Interview: James Smith, director of digital, Nationwide Building Society

James Smith says heading up the digital unit at Nationwide Building Society is the best job in the business

Nationwide Building Society’s digital business is on the front line, connecting the 173-year-old company to its members.

This is the customer-facing piece of a multibillion-pound, multi-year project which has seen the company transform.

James Smith, a developer during the dot com bubble of the late 1990s, today looks after the digital channel for Nationwide Building Society. In his view, it is “about the best job in the business”.

He joined Nationwide in 2010 as one of the people hired to lead the delivery of a £1bn multi-year IT transformation launched a couple of years earlier. 

About a year ago, Smith became head of Nationwide Digital. His objectives are around service levels and customer acquisition, in a role that sees him “look after the first line with members”.

With a background in mechanical engineering, Smith learned much of his current trade while at Anderson Consulting.

Digital delivery

Today, Smith heads a cloud and DevOps-focused effort to re-platform Nationwide’s digital banking and mortgage services.

“I am the digital version of the branches or the contact centre,” he tells Computer Weekly. “I own the business objective, and then, working with colleagues across the society, I work out what the right strategy is to meet that objective. Then, through a team of people, we use the latest technology, such as cloud and AI [artificial intelligence], to do this.”

“I am the digital version of the branches or the contact centre. I own the business objective, and then, working with colleagues across the society, I work out what the right strategy is to meet that objective”

James Smith, Nationwide Building Society

Smith’s team includes designers, developers and architects who deliver the apps and functionality to the building society’s members. The aim is to digitise customer experiences. “We are progressively transforming the customer journeys,” he says. “We have already done some of our mortgage journeys, as well as some everyday banking journeys.”

The team is developing cloud-based products using DevOps technologies and microservices, with a variety of front-end technologies such as Java and .Net core.

Over 60% of its customer acquisition last year came through the digital channel.  

Such is the pace of change that systems created as part of the company’s IT transformation are already being upgraded. “We are nine months into this, and over the next two to three years we will largely decommission most of our current digital capabilities and move them onto a new architecture,” says Smith.

For example, the current version of Nationwide’s internet bank was rolled out in 2011 as part of the transformation announced in 2008.

“This was a re-platforming as part of the £1bn IT transformation. We have invested in it in the meantime, but it is very much in the crosshairs to be re-platformed,” says Smith.

The aim is to give customers a deeper and richer digital experience and be more agile with lower costs through automation. “Through DevOps, we have been able to automate the end-to-end development lifecycle,” adds Smith.

Building a talented workforce

As part of its digital journey, the company needs access to a wide talent base. To this end, the building society will open its first major technology hub in London next year to give it access to the IT professionals it needs to continue its digital journey.

The new digital innovation hub will add 750 tech jobs, and the building society is also expanding operations in its home town of Swindon, which currently houses all its 3,500 technology operations staff. In total, Smith manages about 1,500 staff in the digital team.

There are about 5,000 IT staff at Nationwide in total. Its people are organised around the work, with squads aligned to particular domains, using agile principles and focusing on digital, says Smith.

The search for talent continues. Last year, the company revealed plans to increase its IT spending by £1.3bn to £4.1bn over the next five years, aiming to create 1,000 jobs.

Forming partnerships

Part of this additional investment will see Nationwide use AI technology and big data to help it understand customers so it can provide additional services, such as money management. This will involve working with financial technology (fintech) suppliers.

“We see some really interesting things in the market around this and we have made investments through our venture arm. We are not going to build everything ourselves, but are looking at partnerships,” said Smith.

But it’s not just third-party tech companies that Nationwide is tapping for expertise. Smith says the business as a whole plays a vital role in digital transformation because its very nature – creating user-friendly services in demand – means that people from all parts of the business can contribute.

He told Computer Weekly in an interview last year that sourcing ideas from within the business is crucial: “If you look at the incumbent banks, there are a load of smart people with a load of ideas, and what we have at our disposal now is a set of technologies that increasingly allow people to execute those ideas rapidly with a relatively low, marginal cost.”

The digital team also taps into its customer base for inspiration. “We get ideas from right across the business as well as members through a panel,” says Smith.

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