06: The Technical Challenges and Opportunities of Building a Startup Inside a Large Bank with Sam Bledsoe of Ruby
This week on The Data Stack Show, Kostas Pardalis and Eric Dodds continue their conversation about Ruby, a start-up designed to help families navigate their financial situation in some of life’s most challenging moments, by talking with the Nashville company’s CTO Sam Bledsoe. This follow-up discussion digs into how their data engineering and marketing setups co-exist and how they rely on Azure.
- Sam’s background and more info about Ruby (2:11)
- Privacy-related challenges at the intersection of banking and medical data (4:33)
- What to expect from using Azure (15:06)
- Breaking down the stack (24:44)
- The need for marketing people with technological skills (36:20)
- Talking Big Query, RedShift, Spark and data virtualization (41:15)
- Biggest changes anticipated in moving as a spin-off from the bank (43:59)
You’ve seen the Microsoft memes
It can be easy to take shots at Microsoft and Azure, but it’s really interesting to talk with someone who’s found that embracing Azure products has really worked out well for their organization. Sam Bledsoe is someone who wants the best tool for the job, and for him and Ruby, Microsoft’s Azure has been the answer so far.
Sam has been in dev for years, beginning in middle school, and has transitioned to more management and compliance these days. He is employed by First Horizon Bank and Ruby is a department inside the bank that is about to spin out on their own. Some of their products include a way for families to help monitor the finances of aging parents, for organizing banking, insurance and medical information, and for helping people understand and manage medical bills.
Because Ruby falls under the governance of a large bank with thousands of employees, that can impact a lot of decisions, including the decision to go with Azure products. “Our backgrounds, for the people who got hired for Ruby, are small companies and start-ups and nobody else in the bank could really relate to the way we thought was normal to do things,” he said. “We had to get started with a cloud account and asked ‘AWS or Azure’ and that went all the way up to the CTO and the CIO of the bank and there was this whole procurement process.” Sam recounted how the CIO of the bank steered them away from AWS because of news of a potential foray for Amazon into the financial sphere as a competitor.
“Eventually we were like, here’s a credit card just go do it or it’s not going to happen. We spent years cleaning up that decision. Sometimes you just have to do stuff otherwise it won’t be done.”
To put it mildly, in the past four years Sam has seen Azure go from being a huge disappointment to being a true competitor to AWS. He went on to describe Azure as being built on a product model where everything is product-ized and a little more glossy and full of features. “Under the hood, it’s still a cloud provider that you can access online with a console or via API or command line systems, but the way the stuff is expressed and packaged and sold to you, there is that difference in design philosophy.”
“These days Azure is good,” he said. And when there is something that you want to do in it that isn’t available, Microsoft has been good about adding it to their roadmap. “They’re responsive in their customer service and support and understanding what you’re trying to do and helping you do it. The major complaint I would have is with documentation being out of date.”
Sam talked briefly about their stack for building their product. They built two web apps and utilized on the front end Vue.JS with SaaS and Pug and WebKit Toolchain. That communicates with things hosted in Azure with C# running on Azure’s PaaS app. “It’s very easy to deploy to,” he said. “There’s an app service thing, a database, platform as a service thing, Microsoft’s version of S3, Blob Storage, SQL Server. That all works pretty much like you would want it.”
“We knew what we were looking for and how to set it up, and they make it easy to do,” he said.
They also utilize ancillary tools like Azure DevOps and Microsoft’s App Center for testing on emulating devices.
Obviously, with being created from a large bank, data security, privacy and compliance are extremely important and Sam noted that has been another thing that Azure has been really good for right out of the box. But with that intense emphasis on compliance and just the built-in bureaucracy of large organizations, it can be hard for the start-up to innovate.
“Our email, for example,” he said. “We can only get through this online web proxy and we can’t download attachments from it. We can’t access a lot of the internal stuff and it’s hard a lot of times to tell them our way of doing things. Like, we don’t have a network. We have a bunch of SaaS applications, we have an Azure environment that’s all PaaS so there’s no V-net, our email is just a SaaS thing. It’s weird trying to deal with it.”
When Ruby spins off from the bank, there will be security and compliance features that they take with them like their access request system, the way resources are tagged and monitored, configuration strategies, using Azure’s security, information and event management system called Sentinel, two-factor authentication for everything, making sure cypher suites and bit links for keys and certificates are all up to date, encrypting the data at rest, and separating duties and concerns.
Sam, when asked about what he anticipates being the biggest changes about completely being a separate start-up, responded, “The biggest change will probably be something as mundane as operating our own email.”
He added, “Probably the thing I’m most excited about is not having to do the bank’s production readiness assessment stuff before we roll out. Not having to deal with that will be fantastic.”
The Data Stack Show is a weekly podcast powered by RudderStack. Each week we’ll talk to data engineers, analysts, and data scientists about their experience around building and maintaining data infrastructure, delivering data and data products, and driving better outcomes across their businesses with data.
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