UBS Investment Bank has a new head of technology, Zoe Evans. And her credentials for the job sound pretty worrying if you’ve been watching “War of the Worlds”. According to the press release on her appointment, she has “been instrumental in defining our IB technology strategy; a core element of which has been our hybrid pods campaign”.
On closer analysis, though, “hybrid pods” are not likely to contain alien invaders with a campaign to destroy humanity – they’re not even a particularly egregious example of the “robot army” tendency toward science fiction language in banking IT.
A “hybrid pod” is actually a small group brought together from across front office, IT and operations teams, to address a specific problem for the wider bank. So they’re “hybrid” in the sense of crossing functional boundaries, and “pods” in the sense that they are small and in it together. It’s actually commendably comprehensible, particularly when you compare it to “Area X”, “ION” or the ubiquitous “SWAT teams” (an almost totally uninformative ubiquitous name used for any problem-focused banking tech group, few of which have anything in common with elite police units). It’s hard to overlook the fact that UBS operations has a lot of women in senior roles, which may account for the lesser tendency to go full macho on project names. Even so, SWAT-pod might be an alternative, for those who like their nomenclature to be a bit military.
As well as the informative naming policy, Ms Evans has some interesting priorities in the technology investments she's been overseeing since taking on her role on an interim basis in July. There’s been a lot of focus on the “robots” which have replaced around 800 operations roles over the last few years. However, the job doesn’t all appear to be about cutting costs and automating processes; fully half of a $3.5bn IT budget apparently goes on projects that are meant to help UBS compete with startups, according to Finews. UBS also has a new policy of “sweating” its internally generated IT to try and sell its biggest successes to external clients. Zoe Evans’ ultimate boss, the group CIO Mike Dargan, is putting a lot of effort into ringfencing activities with clear and separable structures (like the Data Lab), with a possible view to separately commercialising them.
If you're thinking of working in technology at UBS, this might all sound appealing. It’s outward looking, it’s cross-functional and it’s not necessarily focused on optimising systems for the sake of doing so. There are still likely to be plenty of “robots” projects, but the future for coders working for Ms Evans over the next few years might be a little bit more interesting – and less soul-destroying – than spending long hours every day trying to put your colleagues out of a job.
Separately, the reason why people give funny names to IT teams in banks, of course, is as a form of 'employer branding.' Among the top coders, banking has a good reputation for paying ok (if no longer quite as premium as it used to be and less than the big tech firms), but a bad reputation for having intrinsicially dull work that takes place in a stultifying atmosphere. Giving a job a name with a bit of pizzazz is partly a way of signalling to the best programmers that they won’t be expected to wear a suit or fill in timesheets.
Now Deutsche Bank has taken the strategy to its logical extent – “Breaking Wave”, the SWAT-pod run by Thomas Nielsen, doesn’t even really consider itself to be part of Deutsche Bank. It doesn’t exactly keep the fact a secret from potential employees; it’s based out of Deutsche’s London offices in London. But it has a separate space, its own email server and there is not a box-and-diagonal logo to be seen on its branding anywhere. The 75 employees (when it’s up to full strength) will be tasked with developing new fintech products and concepts, most of which are intended to be sold off to outside investors but some of which look like they’re intended to be sold across Deutsche’s international network.
A cruel observer might suggest that something like this is not the greatest vote of confidence in the brand, but maybe it’s better to face up to the truth of the hiring market position of an industry that still has all sorts of image problems. Mr Nielsen does note, though, that unlike a startup, Breaking Wave can have “the payroll we want” and potentially the stability of being located in a euroland national champion might come up now and then during the recruitment process. Until then, he's painfully frank: “If you have just graduated and you have a job offer from Microsoft, from Apple, from Google, Facebook and Deutsche Bank, I don’t think you choose Deutsche Bank.” Best to pretend you're something else then.
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