A software developer’s approach to building a bank in the digital age.
- David Jarvis
Published: 25 Sep 2023
The banking world has always belonged to bankers – and historically, it has been an exclusive and not particularly technology-friendly industry. While traditional banks have slowly but surely been digitising their services, they have not been keeping pace with rapidly evolving consumer demands. People want to be able to access financial services contextually – at their fingertips, when and where they need them. This expectation has created space for a new kind of a bank – founded and led by developers, grounded in a tech-first mindset, and focused on solving real problems for today’s consumers and businesses.
Banking is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world, which means you can’t just wander in and start “disrupting” – and rightly so. A developer-led bank needs to be compliant with the same regulatory standards as any other bank, – while also contending with established banking giants and winning the trust of a new customer base.
Developers see an opportunity to reshape an industry that is broken in many ways – and with that comes a lot of responsibility to get it right. When my co-founder and I started Griffin, we were confident in our vision – and we’ve encountered some unique hurdles and some surprising insights along the way.
Regulation does not have to be a roadblock
Historically, the banking industry has seen regulation as a blocker – a problem that needs to be solved, rather than an opportunity to be seized. This means the industry norm is to commit only enough resources to solve the problem, and no more than that.
But early on in our journey to build a bank, we asked ourselves: what if we wanted to be the best at this? What does it take to be excellent at compliance?
Banking regulation goes deep and granular on every single aspect of your business. With a developer mindset, it’s possible to see regulatory obligations as a set of specifications for a really great product. Policies and procedures can be seen as the banking “code” that results from the regulatory specs. Rather than roadblocks, regulations become the building blocks that underpin your system’s integrity, making sure you consistently operate with transparency, accountability, and your customers’ best interests at heart.
That said, for developers, systems are typically black and white — code, if written correctly, will execute in a specific way every time. People are not machines and the financial world sometimes operates in shades of grey, which means your system has to leave room for interpretation and good judgement when something is not clear.
Innovation means more scrutiny – and that’s not a bad thing
When regulators encounter something new and different, their job is to understand how it will fit into the existing landscape – and crucially to understand what the impacts on consumers and markets could be if an exciting new venture falls flat on its face.
So it’s not surprising that banks often take a “wait-and-watch” approach to new technologies and ways of working. They wait for other players to thoroughly test-drive a new idea before they will consider adopting it themselves. This approach might have its merits, but it also means a slow, arduous journey to catch up to those who dared to take the lead.
Developers, on the other hand, are innately curious, driven to learn, and constantly interrogating the status quo. Our own journey started because we saw that companies – particularly innovative fintechs – were not getting what they needed from their banks. We engaged these companies, developed a deep understanding of their needs, and started crafting solutions to meet those needs.
This customer-led approach means we can’t just fall back on “the way it’s always been done” in banking. As a developer, every time you encounter a new problem or challenge, you should go back to the first principles: what’s the problem we’re trying to solve, what outcomes do we want to deliver, what kind of organisation do we want to be?
This means more scrutiny, but it also means you’re headed in the right direction: breaking new ground, solving deeply entrenched problems, and building something no one has ever built before.
Hierarchy should be a tool, not a mindset
Rigid hierarchical structures – like those often found in traditional banks – can stifle emerging talent and obscure contributions from people at lower levels of an organisation. This, in turn, prevents new ideas from rising to the surface and ultimately hampers growth and innovation.
On a dev team, it doesn’t matter if you’re a fresh graduate or an industry veteran – what matters is your approach to solving problems, how well you collaborate, and the quality of the code you produce. Your culture needs to reflect this mindset: value people for their skills, perspectives and contributions – not for the long list of very impressive job titles they’ve had.
You want to build a psychologically safe workplace, where each voice is heard and valued. This means everyone at every level of the organisation should be encouraged to share insights and ideas, and specifically to challenge leadership.
Of course, hierarchy does play one very important role in a highly regulated industry such as banking – the role of ensuring accountability. When it comes to making important decisions, it’s essential that key individuals have clearly defined responsibilities, reporting lines, and oversight roles. In this context, hierarchy becomes a tool that supports good governance and a safe, equitable workplace.
Policies are not culture
Traditional banks tend to treat policies as their primary tool for problem-solving. While policies are part of the source code that defines how a business operates, they do not define culture. An organisation’s real culture is found in the values and behaviours of the people who work there – how they interact, how they work towards their goals, and how they handle challenges.
Culture is defined by who a company chooses to hire, fire, and promote. If you are not intentional about hiring for your company’s stated values, you’ll still end up with a culture – but it won’t be the one you’ve described on your careers page.
Unfortunately, traditional banks don’t place much emphasis on core values and culture during hiring, preferring to focus solely on qualifications and experience. This is why many banks end up with a culture that is at odds with the one they claim to have – which is both misleading to the outside world and a source of strain and cognitive dissonance internally.
Your focus should be on building a culture that goes beyond policy documents. You need a holistic recruitment strategy that assesses the candidate’s core values—how they work with others, their perception of accountability, and whether they display kindness and thoughtfulness. This means that every new person who joins your team strengthens your desired culture and helps it grow and evolve in a positive direction.
Banking tech needs to be rebuilt from the ground up
Modern banking is built on an increasingly rickety foundation of legacy tech. These outdated systems are groaning under decades of incremental updates and patches, and struggle to provide agility and interoperability (and in some cases, struggle to work at all). A massive benefit of building a developer-led bank is that developers understand what’s needed to launch a brilliant Software as a Service (SaaS) platform.
The goal should be to offer a complete technological solution that is fully integrated with the regulated framework of a bank. This means that your products cannot just be a pretty user interface slapped onto old infrastructure—they should be built from the ground up and tailored to the specific needs of your customers.
You are not just upgrading the technology—you’re reimagining the entire banking experience to help pioneer a future where banking is more accessible, flexible, and innovative.
In the end, a developer-led bank goes beyond just creating a different kind of bank. It is part of a movement in the financial sector that challenges the status quo and paves the way for a more inclusive and innovative future. It’s a road full of challenges – but then most roads worth taking are.
David Jarvis is the co-founder and CEO of Griffin Bank – the UK’s first full-stack Banking as a Service platform for fintechs. Griffin makes it quick, simple and inexpensive for companies to embed financial services into their own products. It does the heavy lifting on complex infrastructure and compliance requirements, so fintechs can focus on what matters: creating a world-class experience for their customers.
Prior to setting up Griffin, David spent nearly a decade working as an infrastructure engineer at companies like Airbnb and CircleCI. He worked on the core banking system at API banking startup Standard Treasury, acquired by Silicon Valley Bank in 2015. Along with his Griffin cofounder Allen Rohner, he is the author of Learning ClojureScript.
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