Q&A: Alastair Brown, RBS

We speak to the CIO of international banking at RBS Markets about his role and involvement with industry charity event Byte Night.

Describe your role in three words.

Very very busy!

My role is very busy. It's both stressful and engaging and I have the privilege of leading a large team of people servicing the organisation. It's a good job. There's plenty of tension and stress but I find it fascinating.

I've spent just over half my career in technology having done a Masters conversion course into IT. I love just how relevant technology is to our business. It is absolutely crucial - you wouldn't be able to run the business without it.     

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How did you get to where you are today/into IT/business?

I did an economics degree, which I absolutely loved. My final project wouldn't run in the lab. The computers at the time weren't powerful enough so I ended up going over to the computer science lab to run my models. There I met a bunch of people doing a conversion course. 

At the same time our head of department told me - incorrectly I later found out -  that our career options were accountancy or marketing. I didn't think either of those were very me. I'm not flamboyant enough to go into marketing and I'm a lot more interesting than an accountant!

You can have a very technical career for the sake of technology or you can be an IT leader where you work out how to use technology as an enabler for your business.

The conversion course looked interesting and was a very fast-paced 13 months. I learnt a great deal and applied for jobs off the back of that. 

I joined a graduate programme at NatWest and did go and do some project roles in the organisation. This rounded my experience as it put me in touch with the business and what needs to be achieved as a firm for our clients. I then brought that experience back into IT.

You can have a very technical career for the sake of technology or you can be an IT leader where you work out how to use technology as an enabler for your business. That's certainly where my interest has always been. 

What's the biggest challenge of being a modern-day technology leader?

It's the pace of change.

It's my responsibility to understand the risks from a technology perspective and make sure the business is aware. It's to manage the things we run on a day-to-day basis that our clients rely on - making sure payments happen on time and so on. 

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Then it's the future. And trying to do all those things in an environment where the pace of change is extraordinary rapid. You have to be able to take advantage of that on a number of levels otherwise you cease to be successful and you cease to be relevant. 

Juggling those things and managing the relationship between being too conservative or too ambitious is really the job of the CIO today. 

And the most rewarding thing?

I love seeing people grow through their careers. Technology has a vast array of different opportunities to be fulfilled and grow. Seeing people find their path - whatever that might be - is something I find constantly fulfilling from a personal perspective. 

We have graduates here and I look at them and see where I was and the great opportunities that lie ahead of them. 

If you can make people happy and fulfilled at work - given how much time we spend there - that's a great thing to be able to do. 

What is the biggest mistake you think you've made? What did you learn from that experience? 

The biggest programme I had run to date (a few years ago) had many stakeholders. And I missed one. I was talking to the wrong people so the people who needed to understand what we were doing didn't. And we discovered very late in the day - the weekend before we were due to implement - but we pulled it out of the bag and were able to demonstrate what we were doing was the right thing.

I learned at the beginning of any major transformation you need to spend lots of time indentifying stakeholders and making sure that everyone who might be affected, might have an opinion, might have a perspective is consulted. 

And your greatest success?

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I've re-platformed a number of our businesses. At the moment I'm looking at how we support our international business in the future. These are tremendously exciting projects. You do feel you have delivered something as a team that is really quite extraordinary. 

There are also people I've encouraged to come and join us who are being really successful - motivated, bright, smart people - and that feels good. 

What one piece of advice would you give the younger you/next generation about your career/this industry what to do/not to do etc?

Look for opportunities to do lots and lots of different things. It'll help you discover the direction you want to go in and give you a vast array of experiences to draw on later in your career when you're having to make big decisions with limited information. Don't shy away from variety. 

How big a role will cloud computing play in your organisation in the next three years?What other technologies are you watching/why?

We are looking at how we extract value for us and clients with big data. We probably know more about our clients than they do and we can give them a huge amount of insight and help with that. 

My biggest reservation about cloud remains ensuring data is kept secure. We need to know where our data is, who's looking after it and so on. Security of our data and our customers' data are two of my primary concerns. 

What is the most important criterion you use to make decisions that impact your business and why?

Predicting the future is extremely difficult. If you look at the explosion of tablets in the last few years, we've had them for a decade and a bit, yet something came together recently that made consumers embrace them. 

if you were a naysayer about tablets four years ago you were probably in the right but two years later you would be wrong. You need to be flexible. You need to be able to start up small initiatives for a small amount of money but be able to kill them if they're wrong. 

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most people in technology have an extraordinarily interesting relationship with time. There's the here and now that is critically important, but the future is also key too. How do we ensure the decisions we're making today will remain affordable and sustainable? Those are all questions a CIO has to grapple with. It's what makes this job so challenging but also so rewarding. 

Alastair has just taken part in Byte Night  - as has the Cloud Pro/IT Pro team (you can still sponsor us here) -  to raise money for Action for Children. Turn the page to find out why he continues to be involved with such a worthy cause. 

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