CIO Spotlight: Michel André, Banking Circle

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? “Above all you should be curious and willing to learn.”

Headshot of Michel André, CIO at Banking Circle
Banking Circle

Name: Michel André

Company: Banking Circle

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: October 2018

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

Michel André has 20 years of experience under his belt as a senior technology leader and CIO within Financial Services. He’s worked with internet trading platforms, exchange technology, DMA broker networks, real-time risk management, information distribution and other areas requiring extreme scalability. For the past 3.5 years, André has been the CIO of Banking Circle where he has led huge projects including the company’s full migration to Microsoft Azure – the cloud-based infrastructure is enabling Banking Circle to respond to evolving industry demands. Currently, André is working to build the next-generation platform for cross border fx payments and value add services for Financial Institutions and Payments businesses.

What was your first job? While I was still at university, I got a job as a consultant at a Financial Services firm. I was focused on portfolio and mutual fund management systems, leading the architectural design of reporting and calculation solutions, and contributing to the next generation of products. It was there where I first got a glimpse of the overlap between finance and tech, which I would later realise is something I was good at.

Did you always want to work in IT? I’ve always had a love for learning and problem solving, which steered my fascination for tech. I loved the idea of using technology to solve problems for businesses and people as it would enable me to pursue a career path packed with continuous learning and challenges, which still rings true today.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold an MSc in Computer Science and Engineering from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Following this, while I was CTO at Saxo Bank, I attended Stanford University Business School which really helped me level up as a leader and executive.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I didn’t take any ‘detours’ per se, because I never had a clear-cut plan. In fact, my first few roles were probably more of an accident than a conscious decision which catapulted me into the world of tech and financial services.

Along the way, I founded my own software company where I headed up strategy and sales alongside consulting a range of clients in financial services. In turn, I discovered FinTech. The early stages certainly shaped the path I went down as it enabled me to utilise and apply my technology skills to financial services.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Last year, Banking Circle completed its shift to Microsoft Azure, migrating our core banking system so it’s hosted fully in the cloud. This was a huge milestone, enhancing the efficiency, speed and value for money of cross-border payments. We’re now able to process several multiple times the number of daily transactions we could previously. So really, this year we’re dedicated to capitalising on this to continue to deliver fast cross-border payments and empower our now rapidly growing client base.

Committing to the cloud has futureproofed Banking Circle’s infrastructure to quickly evolve our architecture in response to ever-changing client demands and accelerating digital transformation. That said, alongside digital transformation trends come savvier tactics for fraudulent activity, so compliance is a key focus. Due to the flexibility, control, computer resource and scalability of Microsoft Azure, we have greater opportunity for investment and research into Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Anti Money Laundering (AML) and fraud prevention.

Our AI solution for AML increases holistic detection based on connections and enriched data. In fact, the accuracy of our data has meant that hundreds of client accounts have been closed or escalated to compliance due to AI related findings. Ultimately, the cloud migration has unlocked potential to scale and develop innovation and we’ll continue to make the most of this in the coming year.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Cross-border payments are at the core of Banking Circle’s offering, so investments will continue to be channelled into making them as fast and cost-effective as we can. Our mission is to reduce the cost of international transactions to 50 cents and the time to under 5 minutes. This goal is propelling our geographical expansion as we aim to broaden our reach, and work towards providing real time payments. As CIO, I will be supporting these initiatives by developing our cloud infrastructure through updates, upgrades and the development of new services. This way, we can ensure Banking Circle stays as agile and reactive as possible whilst allowing space for ultimate scalability.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I am not sure what a conventional CIO role and its responsibilities include because I have always worked in businesses where technology has been engrained in the operating model like it is for us -providing an instant cross-border payments infrastructure. When working in an environment such as this, you need to be close to the business and clients directly, whilst indirectly be a compassionate and servant leader to understand how to apply and shape technology to business needs.

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? As mentioned, last year I led the final steps of the migration of our entire infrastructure to Microsoft Azure. This part of our digital transformation journey has empowered us to deliver more efficient, speedy and compliant cross-border payments for our customers at a global scale. We’re able to reach an equilibrium between customer experience, revenue growth and operational efficiency. Our customer-first approach means we listen to clients so we can help them evolve; by serving them, we have increased operational efficiency, have scaled our business and offering and, in turn, gained more clients and increased revenue growth.

These transformation efforts don’t stop here. In fact, this is just the beginning. The cloud has opened a whole new realm of potential. And with my hunger to learn and find solutions, I hope to continue to pave the way for further digital development and growth so that Banking Circle can constantly evolve and enhance its offerings.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Our business is digital at its core and in the way it operates, so I would say it is highly digitally mature, especially when it comes to our core areas like cross-border payments where we are at the forefront; delivering instant cross-border payments over an API. Technology and engineering are deeply engrained in everything we do, hence there are no separate KPIs for the quantification of IT investments, it’s all part of running and doing the business.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Even before the pandemic, Banking Circle offered hybrid working structures to accommodate our international team. Rigid working structures breed disempowerment, so a cultural pillar within the organisation is about making employees feel empowered and ensuring that their thoughts and opinions are heard; whether that means working remotely 1-2 days a week or coming into the office on a regular basis.

We cultivate a culture by thinking outside the box; there is no single ‘ideal’ cultural fit; we have a diverse workforce with employees across the globe, so we ensure workers are integrated into their teams and wider organisational ‘society’ from the outset to bridge differences whilst embracing unique ideas.

What roles or skills are you finding (or do you anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? This is an interesting one. Banking Circle recently surveyed CTOs and CIOs across Europe and found the most common skills gap – seen by 57% of surveyed respondents – was cloud skills, followed by Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, which is lacking in 51% of organisations. This comes as no surprise given the current climate. In particular, within financial services there is a skills shortage preventing the future proofing of Banks and FinTechs, with all FinTechs and 99% of Banks confirming they have skills gaps in their organisations.

Upskilling your current team is one solution. You could also look to partner with a relevant expert organisation to plug certain gaps. Utilising cloud-based systems via an external partner, for example, is a faster route to gaining flexibility, speed-to-market and competitive edge.

What's the best career advice you ever received? The best career advice is probably not to listen to career advice but to follow your passion, be true to your values and work hard – the rest will sort itself.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff? The reality is that the training and upskilling of high performing staff will take time and investment – but it’s worth it. Though it can sometimes feel like a rat-race against a ticking time bomb due to the fast-paced nature of the industry, organisations ought to take a more holistic stance to upskilling beyond the numbers. Across all sectors, teaching and learning is all part and parcel of good leadership. We must prioritise investing back into employees and their professional development - people aren’t robots, and there is much to be gained from both the employer and employee in terms of upskilling, output, employee loyalty and happiness.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? There is a broad palette of skills needed to be a successful CTO or CIO. You need technical competency and an understanding of the technology landscape, then it’s knowing how to apply technology to business challenges that becomes really key. The combination of business sense and technology skills is crucial to success.

Above all, however, you should be curious and willing to learn. By being open to learning, you can help yourself, your team and organisation stay ahead of the curve. Always strive to learn new things about both technology and the business you’re solving problems for.

What has been your greatest career achievement? They say you are only as good as your last performance, so transforming and building the engineering team in Banking Circle, whilst growing and developing the technology that underpins our cross-border business to become fully cloud native, is definitely a highlight. What we have achieved and built fills me with great pride.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I am not the kind of person to look back with regret. I am confident in most of my decisions, which are always made to the best of my knowledge within the specific context of that point in time. I prefer to focus on looking forward and anticipating what’s to come.

What are you reading now? Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order – Why Nations Succeed and Fail, by Ray Dalio, a theory and outlook on what is happening in the world through the lens of history and data - it’s very interesting. I read and digest a lot of different genres so you would likely get very diverse answers on this depending on when you ask.

Most people don't know that I… I’m a bit of a foodie and enjoy dining out from time to time, which is an ultimately non-digital experience with a nice meld of art, creativity and craftmanship.

In my spare time, I like to…Run, cycle and swim in various forms, ultimately together for some kind of triathlon. This is my way of switching off from work and applying myself in another fulfilling way.

Ask me to do anything but… routine tasks (I need change and variety to thrive).