CTO interview: Paul Clark, Tandem Bank

Tandem Bank’s chief technology officer had a close encounter with legacy banking when he left his previous job to pursue a career in fintech

Paul Clark left his role as digital CIO at ITV to take up the challenge of transforming financial services through the latest technologies.

To this end, he joined one of the UK’s biggest high street banks. However, he quickly realised this was not the kind of environment where he could achieve such transformation, and left the bank three months later. Today, he today heads up the IT operation at Tandem Bank, a digital-only challenger in the banking sector.

“I left because it was a waste of my time,” he says. “In previous jobs I had learned about best practice around building fast-changing, high-scaling, highly resilient, digital consumer-facing products, but the bank refused to do it.”

For example, in his role at ITV, Clark worked with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to ensure the broadcaster was able to cope with huge spikes in demand from online viewers during the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals. This kind of consumer-facing work was something he hoped to take into banking, but he was ultimately disappointed.

“Banks come with all their money and positive attitude to disruption, but there is a layering system – people at the top and bottom are keen to do things, but then there is a whole cohort of people in the middle who have no intention of doing it,” says Clark. He points out that many of them have built their careers navigating the landscape and feel threatened by digital change.

After leaving the bank, plus a further three months of gardening leave, Clark joined Tandem Bank, where he has been for the past three years.

Tandem Bank is a digital challenger bank which currently offers customers a credit card account and savings products, as well as an account aggregation app. It also has plans for a current account. It is striving to use artificial intelligence (AI) to offer customers information and support in managing their finances. It currently has about 700,000 customers.

“I truly believe the banking sector needs disruption and I was attracted to Tandem’s take on this,” says Clark. “Tandem understands that disruption is not just about a better user experience – in fact, that is a given – but it about creating high levels of abstraction.”

“We should be helping our customers make the right choices. Traditional banking is weighted in favour of banks not customers”
Paul Clark, Tandem Bank

In his view, customers shouldn’t be concerned about whether they need a credit card or savings account – rather the bank should be able to automatically understand and tell the customer what they could benefit from. This can be achieved through the use of big data and artificial intelligence. “We should be helping our customers make the right choices,” says Clark. “Traditional banking is weighted in favour of banks not customers.”

Focus on tech

Tandem’s headquarters in London’s Bloomsbury district in the West End, away from the high concentration of banks in the City to the east, is a reflection of the fact that it is a technology operation first and foremost, according to Clark.

“We are a tech company, a data company and an AI company, and we have a banking licence,” he says. IT professionals make up about half of Tandem’s workforce, which is currently around 150.

Major projects so far include migrating systems to the AWS cloud. Tandem previously had a mix of some environments in the cloud with Microsoft Azure and some on-premise, but hosted by a company approved by the financial services regulator. But these arrangements did not allow for automatic scaling.

“The problem with the Azure environments is that they were all hand-cranked, so somebody had to configure new servers, which meant we were not using the benefit of the cloud with the automation of this,” says Clark. Similarly, the company had to put in a request to the hosting company if it wanted more capacity for its on-premise environment.

“We are a tech company, a data company and an AI company, and we have a banking licence”
Paul Clark, Tandem Bank

Clark says the reason Tandem didn’t start in the public cloud was because it was too cautious when it first started out, opting instead for an FCA-approved hosted service. But Clark, once installed as CTO, quickly realised that Tandem had to go fully into the cloud. He had experience of moving a much bigger organisation into AWS, having headed ITV’s migration to the service in 2015.

“We wanted a scripted immutable infrastructure that is consistent,” says Clark. It built development stage and production environments in AWS. The overall project took 10 months, but it migrated everything to the AWS cloud over just one weekend in November, without a hitch. “We are now in a position where we can start to re-architect it.”

Tandem had previously put applications in the cloud with an application programming interface to connect to them. It now has a fully cloud-native stack, known as Penguin, which Amazon supported by providing engineers.

Another project at Tandem is its machine learning factory. This sees Amazon acquire and process open banking data and feed it into the machine learning models to help shape the services that sit on top of the financial products. An example of this is auto-savings, where money can be automatically moved to a savings account.

The company is accelerating its work in understanding customers with the recent appointment of a seasoned expert to train its AI, to help it offer its customers tailored banking services. It is the creation of products and services such as these that excites Clark in his role, but he says there is a lot to be done to change banking, which is Tandem’s ultimate goal.

“It is a struggle shifting the mental models that have been set in people’s minds. But disruption is about moving mental models,” he says.

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