How Southeast Asia’s largest bank plans to become a startup

By Shirley Tay

Soh Siew Choo, Managing Director, Group Head of Consumer Banking and Big Data/AI Technology, DBS Bank, discussed at the Apidays conference.

Gone are the days when we had to fumble with finicky passbooks and paper statements - the banking industry has seen a massive technological disruption in the last decade.

Southeast Asia’s largest bank has been riding these waves with a vision to become a “29,000 people startup”. It has been changing the way it hires tech talents, and turned to cloud and AI to build new services quickly.

Soh Siew Choo, DBS’ Group Head of Consumer Banking and Big Data/AI Technology, discussed lessons from the bank’s digital transformation journey at the recent Apidays conference.

Data, AI, and APIs

Using data and AI is a “key agenda” for the bank, she said. DBS’ call center uses AI and data to monitor the customer journey and “proactively service” their needs. For example, the bank will offer suggestions to customers on how to more effectively manage their money or cut losses on investments, Nikkei Asia reported.

Data has been used to finetune the user interface and experience of banking services, Soh said. The bank has also collaborated with Amazon Web Services to develop staff’s AI and machine learning capabilities.

In 2017, DBS launched a platform to share its application programming interfaces (APIs) with developers. That has allowed developers to reuse existing infrastructure and data to build new banking services. This has been a “great exercise and learning experience” for the bank, and has helped to “reduce the friction” customers experience, Soh said.

It has continued to grow this platform, which has more than 1000 live APIs connected to more than 700 partners today.

“Self-healing” systems

DBS has focused on moving key platforms to the cloud, Soh said. It hopes to move towards a cloud-native model - an approach to building and running new applications on the cloud.

By going cloud-native, DBS hopes to achieve five things, she added. First, stability - to ensure the bank can design “self-healing” systems with zero downtime. It has been testing every single failure point “thoroughly” to ensure this, Soh said.

Next, speed - to fully automate the deployment process and enable developers to experiment quickly. Third, scalability will be crucial to ensure applications can scale up and down easily without any down time.

DBS also hopes to achieve savings with access to tech tools in the cloud. Lastly, the bank also hopes to secure its operations with the cloud and patch any security gaps quickly.

By going cloud-native, DBS has reduced its time-to-market from six months to less than four weeks, Soh said. The bank has virtualised 97 per cent of its hardware, and aims to build all new applications in the cloud.

Transforming the bank’s culture

Hiring tech talent and a cultural transformation are crucial in DBS’ digital transformation journey, Soh said.

Soh led a project in 2017 to help DBS “insource” the resources required to develop digital services. Known as the Hack2Hire initiative, it makes candidates go through an online coding challenge and hackathon before the interview to find out how they perform in uncertainty.

This approach has been “very successful”, Soh said. DBS has attracted more than 60,000 registrations over the three years and made over 700 offers.

Changing the culture of an organisation is always the “most difficult and most important piece”, she said. DBS has set out to encourage people to be willing to take risks and experiment.

“Alignment from the top” is crucial in this effort, she adds. Senior management who drive the transformation will ensure staff feel comfortable taking risks.

DBS also sought to reorganise the company to break down the siloes between the business and tech teams in the bank. That ensured everyone’s priorities were aligned - a “key success factor” in the transformation.

The bank launched a global hackathon in 2019 to invite developers to come up with innovations and reimagine banking. These included themes like sustainability, AI in retail banking, and hyper-personalisation. DBS has taken more than 50 of these ideas forward, Soh said.

Tech will continue to disrupt the banking sector, with Covid-19 pushing more customers to go online. With the right technology and culture, DBS is set to lead this digital revolution.