by Joanne Carew

Q&A: Inside African Bank’s API-based, omnichannel IT strategy rollout

Dec 09, 2020
APIsEnterprise ApplicationsFinancial Services Industry

Penny Futter, Group CIO at African Bank, highlights how she and her IT team helped the bank navigate a global pandemic and why they’re focusing their attention on the so-called API economy.

penny futter
Credit: Penny Futter chatted to Penny Futter at the start of December. At the time, South African faced a second wave of coronavirus infections. The possible resurgance of COVID-19, and the implementation of tighter lockdown restrictions as a result, has the potential to upend the country’s economic recovery, disrupting business — and what’s bad for busines is very bad for banks.

As the Group CIO at African Bank, Futter confesses that it’s been a challenging year. Given the rapid pace of change across all industries, the emergence of new entrants into the market and the global pandemic, incumbent brands have had their work cut out for them in 2020. These more established players have no choice but to adapt, embrace new business models and make sure that they remain responsive to change. In African Bank’s case, they completed their omnichannel strategy, designed to allow customers and partners complete purchases, access information and engage in other transactions across multiple channels, bridging the digital and brick-and-mortar worlds. APIs, crucial to omnichannel integration, are a critical part of the process.

In this Q&A, she discusses how IT has helped African Bank evolve and unpacks why modern IT leaders need to be change agents and business advisors.

What business or technology initiatives do you think will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year?

When I look at the future landscape I really do believe that we’re entering a new era of tech. And as part of this wave of digitisation, I think we are set to face a crisis around privacy. While I do believe that consumers of technology are becoming more and more sophisticated, they’re often rather blasé around their privacy, especially when using new technologies. Understanding that we’re in the business of trust, security is a big focus area for us and we’re constantly on the lookout for new, innovative ways to protect our customers. Safeguarding our customers against fraud and helping them to avoid high-risk behaviour is high on our priority list for the future.

 What business problem have you solved recently that you can tell us about?

If I look back on my career, I don’t think I can remember a time when I have ever been as emotionally and intellectually challenged as I have been in the last nine months. When our president announced that we were going into lockdown, our jaws just dropped to the ground because we knew it meant that we needed to enable a quarter of our staff – about 1000 people – to work from home. If someone had suggested to me back in January, that I would need to do this sort of migration in such a short timeframe, I would have said they were absolutely mad. Looking back, it was amazing to watch how my team rallied together. My head of security was setting up laptops and my head of innovation was setting up 3G cards. It’s great to see how people can pull together when they’re really pushed to do so.

How do you plan to support the business with IT in 2021?

We’ve just implemented our new omnichannel system. This will replace our legacy frontend across both our branches and call centres. I know from my own experience that many of the banks are working hard to put a genuine omnichannel solution in place. And they often find it difficult because of legacy systems. At African Bank, we were fortunate because we don’t have a lot of legacy infrastructure. By the time I joined the bank, most of the heavy lifting had already been done and what was created was an incredibly well thought-out, smart architecture that will carry us into an unknown future. As part of this solution, we created our own APIs. Everything is API-enabled. There is an API economy developing and we want to participate in it. Once the omnichannel solution was completed, we focussed on developing our API marketplace, which is basically just another channel. This was our first dip into the API economy. This allows us to publish our own APIs to third parties – be it internally, to our partners or to the public. This isn’t live to the external world just yet; it’s only being used internally at the moment. Opening this up to the public is a big step and so we’re taking our time and getting there gradually.

What technologies did you use and why? 

We used AWS Native Services almost across the board – Lambda, EC2, Cognito and the API Gateway. The first API we developed was a simple branch locator. The next iteration was a credit storing API, which we plan to share with our partners to establish some form of pre-scoring or pre-filtering. The hope is that this API will be live in Q1 of 2021.

 What changes did you make to the original plan as you went along, if any?

None really. We’ve done everything incrementally. This is an agile process – so we have a hypothesis, we do some development and if it doesn’t work, we call it. If it does work, we continue developing. With agile, you’ve got built in resilience and you’re better able to adapt to bumps in the road.

 What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders?

I think it is so important to find a balance between being a leader and being a techie. I’m a firm believer in the fact that businesses don’t change by implementing technology. They change when they reconfigure themselves and come up with smart ways to leverage technology. I can put in an amazing system but unless the business does something different with that system or changes their processes, it doesn’t add value. IT leaders need to be agents for change and advisors to business. They need to help business get the maximum benefit out of technology. But IT leaders mustn’t move too far away from the tech. They need to understand the trends, the risks and what other companies are doing. For me, it’s important to read, read, read. I’m also a firm believer in being the leader you want to be, not the leader others expect you to be. I’m a big Game of Thrones fan and one of the characters made a comment about leadership that really resonated with me. The gist of it is around wearing who you are like armour; knowing and understanding what you’re good at and not being afraid to be the kind of leader you want to be.