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CIO interview: Joe Soule, CTO, Capital One Europe
Never go back, or so they say – but one IT chief’s return to his former employer brought new opportunities and tech transformation
It is a popular adage in employment to say that you should never go back, but Joe Soule, chief technology officer (CTO) at finance giant Capital One Europe, has done just that – and the decision has led him into new areas of responsibility in an expanded role that he relishes.
Soule originally left Capital One in 2016 after 12 years with the firm, during which time he had risen to the position of senior director for technology. He always enjoyed working for the bank and was managed and mentored by Rob Harding, who – before a promotion in 2017 – was CIO for Capital One, in a position Computer Weekly profiled back in 2016.
While Soule’s previous role gave him broad control for a range of change and delivery elements, he also recognised there were some things he probably couldn’t do unless he gained the experience of taking on a more senior IT management position. So, in November 2016, he made the choice to join Close Brothers Motor Finance as CIO. After a two-year stint, he returned to Capital One as European CTO.
“I had a great time [at Close Brothers],” he says. “I led them through a tech-led transformation of their motor finance organisation. In return, I got awareness of what it’s like to be exposed to service, and the regulator, and the board, and an executive committee.
“It was a nice opportunity for me to close some gaps and to go there with a skill that they definitely wanted. And so I felt like it was a very balanced relationship for those two years.”
Stepping up into an expanded role
Soule returned to Capital One in August 2018 when Harding moved up to take overall responsibility for operations and technology. That all-encompassing role meant Harding needed two management reports, one for operations and another for technology, to make sure both areas ran smoothly as he spent more time working with his executives colleagues.
That’s where Soule stepped in and combined his knowledge of Capital One with his experience as CIO at Close Brothers. “I didn't have any great plan of returning, because those jobs don’t come along all that often,” he says.
“But two years later, it did – and I returned to Capital One in the CTO role, with the aim of extending that remit and taking on management of architecture and the service side of technical. So now, everything that would sit under a CIO role – other than cyber security, which sits with the US – sits with me.”
This further extension of Soule’s remit came “slap bang in the middle of Covid”, he says. He took on the additional responsibilities for architecture and service at the end of February – and two weeks later he was helping to ensure that 100% of the bank’s workforce could work from home. That activity had to take place while also ensuring service and delivery were protected.
“It was an interesting time to learn the job,” he says. “I guess it short-cut a lot of things in terms of what I needed to learn about the team, in terms of what great people they are and the skills they bring. So while it was not maybe the way I planned to learn about the role and the team, it was certainly an interesting way of doing it – and we did some amazing things.”
“There are some great norms [from remote working] to be held on to from an inclusion perspective”
Joe Soule, Capital One
Soule says the company’s focus switched following lockdown from some of its longer-term strategic activities towards immediate customer-focused priorities, such as ensuring mobile and web-based systems and services were resilient and able to cope with the surge in online activity.
This pivot presented a range of challenges for the socially distant IT team. Yet Soule says the firm’s engagement survey suggests the majority of employees believe they are productive working from home. “Our engagement scores have gone up,” he says. “They were good anyway in tech, but they’ve actually gone up.
“At certain times, our change numbers are higher than they’ve ever been. That’s in part because of coronavirus and the response we want to make through our technology estate, so that people can work from home. So through all of it, we’ve been able to push more change through.”
Like other companies, Capital One is using remote-working technology, such as Zoom, to help people in the IT department to collaborate virtually as close-knit teams. Soule has been impressed with the results and believes the disparate way of working that the pandemic has necessitated provides some important pointers for the future.
“When we go back, I wouldn’t want us to forget some of the norms we’ve established that have really added to inclusion for the organisation,” he says. “Everyone, from our teams to our suppliers, has told us the same thing, which is that this phase is probably the most inclusive we’ve ever been. I think there are some great norms to be held on to from an inclusion perspective on the other side of this.”
Continuing to move to the cloud
When Computer Weekly spoke with Soule’s boss, Rob Harding, four years ago, he stressed the importance of the cloud to the organisation. At the time, he envisaged that most production workloads would be in the cloud by 2021. In his first two years leading tech, Soule has taken up the mantle and says on-demand IT remains a crucial element of the bank’s strategy.
He says Capital One Europe has taken a slightly different approach from its US parent, which he says “brute-forced” its way to the cloud and has done an amazing job. Although not born native on the cloud, the European organisation is moving entirely to public platforms.
“That’s a breathtaking achievement that the US businesses have undertaken,” he says. “The UK had different kinds of motivations. Our drivers aren’t the same – we didn’t have huge datacentres costing us lots of money to run. Our cause was much more around the fact that we’ve been building the new capabilities that we needed predominantly on cloud, and then seizing the opportunity, when it arises, to move workloads.”
Soule estimates that right now, about 30% of the firm’s business applications remain in Capital One Europe’s internal datacentre. He recognises that pushing the final elements to the cloud will require a tricky balancing act between keeping costs in check and creating new efficiencies. However, it’s a challenge that his tech team will address with the senior business team going forward.
Pioneering solutions to customer challenges
Cloud is not the only area for consideration, however. Soule recognises that the bank will have to make crucial decisions in the post-Covid age, both in terms of business strategy and the products it offers customers.
“We are a lending business and, on the other side of this, there will be a lot of things that we need to think about in terms of continuing to lend,” he says. “It’s going to be incredibly important that we understand the affordability of the loans we’re making.”
Crucially, the bank has already helped to pioneer some creative solutions to the challenges its customer face. During the last decade, Soule was technical lead for QuickCheck, an innovative data-led project designed by the internal IT team that allows customers to test their suitability for credit.
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The online tool gives customers applying for credit a definite yes or no, so they can be certain they will be accepted before they apply without affecting their credit scores. Soule defines QuickCheck as one of the “defining moments” of his career.
“Very rarely do you get the chance to build market-leading products, and almost never do you get the opportunity to build a market-defining product – and QuickCheck defined the market,” he says, before suggesting that one potential target in the post-Covid era is to develop a similar product to QuickCheck for customers looking to make balance transfers with their credit cards.
“We’d like to give customerss something similar,” he says. “It’s not what customers tell you, it’s understanding when the things that they’re trying to tell you are what they need. And again, in most instances, what people are looking for is certainty – and in the balance transfer market, it’s less about acceptance and more about the right product for the customer.”
Long-term transformation plans
These kinds of innovation suggest that Capital One, like many organisations, is now starting to think about how it can continue to grow in the post-Covid age. The IT team has had to focus on operational priorities through the spring and summer of 2020, but Soule says it is now time to start focusing on long-term digital transformation strategies.
“We still believe the plan that we intended to execute over the next 24 to 36 months is still the right plan, so we’ll be pivoting our teams back to that,” he says. “But in terms of their ability to flex, and their ability to meet the requirements of the customer, and so on so forth, it’s been great.”
Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges for IT executives in all businesses. Yet the experience has reinforced Soule’s belief in the capabilities of his staff – and part of the digital transformation going forward will be about how he helps his team embrace the benefits of a new remote-working normal.
“We will be focusing on workforce enablement and looking to invest in making work-from-home a more productive and better experience over time,” he says. “And that will probably mean investing in technology in the long term to support our remote-working employees.”