for our clients. The client’s success is our success — if they win, we win.
After decades of travel — and a with a busy work schedule to manage — what do you and your family do for fun?
Living in Singapore is great. We go to Bali for the weekend, skiing in Japan, hop over to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Our kids are learning Mandarin and are having an unbelievable set of experiences — it’s awesome.