CIO Interview: Matthew Oakeley, global IT head of Schroders

Matthew Oakeley talks to Karl Flinders about his role as global IT head at investment management company Schroders

Matthew Oakeley left Oxford University with a law degree but switched to a career in IT. After 11 years at Swiss investment bank UBS he joined asset management company Schroders, where he has been global head of IT for 8 years.

His role covers business applications and infrastructure, and involves taking care of the computing requirements of Schroders’ 3,000 staff. He oversees between 70 and 100 IT projects at any given time – ranging from small £50,000 projects up to strategic schemes worth millions – while planning ahead for major investment programmes. All this he does in a highly regulated environment where turning around challenging demands at short notice is the norm for the IT department.

Schroders is an asset management firm that manages £212bn worth of investments. It operates in 27 different countries, with its headquarters in London.

Unlike many in the finance sector, Schroders is growing and preparing for that growth is Matthew Oakeley’s job. Ensuring the IT is in place to take advantage of business opportunities is a constant focus. “In 2010 we came out strongly and have seen a growth in IT demand that has rocketed. The IT department has doubled in size,” says Oakeley.

Oakeley runs group IT from London and the company has regional hubs in Singapore for the Asia-Pacific region, Luxembourg for continental Europe and New York for the Americas. Each has an IT head that reports to Oakeley.

Platform replacement project

Schroders’ most recent major IT investment programme was to replace a 27-year-old core system as part of a back-office revamp, a two-year project that began in 2006. The system had to be replaced because it had reached the end of life. “The timing was good because it would have been difficult to get the project signed off once the financial services turmoil struck in 2008," says Oakeley.

"We bought ourselves another 10 to 15 years of back-office platform.”

The legacy IMS portfolio accounting system (PAS), which had been developed in-house, was replaced with highly customisable software called Dimension from supplier Simcorp.

It was a substantial undertaking to replace the PAS because the system linked to hundreds of others systems. It took 38,000 man-days over two years to complete.

“This got our house in order,” says Oakeley.

Shortly after the project reached completion, Schroders braced for the economic downturn and tumultuous economy. He says the company did not have to make huge cuts to staff numbers but scaled back discretionary spending.

“It achieved our scalability aims and the business has grown dramatically with the infrastructure growing with it," he says.

Preparing for growth

Schroders is investing in the fund-management side of the business with a large programme to improve investment and data systems. This is a programme of about 12 interconnected projects and will last a couple of years. 

“Whereas our back office project was a specific endeavour to implement a specific outcome, the current programme is more of an extended focus on a raft of requirements,” says Oakeley. "This is a concerted effort to get ahead of the game in a number of areas.

“Our goal was to support growth. IT is not that vain to think that we could grow the business just through better systems but, as we grow, systems must support that growth and provide the capability to manage additional business efficiently.” To this end the company must ensure systems are scalable.

This involves enhancing investment systems, data platforms and end-to-end processes and making sure the ecosystem is as good as it can be. It will see upgrades to trading and order management systems, as well as new investment risk tools and data scrubbing tools.

Dealing with regulation

The financial services sector is highly regulated and the tide of compliance demands shows little sign of turning. “There are big changes coming and some of those come at short notice,” says Oakeley.

He believes IT should be ready for anything and does not lament the fact that he is often the last to know about coming regulations. “I would love there to be a stronger relationship between regulators and the technology delivery side of financial services," he says, "but let’s not overplay it.

"We complain a lot, thinking we should be in at the beginning, but we all recognise that sometimes we have to just get on with it.

“IT needs lots of practical ‘roll-your-sleeves–up’ types; ‘here is the challenge, let’s get on with it.' In theoretical terms, yes I would love to be closer to the source, but in reality IT just has to be good at delivery.”

Meeting challenging demands at short notice usually revolves around the resourcing of IT projects. “Resources are not just sitting around, they are all allocated," he says.

"You have to react to things that are not planned and that makes managing a project portfolio complicated.”

But Oakeley also has to find time for the less industry-specific IT work. For example, Schroders is rolling out Windows 7 upgrades globally and implementing Microsoft Lync to take advantage of instant messaging and voice and video communications.

Tablets, BYOD and compliance

Schroders is also looking into the use of iPads, launching an iPad app for the sales teams. But the heavy regulation means no bring your own device (BYOD) schemes. “We don’t have BYOD because of security," he says.

"We have to be able to fully secure our data – we cannot leave ourselves vulnerable to regulatory, legal or reputational sanction because we left sensitive data in a taxi.”

But the company does support iPads secured by MobileIron software and uses software from Good Technology to allow staff to access work email and calendars with their own devices.

“We support iPads but they are not fully integrated corporate devices.”

Microsoft lock-out

Oakeley believes the iPad will never be a true corporate device. “I bet a lot of people bought iPads for work but don’t use them for work," he says.

"The real problem is that, if you run a Microsoft Windows estate, you want something that can talk to it.

“At an event I asked Steve Ballmer: ‘When are you going to solve the iPad problem? When are you going to make it that the iPad can talk natively to Microsoft?' 

"And he said, ‘Probably never; we are not friends.’”

Oakeley does have hope for the Microsoft Surface and similar devices. “Windows 8 Pro might allow you to have a mobile device that is just like your laptop. That would be great but I do not think it will be an iPad. The surface looks like a prototype to something and I think I could eventually prefer it to an iPad. If Microsoft can deliver on it I think they will have been very clever," he says.

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