Q&A: Bank of England CIO says he nearly went into the theatre

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While investment banks look to offshore an increasing proportion of IT jobs to far-flung locations, the majority of the Bank of England’s technology staff are based out of its Threadneedle Street headquarters. Everything is kept in-house and, as the UK financial regulatory landscape is being shaken up, it’s now on an IT recruitment spree. Simon Moorhead, its chief information officer, gave us the low down.

The Bank of England has over 350 IT staff, which is a relatively large proportion of overall headcount. Why is the team so large?

Technology staff make up around one in seven of our total headcount, and main reason is that we keep the vast majority of our technology functions in-house, based in our head office on Threadneedle Street. It’s also because we have a huge breadth and depth of knowledge in our IT functions, which is valuable to people serving on the front line.

We have desktop support, architects, application developers, infrastructure specialists and our data centre operations here, but there’s also very specialist knowledge in-house. Our IT employees have to understand the business area nearly as much as the front line staff, whether that’s economists or financial crisis intervention, in order to be able to best support them.

Are there any plans to expand the IT team going into 2013? What are the main drivers for this?

We’re recruiting an additional 150 technology staff and we’d expect that to be completed by the first quarter of next year. The main reason for this is the creation of the Prudential Regulatory Authority – eventually it will have 1,100 staff and we’re scaling up our IT functions to support the growing team.

Do you also hire graduates?

We have an IT graduate programme that took on five people this year and the selection process is fairly extensive – we look for technical skills, but also analytical, engagement and communication skills. Graduates are a part of the Bank’s multi-year development programme, and the first year is largely spent on rotation through the various IT functions, so new recruits have a good grounding.

What are the main technology challenges facing the Bank of England? Any opportunities?

One of the main issues we’re facing is the integration of the Financial Services Authority systems, which we’re effectively treating as a merger. This is a significant migration of data and core services – all the regulatory reports used by supervisors need to be analysed and migrated and this comes with complexities.

In terms of opportunities, we’re about to embark on a new piece of work to virtualise our desktop and applications. The idea is not just to cut costs, but to simplify the business, which in turn reduces risks within the organisation – if there are fewer moving parts, it gives us the flexibility to respond quickly, which is integral.

What skills and attributes do you look for in your IT recruits?

Despite the fact that we’re in the financial sector, we pick up IT staff from a range of industries. Some come from other parts of the public sector – central and local government – and we tend to only call on financial sector expertise for specialist roles dealing with particular financial or trading systems.

Fundamentally, we want experienced technologists, who have an interest in supporting public policy, and doing something for the public good. Because of the markets, we have seen some freeing up of financial sector technology talent, but we have be realistic – because we’re part of the public sector, we’re never going to be able to compete on salaries with other areas of the City, such as investment banking.

How did you break into financial technology?

I’ve always worked in the financial sector, but it was only more recently that I moved into IT. I started out in what was Midland Bank (later HSBC) in 1989, working in the corporate banking sector for five years. I then moved into consultancy – first at Ernst & Young, focusing on banking clients, then Capgemini and finally a capital markets consultancy called Capco. My first technology job was Reuters, where I was divisional CIO, but this was focused predominantly on sales and service. My background in business has been tremendously helpful for a career in technology, in terms of developing relationships and having a different perspective or insight on a particular project. More and more these days people have an alternative career before switching into technology – for example, some people here have worked for a number of years in operations, before moving into IT.

What would you always advise people to do before stepping into an interview with you?

I do expect people to be prepared and have researched the organisation and the role they’re applying for. However, what I really want to know is how they can deliver value in the role and how they’re likely to interact with internal customers and their peers across the organisation. They also need to demonstrate why they want to work for a public sector organisation – I want to see excitement about what they can do for this organisation and for the country.

What do you know now that you wish you'd known 15 years ago?

I wish I’d known how to rely on my own intuition more. We follow vigorous processes and go through deep data analysis before taking a decision and on occasion I’ve followed this route, even though it didn’t feel quite right to me, and it’s been the wrong move. Sometimes, I wish I’d followed my gut instincts, but perhaps that’s something that only comes with a few grey hairs.

You are only allowed to hire one person in the next six months. Describe their ideal profile.

Taking their technical capabilities as read, what I’m really looking for is someone who is curious about their environment, really engaged and enthusiastic about the Bank of England and tremendously positive. This sort of attitude is infectious, add in an ambition to break down new boundaries and you have someone who is both really attractive individually and who can inspire their teammates.

What would you do if you weren't working in the financial sector?

At university I very nearly decided to go into the theatre. We took three shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, which was great fun, but ultimately the prospect of being a struggling actor proved unappealing. I still think some of the acting skills are valuable in business, particularly in presentations and meetings where you need a certain presence, engagement or improvisation.

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