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Driving Innovation at Switzerland's Largest Bank

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Jelena Laketic, head of asset management SWAT (SoftWare Action Team) at UBS, spoke at the DevOps Enterprise Summit London about some of the lessons she has learned driving innovation at the largest bank in Switzerland [PDF of slides].

InfoQ reached out to Laketic in order to get her view on the particular challenges and successes around her SWAT journey and what innovation means at UBS.

InfoQ: What's the origin, role and composition of the SWAT team?

Jelena Laketic: SWAT (SoftWare Action Team) is a dedicated team of high performing IT specialists focused on exploring the possibilities to innovate and digitize UBS Asset Management (AM) division.

The team was created to help UBS AM achieve and maintain a competitive advantage in industry, using an applied innovation approach to bridge business solutions with new technologies/methodologies and enable bottom up innovation. The team consists of four full stack developers and one UX expert with growth mind-set and interest in innovative subjects, new technologies, methodologies and best practices (Agile, DevOps, Design thinking).

InfoQ: You mentioned delivery of "production ready" solutions. Can you expand on what that means, and whether the team is also responsible for running the applications in production after delivery?

Laketic: The team works in an adapted sand box technical setup: a combination of external setup (running on the external secure network and using non-UBS HW) and internal (standard UBS setup). The team starts developing solutions in an external setup, similar to other innovation teams, gradually moving them to UBS environment. This makes them “production ready” solutions. This kind of approach enables applied innovation, the most important scope of work of the SWAT team and its concept. Through this process it is also possible to assess UBS application’s on-boarding efforts and improve it across the organisation, regardless of the SWAT work.

Once the solution is production ready, it is time to hand it over to the IT team supporting the part of the business that the solution belongs to. The handover enables transferring the knowledge and education about new technologies/methodologies and best practices to the IT staff involved in the handover, therefore enabling bottom-up innovation. The responsibility for the solution is transferred to the handover team and this provides an opportunity for the SWAT team to move to another task.

InfoQ: Were there any particular challenges the team had to overcome to adopt Agile, DevOps and Design Thinking?

Laketic: Adopting Agile, DevOps and Design Thinking was part of SWAT’s concept and it was important for me that the IT specialists that I was hiring believed in this way of working and had experience with it. It was easy to adopt these concepts in the external setup, even though it required a few improvisations. The real challenge occurred when moving to an internal setup, especially regarding the DevOps part. Nevertheless, assessing the scale of that challenge is very important and can be useful when helping the rest of the organisation adopt these concepts.

InfoQ: How do you prevent falling into the multi-speed delivery trap where the SWAT team applies the latest practices and patterns for fast delivery and the others remain attached to a slow delivery process?

Laketic: Working together with the handover team. Teaching them by implementing the latest practices and patterns together and showing them the benefits. This will naturally (and gradually) help them with their own transformation.

Latest practices and patterns are sometimes taught only theoretically, detaching them from the deeper understanding that can be achieved only when implementing them.

InfoQ: "Innovation" is an often overloaded term. What does it mean in the context of UBS and how do you promote it effectively?

Laketic: At UBS we are embracing innovation in several ways. Current concepts are explored through innovation labs, future ones through think tanks. From my point of view, the most effective way of embracing innovation are hackathon(s) and also the SWAT team. They both explore the concept of applied innovation, which involves concrete implementation of ideas and therefore showcases clear benefits.

InfoQ: How much of "driving innovation" is cultural vs technological? Any lessons you can share on how to influence and change people's behavior?

Laketic: Both are very important when driving innovation. One is not possible without the other and this is why one should inspire while the other follows and vice versa.

I strongly believe that changing people's behavior is only possible when they are shown the exact benefits that this change will bring. Applied innovation is, for me, clearly the right way to do that.

InfoQ: What's the value and impact of the USB global hackathons for the organization?

Laketic: UBS hackathon is one of the most effective ways to drive innovation and promote a culture of diversity across UBS. UBS has amazingly skilled IT specialists who are not always able to express their creativity and ideas through their daily job. This event is a platform for them to unleash their innovative spirit, work together on their creative ideas and embrace their unique experiences and perspectives, while creating innovative solutions.

We are currently preparing the 5th annual UBS Hackathon, happening on 6th and 7th of September. While it requires a lot of work, I am very much looking forward to it. The positive vibe that it brings is contagious and motivates me to continue working with the same energy and enthusiasm.

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