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Should banks have more technologists than Microsoft?

I saw an interesting article about the Head of Technology at a major bank, let’s call it ABC Bank for the purposes of my column, and the article began by saying that this guy “commands a budget of $10 billion and a team of 40,000 technologists.”

$10 billion is about half the total amount invested in European FinTech start-ups and 40,000 people is the typical size of a football ground audience, in the good old days when football had an audience.

Having worked in companies in the past, I saw many people build empires of people. I myself, at one point, had hundreds of people working for me. On reflection, it was a thing. I didn’t need hundreds of people, but it did feel like the more people you had working for you, the more powerful you were. That’s the thing.

40,000 technologists under a bank’s head of technology. I hear the same story in many big banks like JPMorgan Chase, where more developers work than you would find in Twitter and Facebook combined, or HSBC where more engineers work than in all of Microsoft.

So what?

Is this some stand-off thing about banks are more technology oriented than technology companies? Big banks have more developers than Big Tech? It does not matter. It’s about quality, not quantity, and I seriously question how effective are all of the developers, technologists and engineers who work for a bank. How much empowerment do they have? Can they control their bit of the development chain or is it all signed off by a manager who reports to a manager who reports to a Vice President who reports to a Senior Vice President … who reports to a Chief Information Officer who reports to a Head of Technology who reports to a Chief Financial Officer who reports to the Chief Executive Officer … who reports to the Chairman and the Board?

You get the idea?

I hear so many times people say that more can be done with $1 million and a few good people than a bank would ever achieve with $100 million and a thousand people. It is for this reason: the bank is structured to ensure nothing happens fast or easily; the start-up is completely focused upon making things happen quickly and smoothly.

Of course, the start-up has the luxury of new-ness, yet that is not the only point. Just because a bank is old does not demand that it needs 1000s of developers and billions of dollars of budget. It’s much more related to inertia and lack of cleansing and consolidation.

I liken it to my own office or yours. I don’t know what your office looks like, but I know mine gathers dust. I clean it regularly, and try to make sure that it’s tidy and organised, but it’s a constant battle. Take the eye off the ball for a week or so, and papers pile up, mess gathers, and things need re-organising to get them in order again.

How often do you clean your office? I don’t mean your physical office or study. I mean your company’s office. Jack Welch took delight in forcing GE to get rid of at least 10 percent of their staff every year no matter what. It’s a brutal idea, but the idea was that you should spring clean the office every year to generate new ideas, new thinking and new blood. When was the last time you spring cleaned your office?

Bottom line is that any bank that boasts tens of thousands of developers, technologists and engineers should first be asked the question: WHY? I don’t know why any bank today needs tens of thousands of developers, technologists and engineers. With APIs, Open Banking, cloud computing and more, a bank could probably run with just ten. You heard me: a bank that runs with just ten engineers.

Therefore, if I were the CEO of ABC Bank, I would walk up to my head of technology and fire them for boasting they had 40,000 technologists. Find someone who can work with just ten.

About Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.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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