The Future Waits for Nobody — My Capital One Journey to the AWS Cloud

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done” — Bruce Lee

There’s a quote that’s always stuck in my mind, and Marvel Comic fans will know it well — “With great power, comes great responsibility.” For me, that great responsibility was making sure that millions of our customers at Capital One UK could use the company’s technology services 24x7x365, every time, without fail.

But, unfortunately, like most technology leaders, there were many times, perhaps too many times, when I contemplated the possibility of a service failure. And when this happened, I found myself becoming slightly more risk-focused, even a bit risk-averse. It’s only natural. But when you let this fear grab hold of you, you tend to reduce your appetite for change.

Of course, if we’re totally rational, the flaws in this thinking quickly surface, because the only constant in life is change — and wow, is it getting faster each day! I believe that the Digital Disruption and the Fourth Industrial Revolution we are now experiencing needs to be embraced, and embraced fully, or it will just consume your business. That’s why the choice for all of us, for every technology leader, is fairly simple — do nothing and fade away, or embrace the cloud change to survive and thrive. Ask yourself which choice holds the greater risk.

It’s against this big-stakes backdrop that I joined AWS 2 months ago. April marked the end of my tenure at Capital One UK. And I had an unbelievable 17-year run there. I learned more than I could have imagined about leadership, change, technology, and banking at Capital One. In particular, I learned that as a leader you can have all the intent and ideas you want, but without the trust and respect of your team, which is earned by listening, caring, and promoting their ideas, you’re nothing. Fortunately, I had an amazing team, a wonderful manager and super-supportive colleagues whilst at Capital One.

Significant Rewards From Change

My last 3 years there were the most exciting, however. As UK CTO, I had the privilege of leading the people, process, and technology change as Capital One adopted AWS as its predominant platform. It was a career- and life-changing experience for me, although I’ll admit that at the start, when it was all new, it was a little scary, especially when we didn’t have much of a roadmap to guide us (AWS has now built one by partnering with companies like Capital One). We got through it, and, in the end, like so many of my peers, I learned that it’s only by accomplishing the difficult things that we find reward.

This helps explain my recent decision to join AWS as an EMEA Enterprise Strategist and Evangelist, and it also helps explain why I now want to share my AWS learnings and experience with companies all over the world.

The AWS Cloud Changed Everything

I’ve benefited tremendously by leading teams in nearly every area of infrastructure, application development, and support. And, at Capital One, I gained unique insight into how teams and technology operate in the traditional skill and matrixed on-premise world, which is quite constrained, as well as the thoroughly transformative world of the cloud.

I remember quite vividly, for example, when we reached a tipping point with skilled AWS engineers; there was palpable excitement in the room with multiple engineers and teams sparking ideas off one another because of the potential of using the common cloud building blocks that they all now understood. Contrast this with the siloed and — sometimes unfortunately self-interested — matrixed skill sets of on-premise engineering, and it’s hard to imagine ever leading teams the old on-premise way again.

Now, back in 2014, I thought we had a good setup after we’d just finished building a converged on-premise infrastructure. Things were a bit faster, and there was some benefit. I thought we had bought some breathing space to grow. But, in fact, we hadn’t. The age-old truisms of running your own data center were still as rampant as ever. We were still dealing with — siloed technology, reliability challenges, forlorn automation dreams, hard-to-scale systems and little appetite to experiment when hardware was so capex-intensive and time-bound to procure.

Add to this list, my most vexing problem at this point in time — never-ending hardware upgrades. The cycle was so predictable, repetitive, and draining; we’d work hard to complete a storage array / big system upgrade project, and then immediately start in on the next one. And this just went on and on, over and over again.

Surely there was a better way, I thought. And there was. Our US colleagues at Capital One had been experimenting in our innovation labs, testing AWS cloud technology and operating models. The ability to provision infrastructure on the fly, as well as the security and the elasticity, were all extremely compelling, because — finally — those old truisms were being vanquished, one by one. Our founder and CEO, along with the leadership of our global and divisional CIO’s, gave us the green light to change. And so we began.

At that time in the UK, we were heavily outsourced, and we were running waterfall processes and had engineers predominantly skilled in legacy technology. So, it would have been so easy to attempt to boil the ocean and over-think the “how” — how we could migrate with AWS to the cloud.

Instead, with a natural bias for action, we just started. And we started with a small multi-skilled (2 pizza) team of talented engineers who were given the space, support, and focus to build a cloud production environment that could support the first product.

Over time, 1 team became 2 and then many teams. We built different areas of our AWS cloud infrastructure as it was needed to solve customer problems. And some amazing things happened along the way. Engineers moved out of their silos; a common and unifying technical skill and language emerged; and, instead of having 2 or 3 engineers in 1 legacy data center skill, suddenly, we had many AWS Infrastructure Developers, who did more than just patching, installing, and upgrading hardware in the data center. Even better, we were now part of development teams solving customer problems, utilising many elements of the AWS building blocks that were appropriate for the customer challenge at hand.

The benefits of our first production instance, established transformational patterns. Including Blue/Green deployments, fast and more frequent deployments, end-to-end logging and monitoring, and everything deployable via pipeline code. All able to leverage the inherent elasticity and availability by design that the platform can provide.

Don’t over think it, just start

The pace of technology is not slowing down. You need to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants to compete in this Fourth Industrial Revolution. Using AWS really does give you the superpowers you need to compete. And, for the first time, the long- promised, yet never delivered, ability to build transformational customer solutions using technology building blocks is only a few lines of code away.

This first post is part of a series that will cover different elements of my experiences building on the cloud. In the coming months, I’ll be writing about topics such as — how to lay the right cloud foundations; how to get into production faster and better; how to fast-forward your talent transformation; why planning is so vital; how you can run at scale; and how to get to #Serverless.

In the meantime, embrace change, and, whenever you think you’ve hit a wall, remember — “All of your assumed constraints are debatable.”

Jonathan Allen
EMEA Enterprise Strategist and Evangelist