Christoph Zwicker, Avaloq
Personal Factfile: Christoph Zwicker
Name of current organisation: Avaloq
Job Title: Managing Director of Avaloq Innovation Ltd
In post since: July 2014
Reports to: Klaus Rausch, CTO
Office location: Edinburgh, UK
Company Factfile -
Avaloq are specialists at solving complex business problems for banks, helping them to run their business more effectively while improving customer experience. Launched in 2001 and headquartered in Zurich, Avaloq provides modular solutions tailored to client's needs across universal banking, retail banking, wealth management, transaction banking and central banks. With over 57,000 users across 140 clients, Avaloq work with some of the world's most recognisable and prestigious banks. Avaloq has over 1600 employees in Switzerland, Germany, Hong Kong, Luxembourg, the Philippines, France, Singapore, Australia and the UK.
What does your current role involve?
I'm responsible for managing our Edinburgh development centre with currently 65 people. We work in a matrix organisation, providing entire teams or in some cases individual software engineers, business analysts and technical writers to different projects within the Avaloq group. So my job is mostly people management, managing the development centre as a business unit and managing its growth this year. Right now we're building the second part of the office and I'm recruiting a lot of staff. I've also worked as a software architect so I still coach people and make sure we run internal technical education programmes.
Edinburgh is the second major site after Zurich so the main goal is to establish it as an equal, not just in communication but in actual thinking. What that means is getting people to have an equal understanding of the system. In Zurich we have people with 15 years' experience within the company, while here it's only 2 or 3 years. In Edinburgh I'm aiming to build a leadership team that's able to deal with exceptional situations - but one that plans and communicates well enough to make sure no such situations arise.
With the expansion there will be more breadth to the business. Right now we have certain subject areas in which we work. Once you've worked for a few years in the same area you're becoming an expert so you typically want to learn something new, or you want to go in-depth and dig into the detail for another 2, 3, or 4 years. Growth is a good thing as it expands the opportunities for people to move around and most people want to learn new stuff.
I've also started developing the external marketing of the site and I've started taking a more active role on social media. I think it's important to drive this channel to get people to take an interest in the company and promote the employer brand. We need to make sure our name is known in the talent market! Right now I think Avaloq is well-known within the banking sector, but unfortunately potential employees - people who work at other tech companies - have often not heard of us. Brand awareness is the first thing I want to establish. We're much more known in Zurich, as we are present at universities and offer quite a lot of internships. We haven't done that in Scotland yet, so this is certainly another thing I've started looking into doing here.
You've just moved here, so what do you like most about living and working in Edinburgh?
My favourite change is that I can walk to the office in the morning instead of driving - that's wonderful! I don't have a car here; I don't need a car here and I love that. Edinburgh is a great city, there's a lot of arts going on and good music. I love the festivals: I even went to see the Edinburgh Tattoo twice so that I could enjoy it from two different angles! I've only been here for 4 months so I can't tell you how I will deal with the weather in winter, but it has certainly been an amazing summer.
Can you tell me about Avaloq's development environment?
We are moving more and more to web technologies, to a three-tier service oriented architecture. Within that ecosystem, Java is the language of choice. We work in Eclipse, which allows us to tap into a vast amount of freely available open source extensions. Our newest addition to the Avaloq Banking Suite is an omni-channel customer interaction platform. This includes integrated e-banking and mobile banking solutions, developed over the past three years. The technology we used here is now being employed in other areas of the banking suite.
Due to the data-intensive processes involved in banking operations, much of our development is done in PL/SQL, a procedural language that gives us seamless access to data in Oracle databases. Our core banking system is built on this technology - and most likely this will not change for the core engines and frameworks as we can't afford to lose performance in data conversions. To work efficiently with this technology, we created our own integrated development environment (IDE) based on Eclipse. This offers a modern environment comparable to Java Development Tools and enforces certain quality assurance mechanisms like peer reviews, automated testing and continuous integration. There is an internal team of more than 20 software engineers working to ensure this environment remains state-of-the-art and to allow our developers to work as efficiently and effectively as possible.
This environment not only supports native PL/SQL, but allows modelling large portions of the software and generating the necessary code automatically. So basically instead of typing up your code manually, we identify patterns in the target code, create our own compilers and generate the final code with these. We use the same techniques for the customisation of our banking suite, so we work with 80 Domain Specific Languages ( DSLs) to make customisation as easy and business driven as possible. The amazing thing is that all of these DSLs interlink and our IDE for example allows hyperlinking between them, refactoring code across all of them -all the features you would expect from a modern environment. I think the code generation is a really important aspect: we try to make not just the bank's work more efficient, but also our own work as well.
What does Avaloq's technology innovation strategy look like?
Compared to our competitors, we invest a very significant amount of our revenues into innovation - around 50%. The Avaloq Banking Suite covers a wider range of the business and is much more adjustable to our customer's needs than what we see in our competitors, so central innovation has a more global effect. To give you example, one of our main competitors has to offer three products instead of one to cover the same range of business. For their customers this tends to mean more data inconsistencies and more effort creating overall reports and evaluations. Our system doesn't have this problem.
We're focused on developing solutions for our customer needs and evolving markets. People who work here at all levels are encouraged to come up with new ideas that make things easier either for clients, or for us to serve our clients. There is a process that encourages any employee to pitch an idea to an investment board. If the idea is accepted in a first stage, they will get a budget to work on a prototype and to propose a full-scale project. It's an internal initiative but behaves like pitching to an investor. Right now there is a project running out of Edinburgh around a new documentation approach for our product that's more agile and allows customers to build on our documentation instead of just consuming it and maybe creating their own internal user documentation. We have a few other projects like this.
In your opinion what do you see as Avaloq's biggest area of technology growth in the next five years?
I mentioned previously that much of our systems are based on PL/SQL. Since we are moving more and more to Java and three-tier architecture, we are investing quite heavily in this ecosystem. We are very advanced in code generation within our existing technology stack, but we are by far not as advanced in the new ecosystem we are entering. Naturally, we need to make sure our staff are comfortable with the new technologies and that we reach the same level of process maturity in this new area. This transition certainly will keep us busy for the years to come!
How do you think Avaloq compares to other companies in the Edinburgh tech sector right now?
In Edinburgh we're competing mainly with other cool tech companies like Skyscanner and FanDuel. Compared to these, a major difference is that our product is focused on business users rather than on end-point customers. We're in a more professional market and an individual customer has a greater influence; our main challenge is standardising our product to create economies of scale, while making sure each customer's individual processes are optimally supported.
From an employee's point of view, another major difference is that at Avaloq, you're learning about banking and applying what you've learned at university. In many other companies, you may need to apply what you know, and you learn about the technology but you don't have this other field (banking) that you learn about. For me this was one of the main attractions that led me to join Avaloq. Learning everything about the banking business - things you may not have known even existed before - and becoming an expert who is able to confidentally discuss the business with customers at eye level is a satisfaction you don't easily get elsewhere.
There are many different career paths available here. Right now when you start here as a software engineer or a business analyst it will certainly take you a couple of years to get to know your area. Then you have different options, you can go deeper into the subject, or you can move sideways to get broader experience which will give you more of an overall view with more breadth of the business.
Another option is moving into software architecture - which is about shaping the product suite's technology - or moving into product management which is about having a vision for the product and driving this forward and getting people to get your product where it should be: fit for market. Since we are part of an international group, there are also options to go into consulting, or even move to sales or into account management.
Since there are all these different disciplines, and we're growing internationally, there's always new places opening up and people looking for experienced staff to be part of a new company. You can be part of core system development, you can work with new technology that's being introduced, and of course there's management as well. Above all, you can be sure there is something new to be learned every day, be it from customers, colleagues of partner companies.
What was the first technology job that you had?
I started at Avaloq as a software engineer in 2005 in the trading area, more specifically stock exchange. I then founded a team in securities lending & borrowing, repurchase agreements and collateral management. I led that team for 2 years, built up modules in the banking system to support these businesses and then went on to be a software architect for the entire treasury domain. A few months later, an opportunity to turn my passion of modelling and code generation into a team arose and I moved over to tooling to create state-of-the-art model based editors for our DSLs. The team grew to become a unit, so I ended up heading a business unit of about 35 people with 3 internal and an external team. Finally, I moved to my current position as MD of Avaloq's Edinburgh development centre this summer.
How did you get into technology?
I always wanted to do something technical. For a long time, I thought I was going to study architecture; I think the core thing for me is building new stuff, working creatively. When I learned more about software engineering, I realised this was a better fit for me. In architecture, if something is wrong with your plan - say you forgot about putting a door in - you might have to tear the entire building down at a tremendous cost and effort. In software, tearing your program down and rebuilding it only takes seconds, so there is much more leeway for experimentation. I think I was always technical, constructive and creative.
What has been your biggest career achievement to date?
Being here in Edinburgh as a managing director at my age (I'm still in my 30s) is certainly quite nice. Another thing I'm proud of is doing an executive MBA at INSEAD along with my full time and graduating with distinction. That certainly meant leaving my comfort zone!
From a content perspective I think I've brought quite a bit of innovation to the company in terms of code generation, so we're a lot more efficient today than we were five years ago. Within the 9 years I've been with Avaloq, I've built two teams and a unit from scratch, all of which still exist and create value for the company.
Who has been the most influential technology person in your career to date?
I'm not sure; I certainly learned a lot from a lot of people within the company, and I don't really think there's an idol outside the company. I guess I admire Steve Jobs for his stamina, for going his own way all the way - but then, he probably wasn't the nicest person to be around at times... If I had to single out one person from a technology viewpoint, it would probably be Ronald Strässler, a co-founder of Avaloq. He was my boss for 3 years and I had many discussions around software architecture with him. He is very strong in software engineering and architecture and like me very much wants to continuously extend his knowledge. This combination of business and technology is a key driver for me and Ronald definitely helped confirm my take on things!
What technology company do you most admire and why?
I would probably say Google, since they've really revolutionised the way companies work. Google is very effective in the way they deal with their employees, keeping them in the office for very long hours, but keeping them very happy at the same time - it's amazing what they've managed to do. They've changed the business and they've changed the way people think about recruiting. Think about their "20%" time, which for most employees is a bit of a sham of course, but for those people who have a great idea and take that time, it's a very good opportunity to become an intrapreneur - an entrepreneur within the protected environment of an existing company. There has been some success, but as with many things in Google the main effect has probably been in talent attraction, an area in which they are simply genius.
Google has managed to diversify from a simple search engine to a global conglomerate within a very short period of time. Today they're investing in all kinds of sectors, not just acquiring established companies, but also providing seed capital and knowledge to start-ups. So I think they have an excellent company model, and while I wouldn't say I agree with everything they do I do think they did quite well for themselves.
In your opinion, what is the most significant technological advance of the last five years?
I don't think the last five years have seen anything truly amazing; no real game-changers. In my opinion the most recent significant technological advance are smartphones. They've changed the way people interact and how we behave. Today everyone has their mobile phone, instead of talking to your family directly you talk to your mobile phone. It's changed the way society works, so I would say that was probably the most significant advance in the past 5 years. I think it's been a game changer and I'm not sure people are really aware of how much it's changed the fabric of our society.
What do you see being the biggest area of technology growth in the next five years?
I do think the direction Google Glass and wearable fitness applications are going is the biggest area of growth. I think we will see more and more products designed to merge us with our technology. It will be a mesh or something - you will be so tightly connected that you might not even realise it anymore when you're doing something with technology or a gadget. As today the phone has become such a part of us, so too will wearable tech grow to be a part of us. I think that will be happening over the next five years and it will be another game changer. For example I would love to have an application that reminded me who someone was when I saw them and what we last talked about because I'm sadly not that good with names and faces! Of course, there are privacy concerns to work out here but as far as the technology goes, I'm sure we will see more and more innovation in this area.
How does technology innovation in the UK compare to Switzerland
That's hard to answer; I'm not sure there's a huge difference in that respect. I think the way that companies, schools and universities interact is a bit different. There are closer links between companies and universities in Switzerland than I perceive here and I think there is more focus on getting people into technology. This is starting here, but in Switzerland there is interaction between the government and companies and high schools to try to get kids to go in to IT in high school, even in secondary schools which I'm not sure is happening here yet. So the way people are shepherded into the field of technology and to drive innovation is different.
In terms of how we approach innovation I do not think there is a big difference.
How are technology careers marketed to people at high school?
Universities offer labs together with employers, you could have a 3 day workshop - secondary school students could have three days off school to attend and experiment with technology. You have a lab where you could be introduced to programming in an intuitive way and your interest hopefully arises from that. Then in schools you can take up programming, which I know you can do here too. Maybe Switzerland is better at getting younger people into the field.
Which start-up does the most to impress you at the moment?
There's a start-up of a friend in Dubai, it's called TaskSpotting - it's an app that crowdsources point-of-sale information. So basically if you've got a business like Tesco you might be interested in how people perceive your shop. Members of the public can download the TaskSpotting app and it pays you to complete tasks ("missions"). You can make money by carrying out these tasks such as going to a Tesco store and evaluating presentation or customer service. The app looks at where you are and offers you tasks within your area.
They were really fast to start up and seem to be doing quite well. The retailers pay for the campaigns, they create the surveys to go out to customers and they charge per campaign or per person.
What is the latest personal technology gadget that you have bought?
Actually I've stopped buying so many tech gadgets recently. The last one I bought is a fine-tipped pen for work on the iPad. Typically you only get these with the huge tips that you have to use to write but this one should give the user much more control so you can write on an iPad normally - it's pressure-sensitive as well.
What is the best app that you have ever downloaded?
Best or most useful? The Google maps app is something I use a lot. It's developed reasonably quickly. The one I use most is probably an add-on calendar app.
What is on your iPod or MP3 player at the moment?
I'm not really into any specific kind of music, I like a wide variety: I listen to anything from classical to industrial metal bands like Rammstein. I would say my favourite band is Apocalyptica, cellists who play Metallica kind of music. I love my brother's band too of course: they're called Knut's Koffer. They play quite a broad spectrum of musical styles with a real focus on the lyrics. Unfortunately, not a lot of it is in English!
What do you do in your spare time?
I love sports; I regularly play volleyball, indoor climbing and I just took up fencing when I moved to Edinburgh. I had just gotten my paragliding permit when I left Switzerland, I must say I miss gliding here. If anyone who reads this does paragliding in Scotland, please get in touch!!
I also watch movies from time to time and I sometimes take some time to read a book. I've been fortunate enough to grow up in a family who love languages, so I'm not restricted to English or my native (Swiss) German!