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In between legacy and cloud with Alina Timofeeva

As we move forward to a more digitally transformed world, the task of migrating your legacy systems can be daunting and could set you up for failure. How do you prepare for that? In this episode, Associate Partner at Oliver Wyman Alina Timofeeva discusses the process and what to expect during your transformation journey. She also talks about her experiences in the industry and how overcoming her personal failures helped her move forward and inspire her work.

Episode outline

  • Alina Timofeeva talks about her TEDx Talk Fail, But Never Give Up and shares how she worked her way up to a finance and technology role in the UK.
  • What are the common challenges when it comes to cloud adoption and digital and data-driven transformation and how do we address these?
  • How are companies balancing the demands of the cloud with legacy systems?
  • Where should digital transformation ideally begin within an organisation in order to drive effective change?
  • Timofeeva answers whether or not organisations took advantage of the time during the pandemic to truly digitally transform themselves.
  • How can the tech industry better represent diversity in the space?

Transcript

Kevin Montalbo

Welcome to episode 58 of the Coding Over Cocktails podcast. My name is Kevin Montalbo. Today, we are joined by a TEDx speaker, who’s talk, “Fail But Never Give Up”, garnered over 40 thousand views in less than a week, and is now in the top 1.5% of TEDx talks watched around the world. She’s also a multi-award-winning professional in digital topics, having won seven awards just in 2021.

Today, she is an Associate Partner at Oliver Wyman, consulting top Financial Services firms globally as an expert in Digital, Cloud & Data. Joining us for a round of cocktails is Alina Timofeeva. Hey Alina, you’ve been very busy, but we’re really glad and excited you found time to be on our show. Welcome!

Alina Timofeeva

Hi, thanks a lot, Kevin! And thanks a lot for such a good intro.

Kevin Montalbo 

All right, great! So let's dive right into the questions, and we're very excited to talk about this because you recently did a TED Talk at a TEDxBedford event. And I watched it twice, actually. I watched it once at home and then I watched it again here in the office with our team. It's titled Fail But Never Give Up, where you detailed your journey as you migrated from Russia to the UK and finding success along the way. So, can you share with us a sneak peek of this talk by talking about your background and how you ended up with a finance and technology role in the UK?

Alina Timofeeva 

Yep, sure. I mean, the talk really is aimed at immigrants, so I'm hopeful that it will be of interest to your audience. I mean, I'm an immigrant, as you pointed out. So, I do come from quite a humble background and I spent a lot of time in terms of changing my mindset, adapting to failures. And I had quite a lot of failures. I mean, what I wanted to do with the talk was to actually inspire the immigrants that whether they want to have a career or just be successful, or whether it's technology or any other topics, they're bound to come with failures. And some of those failures could be very, very, very, very strange. For example, one of my failures was that I used to work in McDonald's washing floors and I couldn't get promoted to doing burgers. And I actually only got to doing fries. But now, interestingly, I did make it to the associate partner just 10 years after washing floors at McDonald's, which is quite unusual.

Kevin Montalbo 

Yeah. actually the McDonald's part was one of my favourite parts of the talk. And then now, as you said earlier this year, you joined Oliver Wyman's London office as an Associate Partner for Digital and Financial services. That's quite the leap, Alina. So, can you share with us some of the challenges your clients have been facing with regards to cloud adoption and digital and data-driven transformation and how you're helping them address these?

Alina Timofeeva 

Yeah. So, I think the clients really eye target our financial services, and if I make it more from the perspective of innovation right now, many of the clients keep talking about innovation, but when it practically comes to moving from legacy to cloud, or for example, thinking more strategically around how do you really do the true transformation rather than just doing it in parts, like in parts of the banks or just in little places, that's where the challenge kind of comes. Specifically, at Oliver Wyman, there are different types of support and it's not like, one product or one type of thing, which we do. It, of course, differs depending on the client. So, in most of the cases, it's really challenging problems, which clients can't solve using, I guess, Big Four or Accenture or other providers. They are more strategic, the more broader ones.

So, one of the things I've been helping a bank to remediate [is] their regulatory and audit inefficiencies around infrastructure. And those would talk about infrastructure, engineering data and a few other areas. So, it's pretty much doing the global bank's infrastructure as a strategy, as a vision with a key set of next steps, next initiatives, detailed analysis, and ensuring that the bank can transform, not just doing it in silos, but doing it cross-functionally, across geographies globally. So, that is kind of one of the examples. The other ones could be something like helping with the regulatory challenge. So, it could be something like supporting the bank in terms of the assessment around cloud or cloud compliance. And the third one is helping build the digital banks. And as you know, the digital banks will be data-driven. They will be cloud-based. And it's quite a lot of new thinking, which comes as part of it. Because  obviously there aren't so many digital banks so far. So, it's quite an extensive amount of work required.

Kevin Montalbo 

Yeah. And it's interesting, you talked about them going through true digital transformation. You want to assist them to go through this authentic digital transformation and as we're recording this, we're already at the tail end of 2021, it's going to be Christmas next week. Looking back, do you think companies really took advantage of the time during this pandemic - it's been two years now - to digitally transform themselves or were they just responding to a one off event that forced them to implement protocols for remote working and remote customer service but missed the opportunity for this, what you say is true digital transformation?

Alina Timofeeva

Digital is definitely on the agenda... But I would say that there is more to be done.

I mean, I personally say that the pandemic definitely put into the minds of the people that it's very important to transform. I think that definitely at the start of the pandemic, it was very reactive. So, some companies, for example, they just started the journey to the cloud so that they can implement teams in Zoom, which is not something completely transformative. They did it as a reaction because they had to be operationally resilient and they could not do the business for their clients. I mean, I remember a time some of the banks were buying physical people to protest loans and credits because they literally couldn't do it in the time required. And that is just the manual solution and nothing like digital transformation. I think at the moment, the topic of digital transformation comes up more and more often. 

But I think in some of the ways the clients are quite exhausted, right? Because it's been already a lot of effort and time and money, which they spent on all these manual processes and maybe the reactive thinking. They are thinking more strategically. So, digital is definitely on the agenda, it's getting sold, et cetera. But I would say that there is more to be done. And I think now is the right time to think about it holistically rather than being here as one use-case. “We can't give credit to our customers and we have so many people asking for credit.” It's more like, how do you transform the whole end-to-end department or the whole end-to-end retail service of the bank, for example.

Kevin Montalbo

Yeah. I just wanna go off on the tangent here. Do you have any clients that you could share with us their experience or if they were successful with achieving this true digital transformation? How would you describe these clients? How did they get to that point of true digital transformation? Did you have any experience with clients of that nature?

Alina Timofeeva

Well, I mean the past examples are when people don't have legacy systems, so when they build banks from scratch, right? So, there are known examples in the market already like Monzo or Chase, right? And the reason they've been quite successful is because they went and built the whole infrastructure from scratch in the cloud. They've done it for perhaps a smaller subset of the operations, but they didn't have to go through the internal changes to the legacy systems, to the mindset of the people. They just catered a completely different team or a completely new bank and built it from scratch. So, those guys were quite so successful. As time may show, it may be the question of how they scale up. But I'm sure they'll be successful. 

I've seen a few of these examples in the UK, but even abroad or as well as when the banks say, “We can't. We don't really want to transform the internal bank because it's gonna take too much time. Let us build a standalone bank for business or a standalone branch or bank or whatever, which is completely different, completely customer-focused, customer-based. And let's do it this way.” 

So, I've seen those examples as quite successful. With the other ones, I would say that people try doing digital transformation. They have plans, they have strategies, they have journeys, but it's just a question of time because it will be quite difficult to move away completely from the legacy systems to cloud. It will be some journey in terms of the mindset, the culture, the people, the training, and it doesn't happen overnight.

Kevin Montalbo

Yeah. That's a perfect segue actually to my next question, because as you've said a lot of companies still have large investments in legacy, on-premise systems and sometimes these are essential to the operation of their companies. So, how do these companies balance the demands of transforming themselves, getting on the cloud? Because cloud computing is fundamentally changing the way that enterprises manage it nowadays. How do these companies balance the demands of the cloud with their existing legacy systems?

Alina Timofeeva 

Many people think about cloud as just IT transformation, but it's actually much broader because it's about the people, the process, the culture and the technology.

Yeah. So I'll maybe pause for a moment about cloud, because many people think about cloud as just IT transformation, but it's actually much broader because it's about the people, the process, the culture and the technology. And one of the key interesting things about cloud is how do you bring the people together to speak the common language? So for example, you have the risk professionals, you have the engineers. The risk professionals are used to one language. The engineers are used to working in an agile way. Their auditors are used to showing that there is proof of audit. And one of the challenges I've had so far is like the cultural difference between the people that used to work with legacy systems versus the people that are these cloud-driven, data-driven, innovation-driven, et cetera and how this spins together.

So, it's not so much just about the IT part cause the IT part is more straightforward. The IT part is more like, “I have legacy apps. Let's make an exercise of what we can decommission,” for example. And you can logically deduct based on what you use and how you use it, what you can decommission, how long it's gonna take, how much you want to keep paying for your data centres versus using cloud. I mean, it's not very easy, but it's very logical. I think the thing which takes more is more of this culture and this mindset of transforming the organisation in terms of the operating model, in terms of the processes and in terms of the people. 

And that's where I see a lot of challenges practically, partially because people don't know how to do it, but partially because it's just something which takes a longer time and it's far straightforward. I think, to answer your question about legacy systems, a lot of the clients I see, they invest into cloud, they write a strategy and they say, “By going to cloud, we're going to be X percent less expensive, Y percent more innovative and Z percent more scalable.” But the reality is they end up spending a lot of money on cloud or people supporting them through the cloud transformation and they don't really realise the benefits. So they would perhaps spend all this money but they would get a regulatory fine or they would only migrate 10% of their applications into cloud for around four or five years. And basically they're not meeting these strategic outcomes of scalable agility, cost savings, et cetera. 

And then I guess just going back to my TEDx talk, they fail and then they get very frustrated about it. And then you have this conjunction of both the legacy systems and the cloud platforms together and the people are not so sure, “Do we need to transform? How do we fail quickly and learn from it?” Or, “How do we move forward?” And those are some of the things which keep coming up quite typically on this journey, because there is like this upward thing, and then there is the downside. And then the question is how do you recover from the downside and how do you move forward?

Kevin Montalbo

Yeah, it's part of the process, right?

Alina Timofeeva

Yes. So, there is something called now, I don't think that this is a known term. But it's essentially a “time to remediate cloud” because so many organisations started on it, but they haven't perhaps reached their potential or mapped their strategy, which they have outlined in the past.

Kevin Montalbo

That's interesting. And I just wanna go back a little bit to what you said, your point about IT–digital transformation, I mean, and cloud transformation being more of a cultural challenge rather than a technology challenge. And that's interesting because it's a theme, it's a recurring theme that often comes up in this podcast. So, why do you think there's companies that are having a hard time with the cultural aspect of digital transformation rather than the technological one?

Alina Timofeeva

How much time do people spend sitting in governance meetings? People get frustrated about this [because] instead of doing the innovation, they actually sit in governance meetings and drown in them.

Yeah, I mean if I give you an example, how much time do people spend sitting in governance meetings? So, some of the clients which I work with, they say, “We're trying to embark on the transformation. We're using cloud. We're using data. We have all our engineers. But eight hours of the day, we keep spending, sitting in the governance meetings and people asking us, ‘How do you ensure you are compliant? How do you ensure that you will get audited? How do you ensure that you have identified all the risks and mitigated them as well?’” Right? And people get frustrated about it because instead of doing the innovation, they actually sit in governance meetings and they’re drowning in governance meetings. 

I mean, some of it has to do with the cultural thing. And I recently did kind of a more in depth paper, which is ultimately going to become an article. And it's more like thinking about how do you bring the people together? How do they talk the same language? How do the people that not necessarily manage change, but the people who are BAU people like the risk officers, risk managers, auditors, how do they understand the key risks and what really the  organisation is doing from the digital transformation, how do they ensure that instead of taking the time potentially of the people, they actually move in an agile way and they help the bank transform?

And it's not just the risk people. I think it's a lot about just generally, people in the bank or in the organisation. But generally, you tend to have a clash of cultures because some people are very, very, very, very keen to move fast and they don't understand the length of change, risk audit, et cetera. And some people perhaps didn't understand the technology that well and more learning  or training or cultural development is required to just bring them together to ensure that this happens.

Some of the things which I really advocate for is digital transformation, if you do [it] as a big bank, will be very, very difficult. So you can do it in a bank, you can choose an area. So for example, cloud transformation, right? Or conduct risk or third party controls, and you choose that as an area where you already have the risks, the controls, et cetera, and you try to use a more automated, more digital way to look at it. And then, you show it as a great example to the bank if it is successful, that this is how we moved forward with the culture, with the people. And then if people like it, then you kind of scale it up throughout the bank. 

So, that is one of the approaches, which perhaps is not too time consuming, not too lengthy and good enough to prove the hypothesis that if you work on it in this way, this can help transform the bank. I think in many of the cases, people start on a big transformation, then they get very tired after a year and then it kind of goes down a little bit.

Kevin Montalbo

And it's not too disruptive either, right? All right. So, speaking of culture and you being an immigrant, experiencing all these different kinds of cultures, you know, from Russia and to the UK, let's talk about diversity in the tech industry. So, when it comes to success in diversity and equal opportunities, you're obviously proving people wrong being promoted four times in the past four years. However, current statistics show that women are still underrepresented, underpaid, and often discriminated against in the tech industry. So, as a very active support or an advocate of women in tech, what do you think should be done in order to address this?

Alina Timofeeva

Yeah, I mean, there are quite a lot of things. Maybe I'll talk briefly about my experience. I personally think that diversity is not just like women and men. I think that diversity is much broader. It can be things like immigrants, it can be things like different races, different backgrounds, et cetera. So, all of that is diversity. It's not just women. I think when I came to the UK and I started working in technology, there were only, I don't know, two or three kinds of big negative events. I can't say underpaid necessarily, but I think that in the start, when I joined my project, I was the only woman and there were like 30 or 40 guys and they were like, maybe 10 or 15 years older than me and they didn't take me seriously at all.

So, they took me as this wonderful Russian woman, but not as a strong technological individual. Right? Which I wasn't very happy with. Yeah. I mean, the second thing is there is an element and I don't think that this is specifically women in technology again, but it's also just the respect for women in their industry because now I'm an associate partner. So, I don't think anybody kind of comes to me, but when I was an analyst or like a consultant, there were a lot of people who I would've thought treated me less respectfully than they should, which I didn't quite like. 

And I guess in terms of what can be done to address this, there are some of the things which are done by the organisation and those are the things ensuring how do you hire women? How do you maintain women, how do you help them throughout the journey in particular, when you go from the middle kind of layer to the senior layer? Because that's where you lose most of the women. I would probably say that more can be done around helping women with confidence. One of the research I recently read, which I think is interesting to the audience, is if you come to the meeting, many guys would say, “Yeah, I can do it, definitely that's an idea.” And at that point in time, they're only 30% certain that this is a great idea. Whereas if it's a woman, a woman would be like, I need to be a hundred or 120% certain that this is a great idea. And only then I'm going to speak up and say, “It's a great idea.” And then when she does speak up, not everybody takes this seriously, which kind of downgrades the whole thing. 

So, that is kind of one of the examples which the employers could do specifically. I think outside of the employers, that's maybe something which the advocates could support. It's very important, upbringing women with the idea of, “Yes, you can do it. Yes.” I don’t know, it could be either the mentor, the sponsor. I think the sponsor is perhaps even more important now than the mentor. But it's giving this confidence. So, my experience has been, as you may have heard from my talk, I was brought up to be a housewife. So, nobody has ever expected me to go and work in any digital transformation or become an associate partner or get promoted. So that was not an expectation.

And to be honest, when I came to the UK, nobody told me, “Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can do it.” And in fact, I failed quite a few times in the start of my career. And when I came to my previous employer, who was one of the partners who, to be honest, didn't know all my background history, he would sit with me and say, “You're gonna be a partner. You're gonna be a partner. You're gonna be a partner much quicker than anyone else. Don't worry. You are so wonderful. You can do it, you can do it.” And the thing is there wasn't anything radically different that he told me, he just gave me the confidence that yes, he sees that I can achieve it. And then when I kind of failed, he was like, “No, you can still achieve it. You can achieve it.” And that was something which really helped me change my mindset because I've never had anyone else tell me that. “Yes, you can achieve it. Yes. You can achieve it. You can achieve it.” 

And I kind of started thinking, “Ah, if he thinks I can achieve it, I can achieve it.” And I think that third part really, and that's something which the ladies themselves just need to think about. It’s how you bring this confidence from inside, right? Because in many of the cases, it's not about women in technology specifically, it's just like the “women” thing. Sometimes you don't feel fully confident. I don't know what the area may be, but it's just going through your mindset and seeing failure as an opportunity to grow or it's just seeing a way how you can keep going, keep moving. And don't wait for inspiration. That is something which I found quite helpful, but it took me a long time to get to that.

Kevin Montalbo

All right. So, I think one more advice that we can give to the listeners, not only women, even men or speaking of diversity, even other races, other cultures listening to this podcast is please watch Alina's TED Talk. All right. So on that note, I like to say that this was the perfect podcast episode to end the year, inspiring people to go out there and achieve what they want to achieve, just do it. And you know, that they can actually make it. 

So, thank you for sharing with us, Alina, how failure is an opportunity to grow and that you should never give up. So Alina, thank you. Where can our listeners go online to follow you, hear what you talk about and what you're up to?

Alina Timofeeva

Yeah. I mean my biggest area is LinkedIn. So you can find me by just looking up “Alina Timofeeva.” I mean the other big one is the TED Talk, which you mentioned already, Kevin. I think that's a good start.

Kevin Montalbo

All right! Again, thank you Alina. You've been a very wonderful guest. Thank you very much for your time!

Alina Timofeeva

Thanks, Kevin!

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