Corporate culture hack: The tech revolution that’s transforming Absa

03 November 2017

Starting your own business can be exhilarating. Fuelled by passion and a great idea, new entrepreneurs enter the world of owning their own business with bright eyes and a deep desire to succeed. Here’s what some of South Africa’s entrepreneurs wish they’d known when they started out:

  • Shirley Berko, a newly minted entrepreneur who recently set up Cuizine, a Durban-focused portal that showcases the Durban food and hospitality industry said: “Make sure you are well-informed around tax processes and always get a second opinion on everything. Actively research business processes and your registration requirements. Never be afraid to get a second opinion from an advisor you trust!”
  • Christopher Mills, Director of iMod Digital, believes that good time management is essential: “From the very moment I started my company, it was imperative that I get time management correct. People start companies for many reasons, but most of the reasons stem from a passion or skill. The success of that company rests heavily on them being able to manage all the other aspects of that company, not just the part they’re passionate about. This includes administration, bookkeeping, marketing and more. Without proper time management and the ability to keep all the tick boxes checked, your business can falter, or even fail.”
  • Internationally renowned South African-born entrepreneur, Elon Musk places great emphasis on innovation through his work: “Starting and growing a business is as much about the innovation, drive and determination of the people who do it as it is about the product they sell”.
  • Another South African-born powerhouse, Mark Shuttleworth, focuses on the future and acknowledged criticism when he said: “We are all at risk of stagnating if we don’t pursue the future, vigorously. But if you pursue the future, you have to accept that not everybody will agree with your vision”
  • Jonathan Darker, an entrepreneurial support and business consultant believes that: “Devoting time and energy to networking is vital. Taking an active approach to networking and looking out for opportunities to share ideas or resources is key to a company’s success”.
  • South African mining magnate, Patrice Motsepe, takes great pride in good quality work: “One has to set high standards… I can never be happy with mediocre performance”.
  • Johann Rupert, Chairman of Swiss-based luxury-goods company, Richemont, believes that learning new things, whenever possible, is important: “As you start out in life, it is important that you know at least something about everything, but as you get older it is important that you know everything about something.”
  • Stephen Saad, Co-Founder and Group CEO of Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Limited, understands that entrepreneurship most often entails personal sacrifice: “In life, you don’t get anywhere or do anything you hope to without some sort of sacrifice.
  • Natasha Clark, writer and MD of social media agency, The Birdhouse, takes a practical approach to starting out: “Have at least three months salary put aside, apart from your venture capital. This way there isn’t quite as much stress and a lot less rush. Stress kills creativity!”
  • And lastly, Eric Edelstein, CEO of Global Sunset Investments, an early stage tech investment company and Chairman of, firmly believes that “every business needs a champion. It’s great if you can be both the champion and the creator of the business. If not, then you need to find a partner or cofounder who can be. It’s also vital that you don’t just focus on creating a profit but that you ensure you have excellent cash flow for your business. Even if you are profitable, if you have cash flow problems, your business could run into trouble”.

Are you an aspiring entrepreneur looking to start a business? Share your words of wisdom in the comments below.

You may have heard of a Hackathon. But you’ve probably never heard of Absa’s 2016 Technology Hackathon. It is essentially an internal challenge in which 40 teams, comprised of Absa employees from around the country, get together to identify business problems within the company, conceptualise tech-based solutions and then code working prototypes to address them – all within 24 hours. Although the event saw its fair share of media coverage and some of the biggest tech companies in the world had a vested interest in the goings-on at the gathering, it was not the kind of glamorous soirée that generates the big headlines. Nevertheless, the hackathon represented a fascinating milestone on the little-known journey of technology transformation that began 18 months ago at Absa.

I met with Barclays Africa Group’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Peter Rix, to chat about the hackathon and how it contributes to Absa’s shift towards technology and innovation-based banking. Sprawled out on multi-coloured bean bags in the chill room of the hackathon, the tale that unfolded was far grander in scope and scale than I would have imagined – it is a story of transformation, from a corporation in flux to a thriving hub of innovation at the cutting edge of the banking world.

Change of tide

2014 was a challenging time for the technology team within Absa. Rife with the perception of disengaged employees, attracting the right talent to the bank to break the cycle was difficult. The corporate culture just wasn’t clicking and morale was low. Recognising that they were at a crossroad, the Group’s senior leadership realised that urgent action was required: something had to change and their priority was to define a new strategy and bring in the right talent.

Over the past 18 months, the Technology management team have been implementing a transformational approach that’s enabled them to go back to the basics and build the future of banking from the ground up. The vision was to adopt an engineering strategy and discipline similar to a technology company, which enables speed, agility, and innovation. This strategy would ensure that the bank remained relevant and was well positioned to serve customers.

Peter Rix described the myriad problems that existed within the business, as ‘fires’, and in order to take Absa forward, they had to first contain the fires. With Ashley Veasey brought in as the Group Chief Information Officer (CIO) to lead the bank towards this new way of working, Peter and the rest of the Technology leadership team set about fighting the fires. They soon began to see their efforts rewarded. The culture and staff morale was beginning to change. The team quickly established a reputation for redefining boundaries and clearing bottlenecks – blazing a trail for other teams and projects to follow.

The turning point

“The real turning point for me was the first hackathon we ran in May last year,” Peter stated.  “It represented a moment in which we had finally achieved sufficient stability in the business, that – instead of all our top talent being wasted on fighting fires – we finally had the capacity to focus on the cool stuff.”

The 2015 hackathon was a resounding success, with 100 people in 20 teams designing and building some amazing tech solutions that included:

  • A virtual credit card – enabling customers to use their credit facility in a secure manner, even if they don’t have the physical card on their person.
  • An innovative app for children that allows parents to allocate lists of chores/tasks, which can then be rewarded with micropayments through the app, thus teaching kids good financial principles from childhood.
  • A credit card ‘stop’ button for one’s smartphone, which allows customers to stop a card with a single click if a card is stolen, or if they notice fraudulent transactions.

“Amazon even came in and allocated us free capacity and resources, which saw us building infrastructure that would usually take six months to set up, in the space of 15 minutes. We built the first prototype of an online retail portal, which everyone said couldn’t be done, in about 40 minutes!” Peter recalled excitedly. “It was a real ‘aha!’ moment, in which we realised that our world had transformed.”

With this revelation and the new-found stability in place, Peter and the team could focus on moving Absa forward and pushing the envelope in terms of technology and innovation. They adopted a new attitude: to act like a technology company, not a bank. Instead of seeing the other banks as their main competitors, Absa was looking to compete with the Googles and Amazons of the world, and it started to show in the way in which they were regularly introducing disruptive, rather than incremental innovations to the banking space.

“We’re moving towards automation,” Peter said, “DevOps is a good example. It’s essentially automated software that minimises human error through self-built environments. We recently decided to test it out by building a recon environment – which would normally take about six months – in about six minutes in Amazon Cloud. It’s all about building agile, responsive processes and the quick implementation of new software and solutions.”

The excitement in Peter’s voice was palpable as he detailed Absa’s new projects. They’re eagerly taking on highly ambitious challenges and the end goal isn’t always to get as many people as possible to sign up and use their new tech and platforms, but rather to stimulate a culture of success by proving that they can do it – identifying a target and reaching it, quickly and successfully. With their exciting new direction and internal culture, Absa has become a place where technologists want to work. And as they attract key people, whilst instilling a strong sense of self-belief in their employees, they are able to divide and conquer and achieve what many believe to be impossible. This year alone API integration, ChatBanking (banking through Twitter and Facebook Messenger – the latter a world first), the new banking app and website, fingerprint and other biometric identification, and of course, this year’s hackathon, have all successfully gone live. Everything is coming together.

The hackathon itself saw a massive uptake from last year. The first event only had about 100 participants, whereas this year’s event saw up to 400 people wanting to take part. Unfortunately, this had to be whittled down to 200, but it’s clear that there’s a strong desire from everyone within Absa to get involved in exciting new projects and be part of something great.

“It starts from the top down. The Bank’s leadership is on board and they nurture, encourage and tell us to ‘do the right thing’, which is key to the agile approach,” Peter said.

When I asked Peter about his vision for the growth of initiatives like the hackathon, he didn’t hesitate in detailing an ambitious dream for the future.

Shared Growth is the vehicle through which we want to advance events like this. My goal is to collaborate with the other banks and organise a ‘HackAfrica’ event: hire out Nasrec and break the world record for the biggest hackathon ever.”

Shared Growth represents a vision for Africa, which will see the big banks working together to develop skills on the continent, particularly in the technology space. Peter described the concept of Shared Growth as 'we prosper when society prospers', which would see a departure from the fierce interbank competition in an effort to achieve the selfless goal of turning Africa into a global player in the technology market. Where we have traditionally had to outsource technological capabilities to India and China, we would aim to look internally instead, developing Africans to develop Africa.

“I’m a huge proponent of collocation,” Peter says, “which involves renting out server space, equipment, bandwidth and other digital resources to other parties. We’ve simply never had the skill or scale to do it here. There just aren’t enough local developers to handle the larger builds, so instead of it being a price issue it’s an issue of availability, we have to outsource to India or China simply because of skill and scale. This in itself isn’t ideal, as working with teams on other continents means we are less responsive and agile. We have to deal with the language barrier and if the spec for a build is wrong it can mean huge, costly mistakes, which are much harder to fix. Not to mention the fact that we are outsourcing jobs and resources which could have been allocated locally.”

To this end, Absa is making strides towards developing skills locally with a number of graduate, intern and industry programmes aimed at uplifting the local workforce. Internally, they are adopting various policies to upskill and enhance the working lives of their employees.

People as a priority

Peter excitedly told of a concept he is driving within the bank, TechMoola, which sees each employee within the technology team being given R2 000 to spend on a course of some kind, in whichever field they choose, even if it does not directly relate to their day-to-day work. By investing in people they not only increase the bank’s internal skill base, but they also give their employees the chance to improve themselves and pursue their passions. They are even planning to gamify TechMoola, by allowing employees to trade their ‘credits’ or earn more by achieving certain objectives.

Pokémon GO: corporate edition, anyone?

Keeping employees happy is something that needs to be approached holistically and Peter realises this. “I’m very excited about a concept that we in Technology are experimenting with. Through the use of data, we aim to learn all we can about our employees, what they like and what makes them tick, in order to cater to them as individuals. Google and Amazon are doing something similar.” Essentially, this is a method of personalised incentivisation that makes each employee feel they are being considered on an individual basis. So, if an employee receives a recognition award, for instance, and the bank knows that said employee is an avid football fan, they might receive tickets to the Orlando Pirates game or something similar. These are all simple, yet innovative methods of creating a corporate culture that attracts and retains the best people.

The business is also encouraging a complete mindset shift where failure is seen as an opportunity to move forward, faster – especially when experimenting with new technology solutions. It’s what the technology team refers to as a 'fail fast, learn fast' mantra.

“We started to have fail fast parties!” Peter laughed. “We wanted to teach people that failing wasn’t a bad thing, but if you fail, fail fast, don’t fail for two years. So for our fail fast parties, we would encourage employees to stand up and talk about something they tried and failed in, essentially encouraging shared learning. It’s all part of the transition to agile, responsive implementation of technology and solutions.”

Risky business

Seeing a pattern emerge in this story, I queried Peter about his view on risk and innovation and whether he felt there was a direct relationship between the two.

“Yes and no,” he responded. “Risk isn’t something we avoid and it’s an important part of innovation. However, with the automation of processes and procedures, we’re moving towards phasing out risk, on our end at least. As we automate, governance, compliance and legal requirements are coded into our systems, so that eventually we will push a button to launch something new and it will automatically be implemented, fully compliant, according to the criteria we choose.”

With safeguards being built into the systems and automation eliminating the risk of human error, mistakes are becoming obsolete; risk is playing less of a role in innovation.

At this point Peter offered his insight that, “ultimately the single biggest thing that the team has achieved is trust. Through stability and predictability, we’ve managed to bring trust back to the bank and ultimately this is the only real commodity that banks deal in. Trust is key to attracting both customers and staff and it’s what Absa was missing at the start of the journey.”

“We’re still fixing things!” Peter laughed. “There are still fires burning, but they are contained. Instead of forest fires, we now just have little garden fires. But if we’re not careful and don’t keep an eye on them they can spread and grow. The difference is that now instead of spending 90% of our time firefighting, we spend 40% firefighting and 60% on the awesome stuff, being proactive and trying something new. I think eventually we will get to 95% awesome and 5% firefighting, but only in about two to three years' time.”

Onwards and upwards

With all that Absa has achieved up to this point, the mind boggles at what is possible with so much time and effort allocated to the ‘awesome’ in the years to come.

It’s clear that in a relatively short space of time, the Technology leadership at Absa have brought new life to the brand. It’s been a whirlwind journey that has seen a shift not only in policy and culture, but also in mindset and self-belief. With their innovative and brave new approach, I know I’ll be keeping an eager eye on the new developments coming from the bank that’s aiming to innovate on a level to rival Google.

Before parting with Peter, I had to ask one more question, about which technology trend he was most excited about in the coming years. Without hesitation, he responded, “Every night I find every article I can on one topic: Artificial Intelligence.”

But that’s a story for another day.

Disclaimer: The advice contained on this blog is for general purposes only and does not take into account individual circumstances, objectives or financial needs. Accordingly, readers are advised to seek appropriate advice from licensed professionals prior to making any investment, or taking up a financial product or service.