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If you think ‘rip out and replace our systems’ is naive … think again

Building on yesterday’s theme, one that I cover often, I was accused of being naïve when I say that banks should rip out and replace old infrastructures.

They tell me that you would not do that with historic houses.  You just refresh and renew room by room, on an evolutionary basis.

But the metaphor does not work.

A house is a house.  It has walls, windows and ceilings. The design principle has not changed for centuries.

A bank is not a bank anymore.  A bank was a bank with walls, windows and ceilings and was for housing money.  Today, it has a digital dimension for housing data.

That is the fundamental difference and it is frankly irritating to hear the guys who defend the old way.

If it isn’t broken, leave it alone.

Evolution, not revolution.

It still works, so what’s the problem?

The problem is that I would not have any digital asset today that was built for punch cards or magnetic tape in an era when the most sought after programmers were in PASCAL, FORTRAN and Assembler.

Those are not fit for purpose in this digital age.

Equally, I would not work with any organisation that felt 120 bytes and 12 character limitations to data were acceptable, or to have core systems processing in pre-decimalisation currencies (yes, it was confirmed to me last night that there are still banks processing transaction in pre-1971 pounds, shillings and pence).

Put it a different way.

If it were acceptable, then I would still be using the Intel 80386 laptop I bought in 1992 and the Motorola brick that went with it.

Equally, in an age of APIs, apps and plug-and-play, can we really live with conversion middleware that allows us to communicate with the deadbeat that sits at the heart of the bank.

Yes, the deadbeat system that holds us all back.

The system that no longer works on a bank to bank and bank to infrastructure basis.

To be honest, I find it distasteful and think I’m going to jump on ship with venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.


Andreessen is a guy who, a bit like Elon Musk who is a friend of his, can make things happen (Andreessen made millions from selling Netscape to AOL) and, as mentioned yesterday, if these VC’s with their deep pockets really wanted to shake the tree, they could.

For example, checkout these tweets about Bitcoin (Marc understands this space):

Then read this from QZ.com:

To disrupt banking, do you need to own the bank?

Some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley have been buzzing on Twitter over the last 24 hours about reinventing retail banking with better software.

 “I am dying to fund a disruptive bank,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen tweeted yesterday. Other Valley heavyweights chimed in, including Chris Dixon (a colleague at Andreessen Horowitz), Keith Rabois (Khosla Ventures), and Mo Kofyman (Spark Capital).

In his tweets, Andreessen mulled the importance of owning a bank itself compared to the benefits of an API (application programming interface) that could be used to access bank data and build services on top of it.

That was the mission of a startup called Simple when it was founded in 2009. Butunable to overcome the financial and regulatory obstacles to obtaining a banking license, the company partnered with US Bancorp to provide the back-end for its online retail bank.

Andreessen, however, may have the resources to make the full dream of owning the regulated bank, as well, a reality. Other existing startups in this general area include non-bank lenders such as CommonBond and Lending Club.

Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of the The Lean Startup, has focused on another part of the financial system: the stock exchange. Ries has made the case that tech startups should ditch Wall Street and create their own long-term stock exchange. This exchange would have structural impediments to things like high-frequency trading. Ries retweeted Andreessen’s comments yesterday about the pure software bank.

Oh, and thanks to Mr. Andreessen for pointing me to this.

This is the second in a three-part series on why our technology and infrastructure is unfit for purpose:

  1. A banking system designed for a USB stick
  2. If you think 'rip out and replace our systems' is naive … think again
  3. Our challenges with digital identity demand a digital infrastructure

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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  • So to paraphrase a former boss’s boss’s boss, a bank is really a technology company with a banking license . . only the technology side is far from current, or even recent.

  • LM

    The real challenge is how does a bank extract value from a new core. And this goes back to what the customers want in lending and deposit products. What is the disruptive value proposition?
    Even where a new value proposition exists, there is rarely a definitive position that a core upgrade is the only solution, particularly in a technology environment where there are hundreds of systems in banks supporting hundreds of business lines – you have to fight the question of “can’t we instead build another system to prove out this value proposition”?
    A core upgrade is seen as the most costly solution and one requiring the greatest amount of organisational mindset change to deliver value. It’s hard, and big organisations dislike doing hard things. Best motivation tends to be a shrinking P&L and this is not happening at a fast enough rate to be directly traced back to the core (note – the pain of revenue not generated from missing a market altogether is not felt as harshly).
    The only organisations who dare to go on this journey are ones who genuinely see technology as a (CEO-level) strategic advantage AND have no other ‘bigger’ problems to work on AND no other simpler way to grow profits.
    The others will follow if / when the ones that have done it first start causing them the shrinking P&L through new value propositions.

  • Greg Grime

    I have been speaking to African, and other developing nations’, banks over the last few years and sold predictive analytics models and AI to some of them. Because they are not hampered by legacy systems they often have more modern back offices which lend themselves to slicker mobile banking, cleaner STP with less exceptions and better fraud detection. As someone who has sold financial technology for 25 years, I fully agree that legacy systems are a ball & chain and stifle innovation.
    Humans are bad at observing these Gestalt shifts. Witness – the First World War when officers charged machine guns on horseback with swords wearing bright uniforms and red hats. Or Agincourt when the flower of the French nobility met Longbow 2.0
    Large rip outs carry larger perceived risks of project failure and usually higher real risks, as there is more technical spaghetti to untangle and more points of failure. Humans factor in their past experiences to decision-making and don’t see much upside in being the first to innovate. Failure at a large bank is high profile and potentially career ending since it will make the trade press and embarrass the board.
    It’s not so much, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, but rather, “if I fix it I merely keep my job and, perhaps, get a promotion and more responsibility. If I fail to fix it I lose my job and potentially won’t get another as I will be the person who was in charge of that large failed back office replacement costing a 8 or 9 figure sum.”
    Salesmen, and bloggers, can simply learn the lesson of the failure and re-craft our pitch. For the decision-makers in banks, however, there is a lot of personal downside without the upside a dot.com entrepreneur has. Until the blame culture is addressed innovation won’t be easy.
    The councils all over England had huge stockpiles of gritting salt this winter. In the event they needed sand and sandbags and were blamed for not having enough. Imagine, if an innovator had built huge flood defences back in the 1950s and council tax had been higher in that town for 50 years to pay for it? Would anyone go and put flowers on his grave now for his “innovation”?