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ITWeb TV: How Standard Bank beat payday glitches with R25bn IT spend

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 14 Jun 2024
ITWeb TV speaks to Standard Bank group CIO, Jörg Fischer, about how he runs the IT operation of Africa’s biggest bank. According to him, the bank spends R25 billon per year on IT, and he also discusses how he resolved the tech glitches that Standard Bank clients experienced, especially on month ends. #StandardBank #CIO #ITinBanking

Standard Bank, Africa’s largest financial services provider by assets, is spending R25 billion to run its IT operations across the continent.

This is according to Jörg Fischer, group chief information officer (CIO) of Standard Bank, in an interview with ITWeb TV.

Fischer was appointed as group CIO of the Standard Bank Group in July 2022. He has worked for the bank for over 26 years, holding various leadership positions, including executive head of group shared services, and group chief technology and operations officer.

He was appointed as group CIO after the bank faced challenges with downtime, especially during month-ends, when customers couldn’t transact as a result of IT glitches.

In the interview, Fischer explains why Standard Bank faced these challenges and how he resolved them. He also talks about how the bank manages several CIOs across the continent, the use of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and its spend on cyber security.

In 2022, the big-four bank experienced several outages, which negatively impacted clients and employees. These usually happened during month-ends or paydays. Fischer says these had to do with the volumes of customers that needed to transact simultaneously, thereby overloading the system.

He notes it has now been close to two years since the glitches took place and this is partly due to changing the culture within the IT team.

Jörg Fischer, group chief information officer of Standard Bank.
Jörg Fischer, group chief information officer of Standard Bank.

Sizable operation

Standard Bank runs the “biggest IT shop” in Africa, based on the R25 billion the bank invests in technology annually, and has 18 million clients, he adds. Of that budget, R1 billion is spent on cyber security.

“When you look at Standard Bank as a group, it’s a massive organisation. We are, by far, the biggest institution on the African continent. We operate in about 22 countries and run four distinct business units: corporate investment banking, retail banking, business banking, as well as insurance and asset management.

“As our business is divided into four units, I have got four CIOs to look after these business units. I spend a lot of time with them; they are very much empowered and work in their business units in respect of delivering the technology solutions. I’ve got a great relationship with the team and I am always there for them. On the continent, we’ve got 22 CIOs and I have an open-door policy that whoever wants to contact me can just contact me.”

He reveals Standard Bank has over 5 500 people working in technology, and it spends about R6 billion to R7 billion on new projects every year.

“We run tens if not hundreds of projects, but I am just involved in the big things. For example, our call centre runs on Amazon Connect. In fact, we were able to convince AWS [Amazon Web Services] to bring the Amazon Connect technology service to SA.

According to Fischer, Standard Bank was the first organisation in SA to build contact centres on Amazon Connect.

“Those are the sort of levels where I get involved. I can’t get involved in all hundreds of them, but I play a huge governance role in ensuring they are delivering.”

As to the month-end IT glitches, he says: “Often, the board asks me what the magical source [solution] was. I don’t think it’s one thing, but multiple things that you have to do systemically.

“When I looked at the challenges we had, a lot of them were people-related versus technology.”

He launched a “back to basics campaign”. “We just said: ‘guys, can we work as one team? Can we make sure we escalate issues quickly?’ I often find that technology people, when it comes to escalating issues, they always say give me another 10 minutes, and 10 minutes become hours.”

The other thing was people, Fischer notes. “I think IT people hate admin and we implemented a policy to encourage them to be proud of their work, just like an artist is proud of their painting. The other thing is we upped the ‘voice’ of the engineer, to make sure they know they are damn important.”

Chinese links

The bank also worked more closely with vendor partners. “I spent a lot of time with them. This was not just about legal or procurement contracts, but making sure they have got the best people working with our team on our environment. I did a lot of work with the vendors and built great relationships.

“We run a massive mainframe shop. Nowadays, I have the head of mainframe who is based in America and I have him on speed dial, which gives me a lot more comfort than a transactional relationship.”

Fischer also attributes some of the successes to the partnership with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) − the largest bank in China and in the world by total assets.

“Since May 2022, we have actually had 22 month-ends of no significant impact. But, as you know, technology can break, so for me it’s about how quickly the team can react to it.

“We have also been working with Google and using their reliability engineering framework. We have also got an incredible partnership with ICBC. I’m sure everyone knows that ICBC owns about 20% of Standard Bank.

“From a technology perspective, I’ve been working with them, because if you think about their volumes, they have got about 600 million customer accounts. We had to look if there are any learnings we can take from them and it has been helpful.”