Women in Cyber: How AI will transform banks

By Shirley Tay

Interview with Siew Choo Soh, Managing Director, Group Head of Consumer Banking and Big Data/AI Technology, DBS Bank.

1. What is your vision for women in the banking technology sector?

Banking and technology are two sectors where women are still under-represented. The great news is that Banking is undergoing its biggest disruption in recent memory, pivoting towards an emphasis on providing great customer experiences. This represents a great opportunity for women in banking technology in two ways. First, ensuring that the design of our products and services is inclusive is key to a differentiated and exceptional customer experience. In this respect, having a balanced representation of gender across all roles, be it in the design, development or testing of our products is critical. Second, a world that emphasises great experiences plays to the strength of women. Studies show that women perform better than men when it comes to paying attention to details. I believe there will be increased demand for women to fill roles in digital transformation and women will successful in these roles
2. What are some ways you are diversifying hiring in DBS? What qualities are you looking out for?

DBS is focused on building a respectful and inclusive workplace that provides equal opportunity and growth in a world where women continue to be underrepresented. I am proud to share that the women at DBS Singapore, who comprise 60% of our workforce, 40% of our senior management and a third of our Group Management Committee, have been a key driving force behind the bank’s performance.

In fact, DBS has been named to the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index for the third year running. Our inclusion in this year’s index recognises our commitment to workplace gender equality. This includes having a robust female leadership and talent pipeline, gender pay parity, and an inclusive culture. Apart from our policies, we have also demonstrated our strong support for gender equality through our disclosure practices and transparency.

We have also been recruiting more female talent in technology, an area that is conventionally male-dominated, by organising bespoke and targeted hackathons. This includes “Hack2Hire-Her”, an innovative take on DBS’ Hack2Hire programme, which was originally introduced to identify top talent in emerging technologies such as Cloud Computing, AI, Machine Learning and Big Data. Hack2Hire-Her is specifically designed to reach out to an even bigger pool of women applicants for technology roles within DBS.

Personally, I have been a big supporter of internal mobility, moving women who display consistently high performance and ability levels to take on leadership roles in different parts of the bank. I am also an advocate for many of DBS’ flexi-work and family-friendly policies to support our DBS ladies in their career growth and leadership journey. Whenever I can, I mentor young female leaders, always encouraging them to be authentic, be bold, be curious and network to broaden their perspectives.

3. What has been the most interesting project of your career?

I have been very fortunate to have been given the opportunities to lead many interesting projects throughout my career. These projects have been meaningful and impactful, and enabled me to grow personally and professionally. One of the most interesting experiences was in Japan, where I helped drive the stabilisation of an equities systems after the implementation of a massive end to end architecture transformation. I learnt how to manage a challenging situation, build stakeholder trust and groom a junior team, in an environment and culture where quality and client experience is paramount.

4. What has been the biggest challenge of the past year? How did you tackle this?

One can’t speak about the challenges in the recent past without mentioning the impact of Covid-19 to our lives, professionally or personally. Covid-19 has meant that we had to pivot our operating model where most people are working from the office to one where the majority of our teams work remotely, all in a short span of time. Fortunately, DBS been prepared for this rapid transition from a technology perspective. The main thing I focused on was on engaging and communicating to my teams in all locations. During times of uncertainty, it is very important for leaders to be present to address any anxieties or questions from all levels of the organisation, and to listen to all feedback. We have prioritised the well-being of our employees in this period. This has turned out to be the secret weapon for us to maintain our employee engagement, which translates to our ability to not only continue to service our clients during this difficult period, but also drive a lot of unplanned work to support the unprecedented volume growths in digital account opening, equities trading, and processing many of the government support measures for businesses.

5. What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in banking technology?

I have spent my entire career in banking technology. Banking at its core is about bits and bytes, so it’s no surprise that the banking industry invests heavily in technology. A career in banking technology is fast paced and challenging. It is not a walk in the park. However, it is a very rewarding career for those who derive satisfaction from seeing their efforts translate to real business outcomes, and those who have the appetite to learn fast. If you can survive banking technology, you can do well in most industries that are heavily dependent on technology.

6. How has Covid-19 accelerated digital transformation in DBS?

DBS is in its seventh year of its digital transformation journey. Back in early 2014, we recognised that our competitors are not the other banks, but the big technology companies who are starting to offer financial services.

Our focus on digital transformation puts us in a very good position to support the digital shifts that have happened across all industries as a result of Covid19. It has helped shift the mindsets of those who have yet to be converted.

7. How are you helping DBS stay ahead in today’s world that has been disrupted by tech firms entering the financial space?

We recognised that one of the most important enablers of digital transformation is talent. Many years back we started the process to acquire deep engineering and digital talents so that we can truly be in control of the digital architecture for the Bank. In this respect, we also insourced the roles that are key to driving our competitive advantage. In this effort, I led a project to disrupt the way we hire technology talents with the launch of a hackathon code named Hack2Hire. This event has enabled us to acquire the scarce modern technology talents, from a diverse slate of candidates from many non-banking industries such as the startups, academia, gaming and tech companies.

With the right tech talent and business mandate for digital transformation, we started to modernise our technology platforms. focusing on creating architecture that are agile, scalable and resilient akin to the capabilities of cloud native stack, whilst at the same time, providing superior client experience.

We have also pivoted the way we work towards that of Agile, by removing silos between business and technology, and creating autonomous teams with cross functional skillsets that are self-organising.

We aspire to be a truly data-driven company, where the usage of data is pervasive to enable us not only to hyper-personalise our client experience but also to derive insights that can prescribe better interventions in the way we operate and make decisions.

8. How have you used artificial intelligence and big data being used in DBS to improve customer experience and enhance banking services?

We believe that the use of AI and data is key to providing superior customer experiences. At DBS, we have launched an enterprise data platform with the aim of industrialising the use of AI to enable intelligent banking. Some recent use cases include an initiative driven by our Consumer Banking business where we are investing to leverage customer science to enable journey monitoring, contextual servicing and smart intervention by our call centers. We also use the insights to drive feature optimisation in all the digital assets we provide to our clients. Another example is an initiative by our Institutional Banking business to transform the way our relationship managers leverage machine learning and data. We also aim to be the financial concierge for our clients by proactively helping our clients manage their everyday banking needs such as alerts for bill payments, higher than usual subscription payments, salary credits and so on.

9. What core principles do you think are necessary for banks to create a culture of transformation?

The most important element of any successful digital transformation is the transformation of our culture and the way we work. Agile is central as the successful adoption of the methods will enable faster time to market, reduce cost and increase scalability. More importantly, an agile way of working can change our production innovation cycle and shift how we think about product development by enabling rapid experimentation, continuous feedback from our clients thus rendering exponential outcomes.

To effect a true transformation, we need to start with instilling the sense of purpose amongst all stakeholders and addressing their discomfort in moving away from what might be a tried and tested method or scepticism due to past failures. In a sense, they need to be convinced and willing to take the leap of faith. We do this in a number of ways:

- Significant investment in coaching and training at all levels,
- Exposing employees to experiences outside of the banking realm, startups
- Addressing scepticism that may have arisen from previous bad experiences
- Creating a safe environment to experiment and fail
- Starting small and delivering what was promised

Some of key challenges in the process of digital transformation has been the fear of failure, willingness to take risks and the comfort of remaining in the status quo. Leadership from the top is one of the most important factors to overcome these challenges in an enterprise environment. With the right support from the top, be it incentives or investments to bring the right enablement, we can then start to create the right environment to steer the entire company in the same direction.

10. What are your team’s priorities this year?

We continue to drive massive digital transformation for the Bank, through the adoption of cloud native solutions, embedding API-first principles and industrialising our use of data and machine learning in everything we build.
At the same time, we continue to invest in educating our team on the emerging technologies that will bring value to our clients, and reskilling on modern technology to ensure that everyone will continue to be relevant and nobody is left behind.

Improving the developer experience is another key focus area as the quality of our developer experience directly impacts the speed and cost of the digital products we are creating for our clients. It also enables us to retain top engineering talent. We strive to enable our developers to spend their time creating value added capabilities and reducing the amount of toil in their job. In 2020, due to the remote working environment, we have significantly dialled up our focus on improving the experience and engagement of our entire team who are working in a completely new mode in the new normal.

Finally, increasing gender diversity continue to be one of our top priorities. We are focused on mobilising allies to help champion this, and to create a virtuous cycle across the Bank.

11. What are some new tools and technologies you’re excited to try?

We’re on a journey in finding new ways to tap the potential of data analytics with artificial intelligence and machine learning to enhance the insights of our bankers and ensure we continue to meet the need of our customers in the digital economy.

Beyond data, AI and ML, DBS will continue experimenting rapidly with emerging technologies to redefine the future of banking. With trends in the digital economy only likely to accelerate, emerging technologies such as 5G, IoT, AR/VR, and Blockchain will offer many exciting opportunities to reimagine banking and financial services.