Coping with IT Complexity

An Interview with David Knott, Chief Architect for HSBC

By Nadjia Yousif

With a backlog of legacy systems acquired and inherited by HSBC’s technology department, David Knott, chief architect for HSBC, is finding ways to streamline operations and eliminate the redundancy and sluggishness of old tech. Knott began at HSBC in 2015 as the head of digital architecture, and now, as chief architect, he is responsible for design choices across the organization. He works with a team of 150 people to keep HSBC ahead of the curve.

Knott has made several instrumental changes to the way HSBC’s technology function operates to reach the benchmarks for successful technology: putting products into the hands of customers faster, and guaranteeing high quality standards. It turns out, one of the most productive changes you can make is putting people in the same room.

In the world of technology today, customers value fast releases and quality control perhaps more than ever. What has been important for you and your team in helping HSBC keep pace with demand while holding products to a high standard?

Given the explosion of technology and the continued and accelerating computerization of the business, we will always have more technology to manage. The best way for us to cope with increasing complexity is to manage it better.  We're doing that by increasing automation and increasing instrumentation.  Fortunately, the IT marketplace is helping us as they develop and deliver useful new solutions.

We’ve had to shift more toward an attitude of "find new ways and easy ways of managing the new things that grow,” because the business will always want two things from technology: increased value and reduced cost, both perfectly reasonable things to expect.  We’re also keen on shortening the time it takes to derive value from new technology opportunities.

The best way we’ve found to achieve these goals is by helping the technology and business teams work more closely together. By doing so we’re finding new and faster ways of delivering value through technology.

We’ve also been very focused on the frequency of releases and on the quality of service. We’ve worked hard to dramatically increase our releases while making sure the quality stays the same or even improves.

One thing that helped was starting what we call “trailblazer teams”—people who work fast to adopt our new approaches. It has meant that they take some risks, but by delivering value quickly they act as role models for others.

What are some of the more technical challenges that you and your team have faced in trying to meet these demands?

You have to be continually asking not just how to make something go faster, but why we do it in the first place.  Something that seemed like a really good idea when we did things manually may not be such a good idea when we can apply that same control a thousand times more efficiently and a thousand times faster through automation. This is where technology can make a huge difference.

We’ve worked very hard to address some of the problems created by our inherited legacy technology, which is often a source of needless duplication and complexity. Legacy technology might be doing lots of the same things that we’re now doing with new technology, which can make life more complicated than it needs to be. The strategy in these cases is to find ways of eliminating duplication and reducing the number of things happening at the same time.

Unwinding our processes—and then removing some of the glue from the system—has probably been one of the biggest improvements we’ve been able to make.

What changes do you believe will be important to development and operations at HSBC in the future?

There’s been a move toward the cloud. We have an enormous amount of data in the bank, which means there’s increasing opportunity, and demand, to derive value and insight from it.

But we’ve found that our adoption and management of new technologies has not always been as quick or efficient as we’d like. Quite often, once we have achieved solid adoption, the market has moved on to yet newer technologies.

There's been a massive shift in the market; companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are bringing world-class big data and analytics machine learning capabilities that we can consume through APIs and platform service offerings. If we embrace these technologies, we can take all the friction out of running our own infrastructure, and we gain access to the very latest data technologies from the people who invented big data in the first place.

We operate in a very heavily regulated environment with customer data and sensitive financial data, so moving to the cloud is no small task. We’ve therefore been deliberately cautious and thoughtful. We’ve taken a small number of pilot cases all the way to production, choosing examples that we know are going to throw challenges in our way and equip us with a deeper understanding.

Your team has made use of management tools such as DevOps, which aims to bring development and operations together. Could you explain a bit more how it has worked for you?

The DevOps movement has taken the whole IT world by storm over the past four to five years. It started mostly with the newer technologies and the digital native companies, but it’s now seriously penetrating large enterprises like ours.

DevOps addresses two fundamental problems that we've always had: speed of delivery and making services more sustainable and reliable.

A fundamental principle of DevOps is to make the team that builds technology release it more frequently, and be accountable for the quality of service. We've looked at all sorts of IT productivity measures and found that nothing does the job better than frequency of releases. It doesn't really matter if you're releasing large things or small things; you just want to be putting value into the hands of customers faster and faster.

DevOps also helps dissolve a fundamental boundary that the IT industry has let spring up—the one between the people who build things and the people who run things. Another system we use, agile, seeks to remove the organizational boundaries between technology people and business people.

In combination, DevOps and agile are bringing technology and business people together. At HSBC, we’ve ensured, as far as possible, that the two groups are in the same room, working closely with each other to not only resolve their problems as a single team, but to do so quickly and efficiently.