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42 (137) 2020
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Interviews

Constant improvement, agile automation

Header lukasz fiszer

Łukasz Fiszer, front-end functional lead at HL Tech, talks to the BPCC’s Michael Dembinski about how FTSE100-listed Hargreaves Lansdown – the UK’s biggest direct-to-investor investment platform – develops its IT capabilities in Warsaw.

What’s driving HL Tech here in Poland?

“Digital disruption means that to stay competitive, you must continue to be up to date – you need to innovate. No company is too big to become obsolete. Hargreaves Lansdown has huge market share in the UK and to keep it, the firm must continue to innovate. Our customers expect personalised and instant access to all services across all channels – mobile or web. They are used to the user experience offered by tech companies like Netflix, Spotify and Amazon. In the financial services sector, it’s more usual to have to wait days or weeks for all your forms to be processed. Behind the scenes, much of it is still manual.

“Our job here in Warsaw is to transform HL into a truly agile company to improve the customer experience and enable business growth. Since June 2019, Hargreaves Lansdown added another 50,000 clients, so there are now over 1.2m active clients in the UK – our only market.  It was clear some time ago that IT within the company could become the limit to rapid growth. Start-ups can grow 100%, 1,000% a year – you just add more servers, more CPU power, and you can deal with growth and spikes in interest. But if you’re an established business and you want to grow faster, you often need to transform your whole IT operations and software delivery to achieve the same level of flexibility.

“In an era of compliance with MIFID, GDPR, anti-money laundering and know-your-customer (KYC), automated and agile IT is also the key for meeting the regulation on time. Taking data, merging, comparing and analysing it using algorithms – this is what computers can do. There’s nothing creative in the logic; computers are just faster and better and more accurate than humans, and they are not prone to fraud.

“There’s more and more regulation in the financial space, so providers of financial services need to adapt faster, they have to be agile. As a result, Hargreaves Lansdown has to continually change its internal workflows. There’s an intense focus in speed – doing things faster. Agile software development is the answer. Hargreaves Lansdown has 400 people working on its IT, with around 20% of that number in HL Tech in Warsaw . We’ve been here now three years and we’re growing.”

How do you find tech developers to work for you?

“Recruitment into a company that’s not trading in Poland, a brand that’s not as recognisable as the brands of global tech giants on the Polish market, is harder than if you’re a well-known corporation. When recruiting IT talent, the first thing a candidate asks about is freedom to choose the tools and architecture here. Our advantage is that we’re not another outsourcing company; we’re not just executing orders that come from thousands of kilometres away. The work here is at a high level. We are here to change and challenge; we say to our headquarters, ‘give us problems, not orders’.

“At the root of our work is understanding a business problem, getting to its root cause, particular points where optimisation would be beneficial. Choosing wisely.

“As I said, it’s a tough recruitment market. We make the point that we are not a software factory, we are here to understand and solve business problems. We are very attractive place to work. There’s a start-up like culture; if you get tired working on one project you can change to another project to rest your mind. You don’t need to change employers after a few months. What is a benefit with other employers is a standard at HL Tech; ‘above standard’ and the top quality of everything we do is our culture.

“At the root of our work is understanding a business problem, getting to its root cause, particular points where optimisation would be beneficial. Choosing wisely.

“Every project starts with an event storming session – the whole business process is mapped out with sticky yellow cards on a wall. IT and business are together in one room for two, three days – and not allowed out until the entire process is understood and visualised. We are looking to identify those pain-points in the process where digitisation would be most beneficial. For example, if there’s a process that requires, say, half-an-hour’s human intervention five times a year, it’s probably not worth optimising digitally. This is beginning of every project at HL Tech. Only then do we start the technical analysis, the business analysis – and then do we start writing code.

“We’re working side-by-side with colleagues from our HQ. By adapting best practices of agile development, every week we present what’s been done, asking constantly whether this is the right direction. The aim is to release an MVP – Minimum Viable Product – within three month after kick-off, gather feedback and then work on new features and improvements . The work is constant – there’s always some process, some part of the process, that can be improved, optimised, speeded up.

“Analytics and developers work side by side, so I tell candidates that they will have an impact on the work. Above all, they have the freedom to choose technology, remembering that technology is just a tool, not a solution in itself. We are very up to date. Our work is cloud-ready – on our own private cloud designed to meet highest security standards and regulations. We have a dev-ops culture – a focus on continual improvement and quality.

“Good software developers want to work with the latest technology; the best tools used by tech giants like Google or Amazon or Facebook. They seek constant innovation and like to learn all the time – this learning attitude is what make a truly good developer. They don’t like doing repetitive jobs. Big corporations still have to adopt that start-up culture that’s so attractive to good developers. Just remember that ‘move fast and break things’ is not something you want to do in a bank! These factors are often much more important that salary.”

Which technologies will have the biggest impact on the tech sector in the near future?

“Technologies such as quantum computing are currently taking place in the lab, but there’s no practical implementation as yet and a long way to go. Blockchain – there’s a lot of hype. Blockchain decentralises; its very lack of authority is necessary where there’s a lack of trust. However, trust is the very essence of financial services industry. Traditional banks and insurers already have that trust, that reputation. So in this context, the implementation of blockchain in those industries is questionable. As a tool it’s not the solution to most problems. Finding the right technology for a given problem – what’s most efficient and cheapest and sustainable over a long time – is what should drive us when choosing technology.

“The financial services industry has plenty of examples of legacy mainframe systems running COBOL or Fortran – there are problems finding developers who know these 1960s languages – the hardware is rare; yet this software has been working for up to 50 years! Don’t invest in tech that will disappear in five to ten years – choose wisely, maintain and evolve your software.

“The next years will see an even more increasing importance of mobile. The smartphone, which first appeared 13 years ago, has changed the landscape of the tech industry. First with a web browser on screen then with mobile apps. Today, the President of the USA communicates to the world via an app on his phone. So – it’s a mobile-first world”

“Human contact is still important, but it will be becoming more and more a premium service. Most of it will be replaced by chatbots who even today can solve most simple tasks; if not, you will be routed to a human who can help. Chatbots can still be rather clumsy, but they will get better. However, companies in the financial industry should be careful when adapting this technology. Learn from companies like Revolut, whose chatbot-only support makes a lot of customers nervous. When it involves money – professional human support is still the king.

“Another technology that will have a lot of impact over near future is voice recognition. Voice is our most natural interface – more convenient, more natural than keyboard or mouse. After years of experiments in labs the technology has finally entered consumer market with Alexa and Siri. Even though it still has its limits, voice recognition has started to be used by banks for example to authenticate clients. Where you have to use a PIN or password once a year, you tend not to remember it – and then you have to spend ten minutes answering questions about your mother’s maiden name; bad customer experience. Voice recognition security checks in this context is a good solution.

“Finally, it’s all about continually improving the customer experience through better UX/UI (user experience/user interface), about delivering incremental improvements, offering more options of contact – phone, email, chat, message, video – an ever-more personalised customer experience. At HL Tech we roll out a ‘public beta’ of any new interface to a small group of our most loyal customers, our biggest fans, to see how theory is confronted with user practice. Our development is feedback driven. You have to adapt your software frequently, constantly improving the UX/UI, but you can only do that if you have a flexible and adaptable IT structure in your business – the more agile it is, the faster you can change and adapt to your clients’ needs.”

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