The beauty of digital simplicity

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Businessman with information architecture graphic

Often, people seem a bit puzzled when I compare my job at the bank with the work of an industrial designer. “I thought you did something IT-related?” they say in surprise. Certainly, but our real commitment is to meet the client's wishes as closely as we can, in the simplest way possible. After all, simple solutions are often stable, inexpensive, sustainable, and easy to operate.

To me personally, that is the charm of this work: I get to dream, design, innovate and create. Ferdinand de Grijs Ferdinand de Grijs Head of Application and Data Architecture

Think like an urban designer

Simple solution-based thinking helps us offer our clients products and services that are perfectly tailored to their wishes, both in form and function. The process starts long before the actual programming phase. Think about the first iPod's click wheel: its simplicity and functionality make it timeless and stylish. That iPod design once started with the basic question: what does the user want? What is he looking for?

That same simplicity is what I have in mind when my team and I work on ABN AMRO's IT infrastructure. We have to get back to simple solutions. Over the past few years, our platforms have seen so much construction, innovation and renovation. You could readily compare it to a big city. Just like urban architects, our team consider form and function of our 'IT city'. A rigid structure without any room for flexibility is never going to work. It should be uncomplicated enough to facilitate swift responses to the continuously changing wishes of the citizens. More single-person apartments, less mobility, optical fiber cables after all, and the New World of Work: a well-conceived city can take it all. Recently, a colleague asked: 'Isn't this solution a little bit too straightforward?' - which I took as a wonderful compliment. As far as I am concerned, simpler is better.

A marketeer within architecture

Once upon a time, I started out at the insurance company AMEV. Via VSB Bank and Fortis I ended up at ABN AMRO. I've had the opportunity to see and learn a lot: from marketing, communication and operations to product management and IT. And now, ultimately, architecture. The bank gives you space to take a path like this, as long as you can clearly articulate which way you want to go with your personal growth. My professional baggage supports me so much in my current position. My product management and marketing experience helps me see things from the users' perspective, understand their wishes. I also learned how to tell the story behind the changes we roll out. Architecture is not over once a simple solution has been designed; ultimately, someone has to put the money on the table to realise that simple architecture. It takes a lot of marketing, not just at the moment of sale, but during the realisation as well. No architecture is ever established without any temporary inconvenience. We reassure the client about his choice, addressing or easing any doubts along the way.

The speed of developments

Two major trends have stood out to me over the past few years: the increasing presence of IT within the financial sector, and the accelerating speed at which IT developments take place. Things evolve so quickly, you just cannot ignore it. Just look at an activity like watching TV. When I’m home with my family in the evenings, we often each look at our own individual screens: Netflix, Playstation, YouTube, catching up with missed broadcasts. We still have the TV in our living room, but more often than not, it serves as a monitor. Who would've thought, five years ago? This pattern can be seen everywhere. We are left to wonder how the internet of things and block chain technology will shape our future. Our bank, at the heart of society, observes all this and has to act. What we take for granted today will soon be obsolete. This is exciting for people in our profession, as we are in touch with practically every digital development within the bank.

Weathering the storm

Economies, markets and products: nothing is static. This continuous development on all levels is causing a true storm within the sector. Only banks with the power and the will to keep up with changes as they come can make it through unscathed. I am convinced the bank will look different when it emerges from the storm. We will offer new services to new market segments. Some services will become obsolete, as customers move on and markets dissolve.

Marvelling, understanding, designing, and creating

These changes will keep coming. The first time I see something like that, I feel a sense of wonder. Wow. Who? What? Why? Then, understanding grows, followed by the designing phase. What could this imply for us? Car manufacturers are rapidly connecting their cars to the internet, providing them with a wealth of user information, and offering the customers an app with a number of practical functions. A wonderful solution if you don't remember where you parked, or if you suddenly realise you forgot to lock the car doors – when you are already at the table in your favourite restaurant.

For us, the question remains: 'What can we do with this?'. The app knows your car's location and fuel level, and gets an update when you fill up. The petrol station often already registers your licence number, and prepares the transaction data digitally for you. To me, the logical and easy next step would be to facilitate payment through the app. Good architecture prepares us for future demands like that. If we want to stay ahead, we should take those development into consideration now. As a bank we have to be swift to respond to new and different customer desires. Working in an agile way, but most of all, being agile. So we are currently working on a flexible architecture that is also simpler. To me personally, that is the charm of this work: I get to dream, design, innovate and create. It's no flight of fancy, though, as our designs have to work at least as well in reality as they do on paper.

Learning to reflect on your growth

The dynamics of rapid change have forced me to take a harder look at my own development as an individual. The old saying still applies: you never stop learning, even after 26 years. I can only stay on top of developments if I continuously keep learning. My advice to starters is to learn to reflect on your own growth. That will help you find your way through the wide range of opportunities that a large company like ABN AMRO can offer. You would also do well to combine your talents with your interests. In my case, it's involving ABN AMRO colleagues in new changes. Architecture both has to offer perspective by means of amazingly simple solutions, while also making it clear what we have to do to get there. When I am involved in discussions about such topics, I emphasise the bigger picture and use good practical examples to show everyone the beauty in simplicity.

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