Updated: Nov 27, 2020
After years in the top echelons of international banking, Karel Soukeník had
had enough of the corporate environment and lengthy decision-making
processes. He believes that the latter prevent the introduction of modern
financial technologies to the extent possible in terms of quality. But at
Creative Dock, he found the freedom to bring the most effective financial tools
YOU HELD HIGH-RANKING POSITIONS AT RAIFFEISENBANK AND SBERBANKA, WHERE YOU WORKED IN FINANCIAL TECHNOLOGIES, KNOWN AS FINTECH. HOW DID YOU END UP IN THIS SECTOR?
I have a typical banking career history. After an initially working as a consultant, I
started at Citibank and then switched to Raiffeisenbank. After about a year, I became
the chief finance officer there. We were working on big IT projects that ultimately
didn’t work out, but they taught me a great deal about life. I transferred to Sberbanka
and took up the combined position of finance and operations director, so I was also
responsible for IT. And I believe that this is the most interesting area of banking,
which is changing the most. But this isn’t easy at all and the banks are fighting
against it a lot.
Two factors complicate the situation. Historically, banks built up their IT systems 10
to 15 years ago and are unable to replace them today. They invested crazy amounts.
Writing off two billion crowns now and trying “again and doing it better” isn’t easy.
What’s more, regulators are imposing more and more rules on the financial sector.
Today, most of the budget goes on regulatory IT. At the bank, you’re spending a lot
of time dealing with regulation. The rest of the time you’re trying to keep the engine
ticking over. So that makes doing something interesting in such an environment very
DOES THIS MEAN THAT YOU THINK IT WOULD BE BETTER FOR BANKS TO GET RID OF THEIR EXISTING IT SYSTEMS AND START AFRESH?
Yes. At first, banks had first-generation IT systems [Editor’s note: one very
complicated, customised core system] and most of them switched to the second
generation [Editor’s note: SOA architecture with several specialised applications
integrated with ESB). Meanwhile, however, the third generation had arrived (Editor’s
note: micro-service architecture], which is more efficient and cheaper. However, few
banks, which had invested hugely in switching to the second generation, are brave
enough to admit that they didn’t get things entirely right and that they should start
from scratch. Especially when one or billion two crowns had to be written off. That
isn’t an acceptable decision. But from a purely technical point of view, it’s better to
RECENTLY, SEVERAL DOMESTIC BANKS INTRODUCED NEW INTERNET BANKING. BUT DOES THIS MEAN THAT SOME FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS HAVE TAKEN THE PLUNGE, OR IS IT ONLY A SUPERFICIAL MOVE WITH NO REAL SIGNIFICANCE?
Online banking could, in many cases, be far better than it is. Clients should be able to
manage everything using their mobile phones and the internet, and combine the use
of both. And not just to make payments but also to make a product request on their
mobile phones and then complete this process on the Internet. Or, I should be able to
click and get advice from a video banker if I don’t know how to do something but
don’t want to visit the branch. However, transforming such ideas into reality isn’t
IS BANK INFLEXIBILITY THE MAIN OBSTACLE?
We need a team of people who know how to set it up and would rather not be told
what to do. They would do it in half a year. They don’t usually have such time.
Usually, there’s a more pressing project to deal with – and we’re back to regulation.
Or, we drop everything and work on upgrading or migrating an old system at the end
of its life. They don’t usually enjoy such jobs. It involves work on parts of projects that
don’t have the impact that they could have.
AS A CLIENT, NOT JUST OF A BANK, I’M OFTEN CONFRONTED WITH AN INNOVATION TO SOMETHING RELATIVELY SIMPLE THAT COMPLICATES LIFE FOR THE USER. AND IT’S DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH. IS THIS THE OUTCOME OF SUCH AN APPROACH?
This is how decisions are made at big companies. Managers feel obliged to
demonstrate their added value, and to make decisions on and approve everything.
Instead of testing a prototype on customers and finding out what real clients need.
Five different committees will discuss the proposal and send it to headquarters. You’ll
end up with 50 ideas, resulting in a decision that has nothing to do with the client.
Somewhere, in committees in Vienna, they’re dealing with what kind of button is
needed for an app for mums on maternity leave in the Czech Republic. But a 55-
year-old manager really isn’t capable of commenting on that. However, companies
aren’t willing to give up their decision-making. The manager would lose his raison
d’être. And that’s where the crucial difference is between how big businesses work
and how startups work.
AM I RIGHT IN THINKING THIS IS WHY YOU QUIT THE CORPORATE WORLD
AND JOINED CREATIVEDOCK?
Yes, it was. It really holds you back when you know that there’s a better way to do
something but you’re unable to do it. The other problem is that it’s very difficult for
corporations to recruit staff. People aren’t stupid and know very well the environment
in which the bank operates, and that every decision will take a long time to go through a crazy rigmarole. At CreativeDock, I receive 10 times more CVs; people are
much more creative, and they get much more enjoyment out of their work. No one
needs to check if they’re spending eight hours or less in the office. They work hard
and enjoy it because they can get their ideas across. At the bank, I received 10 CVs
in one quarter and what’s more from people who weren’t really the very best. In
contrast, in one month I held 50 interviews at CreativeDock. All of them were smart
and enthusiastic about things.