Banking used to be about cash, now it’s about tech

31 July 2014 / Published in Tech & Innovation

James Bergin is not your typical banker. And yet he is not your typical geek either. Nestled halfway between a pin-stripe suited executive, and a hoody-toting Zuckerberg techie, his pockets seem to be filled with gadgets that constantly beep and buzz during our chat.

As Chief Architect of ASB’s Technology and Innovation division, he has the unenviable responsibility of creating a vision of something that doesn’t yet exist in a rapidly changing technology universe. Yet at the same time, his primary focus is to improve the financial well-being of our customers through the use of technology.

“Banking stopped being about cash a long time ago,” he says earnestly. “Now it’s about customers and technology. Money is ones and zeros.”

Start-up mentality

Watching too much Netflix has spawned the perception that working in tech means getting knee deep in a start-up and eating massive quantities of pizza. Corporates have largely been side-lined by this Silicon Valley image, however James says that peeling back the layers reveals a different story.

“Technology has driven an incredible amount of change into industries like banking – it has forced us to constantly reinvent ourselves, and in doing that we have adopted a start-up mentality. Agile software development is now commonplace in our technology projects where scrum masters run tightly focused delivery streams with their teams. Releases are shipping out the door to external and internal audiences on an almost daily basis, and our Albany technology campus hums with as much excitement as any San Francisco start-up.”

Banking and tech workers

ASB is currently bolstering its tech army to support the shift in the innovation and digital landscapes.  So what kind of people does ASB look for when recruiting new tech team members? Communication skills rank highly according to James. “We’re looking for exceptional communicators who are quick learners and can embrace ambiguity. Interpersonal skills are hugely important when it comes to tech – just because you spend a lot of time at a device or screen doesn’t remove the requirement to succinctly communicate with others in the business.”

Passion and learning also feature highly. “The driving need to innovate and create solutions means they must be self-starters who have a thirst for self-improvement – education doesn’t stop when you leave university. Your ‘age and stage’ in your career are secondary to demonstrating passion and continual learning.” James breaks off for a minute to talk about ‘tinkerers’. “People who are passionate about tech are tinkerers and toymakers. They’ll be spending their weekends trying out new tech at home, participating in online communities, attending hackathons or meetups, connecting with others in the industry and generally doing whatever they can to keep up with the state of the art.“ In terms of keeping up with the technology play, James says he makes the most of his daily commute time by listening to podcasts – US-based TwiT and Daily Tech News are his tech favourites along with the NZ Tech podcast – and he relies on Twitter and Flipboard apps to curate the important topics and keep him up-to-date. Business savvy info from economist reports and the ASB Securities Morning Brief also hit his inbox daily.

And what do these innovative passionate self-starters get in return? ASB invests in its people’s development through formal and informal programmes including on the job training, soft skill coaching and opportunities to move within the organisation.”70 per cent would be learning on-the-job, 20 per cent coaching or mentoring from others and 10 per cent formal training.” James is approaching his 10-year anniversary at ASB, something he seems mildly surprised about. “The time has flown by. I’ve been able to move within roles at ASB, so I’ve grabbed these opportunities as they’ve surfaced, and I’ve had a lot of support to do this.” Although too modest to mention it, James was a finalist in this year’s CIO Emerging ICT Leader Awards.  

The future is bright

So what does the Chief Architect see in our future? “New Zealand is a powerhouse of ideas!” he exclaims enthusiastically. “Companies like ASB will help ‘New Zealand Inc’ punch above our weight on the world stage. We can demonstrate that ideas and innovation are not affected by a lack of economies of scale or the tyranny of distance. ASB will be part of this – it is a very exciting time for us.” And with that, he raced out the door - his pocket gadgets buzzing increasingly urgently.

A very bright vision for the future indeed.


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