‘There are two major factors that cause security risks: people and policies’

12 May 2023

Image: Rob Houghton

Rob Houghton, founder and CTO of Insightful Technology, discusses his career journey and how automation is changing the IT landscape.

Rob Houghton is the founder and CTO of Insightful Technology, a company that provides solutions to help financial organisations capture, save and analyse their communications in real time to minimise risk and ensure adherence to regulations. Houghton’s career spans more than 30 years with experience across a wide range of sectors and technologies. Prior to his current role, he worked at IBM and HP.

At HP, he ran a troubleshooting team, which allowed him to gain a wide understanding of how all the points of technology fit together and what clients need.

“For me, being a CTO is all about understanding the challenges our customers face. Not just the ones they think they have, but those we can see on the horizon.”

Houghton leads a team of developers to build the right tools and solutions to address their clients’ problems. According to Houghton, his aim is to build technology that “truly differentiates” the company in the market, “allowing a longer-term benefit”.

“There’s also a lot to be said for gut feeling in my role. It might be counterintuitive to say so considering our products are all about capturing, saving and analysing data. But I think it’s vital to have a human touch and use intuition.”

‘In my view, most security breaches could be stopped if we all took more personal responsibility’

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current IT landscape and how are you addressing them?

We face two major challenges. Firstly, the skills shortage. It’s never been so tough to find the right people, balancing the need for rocket-scientist capabilities combined with the softer skills needed to succeed. We’ve overcome this by tasking our best developers to create tests for candidates that surface the right people.

Secondly, building the right culture within the business. We launched a new recruitment strategy last year, hiring people straight out of university. These incredibly talented graduates demand a culture that works for them, offering flexibility and support.

In return, we ask for responsibility and ownership of goals. We’re doing all we can to create a business that respects the needs of a younger workforce, balanced with meeting client demands and having structure. It’s a fine line to tread, but we’ve achieved it. It’s all about flexibility within a framework.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

The term digital transformation means many things to many people. Our clients tend to be larger businesses: banks and financial institutions. And the larger the business, the more segmented it becomes. This means duplication begins to happen. A department will be undertaking a project that looks very similar to one in another. This wastes resources and might lead to complications at a later stage.

Another challenge is the ongoing misunderstanding between business units and IT. They often don’t get each other. Managers will task their IT counterparts to find a technological solution to a challenge. The IT team delivers what they think will work, but often can’t do so fully because they didn’t grasp the problem in the first place. Neither side is at fault, it’s just reality.

There’s also a tendency to introduce technology under the banner of digital transformation without thinking about the real business outcomes. It reminds me of a story about Alan Sugar. He reportedly once asked three consultants what they were working on. They answered along the lines of, “We’re trying to improve production efficiency.” He did some basic calculations and realised the investment needed would eat up any profitability of the improvement. Needless to say, it didn’t go ahead.

We can’t solve all these problems for clients because we have a specialist focus on compliance software. What we can do is ensure they have the best data, stored well, to ensure they meet the requirements of regulators.

Sustainability has become a key objective for businesses in recent years. What are your thoughts on how this can be addressed from an IT perspective?

If I’d been asked this question 15 years ago, my answer would be very different. Back then, data centres were inefficient, PCs and laptops were power-hungry and IT in general wasn’t sustainable. A lot needed to change.

Luckily, it has. Today, hardware is incredibly efficient. Increasingly, laptops don’t have fans because their processors are powerful yet low energy. And while data centres account for about 1 to 1.5pc of global electricity consumption, they’re far more sustainable than before. We need to keep going in this direction, finding ways to gain marginal savings. Especially given the continued increase in computing power and the need for more data centres.

But perhaps the bigger opportunity is the way we work. Flexibility in working patterns and the reduction in commuting has made a huge impact. During the pandemic, global CO2 emissions dropped by 17pc. They’ve inevitably risen again, but I think we can make a difference through fewer journeys, less time in the office and more remote working.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

Simple. It’s automation. In all its forms. I’m having some new windows made at the moment. Real ones for my house, not the Microsoft type. The guy making them told me all about his new automated manufacturing site. I’m sure it’s great – and probably cost him about £200,000. But it’ll also cost the jobs of about 10 skilled carpenters.

It’s the same with software automation – especially with the advent of generative AI. It’s changing the way we work and will have huge implications for the way the economy functions and, ultimately, how societies operate. Mundane and routine jobs will be a thing of the past. This is a huge issue for policy makers to grapple with, but also hugely exciting if done well.

We’re also using automation in our solutions, but the impact will be different for our customers. Compliance teams are nearly always firefighting. There’s never a business-as-usual day owing to new regulations and a constantly changing landscape. This creates risk where you need it least. Automating the manual part of their workload will allow them to get into a ‘normal’ state. Automation in this context isn’t about replacing jobs – such as in a window factory or an accounts payable department – it’s about cutting risk.

What are your thoughts on how we can address the security challenges currently facing your industry?

There are no security risks from a technological perspective! There’s no excuse in today’s tech stack. The frameworks and architectures are inherently secure, albeit with some small exceptions. They’ve come on hugely since I began my career.

There are two major factors that cause security risks: people and policies. The former are fallible and sometimes malicious. They lose devices and passwords, have them stolen, or willingly do something they shouldn’t. When it comes to policies, there’s often a lack of control or implementation. Solving these issues isn’t easy – otherwise it would have been done.

In my view, most security breaches could be stopped if we all took more personal responsibility.

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