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CIO interview: Russ Thornton, chief technology officer, Shawbrook Bank

Russ Thornton swapped life on the theatre podium for financial services IT, but thrives in an environment where orchestrating IT teams is a core skill

Orchestrating suppliers and IT teams during a major digital transformation is what Russ Thornton finds himself doing in his role as CTO at UK lending and savings bank Shawbrook.

Bringing together a large group of people with different skills and getting them to collaborate is not new to him. A musical conductor by education, Thornton “fell into computers to pay the rent”.

In the early 1990s, he was conducting orchestras in theatres in San Francisco, a city which he says, even then, “was an expensive place to rent”.

But on his doorstep was another opportunity, as the IT sector in and around the city grew rapidly. “I found I was quite good with computers and was in Silicon Valley at the right time,” he tells Computer Weekly.

After learning “a bucket load” about IT in Silicon Valley, Thornton moved to the UK in 1997 to experience life abroad for a year. Today, married with two kids, he is still here.

Over the past 25 years, he has held technology roles at big banks and global consultancies. He has also established a couple of tech startups and sold them on.

He says his job conducting large orchestras in theatres is analogous to his role as a CTO. “I was a good musician, but never great at any one instrument, but conducting is about bringing lots of people with great skills together,” he says. “I am good at a lot of tech, but not great at a single tech.”

He says that while he is unlikely to be hired as a senior developer, he is well-rounded, with the skills needed to bring a team along.

Making music at Shawbrook

Branchless Shawbrook Bank is a specialist savings and lending bank. It provides services to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers that are often underserved by the mainstream finance sector, with a particular focus on the property sector.

The bank was the result of the coming together of five different finance firms in 2011. By 2017, after years of growth, the owners decided to take the bank into private hands and embarked on an IT transformation, which Thornton was brought in to orchestrate, as the company’s first ever CTO. Shawbook now has 1,200 staff, after acquiring The Mortgage Lender in 2020.

“The owners could see the company was growing really well, but the technology was all over the place, so I was brought in,” he says, describing it as an opportunity to have a greenfield site, set the technology strategy and set off on a multiyear transformation strategy.

The first task was to transform the IT department itself. “For the first few years I was here, we spent a lot of time creating a modern technology function, rather than the old-school one we had. We went from a ‘cloud over my dead body’ strategy to a cloud-first policy. We invested heavily in cyber, infrastructure and productivity tools,” he adds.

These early investments were timely, given the disruption that emerged a couple of years later when the Covid-19 pandemic ripped up the working model of the world’s businesses. These investments “saved the bank’s bacon” during the Covid-19 pandemic, says Thornton, because the company “went from having 900 people working in the office to 900 people working from home within two weeks”.

Five pillars of IT

But Thornton was focused on the long term, with five key pillars set out when he joined the bank in 2018. These were: introducing a modern IT model, becoming cloud first, getting on top of cyber security, harnessing data and writing software in-house.

The IT department itself was the first. “The technology model was completely broken, with a really old-school 1990s operations-led model,” says Thornton. He brought in a model more like that of a fintech.

Thornton then established an in-house cloud engineering function, which he says was “a major piece of work”.

To bring its information security up to date, the bank appointed a chief information security officer (CISO).

It then put in the foundations for a cloud-based data lake to “look at analytics much more positively”.

“Technology used to be a side part of our strategy, but now it is absolutely at the core”

Russ Thornton, Shawbrook

When it came to the software pillar, Thornton says: “We were a bank that was afraid of writing our own software, but we quickly realised we can write our own software to deliver customer experiences.”

The human-tech interface

Perhaps the most significant decision was made in 2018, when the owners decided to invest in IT. “Technology used to be a side part of our strategy, but now it is absolutely at the core,” says Thornton.

Today, the company wants to ensure its staff, who are skilled in a very complex and specialist part of financial services, have the tech they need to do things more efficiently, he says.

“Our strategy revolves around combining our deep human expertise with leading-edge tech and data. We retain the human element, because we play in complicated markets, but we want specialists to have the right technology and data around them to make decisions quickly,” he adds.

Shawbrook has around 110 full-time IT staff and around 70 through its IT suppliers, who are outsourced to the bank and “part of the team”, according to Thornton.

“For me, there needs to be a balance between full-time staff and those from suppliers. A 60:40 balance works nicely, with a stable base of staff at the top layers augmented by staff from suppliers to help make delivery happen,” he says.

Thornton recently oversaw the rewrite of business process software and automation of customer journeys in part of its loans business, using a low-code technology platform, which is already saving 1,500 hours a month.

It now plans to digitise processes in its savings business to speed up the time it takes customers to open an account and make deposits.

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