Always available, always secure: interview with Visa Europe's CTO

By Peter Gothard
19 Jul 2012 View Comments

It’s an interesting time for Visa Europe. An expansion from only 800 employees in 2008 to a current figure of 3,000 across offices in London, Reading and Northampton gives some idea of the challenges facing chief technology officer (CTO) Adam Banks in terms of managing customer expectations, as well as the technological working practices of the employees who cater to clients’ needs.

Further reading

A big advocate of open technology, Visa Europe runs its transaction systems on Unix-based software that has now been running 24/7, 365 days a year for just over five years, with what Banks describes as “100 per cent availability and a very high accuracies.”

“Three hundred transactions a second is the quietest we get,” says Banks. “So we can never, ever turn ourselves off. Not even for maintenance or upgrade. So we have to replace everything on an almost weekly basis, without ever taking the system down. It’s a bit like changing the engines on an aeroplane in flight.”

While Visa Europe has had a couple of high-profile brushes with security breaches in the past couple of years, Banks cheerfully dismisses them as being overhyped by the media. Citing press stories in June about an individual who claimed responsibility for the theft of 50GB worth of information, he says: “If you look at the data he’s publishing as coming from Visa, it contains cardholder name, cardholder phone number and card number. We don’t hold two of those, so if he got them out of my systems I’d love to know where.

“I’d bet that he’s broken a merchant somewhere that happened to hold Mastercard and Visa details.”

A far more serious concern is Visa Europe’s continuing tussle with its biggest business rival: cash. “Our biggest competitor is cash. You phone up Amazon and offer cash on delivery and they tend to decline that in favour of other methods of payment,” says Banks, wryly. “So online is very important to us because it removes our largest competitor from the equation.”

Electronic wallets (e-wallets) are another key weapon in this war against cash. Banks believes Visa’s extensive knowledge of consumer buying patterns gives it an edge over the competition in this inceasingly contested market.

“We have seen one pound in three of the public’s money, and I believe that insight has got to be of value to the consumer,” explains Banks. “At the moment, the consumer is leaving this digital footprint that is not being used on their behalf. Visa as an organisation is not set up to make money off consumers, but to service society and the banks. We can leverage that data to better target offers, and to give insights back to the consumer, when we start thinking about e-wallets.”

Such has been the emphasis on customer-facing technology over the past few years that Banks worries that the technology needs of Visa Europe’s own staff have been rather neglected.

Cobblers’ children

“Looking back, it’s all been about driving the real business with our card systems, rather than letting people in the office work,” says Banks. “If five per cent of the spend is out here [in the office], 95 per cent is on the big card processing systems. Not quite cobbler’s children, but culturally we don’t do a huge amount of videoconferencing, for example. We’ve been a small company.”

Moving forward, Banks is looking to increase the firm’s use of virtual desktop technology and encourage more hot-desking among staff.

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