By @SimonCocking. Enjoyable, interesting and impressive interview with Andra Sonea traveller. Storyteller. Lead Solutions Architect at LBG Digital.

Can you briefly give us your background?

I was born Romania and grew up there. I emigrated to Italy and then Germany until I finally settled in the UK in 2001. Despite living in a totalitarian regime at its height, looking back I had a very privileged life. This was not through collusion with the powers of the day but due to the opposite, because my family did not belong to the communist establishment. They practiced a different set of values than those preached to us: focusing on one’s profession, developing your talents, appreciation for beauty, nature, truth, freedom and an insatiable curiosity for the world. I grew up surrounded by thousands of books which unknown to me we were not allowed to have or allowed to read. I had music and ballet lessons, hiked the mountains, learned French at home and escaped to travel in the “Communist block” whenever we could. I stood as a kid in front of the Berlin wall with soldiers and dogs barking at us and, this explains a lot my long life yearning for travelling beyond imposed walls.

I started to study Economics slightly before the fall of the Communist regime in ’89 and I was so underwhelmed about what we were meant to learn that I did not go there very often. I spent my student years looking instead for amazing professors in other disciplines and I attended countless of courses from Thermodynamics to Byzantine History and especially anything to do with History of Art. I finally formally registered to another University simultaneously because I was too bored. I was lucky that Universite de Rennes opened a programme for Political Sciences in Romania supporting the reestablishment of education in this field in a country heavily mauled by a totalitarian regime. Professors were flown from France for very intense courses and some of the best minds of the Romanian intellectual life were our teachers.

I moved to London in 2001 to do my MBA at London Business School. My son was 4 at the time and he just started primary school. Going together to school in the morning or spending time in the library with him on my side are some of my best memories from our beginnings in UK, which at the time we didn’t know but it would become our adoptive country.

All these factors come together to explain my twitter feed – a mixture of international politics with a critical eye for politics veering to the extreme left or right, art and travelling. Sometimes I talk about FinTech.

How did you end up doing what you do now?

I started my professional life as an accountant in an Apple focused start-up followed by SAP consulting with a focus on Finance. The early years of SAP implementations were incredibly interesting and challenging and allowed me to come close and understand end-to-end industries form furniture manufacturing to hospital management, make-to-order manufacturing or chemicals processing. When I moved towards financial services I was taken aback at the beginning by the difference in technology generations compared to those industries and more importantly by the attitude towards technology. The chasm between “business” and “IT” in banking compared to manufacturing was like the difference between Grand Canyon and the shores of a mountain river. I was so convinced that this cannot last and the industry is ripped for change, that I focused on Financial Services in the hope that I can contribute to a necessary change. This was fifteen years ago..

I opened my eyes towards Fintech and Innovation as an approach around 2008 when I worked for IBM. This is when I have founded a Lab focused on experimentation with Financial Services clients.

Tell us more about the LBG Innovation Lab?

The Innovation Lab of LBG is one of the labs that the bank has focusing on innovation. Ours focuses more on the customer experience while others focus on testing new technology or on commercial banking issues.
The Lab functions under the Innovation and Digital Directorate where you will find other groups bringing change in the organisation: a Fintech scouting team, Events and partnerships teams, Digital Analytics or Culture Change.

The Lab runs different types of projects: working in partnership with start-ups, developing prototypes for testing very specific hypotheses or to working in collaboration with large transformation programmes in the bank for de-risking key points. In all these projects the Lab draws on resources and knowledge from the bank but also externally from the Fintech eco-system.

The Digital Analytics team with whom I work closely, also runs experiments but with a focus on extracting value from data, enabling business users to get self-service information when they need it, using a Big Data technology stack.

What is your role, and what are you excited about?

I am Lead Solutions Architect with the Architecture, Methodology and Innovation Group in Lloyds. I work with the Innovation and Digital Directorate on various internal and external projects.

I am excited that it finally seems that there is focus, money, resources and talented people working to change the financial services world for the better. I do not focus on a specific application of technology but rather on technologies with multiple applications. I follow closely what other industries and especially digital businesses in their industries achieve by using cloud and big data technology. I look at public sector and health sector – which are too highly regulated and encounter in some fields almost the same barriers as financial services do. Under the pressure of the digital world, all these industries finally have to put their customer at the centre of their systems. Creating the digital identity of the citizen, patient, bank client is the first step in starting to offer them tailored services while preserving privacy and enabling the them to have control over their own data. This is a technical challenge for all of them not at least because the sensitivity of the data and the regulation which need to take in consideration new ways of interacting digitally.

In the wider banking / innovation / fintech world, what are you excited about?

I am excited to discover new ideas and ways of doing things however what I think we should start focusing on is smart execution. This does not mean only project management discipline of whatever flavour suited your projects but more precisely a lot of thinking beforehand. Reid Hoffman said once “if you have a company with more than 20 employees you should have a technology strategy”. This does not mean an IT strategy but a view over what technology trends affect your industry and how. As a consultant I have seen lots of strategy documents but almost buy-in in a technology strategy, which aligns the board and the major projects underneath it.

The way I see things is that the boards cannot ignore any more technology and cannot separate it from business or hand it over to project portfolio managers. They have to spend time understanding the impact that certain technology could have on their business and define transition and “future states” that are clear and everybody in the organisation buys into.

Real change in a business model can be achieved only if the organisation pulls towards a clear direction.

Another topic, which quite recently captured my attention, was the involvement of the regulator in the innovation process. I wrote about it at length before so I will not go into detail here. Suffice is to say having the regulator deciding what “genuine innovation” is and running innovation in two batches (cohorts) per year – is a sign of dis-functionality not of foresight. I am “excited” about this topic in the sense that I would prefer the Fintech start-ups not to be forced to spend their precious resources on another regulatory exercise, which in my view will not help them.

Can traditional banks successfully innovate to deal with the rise of FinTech banking disrupters?

Where there is a will, there is a way.

If you could make everyone in Banking do what you told him or her, what would you command them to do?

I don’t believe in “commanding” at least not in innovation. Innovation does not happen at command. Those who choose to focus their work on discovering new ways of doing things have a special inner engine which functions with curiosity, intelligence, expertise, collaboration and a desire to create. “Command” kills precisely these ingredients essential for a creative process.
So, I would probably command “not-to-command” people around if you want innovation to happen. Enable the rules in the organisation, which allow for people to propose solutions, test, and to improve their work. Have the tools, which allow people to locate knowledge in the organisation and self organise. Wikis and people catalogues are basic but essential tools. Don’t aim for super tools. Fix the basics and people will start connecting and behaving differently.

Will bitcoin achieve wider adoption or not? What are your thoughts on the viability of wider adoption of crypto-currencies?

I have a point of view but I would rather recommend others to regularly read the excellent blogs of Brett Scott and Richard Gendal Brown. We need more people to go deeper in this subject and understand the mechanics of these concepts instead of consuming superficial points of view, which lead to an unhelpful Groupthink feeling.

Which thought leaders do you like to read / follow?

In Fintech I read for years the opinions of Chris Skinner, Jim Marous, Sam Maule, Brad Leimer, JP Nicols. I am fortunate enough to be friends with Duena Blomstrom, Chris Gledhill, Liz Lumley, Spiros Margaris, Roberta Profeta, Leda Glyptis, Mela Atanasova – each of them thought leaders in their own right and knowing the pulse of the market for years. I work with Claire Calmejane in Lloyds and also with many gifted individuals who are not public faces but which keep the bank working.
Over the years I have discovered on twitter some amazing people focused on various domains. I start my day reading Zeynep Tufecki (@zeynep), Quinn Norton (@quinnnorton), Brett Scott (@suitpossum) Ruth Malan (@ruthmalan), Richard Gendal Brown (@gendal), Grady Booch (@grady_booch), Maria Popova (@brinapickings), Eric Jarosinski (@neinquarterly). There are many others to whom I am thankful for so beautifully bringing their humour and intelligence to life for the delight of many.

How do you manage online/offline, work/life challenges?

I am trying to be organised and keep in sync separate calendars for work, kids other activities. I still have to learn to take time off for myself and say “No”.

Anything else you’d like to add / we should have asked you?

How can you live without summer?

If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking

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