The bank for a changing world

The banking jobs: Chief Information Officer

  • Sonja Noben Chief Information Officer
  • Brussels
  • 12.10.2018

Based in Brussels, BNP Paribas Fortis Chief Information Officer (CIO) Sonja Noben is leading the bank’s digital transformation, and serves as a member of the Executive Committee. We asked her what it means to be CIO in the digital age and why BNP Paribas is an exciting place to work.

Can you tell us about your role with BNP Paribas Fortis?

I joined BNP Paribas Fortis in September 2016, taking on the role of Chief Information Officer with responsibility for the bank’s IT in Belgium, and serve as a Member of the Executive Committee. My mission is to co-lead BNP Paribas Fortis through the disruptive changes impacting the Financial sector since a few years.The Bank has to become an Agile@scale, Digital@scale, and Customer Centric organization run by delighted employees. In other words, the Bank’s operating model should adapt to a constantly changing and challenging world context.

How did your career evolve before you joined the Group?

Before BNP Paribas, I held several management positions at another bank over the course of my 19-year career there, including positions as CIO ING Investment Management for the European region, Head of IT & Ops Commercial Banking, Financial Markets and Payments.During that time I also led the bank’s Digital Transformation and Touchpoint Architecture Delivery. I started my career in the insurance sector, worked several years for a great consultancy firm and was Managing Director of my own consultancy company specialized in IT for financial and capital markets.I studied business economics and specialized in IT and started my career as data and process manager. From there, I grew in my position to project management and IT leader, and then eventually to CIO positions. 

What challenges do you face now as a CIO?

Our focus is to help the bank become one of the biggest digital players and to digitally transform. The current landscape of IT systems that we use is very complicated, because we inherited our multiple platforms and technologies through various acquisitions and mergers with different groups. Maintaining all of this is costly and there is a real need to adapt this environment, the technologies, platforms and systems, to the fast-evolving digital world. The first and biggest challenge we are working on is making the company more agile. Not only agile from an IT point of view, but more holistically with all the processes and services and solutions that we deliver to our clients.

 This must be done in a flexible way with very short development cycles. Technology is so pervasive in the lives of our clients. Digital giants and companies that were born on the web offer very simple, very attractive user interfaces and experiences—that’s the type of service consumers expect from a bank. The biggest challenge is to help the bank stay ahead of the competition. It’s all about ensuring we are the leader when it comes to banking platforms—now and in the future. 

It’s all about ensuring we are the leader when it comes to banking platforms—now and in the future. 

How are you and your team enabling the digital transformation of the bank?

One element of the transformation is that we are now broken up into smaller, empowered teams, responsible for a number of systems or infrastructure components, or a whole system. When we started this process, we had 20 agile teams of about eight to 10 people in a kind of incubator, when most of the bank was still set up more traditionally. Now we have around 180 of these teams involved in the delivery of IT, and they are agile and multidisciplinary. 

These teams not only include IT people but also product owners from the business lines and the operations department. The number of people within the bank getting involved in the marketing and the product development of our services is growing. This allows us to deliver true value to our customers through the features and solutions that we bring to them every day. 

How do you approach scaling tech infrastructure for such a large project?

We worked heavily on bringing our digital architecture and solutions up to date, redesigning them from scratch to be future-proof, scalable, elastic, efficient, and secure. The architecture and platform foundations were designed to offer our services smoothly, while remaining robust and secure. Scale is an essential part of digital transformation. We borrow basic elements from FinTech and web-one companies that the digital giants are using, too, such as cloud-based and fully automated services. We largely use a micro-services approach where we build small functionalities, ready for easy integration into any channel for any client offer. These can also be integrated into open banking platforms with other services and companies to augment our own service offering.

How is the role of IT changing in the banking industry?

I truly believe that the future is a blend of IT and business. Ultimately, the bank offers products that are—to a large extent—IT services. The blending of IT and business as full partners is critical in order to drive this digital transformation for our customers. That’s why we are working so hard to build partnerships and bring added value and experiences into our services.

The blending of IT and business as full partners is critical in order to drive this digital transformation for our customers

We can’t simply take our existing legacy products and digitize them if you have to take 20 steps to use a product. Other companies are offering the same service in three steps, with an exciting and attractive front-end, so we need to fight to keep the primary relationship with our clients by being the most attractive and usable banking platform. At the end of the day, we need to provide simple and useful products that make our clients’ daily lives easier by helping them manage their financial well-being.

As CIO, what are the technical and personal skills you need to have to manage such an ambitious goal?

I specialized in transformation and change management in order to be able to bring people along during the whole journey of the transformation, because you cannot transform by yourself. It has to be part of your DNA, because if instilling deep change is not your biggest motivator then you simply can’t bring the energy level you need to get the job done. What I always say to my people is that you need to be continuously learning. On the technology side, there is no escape from it. There is so much to learn, about APIs and micro-services and architecture and technology specifications and the cloud and so much more, and you cannot manage this type of job if you don’t have a thirst for knowledge. Continuous, lifelong learning for everyone involved in IT and digital business is a fact of life.

we need to provide simple and useful products that make our clients’ daily lives easier 

What is something you value about working at BNP Paribas?

Having great people that we grow continuously is important. We invest a lot in our people at BNP Paribas. It can take a lot of energy, but it’s one of the things that I find very attractive about the Group. The bank is able to adapt to the changing world while growing its own people and that’s not always the case. Many companies are not doing that; they just replace staff with other people who have different skills. Within the Group, there is a concerted effort to grow the existing team as part of the company’s DNA, and it’s a great asset.

“If you are inspired by major transformation, not simple continuous change management, but major transformation, if you are inspired by digitization, APIs, specific technologies, micro services, cloud services, and if you are inspired by working with the great and competent, then I think you should join, because we have all those ingredients! ”

Sonja Noben

Chief Information Officer - BNP Paribas Fortis 

Photo credit:  header © Horváth Botond // © prudkov

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