Mind over matter

Alistair Sinclair, CIO of Mashreqbank and CEO of Mindscape, has to balance his role maintaining and planning the bank's systems with his other job providing managed services for other organisations. He tells Daniel Stanton how he manages these different environments and uses IT to drive Mashreqbank forward.

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By  Administrator Published  November 30, 2006

Arabian Computer News What were you doing before you joined Mashreqbank?Alistair Sinclair I was with Citibank for just over 7 years. I performed various roles for them, I was regional technology officer for Africa, based in Johannesburg. This was for the corporate and investment bank. I then had that role extended and moved to Dubai. I was responsible for technology in the Middle East and Africa as well as Pakistan. I was then transferred to Warsaw where I was the head of technology responsible for the integration of Bank Handlowi with Citibank in Poland to create Citibank Handlowi. I then went to Seoul where I was the technology head responsible for the integration of KorAm Bank with Citibank Korea. My final function was in Singapore, I was director of technology risk for Asia Pacific.

ACN Where do you draw the line between Mindscape and you?

AS I've got two functions. My first function is that I'm the CIO of Mashreqbank, and I am the CEO of Mindscape. Mindscape is an entity formed by Mashreqbank with a view to putting responsibility for IT functions in one place, covering the IT requirements for the bank itself but also looking at an external focus on delivering solutions to external customers. I've got a dual function.

ACN Is there a clear line between them?
AS We're trying to run both entities separately. We need to do that because people need some clarity as to what's expected of them and from a customer point of view they expect us to manage their situations, fashioned separate from the internal management of the bank's operation. Obviously initially there were synergies that were exploited to get the operation going but as we've gone forward we've put this wall in place to make sure that there is a separation.

ACN What are the advantages of having a model like that?
AS The benefits it derives are from the point of view of opportunities for people. They get the opportunity to work in an internal banking environment, but if they so desire they've got the ability to go and work in a systems integration (SI)-type environment for a range of different customers doing a range of different things. So it gives the people the opportunity to diversify and develop their skills without having to leave the company.

ACN So people move between the two?
AS They can. Obviously it's quite a new operation so it's not something that's been done in any big numbers. It's an opportunity to develop people. Similarly people who've got SI skills who join the external focus part of it have got the ability to go in-house. And I know from my time when I worked on the supplier side that I would very much have welcomed the opportunity to see what happens within a big commercial entity because it's one thing to sell solutions, it's another thing to be responsible for those solutions once they're implemented. So it's an excellent experience to be able to get a hands-on view of that.

ACN Are there any drawbacks to having two separate entities?
AS I can't really think of any. All I can see is upside because it gives people the opportunity to do things which they might leave the bank to do if those options weren't available to them there. One thing I would say is that the way that it works internally at the bank is slightly different to the way that it works outside the bank. Because we don't have project contracts in the bank but when we're doing a system for an external company there are contracts. But I think in actual fact it helps develop the skills because you see the expectations that exist when you're dealing with a third party versus dealing with an internal organisation - the expectations are different, the way that it works is different, the demands are different.

The way you interact is different. You've got access to skills that you never had before.

ACN From an IT perspective, how do you differentiate yourselves to gain a competitive advantage in the market?
AS It's very difficult to compare it with banks in general because I think the banking sector segments quite significantly depending on the nature of the bank itself. If you look at the global players versus the more national players, versus the niche players, the world in each of those is quite different. What I would say about Mashreqbank is that we are a top to bottom bank. It's covering all of the major banking areas. All of the technology for that is under the management of ourselves.

Therefore from the point of view of systems we're covering just about every area of banking. Because it's a bank which is predominantly in the UAE, in terms of setting strategy and implementing systems and operating those systems, we do all of that. In a global bank you don't. You may be running the systems, you may be implementing the systems, but you're probably not setting the strategy, whereas in this case we do all three.

So in terms of defining what we're going to do and linking that to the specific needs of the marketplace I think we've got a big advantage because from top to bottom it's not a strategy that is set outside the country that we're then forced to implement that may or may not match the particulars of this marketplace.

Everything we do is geared towards this marketplace and there are some others where we've got a presence. Once again we've got the proximity to those marketplaces. For example Qatar, which is not so far away, it's something we can reasonably manage from here with some technical support deployed in situ. That's a strength that the bank has, it's setting its own direction and then executing that without major dependency on outside parties.

ACN When you came into the job, was there anything in the IT environment that you decided needed to change?
AS One thing I do want to do is make sure that we're giving total focus to the customer. Everybody says that, so I don't think I'm unusual in having that focus, but I really believe it's important that technicians think customer rather than technology. In some places - and frankly I think it's typical for technology people - in many places people are geared more towards the excitement generated by playing with a new technology than understanding how that technology helps the customer.

One of the things I want to ensure is that we bridge any gap that might exist there to make sure that we are genuinely focused on the customer. We're doing certain things to make that happen, the way that we engage with the different business units to make sure that we're prioritising the requirements to suit business needs not technology needs.

ACN Do you have Islamic products?
AS We are introducing Islamic banking capability. The system that we're going to use is ready. As I understand it we're waiting simply on the finalisation of the licence to operate, but the system is ready and waiting to go

ACN How far along the road are you to Basel II compliance?
AS We are introducing Islamic banking capability. The system that we're going to use is ready. As I understand it we're waiting simply on the finalisation of the licence to operate, but the system is ready and waiting to goAS We have been ready for Basel II for some time now. The whole area of risk transcends the bank. It depends which area you're talking about, which area of reporting you're talking about, and obviously depending on the area we're at different stages of evolution. We did a study in the early part of this year with regard to the future direction of the bank's technology and from that has come a series of projects, one of which is risk management, to look at the whole area of interest rate risk, operational risk, credit risk, and the associated reporting as far as Basel II is concerned. I would say we are quite advanced as far as our thinking is concerned. In terms of the deployment in certain areas, as far as compliance itself is concerned we're well advanced. As far as the areas which are more directly related to the bank itself, we are at the selection stage in terms of deciding which vendors we would go with to deliver the solutions that we're talking about. So I would say we're in pretty good shape as far as that stuff's concerned.

ACN Do you have any programmes in place with local universities?
AS One of the things we've been talking about is how do we get the links into the universities because in terms of building up the number of local people participating in the business I think that's a very important component. We need to find a way of making that happen. I've heard very good things about the women's university here in terms of the capabilities that come out of there. Something I would like to look at is improving the diversity within the organisation.

ACN Do you buy in solutions mainly or do you develop any in-house?
AS Credit cards, ATM cards and so on is a very sophisticated environment. Therefore to create that would probably be inappropriate. We can source a solution from the marketplace and therefore we do. My philosophy would be to buy rather than build unless there's a very good reason to build. If there's something that can differentiate us somehow or improve service levels, if it's something that helps us position ourselves in the marketplace, helps our customers get a better service, then we'll look at doing it in-house if we think it can make a difference, but our preference would be to buy.

The reason for that is the sustainability of solutions, to make sure that the support structures are in place, that there's an ongoing development programme associated with the system that we buy, that we're not depending on a limited number of resources to achieve that. Software houses can typically do those things much better than in-house organisations can. Our focus therefore is much more on having the intellectual capital associated with creating those systems, taking them forward, implementing those systems and getting the most out of them once they're actually there. The actual labour associated with them, we don't think is where we should be investing our resources. Our focus will be very much on third party procurement wherever that is viable and wherever we think doing it ourselves wouldn't provide that differentiation.

ACN What plans do you have for next year?
AS We did a strategic review in the early part of the year and I am implementing the outcome of that review. We're looking at a whole bunch of areas - centralisation of operations is one. There are a lot of implications for management of documents. We've got a document management system right now and we're looking at how to exploit that environment given that we've got a new set of requirements associated with centralisation. Another area we've given a lot of attention to is the CRM system.

Alistair Sinclair: “My philosophy would be to buy rather than build unless there's a very good reason to build.”
Alistair Sinclair: “We have been ready for Basel II for some time now. The whole area of risk transcends the bank.”

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