by Julian Goldsmith

Visa Europe CIO Steve Chambers calls on IT depts to stand up for themselves

Feb 09, 2011
CareersFinancial Services IndustryIT Leadership

Since 2004, Visa Europe CIO Steve Chambers has devoted his efforts to building a payments system for the company to see it into the 21st Century.

There’s still much to do, but for Chambers, the last six years – a sizeable chunk of time to be on one project for any CIO – does not weigh heavy. His zeal for the project and the company is unmistakable and he readily admits that he sees it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that no IT leader in their right mind would pass up.

“Six years has flashed by. I’m privileged to work for Visa. It’s a fantastic way to work for a company that has a proven role in soc­iety. The company has a high level of social and corporate responsibility in place.

“The brief I’m given to build a payments platform, it’s an opportunity that comes up once in every 10 years.”

It’s a dream for a CIO to work on a project that forms the basis of a company’s strategy for the future, he says. The ­attention that it demands from the board is absolute and makes the CIO a true business peer, not merely a service provider.

“The organisation is fully aligned to my mission and has given me the freedom and support to deliver what I’ve been asked. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he says.

And this is the space Chambers has worked to get into.

Typically for many game-changing CIOs he came into IT from a left-field start. He started working life as a science and games teacher after graduating with a deg­ree in astrophysics in 1981. After a brief spell in IT support at Commercial Union, he went back to academia to resume his studies in physics, but he found the pace as a research scientist too slow.

When he joined EDS in 1984, he moved into an area of technology that has dominated his life so far – payments. He continued on the services side of technology in a number of EDS companies, including Sema, Tandem and ACI, until he decided to move closer to in-house operations.

“When I left ACI it was to become a CEO or CIO of a blue-chip company. I wanted to be closer to the business. At EDS, I was in a space in the supply chain,” he says.

Even so, he thinks his time at the supplier gave him the skills to become a business-aligned head of IT. Involvement with marketing and sales gave him a reasonably rounded view of what IT needs to provide.

Chambers’ view is that too many IT dep­artments are seen as merely internal service providers of utility facilities and that that is the fault of the IT leader.

“It depends on the personality of the IT team. IT is seen as the victim, often being beaten up by other business units. My perspective is that they’ve got sidelined into the customer-supplier relationship.

“IT teams need to seize the initiative when it comes to the relationship they have with other business units in the company. They have to be proactive in creating technology-based solutions for business problems, not wait around for demands to be delivered to them.”

Chambers insists IT teams should push back on other units’ requirements if they think they can solve a business problem in a better way. But that requires the IT team to have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the business’s challenges in the market so that they can challenge other business units on their own ground.

“My experience is that the customer is rarely right. It takes a good challenge to make sure the solution gets shaped. IT people­ need to stand peer-to-peer with other business units.”

Naturally, Chambers takes that combative stance outside of work. He has always been a keen sportsman, going to a rugby-playing school and being in the football (he calls it soccer) team at Leicester University. He now supports Wasps rugby team and Manchester United FC. He’s a keen judoka and a self-confessed ski addict.

Nor does he let others lounge about while he’s exercising, encouraging colleagues and suppliers to get involved too. Last year he organised a charity cycle ride from Brussels to Frankfurt over three days with 10 suppliers and 40 staff. It raised £85,000 for Visa’s chosen charities.