‘Has COVID-19 become the world’s largest study in business resilience?’
As Visa’s President of Technology, Rajat Taneja has led the company’s cybersecurity strategy and operations infrastructure through an unprecedented year, while overseeing thousands of engineers’ work on new software and capabilities for our clients. In recent months, he has navigated challenges that have ranged from securing Visa’s move to remote working, to navigating the global shift to digital commerce amid a rise in attempted cyber-crimes. Here, he shares the lessons of 2020 so far.
Visa Navigate (VN): What have you learnt about Visa’s resilience from the pandemic?
Rajat Taneja (RT): Our system is built around the truism that everything that can break at internet scale will break – and therefore, you cater to that with what I call pessimistic design. This means building the system in a manner that can handle a lot of unexpected turbulence – like natural disasters, technology disruptions, cyber threats – but also a sudden surge in demand for digital payments, as we have witnessed over the last year.
In that sense, the pandemic has definitely been a study in resilience, as we rarely see events that impact all markets at once.
What we learnt is that the system continues to be highly resilient and delivers near 100% uninterrupted service. We regularly stress test our systems in a laboratory environment, where we simulate service disruptions and spikes in processing demand. The learnings from simulations and real events, like COVID-19, are invaluable and help us fine-tune the multiple layers of redundancy so that we can offer “always on” payment services to sellers and buyers around the world.
We have also learnt a lot about the resilience of our people. Our standard business continuity plans that we exercise often require that approximately 600 staff members work on-site to run and maintain the Visa payments system, and to manage our cyber fusion and network monitoring operations. Over the last year, we were able to deliver many of these services from our homes, and only about 150 people globally are now required to be on-site for only the most essential services, like running our data centre power/cooling and other industrial systems.
Throughout, Visa’s technology team has been managing a surge in cyber threats, meeting the demand for on-line, contactless and mobile payments as well as helping 20,000 Visa colleagues to work from home. The determination to deliver uninterrupted services to our clients is awe-inspiring.
VN: How have you safeguarded consumers and clients against the rise in fraud and cyber-attacks?
RT: Consumers have changed their behaviour; we have seen a surge in online and contactless payments as merchants and consumers prefer cashless payments, order ahead or arrange for home deliveries. New purchase patterns have emerged, such as a spike in online purchases of one-way flights when many countries began sheltering in place.
In order to stay ahead of fraudsters, we work in close collaboration with banks and merchants to constantly evolve our fraud models and adjust for changing consumer behaviour. We do this with a mix of artificial intelligence, deep learning technologies and human intelligence.
As consumer behaviour changes, the models keep learning. For instance, they learn that there are a lot more one-way travel tickets being bought and there appears to be legitimacy to those transactions, because other signals are telling us that the genuine cardholders are behind them. So, our system evolves to incorporate the “new normal” into its processing and its algorithm execution. If you couple that with human intelligence, both of those elements in concert work really well.
The global data we have available allows us to protect consumers and merchants at the local level, and as a result, our fraud rate is at historic low; less than 0.1%.
We often see fraudsters test new techniques in small volumes in different countries, before attempting a global full attack. As our algorithms score every transaction and take into account all signals from all countries we serve, our ability to thwart attacks locally in an individual country becomes that much better. Without the global data, models would miss the “testing” signals outside of a country and therefore the data would be incomplete and not powerful enough to detect and combat attacks. This is one of the secrets of how we stay ahead of local fraud.
VN: Talking about the amount of data that Visa handles, with transactions taking place all over the world, what does that tell you about how consumer behaviour is changing?
RT: Certainly, the biggest trend has been the dramatic shift in consumer usage of online, mobile and contactless payments. We all have experienced this first-hand – lockdowns and stay at home orders have forced us to shop online, order food deliveries, buy exercise equipment and consume more on-demand entertainment. We can see these trends in the payment data. For example, in Europe, 80% of in-person Visa payments are now contactless, up 10 percentage points in a year.
The number of Visa cards being used for online purchases in some countries has increased 14% since January1, which is twice the rate of growth seen before the pandemic.
There are markets where that growth is even faster: 15 countries in Europe have seen a 25% or higher increase in ecommerce payments compared to the same time last year. Ireland and Belgium, in particular, are among those showing a very high degree of momentum, as more people who were using cash or shopping in store, are now shopping online.
VN: Managing a large technology organisation, what do you think will change in the way teams work and interact?
RT: Today, 97% of Visa’s 20,000 employees are working from home and will until at least the end of 2020. This year has demonstrated that there is a lot of work our teams can do from home, and will still be able to do from home post COVID-19. There is a lot of solitary and independent work we do that can be done effectively from home. This is as a result of the many innovations we have seen in collaboration tools and technologies. These systems and their capabilities will only improve in the future, which is one of the few silver linings of the pandemic.
But we also know that human interaction and the serendipitous magical moments that occur in structured interactions and face-to-face ideation cannot be replaced. The energy you get coming in to work and brainstorming, designing, collaborating, is very important and will always be important. Running software is a team sport, and I think that will require some of us to go back to the workplace, but in new ways – in collaboration spaces and design studios for specific group tasks and activities. And some people will be on the premises full time – managing our data centres, our industrial systems, or our cyber fusion centres – to allow us to run our processes and maintain the high quality our clients expect.
VN: What are the leadership lessons you will take away from this experience?
RT: I think the leadership lesson that we all take away is that every single person, regardless of their position within the organization, is a leader in one way or another. This is a long held belief of mine and I think this crisis has demonstrated that, given the opportunity, most people rise to the occasion and do the right thing. It has been a tough year in so many ways, but it also has been uplifting to see the support people provided to each other and our clients – both professionally and personally. We literally invited our colleagues and clients into our homes using video conferencing technologies and shared our personal experiences of home-schooling our children, caring for our elderly parents and looking out for neighbours.
VN: Has the pandemic changed your priorities as a leader?
RT: When somebody can be impacted by interacting outside their home, making sure that our teams are healthy and safe is very much on my mind when I’m decision-making. Also, I've always believed that the best leadership style is to be sincere – so when people ask me how I’m doing, I will say: “I don't have all the answers, but here’s how I'm dealing with it.” Bring your authentic self to work, and I think that really will create a better work environment.
VN: What have you learnt about yourself during the past few months?
RT: Even as a more introverted personality, I’ve realised that being with people, walking the hallways, can lead to some magical moments of connection. Being able to look somebody in the eye and talk to them in person is very different to looking at a tile on a laptop!
VN: And in any downtime, what do you enjoy doing?
RT: It’s the very simple pleasures that I enjoy and miss the most right now – like watching sports or music live. And I've realised how much more I appreciate the outdoors, going to a park, going out with the family for a hike; just to be in the fresh air.
Rajat Taneja is president of technology for Visa, responsible for the company’s technology innovation and investment strategy, product engineering, global IT and operations infrastructure.
1 (not including travel purchases)
All statistics outlined in this document relating to Visa payment trends are derived from VisaNet proprietary data.
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