Orchestrating vendors and IT teams during a major digital transformation is what Russ Thorton finds himself playing his role as CTO at British lending and savings bank Shawbrook.
Bringing together a large number of people with different skills and making them work together is nothing new for him. A trained conductor, Thornton “fell into computers to pay the rent”.
In the early 1990s, he conducted orchestras at theaters in San Francisco, a city which, he says, “even in the early 1990s was an expensive place to rent.”
But on its doorstep was another opportunity, as the IT sector in and around the city was growing rapidly. “I found I was pretty good with computers and was in Silicon Valley at the right time,” he told Computer Weekly.
After learning “a lot” about computing in Silicon Valley, Thornton moved to the UK in 1997 to experience life abroad for a year. Today, married with two children, he is still there.
Over the past 25 years, he has since held technology positions at major banks and global consulting firms and created a few tech startups which he sold.
He said his work directing large orchestras in theaters is analogous to his role as CTO. “I was a good musician, but I was never good at just one instrument, but conducting is about bringing together many people with great skills,” he said. “I’m good at a lot of technologies, but not good at just one technology.”
He said that while he’s unlikely to be hired as a senior developer, he’s well-rounded, with the skills to lead a team.
Make music in Shawbrook
Shawbrook Branchless Bank is a specialist savings and loan bank. It focuses particularly on the real estate sector, but provides services to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers who are often underserved by the traditional financial sector.
The bank is the result of five different finance companies coming together in 2011. In 2017, after years of growth, the owners decided to take the bank into private hands and embarked on an IT transformation, which Thornton was brought in to orchestrate as the company’s very first CTO. Shawbook now has 1,200 employees after acquiring The Mortgage Lender in 2020.
Thornton said: “The owners could see the business was growing really well, but the technology was everywhere, so I was brought in.”
He said it was an opportunity to have a clean site, define the technology strategy and embark on a multi-year transformation strategy.
The first job was to transform the IT department itself. “During the first few years I was here, we spent a lot of time creating a modern technology function rather than the old school one we had. We went from a cloud over my dead body strategy to a cloud-first policy, we have invested heavily in cyber, infrastructure and productivity tools,” he added.
The first investments made were timely given the disruption that appeared a few years later when the Covid-19 pandemic tore the work model apart companies around the world. Those investments “saved the bacon out of the bank” during the Covid-19 pandemic, Thornton said, as the business “suddenly went from 900 people working in the office to 900 people working from home in two weeks.”
Five Pillars of IT
But Thornton was focused on the long term, with five key pillars set out when he joined the bank in 2018. These were: introducing a modern IT model, becoming cloud first, mastering cybersecurity, exploit data and write software in lodger.
The technology department itself was the first. Thornton said: “The technology model was completely broken from a very old operational model from the 1990s.” It introduced a model closer to that of a fintech. He then created an internal cloud engineering function, which he said was “major work”.
The appointment of an information security officer was also made to update the infosec. The bank then laid the groundwork for a cloud-based data lake to “look at analytics much more positively, and the final piece was about writing our own software.”
“Technology used to be a secondary part of our strategy, but now it is absolutely at the core”
Russ Thornton, Shawbrook
Thornton said of the last article, “We were a bank that was afraid to write our own software, but we quickly realized we could write our own software to deliver customer experiences.”
Perhaps the most important decision was made in 2018 when the owners decided to invest in IT. “Technology used to be a secondary part of our strategy, but now it’s absolutely core,” Thornton said.
Today, he said the company wants to ensure its staff, who are skilled in a very complex and specialized part of financial services, have the technology they need to do things more efficiently.
“Our strategy is to combine our deep human expertise with cutting-edge technologies and data. We keep the human element, because we operate in complicated markets, but we want specialists to have the right technology and the right data around them to make decisions quickly,” he said.
Shawbrook has about 110 full-time IT staff and about 70 through its IT vendors who are contracted out to the bank and “are part of the team”, according to Thornton.
“For me, there has to be a balance between full-time staff and supplier staff. A 60/40 balance works well with a stable base of staff at the upper layers, supplemented by vendor staff to help deliver delivery. »
Thornton recently oversaw the rewrite business process software and automating customer journeys in part of its lending business, using a low-code technology platform that is already saving 1,500 hours per month.
It now plans to digitize the processes of its savings business to speed up the time it takes for customers to open an account and make deposits.