“We are celebrating 200 years this year. And I’ve been here for 10 of those.” Max Ahston, Head Architect for IT at Swedbank, has experienced just 5 percent of his company’s extensive development. But it’s not just any 5 percent.
In the past decade, the banking industry has been transformed by technology in a way few could have foreseen. A burgeoning raft of startups and fintech disruptors have shaken up the financial landscape, requiring established banking powerhouses to modernize in order to stay competitive.
“We see what is happening with our competitors,” says Ahston, from his home in Stockholm. “There are a lot of upcoming companies. And we have good fintechs in the Nordics. So, of course, we need to be quicker in how we develop new innovations and services, and in how we meet new customer demands. It’s about keeping pace and staying relevant in the banking sector.”
For Swedbank, the pursuit of innovation has meant a move to the cloud. And establishing an innovative training program that can serve as a blueprint for how significant players in the banking sector can digitally transform.
“Driving innovation at the bank means adapting quickly to the changing landscape,” says Luthon Hagvinprice, Innovation Lead at Swedbank. “And a strong, cloud-focused IT team is a critical aspect of that.”
Inspiring a more agile mindset
Founded in Gothenburg in 1820, Sweden’s first savings bank has grown beyond not only its city roots, but its national borders.
Now employing roughly 15,000 employees across Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Swedbank has become one the most significant players in Europe’s Nordic and Baltic regions, with a focus on retail banking, asset management, financial services, and more.
“It’s a company with a lot of people who, like me, have been working here for a really long time,” says Ahston. As the Head Architect of Swedbank IT, he’s found himself cast as the face of progress at Swedbank. “With that comes both the benefits of years of experience, as well as the challenges it can present when introducing new technologies and processes.”
This was the challenge that Ahston and his team faced: how to create an environment where new technologies could be quickly developed internally, given employees that weren’t all well-versed in the tech aspects of modern banking.
“We weren’t developing a lot of new IT infrastructure services in house. In fact, I can count the new infrastructure services we had developed on one hand,” Ahston says, candidly. “And I don’t even need all the fingers.”
Introducing cloud technology was an obvious way of creating an agile environment that would yield greater technological innovations—and with that came several different choices. But the key consideration was how to ensure that employees would be able to work within the chosen cloud architecture effectively.
“We decided to start with Microsoft Azure for a number of reasons. Firstly, we already have Microsoft 365, and Azure works really well with that infrastructure. But the main reason was the great ways Microsoft could support us when it came to developing the skills of our employees,” Ahston says.
Training a workforce to use Azure
Embarking on a digital transformation journey means different things to companies, depending on their sector, size, and ambitions. For a large multinational company like Swedbank, in the highly regulated, competitive, and security-conscious financial space, it meant an organization-wide mindset shift.
“You can bring new people in with brilliant ideas that want to challenge how you do things,” says Ahston. “But when they’re in, they can be streamlined by the old way of doing things.”
The task for Ahston and his team was not just to upskill the company’s less tech-savvy employees. Swedbank also needed to create an environment that would simultaneously attract the best DevOps talent across the industry and show existing employees that they could not only boost their tech skills but could be recognized for it with certifications.
“We needed to create a culture of change,” Ahston shares. “That’s why we started the upskilling initiative at the beginning of this year.”
Working with Microsoft, Ahston set out to define a learning program that would transform the skillset of the company’s existing staff and kick-start a new era of cloud-focused development.
“With the support of Microsoft and training collaborator Cornerstone, we started with an Azure Fundamentals day in Stockholm,” Ahston says. “There were about 150 people in total.”
The Azure Fundamentals course provides a foundational-level knowledge of cloud services and how Microsoft Azure provides those services. Introducing many of the basic principles of cloud computing, the course can be taken as a first step in learning about cloud services and Microsoft Azure, and is a stepping stone to further Microsoft Azure or Microsoft cloud services courses.
“I invited the CEO and CIO because it was Swedbank’s biggest and first cloud event,” says Ahston. “I wanted them to see something cool.”
Attended by a broad spectrum of people from Swedbank, the training event was a huge success. Ahston adds, “At the event, both the CIO and the CEO talked about their intentions around cloud technology and the goal to finalize and present our cloud strategy as soon as possible.”
“I really want us to get moving on the cloud journey this year,” says Patrik Landin, Head of Infrastructure and Operations at Swedbank. “With the help of Microsoft, we are now offering everybody in Infrastructure and Operations the chance to attend the Microsoft Azure Fundamentals class and job-based trainings to get the momentum we need to keep us moving forwards on our journey to the cloud.”
This is exactly the support Ahston and his team need to push the cloud adoption goals at Swedbank.
Establishing the cloud team
“Training only takes you so far,” says John Corbishley, who leads the Containers and Cloud team at Swedbank. “You also need to be able to execute.”
People attending the training days that Ahston organized needed somewhere to practice their newly acquired skills. That meant creating “playgrounds” – temporary automated Azure subscriptions with specific caps on cost, capacity, time to go live, and networking—where employees could practice their newly acquired cloud skills.
“The playgrounds give people who’ve participated in the training—or even just heard about the cloud and have had some experience at home—the ability to get hands-on Azure experience,” explains Corbishley. “And that just fires the imagination. It inspires people to ask questions like ‘where can I build this?’ and ‘what can I do in the cloud?’ And this is where the cloud team comes in. We call ourselves the ‘enablement team,’ because we use our experience to help others avoid the usual pitfalls when it comes to developing cloud-native applications in Azure.”
This team has swelled in recent times. “The team was only two people when I started,” says Corbishley. “A year on, we have six new engineers, who have brought with them a knowledge of how to work and adopt and move into the cloud.”
Developing a blueprint for the future
The innovations that Ahston and Corbishley have developed have ushered in a new era for Swedbank, positioning the company as a beacon in the Nordic region that can show others in the financial sector how to upskill their employees to meet modern demands.
“I have not heard any of the other banks doing this type of initiative,” says Ahston proudly. “We have now done several of the in-person training days—with around 300 people from many different areas of the company attending Azure Fundamentals, and 140 of our more tech-focused employees doing ARB-certified cloud courses that require three to five days of training. And that’s all in just a few months. And with the help of Cornerstone, we have also been able to quickly adapt our planned classroom trainings to a virtual format, which has worked well.”
Clearly, digital transformation ambitions don’t have to be hindered by the existing skillset of a company’s employees. In fact, encouraging people to develop their skills is a way of attracting and retaining the best talent. When the company shared the initiative on its LinkedIn channel, 40 more employees signed up and achieved certifications on Azure.
“We now have so much demand for the courses that the cloud team is going to have a backlog to handle the mounting expectations of our different teams,” says Ahston.
But that’s exactly the kind of problem he wants his company to be facing, since it demonstrates how successfully Swedbank employees have adopted the cloud-first agenda internally. And it bodes well for the types of innovations Swedbank customers can expect to enjoy in the future.
“We needed to create a culture of change. That’s why we started the upskilling initiative at the beginning of this year.”
Max Ahston: Head Architect for IT, Swedbank