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The Card-Smart CIO
Karthik Sundaram
Sunday, October 27, 2002
INDER P. SINGH WAS RECENTLY NAMED THE global CIO of Visa International, the leading credit card company. “Visa is driving towards a new level of processing capability, and Inder brings the experience and leadership to make it happen,” stated Malcolm Williamson, President and CEO of Visa International. What does the role of a global CIO of a globally operational company demand? “VisaNet is a processing system delivering secure, reliable payments—any time, anywhere, any way. Currently, it is capable of handling 5,000 transactions per second. We are stepping this up. Last year alone, more than $5 billion worth of transactions occurred per day. We are speeding this up, too. As the CIO, I need to ensure that all this happens,” says Singh.

With over 21,000 member financial institutions spread over 130 countries, Singh faces the challenge of maintaining a system that has a uniform base while giving each of the company's regional divisions autonomy to operate under its own rules and local regulations. The key to making sure that such a geographically diverse operation is successful is to drive the power down to the individual regions, Singh says. To that end, the company looks at open systems and modern object-oriented programming with a tiered CNC and C++ architecture.

Although the means of processing transactions has to be tailored to each region, Visa's mainframes and its ability to process transactions globally and approve sales must also be uniform, he said.“How we do storage doesn't have to change,” Singh says. “The security infrastructure doesn't have to change. How we communicate doesn't have to change.” But local government regulations regarding transactions might be different, and local IT and telecommunications infrastructures could require specific solutions. To accommodate those variations, the applications, which are built to work with the wider VisaNet, are shipped to local regions, where companies “can change the application to their heart's content,” he said, knowing it will still work within the wider network. It then becomes a template Visa can take from region to region, still allowing individual divisions the flexibility they need to be competitive, Singh says. He will be responsible for coordinating IT processes and standards in four strategic directions:

• Ensure global interoperability of all Visa technology

• Maintain global service standards for transaction processing and data management

• Deliver airtight systems integrity

• Guide ongoing strategic initiatives, including the deployment of Visa's new distributed systems architecture

Singh will play a leading role in improving the flexibility and capacity of VisaNet by helping to retool key systems, IT resources, and the underlying system architecture. “We are harnessing the unparalleled scale and efficiency of VisaNet to drive more processing power down to the regional level,” Singh says. “This approach will improve our ability to rapidly customize solutions for the evolving needs of our member financial institutions and enhance Visa's competitiveness in the dramatically changing payments marketplace.”

Singh brings over twenty five years of senior executive management experience in banking technologies and systems. His past experience includes decision-making positions at SeaFirst Bank and at Bank of America Corporation. Among his many accomplishments, Singh developed Bank of America's overall delivery strategy for expansion in Asia and established the global retail business/technology and payment strategies for the bank. Singh co-founded and headed EXL Services (see siliconindia, June 2002 issue), a business subsequently acquired by Conseco, which offered outsourcing services for customer care and backroom operations support. He also served as Chief Operating Officer for Card Capture Services, owner of the third-largest automated teller network in the United States and now part of E-Trade.

What is foremost in his mind when he looks at the IT needs of his company? “There are many issues, but the most crucial aspect is completion of projects. This has always been a sore point between vendors and clients, and at an 80 percent failure on the vendor-side to complete projects, clients are becoming wary of the outsourcing model,” says Singh. Visa, in fact, relies more on its subsidary, Inovant, to build its worldwide processes for transactions. “We need to identify areas that could become problems, clarify issues in these areas and proactively resolve conflicts before they turn into problems. This is a key demand clients will require of vendors,” he says.

For the next several years, Visa anticipates ongoing double-digit growth in transactions, which has massive impacts on processing systems. Transaction volume is soaring for several reasons: there is solid growth in the number of people and businesses choosing electronic cards for debit, credit, or prepaid accounts; electronic cards are increasingly being used instead of cash or checks; and Visa is delivering new payment options—new credit and debit card features, multifunction smart cards, payments on mobile phones or handheld computers, and even high-value, electronic business-to-business transactions. “In a business like Visa’s, there are many shared projects that are occurring at the regional levels. We are looking at methodologies that will ensure that these shared projects are brought to completion at better success rates, that what is extant today. The key is to understand the business,” says Singh. “Companies are looking afresh at the concept of cash. Some of our clients have shifted to paying their employees by fund transfer onto the employee’s debit or credit card. Visa is enabling this mode of payment, which cuts down visits to banks, enhances personal safety, and takes out the troubles in transactional frauds.”

What does a CIO expect from an IT services company? “Don’t push technology at me,” says Singh. “Can you understand my business? That is the key to our relationship. Remember, I am transferring not just processes to you, but my entire business to you. If a vendor does not understand the client’s business clearly and thoroughly, there are bound to be sore relationships and failed projects. Again, it is the vendor’s onus to access as much information as possible from the client.” From his experience up the corporate ladder, Singh underlines the importance of executing jobs systematically. “From where I come, it has not been hard. But hard work, yes,” says Singh. “You must be able to deliver quality work that no one else can deliver. This is the best route to success.”

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