Jennifer Spratley - Headshots 003
Jennifer Spratley Courtesy of Wells Fargo

Meet the woman protecting Wells Fargo from cybercrime—without a tech degree

Jul 27, 2015

Jennifer Spratley is on the front lines of the war against cybercrime. As Wells Fargo's wholesale fraud prevention and authentication SVP, Spratley and her team spend their days combing through the bank’s extensive network of online apps and digital wire channels, all with a single aim: protecting Wall Fargo's institutional customers from fraudsters.

And while it's not a shock that security is a huge concern for Wells Fargo, there is something surprising about the woman overseeing its anti-fraud efforts: Spratley, 48, has no STEM degree and only the most informal of technical backgrounds.

Indeed, Spratley says she earned two BAs—one in speech communications and one in business psychology. Yet she believes that her background has, in a way, been a competitive advantage. In such a rapidly evolving field, says Spratley, strong leadership skills and an ability to translate tech industry jargon into plain English can be more valuable than technical know-how.

Spratley talked to Fortune about how to get a tech job without a tech background, why it's important to cut through the "mumbo jumbo" and when to embrace your work insecurities. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Fortune: During the 2008 merger between Wells Fargo and Wachovia, you were leading Wachovia’s treasury online portal, one of your earliest technical jobs. How did you end up making the transition from the portal to the Wells Fargo fraud prevention team?

Jennifer Spratley: At about that time, online fraud was manifesting itself pretty significantly in the wholesale space. My Wells Fargo counterpart had been tasked with expanding the team to develop a fraud management discipline. We had only known each other for about five minutes, but we had worked together a good bit, moving through the merger. He basically said, "Hey, I like the way you show up and the way you do things. I have been challenged with building this business. Would you be interested in taking that on?" And I said, ‘Hell yeah, let’s give it a go!’

How did you know you would be prepared to tackle fraud management?

The common denominator across all of my past roles was the fact that I was in a leadership position. My real value proposition now—and, frankly, then—continues to be my leadership skills. When he asked me take this on, the voice in the back of my head said, "You don’t know anything about online fraud. Frankly no one else does, either, because this is a new problem." Good leaders don’t need to be the experts themselves. That’s really what I brought to this space, that core leadership ability and the knowledge of how to get thorough people around me who were the experts and guide their work.

Is dealing with fraud and security more of a task for managers or technologists?

Almost every business challenge we have, whether it’s small or large, involves corralling everyone and getting each to play their part. It starts with leaders and their understanding of fraud typology—and how it occurs. And then empowering and giving their technology team the resources to address those fraud typologies from a technology perspective. But you can’t have all the technical components in place and have 30,000 people who are completely paying no attention to the risk points that they have control over. It is also an imperative that executives really set the tone and the culture within the organization. It takes both.

What do you see as the barriers for non-technical people who want to enter the security industry?

My former technical director and reports have told me many times, on occasions when I’ve felt very insecure about it, "Uh uh. It’s an advantage that you are not technical." Because I come at problems differently, I ask the questions. If you can’t get past the technical mumbo jumbo and articulate the problem in a way that makes sense to a layperson, you probably haven’t thought it through well enough.

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