In Praise of Perseverance: Laura Barrowman, Credit Suisse

Waters speaks with Credit Suisse's technology chief about her career, and how the Swiss bank is grappling with innovation in an era of emerging technologies.

Laura Barrowman

If you’re looking for an example of tenacity and the extent to which perseverance can pay dividends in the capital markets, you need look no further than Laura Barrowman, group chief technology officer and group chief information security officer of Credit Suisse. Hers is a story of patience, about reveling in the stimulating aspects of a role while enduring the mundane, and grasping opportunities if and when they present themselves. By Victor Anderson

Some C-level executives believe they were destined for the boardroom, while others had an affinity for technology and the capital markets from a young age and knew instinctively from early in their careers that they were on the right path. But Laura Barrowman is not one of them. 

Not only was she unsure of what she wanted to do when her life reached a crossroads while living in London in the mid-1990s, but what drove her initially to accept her first role at Credit Suisse was the fact that her former boss was heading up the Swiss bank’s helpdesk at the time. Little did she know that, two decades later, she’d be responsible for Credit Suisse’s global infrastructure. 

Barrowman earned a Bachelor of Commerce (BComm) degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, majoring in business information systems and accountancy. “My intention was to study law and accountancy, but I really didn’t like either,” she says.

When she graduated in 1991, she says she had little idea about what she wanted to do. And so, like many South Africans with European roots—courtesy of the Dutch, Huguenot and British colonization of the Cape from 1652 until the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910—she boarded a plane and flew over 5,000 miles north to London to spend a year traveling around Europe. After initially considering a return to the southern tip of Africa in December 1994, she had a change of heart and decided to “stick it out for a while longer” in the UK to “see what came up.” That she had already met the man she was going to marry helped sway her decision. 

“He’s Scottish and would be very upset if you referred to him as English,” she jokes. “For the first three or four years I was in the UK, I told myself that I would stick it out for another six months and then I’d go home. I was working for Mercury Communications at the time—I started contracting and then joined the company full time, but after a few months my boss left and joined Credit Suisse. At the time—in the middle of 1994—I thought that I really needed to start doing something sensible. I had a job offer from Price Waterhouse, which would have allowed me to complete my articles, but by that stage, my ex-boss was running the helpdesk at Credit Suisse and she asked whether I wanted to go and work with her. I started at Credit Suisse on the helpdesk, which I ended up running. I then moved on to desktop support, then second-level support and then trade floor support.”

Learning on the Job

It goes without saying that Barrowman’s career can best be described as one contingent on her learning on the job and persevering, having joined the investment banking industry armed with little more than a BComm and a smattering of experience, courtesy of a soon-to-be defunct telecoms company, which exited the industry in 1999. “Yes, it was [a case of learning on the job],” she says. “The traditional path for business information systems [graduates] would have been development. A lot of my peers and friends who I finished university with ended up focusing on development work. I wasn’t averse to it, but I was enjoying what I was doing and I was gaining more responsibility.” 

Barrowman’s rise through Credit Suisse’s ranks, and the additional responsibilities she assumed, ensured that she fast became a crucial part of the bank’s machinery, and as is invariably the case when it comes to business, those amenable to taking on additional responsibilities tend to be given more, much in the same, cyclical way that success breeds success. She took on larger parts of the organization and additional project roles, initially heading up the bank’s web initiative, before moving on to lead its market data functions and then service support. After overseeing managed support and project roles for a number of years, she moved across to manage engineering (infrastructure products and services) and then on to development and development support, where she was tasked with integrating the different support teams from all the application groups into one organization. It was then that her big break came when her ex-boss—who was head of infrastructure at the time and was instrumental in her joining Credit Suisse in the first place—left the bank. She assumed the now combined reins of infrastructure and application support functions as CTO, heading up an amalgamated group of approximately 7,000 staff. 

That was just over three-and-a-half years ago, which now affords her the opportunity to look back and assess her journey so far. “I love the technology piece, I love driving new programs and new pieces of work, and I love the innovation and the people leadership part,” she says. “But I don’t always love everything that goes with the role; I don’t love the budgetary responsibility, even though I’m quite good at it. It’s probably down to my accountancy background, because I’m all over the numbers—but those things are part and parcel of the job even though it’s an aspect of the role that I could do without.” 

Tech Changes

The most notable change Barrowman has witnessed during her more than two decades at Credit Suisse is the extent to which technology has evolved during that time. And for her, cloud has been far and away the most transformative piece of that, even though she admits that banks tend to be slower adopters of new technologies than organizations in other sectors by virtue of their conservatism. 

“Cloud is such a game-changer for us,” she says. “From an infrastructure perspective, in a big organization like this—we currently run thousands of applications—any time you want to upgrade or patch, it’s a mammoth piece of work and it’s a huge expense. Cloud is a significant enabler that allows us to be much more current and capable.” 

Barrowman explains that cloud also allows Credit Suisse to address some of its end-of-life and legacy challenges, in addition to facilitating the way the entire organization works. This is particularly relevant in her domain, where the physical location and even the time zones of technology staff tend to be inconsequential to the functions they support, as long as flexibility, responsiveness, and quality are maintained. 

“When I first started [at Credit Suisse], I think we operated a much more DevOps-type environment where everyone worked much closer together,” she recalls. “But as IT grew, it became more segregated. When I started on the helpdesk everyone did everything. Now, because IT is so large, it’s become segregated. Cloud allows us some of the capability to get back to working in a more cohesive way.” 

No interview with any capital markets CIO or CTO is complete without discussing innovation with respect to new practices and technologies they might be dabbling in, and how the organization goes about surfacing innovation and introducing it to support the business, especially those functions that have been around for years and might be manually intensive and therefore ripe for automation. Barrowman confirms that innovation is persistently on her and the bank’s radar, and that as an organization Credit Suisse has tried various models when it comes to identifying new technologies and fostering a culture of innovation, openness to change, and nimbleness. 

“I once read an article that said that in order to get the most innovative ideas, you need to decentralize innovation,” she says. “Basically it said that the more money you dedicate to innovation projects, the less value you get from that investment. In an internal discussion around innovation projects, someone asked what the business case was for this investment and I remember someone else commenting that if we’re asking for a business case, we’re not talking about innovation. In banks, our thinking tends to focus on business case validity and moving from that to actually innovating is hard.”

Barrowman says the bank is now “pretty good” at trying new technology, and understanding when to walk away—perhaps the hardest trick of all, after investing heavily in something you later have to pull the plug on.

“That’s been difficult for us to get our heads around and I wouldn’t say our approach is perfect right now, but we are now focused on building motivated, fit-for-purpose teams across the organization, and providing the tools that support collaboration on a global basis,” she says. 

The ‘S’ Word  

Our conversation somewhat inevitably shifts to the subject of startups and the extent to which Credit Suisse engages the myriad small tech firms orbiting the industry in the hope of catching the covetous eye of a better-established fintech firm, or from buy-side or sell-side firms themselves, emulating the stunning (but rare) success enjoyed by the likes of Cadis and Bisam by way of their acquisitions by IHS Markit and FactSet, respectively. 

“We work with startups, both directly and indirectly, through many different channels,” Barrowman explains. “We have funds that invest in startups and we work with them quite closely. We also work closely with the tech bankers, [the investment banking division that supports the technology functions, based in San Francisco]. Sometimes they have really good insights into what’s going on in the marketplace and sometimes we have good insights. But as with any big bank, when working with a startup, you have to understand the viability of that business, because ultimately what you want is the best product set that is also sustainable.”

She says the bank supports formal accelerator and lab programs for startups around the globe, in addition to providing various services to startups that might need help in getting visibility and traction with large clients, while the mentorship aspect of these programs frequently has positive knock-on effects on the bank’s own employees. Through these programs, she says, Credit Suisse’s employees gain a better understanding of the process of refining value propositions associated with nascent technologies or services, in addition to fully appreciating the challenges that startups face when it comes to navigating organizational structures, stage gates and the manifold processes inherent within large, complex institutions. 

“What we have noticed—and this is something that I drill into my team—is that if we have a new product, given the fast pace of technology now, you have to be able to get it into the environment quickly, and similarly, you have to be able to get it out quickly,” Barrowman explains. “A lot of what we did historically was build tooling into server and desktop builds, but removing it when applications are built on top of it is very difficult. And so we ended up making long-term commitments to systems, tools and applications.” 

Pain Points

While on the subject of the technologies that Credit Suisse has embraced as a means of enabling the business, it seems pertinent to inquire about specific pain points Barrowman experiences during her day-to-day role as the person charged with looking after Credit Suisse’s global infrastructure. “It’s the legacy we’re carrying,” she says without hesitation. “And it’s not the mainframe—that’s quite modern. What I’m referring to is all the legacy builds that we have applications on that are fundamental to the bank and which rely on really old technology, either because it’s vendor technology or because we just coded them that way. So you have to accept that there is some legacy that you have to live with. How you minimize it, contain it, and secure it is the next big thing.”

Earlier, Barrowman cited cloud—specifically the firm’s private cloud, which she describes as one of her proudest achievements at the bank, even though she isn’t averse to using public and hybrid clouds—as the single, most transformational technology Credit Suisse has embraced, although she is similarly bullish about artificial intelligence (AI) and the promise it holds for the firm. 

“Not long ago—perhaps three or four years ago—we were trying to automate manually-intensive processes,” she says. “What we did historically was replace a bunch of people doing process work with a bunch of people automating and writing scripts, because everything had to be scripted. But with the [intelligent] automation tooling now, you can do it once and it can learn across all the builds. That blows my mind—that is phenomenally game-changing.” 

In a throwback to Barrowman’s roots, Credit Suisse has rolled out a helpdesk agent called Amelia, from IPsoft, who she describes as “lovely.” She explains that often people ask Amelia whether she’s a robot, given how life-like she is. “I like keeping track of how many people ask her that question,” Barrowman says, adding that irrespective of AI’s undoubted promise, there is a potential downside to committing so much critical knowledge to a machine. “The thing for me is that you build all your knowledge into Amelia so that she can solve problems, but then you have to ensure that you can get your knowledge out of her, otherwise you’re effectively signing a no-divorce contract with IPsoft,” she says. “The problem with all technology is that we become so reliant on it.”     

Creating Problems

Outside of work, it comes as no surprise that Barrowman is passionate about the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and playing her part in attracting women to technology roles in the capital markets, although she is “bothered” by the small number of girls studying them. “I’ve been very fortunate: I had great maths teachers when I was at school and I have worked for a number of fantastic people,” she says. “Having said that, it looks as though my own daughter is not going to focus on them, so as a mother I have failed to convince my own daughter.”

She is adamant that in the next 10 or 15 years, if graduates don’t have a STEM background, it will be tougher for them to secure certain jobs, an issue that has been raised by a number of senior technologists in the pages of this magazine in recent years. 

“We are building an environment where it’s become more important to have those skills,” she says. “If we have such a small number of girls doing those subjects, we are by definition building an unequal workforce. If all those jobs are going to go to people who have STEM knowledge, and we’re saying eight or 10 percent of females are choosing those subjects, we have created a problem.” 

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