CTO Sessions: Morné Van Dalen, Liberis Group

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? "We want to continue to grow exponentially, so it is important that our system is architected in such a way that it can scale at pace."

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Liberis Group

Name: Morné Van Dalen

Company: Liberis Group

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: October 2018

Location: Hammersmith, London

Morné Van Dalen is Chief Technology Officer at Liberis UK. He has been instrumental in helping the world’s tech leaders and challengers use technology to stay ahead. With more than 20 years of experience across brands such as Skype, Microsoft and more recently WorldRemit under his belt, he has a wealth of experience about how tech needs to be utilised in an organisation.

What was your first job? My first proper job was working as a programmer for Sharp Electronics way back when I was still living in Cape Town.

Did you always want to work in IT? I don’t think anyone really knows what they want to do from the outset. I started out looking to study accountancy and then before going to university, I changed my mind and pursued a commerce degree which had computer science tied into the course. This served as a good balance between studying business and technology.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I graduated from university with a different degree to what I initially started off doing. I started out doing just a commerce degree but ended up with an economics degree, with a dual major in business management and computer science.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I didn’t take too many detours, with the exception of the industry itself. Throughout my career I have worked in electronics, banking, telecoms and now I’m back in finance at Liberis Group. I started out as a programmer and then took on roles as team leads and development leads. The only slight detour was when I began to work more on the non-technical side of things and focused more of the business side of project management. This required me to expand my ability to work with non-techies. 

What type of CTO are you? Technology is most powerful when used to keep challenging teams, organisations and the wider industry. As well as how technology can be used in an organisation, we need to think bigger. We have a duty to give back to people and make sure that we are ethical in the way we work, in how we use technology, how we treat our customers, but also that we look after the people working for us and ensure we are improving their careers too. I hope my team would agree, that’s what type of CTO I am.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? There are several advances in technology at the moment which are interesting for different reasons, from AI and Machine Learning to Blockchain and beyond. The technology that personally I am most excited about at the moment, is probably Machine Learning. The rapid pace of development, coupled with the costs of storing large amounts of data declining, will enable even more to be done with Machine Learning.

At Liberis Group we are already doing some great work with Machine Learning around making quicker decisions for our customers and I’m looking forward to developing that further. The most exciting technology for me is when it enables processes to be done quicker, more accurately or in a completely new way.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I think a lot of technology is overhyped and cryptocurrency is definitely one of them. If you are in the fintech industry, you will be asked “why aren’t you using it?”. But a lot of the time people don’t think about what cryptocurrency is meant to do. Cryptocurrency is all about cutting out the middleman to achieve anonymity and still make a secure transaction. In reality, it is very hard to turn this concept into a scalable and commercial model. Just because someone is using a shiny, new technology like crypto or is trying to invent their own cryptocurrency, doesn’t mean this will make them the new key player in their industry.

It’s all about looking at whether the technology has the ability to succeed in the long-term. The more players wrestling to promote their own brand of super crypto, the less likely it is to find a common ground that the industry can align to.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? One of the things I’m most proud of is how we’ve grown the team here at Liberis Group. Our business has taken off, and we’ve rapidly expanded internationally in the last twelve months. My focus has been on how we build the team and make sure our technology supports and enables our business growth. Different areas of the business such as product and engineering are now more aligned, making the entire Group scale effectively. As we grow in different regions, we can now replicate the processes that have worked as well as continually work to refine them, to make them easier.

Due to the process we’d already put in place, we were able to get up and running in the US so quickly, within 90 days we had funded our first customer. This has also been a real game changer for us as we work together with more partners across the globe. Constantly developing our technology will allow us to deliver on our promises and vision even quicker in the future.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Liberis relies on technology to help constantly improve our customer experience. Our aim is to give all our customers a complete end-to-end digital journey that represents a great customer experience. In our case that means making the process of accessing funding swift, efficient and easy to use. We are often dealing with people who wouldn’t count themselves as “techies” but we are working with them on something extremely emotive, their businesses.

We recognise that some customers may still want that human interaction and we’ll continue to offer that, but we need to keep innovating to make accessing finance even easier.  For us this means getting a decision on finance in as little as two clicks, pretty revolutionary in our industry, especially when compared to the traditional routes of highstreet banks.

It isn’t just about the customer experience, it is also about us at Liberis Group making the right decisions on which customers to finance, so they get the right funding for their business and we get paid, so we can continue to help small businesses!

Lastly, whilst we offer our product direct to customers, we also continually focus on how we can make it even easier for partners to plug into our funding platform, so they can offer their small business customers the funding that will help their businesses grow.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Our mission is to give customers access to the funding they need to help their business thrive. We do this by selling directly in the UK, but the way we really scale to reach more customers is by working with industry leading partners. This is where we have to rely on technology to make this happen.

We offer a white-labelled funding platform which partners can incorporate into their own platform to easily provide our flexible finance solution to their own small business customers. Typically, small businesses can struggle to access the funding they need, and there’s a large funding gap generated by the more traditional banks who often let small businesses down. We’re helping fill the gap and working with partners across the globe to help fund as many small businesses as possible. When we get this right, we enable our partners to double their customers lifetime value and reduce churn, this happens as a result of them adding value, in the form of funding, to their small business customers through our platform. This all has to be delivered in a quick, simple and frictionless way or else it will simply fail, that’s quite the tech challenge.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? We want to continue to grow exponentially, so it is important that our system is architected in such a way that it can scale at pace. We have to have a system that is platform, partner, region and product agnostic, whilst embracing advances in cloud deployment and machine learning capability to lead the charge, bringing our partners with us.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Across the business, we are flexible enough to take on any challenges that come along. What allowed us to launch so quickly in the US and then even quicker in the Nordics, was looking at how each part of our business needed to interact with our partners in a way that best met both of our needs. We’re also not afraid to make changes to ensure we are aligned and can scale for the future, we can’t rest just because something has worked in the past.

What makes an effective tech strategy? As a rapidly growing fintech, we need to be able to flex to the market demands and business trajectory. This means our tech strategy needs to be nimble but also robust. We need a solid infrastructure that can be tweaked and flexed to support the unknown and new directions that a company on a growth path like ours, will no doubt take. Plus, we have to be committed to utilising our technology in the best possible way.  

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The CTO faces a number of challenges. Not only do we work in a constantly changing technology landscape, but we have to work out how to embrace new technology whilst still managing to maintain our security posture and make sure our customers are safe. As we move into a cloud-enabled environment and integrate new technology across the business, we must ensure we have the staff that can keep up and support with the pace of change and still make sure that our customers’ data is safe.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I am genuinely very proud of my role at Liberis Group. It has been one of my dreams to become a CTO in a fast-growing company, that is so focused on using technology to help customers and partners, and so I jumped at the chance of being able to work with the team.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? There are certainly things I could have done differently, but at the same time, my mistakes have helped me grow. As long as you take your failures on the chin and learn from them, you will be a much better person for them.

What are you reading now? I don’t get nearly as much time to read as I would like, but recently started a book that I have been meaning to read for a while: Born a crime: Stories from a South African childhood by Trevor Noah.

Most people don't know that I… Represented two different countries for two different sports - South Africa for Ju-jitsu and Great Britain for gallery rifle.

In my spare time, I like to… Spend time with my family. My children have just finished school and their exams so I’m making the most of our time together.

Ask me to do anything but… Complete documentation. Apart from that, I’m prepared to do most things.