September 1, 2016

RBS (First Time) - Part 2

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Part 1 is available here.

As the SCRS project at RBS began to come to a finish, the team started to disperse. I was the last technical person to leave and to prevent me leaving RBS entirely, the SCRS project manger arranged for my contract to transfer over to the Sales Account Opening (SAO) project so I could still be around if SCRS needed me. They didn’t, so my last 9 months at RBS were spent on the largest most dysfunctional IT project I have ever seen.

SAO aimed to allow potential and existing customers of RBS to open accounts online. Current accounts, savings, credit cards, overdrafts, the whole range of retail account should be available. Basically it was a set of webpages that took a customer’s information, and then passed it through to various backend systems to actually create the account and send out any required paper forms. At the time many banks were setting up similar systems – now it is expected functionality for a bank’s online presence, but still fairly new for most banks in early 2004 when I started on the project. The technical difficulty was not particularly high, but greatly complicated by non-technical factors. The final system had to integrate with the existing customer database and credit checking systems. The information collected had to meet anti-money laundering, fraud and terrorism laws (collectively referred to as “Know Your Customer” or KYC). Security and reliability had to be bulletproof as this was a public website and must inspire confidence in potential customers. The site also needed to look pretty, well-designed and enticing. The webpages needed to conform to UK & EU disability laws, so blind people or people unable to use a mouse or a raft of other issues should still be able to use the system easily. Also, RBS owned a number of subsidiary banks. They would all use this system too since they all shared the same backend. This meant the webpages had to change branding, wording and structure to match the bank being viewed.

From my point of view one of the biggest problems was management. The project was huge. At one point I counted over a 100 technical people permanently assigned to the project, plus managers on top. Then there were consultants in various forms: web designers; security experts; usability experts; QA; and more. All this was across three main locations: Edinburgh, London and Bangalore. There were also small (under 9 people) teams in Dublin and Leicester. The budget seemed endless and it was super high profile. We were told the project was initiated by the CEO and he was taking a personal interest in the process. It was kind of a big deal. With something this big and important it all became unmanageable and unruly quite quickly.

I joined the project just as development work began. My position in London was officially Java Team Leader. I managed a team of 4-5 programmers (two of which came from SCRS) creating an example system for the webpages. The idea was this would form a template followed by the mass of coders in Bangalore when creating the real pages. We had to work out a way to transition between pages based on what information was needed next, how to integrate with the interfaces provided for various backend systems and how to have the site rearrange itself depending on which bank was being viewed. There were three other teams in London: the team creating the external interfaces to the backbend databases; the page design team working out what needed to be on each page; and the QA team. We all sat near each other.

My team’s task was completed after a few months and we didn’t have much to do. We helped deal with any issues arising from the work being sent to India, created tools including a comprehensive, but complex build system, and worked with the developers at the printing office in Leicester to get the printing of letters automated. I asked to be released from my contract after 6 months on the project, but my direct manager refused. Normally this would not be a problem, I could just move on with a month’s notice. However, my hopeless agent (who I never worked with again) created a fixed term contract, rather than the standard one month’s notice, so I had to wait an extra 3 months. That manager wanted me and my team around as contingency in case urgent problems arose. Such problems regularly did occur, but never enough to keep us fully occupied. I read a lot of web magazines.

I also helped out other teams. In particular I worked with the Indians temporarily co-located with us, assisting them understanding what we had done and why. These guys were consultants from one of the large Indian outsourcing firms. It worked just like my experiences with other consulting firms. Smart and talented people were sent to sit with us in our office. They gave us confidence everything would be fine as any of them could be part of our team. Then they went back to their main office and most of the actual work was done by much worse programmers. Nice to know consulting firms are the same worldwide. Although one of them did provide one of the funnier work moments. A young Indian consultant was saying how great it was to travel around from his London base. He was particularly impressed by Egypt and asked a quieter member of my team if he had been there. This guy (previously from SCRS) was an Israeli man nearing retirement. He replied that he had been to Egypt, in 1973, and did not enjoy himself. Oblivious, the consultant carried on espousing the country’s virtues.

Towards the end of my time at RBS the Indian consultants in Bangalore sent us photos of their office. We sent back some of hours. It was illuminating. Their offices were modern, open spaces, with large desks and decent equipment (flat screens, etc). Ours were run down, crumbly, ancient offices near Aldgate East, scheduled for demolition (as they since have been – the site is now apartments). The offices were a set of 50’s buildings threaded together into a warren of weirdly shaped spaces. We used CRT monitors (the last place I worked with these) and all our PCs were at least a few years old. Though the place did have a decent canteen. Apparently it even used to have a bank branch and pub in the basement, but these were shut down a couple of years before I arrived.

As the end of my contract approached the project began to head off the rails. A specialist project manager was hired – his experience was bringing out-of-control projects back on track. Time and budget allocations were being greatly exceeded. Part of this was just the size of the project and how hard it was to get everyone working together. Partly it was due to mid-project changes. I remember being part of one impromptu meeting were the latest changes were being discussed. It seemed that the CEO had seen our latest iteration and wanted a few modifications. Unfortunately, the changes meant the site would not longer meet various legal requirements. A concise paraphrasing of the conversation is “the CEO wants this change. That is illegal. But the CEO wants it. It is illegal!” I left the management team to untangle that Gordian knot. At least that meeting was informal so I could just leave. Most were not, and there was at least one hour long meeting per day, often more. I started taking food to them and eating at the table if it went over an hour. This had the benefit of keeping me alert and the other participants tended to become more focussed on finishing too.

Motivated?

When my contract expired, I left with no regrets. The RBS IT organisation was too bureaucratic for me. I didn’t even have another contract lined up. I didn’t care, I’d had enough of meetings and forms and arguing about budgets. At this stage I hadn’t yet completely given up on becoming a manager, but it was getting close. About a year later the RBS account opening system was available online. I took a look and saw some of my work evident (at least in the way the pages flowed and the html suggested my branched branding was there too, but I couldn’t be sure). There was also quite a bit missing. The project came in about 6 months late by lowering the scope of work. I assume the rest was added in over later months, but I never looked again.

Some other points about my first time at RBS:

  • As I was leaving, I interviewed at RBS Markets, their investment banking division. They seemed to have a very low opinion of their corporate and retail brethren.
  • While waiting in the office lobby for that interview, a set of security people can through and cleared everyone, except me sitting in a corner. Then the bank CEO and Prince Charles walked through. I felt like having a few words with the CEO about how his desired changes to SAO were illegal, but stayed still.
  • HR seemed aware there was a morale problem. Although, instead of making conditions better they regularly ran “fun” and “quirky” campaigns. Putting up colourful motivational banners across the entrance, or handing out buttons that said “willing to play” to employees.
  • Nearly all the non-management, non-Java people wanted to learn Java. I was constantly asked by database or COBOL people to help facilitate them into a Java job on my project, despite them having no experience.
  • IBM salespeople seem to be able to hypnotise corporate IT managers into signing silly contracts at will. I saw evidence of that back in Australia, at RBS, and the next job too.
  • The standard stack on my projects was a Java Struts frontend hosted on IBM WebSphere. Integration with backend mainframes was through a bespoke web services system using Axis. Any local (non-mainframe) data was on DB2. Ant, JUnit and CruiseControl were common. Design was done in the Rational tool-set, including source control in ClearCase.
  • A team member said later that a particular moment made a big difference to their career. We needed to write a web service to interface with the printers. I gave the work to that guy, and he was worried as it was his first big programming task. He was asking me lots of questions about how it should be designed. I told him, just do what you think is best, and if its no good, you will do it again and better. He told me that my confidence in his ability to do the job was a huge boost (as he was not so confident), and it was well-placed because he did it just fine the first time.

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