Atom bank: transforming banking by building on the cloud

Rana Bhattacharya, CTO, Atom bank, guides us through the benefits of being a challenger, the response to COVID-19 and the company’s upcoming launch of its new banking platform

William Smith
|Aug 3|magazine17 min read

Launched in 2016, Atom bank was the first UK bank built exclusively for mobile, with the intention of never having any physical branches. Its approach has won it significant plaudits, including a position in Tech Nation’s Future Fifty, alongside being the number one rated UK bank on consumer review site Trustpilot.

The company’s Chief Technology Officer, Rana Bhattacharya, is clear that part of the reason for its success is its smaller team and challenger culture. “We get a lot done with not a lot of people,” he says. “There's a level of bureaucracy that's removed, meaning you can make decisions quickly. And by virtue of that, small teams can accomplish brilliant outcomes and create changes and deploy them to production on the same day. As a digital native you have to embrace change. Whereas in some of the traditional banks, with the governance models and the people that have been there for a long time, it’s much harder for change to happen.”

Atom launched with market-leading Fixed Saver accounts and secured business lending for SMEs. It followed with mortgages in December 2016 and since then has taken £1.8bn in deposits and lent over £2.4bn to small businesses and homeowners. “We exist to create better outcomes for our customers,” says Bhattacharya. “We're leveraging technologies to automate more and provide a first-class service to them. And by not having the baggage that some of the more traditional banks have, we can create material savings to pass on to our customers.”

The bank is undergoing a technological transformation, launching a brand new banking platform more in step with how the market has developed. “Cloud hosting of banking software wasn’t an option when Atom was authorised,” says Bhattacharya. “As a business committed to taking advantage of the very best systems to run our bank, and with investors who are right behind our commitment to technology, we are adopting systems that are built specifically for the cloud and put Atom and our customers in control. For a bank that’s building itself for long-term sustainability and delivering true customer value, investment in the right technology is key. ”

“We’re heavily using DevOps, so IT4IT,” he says. “Historically if you imagine an on-premise environment, especially with a third party model, it can take up to forty-two weeks, if you're lucky, to commission a new instance. Now, on the cloud using DevOps, we can stand up an instance of the bank on the cloud in under a week. That gives you a lot of capability by virtue of not being hamstrung by the number of environments. The cost model is different because effectively you can spin up an environment and once you've used it, you can kill it (treating environments as cattle, versus pets).”

The Atom banking machine is what Bhattacharya calls the new cloud-based infrastructure and associated software components. “The majority of the estate is being moved onto Google Cloud Platform. We'll still have a number of third parties who offer us a managed service that we'll be plugging into, but everything that we manage and change ourselves will be hosted on the cloud. We're effectively building a state-of-the-art bank hosted on Google Cloud.”

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Everyone just got on with it and made it work, and you can only do that if you already have the capability and the culture to make those things happen

Rana Bhattacharya | CTO, Atom bank

The company is also leveraging emerging technologies for such things as enterprise decision-making, including pricing and financial forecasting. “We’ve built an in-house machine learning model to inject some insights into that. From an operations perspective, we use machine learning to support activities like credit risk scoring, instant pricing quotes for business banking, and anti money-laundering identification and prevention.”

For a bank, security is paramount, and Atom’s cybersecurity protection is comprehensive. It utilises encryption, access control, vulnerability management, firewalling, DDoS scrubbing amongst other security controls to protect its customers' data. 

“We look at the full stack in terms of protection the app, has encrypted traffic by default alongside not trusting the device. We always look to leverage a zero trust model, which is important as a bank,” Bhattacharya reiterates. “We have a continuous security testing cycle using third parties to give us more information about security threats from their perspectives. Our security is strict, it's very tight and we clearly classify data as part of managing it as well as from a security perspective.”

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The technology Atom uses is in service of providing a better customer experience, both directly and indirectly. “We're transforming, not just from a technology perspective, but also by taking on more internal accountability,” says Bhattacharya. “We're insourcing more, meaning that Atom can make key changes across its IT estate without external resource requirement enabling a greater pace of change. And this is the power behind Atom’s banking machine which fuses technology, people as well as data to provide benefits to our customers.”

Other customer-centric achievements include the resolution of 97% of support tickets within SLA, and the improvement of its apps. “In December of last year, we moved away from using Unity for our mobile apps, which is more of a gaming platform, rebuilding it on native technology, running faster with a new UX. And that's been quite well received. There's still some improvements to make, but on iOS, we now have an app store rating of 4.6.”

Google is a significant partner for Atom, with their relationship serving as a model for how Bhattacharya approaches suppliers and partners. “Google not only provides us with infrastructure but elements of data and other capabilities. For us, it was quite an important decision to choose a cloud vendor. As we moved to the cloud, we wanted a partner, not a supplier, someone to engage with us as an entity, work with and help us. We felt having a partner - a real partner - was 50% of the transformation, someone on your side to help you succeed. And that's what we found in Google.”

Atom has found other partners to boost capability in other areas, as Bhattacharya explains: “Thought Machine has a pivotal role to play within our transformation. We’re looking to run Thought Machine as a cloud native, smart contract-based core banking platform on Google. What that will allow us to do is basically define any type of product we could imagine - and do this in house. As part of our launch in 2016, we partnered with DAON and pioneered the use of biometrics in the UK banking industry and led the way with face and voice biometrics as core credentials to log-in to your bank. As a team we continue to make improvements because we’re committed to exceptional customer experiences.” 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is putting a strain on business worldwide, uprooting long-established ways of doing business. Bhattacharya emphasises the need for understanding during these difficult times, saying: “You have to put more emphasis on bilateral and team communications, as well as wellness. In terms of my team and colleagues, the current pandemic has brought a different perspective on life and the need to ensure, yes you get the work done, but also that people are well and healthy both physically and mentally.”

Bhattacharya credits the company’s resilience to its employees. “I think it's a testament to the folks in our team. We implemented home working very rapidly - before the official lockdown came into place. In terms of our security and the networks team, within a two to three week period, they got all of our employees working from home successfully, including the contact centre. I don’t think we would be able to support and service our customers the way we have been able to, if we hadn't had that inherent capability in the bank. Everyone just got on with it and made it work, and you can only do that if you already have the capability and the culture to make those things happen.”

As Atom comes close to going live with its Banking Machine, Bhattacharya is clear that it has been down to the dedication of his team in challenging and uncertain circumstances. “What we've done with a small number of people and a comparatively small budget is significant. I'm proud of Atom and proud of my team to have been able to get us to where we are now, closing off a few items to get us ready to go live.”

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