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People come first in fighting fraud

If there is one common denominator to Ruth Wooderson’s professional day it is people. No matter the focus of conversation – from technology to working patterns – Santander Bank’s CIO of fraud returns to the human element time and time again.

Having initially trained to become a primary school teacher she abandoned that path soon after qualifying and embarked on a career in the bank. As it turns out the engine that drives her in both professional settings is the same: “I wanted to watch people grow and nurture them to be the best version of themselves,” she says. “There is nothing better than seeing the right people coming together and achieving real success in terms of what we want to deliver.”

Ruth joined what was then Abbey National after leaving teaching and over the past 25 years she has advanced within the company that rebranded as Santander UK in 2010. After focusing on fraud for the past eight years, she took on the role as CIO earlier this year [April 2023].

It is a big job; she is leading an area of the bank that is continuously evolving; fraud is big business and ever changing. “We are probably never going to see the end of fraud; it is almost like a big jigsaw puzzle where you never quite manage to find the final piece. We always have to evolve because the fraudsters are one step ahead and they are becoming more and more sophisticated,” she says.

The process of fighting fraud is also about taking the customer on a journey that helps to protect them, as Ruth explains.

"Historically, for Customers, the branches of the high street banks were where they did the majority of their banking, that's how they managed big financial transactions. And now you're asking them to pick up a mobile phone to do their banking,” she says, underlining the focus on helping customers to protect themselves.

Fighting fraud successfully requires tight team work, a collaborative approach and highly skilled technical people. Working with a large team of software engineers, she is  happy to dispel some myths about the profession, which retains an image of “a person sitting in a back room who likes gaming”.

It is a profession that has changed over time, she adds. “I have male and female software engineers, I have mature engineers but also some who are on a learning path after a career change. It is less single lens and what we ask the team to do is much broader and includes more people now.”

Software engineers are in fact just one part of the bigger picture. “A good software engineer can listen to a designer who in turn can listen to a tester. When you give them the opportunity to work with designers, testers and product owners, they become better at their craft,” she says.

In a move that goes slightly against the grain in a post-pandemic time when companies are closing or reducing office space, Santander is close to completion of a brand new HQ office building in Milton Keynes, UK, which is designed for the hybrid working model that the company has implemented since February 2021, requiring workers to go to the office two days a week.

The new building, says Ruth, is a demonstration that the company is embracing progress and change. The new HQ is a collaboration space with Milton Keynes University and features other facilities, including food and drink outlets on the ground floor, which will be open to the public, adding to the community around the building too.

“It shows that we are moving away from being a traditional bank,” she says. “There will be better collaboration spaces, better technology and it shows our teams that the office is not just about productivity; it is about connections, about relationships and the ability to bounce ideas off each other.”

The hybrid working model has influenced the way she splits the focus of her own week and the two office days are dedicated to face to face meetings, catching up with teams and fostering that culture of collaboration. A regular newsletter is sent to staff keeping everybody in touch and communicating.

This approach to inclusivity is a big piece of the picture in Ruth’s work, as a woman in technology she has had to walk a challenging road “where it was very difficult to be seen and heard” but adds that her own career advances to CIO of fraud is evidence of a progressive culture within Santander.

“There has been a lot of growth and opportunities; I think I have been able to get the breadth and depth of my skills and capabilities,” she says.

Among initiatives that the company is launching is a Women in STEM program within the technology department, an area Ruth is trying to drive to encourage more female representation in those roles and in senior leadership roles.

“For me it is about being seen and heard and realizing that being in technology can be more than being a software engineer; you can do very different roles and we need to promote that fact,” she says. “You need people who are able to articulate and dilute really technical information to key stakeholders who won’t understand the jargon.”

Attracting and retaining the variety of people – male and female –  to grow and flourish like she has, is central to her approach.

She takes pride in the fact that graduates who have come through her team on rotation later return to work in the team and stay; the good retention rate is important to her.

“I think the way I run my team fit with people’s values. And working with people is what I enjoy most about the job.”


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