Managing cloud skills at Travelex on its digital journey with AWS

Angelica Mari Profile picture for user angelica_muri June 18, 2018
As Travelex advances in its digital transformation, the company's chief architect Dan Phelps talks about the company's cloud skills journey.

UK foreign exchange company Travelex started its digital transformation with cloud computing at its heart three years ago. The company's 2020 vision is 25 percent complete so far.

The company is an Amazon Web Services (AWS) house, but despite the vendor’s best efforts to support its customer needs, Travelex has faced important challenges attracting the right IT staff.

Meeting specific requirements before adopting cloud was part of the key initial complexities faced by the firm, which aims to replace 95 percent of its legacy within the next couple of years.

Applying relatively new technology around microservices and Docker on a public cloud in a way that is fit for purpose in the highly-regulated financial services market was among the many issues. This also relates directly to the problem of having the right expertise, according to Dan Phelps, the chief architect at Travelex. He says:

A lot of [the challenges] are obviously around controls that we have on the system, its security and data protection aspects. And doing that with a very new team who may not have had experience in financial services was certainly a challenge.

The company put a range of initiatives in place to help address the skills challenge since the company developed its cloud capability from scratch. The firm has since invested in training and knowledge sharing, along with embedding compliance, risk and cybersecurity personnel in the project teams. But it wasn’t always like that.

We didn’t do that to start off with - and quickly found that became a blocker to our teams who are building and executing. So we decided to embed those compliance and risk and those data protection people within the teams themselves, which allowed us to move a lot faster.

Facing the talent war

Phelps maintains there is a talent war for people with cloud expertise. That is indeed true in London where there is a shortage of people with a lot of experience in serverless, microservices, public cloud, DevOps, and infrastructure automation.

That meant Travelex had to put a lot of effort into the brand of its technology, a cultural shift that was needed to attract skilled people. While Travelex has a brand as a foreign exchange retailer and international money transfer and remittance company, it hadn’t talked externally about the technology it’s using. Phelps says:

We’ve had to do a lot of talking and engage in user groups and forums within London. We’ve done a lot of work with Amazon and other events where we’ve presented about the technology that we’re using with a specific lean on the newer technologies that we’re using like serverless.

The purpose was two-fold, says Phelps. First, the company wanted to keep its existing staff excited about the opportunities they have access to from a skills and learning perspective, but second, the firm needed to attract talent from outside London.

Examples cited include Amazon’s machine learning technology that has enabled its data scientists to focus on the most critical projects. Phelps adds:

We can democratize that technology so that all of our engineers and developers can use machine learning without being a data scientist or expert themselves. That is  important for us because we don’t want to have a humongous technology department with lots of people. What we really want is the best people who are focused on driving customer engagement and experience, building out new products and transforming our legacy business.

The external-facing part of Travelex’s technology practice has played an important role in sourcing the kind of skilled professionals that it needs. He says:

We’ve had examples of where people approach us directly based on PR that we’ve done asking if there are roles available for engineers to come into the business.

Retention is also at the top of Phelps’s priorities. The executive says the leadership teams built within the technology and product engineering are central to the cloud strategy and have fostered that mentality with the teams that the company has got today.

Maintaining staff once we get them into the business is key. So that’s giving them the right tools and capabilities, giving them flexibility, making them feel self-empowered, so they can feel like they can make decisions in the team where they’re working on products or services themselves.

Competing with fintechs

The people Travelex wants are attracted to fintechs and the perks they can offer, rather than traditional businesses. So what is the company saying it will provide to its staff regarding career development once the heavy-lifting of its digital transformation is completed?

For our engineering space, we’re clear with prospective employees that we’re not a fintech, we are a well-established business. We use the lessons learned and the techniques and the cultures and the technology that fintechs are using, but we’re doing it in an environment where we have to make revenue with the stuff that we’re doing.

Also, Phelps argues that Travelex has some core capabilities which give it a “flying start” on developing new products. He cites the example of the company’s international money transfer, supported by well-established and global compliance and risk department that has deep insights into each of the territories where the firm plans to launch products - something that is rarely found in newer companies. Phelps says:

Fintechs don’t have the ability to do that because they have to build that capability themselves or they have to get it from the outside. So we are saying that when you come into this business, the environment that you work in, the tools that you use are all very much what you see at a fintech.

The difference at Travelex is that you have the reassurance and the backbone of the assisting business to support you - and we’ve never seen that part of the business as something which slowed it down because of doing things like embedding those functions and capabilities into a fast-moving scrum environment.

Travelex is not facing a situation that it has not encountered before. Rather, it is all about creating new career development opportunities for its people and understanding them:

In a world of developers and engineers, you have the type who are very keen to work on new technology and really want to be on the bleeding edge of stuff. And on the other hand, you have other types of engineers who want to take something which is a proof of concept or something which is quite embryonic and new, and turn that into something which is scalable globally and maturing that and industrializing that.

Travelex has been “very conscious” of the need to answer to those different needs and has tried to ensure that its engineering teams are doing the kind of work that they enjoy. The real challenge has been in identifying the right type of opportunity for every kind of engineer and then creating the environment that offers them the best chance of success.

My take

The skills issues raised by Travelex highlight the debate about how technology professionals can ensure their skills remain relevant when the business models of incumbents are being overturned by innovators.

Working for a new venture to develop a new idea from scratch can be an exciting and attractive career challenge. On the other hand, applying the vision of how technology can be used to change things as they are - as opposed to lending technology skills to some random product - can be equally rewarding.

Working at a business that offers both sets of opportunity while also holding out business stability is relatively rare today. As the Travelex example shows, getting that mix right, and especially the environment that surrounds tech development, takes time.

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