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Atom bank CTO Rana Bhattacharya on migrating to GCP, deploying Kafka, and programming satellites...

"We've been on a quite a massive transformation journey"

What do you do to unwind, The Stack asks Atom bank CTO Rana Bhattacharya at the end of our chat this week. (Sometimes we like to write these things up backwards). Recently, he says enthusiastically, he has been working with his eight-year-old daughter to programme a microcontroller that will end up in space aboard a low-earth orbit satellite. (Thank Kickstarter-funded AmbaSat, about which you can learn more here).

"I try and do interesting projects like that with my daughter" he notes. "One, to keep me engaged in the broader world of technology, but also to help my daughter understand the breadth of what's going on in the world."

Clearly not a man to shy away from a hands-on challenge, and with an appetite for emerging tech (even if as with AmbaSat it involves a little soldering), Bhattacharya has recently been leading a major cloud migration of the challenger bank, which specialises, in savings and mortgage products, to Google Cloud, (no soldering necessary).

About Atom bank

Atom bank was founded in 2014 and was the UK's first bank to be digital/mobile only. Not typically on the public radar in a way that more visible challenger banks like Monzo and Starling are, it has total assets of ~£2.8 billion, staff and administration expenses of circa £40 million, and has approved £3 billion+ in mortgages since launch.

Having launched at a time when regulatory comfort levels with the cloud were not what they are today, the bank opted to run on-premises. In a bid to boost agility and bake in powerful cloud-based capabilities it inked partnership agreements with GCP and core banking platform fintech Thought Machine in 2019 and is now running some 85% of workloads in GCP, after a substantial migration. The bank has also completely rewritten its App. (The bank's new stack is letting it push updates to the App much faster: eight in two months, in 2020).

As Atom bank CTO Rana Bhattacharya puts it: "We've been on a quite a massive transformation journey for a couple of years: moving the whole bank to the cloud and rebuilding the bank. It wasn't a lift and shift..."

The migration has opened up a host of new opportunities, he notes, and will also allow it to automate processes that allow the bank to keep ops lean. ("As a bank, our total team is in excess of 400; the tech team, circa 130. That gives you a viewpoint of how lean we're operating. We want to incrementally create more products and services. But we don't linearly grow our headcount. If we do do that, our business model would have failed.")

"Our focus has been really on creating our new banking platform. But as we move forward, we're going to be looking at leveraging more capabilities around AI and machine learning", he notes, adding: "When I look back five years, you didn't have the kind of organisations opening up their business capabilities via API's that you do now. There's a broad ecosystem emerging. And Google is investing in quite lightweight API integration technology, which allow you to start mashing up unique propositions that you wouldn't have been able to do in the past.

"If you look at some of our recent announcements, for example with Plaid (an agreement that has seen Atom bank introduce Open Banking and payment initiation services to small business customers; taking on more than £0.5 billion in deposits on the new product in just three months, with improved customer ratings and sentiment) whether it is SaaS-oriented or API-oriented you can integrate with providers of new capabilities in a way that is much more pacy and much more affordable."

Google Cloud had, for some years, a reputation for inadequate customer service/support. The Stack asks for his experience: "During that transformation journey, we did have a few problems. Some of those problems weren't really Google-related, but how we would integrate via Google to other SaaS services or third parties, and we needed some help from Google. They gave it to us in a really timely fashion to help us diagnose and break through those obstacles."

The cloud provider has also offered extensive and useful support with training, as Atom bank brings more IT staff in-house, he adds; something that has helped build capabilities. He adds: "This transformation wasn't just about Google Cloud though, it wasn't just about DevOps. We were also the first to launch Thought Machine as a cloud native, smart contracts platform. So there was a lot of firsts for us, and also a lot of this from an industry perspective as well.

"We've built a new data architecture as part of this platform rebuild, which allows us to stream real time data from Thought Machine, and other components, via Kafka. Kafka then pushes that data into Cassandra, or an analytical version of PostGres, and we can cut and dice that data however we want to do it. That's quite important, because the way we're using Kafka is very different to organisations that are trying to move on to use Kafka for analytical purposes; we are using it as part of our payments processing."

That has given the bank huge improvements in real-time visibility, he notes, adding: "We have dashboards, where basically in real time you can see exactly how many customers we have on our new platform, how many customers on a particular product, what balances are on a given product."

Down the line the bank will be looking at how it can make use of Google Cloud's natural language processing capabilities and contact centre AI to further improve customer experience he says.

Right now, there's a few more workloads to migrate in coming months.

And in any spare moments at home, that satellite to launch.

See also: Exclusive Interview: Pamela Chase Dyson, CIO, Federal Reserve Bank of New York