Mobile Banker of the Year: ING Direct's Kithulegoda

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  • We heard it again and again from Charaka Kithulegoda and other bankers honored in our Mobile Banker of the Year package this year: simplicity and ease of use are the keys to sound mobile banking app design.
    June 3

Charaka Kithulegoda aims to run a mile in the same way he develops bank technology — with simplicity and speed.

At the intersection of his obsessions is the Nike FuelBand he wears around his wrist. The gadget accompanies digital recorders that hook up to his sneakers and pedals, binding his itch for innovation with empirical curiosity — allowing him to measure how far he's gone week by week.

On Saturdays, you can find ING Direct Canada's chief information officer running dozens of miles in the Toronto suburbs, then syncing the piece of bendy plastic to his computer.

"It motivates you to do the next bike ride or the next run," says Kithulegoda, 45. "So how can you create concepts like that in the financial industry, in a highly regulated industry?"

That's the question that drives him in his job, where he's in charge of technology at a bank without branches.

Over the past year he's led a team that has placed the $40 billion-asset online bank's mobile application on all major, mobile platforms; pushed mobile remote deposit capture for the bank's customers; and set off an internal, biometric pilot that utilizes smartphones.

In addition, Kithulegoda's team recently announced a social login feature that allows the bank's 1.8 million digital customers to access their account information through Facebook — a move American bankers have been reluctant to make because of proposed regulation.

All of which has earned him the honor of being this year's Mobile Banker of the Year, a distinction awarded by BTN editors to a bank executive who exemplifies progressive fintech management.

In the early days of the internet, Kithulegoda worked for a medical technology company in Australia developing a system for doctors and nurses that delivered reports through email.

He came to North America in 1997 to work for Oracle in Toronto and left two years later to work as an analyst at ING.

Kithulegoda rose through the ranks at the bank, along the way developing the enterprise software that connects ING Direct's user interface to its back office systems.

Kithulegoda says he's most excited about the bank's biometric test.

"I get very passionate, and I'm very excited about technology, but at the same time I get extremely frustrated when it's complicated and when I think that you have to work through too many steps to make something useful happen," Kithulegoda says.

You see, biometrics is something the bank has tested in the past without success.

In 2000, Kithulegoda says, the bank launched a similar pilot dependent on an orange mouse with an embedded fingerprint scanner. The device required users to change ports and settings on the desktop that made it nearly impossible for the average bank customer.

"The initial configuration of this was useless unless you were really excited, it was just not for a general user," says Kithulegoda.

Thankfully, things have changed, he says.

Kithulegoda says ING Direct's voice and facial recognition pilot today works with smartphones that require none of the tinkering that made past efforts unreasonably difficult.

"With the mobile device you have all these things integrated in a very nice package," says Kithulegoda. "You don't have to worry about a serial port. You don't have to worry if the microphone is going to integrate with your software, because the device manufacturer has taken care of all of these things."

For him, it all comes back to the same, simple question. He says he wants to create technology that does for banking what FuelBand does for a run.

"I always try to ask, and everybody's question is, is this going to be simple?" says Kithulegoda. "How is it going to work for our customers? How is this going to make our business better?"

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