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Found in Translation: The many lives of Vancity’s Kirsten Sutton
The financial institution's chief technology and information officer has made a career of helping people find a common language.
Kirsten Sutton is a parent’s worst nightmare.
At least the parents that want their kids to take extra courses in high school, maybe do IB, consider only the good schools for an undergraduate degree, and make sure the money spent on university leads to a good job the parents can talk about at dinner parties. Parents that want their kids on a clear and certain path.
That’s because Sutton, chief technology and information officer with Vancity, a veteran of a 25-year shift with enterprise software behemoth SAP (and its various local precursors), and one of the most respected and effective technology leaders in the province, didn’t do any of those things.
Sutton has been a security guard, a classically trained French chef, a taxi dispatcher, an actor, stage manager, playwright and a private detective (you heard right). In fact, she had 24 jobs before she was 27 years old and before she ever stepped foot on a university campus.
“When I graduated high school, I didn’t want to go to university at all . . . that to me was my parents’ job,” Sutton says.
By job, Sutton means university professor. Her mother and father both have PhDs in psychology. They brought a six-week-old Kirsten from Champagne, Illinois to Vancouver in 1965 where her father became a founding faculty member at SFU when it first opened to students. Her mother joined UBC (now retired, she continues in private clinical practice and remains Sutton’s most influential role model).
Turning her back on school, Sutton began working at the age of 17, and over the next 10 years, her CV reads like an Indeed job board. While working as a private investigator, she spent most of her time following husbands and wives wrapped up in divorce proceedings (she was once asked to follow someone who was suspected of cheating with someone else, but the investigation revealed the person was cheating with seven people, not one). She also learned how to follow people in a car.
“I know how to do that really well if you ever need it,” she says with a laugh. “But I was seeing people at their worst, and didn’t think the work I was doing was helping the planet. So I needed to move on.”
In the late ‘80s, she landed at Dubrulle French Culinary School in Vancouver, graduating top of her class in Dubrille’s first ever cohort. Her baptism as a cook was at Earls, followed by the English Bay Café and several restaurants in California where she had moved in search of sunshine and less rain. She and a partner also started their own catering company, but after a few years her love of food and cooking crashed into the unglamourous life of commercial kitchens.
“It’s a hard life. It’s a tough job,” she says. “And it was one of those things I didn’t want to lose my passion for.”
She still loves to cook, preparing meals for families and friends for special occasions and holidays (her husband, now retired after 28 years with HSBC, does the day-to-day cooking—“I think he thought that might be different when he married me!”). She has a binder of every holiday meal she has prepared since 1996: all the recipes, all the shopping lists and all the prep lists, and plans to publish them when she gets around to writing the food blog she has sitting on the back burner. Her secret desire? To be the next Food Network star.
Looking back, Sutton’s post-high school years seem a grand adventure. But there was a time when she didn’t talk about her job sampling program.
“I was worried it looked bad,” she says. “But as I reflect on it, I realize you have to do what’s good for you and if you can’t put your whole heart into it, stop doing it. You’re not going to do a good job. You’re not going to shine and you’re not going to be of service.”
In kitchens, on stages and all points in between, she also gained one of the foundational skills that has allowed her to thrive throughout her time at SAP and now Vancity—what Sutton calls her leadership “superpower”.
“I learned to talk to anybody,” she says. “That’s a lot of different jobs, a lot of different people and personalities, a lot of different industries. Drop me in a room anywhere and I am not afraid to talk with people, to ask questions and be curious.”
It was while working as a chef and bartender in a restaurant in California that a co-worker convinced her to take a class at a local community college. It was a political science class taught by an aging surfer who questioned everything in his lectures, something that appealed to Sutton’s innate curiosity.
“I thought, ‘Is this what university is?’ I just loved it and clearly after 10 years I was ready to absorb it,” she recalls.
Once exposed to university life, it wasn’t that different from her 24-job odyssey. She took literature and writing, government theory, Asian studies, chemistry. For a while, she studied to be a forensic pathologist, a geologist, and thought about meteorology and becoming a weather person on TV.
In the end, she landed on a BA in linguistics and creative writing from Western Washington University and a BA in english with honours from the University of California at Irvine.
After all the jobs, after all the exploration while in university, Sutton took a job as a technical writer for a client (Crystal Services) in the emerging business intelligence space. That was in 1995, and marked the beginning of more than two decades working with the same organization with the same core technology offering.
How does an employment and educational nomad end up in the same place for so long, in an industry where career-building at times can feel like speed-dating?
“It was never boring—ever,” Sutton says. The “company” was really five companies during her time there: Crystal Services became Seagate Software; Seagate became Crystal Decisions; Crystal Decisions became Business Objects; and in 2008, Business Objects became SAP.
“It was a ride,” Sutton remembers. “Each one of those acquisitions was such a dynamic time, so if you make it through, it’s quite an accomplishment to survive. Opportunities changed and new ones emerged.”
It also helped that Sutton had champions throughout her early career who saw her potential and created an environment where she could shine. Very early on, Sutton says her boss, Donna Braaten, put a lot of faith in Kirsten and never let her think that she couldn’t succeed.
“Donna allowed me to explore a wild-haired idea, or would give me responsibility in an area I knew nothing about.” Sutton says. “She would remind me that she needed me to know what I did know how to do and apply the skills that I did have to make the project successful.”
For her part, Braaten (who left SAP in 2010 to become a Vancouver public school teacher where she currently teaches math, physics and computer programming) says Sutton was a fearless, practical problem solver.
“She would always find a way,” Braaten says. “What she didn’t know, she learned, and she did that by asking a lot of questions and tapping into different people within the organization.”
Janet Wood, a long-time senior executive with first Business Objects and then SAP, was another leader who helped Sutton along the way.
“Anybody who meets Kirsten immediately sees she has a real spark, amazing communications skills,” Wood says. “And when you combine that with being very passionate about any topic she is engaged with, she has a very strong executive presence that’s very genuine and authentic—very trustworthy—and that was something we valued highly at SAP.”
Sutton says Wood helped shape her ideas of what leadership looks like.
“She was always there to push me forward and ahead of her—and Janet had way more seniority,” she says. “She showed me that leadership wasn’t about taking the spotlight. It was about lifting other people up.”
Today, Sutton sits at the top of a major financial institution’s technology food chain, not with an engineering or development background, but with liberal arts degrees in english and writing and linguistics; that’s not a typical path to the top in the tech world. There have been times throughout her career where her lack of traditional tech chops has been challenged. But over time, she has come to understand exactly where her value lays.
“When I ask myself ‘What am I doing here and how did I get here?’ I come back to the idea of translation,” Sutton says. “All day, every day I am constantly translating difficult concepts for everybody to understand to best govern and make decisions around. . That’s my purpose. That’s why I’m here.”
The days of people perceiving Sutton as somehow tech deficient are long past. At this point in her career, she very much knows the technology and is putting that knowledge to work in leading a long overdue technology upgrade at Vancity, one of the province’s most iconic and well-loved brands.
Vancity is Canada’s largest credit union, committed to doing financial services differently by going all in on its rich legacy of purpose in the areas of climate, community impact and social justice by using financial capital to make the world a better and safer place.
Still, Vancity is a financial institution. It plays in the same space as the big five banks. It’s facing new and emerging competition from fintech startups committed to delivering a complete banking experience from your phone (and soon the Metaverse). Thanks to cryptocurrency, money isn’t even money in the same way it was before. And while Vancity is known for a lot of things, a best-in-class digital banking experience hasn’t been one of them.
“Our members are moving, have been moving, will continue to move towards digital and mobile,” says Vancity CEO Christine Bergeron. “We need to ensure technology is not separate from our strategy, that it is embedded in our strategy and business, and ensuring all of that supports our unique purpose as Vancity.”
Former Vancity CEO Tamara Vrooman (Vrooman hired Sutton in 2020 right before she left to become CEO at YVR), knew Sutton was facing a big challenge.
“We knew that notwithstanding our very strong commitment to community and serving our members, we needed to do that in a very dynamic, modern and digitized way,” Vrooman says. “Because of who we are, it can’t be off the shelf or one size fits all. We needed solutions that have a backend engine that is sound, regulatorily compliant and efficient, and a frontend that is friendly, customized, community-minded and people centric.”
Sutton went into the job knowing there was work to do. She agrees Vancity member expectations are very high—just as they would be with any bank. They want an Apple-like UI experience, they want speed like Amazon and Google, and they expect their money is safe and secure.
“But Vancity lives in this highly regulated environment where everything moves quite slowly,” she says. “And I didn’t fully know that coming in, that there would be such a conflict between the regulatory constraints and consumer expectations.”
She and her team are in the early stages of what Sutton calls a technology and digital “renovation” at Vancity.
“We’re in the midst of a wholesale change to the landscape,” Sutton says. “There isn’t anything we’re not touching to really modernize and prepare the organization to meet the needs of our members and prepare for all the changes still to come.”
One of the biggest changes Sutton and her team are tackling is the switch from legacy, on-premise systems to products, services and applications living in the cloud. In the on-premise world, upgrades to Vancity’s systems were carefully gated and managed in an attempt to minimize disruption for members. It meant that changes took a long time and could lead to already stale technology when it arrived.
“So we are working to push things onto the cloud to get into a continuous improvement mode where we are able to adopt everything new much more quickly,” Sutton says. “If everybody truly does like the consumer experience of an Apple or a Google, which are constantly upgrading and updating, I do hope they feel the same way about their financial services. Because that’s where we’re heading not to struggle as much to keep up, but to have cloud solutions that allow us to move at a better pace.”
The people I spoke with all talk about Sutton’s presence, her willingness to look for and work towards solutions.
Bob Elton is a retired Vancouver business executive and long-time associate of Sutton’s. They were fellow board members at the Minerva Foundation, and Sutton is a guest speaker on a class in leadership he teaches at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.
“I am always struck by her energy and focus. There’s never a sense that she is thinking about something else, that her mind is elsewhere,” Elton says.
Her ability to stay engaged and present is all the more remarkable given that Sutton suffers from a rare neurological disorder called Mal de Débarquement Syndrome or MdDS. People with MdDS experience perceived movement that creates a constant feeling of rocking, bobbing or swaying. The disease is not terminal, but it is a debilitating condition Sutton is dealing with day in and day out.
“Imagine when you walk, it feels like you’re walking on a trampoline,” Sutton says when describing her MdDS. “When you sit, you bob up and down like an apple in a barrel at a Halloween party. And when you lie down, you feel like you’re swaying wildly in a hammock during a hurricane . . . it’s constant, ever-present. What changes is the level of discomfort and disruption it causes.”
Sutton was officially diagnosed with MdDS in 2015, but she had been experiencing symptoms long before that, with years of searching and misdiagnoses. She first knew something was wrong on a business trip to Toronto at a time when she was logging more than 75,000 miles a year on the road.
“I was in a meeting and suddenly it felt as though the table was pulled down from beneath me into the centre of the earth. Hard and fast. And I was hurtling down along with it,” Sutton says. “I told my team something was wrong—I didn’t know what—and lay down on the meeting room floor as my body swung and rocked, waiting for it to pass. It didn’t pass and the rest is history.”
Weather, stress and sleeping habits have the most influence on her symptom levels. She keeps a close watch on the weather network, does deep breathing and stress management exercises and sticks to a regimented sleep schedule. She also avoids flying whenever possible, something she determined would trigger her symptoms.
Sutton is quick to point out her MdDS is something she deals with and is but one part of her story. It has, however, given her greater empathy for people dealing with disabilities, particularly in the workplace.
While with SAP, she was the executive sponsor for Canada for SAP’s Autism at Work Program that saw the company work to hire 650 people along the autism spectrum. Since 2014, she has been an active member of the President’s Group, a B.C.-based group of leaders from all industries that champions inclusive, accessible workplaces and better employment outcomes for persons with disabilities. And she was recently appointed to the Premier’s Accessibility Committee that advises the Horgan government on a wide range of issues facing people with disabilities.
Sutton’s fellow board member and colleague Bob Elton has watched Sutton grow into the leader she is today and believes her ability to be curious and engage with different points of view make her the ideal person to guide an organization like Vancity through its current digital transformation.
“Her particular approach to technology leadership lends herself to what is happening for organizations right now,” he says. “It isn’t about IT anymore; it isn’t about a ‘group’ that sits separate from the rest of the team. It’s fundamental, and so people that communicate well, that can listen, that can talk and interpret, are at a premium and very valuable.”
And once Sutton’s work at Vancity is done, the next Food Network star will be waiting in the wings.