5 ways banks can be more like tech companies

by Jon Yongfook · January 30, 2019

One of the mantras of a large organisation's digital transformation strategy is; we need to think and act like a tech company. Tech companies are frequently used as a north star example to follow, due to their ability to iterate quickly, adapt to new challenges, and grow fast.

But what does it mean to think and act like a tech company? For many people working in traditional organisations, this statement can be difficult to contextualise unless they have had actual experience in the tech industry.

I've worked in both fast-moving tech startups and in digital transformation at traditional organisations, so here's my take on how this statement can be followed in 5 ways.

1. API first

These days when tech companies build out a new product or feature, they generally begin with the API. This is the middle layer of a software application that connects front end to back end, or back end to other internal / external systems.

There are many benefits of building the API first, such as:

Many traditional companies still get this wrong when building out digital products, which saddles them with legacy systems that can only be incrementally improved at huge cost and with protracted delivery dates.

2. Frictionless dev environments

In most tech startups, there is an innate culture of innovation and a desire to build new things. One of the factors that enables / catalyses this is a very low barrier to build and deploy new software into a safe, internally-accessible development environment.

If a team at a tech company has a new idea for a MVP product, they simply need to click a few buttons to spin up a new dev server in the cloud, write and test their code, and deploy. Now they can share their creation with their colleagues or even bring customers in for user testing.

To achieve the same thing at a traditional company, a team may encounter some or all of the following obstacles:

What takes seconds in a tech company can take months in a traditional company.

To be like a tech company, some or all of these obstacles need to be removed. With proper sandboxing, employees should have the freedom to innovate at will in a development environment.

3. Buy better hardware

Tech companies often give their engineers a choice of what computer to buy.

As an example, many tech company engineers these days opt for a new Macbook Pro running OS X, giving them access to powerful linux command line tools that help them get their job done quickly and elegantly.

Compare this to the situation at traditional companies where engineers are often forced to use low-specced Windows machines, saddled with various bloatware such as corporate virus protection scanners, firewall software… making the engineer's day to day work more slow and frustrating than it should be.

Your HR team might be doing a fantastic job of hiring great people, but tools are often overlooked or under-budgeted, which is a big mistake.

4. Transparent metrics

For a team to perform well, they must own and be responsible for relevant KPIs. One of the keys to making that happen is making the KPIs transparent and accessible.

In every tech company I've worked at, real-time performance metrics were available to relevant teams. In some cases, real time performance metrics were shown on a big screen, for anyone in the company to see.

This reinforces to the teams that you are responsible for making these numbers move, and provides a feedback loop for when they are testing / launching new features or products.

Traditional organisations can sometimes get this very wrong, either by obscuring metrics with layers of middle management so teams never actually see the metrics directly, or providing only significantly time-delayed metrics, or worse: providing no access to metrics and just allowing teams to fly blind.

5. Empowerment and self-organisation

Teams at traditional organisations mostly operate within a strict hierarchy or a complicated matrix of overlapping reporting lines, influence and power.

Often, teams are simply not empowered to act on their own and need permission from their manager (and their manager), and seven other people before meaningful work can be embarked upon.

In a worst case scenario, teams are idle until a manager tells them to do something that they know they aren't a good fit for.

In a tech company, when the mission is clear and the KPIs are transparent, often what needs to be worked on is patently obvious - the only outstanding question is who will work on it. Many tech companies employ a more horizontal structure, with less middle managers and more highly empowered teams.

The power to self-organise when challenges are clear to everyone gives tech companies a 10x speed advantage. Teams naturally form around tasks / problems, based on their personal motivations and skillsets.

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