Tom Ilube CBE FBCS sets a leadership example in an industry where it pays to take smart risks. In this interview with Blair Melsom MBCS, he talks about work, culture and rolling the dice.
Hailing from London, Uganda and Nigeria, Tom Ilube studied for a degree in applied physics before starting his first job as a programmer with British Airways. He has worked at the London Stock Exchange and banking stalwarts such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Goldman Sachs and Capgemini (formerly Hoskyns). Since then, he has been involved in start-ups including Egg and his own company, AIM-listed Crossword Cybersecurity Plc. He sits on the non-exec boards of the BBC and WPP plc and does charity work to promote STEM learning at home and abroad.
Tell us about those first days of the internet bank, Egg. Did you know then it would be a success?
I was one of the founding group of Egg. It was led by Mike Harris, who was a great entrepreneur. He had previously founded First Direct, the telephone bank, and before that, he had launched Mercury One-to-One, the mobile phone company. So, when you have someone like that at the helm, you're pretty certain that the initiative is going to work.
It was incredibly exciting in the early days and starting from a blank sheet of paper, setting out to build what was really the first major internet bank in the UK, if not in the world. You couldn't absolutely know it was going to be successful and that internet banking would really take off but it just caught a moment and we really felt that we were on to something special there.
How did it feel to be involved with something so cutting edge at the time?
It was fascinating. It was exhilarating. It was incredibly fast-paced. All the plans that we had were overtaken - we had to rip up the old ones and come up with new plans. We then had to rip up the new plans that we'd come up with and come up with even newer plans! We had to respond to challenges really quickly. Rather than problems, challenges became opportunities to show what we could do as a firm, how we would break through issues and drive forward. So, I learnt an incredible amount by being involved in it.
Why didn't Egg become the Amazon of banking?
I think it is easy to look back with hindsight and say what could have happened. At one point in Egg's journey, when we decided to launch internationally, we chose to go into France rather than into the US. We did look at the US at the time and we looked at Europe and for various reasons, the decision was made to try and go into Europe and expand there; that wasn't successful. I think possibly, if at that point we’d raised the sort of money that it would have taken and set out to build Egg in the US, it may have gone on to become the sort of organisation that you're talking about.
If you had the knowledge that you've got now and the technology that's available today, what would you have done differently with Egg?
It's an interesting question. I suppose that the entrepreneurs of today are doing just that. If you look at the likes of Monzo, Starling and Atom and this new generation of app-based banks, they're answering that question to some extent. I don't think I would be doing anything different to what they're doing.
I think that what we would still be doing, if we were doing Egg today, would be an intense focus on the end client, on the customer and really immersing ourselves in the culture of the organisation as well, because I think that one of the things I learnt at Egg, was that culture really is king. You get that right and everything else follows from there.
The technologies will change over time, new waves of technologies will come, new ways of creating financial services institutions... but that focus on customer and culture is really fundamental.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during that part of your career?
Culture, particularly in an organisation that is growing incredibly rapidly with new people coming in, is really important. You need a clearly defined culture that people can come into, absorb and start to behave in that way, otherwise, they bring ways of doing things from outside and change the culture of the organisation.
Be part of something bigger, join the Chartered Institute for IT.
The other thing that I learnt was the ability to take smart risks. Big risks, strategic risks, but where you know that you're not betting the entire organisation. Understanding the difference between big risks that are rolling the dice of the entire organisation and smart risks, which are major and will move the dial - but if they go wrong won't kill the whole organisation - is important.
The last thing would be understanding the difference between purpose and game. The purpose of the organisation should be enduring, while the game is deciding tactically what you're going to do this year or these six months. So, the game can change, whereas the purpose stays the same. Often, people combine those two and get stuck on the game but actually, if you separate them, you give yourself lots of degrees of freedom about how you go about trying to achieve the long term, enduring purpose.
Do you have any tips for fostering an enduring culture?
A lot of it is in the leadership. So, whoever is leading the organisation has to be really authentic about the way they live the culture. They must look for opportunities to display that authenticity, so that people really understand it. For example, if you say your culture is one of openness and then when things get difficult, you and your executive team become very closed, well then, you're really striking at the heart of your culture and it'll be difficult to recover from that. Your team will see the contradiction and then it won't matter how many emails you send out saying we value openness and so forth. People look to the behaviours of the leadership more than the words that come out.
On LinkedIn, you describe yourself as 'a start-up guy'. Tell us about start up culture
What I like doing is coming up with an idea and then thinking, ‘How do I turn that idea into reality?’. When I see it become a reality, I think, ‘Wow, I did that. I made that happen.’ With the African Science Academy, I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be fascinating to create a school in Africa for exceptionally brilliant young women?’ And years later, there it is.
With my companies, such as Crossword, it's all about turning a dream into reality. What I'm really interested in is those early years where you've got a dream, you've got an idea, it's in your head and figuring out how to get it out of your head and into the real world. That's what I'm interested in.
We read and write a lot about digital transformation in ITNOW. What can established businesses learn from start-ups when it comes to transformation?
Established businesses can learn a lot. They can learn a lot about failure and that failure is not a bad thing, it is a necessary part of the journey. I often say that my specialist skill is failure. I am very good at it. What I'm very good at is failing and doing it again and failing and doing it again and just keep going and going and going.
”Trying and failing is something that is just part of what you do as a start-up person. When I go and pitch for money, I expect to pitch to 50 or 100 people; 99 will say no and one will say yes. I don't worry about the 99 ‘failures’, I celebrate the one that says yes!”
That isn't ingrained in the culture of corporate life, that ability to say ‘Right, I'm going to take something on and if it fails, that's okay, that's part of the process.’ I think that established businesses can learn that from start-ups.
In your recent webinar, Diversity in the cyber security and technology industry, you described the tech industry as ‘embarrassing’ when it comes to diversity. Tell us more about this.
I've worked in the UK tech industry for 30 years as a programmer, as a project manager, a tester, a business analyst, a management consultant, as a sysadmin; I've done pretty much every tech job in in the industry and worked for small companies and big companies, so I really do know this industry well.
IT is a brand-new industry that barely existed 40, 50 years ago. It's been created from scratch and is populated by intelligent, forward-thinking people. You would have thought that an industry like that would be an absolute showcase of what diversity is all about and, frankly, our industry is way off.
In some cases, it seems to have succeeded in building all the rigidities that some of those older industries have that have taken hundreds of years to build up. We are a heavily male-dominated, white industry that is really closed, quite difficult to get into, quite difficult to get to the top of and that is the industry that we've created.
I think it's really important we shape society. We are doing this in some ways with the algorithms that we're creating. We are codifying society into algorithms that could be difficult to undo down the track.
Is it too late for IT to set an example for how diversity could look for other industries?
No, I don't think it's too late at all. There is almost no point where it's just too late. Too late almost implies that the way things are is locked in with no way to be unlocked. I don't think that's where we are. I think it's a real opportunity to take it on.