CIO interview: John Finch, Refinitiv

Refinitiv CIO John Finch says finding people with the right level of data science skills is his biggest challenge

Refinitiv CIO John Finch is wrestling with talent challenges and contemplating how the company will move its products to the cloud.

His role at the company, which was previously the Thomson Reuters financial and risk business, is a small step but a giant leap from his last job at the Bank of England, where he spent three years as CIO.

At the Bank of England, Finch was involved in taking the organisation through some major technology transformations. Before that, he was global CIO at Experian.

He joined Thomson Reuters in 2016 as CTO, and then became head of the product engineering team until October 2018, when, following the company being acquired by Blackstone Group, he was named global CIO of the renamed company.

Now known as Refinitiv, it has three core businesses. It is best known for its data platforms that go on trading floors providing investment firms with the latest information to help them make investment decisions. It also processes large volumes of foreign exchange transactions, while its risk business supports compliance activities for big banks including anti money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC).

All three segments of the business involve collecting, aggregating, analysing, curating, storing and distributing huge volumes of data from a large number of sources. It collects over one petabyte of data every day and processes more than a million unstructured documents. Its data platform provides 40 billion market updates every day.

About 400,000 people across the world use the company’s terminals on behalf of 40,000 financial firms with about one million algorithms consuming the data without human involvement. As CIO, Finch is in charge of all enterprise technology, including product, engineering and operational IT.

Tech hubs

Globally, Finch’s internal IT team is made up of about 5,500 people, and he also has about 4,000 on his team working via suppliers or contracting. Refinitiv has major tech hubs in Bangkok, Beijing, Bangalore, New York City and St Louis in the US, as well as about 600 people in the UK tech team.

“Most of our in-house skills are largely around our product engineering working on the capability we sell to our customers,” he says.

This includes skilled people working in the internal data network who move large amounts of data at high speed, people working on joining large data sets together, and analysing and managing them.

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There are also teams working on developing features for its different products, which requires HTML5 and Python skills. Then there are teams working increasingly with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology.

“We keep the intellectual property engineering stuff in-house and use partners for operations” he says.

Finch describes Refinitiv as a “technology and data business”, and says the fundamental difference in his role at the company compared with his time at the Bank of England is the way it sees resilience and availability.

“The Bank of England is worrying very much about resilience and whether the different components of the finance sector are resilient enough to sustain the economy,” he says. “At Refinitiv, we think of resilience in a very different way. We think about whether we are performant enough to distribute our different capabilities quickly.”

This is something that requires a depth of IT expertise, with the teams made up of some of the world’s most in-demand IT professionals.

This introduces one of Finch’s biggest challenges in his current role, with finding the right people and talent top of the list. “There is absolutely a war for talent for people that can understand big data and data science,” he says.

Data scientists

Refinitiv currently has a few hundred data scientists out of its thousands of tech staff; but needs many more, with plans in place and investments being made to attract them.

Finch says attracting the talent is difficult given the competition. “How do we set ourselves up to attract the right talent? Also, more importantly, how do we develop our existing people that have great domain expertise into data science type people?”

Finch has form when it comes to reskilling. He started his career as a chartered accountant but got involved in IT. “I qualified as an accountant in 1990, just as large companies were beginning to implement large computer systems,” he says.

Audit firms would get involved with the implementation of these systems. “I didn’t want to be an auditor, and because I knew a bit about financial systems, I went to work for a company called Mercury Communications, which was a competitor to BT,” says Finch.

At the time, the billing systems were kept in the finance department where he worked. These bills were not itemised but just produced a final bill to customers. Mercury changed this by producing the first ever itemised bill in the UK.

Finch got involved in the project and had to learn Cobol programming as part of his role. “That’s how I got into technology,” he says.

Product delivery

Although not as urgent as his talent challenges, but certainly on Finch’s agenda, is deciding at what pace and with what capability the company delivers its products increasingly via the cloud.

From an operational perspective Refinitiv is already a heavy cloud user but currently about 15% to 20% of its products are delivered through the cloud. While this is a large amount compared with many businesses the proportion can be increased greatly.

“Our customers more and more are thinking about consuming capability like ours through the cloud rather than through our infrastructure and their own,” says Finch.

The company is investing in this. It is using Amazon Web Services, Azure, Google Cloud and is talking to Alibaba Cloud for its business in China.

Latency and performance are Finch’s main concerns when looking to move to the cloud. Traditionally, financial services firms are located in close proximity to Refinitiv’s datacentre to shave milliseconds off the time it takes for messages to reach their own systems.

“Some of our data is delivered in close to real-time and cloud introduces another layer of latency, so finding ways to engineer around this is interesting,” says Finch.

There are also challenges associated with the economics of moving to the cloud. Refinitiv’s infrastructure is already engineered for massive spikes of an already massive capacity requirement. As a result, the traditional benefits of pay as you go and elasticity for most enterprises are not necessarily as attractive to Refinitiv.

“We are not yet sure how the cloud economics offer real value to the business,” says Finch.

Cyber security is another major focus for the organisation, with the resilience and availability of its networks critical.

Internally modernising the employee experience is something the company is thinking about, with collaboration tools being introduced. “We have a big Office 365 roll-out going on and we are migrating from a myriad of collaboration tools as a result,” he says.

About 60% of Refinitiv’s IT cost is for its product side, with the remaining 40% for operations running the business.

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