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CIO interview, Rob Harding, Capital One

Capital One’s CIO talks about having to adapt agile to fit the business, the importance of data and taking advantage of talent

When he isn’t building robots or playing guitar, Rob Harding keeps himself busy running digital transformation at finance firm Capital One. A keen musician with a passion for solos, Harding has called the tune as CIO at Capital One for six years. It’s a position centre stage that he relishes. 

“It’s a great job and the people here are fantastic,” he says. Harding has been with the firm since 1999, rising through the management ranks to take on the top IT job for the firm’s European business. “From the first day I joined, I was impressed with the organisation. Through my time at the company, the work has always remained interesting and invigorating,” he says. 

Harding has seen a huge amount of change during his 17 years with the firm. He talks to Computer Weekly about his achievements since becoming CIO in 2010 and his desire to promote agile development methodologies. The challenges continue to come through thick and fast – and, in many ways, the hard work has only just begun. 

Achieving great results as a CIO 

Harding says his CIO role has encompassed two key stages. The first period, from 2010 to 2013, involved a mix of projects around marketing strategies and business compliance. In many ways, the work during this first stage laid the foundations for the digital transformation work he has led since 2014. 

His achievements during his first three years in-situ focused on two core areas: supporting the business as it grew and acquiring new customers; and pushing agile transformation across the business through the great work of the in-house IT team. 

He analysed how technology was used across the entire customer journey, from individuals enquiring about the company’s services through to successful applications. Harding’s team focused their efforts on the IT systems that the rest of the business used to make decisions. 

“I like the idea of being able to create a more adaptable business”

Rob Harding, Capital One

The aim was to introduce a large amount of flexibility so that Capital One executives had a platform from which to try new services. The process, he says, allowed the business to build, tweak and perfect leading-edge products. As an example, he points to QuickCheck, a service-based solution designed by the IT team that allows customers to test their suitability for credit. 

That project provided a test bed for the introduction of agile methodologies across the business. Harding says the establishment of agile development – first across technology projects and then across the wider organisation – has changed the business for the better. The IT team, for example, cut the amount of projects it worked on from 90 to 35 between 2014 and 2015. 

“We’d got tied into waterfall projects and I’m not sure that’s the best way to deliver products to our customers,” he says. “I like the focus on teams and specific projects in agile, and I like the idea of being able to create a more adaptable business. Everyone is more focused on the projects that are really important to the business.” 

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Building talent, pushing agility and using data 

With the platform for change in place, Harding is turning to digital transformation, which involves six main strands. First, talent – Harding is eager to find new ways to source great people and develop fresh techniques for developing his workforce. The firm is already bolstering staff with external hires from leading-edge firms, such as eBay and Amazon. 

Harding and his executive peers have also begun to reimagine job families across both IT and the rest of the business. What has begun to emerge is a matrix organisation, with cross-functional teams and roles spanning departments. Harding says three main areas – product, design and engineering – are key to this joined-up approach to human resources. 

The second core area is agility. Harding is keen to ensure agile continues to be used as a way of working across the business, not just a development methodology confined to the IT department. The aim, he says, is to create a flexible, fluid environment that allows people across the organisation to work to the best of their abilities. 

Success in agile, however, is not just about flexibility. To make the most of a fluid workforce, Harding says CIOs and their c-suite peers have to tweak the methodology in the host organisation. “You have to adapt agile to make it work for your business,” he says. 

Harding’s third key focus for digital transformation involves the effective use of data and analytics. Capital One was founded on an information-based strategy and it is a principle that continues to inform the work of the bank’s executives. 

“We always strive to find ways to create data-based products that help us become more competitive,” says Harding. To this end, the firm continues to invest in new analytic tools. Employees worked with the open source tool Apache Hadoop and now use Amazon’s data warehousing service Redshift. 

Supporting flexibility, remaining open and changing culture 

The fourth key element of transformation involves a continued investment in the technology stack. Harding says this shift encompasses everything from the promotion of real-time processing to the adoption of public cloud services. “Strong prioritisation is key,” he says. “Looking to make strong, value-based decisions and trying, wherever possible, not to build new stuff on old stuff.” 

Harding recognises that some kind of balance is required. The firm’s mobile banking application, for example, was built from scratch, while certain production systems remain on legacy platforms. However, Harding says he always looks for ways to help the business reduce its reliance on older kit. 

The fifth area of the firm’s digital transformation agenda is all about open source. The firm is eager to think about how it can achieve scale in its processes through the use of open source technologies. This approach is supported through the tactical use of inner-sourcing, where existing systems and services are adapted from partner businesses. 

Capital One employs 1,000 staff in the UK, but is part of a much larger US organisation with 44,000 staff. Harding says it makes great business sense to consider how the UK can use the IT tools and code bases of its sister firm to help avoid reinventing the wheel. “Wherever possible, we want to tap into the widest possible talent pool,” he says. 

Harding’s final priority involves cultural change. “The typical transformation involves a shift from one well-defined place to another well-understood place. Digital change isn’t always like that,” he says. The objective at Capital One is to manage multiple layers of IT-enabled transformation, such that change becomes a much more manageable concept. 

“We’re fortunate that the culture here is receptive,” says Harding. “For digital transformation to be successful, CIOs and their peers must understand the complexity involved in moving an organisation to the intersection of business and technology.” 

Ensuring the right processes are in place 

The great news for Capital One is that Harding believes his plans are progressing well. “I’m feeling hugely positive,” he says.

"We’ve made huge progress already in regards to embedding agile into the way we work.” 

Harding adds that he and his colleagues have continued to reflect on the relevance of particular working processes as the job families and key roles in product, design and engineering are defined. “We always take a step back and think of the development cycle,” he says. 

Examples like the firm’s QuickCheck credit project help prove the business benefits of an iterative way of working. Harding believes it is unlikely the project would have seen the light of day in a firm wedded to a traditional, waterfall method of development. Instead, QuickCheck has become a key product for the business. 

“You can deliver things you might never have predicted by embracing digital transformation and agile ways of working,” says Harding. He recognises large scale organisational change is not without its challenges. New job families and roles, for example, mean a broad church of people joining the firm with a disparate range of views. 

“These opinions mean management and navigation are crucial,” says Harding. “Different views mean you can go off in directions you might not otherwise have considered. But you also have to think carefully about the places you go and ensure the workforce is firmly focused on product development.” 

Building for the future 

The direction of travel for the next five-or-so years is already being established. Harding aims to have all production workloads in the cloud by 2021. It is a remarkable vision given the reticence of many finance firms to move on-demand. “We might need to defer, but that’s our ambition,” he says. 

Harding also expects key advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, to have a big impact on operations. He says potential applications include the use of virtual assistants in call centres and machine learning in credit score modelling. 

On the near horizon, Harding and his team are helping the firm move from its current London base to White Collar Factory, a new purpose-built facility overlooking the capital’s Silicon Roundabout. The firm aims to move into the office from early 2017. Harding will split innovative IT project work across the new London base and the firm’s Nottingham centre. 

“The aim is to create one IT team that works in an agile way to a single agenda,” he says. “There’s so much to do and it’s so exciting to be in business right now. It’s so much easier to introduce new technologies than ever before.”


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