Innovations in finance

October 2016

Lightbulb on top of moneyBCS Multimedia Editor, Justin Richards interviews Rana Bhattacharya, Chief Architect for Retail and Digital, Nationwide, about his career and his current work at Nationwide.

How would you describe the organisation you presently work for?
I think Nationwide is quite a unique (and rightly so) organisation. You can refer to it as a bank, but it’s a mutual; it’s the world’s largest building society. It puts the benefits - of our membership, and of our colleagues - over profit; so the investment decisions we make are driven not by the maximisation of profit, but actually for changing the experiences of our members, customers and of our colleagues. And that’s a unique type of business to work in and that was one of the key attractions for me to come and work at Nationwide.

Can you tell us a bit about your background leading up to your current job-role?
I was born and brought up in London, in Clapham. My primary and secondary school education was in that locality. As I went into Sixth Form College I focussed on business, maths and computer science. My father was quite an influencer, being an entrepreneur himself, so I was always interested in business, hence as I was growing up I became interested in how you could apply technologies into business and that also drove my further education.

After getting my A-levels I went to Brunel University to study business and computing and from there I felt that I needed to know more about computing so I did a Masters at Kings College in computing and internet systems. And while in degree education I was a tutorial assistant around computer science, and then I became a lecturer after finishing my Masters, for a semester, while also working in banking, (funnily enough), for three years, part-time. So that, naturally, drove me into my first proper job, where I could mix my technology and finance knowledge, which later brought me into consulting.

I ended up working for Accenture for nearly 14 years. During that time I took on a number of roles. I started as a developer, then became an architect whilst owning the delivering of change, such as internet banking retail insurance platforms. I think that experience provided me with a broad appreciation of technology, and not just architecture, but on how you deliver technology change in an industrial manner, on how you have to use different commercial models and different sourcing models, which has held me in good stead, in terms of doing different types of work.

How would you define an architect?
I think if you look into the definition of what the word ‘architect’ means, it comes from a Greek word, and roughly translated means ‘master builder’. So the architecture today, I think, is kind of new world carpentry. You’re really taking an idea, understanding how you will build that idea, and then governing how that idea becomes a reality.

And you have to have all manner of different disciplines to create a world around the architect, dealing with a range of stakeholders; taking all sorts of complex ideas and taking them to the stakeholders, to understand the technology, to understand the impact of introducing the technology into an organisation, and not just the organisation, but half the stakeholders outside of the organisation. So you have to be a jack of all trades and, hopefully, a master of a few to have a level of specialisation.

What sort of qualifications/experience would a person need/have to take on a role such as yours?
That will vary from organisation to organisation. Going back to my interview with Nationwide, the focus there was around my actual experience, rather than my qualifications. The bare minimum seemed to be a degree, as expected, but the interviewers were more interested in what I had done within industry.

Which of your qualifications do you think have been of most use to you in your professional life?
Within Accenture I was sponsoring part of their training curriculum that was focused on Java development, and I looked after the Java Architecture Group, and I, myself, obtained the qualification of Certified Master Java Enterprise Architect, which I actually held with pride because during the process you had to do an exam, and do an extensive project exercise, so it wasn’t just a box-ticking exercise. I’ve also had certifications around object-orientated analysis and design, and Java Programmer and Java Associate, as well of Accenture internal qualifications such as Senior Technology Architect, Delivery Lead, and a Certified Solutions Architect.

And those are all things that helped prepare me to do what I needed to do for Accenture, and those qualifications also gave me a breadth of reusable skills and experiences which I can use in my current role.

What do you do, roughly, on a day-to day basis?
There are a lot of meetings, which mainly evolve into discussions on how we can develop the organisation further, and also on governance, on architecture, as a whole, within Nationwide. One of the key topics I’m working on currently is enabling Nationwide to be ready to exploit API technology for a variety of mandatory or regulatory initiatives such as PSD2 and Open Banking, so I am sponsoring the technology change for this within the organisation. And, if I look back, that represents a good proportion of my time at Nationwide.

Within a couple of months of landing at Nationwide I understood that there was a need to exploit the technology, and I’ve also been involved in getting my stakeholders in the organisation ready to accept that we need to invest in this area, and to drive up the demand in shaping our transformation journey to make this a reality, to support us in time, to better support these initiatives.

What do you see as being your biggest achievement while working at Nationwide?
There were a number of things that were ‘in-flight’, which I took on, but I think bringing the API journey into the organisation, making that real for people, getting the buy-in to create that capability; working with industry bodies like Payments UK as well, where I’m supporting not just Nationwide, but also how the broader payments industry will use some of this technology too, and we’re doing it in a collaborative fashion, where my team and I, are supporting creating environments for other banks to use as well, to prototype how all the banks will interact in an API-based ecosystem. So I think the whole API story, making it all real, are my biggest achievements…

So this is a platform that different organisations will be able to use?
A bit of background as to what APIs are...APIs, or application planning interfaces, are a technology that organisations can use to expose business functionality. So Nationwide could expose an API to publish non sensitive information such as the location of all our Nationwide branches, or ATM locations, and also publish more sensitive information in a secure fashion, with the consent of our customers, to publish customer transaction information to another organisation.

Through regulation we’ll have to securely expose customer information to government institutions or other banks, if they require it. This will be well regulated, highly secured and is governed through regulation. But in some ways it’s a good thing as it’s about giving customers more choice. This can enable having an aggregated view of all of Justin’s holdings across all different banks, and you could receive insights from comparison sites, to say, well, if you move your money from Bank X to Nationwide, for illustrations sake, you might get an extra two per cent return. It enables and arms people with appropriate information to make better choices regarding looking after their money, and APIs make it easier to do that. This is all done in a governed, controlled and secure way - a bank wouldn’t just give customer’s information away.

All banks have to, for regulatory reasons, expose these types of APIs, and that will change the dynamics within the banking industry forever, because it will encourage more competition and courage more choice. This is one of the most significant changes to architecture within retail banking for decades. It will encourage more innovation and Nationwide has concluded that it’s not something that we will do from a purely regulatory perspective, just doing the bare minimum, but we really want to be an innovative leader in this new world, to bring more value to our colleagues and customers.

What advice would you give to someone trying to get into your line of work/and into the financial sector?
When I was younger I loved technology and to understand how things work, so you need to be kind of inquisitive. My background has really helped me as I went from doing development in different types of roles, which gave me a broad understanding and broad appreciation of things.

So people should embrace different opportunities from different areas, because, even if it’s not an area that they want to spend a lot of time in, it does really help them to understand the value of different disciplines. I got that appreciation from my time at Accenture, which has helped me to make better decisions because I can look at things from a variety of different perspectives, which lends itself to making better decisions.

I think if you want a job in IT I think maths is a good subject to get a good grasp on; the logic element of it anyway. One of the things I helped out on a few years ago was at e-Skills, or the Tech Partnership as they are now, to help them create a new degree: Software Development for Business Degree. And the idea of that degree was to create graduates that would better support the needs of the UK IT demand really, and through that experience, and having a good appreciation of a broad range of different disciplines, as well as soft skills, and an appreciation of entrepreneurship and of business, is key as well.

Do you think the finance sector is a good place to be for someone wanting to work in the IT side of things?
I think it’s an exciting place to be. Finance is an industry where you typically try and differentiate quite often and banks will quite often try to experiment with technology to see if there’s value in that technology. We’re quite innovative really.

Who were your role models? You mentioned that your dad was an entrepreneur; is that entrepreneurial spirit with you?
I think I really like the application of technology to solve business problems. In terms of role models there is a variety of people that I would cite, but for different elements. Richard Branson for his entrepreneurship; the late Steve jobs for his vision – he was a pioneer for saying that we have to be customer focussed, but let’s not let the customer drive all the requirements, sometimes we have to be bold and take risks and that’s true; he was a very inspirational leader. I don’t think I have a specific role model that I’d like to become, per se, but I take inspiration from a variety of people.

What do you think are the secrets to good project management?
That’s not my area of focus in terms of my current role, although I have delivered internet banks and insurance platforms in the past. I would say to make sure that you have clarity on requirements, that’s a key element, but also being clear that things will change so you need the right governance process to manage change in a controllable fashion. And be clear about what the impact of those changes will be.

I’m a big believer in minimal viable product (MVP). If you always go for the ‘gilded lily’ it will take forever and a day because requirements will be forever changing on that as well, as stakeholders will be dreaming up new enhancements, so I think you need to get something out of the door that’s working and then build upon that rather than focusing on trying to build the final proposition.

And this enables organisations or different initiatives to be a bit more nimble and a bit more cost efficient as well. So, by being able to focus on the minimum and then building from that, you will get more value out to customers sooner.

Although security experts would probably complain that software developers are too often considering security as an add-on extra, which really shouldn’t be a factor that’s left out of the project until later...
That’s fair, but to me you need to invest and understand what the architecture needs to be first and not try to build something without having that understanding first. Having that architecture in place, should deal with concerns like data, infrastructure, security and run time execution, etc. The key one for me is operations architecture, in order to understand how you maintain and look after the system once it’s gone live, and you need to have these concerns understood up front, you can’t say one is more important than the other, they’re all equally important.

That, structured throughout a project, where you are focussed on the minimal, but where the minimum doesn’t mean that you forget security; you do what you need to do to cover off security - it might be having a minimal proposition around security, but that doesn’t mean you’re cutting corners, it just means you’ve got what you need in place and that will lend itself to deliver change faster and in a more timely fashion, whilst complying with standards.

What are the biggest challenges that your area of IT (finance) currently faces?
We’re seeing unprecedented demand in change through digital disruption, as well as change in customer’ expectations. Historically you built a system and that system would have been there for four or five years.

Now you’re seeing technology changing so quickly, meaning that applications will rise and fall, and technologies will rise and fall; new technologies will be introduced, and if you’re not an adopter someone else will have a key differentiation, so it’s that volume of pace of change, I think, that’s one of the key challenges that we have to deal with.

Making IT good for society

BCS is pursuing professionalism in IT - what are your thoughts on this? Should the government make it mandatory practice to sign up to a code of conduct or should the industry just be encouraged to regulate itself, voluntarily, as it does now?
Well, I’m a chartered IT professional and a Fellow of the BCS. My personal view is to keep it on the voluntary side of things. If you use project management as an analogy - project management cuts across so many different industries, there’s various different sets of certifications.

Hence, organisations can choose if they wish to use PRINCE 2 or something else, and that’s fine as long as the organisation can justify that governance mechanism and it brings benefits to them. I think it’s going to be a hard thing to regulate certified people because there are so many niche areas, we won’t have a catch-all certification. I know from the BCS cadre of certifications you have testing, project management, architecture certifications etc. I think these are good things for people to invest their time into, for personal recognition, and I think organisations should support individuals to get BCS certifications, but I think mandating the certifications for a particular role will be difficult to mandate and manage.

I have met people in the industry who don’t have any certifications, but can be thought as being leaders in their specialisms. I don’t think that we’re ready to regulate IT in that way, but I think there are things to do, like having codes of conduct, around professionalisms and IT, but that are voluntary. Within particular industries and organisations, if they think that a particular code of conduct helps them in the way they work then that organisation will choose to make sure that they are employing people with those certifications or accreditations.

Why do you think we have so few women, relatively speaking, working in the industry? Do you think the IT industry needs to improve its image, to encourage more women into the profession, for example?
I think it’s down to multiple reasons. It’s a hard one to qualify. There’s not just one thing that we need to do that’ll solve the problem. If someone perceives IT as being just about programming, and thinks ‘I don’t want to do that’, then they will stay away. Sometimes it can be down to lifestyle, depending on what career route you take.

If you were going for, say, a consultancy type world, it can be quite intense and you might decide you would not want to do that, based on choices you make over time. I mean just because you have a child, for example, doesn’t mean you can’t have a career in IT. There are plenty of women who have had great careers in IT, but also happen to be working mums as well. However, there are some organisations that don’t offer that sort of opportunity to working mums. Others may decide they want to take a different career trajectory because that is what they need to do.

I think, if we can, at an early stage, show the breadth of the exciting careers that are within the IT industry it helps people to better understand what options they have. If you don’t want to be a programmer you don’t have to be a programmer; there are a variety of different roles out there and I think that’s lost quite often.

What are your thoughts on BCS’s underlying motif, that of ‘Making IT good for society’; what does that mean to you, and what examples can you think that underline this ideology?
Employers have an obligation to help make the UK a better place; it’s a self-serving obligation at the end of the day, as we’ll need future talent to meet our future roles so we need to get the right people with the right experiences and skills. Hence, if we don’t invest, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. So as a mutual, as Nationwide, it’s part of our genetics to try and improve, not just the world of banking, but society as a whole.

What developments in IT do you think have been the most exciting / ground-breaking during the last few years, both from the perspective of your current role, and more personally as a consumer?
Edward Snowden. That to me highlighted what security breaches can potentially mean. I think things like APIs, which are about bringing organisations together to innovate. DevOps is something I’m quite passionate about, but I wouldn’t say that’s a new theme; it’s something I’ve been doing since 2002. It’s something that can make IT more
efficient and repeatable, and more secure. And as more organisations invest in it, it will bring dividends from a variety of different perspectives.

I think cyber is a big one, and I think as the world becomes ever more joined up we need to make sure that we invest to protect ourselves, both as individuals and as organisations. And I think digital disruption is an exciting space where new technologies are coming in, dying, being resurrected, changing slightly, and being reinvented; there’s so much technology change that’s happening, it’s such an exciting place to be right now.

Image: iStock.com/patpitchaya

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