CIO Interview: Russ Thornton, Shawbrook Bank CTO End-shutdown

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

Bringing together a large group of people with different skills and having them collaborate is not new to him. Music director by training, Thornton “fell into computers to pay rent.”

In the early 1990s, he was conducting orchestras at theaters in San Francisco, a city that he said “even in the early 1990s was an expensive place to rent.”

But another opportunity was on his doorstep as the IT sector in and around the city grew rapidly. “I found out I was pretty good with computers and I was in Silicon Valley at the right End-shutdown,” he told Computer Weekly.

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

Over the past 25 years, he’s held tech roles at big global banks and consultancies and has set up a couple of tech startups that he’s sold.

He said that his work conducting large orchestras in theaters is analogous to his role as CTO. “He was a good musician, but never great on any instrument, but directing is about bringing together a lot of people with great skills,” he said. “I’m good at a lot of technology, but not very good at just one technology.”

He said that while he’s unlikely to be hired as a senior developer, he’s well-rounded and has the skills to lead a team.

Making Music at Shawbrook

Shawbrook Branchless Bank is a specialized savings and loan bank. It has a particular focus on the real estate sector, but serves small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers that are often underserved by the conventional financial sector.

The bank was the result of a merger of five different financial 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 tasked with orchestrating as the company’s first CTO. Shawbook now has 1,200 employees after acquiring The Mortgage Lender in 2020.

Thornton said, “The owners could see that the company was growing very well, but the technology was all over the place, so they hired me.”

He said it was an opportunity to have a completely new site, set the technology strategy, and embark on a multi-year transformation strategy.

The first job was to transform the IT department itself. “For the first few years I was here, we spent a lot of End-shutdown creating a modern technology feature instead of the old school 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 added.

The first investments made were timely given the disruption that emerged a couple of years later when the Covid-19 pandemic shattered the working model of companies around the world. These investments “saved the bank’s bacon” during the Covid-19 pandemic, Thornton said, because the company “suddenly went from having 900 people working in the office to 900 people working from home in two weeks.”

Five pillars of IT

But Thornton was focused on the long term, with five key pillars in place when he joined the bank in 2018. These were: introduce a modern IT model, go cloud first, stay on top of cybersecurity, leverage data, and write software at home.

The technology department itself was the first. Thornton said: “The technology model was completely broken with a really old-school 1990s operations-based model.” He brought a model more similar to that of a fintech. He then set up an internal cloud engineering function, which he said was “important work.”

An information security director was also appointed to update infosec. The bank then laid the groundwork for a cloud-based data lake to “view analytics in a much more positive light, and the final piece was to write our own software.”

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

Russ Thornton, Shawbrook


Thornton said of the final piece: “We were a bank that was afraid to write our own software, but we quickly realized that we could write our own software to deliver customer experiences.”

Perhaps the biggest decision was made in 2018 when the owners decided to invest in IT. “Technology used to be a secondary part of our strategy, but now it’s absolutely critical,” Thornton said.

Today, he said the company wants to make sure its staff, who are trained in a very complex and specialized part of financial services, have the technology they need to do things more efficiently.

“Our strategy revolves around combining our deep human expertise with cutting-edge technology and data. We keep 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 said.

Shawbrook has about 110 full-End-shutdown IT employees and about 70 through its IT providers who are outsourced to the bank and are “part of the team,” according to Thornton.

“For me, there has to be a balance between full-End-shutdown staff and vendor staff. A 60:40 balance works very well with a stable base of staff at the top levels augmented by vendor staff to help get delivery done.”

Thornton recently oversaw a rewrite of business process software and customer journey automation in part of its lending business, using a low-code technology platform that is already saving 1,500 hours a month as a result.

Now he plans to digitize processes in his savings business to speed up the End-shutdown it takes for clients to open an account and make deposits.

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