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Ahu Chhapgar

Cloud-Native technologies for digital transformation in financial services are changing the cash flows

In this edition of Kin + Carta Luminaries, we meet Ahu Chhapgar, who recently joined Citi as Managing Director and Global Head of Banking Channels Technology in Treasury & Trade Solutions (TTS) — the division that manages Citi’s large institutional clients. The digital transformation in financial services can be a very difficult and delicate process demanding very capable leaders. In his role, Ahu spearheads TTS’ transformation journey as it processes $4 trillion of client payments every day in 140 currencies and provides more value to its customer base and employees around the globe.

Jared Johnson: Why did you leave PayPal and what large initiatives did you lead during your tenure at Mastercard?

AHU CHHAPGAR: I was at PayPal when it was a much smaller company. We had about 200 developers at the time. When I got a call from Mastercard, I didn't want to go do a PayPal all over again, and so it was really about what [Mastercard] was [doing differently]. It turns out [Mastercard] wanted to build a digital payments platform to enable large issuers and banks. That’s what got me excited. Fast forward a couple years, we built Masterpass, which directly competes with Visa Checkout and PayPal.

JJ: Can you walk through the steps that you took inside of your organization to build a platform?

AC: When I first came in we were just about to get onto the agile journey, so it was really about getting our teams correctly aligned to deliver value. [We thought], “If we’re building a platform, what do we need?” We figured we’d have to re-architect our code completely to move to microservices — domain-driven design [and] bounded context-led microservices. That was a big part of our journey, and then last but not least being able to actually enable productivity and elasticity for development teams and all the benefits that you get from moving to the cloud. We used Pivotal Cloud Foundry (PCF) and partnered with Pivotal Labs. We had them in our offices doing an eight- to 10-week session [and] we tried to get our [primary products] on the cloud platform. It was really a lot of fun and [we learned] from the teams and had great [outcomes] at the end of it.

JJ: Can you talk about your role at Citi? What are you tasked with inside of the organization?

AC: I didn’t know much about TTS before I actually started interviewing for this job. Citi is a really big 200-year-old franchise. We have relationships across the world, with regulators everywhere where we do banking — nobody else has that broad global scale. Today we move close to $4 trillion dollars a day of trade payments, cash management, [and] liquidity for some of our largest enterprise and corporate customers. That was a big number [and] I looked at it like, okay, so what does that mean? It means $1.5 quadrillion a year, and I don't know about you, but I've never done anything quadrillion in my life.

JJ: As you look to partner with business and IT executive stakeholders inside your new role at Citi, how do you signal to your peers that transformation is a marathon and not a sprint? 

AC: I think the technology executive's job is about how to take legacy applications from where they are today to their end state. It's about the steps in the evolution versus the end state. A big part of that is working with the business and helping them understand. Rightfully so, these folks are focused on the products that they are building and understanding their markets really well. They do not have the time to focus on the constantly evolving technology landscape.

So we began this journey together and I’ve spent [the past] three and a half months focusing on doing deep dives with the business and really understanding the people, process, and technology. As a part of that, we came up with a multi-pronged approach of what we will do, one [of which] is a complete move to scaled agile framework (SAFe).


JJ: What does that look like? How many teams?

AC: 60 scrum teams. For those who [have] worked at banks, everything is this big. It's always tens of thousands of engineers. I mean would Amazon implement scaled agile framework? Probably not. But, this is the right next step for us. We have a high dependency set of applications. It's the right next step for us when you're going from monolith to microservices.

Second — and we had a similar problem at Mastercard — is moving from a large monolith to microservices and doing it the right way. [It’s a] domain-driven architectural mindset from the start. It's very important to get this right early. The design part, it's a little harder to go and change once you've defined what your microservices and what your domains are.

JJ:  The value that your teams provide is the top line on your scorecard. Can you explain the importance and philosophy behind that?

AC: I guess I have to give PayPal all the credit for this. When we built anything, it was always about the end user. We put metrics around anything we built. I remember building our “next generation” checkout, which was supposed to improve our checkout by a few percentage points, which meant millions of dollars for PayPal on a conversion from the time somebody clicks the PayPal button to the time you actually buy the product. I think it underperformed the existing one and we didn’t go live with it. We kept it at a very low percentage of our traffic. Point being, it’s really important to be uber focused on what true value you add for the consumer.

Amazon has a really good way of doing this where they say, “For anything that you're asked to do, ask ‘So what?’ three times.” That gelled with how we did things at PayPal [and it’s] similar to what we want to do [at] Citi. We have a really large customer-client base. There are clients that need a lot of complexity and there are clients that need a lot of simplicity. We worked with Kin + Carta to figure out exactly how we think about the user journeys for that large group of clients that want the simpler experience. If you can go out and create something of value for 80 percent of your user base, well, that's really, really meaningful. So I think [making] that [a] priority is really important in how you go about battling business problems.

JJ: We talked about transformation through a business lens, but what about the transformation inside of technology? Can you highlight some of the changes you’re making?

AC: First off, going from a monolithic application building mindset to a distributed environment is a different type of development and type of product building. It’s a huge leap. So we're doing our absolute best in understanding what the best practices are as you go develop in a distributed environment. One of the things we’re doing is writing down a set of principles — principles applied to how you build applications, to how you will release applications. For example, one of the new mantras inside of our groups is, “Green CI equals release!” We don’t want unit test coverage metrics to say Green if it doesn’t give us the confidence to release. Avoid the vanity metrics and ensure that when your CI reports green that you have the confidence to release.

JJ: How does the DevOps world work inside of your new organization at Citi?

AC: As everybody knows, DevOps is very much a part of what development organizations now own. This is all about enabling their future and so one of the simplest things to go after is validating the pipeline. We're taking the application and we're putting it through the ringer via pipelines. For instance, let's take a very simple capability like schema validations: Can you run process through a pipeline completely? Does Green CI for schema validation equal release? That’s our approach going forward.

JJ: Can you talk about how you’re attracting and retaining talent worldwide?

AC: As we go through this transformation journey, we have a set of really committed engineers at Citi. They have a great understanding of the existing applications, great subject matter expertise. We want to pair them with people who have expertise in the cloud domain in modern day architecture. We are looking to hire everywhere. We're obviously in multiple cities, from New York City, Delaware, Canada, Dublin, to India. So there's a lot of hiring that is going on right now to enable these teams.

JJ: What is the next three to six months look like for you?

The next three to six months is about continuing to talk about what new modern software architecture looks like at Citi, champion it, and then be able to take a capability and move it to the cloud.

JJ: Plant a flag of success, a win somewhere in the organization.

AC: Exactly. Win, gain confidence, take the next step.
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