Community Blog

Community Blog

Open Source is the medicine for technology obsolescence in financial services - and for COVID isolation

December 23, 2020

FINOS Executive Director, Gabriele Columbro, discusses the challenges we’ve faced in 2020 and the opportunity and imperative to consider how open source can address industry challenges. 2020 was a great year for FINOS with record contributions from banks, highlighting the progress financial services has made in being able to contribute to open source projects. This is just the start and sets us up for growth across the financial services ecosystem next year, where you all have an important role to play. 


“I would really like to read yet another end-of-the-year Pollyanna-like, feel good, blog post about how bad 2020 was, but how great 2021 will be,” said nobody, really. 

And so this post will not be about words, it’ll be about actions: concrete actions that open source collaboration enables us to take, together, to continue improving the global financial system; increase efficiency; remove useless complexity; create further financial inclusion; and ultimately have a major impact on all the other industries relying on the financial complex. 

We all went through what has been, by all accounts, an unbelievable year in pretty much every possible way, right? Especially if we stick to the literal sense of the word. It’s still very hard to believe that such a year could ever take place, despite the repeated warning messages from scientists and sociologists. The pandemic, the highly divided political and social climate we live in, and the most controversial US election ever.

But if 2020 has taught us anything, anything at all, I think it can be recapped in 3 points:

Collaboration is the only possible way to solve the most pressing problems in the world.

As isolated as we all felt, we have never been as connected in delivering a better outcome for humanity. A pandemic requires collaboration across individuals, across borders, across legislations. It requires us to set aside personal interests and differences and do the right thing. I don’t know that there has been any other year where the difference in approach and success at fostering selfless collaboration in different countries and cultures has resulted in a stark difference in outcomes.

Personal interaction matters, a lot.

After almost a year of Zoom meetings, Zoom parties, Zoom holidays, even Zoom wine tasting and happy hours, we have all certainly felt the importance of personal interaction and the unique effect that only socializing with others, in person, can bring to our lives. While I can’t see it fully reverting the trends affecting the digitally native generation, for which human interaction without a device continues to be a challenge, it certainly has been a wake up call for some of us living hyperconnected lives. 

Co-location is dead.

On the flip side, COVID has definitely accelerated removal of the obsolete barriers that prevented effective remote and distributed collaboration, as well as the almost unreal concentration of opportunities in certain areas of the world (said the guy who lives in the Silicon Valley) in favor of a much more democratized access to global talent. This is definitely a good thing and something that open source communities have, for decades, paved the way for.


So, collaboration is key and personal interaction matters deeply, but technology has allowed us to continue progressing as a society, maintaining our personal relationships even in a fully remote fashion. 

How did these three takeaways impact our FINOS Community and the growing, now seemingly unstoppable, movement that has made open source a first class citizen in financial services? The tl;dr is that, in the last 12 months, we have seen something, frankly, unprecedented:

5 of the 10 largest US investment banks have contributed new OSS projects and are actively leading high value open source projects in FINOS - Legend, Morphir, Waltz, Datahub and Perspective are just some examples of the building blocks of an open source banking infrastructure. 

October 2020 was a record month in terms of monthly commits to our Community, marking a stark 40% increase from the previous record. And the majority of these commits came from banks, historically conservative institutions, traditionally very protective of their intellectual property and suspicious of their competitors.

Regulators can and will play a key role in our Community. The early feedback on our Open Regtech Initiative has been nothing short of outstanding, with the more innovative regulators already bought in on the value of open source as a tool to generate efficiency and transparency in the whole regulatory process. The ones who are new to open source have regularly shown an open mind and interest in understanding how the whole ecosystem can benefit.

Open Source delivers value in FSI beyond the IT organization. As one of the few “vertical” Foundations out there, we have the luxury of being able to deliver value not only to the technology organization, through initiatives like Open Source Readiness and DevOps Mutualization, but directly to the business units. We are also able to work in conjunction with other industry consortia looking to solve systemic industry issues. A case in point is the successful pilot we hosted on Legend. This involved subject matter experts from several institutions proposing changes to the FX Options model of the Common Domain Model published by ISDA, our Associate Member, which were then successfully approved and accepted into the ISDA CDM.

In the midst of the chaos that 2020 has been for all of us, it’s tempting to look back at the growth we saw in FINOS and become complacent, rejoicing for something that even 3 years ago, before we created this Foundation, seemed almost impossible. It’s important to understand that we are just at the beginning of our journey, having reached what I believe is only the first milestone in this very worthy endeavor.

Having banks contribute to open source and recognize it as a viable way to address shared challenges, in a way that delivers business value to each constituent while furthering progress and innovation for the whole industry, is a big deal indeed. However, it behooves us to consider this as merely a stepping stone, a starting point. Don’t get me wrong, this is a big deal, but one that, in and of its own, is NOT going to realize the drastic improvement in FSI we think this Community has the potential for.

But what kind of achievements are we talking about here? I mean what concrete improvements can a common open source technology infrastructure deliver for the industry and beyond?

First and foremost, it can deliver benefits for us, the end users, who on a daily basis have to deal with an out-of-time, obsolete, infuriating, and just simply awkward experience in managing OUR money. Need some (US-centric) examples? These are only a few of the very personal experiences horror stories I went through in just the last year while dealing with the financial system here in the US: the paperwork involved in getting a mortgage is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, something nobody should go through in the 21st century. The idea that moving money across banks or even within a bank should take three business days and the antiquated process for which it takes 3 days to “link” two bank accounts simply to transfer money - ehm bits! - between them is galling. Oh and finally, the IRS asynchronously notified me that my “online payment” failed, days after providing account or routing details. These are only some of the “end user” issues to fix, without looking at the backend and integration challenges.

And I want to be extremely clear here: I fully recognize that I am lucky to have a stable, fully remote-able, and fast growing job during this pandemic. These are, in fact, first world end user problems, especially compared to the millions of unbanked or underbanked out there or so many folks that haven’t even been able to get their stimulus checks, largely because of an obsolete employment system built 50 years ago in COBOL and now almost impossible to maintain. These are just a few examples of the true potential of what we could be solving together in the open. Ultimately, the financial system needs to work for us, efficiently and predictably, and in our FINOS Community we believe open collaboration is the way to get there. 

The great news here is that not only do we believe that open collaboration can deliver systemic benefits, but that it can deliver strategic advantages for each of the constituents of this ecosystem that decide to take the leap and embrace open source as a pillar of their technology strategy. After all, the corporate world is not famous for its selflessness - nor will it ever be.

What we learned this year in FINOS is that open source in financial services can be a positive sum game, a notion financial services should be very familiar with (for those less familiar see a definition of positive sum game in economics).

Open Source in this industry is capable of not only delivering the systemic benefits we discussed above, but delivering value to financial institutions, technology, fintech firms, regulators and ultimately individual contributors who decide to engage in this type of collaboration. It fundamentally aligns incentives, it enables efficient and tangible collaboration on code (not on words, we already had too many meetings this year), and ultimately shows results. Amongst other things: 

Financial institutions gain efficiency and access to a broader talent pool, enabling them to focus on truly value-add and competitive IP. 
Through commercial open source models, fintechs get to play in a level playing field with many of the incumbents, getting a much better shot at disrupting a still highly incumbent-dominated vendor market. 
Regulators have the potential to promote a new, more efficient, way to manage the delicate balance between imposing regulation and ensuring free market dynamics, using open source to create a consolidated source of regulations and their interpretation, implementation and enforcement.
By engaging remotely with a very sought after industry, individuals can position themselves for their next job and potentially even be part of the engine that delivers a better financial backbone - back to themselves.

As we look forward to 2021, we must take a page from the 2020 book, not the pandemic chapter, but the very important collaboration lessons we have all, hopefully, learned. 

This vision, this positive sum game, can only be realized if we ALL (or at least the vast majority of us) collaborate towards this common goal. In the way that a vaccine doesn’t generate herd immunity until 70%+ of the population has taken it; like social distancing and other pandemic prevention measures don’t work if they are applied in isolation at local level; we still need to achieve critical mass to ensure our efforts will be successful. 

So, what are some concrete actions - see I promised that - you can take to help us turn this vision into reality and help this movement (while helping yourself, remember, it’s a positive sum game)?

My overarching suggestion, which applies to all of you, is that wherever you sit in the business or technology organization, you should focus on what matters. Put simply: stop spending time re-inventing the wheel, solving the same “local” problems over and over again, even as you change jobs. To quote my friend and former CIO at Deutsche Bank, Neal Pawar, who I had the pleasure to interview during our recent virtual OSSF, the name of the game is no longer about “build vs buy”, it’s about “leverage vs. invent”. I couldn’t agree more with him. Before inventing something new, and more likely than not failing to deliver that project (just looking at the stats here) or adopting vendor technology in the traditional manners, it is fundamental to be in a  position to make informed technology choices. You should consider how to best leverage an external technology vendor without falling into potentially damaging “lock-in” scenarios. You should also be in the position to actively evaluate using open source projects, and the potential to both consume the software and participate with the project community. If these aren’t your first options, they should certainly be considered as very valuable candidates. You have to realize that the amount of differentiating IP in your institution is probably short of 10% of the full stack, so why would it be different next time you face the same problem?

Once you decide you are NOT going to re-invent something, my suggestion is that you truly spend time to fully understand how consumption from and contribution to open source can provide a massively positive ROI. Whether you are a financial institution realizing savings in rolling out your new offering, or are a fintech looking for a strong go-to-market strategy, or you want to commoditize a competitor, it’s time to take a lesson from some of most successful commercial open source firms out there. This model has proven to be successful over and over again and, simply put, if you don’t jump on it, someone else will and the innovation gap will continue to grow.

My primary and final call to action is to all individuals out there, because ultimately, while we wouldn’t be here without corporate support from our members, it is passionate individuals that drive fundamental change and have led open source communities like ours to make the most impact. My call here is to first and foremost to let us hear your voice.

Whether you are an industry veteran frustrated (like me) by the inner workings and poor end user experience the financial industry is offering; are passionate about ensuring that the financial system is run transparently and inclusively; think profit should be generated through real value-add products and services; are a developer in search of a highly challenging, high-growth, high-potential area for your next job, we want to hear from you. Drop us a note, write to our mailing, join our meetings, or, even better, raise an issue or submit a pull request.  We encourage you to suggest ideas and provide feedback on how we can continue to make a bigger impact and be more efficient.

Let me wrap with a final consideration: aside from a few exceptions, the future of software development will be largely distributed, as most tech companies and financial institutions are structuring themselves for (at best) a hybrid in-person / remote operating model for their teams.   In other words, co-location is dead. And, guess what, this is the very way open source communities have operated for decades. This puts us in a fantastic position to continue leading the way and attracting amazing talent to our communities. It also enables us to keep people connected in a very meaningful way: as much as I can’t wait to meet our community in person again, open source has allowed us to solve problems together this year, something that creates a unique bond, which was fundamental for me in a period of extreme social isolation. 

In other words, where yet another Zoom working group meeting might not cut it, solving a long standing “good first issue”, having your pull request accepted and seeing that build finally work, receiving praise from someone on the other side of the world that you haven’t met, is not only very rewarding but delivers a sense of purpose and community that is much needed in this era. 

So, in conclusion, Open Source has the potential to be a vaccine to some of the most viral issues in financial services, by aligning incentives in a positive sum game. It is a powerful antidote to the natural isolation we are all feeling, because it has proven over and over to be an efficient collaboration model that enables us, as a society, to achieve much greater results, delivering innovation and solving problems together that are much bigger than ourselves.

Interested in FINOS open source projects, or how to get started? Click the link below to see how to get involved in the FINOS Community.

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