Capital One's real product is software and data, learn their lessons to stay relevant

At this point, technology is unavoidable. Every company must either operate as a software business now, or be moving in that direction, or risk becoming irrelevant

Image: iStockphoto/Yuri_Arcurs

And you thought Capital One was a financial services firm. Silly you.

Wikipedia describes Capital One as a "an American bank holding company specializing in credit cards, home loans, auto loans, banking and savings products," but that's just what it sells. What it is, however, is something else.

Capital One is a software company.

This is evident from a spate of decisions the company has made over the past year, most recently the hiring of former Apache Software Foundation president, Jim Jagielski. Like Netflix before it, Capital One recognizes that modern businesses are built on software, and great businesses are built on great software developers.

A year outside the bubble

Financial services firms have always been long on technology. Companies like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs were among the first to embrace Linux, and are almost always pushing the envelope on the latest and greatest in open source software.

But, usually it's behind the firewall.

And, rarely do the financial giants want to share what they're working on, for fear their competitors will follow. (And even when they say something in a semi-public forum, please don't write it down!)

Which is what makes Capital One's year of living openly so interesting. To recap:

  • In October, Capital One hired a member and former president of the Apache Software Foundation, Jim Jagielski. His role? Senior director within the firm's Technical Fellows program. He is, in other words, a resident geek.
  • Earlier in October, Capital One CIO Rob Alexander took to the stage at AWS re:Invent, the premier cloud computing event, where he declared, "We can deploy some of our most critical workloads on Amazon." That message wasn't meant to alert his competitors; it was meant to win over developers.
  • In July, not only did Capital One sponsor, attend, and speak at OSCON, the annual gathering of the open source elite, but it also released the weirdly named Hygieia, a DevOps dashboard, with plans to release even more code.

I'm sure there are more, but those are the highlights for me. Each adds up to thinking of Capital One as more than the "What's in your wallet?" company.

We're not a bank. Not really

Which is precisely the point.

Speaking of the company's presence at AWS re:Invent, CIO Rob Alexander explained:

Underpinning our credit card and banking services is a technology company....Our products are intangible: software and data....Since our business is really about building digital experiences, we have to be great at building software and leveraging data to be the leaders in digital banking. At Capital One, it isn't enough to have a slightly better IT shop than other banks. We have to be a great technology company. This means modeling ourselves on the best technology organizations out there.

That sounds great, but what do rank-and-file Capital One engineers say? Further down the pecking order, a Capital One engineer notes, "Engineers have definitely gotten into the ears of the upper management and we, the engineers, are moving to a more technology company feel in our work and how we do things."

"More technology company feel...." That's exactly what every company needs to achieve, because every enterprise is, or must become, a technology company.

Netflix gets this, and has turned to open source software as a way to drive recruiting and retention. But so does Ford, which has hundreds of software positions open as it seeks to compete with companies like Tesla and Apple that view cars as computers.

From Hollywood to the rust belt, companies are waking up to software, just as Capital One has. And just as you should, too.

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