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TSB COO Suresh Viswanathan on building an IT team, tackling an analogue legacy, and “innovating on the fly”

A complex migration by retail bank TSB from multiple, third-party legacy systems to a single new platform hit serious hurdles in 2018, resulting in “significant levels of disruption and inconvenience”. The bank moved swiftly in the wake of a blistering post-mortem, hiring Suresh Viswanathan, a Barclays and Citi veteran as Chief Operating Officer, Robin Bulloch from Lloyds as its Customer Banking Director, and a new CEO, Debbie Crosbie, from Clydesdale & Yorkshire Banks in 2019 to lead a rebuild of both trust and technology at the retail bank.

As the hires reflect, leadership got a shakeup in the wake of the migration, but so did IT more broadly.

Since the migration away from Lloyds systems, TSB has since taken direct management of IT operations, bringing in its own IT team, new partners and new approaches. Viswanathan puts it: “We really didn’t have a tech team inside of TSB, when I joined the firm… [which previously relied on partner Lloyds’s systems]. He adds: “You get a lot of energy, when you’re setting up a new place, a new hub, recruiting an experienced crew. We’ve been able to attract some really talented folk who’d run data platforms and digital platforms at scale in other organisations. We’ve managed to build together a s­mall, tightly knit, but highly functioning team.

At what scale, exactly? “We’ve had to move, I would say, circa 800 to 900 roles in aggregate from Old World, to New World, the TSB COO tells The Stack: “We’ve been doing that in the background: customers don’t care who’s actually working on the software; they just want good software that works.”

TSB COO Suresh Viswanathan: “We collaborate very thoughtfully”

The bank’s technology function is largely led by Viswanathan, who notes: “I think the job of the COO is probably 80% tech, in most organisations now. If you’re 90% servicing digital and 70% sales digital, guess what: you’ve got to be spending a lot of your time in that space, either making sure you’re available and resilient, or making sure you’re adding functionality for customers. I would say that almost 80% to 90% of the resources – money, partners, so on – are driven by the pair of us [Viswanthan and Bulloch]. We collaborate very, very thoughtfully.”)

The two were just getting warmed up when Covid-19 struck. Like most banks, TSB was hit hard. And there’s no getting around the fact that it had a lot of work left to do on its digital transformation journey when the pandemic hit. As Viswanathan puts it: “There were a lot of parts of TSB which were analogue. For bereavement processes, until March, April last year, the way you actually informed us was by visiting the branch. That couldn’t happen when the pandemic struck. We had to digitise fast.”

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With little time or capacity to build a range of new functions like this into an application, TSB turned to partners. As the COO notes: “We chose Adobe as our partner [using “Forms”] to deliver this functionality, and we’ve built a fantastic relationship with the team because we use the product in a way that perhaps many others don’t. [Ed: Adobe had no part in the making of this article].

He adds: “If you had all the time in the world, you would engineer everything into your app. But you have got to be realistic about how much can you get done, and in what timeframes in an evolving environment. Last year when we had to support the SME community in the UK, the government was innovating on the fly; we had to respond to that innovation on the fly [too]. That doesn’t lend itself to either the waterfall methodology or making a large number of small changes to a critical platform that customers use every day. So we’ve used tools which are accelerators for us.”

The focus on partners to help deliver for customers was particularly important early on, TSB’s COO notes, adding that “speed of decision making is very important. We visited a lot of the India-based IT partners, knew what competencies we were looking for and moved fast. [We broke the approach into] digital platforms, core banking platforms, and platforms that need data to live their lives: fraud, collections, data warehouses. We went with one for each of the competencies, and one to be our testing partner. That decision making process was very fast. We made the call in November 2019 and we’re down to the last tail of work already; the last 50 or 60 loads that need to move by next month.”

Building visibility

One of the team’s investment focuses has been into building a much more modern and rounded marketing technology back-end, again heavily powered by Adobe Experience.

Viswanathan says bluntly: “Our journey with our customers is very incomplete right now. We all recognise that people spend maybe 1% of their time or less dealing with their bank, the other 99% they’re either on Google or search engines trying to buy a home or whatever they’re trying to solve in their lives. A better marketing stack gives us a chance of being helpful to them in the future.”

Read this: Dr Michael Gorriz, Group CIO, Standard Chartered, on going all-in on the cloud in 2021.

That’s part of a bigger data journey, he notes, that includes a need to change the cultural fabric of the organization: “Retail [banking], as an industry has historically been very, very anecdote driven. I remember in some of my previous roles the chairman went and visited a branch and if a printer wasn’t working, we were replacing printers in all branches; that was the level of sophistication. To move away from that and to move to an environment where people are very data-driven so we focus on materiality and what customers really use and don’t use is a journey. I think we are just beyond willing amateurs at this point; it’s probably a two-three year journey for a firm to move away from being very anecdote driven to becoming very data driven. Culturally that’s a transformation that’s happening.”

More broadly what does the work to build more analytics look like?

“I think the analytics journey is well understood: you pick your favourite poison, you go down the Hadoop path, the Teradata path, the SaaS path; in many ways that’s kind of irrelevant,” he notes, adding: “The good thing that’s happened to this firm is, even though the migration had its challenges, the firm had to go and build its analytical warehouses, so they are fresh and new and they’re not tainted by 20 years of carrying garbage; unfortunately, a lot of organisations have that problem, but we don’t.”

That allows easier work on work that TSB hopes will ultimately allow it to offer much more personalized services. As TSB COO Suresh Viswanathan puts it: “In the real time space, we are using the deployment of our marketing tech stack to expose all of our information that’s relevant outside of our core platforms… What we’re trying to do in terms of our real time stack, is use the marketing programme of work to start integrating all the other data; everything that we have from open banking, from third party sources, to eventually be part of that real time hub. Progressively we will wire up our mobile platforms to either go to the real time stack, or to the core platform.”

See also: Dr Louise Beaumont: Financial services has long been a “fat complacent oligopoly with zero innovation”

TSB has a fairly unique set-up, not least in that it doesn’t have any of its own data centres (“thank God”, says Viswanathan, cheerfully). Rather, it relies on a range of third parties for core services. He explains: “If you call ‘0800 TSB’ today, before we ask for your mother’s maiden name, the call lands with a managed service to us from BT; the identification of you as a customer is then done in the Fiserv cloud; that’s a managed service from Fiserv. Then the transaction actually works its way through to Microsoft Dynamics implemented in the Azure Stack; then it goes to the banking platform, which runs in an IBM plant to render the screen before the agent says, ‘Hey, what’s your mother’s maiden?

“That’s the architecture we run. It means I’m not worried about infrastructure engineers or DBAs, or Unix administrators. It gives me tremendous flexibility. Tomorrow, if I want to cut off the mortgage platform and introduce a new one, I have to do local surgery, not intergalactic surgery.

“This works on a good day. On a bad day, when I’m not able to say “what’s your mother’s maiden name?” — because the problem could be with BT, Fiserv, IBM — you could be left saying ‘hell, what happened?’ We use Dynatrace as the instrumentation that you have in place to tell you which part of the body has a problem. That’s handy because you don’t want a tool that needs to be injected with intelligence about your CMDG and your machines and what’s running where: you need something that auto discovers. You [also] need this tool to be able to work in a hybrid cloud/on-prem or off-prem. The third thing you want if you become a digital business, you need to make sure when a customer says your app is slow, you’ve got the instrumentation to figure out, was it the phone, the Wi- Fi connection, 4G, your app? Or what happened all the way from the handset to you and back? That’s why we chose to go with Dynatrace: knowing you know that all body parts are working in an environment which is very federated was the problem that we were trying to solve.”

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The Stack puts it to TSB COO Suresh Viswanathan that although he’s touched on some of the benefits of the managed services, it sounds restrictive; from the complex set of hops between suppliers, through to the mainframe. “Our  mainframe infrastructure deep in the backend collects debits and credits; it does the job perfectly well; that’s not where we have the pain”, he responds: “The focus is doing more for our customers: a lot of that will involve non-financial connectivity, that’s going to determine where we go.

“The good news is, with open banking, we already were on AWS. So we are progressively migrating more functionality on to AWS as a true cloud. We have a method of future-proofing our architecture” he adds: “The second thing is none of our contracts are long-dated: it’s not like I’ll need to be 70 before we can switch suppliers; they are usually three-year deals, maybe five in some cases because you’ve got to amortise some value over time. But none of these are ridiculous deals and all of them have break clauses. The second thing that’s happened is when the migration was done three years ago, because this was done ground up, the good thing that has happened with TSB is that it’s a fully microservices-based architecture. The ability to make changes at pace is quite good in this organisation, relative to some of the places I’ve been at previously. So I can, in theory — tomorrow, if I don’t like our card platform, and the relationship is poor — I can easily connect to the next card platform and I can run off the old platform in three years as the cards die. So I have flexibility in the architecture, to move specific components. I feel like we’re in a good space. Most people, most large banks, even if they are on prem, they have a separate mortgage platform from a card platform from a debit card; so the issue that we’re dealing with is it’s running in five different places, rather than in one data centre. I think we have the right tools to manage that now.”

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Ed Targett

Ed Targett is founder of The Stack. He has previously served as editor at Tech Monitor, Computer Business Review, and Roubini Global Economics.

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