Interview: Bob Rickert (CIO, Barclays)

In an interview, Barclay’s CIO Bob Rickert spoke about his own experiences with IT and banking. This story was published in the Dataquest Magazine.

I am willing to outsource the doing but not the thinking

For Bob Rickert, cooking is more than a hobby. In his free time, he can be seen in his kitchen tossing up salads or fashioning up new cuisines and dishes, especially so for his 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. The best thing about cooking is that you get to know immediately whether you did a good job or not because people will either eat your dishes or they wont. There is no two-ways about it, says Rickert.

Rickert uses the same fundamentals of feedback and response as he heads the IT department of one the top twenty companies, according to Forbes Global 2000 rankings, Barclays. He is CIO, Global Retail and Commercial Banking (GRCB) Technology, Barclays. Rickerts responsibility is to lead 7,000 IT colleagues globally to deliver IT capabilities and support for GRCB.

Starting his career at IBM, Rickert has taken up quite a few challenging roles in the design and development of technology before switching over to manage the IT systems at KeyCorp, the eleventh largest bank in the US. It has been around two years since Rickert has joined Barclays and is leading the charge in terms of making the organization more oriented toward customer needs and wants. To be successful, we need to understand that the reason we exist is to support Barclays customers and all the great technical wizardry is of no use if it is not creating value for our customers, he adds.

In an extensive interaction with Dataquest, Rickert talks about different aspects of IT management and what it takes to lead a major financial institution like Barclays. Excerpts

How do you think has the banking sector embraced technology? Was it willingly or was it coerced, due to legislations, etc?
The banking sector has embraced technology very aggressively and willingly. Many vendors would say that financial institutions are leaders in terms of technology adoption and usage. We at Barclays are focused on providing great service to our users and given just the volume of transactions, one would want to automate as much as possible. A company would like to maintain a consistent quality of service, which is hard to get if you rely on manual processes. This sort of philosophical approach is universal across the financial services industry, hence, banks and their likes are very much leaders in technology adoption.

How strategic is IT to the change management process, considering that the company has a history that goes back four centuries?
Right from the very top of the company, there is tremendous recognition that technology is one of our lynchpins in terms of being able to ensure that we give great service to our customers. So, whether it is things like Internet banking, or the pilot that we recently started in India on mobile banking, being able to bring that kind of value to our customers, through technology, is something that the company is focused on.

How do you manage the wide range of operations, considering that you are spread across fifty countries and so are the customers?
Well, we dont get a lot of sleep (laughs). Essentially, a lot of the structure that we have put in place relies on a very decentralized approach as far as how we engage businesses and customers in a given region. The key for me is to make sure that we define solid standards for our technology; we want to make sure that the standards are tightly coupled with business and will bring value to our customers. By building our systems and managing our systems against those kinds of technology standards, I really find that we can decentralize a lot of decision making and empower local teams to go build the systems that will provide the right solutions for the customer in a given region.

Can you share a brief bit about IT infrastructure at Barclays?
I would like to steer away from specific numbers about our infrastructure but as a general rule it would be fair to say that it is a pretty significant organization from the infrastructure point of view. We have got data centers regionally in the UK and in South Africa; we are building a new data center in Singapore. Then, in almost all the countries that we operate, we would have local processing capabilities for some things that are unique with that country and that will reside on the global network and everything needs to be built according to our standards.

Is there a road map for IT? Can you share it with us?
Yes, there is a roadmap that we are following; the roadmap essentially has a couple of dimensions. But if I were to talk about our priorities within that, at the very top is ensuring that as a technology organization, we are engaged with the businesses to understand how we can bring value to our customers.

The second critical role that IT plays is to ensure that we are safeguarding our customers and our customers assets. So we have a lot of energy around things like information security, privacy, data protection, and those kinds of things. And the third macro priority is really all about innovation and ensuring that we are sharing the learning because one of the great things about our large organizations is that we find that customers may have some needs in one part of the world and the same needs may exist elsewhere but havent yet been recognized.

How do you handle innovation at Barclays?
I am trying to focus on innovation and how we can systematize capturing of good ideas, and propagate them across the organization. In reality, what we are settling on is creating a program that will reward people for coming up and sharing good ideas.

I always believe that one goes back to ones roots, and I spent my formative career time at IBM. A great thing that IBM did was to have a program for fostering innovation, patents, and inventions, basically rewarding people. It isnt rocket science and if you reward people for doing things, you tend to get more of those things.

Over the past many years, Barclays has acquired and merged different companies. How are the disparate systems harmonized? Is there a standard procedure? What are the learnings that you would like to share with us?
The thing that we have really embarked on with vigor over the last many years is consolidating the systems, and, as we acquire new entities, to migrate them to our standards platform and merge the technology.

Few years ago, we had acquired a bank, the Woolwich, which was really quite a substantial bank. Last year we got the project completed, where we basically migrated all those systems to our standard platform at Barclays. Then we were able to make sure that we harmonize the experience that Woolwich customers had with that of Barclays. That is one reason that we are so focused on standards. If you focus on standards, then you have a good opportunity to simplify your environment.

What is your view on outsourcing?
My view is that it is okay to outsource commodity types of activities, where I draw the line, as I am unwilling to outsource the intellectual control kind of IT areasthe key IT architect, designers, and application specialists. The reason for that is at the end of the day, I want to make sure to be in a position to add differentiated value to our customers. There is a thing that I say; I am willing to outsource the doing but not the thinking.

My philosophical bent is to make sure that we identify the roles whether they are architectural, whether they are design, and identify those types of intellectual capital and keep them in-house no matter what. And if for any reason we found that those roles did get outsourced, we are going to bring then back in the organization.

What do you think of India as an outsourcing destination? When you were at Keybank, you had talked about building a bridge to India?
I think there are great opportunities in India; in fact, we have got a Barclays Technology Center at Pune. We have a lot of people there working on different projects as we speak. I see more of that happening over the time. The great thing about India is that there are a lot of really talented people to draw upon, and we can have enough brainpower.

The banking sector has been plagued with a lot of security related issues in the past, like data leaks, et al. How do you take care of all these issues?
We lay a lot of emphasis on security. Just a couple of months ago, I hired a lady, Rhonda MacLean, who is a renowned information security officer; she is driving the program across Barclays. And I think it starts with the most fundamental thing: understanding the importance of information security and the willingness to invest in protecting our customers information and details. The danger in this space is that it is a moving target, bad guys are always thinking of new ways to do bad things, so you got to have great people who can outthink bad guys.

Your take on the people behind technology?
My underlying thought is that at the end of the day technology is a people’s business. A lot of people think that technology is about hardware, or software. I do not agree with that. And I say that because all our competitors basically go to the same vendor we go to and buy pretty much the same computer and same software and all that kind of stuff.

The way we are able to get value and fuel things for our customers is by having great people, who are able to find innovative and exceptional ways to use those kinds of commodity systems. My focus is on making sure that we get the best people and then we do as much as we can from training, nurturing, and developing a point of view to bring out the best in them. An example of that is when we spoke about outsourcing; I want to hold on to the brains and what that really means is that I want to hold on to smart people.

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