Life as a product owner in Deutsche Bank's technology team
Deutsche Bank’s technology division hasn’t had the best press in recent years. In 2018, Kim Hammonds, its then COO who was charged with streamlining the bank's technology said Deutsche was the "most dysfunctional place" she'd ever worked. Inevitably, Hammonds left soon after, but her comments resonated with insiders at the time. When former COO John Cryan arrived in 2015, the German bank had 45 operating systems and 100+ booking system. Upgrading this technology infrastructure is a priority for CEO Christian Sewing, who recruited a new CIO in early September and who’s promised to invest €13bn in technology renewal.
We spoke to Eleanor O’Shea, a vice president (VP)-level product owner in the enterprise risk technology team who’s helping drive this change by improving Deutsche’s ability to make use of data. O’Shea’s Deutsche is a contemporary agile organization which seems to have evolved beyond Hammonds’ dystopia. The legacy platform hasn’t gone away, but O’Shea suggests it’s being slowly being tamed.
Which area of technology do you work in?
I work on the capital controls and operations team. We facilitate better data exchange across different platforms and everything we do is therefore designed to be as generic as possible. Our system doesn’t mind what the data is: we don’t support a specific business but deal with a wide range of flows across the bank and are very technical. With any product, you need to understand the business context, but we’re more purely data-focused than other teams in the bank that support particular areas. We understand our end-users to the extent that we know who has regulatory deliverables that need to be prioritized, but the data is our focus.
What does being a product manager in an investment bank involve?
As the product manager or product owner, I’m responsible for making sure that we deliver the right thing at the right time. A product manager needs an understanding of the stakeholders’ requirements. By comparison, developers are all about building things to the right functional spec and building them well and reliably. I began my career as a developer and it’s quite rare for a developer to want to be a product manager, but I’m a very technical product manager and I’m able to bring coding into my role. - As a minimum, I block two hours a week out of my diary for coding. Sometimes I do a lot more. In the past two months I’ve been spending 30% to 50% of my time coding. It’s cyclical and depends if we’re preparing our next set of features.
How big is your team?
In London, I have around eight direct reports although the overall team for my product is 70 people and I prioritize work for them.
Which languages do you work in?
We mostly code in Java, although we also uses SQL for databases and a bit of Scala for some of the functionality that runs on Hadoop. The bank more widely uses Python a lot, although my team uses Python less.
Some people say banks can't properly use Agile methodologies due to regulatory constraints. Is this an issue at Deutsche?
We absolutely work in an agile way. This means that the scrum teams are very autonomous: they are able to make decisions on their own to a certain extent. This enables value to be delivered much more quickly; you don’t have a chain of command that goes right up to the top and then down again and you look for skills within the team. Our scrum teams have a range of different skills, for example developers, analysts, someone who focuses on site reliability, and someone who’s responsible for the organizational aspect of the team and for making sure that everything runs smoothly. We try to get all the skillsets in the team but not to put people in boxes.
We have two week sprints where we release every week. I make sure that I am flexible and that prioritisations are open for readjustment. One of the benefits of agile is early feedback. In the waterfall method you start by saying all the things you could possible want and then trying to build the whole thing, whereas in agile it’s about looking at the smallest possible thing you can put out in order to get feedback earlier. Agile can really improve communication and there’s no reason it can’t work in a bank.
Banks also have a reputation for being behind the curve technologically. Do you think that's fair?
In my team we’re not going to be at the cutting edge of technology. – We need to solve problems rather than jump on new solutions for the sake of it. But we are looking at cloud containers, reactive programming, big data and artificial intelligence. We already have in-premises cloud and next year we have plans to move to off-premises cloud systems. Yes, there are legacy systems and it’s important that they keep going reliably while we move over. In my team, if someone has done good work on a legacy system, we bring them in and help them start building the new one. – If you’ve been working on a legacy platform for a while, we make the most of your skills and experience rather than leaving you working with the legacy technology.
You worked for a Big Four accounting firm before you joined Deutsche Bank. Was that very different?
I worked in the business modelling group for a Big Four consulting firm. I didn’t work in technology specifically but I had a technical role. – We were building models for M&A bids and they were generally quite short term and involved a lot of calculations in Excel. We were focused on trying to automate the parts of the job which were repetitive. I was coding in VBA and we built macros to set up the timeline for a model and to automate model auditing. – We built a tool that would go through models and look for indicators of what might be odd.
It was interesting, but in consulting the assignments were generally short term, whereas in banking technology you have the flexibility to move around the organization or to stay in one team if you prefer.
Several banks have special career paths for people who want to code rather than move into management. Are these on offer at Deutsche Bank?
We have distinguished engineers at Deutsche Bank. They are director (D)/managing director (MD)-level technologists whose technical contribution is recognized at the highest level. For the past two years we’ve also run a ‘global enterprise engineer’ programme which is focused on getting our best VP-level engineers and taking them up a level. The programme offers training in soft skills and in bank-specific technology and offers an opportunity to network with technologists in other teams.
Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org in the first instance. Whatsapp/Signal/Telegram also available.
Bear with us if you leave a comment at the bottom of this article: all our comments are moderated by human beings. Sometimes these humans might be asleep, or away from their desks, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. Eventually it will – unless it’s offensive or libelous (in which case it won’t.)