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Exclusive: ‘Up, up and away’ – Rana Bhattacharya, Atom Bank in “The Fintech Magazine”

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Having captured the Cloud, UK-based, mobile-only Atom bank has begun a new stage on its journey. Chief Technology Officer Rana Bhattacharya is enjoying the ride.

Atom bank’s announcement, in September 2019, that it was replatforming from third-party data centres to Google Cloud – in effect taking the opportunity to re-architect its entire operations and processes barely three years after launch – shouldn’t have come as any great surprise. It was an inevitable next step for a bank built on the premise that it would always leverage technology to maximise the customer experience.

And, much as Atom might have wished it, basing a bank entirely in the Cloud just wasn’t feasible on the run-up to 2016, given that financial regulators at the time hadn’t established a clear position on Cloud hosting. In 2018, Atom announced that it would be working with Cloud-based infrastructure provider Thought Machine, moving to its Vault core banking platform, embracing the use of the Cloud and setting up an in-house site reliability engineering (SRE) function. So, how’s it going?

“I won’t say that the journey has been easy,” says Rana Bhattacharya CTO and director of technology and change, “but then nothing worthwhile is.”

It wasn’t, he stresses ‘just a lift and shift model’ move. “To realise our vision, we wanted to have a Cloud-native platform, so we partnered with Google and Thought Machine to basically build a cutting-edge banking stack that will serve Atom for the future. Ultimately, we want to be a different sort of bank, one that uses technology to achieve operational efficiencies that will allow us to better compete on price for the benefit of our customers, as well as providing improved and very different experiences to those of high street banks.

“By virtue of having the right tools and technology, we’re getting a lot more out of that investment than we would have done in the past from a comparable spend perspective,” he adds.

What that means in practice is that the bank now has more capability to respond to changing customer needs, faster: it gives it the flexibility to, in effect, spin up an entire version of the bank, test and deploy in a heartbeat.

Against this backdrop of agility, pure-play home and business loans provider Atom secured £10million from the Banking Competition Remedies fund (the fallout fund from the RBS taxpayer rescue deal) to transform banking for small businesses, and, among its commitments, pledged to invest at least £15million of its own funds to launch new tools and products through to 2024.

Although that work was somewhat overshadowed by COVID, it then won accreditation as a lender from the British Business Bank, to provide secured loans through the government-backed Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), working through its network of 200-plus independent brokers to deliver the money. With the bank also planning to raise further capital via a share issue, possibly next year, its new infrastructure will soon be put to the test.

A demonstration of the direction its agile product development is taking is The Kitchen, essentially an online innovation lab, launched in November, in which any member of the small business community is welcome to help cook up and test new business banking products as part of a close-knit group of other like-minded entrepreneurs.

It’s an example of how Bhattacharya’s hope that Cloud technology will put clear blue water between Atom and the major high street banks, which have long dominated SME services, will play out. Saddled as they often are with 30-40 year old mainframe-type systems and a patchwork of technology resulting from past merger/acquisition activity, it’s a lot less easy for them to decouple should they wish to rapidly develop new services, he says.

“It’s both expensive and time-consuming to do backend changes on more traditional legacy platforms,” says Bhattacharya. “But the backend is what’s providing the services customers interact with through any application or website. If you haven’t got resilience in your backend, you’re not providing the best service to the customer, through whatever window they’re using.”

As a technologist, he’s excited by the exponential possibilities presented by the Cloud. “Before, if I wanted to build a new development environment it could take me something in the region of 42 weeks (using third-party data centres). The kit arrives, gets installed, gets shaken down, operating systems and applications are installed, you test it, then you commission it. You’ve got a variety of contractual relationships involved during that process, as well as technical activities happening; and all that takes you to a massive lead time. Now, I can create that in a week,” says Bhattacharya.

Cloud, combined with DevOps, means he will be able to script it so that new environments can be spun up, from both a development and testing perspective, as well as providing a greater level of monitoring and control in production.

Put another way, an organisation using the Cloud has direct control around provisioning the environment and installing the software.

“And it’s done in a repeatable process because you’re using things like DevOps, whereas, in more traditional landscapes, you haven’t got that,” says Bhattacharya. “So, effectively, customers can see a swifter volume of change coming through that is more aligned to their expectations.”

Another advantage of the Cloud platform is security. “You can’t (as a small organisation) really buy the level of security that the likes of Google pump into their infrastructure,” he adds. “But you benefit greatly from the investments it makes. Google also has priority traffic over internet service providers (ISPs), so things just naturally start feeling faster and the experience gets better, as well.”

Ultimately for Bhattacharya it comes down to systems being more configurable, and controllable by Atom. It’s a change in the balance of power and relationships between it and third party suppliers.

“We’ve insourced more because we want to control what we believe matters (to customers),” Bhattacharya notes. “We’re hosting the things we need to host and controlling them, but we’re also renting features, each with their own experts, who are looking after other things for us.”

Among these managed, specialist suppliers are TruNarrative, which is leveraged via the Thought Machine platform to look after Atom’s real-time anti-money laundering (AML) transactional monitoring processes, used for sanction checking, and Dutch fintech, SurePay, to help protect customers against fraud and prevent misdirected payments, using Confirmation of Payee software.

While the average customer will not likely have an opinion on the Cloud – they’ll simply and rightly be expecting the benefits of a ‘modern estate’ ,as Bhattacharya puts it – Atom, nevertheless, went to the trouble of explaining, via its website, the reasons for adopting it. How, with Thought Machine providing a core infrastructure, Atom is now freed up to do what it does best, namely, developing products in response to its customers’ demands.

A true fintech, maybe it just thinks everybody is as crazy-excited about banking technology as it is – or it truly believes that any organisation trying to definitively move away from banking of the past has to take customers with it on the journey. And that means being transparent and ready to talk to them.

Impatient for progress

Looking ahead, Atom, unsurprisingly, wants to leverage the ‘banking machine’ it has set-up to build more products and services that customers will respond to. And, with improving operational efficiencies, coupled with shorter product cycles, it’s likely to be a win for both parties over the longer term. A key part of this transformation is, self-evidently, making better use of data, and it’s exploiting technologies such as Kafka – an open source, stream-processing software platform developed by the Apache Software Foundation – to maximise that.

“Now that we’re moving into the transactional side of banking, we wanted to create a new data architecture, which leverages what I call liquid data,” says Bhattacharya. “With Kafka, if something happens in one system, that event gets pulled out and, if you’re interested in it, you can react to it. So, for example, if a payment came into one of our accounts, that’s an event and if I want to send a notification to my customer, based on receiving that payment, they’ll get that notification in near-real time. If I want to get hold of an aggregated balance by product, in real time, I can see what the total balances are across all our customers. Basically, we have access to real-time data to prompt and enrich our customers’ experiences over time.

“We just went live with a new product on our platform and, while we have the same sort of reporting we had before, we’re now looking (based on this data) to leverage it more, for us and our customers.”

The journey will never be over for Bhattacharya. He’ll always be looking to catch the next wind of change: but now Atom’s got a Cloud to ride it on.


 

This article was published in The Fintech Magazine: Issue #18, Page 44-45

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