In this interview, the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) of Sterling Bank Plc, Mr Olayinka Oni, talks about how technology is changing the future of banking and what the tech-savvy bank is doing to attract new tech talents in a bid to remain competitive and relevant in the years ahead.
How were you able to navigate the peak period of the COVID-19 pandemic to create new digital products?
It is about Sterling Bank being futuristic in the way it has been looking at things. It all starts from the desire to depart from the traditional way of banking to become a technology organisation. This had been well-thought-out at the institutional level before the outbreak of COVID-19. We asked ourselves: what are the pillars required for us to live that in the true sense of things? So, we realised that we needed to be agile, and being agile at the business level means working fast, trying new things, and being experimental.
Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had embraced the practice of DevOps and were no longer building applications in the traditional way, but from an iteration standpoint. We start with a minimum viable product that is usable and continue to iterate rapidly till it becomes a uniquely compelling and diffrerentiated proposition.
When COVID-19 came, it was easy for us to continue to hack and grow things in that mode because we had invested and embraced the use of cloud infrastructure. It empowered our people to work remotely and jointly in a productive way due to our bullish investment in the cloud long before others started thinking about it. We reaped the benefits of this investment and thinking when the pandemic struck.
How does Sterling Bank view itself – a financial services institution, fintech or a mixture of both?
Sterling Bank is a mix of both – a hybrid. Some things make us play the financial services game. For instance, we must approach things with regulatory requirements in mind. Yet, our focus on innovation and challenging the status quo ensures that we also play actively in the fintech space. We provide solutions that are not meant for our customers alone.
In the case of Specta, we iterated beyond the customers in our books to ensure that people with liquidity challenges can access loans as part of our long-term play. We understand that people need to access loans, and there was a gap in supply. Demand was more than the supply.
As we continue to iterate, the vision of being a platform is becoming more evident. Such that Specta is not a bank product anymore but a technology solution solving a financial problem.
Considering that the COVID-19 pandemic did not slow down the digital transformation plan of the bank, what is your next step in the digital banking space?
There are still many problems to be solved. Even if you start from the fact that the core of our strategy, which we call the H.E.A.R.T of Sterling, focuses on Health, Education, Agriculture, Renewable energy, and Transportation, we have only just done a little. We must solve many problems across various sectors.
One such problem is cross-border payments for our huge and healthy diaspora community to repatriate funds home for tangible use by siblings, family members, and as investments. It cannot remain as difficult as it is today with all the foreign exchange challenges. We are thinking of simplifying cross-border payments in a regulatory compliant way.
Cross-border payment is something we are trying to hack and solve. Also, we will continue to deepen the work we are doing in the strategic areas at the H.E.A.R.T of Sterling.
Recent research by Microsoft showed that by 2025, digital capacity would be more than 149 million new jobs, implying that a lot must be done to prepare for this future. So how are you attracting tech talents to prepare for this future that is almost here?
There is not just one single strategy for attracting talent. It is a mix, but at the core is eliminating barriers to where talents will be seated or located. The pandemic has shown us that the workplace of tomorrow will be different. So, we are trying to use strategies that will give people a sense that they do not have to be in Lagos before they can be part of our team.
Are you a Tech Bro or Sis, SSCE holder, PhD holder or just a recent graduate looking for an opportunity to grow in the industry? Do you have what it takes to be our next Tech Talent? Then hurry to https://t.co/shH5PxcTFD to register for the 'Code To Bank' Program.#CodeToBank pic.twitter.com/XxQoE0vO2M
— Sterling Bank Plc (@Sterling_Bankng) May 5, 2021
We are building a diverse team that would not be in one location or tethered to geography. Today, people are seated in Nigeria and working for global organisations. They do not have to be full-time employees, and they are doing work for these organisations. It is the same for us at Sterling.
Our resourcing strategy is fashioned along that line, and we can find talent in Ghana. Any programme launched today is not to attract people who are just sitting in Nigeria. It does not matter where they are seated. We are trying to find the best of talents wherever they are.
Why should a tech talent prefer to pitch his/her tent with Sterling Bank instead of Big Tech or a Fintech?
We offer the same quality and rich experience peculiar to those places – work that will excite, challenge, and stretch them. Sterling Bank provides tech talents with the opportunity to grow and advance their skills through additional education, training, and development. We invest significant time and resources to upskill and train our employees.
The other thing is how we manage our people. We offer remuneration that is at par with skills and quality of experience brought on board. Given that we are constantly iterating and building solutions that our people manage, working at Sterling enriches.
Sterling Bank provides tech talents with experiences that they may not get in some other places. For example, an employee interested in learning artificial intelligence at a master’s degree level can take advantage of part-paid scholarships to achieve this. It does not have to be local. We are even rewarding teams by making our people pitch for projects as though they were external consultants.
If they deliver the expected quality in time, they get rewarded in terms of exciting bonuses paid to them for doing quality work which external consultants would have done. We are exploring all kinds of people management practices to ensure that the work experience is rich. Over and above all of that, Sterling Bank continues to be a great place to work because of the quality of the leadership, unique organisation culture, daring entrepreneurship spirit and the innovative practices that are constantly at play. We always want our employees to display in all that they do.
How do you identify a talent that will bring value to the table, knowing that you have a large pool to pick from?
The first thing and most important trait we look for are talents without closed mindsets and are ready to challenge the status quo. A person with a closed mindset would not be able to innovate and would not fit in. Innovation is at the core of the culture at Sterling.
We are always looking for people who can almost ‘act crazily’ and challenge what is possible. So, an open mindset is the first thing that I think is important for anyone seeking a place in our team. We are also looking for people who have a strong sense of stewardship, meaning people who want to make a place better than they met it.
What role would the CIO/CDO play in the success of the institutions of the future?
For me, it has gone beyond making technology have the light bulb on. It is about being at the forefront of gaining market share or driving profitability hinged on technology. Technology is at the strategy and leadership desks when thinking of how to compete or win. And as such, it means that a Chief Information Officer must understand a lot more about what the levers of growth are in his business and how technology helps to push those levers such that his organisation can grow, excel and do better as it were.
The role of the CIO has gone beyond keeping the light bulbs on. It is about how to be on the cutting edge of requirements for the business to excel and grow. A CIO who will be successful must be plugged into the business and understand the drivers of growth and the business model. The Chief Information Officer then says: How do you use technology to enable that? I think that is what any CEO is looking for in a CIO these days. They are not interested in someone who is back footed in thinking about keeping the light bulbs on. It is about hacking for growth, conversion, and onboarding, which means you must be thinking actively how. Now, technology plays a part in that.
Specta has been a spectacular success with over N100 billion in digital loans disbursement in less than three years. So, how did technology bring about this change?
Application Programming Interface (APIs) and Open Banking are central to the success of Specta. We conceived and developed Specta from a platform play standpoint. It meant that we were not thinking about what was internal to us. But more about how to connect to third party systems. The third-party systems brought together the manual things we do in several steps and ways to achieve the magic of five minutes.
If I were going to give somebody a loan, I needed to define his eligibility. Traditionally, I would have asked for statements of accounts or source of funds to establish the capacity to pay back.
To do that, we saw a third party that was able to harness statements, not just from Sterling Bank but from other sources, and we integrated into that as one of the logics of Specta. One of the other things they do is log in to several places to check whether a person who applied for a loan is owing Bank A or B to determine creditworthiness. There is another plugin that finds other data sets, such as the BVN, which helps with the KYC check of the customer. When you bring all of that together, you create the magic that is Specta which allows you to decide in five minutes without relying on tons of people doing all kinds of manual checks before approving the loan.
But at the centre of all of that is a technology thinking that allows me to say that with APIs and Open Banking architecture, I can make that magic happen as it were. On top of that, I’m matching data and able to build intelligence into that. Building in artificial intelligence to accurately predict how much loan should be given to an individual is one of the blocks of Specta.
What is your perception of Fintech at Sterling? Are they threats or challengers?
We have always considered the work done by Fintechs as complementary to what we do. At Sterling, we do not think of Fintechs as just competitors but also as collaborators. That’s the way we see them because there are instances where obviously, we need to collaborate. We think that the market expands when we all collaborate.
Collaboration expands the ecosystem and creates new opportunities and possibilities as opposed to competing fiercely to kill one another. Competing to kill will only lead to a shrinking of the opportunities in the market. But when we collaborate and compete at the same time, the customer gets a better deal. We think that we can all win together.