by Mark Chillingworth

Visa Europe CIO Steve Chambers plays his next card

Mar 12, 20138 mins
Financial Services IndustryIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Don’t for a minute think that having completed the integration of a new payments platform at Visa Europe, CIO Steve Chambers has been taking it easy. As he updates us on his strategy and role at the financial services firm, it’s clear that technology continues to reshape the way Visa services are used and how the organisation operates.

“We’re a payments business,” the company states clearly on its corporate website. “We are not a bank and we don’t issue cards. Nor are we a credit card company, so we don’t lend or set the fees that the consumers pay. In fact, more than 70 per cent of Visa’s payment transactions in Europe are on debit cards.” In every essence Visa Europe is a financial services company providing a core transactional process to banks and retailers that then offer that service to their customers.

Having completed the integration of a major payment processing system at Visa Europe, the pace of change at the London- and Reading-based organisation has, if anything, quickened. The payments processing system was, in effect, a new foundational base for the organisation.

Chambersand his team spent three years developing the European-wide platform with a budget of €0.5bn, and another three building new value add services. The system provides European banks with a compliant authorisation and clearing settlement platform that has the speed and agility to react to changing consumer and business demands.

“The authentication and payments platform was a single accountable mission, my mission,” says Chambers. “Today, instead of three or four big things going on as part of that, it’s now chock-a-block as we introduce new technologies to different business layers.

“Take away the Visa brand and we are a technology services firm. I’m roughly half of the business, providing service management and customer relationship support,” he explains.

“Now the whole company has transformed on the back of the technology so that now it is a services organisation.”

This move has meant a higher focus on the services Chambers and his team deliver to the Visa Europe business.

“As you grow your platform and organisation, new capabilities need to be developed. We built the core platform and that was the first challenge, then we had to put a lot of effort into our run side of the organisation, because running our own systems was more than we did before.

“Payment platforms typically have a long life and if you want to stay relevant you need to be able to change and grow continuously. We knew we needed to keep the platform simple to minimise risk and cost and to promote reuse, so we had to put in good governance so our architecture became the key, as we didn’t want to end up with silos. We are an architecture-led organisation that builds once, uses many and focuses on scalability and reuse.

“We do portfolio governance to help the organisation get the right projects done. So we link and engage with the organisation as the best things are when they are done in partnership,” he says.

“I’m trying to get my prototype team into place so that we can try things and fail at some things, but fail fast, bin a project if it’s not working and move on.”

Returning to the processing platform, Chambers explains how the richness of data within Visa Europe is delivering business benefits. “All the data we have has really excited our members. We have 25 billion transactions in a database of activity in the last two years,” he says.

Secure services

Business Intelligence tools have also been improved, using tokens so that there is improved access to the data. With better data quality comes improved security, as Chambers has introduced a neural network for fraud analysis.

These are important developments as Visa Europe expands the services it offers to banks and their customers. Services like Mobile Wallet and have already been adopted by RBS and other organisations.

Chambers believes these technology advances will improve trust in electronic banking because they protect customers’ details from ever having to be shared.

“They are branded with the banks, so the trust relationship comes from trusting the banks,” he explains.

This has all led to Chambers’ CIO role expanding to cover change and governance, and accordingly he has embedded a service framework across the whole organisation, not just IT.

Since completing the implementation of the payments platform, Chambers has been in the enviable position of not having his considerable IT budget reduced.

“The rate of spend has not gone down,” he says. But don’t confuse this with profligacy – it’s quite the opposite; Chambers has used his budget to strengthen Visa Europe’s internal IT.

“Sixty five per cent of our spend is investment, which all adds value to the business,” he adds.

But as investment and opportunities increase, the IT partnerships at Visa Europe have been rationalised.

“Originally we had more suppliers than we had staff. We needed to lean on the skills of our vendors too much, so we looked at those skills and rebalanced ourselves to ensure we had those skills in house, but retain strong relationships with our suppliers,” he says.

Visa numbers EMC, Deloitte, IBM, BT and KCom among its supplier base, but Chambers rules out any relationship with systems integrators (SI).

“Never get into bed with an SI – I am massively anti-SI. For the most part it’s a highly inefficient model to work to. If everyone did their job perfectly in an SI relationship then the SI would be an important bridge. However, how many times has the demand side done a good job of explaining its needs? And are the vendors transparent?,” he asks.

“It’s not always the fault of the SI; both sides of the jigsaw are a bit fuzzy. I have a lot of sympathy for them, it is a difficult position. I prefer to have a direct engagement with the two sides [the application vendor and Visa as the customer], that way it is more open. So I don’t have it as a Sword of Damocles position,” he says.

People power

Chambers has a healthy IT operation of 1100 staff, of whom 400 are contractors and another 400 of whom form a development team in Reading. The CIO spends one day a week in Reading, another in one of the two UK datacentres and three days at the organisation’s Paddington headquarters in London.

“You have to be where your people are and people have to have access to you,” he says. Chambers’ office shows he is clearly keen on sport, and is a believer in the power of teams and says he specialises is building high-performance teams.

“If we start on a new project, we build a new team. To get to the objective we have to have one common mission that aligns us as a team. Everyone then is aimed at the same thing and you get the best from people as they are all in the same place. I invest a lot of time in people. Unfulfilled potential is such a tragedy.”

Chambers has been with Visa Europe for eight years, and he has enough opportunities at the organisation to keep him content into the future.

“Where else would I get the challenges? Why would I look for another CIO role?” As CIO he reports to the CEO and is on the executive committee and he says he never presents to them about IT.

“I talk to the board about the outcomes from investing in IT. I get a lot of support. I can have a conversation with the CEO on how long things take or any issues, it’s about having the right and sensible conversations about things that people can engage with, like the risk levels, the value to Visa and whether a technology is leading or following. He trusts me to a very significant level that I can help lead the business thinking on how we do things.

Chambers is a passionate speaker and enthuses you with his energy for what technology is capable of for an organisation.

“The thing I love about my job is reaching and moving an obstacle.”

CV: Steve Chambers

2005-present: CIO, Visa Europe 2002-2003: European IT Director, CSG Kenan 1998-2000: Sales Director EMEA, ACI Worldwide 1997-1999: IT & Product Management/Marketing, ACI Worldwide 1992-1997: IT Director EMEA, ACI Worldwide 1988-1992: Product development manager, ACI Worldwide 1986-1988: Technical consultant, ACI Worldwide 1984-1986: Systems engineer, EDS

Steve Chambers of Visa Europe shares his tips for time – and people – management