Lloyds software lead James McLeod on 'innersourcing' the 250-year-old bank

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Kingofdaventry
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Kingofdaventry

The software lead at Lloyds took to the stage at Github Constellation London to explain how Github Enterprise is helping the bank refresh its heritage

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With the advent of open banking, challenger banks and fintech startups are taking on the traditional British financial institutions like Lloyds Banking Group – but that's not to say the old guard aren't paying attention. It's quite the opposite, says James McLeod, software engineering lead at Lloyds Banking Group.

Post financial crash, banks might be more likely to dredge up associations of casino-style speculation, fraud and scandal. But their tradition is in keeping financial assets safe under lock and key.

"Hands up if you belong to a startup company that's 250 years old," McLeod asked the audience. "I actually do. The history of Lloyds is huge, it's probably the oldest company I've ever worked for. I have a background in startups, [and] the startup I was a part of, as part of my whole introduction to software engineering, certainly wasn't 250 years old.

"As you can imagine banking is built around keeping things safe. Its heritage is keeping money safe, so everything is tightly controlled: where you keep your savings, where you keep your mortgage, how you make your banking transfers – it's all tied up and regulatory."

While that fundamental security is naturally still vital, the open banking initiative – which forced UK banks to open their data through secure APIs – began in earnest this January and is necessitating a different approach. Throw the UK's strong fintech scene with its challenger banks, blockchain startups and crypto currencies into the mix and Lloyds had to take notice.

Read next: What is open banking? What does it mean for banks, fintech startups & consumers?

"What we really know is if we're going to keep up with the fintech disruptors we are going to have to start to get agile, break that 250-year legacy of keeping everything safe and boxed and immovable, and we're going to have to move into this – which is basically, devops," McLeod explained.

"There are a lot of people doing devops already. When people think of engineering within big banks and especially banks as big as Lloyds, you don't think of devops – you don't realise all these things have been put in in order to enable engineering for all our engineers."

Read next: Lloyds Banking Group prepares for open banking by shifting towards realtime data feeds

But a stumbling block was that Lloyds' culture was not built for collaboration, and especially not across teams. Even though individual product teams would be operating in a lean and agile way, separate product teams were siloed from each other – to such an extent that even if they were nearby physically, there was no way engineers could collaborate across teams.

"If we belong to two different product teams the way that our systems within Lloyds are set up is we can't see each other's code, we can't collaborate on the code, we can't look at each other's quality or submit a pull request to each other – we're blocked on that," McLeod said.

Ultimately the bank turned to Github Enterprise to help solve this problem. While the bank has been on a digital transformation journey for the better part of three years, for the last six months it has experimented with a Github Enterprise private cloud sandbox, so all of its engineers – no matter the team – can pile in and experiment on code in a safe testing environment.

"We've started something called the Github Enterprise Working Group," McLeod said. "We're aware we've got that 250-year history of the organisation telling us how things should be done, so the working group is engineers working together and collaborating. Our culture has been very pyramid, very ‘this is how we do things', but we want to have that engineering culture where we as engineers say how things should be done.

"[We want to] get rid of that thinking where people are saying ‘Lloyds wants us to work in that way' – because we don't we want engineers to be in control of their own culture, we want to build that community of engineering with people across desks and maybe even across locations."

This sandbox project has led to Lloyds engineers experimenting with ‘innersourcing', the practice of applying open source methodologies inside an organisation. For a big bank that wasn't used to collaboration across teams, now the organisation is finding communities of engineers forming that are starting to believe in ownership of their own work from the ground up rather than the traditional top-down model.

"What we're doing is coming together within the Github Enterprise Working Group to talk about engineers coming together, in meetups, events and guild meetings to have conversations around the code we're writing every day," said McLeod. "We're endorsing collaborating in code now, so not just talking about things, not fumbling things up into management for people to solve – we're actually as engineers collaborating. And in a way that's very open and educational, we want to get rid of the stereotype of banks being locked down and forbidden.

"We want to dispel that, and actually let the world know that we're opening up within the organisation, so our engineers can learn and grow together. All of that is funnelling into this ‘innersource' model, which is all about us having things in common as engineers, that we can work together on this, and what wan we actually be."

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