Brian Cobb oversees core IT platforms at Capital One
Global work, cool opportunities and blue-chip employers make up this financial IT leader’s history. In his current role, he continues to expand his capabilities
'Our mantra in IT is ‘always on,’” maintains Capital One Financial’s Brian Cobb. “Our customers have to be able to do anything with us anytime from anywhere.”
Cobb is managing VP of information technology at Capital One Financial Corporation (McLean, VA), which offers a broad spectrum of financial products and services to consumers, small businesses and commercial clients. He joined the company in 2011.
His team oversees the company’s core technology platform services, primary service providers, technical recovery, and voice and data network management.
“The analogy that I like to use is Google,” he says. “Google supports queries from people around the world. They search for something, hit the button and the back-end systems, the massive data centers where all their platforms live, canvas the Internet and answer them.
“I do the same thing at Capital One. We have 65 million customers across our multiple business lines who interact with us via mobile, web and telephone. I support the front-end technology for all those channels, along with the back-end infrastructure that handles all those transactions.”
Cobb oversees about 1,000 people including fulltime associates, contractors and third-party partners. “We have a lot going on,” he notes. “In addition to the activities that support our customers, we have business initiatives that help us improve the customer experience and expand our market. We recently purchased ING Direct, now called Capital One 360, and HSBC Holdings’s U.S. credit card business. I was responsible for the technology infrastructure integration of those acquisitions,” Cobb says.
Internally, his work includes oversight of the company’s telephony system, intranet and human resources applications. “And in some cases, I provide the connectivity to third-party partners. For example, if an employee wants to check a 401K balance, I provide the network that connects to our provider.”
He notes that innovation is a big part of the culture in IT. “We want to be the digital leader of U.S.-based banking institutions,” he says. “We have a lot of online capabilities, but mobile capabilities are big for us too. Our marketing and application development teams build mobile applications and add functionality. My team supports the infrastructure for that.”
Risk management is also key, and Cobb’s team makes sure the proper controls are in place to ensure security and compliance.
STEM: a family trait
Cobb was born in Washington, DC and grew up in Maryland. His father is an engineer, his grandfather was a mathematician, and his uncle is an architect. He attended Kettering University (Flint, MI) and co-oped at a General Motors (GM, Detroit, MI) assembly plant in Baltimore, MD. In 1987, he got a BS in industrial and systems engineering.
“Students at Kettering had to be sponsored by a company,” he explains. “It was a five-year, engineering co-op based program. We alternated quarters between school and work. When you get out, you have a degree, but you also have tons of corporate experience.”
Cobb appreciates the corporate experience he amassed before arriving at Capital One. “I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at big blue-chip firms,” he believes.
“At GM, I worked on a lot of cool things. I was a powerhouse engineer. I was on the assembly line, so I managed teams of UAW workers. I ran teams that did manufacturing systems engineering at a time when the auto industry was retooling and adding a lot of automation,” he remembers.
“But I was a computer guy at heart. So when I graduated in 1987, I heard about an opportunity at Corning in Wilmington, NC. The recruiter told me that Corning’s manufacturing was heavily IT-based, and the computers ran all of it. It was fiber optics manufacturing, really state-of-the-art stuff.”
In 1991, he was recruited by Xerox Corporation (Rochester, NY) for a senior engineering position. There he was coding the computer chips that run copiers.
Cobb returned to DC in 1994 to join his brother in the creation of a tech consulting firm called Cobb Systems Group (Rockville, MD). The firm is still doing well today but, after a few years, Cobb decided to move back into the corporate world, joining financial information provider Primark (now Thomson Reuters, Bethesda, MD) as a senior systems engineer.
“After four years I was director of information technology. I went from managing a small team in Bethesda to a team with a wider footprint in the U.S. I also got to spend time helping IT teams in Ireland and the U.K.”
Cobb notes the value of business travel. ”It rounds you out and gives you a different perspective about things,” he says. “Especially today in the global economy, you need to work with people from all over the world.”
Moving up, branching out
He left Primark at the end of 1999 for Hagler Bailly (Roslyn, VA), an international management and economic consulting firm. “I went from running part of IT for Primark to being the head of IT at Hagler. I was able to increase my management perspective.”
In 2000, Hagler was purchased and he decided to move on. Cobb joined Fannie Mae (Washington, DC) in 2001 as director of the technology management center. He became VP of systems engineering and IT, then SVP of information and IT.
“When I joined Fannie Mae I was part of the original move to put originations and underwriting for mortgages online. That put tons of pressure on our IT systems, and in 2005 we had to rebuild our data center in Maryland from the ground up.”
Over the next few years, the housing market “overheated,” as Cobb puts it. “That led to the housing bust and we had to retool ourselves again.”
In 2009, Cobb moved to the business side. As SVP and head of operations, he ran Fannie Mae’s mortgage operations until 2011.
Then Cobb got an invitation from Capital One, asking him to return to an IT role. “Capital One really believes in top talent,” says Cobb. “The interview process was rigorous, lasting several months, and I had to take several online tests. When I was considering the move, I looked back to see how they handled the recession and found they were very well managed. They were smart not to have a large mortgage portfolio exposure and weathered the storm very well. Many banks went down but Capital One stayed strong.”
Leading into the future
Cobb is active in the industry and speaks regularly at conferences sponsored by Computerworld magazine and IT-focused groups. He’s finishing up his masters in financial management and information systems at the University of Maryland-University College.
At Capital One, he is the executive sponsor of the African American associate network. “We do a lot of great work within the company and also in community outreach,” Cobb says.
“I’ve been entrusted with a large IT agenda here,” he reflects. “We’re transforming Capital One in our quest to become a digital leader and are building our cloud capability. We have a legacy of being a very analytic, data-driven company and I have the opportunity to be right in the middle of that.
“I want to continue to support, and drive, these agendas. I’m always looking to expand my management and leadership capabilities, and I learn something new every day,” Cobb says with a smile.
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