Kelvin is a seasoned veteran of the IT, startup, and Fintech world. He believes in getting stuff done over abstract conversations, trying over over-thinking and small incremental over big-bang solutions. He likes to build teams, products, and technical solutions. Kelvin believes that technology should usually be a business enabler rather than a goal of itself.
Can you share with us your journey in the tech world and what inspired you to dedicate over two decades to software engineering?
It doesn't feel like it has been that long. I started out writing software for a small specialist Computer Aided Design company near Manchester. We were writing code in C++ out of an office above a lady's hair salon. It doesn't seem so long ago.
From there, I've written software to control robots, worked on safety critical to defense systems. I've written a number of systems of my own that I tried to launch as products with varying degrees of success. Prior to moving to Germany, I was working for a consultancy called Intechnica in Manchester. I had no plans to leave them as I was enjoying the work and the team was excellent but the opportunity to move to Germany actually fulfilled a life goal.
I maintained for a long time that there were two areas that I didn't have an interest in working in - gaming and banking. I moved to Germany to work for a computer games company and have spent the time since then in banking and finance. Funny how things work out.
I think that what keeps me interested in this field is that it is continually changing. There are always new technologies to learn about, interesting things that other people are working on, new business problems to solve.
Having led the engineering department at Deposit Solutions and founded a FinTech startup, what were your biggest learnings about being a tech leader in the FinTech industry?
I think that many people underestimate the cost and effort required in simply maintaining legal compliance. There are lots of industries where the legal oversight is minimal, and so all of the technical effort can be dedicated to feature development and innovation. But in the financial world, you must invest a lot into non-revenue generating features such as KYC, AML, PEP and Sanctions lists. I make no value judgement on whether these are good or bad, just that they are a necessary function that consumes a lot of time. The cost of just existing as an organization in this space is very high.
Second is the need to focus on quality. There are plenty of industries where it is considered acceptable to release buggy software and test it on real customers and let the users find the bugs. I personally find that approach to be very poor. You wouldn't get away with releasing buggy software on a safety critical system and I don't see why it is acceptable in other industries. In finance, you are asking your customers to invest a lot of trust in you, and I think that it is important to repay that trust. Bugs and mistakes are inevitable but there is a lot that can be done to mitigate their occurrence and impact.
Your experiences at several FinTech companies are particularly relevant to your current work at Othis. How have they shaped your approach here?
I have been really privileged to have worked with some excellent people over the last few years and learned lots from them. My experience has informed my strategy at Othis in a number of ways.
Primarily, to mis-quote Tim Collins, get the right people on the bus. We have built a really strong team of committed people who want to build a great product. Team players are important – we need to support each other a lot when building something new. Building a good team who trust and can rely on each other is a major responsibility of the whole leadership team. I think that we have done pretty well there.
Build the security and compliance stuff in right from the start. In the early days, it's easy to do if you have a good understanding of your legal obligations and how to fulfill them. Then it's done and you don't have to worry too much about it.
Picking the right partners - external providers, third party tools, banking partners. We have learned through a lot of (sometimes quite painful) experiences, what questions to ask, what policies to define and when to integrate which components.
As with almost all tech systems though, the truth is that the tech is simply a tool to solve a business problem. Understanding the business problem and communicating that to the tech colleagues is essential. Once people understand the problem that they are working on, they tend to deliver much higher quality solutions. We are investing heavily in learning sessions so that we understand what and why each member of the team is working on and how it relates to the customer and the wider business problem that we are trying to solve.
You also held a Performance and Security Lead position at GoodGame Studios. What best practices do you instill when it comes to security?
First - just don't make it easy. There are plenty of systems currently on the web that are still vulnerable to exploits that are five, six years old. That's not funny and it isn't professional.
Also, don't let your users make it easy – a password policy + MFA is easy to implement now.
Keep up to date. It is much, much harder to retrospectively introduce adequate security measures than it is to simply keep up to date. Staying up to date means investing in decent automation to scan and test code, automation to monitor, detect and alert. You need to know what is going on inside your system all the time.
Then policies, principles etc. Least principal, onion layers of security, all of these are best practice.
Train your people on how to hack. Once people know how malicious users get access to systems, they become aware of how to mitigate that threat. A single-day training course on how to use Kali Linux is a very valuable investment. I maintain that most engineers are professionals and want to do the best that they can but how can they mitigate dangers that they don’t know about?
I'd love to see people stop using the term "military grade" when it comes to tech, to be honest. It's a little over-stated. There is no justification to not use these systems.
Security is everyone’s problem – even basics such as forcing screen locks on screensavers can be a deterrent.
Everyone you worked with believes you are one of the best leaders in the tech scene, particularly highlighting your direct communication style, support for others, and humor. Do you have a personal philosophy that helps you build a strong engineering culture?
That's a really humbling thing to be told. I'd suggest that those that have worked with me previously would be better placed to answer this.
I draw a difference between leadership and management – I hope that I am considered a leader. Management is part of that role, but it is a small part of it.
I like to explain to people what we need to achieve and then let them get on with it. My role is to make sure that their objectives are clear, they have the tools/resources/knowledge to achieve those goals and then I need to get out of their way. I'm a big fan of Jurgen Appelo's work here.
My personal philosophy is "Don't be an arsehole"
I give everyone that starts working for me the same message:
WHEN you make a stupid mistake, just come and tell me. We've all done it, you're not going to get shouted at, we will fix it together.
Ask questions. If you're in a discussion and you don't know something, I guarantee that at least one other person also has the same question. If I can't explain it so that you understand, that's my problem not yours.
I do also tell my team that I'm funny. They laugh at that statement.
I strongly believe that people should leave a job with more knowledge than when they started. Most people leave jobs not because of money but because they want a new challenge or because they think that they're not learning or progressing. I'd rather invest in their learning and progression and keep a good team structure.
In your 20+ years of experience, is there a particular project or initiative that you're most proud of? What makes it stand out for you?
Sorry, I can’t do one.
I used to visit a school on Wednesday afternoons and teach the children electronics. We built robots using stepper-motors and simple bandpass filters to control the movement of the robot with laser pointers. The children learned about electronics, resistors, diodes, LEDs, how to solder - everything. One student used that robot as a demonstration of their capability to enter Oxford University.
I created a system to monitor and optimise the energy consumption of large energy consumers (think steel or paper mills). The software and associated hardware were both excellent (customer feedback) and helped to save some customers millions of pounds in energy costs, but I learned that I’m great at technology but not at sales.
Rubarb GmbH deserves a mention here. We created in record time, in the middle of corona shutdown and the associated funding problems a fully featured app to get people saving for their future. Economic conditions alas conspired against. But the solution was excellent.
It certainly sounds like the thrill of adventure is a significant theme in your life and career. What do you do to balance it out and recharge?
Building businesses is a significant thrill but one does need balance.
I’m a big lover of the outdoors – when I can, it’s nice to just head off somewhere with a rucksack, tent, map and compass. The kindle is the greatest invention ever for camping – I don’t have to lug three or four books around all the time.
I was a scout leader in the UK and used to take groups of teenagers out camping. Once they’re around the camp-TV (a big fire) without phones, they are great company.
I like climbing rock faces and white-water kayaking. I moved to Hamburg which has neither.
I also love to cook. I have catered for literally thousands of people with fire as a heat-source but also enjoy trying something new in the kitchen at home.