Gemalto’s UK manager Howard Berg tells TechWeek about his career, his admiration of Disney and love of cards
Howard Berg is the UK managing director of security firm Gemalto, which among other things secures many of the SIM cards used in mobile phones. His career has seen him help out with the first card readers in the UK and chip and PIN technology, but if he had his way, he’d have been a car dealer.
Tell us about your company, how long have you been in IT and what are your areas of expertise?
Gemalto is the world leader in digital security, providing a range of devices and services to help secure our digital interactions across fields as diverse as Banking, Telecoms, Government ID and Enterprise Security. Along with being a SIM card manufacturer and offering payment card and authentication services, our “over the air” servers deal with millions of transactions and requests on behalf of some of the world’s largest organisations.
I’m the Managing Director of our business in the UK and Ireland, and I also hold the responsibility for our Global Account programme, where we work with some of the world’s largest financial organisations.
What’s the favourite IT project that you’ve ever worked on?
It would have to be the development, design and implementation of the first card readers in the UK. These card readers enabled a standard credit or debit chip card to authenticate the user for customers’ online banking access and other services.
The project was a major one, and involved working with a major UK bank and agency on the physical design of the reader, the technical testing of the device and the distribution to the end customer. What is most pleasing, is that some six years on, that device is still in use and is in the hands of millions of UK bank account holders.
What technologies were you involved with ten years ago?
In 2003, the first pilot programme using a PIN instead of a signature for credit and debit cards was launched in Northampton. This was a major infrastructure change as it required retailers to install new PIN pads in shops and outlets across the country. It took a massive education campaign led by what was then APACs (now the Payments Council) to educate consumers on how to use PIN technology.
For me, I ran a company that both provided the terminals as well as the cards, so our challenge was to deliver to the market the products that met this need in a timely and efficient manner. The most amazing part was how smooth this change was! The press at the time was full of scare stories on how people wouldn’t be able to cope with the change, but in reality as PIN had been used at ATM’s for many years by most consumers, both young and old consumers took it in their stride.
What do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
Wearables seem to hold the key to the future, with devices becoming part of us, rather than stand-alone entities. In the security space, it’s clear that using our bodies as part of that authentication, be it retina, finger prints or finger vein seems the next logical step. I believe that in 10 years’ time, a world where there is a huge gap between the device and the person won’t exist. We will be always connected – through wearable technology and/or biometrics.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for an IT company or department today?
The balance between security and usability.
We live in a time when cybercrime is the norm and thus the need for security is paramount – but if the product and services isn’t user-friendly for the consumer then we have failed. Getting that balance right in an ever changing environment is the most pressing challenge faced by all companies – both IT and otherwise.
To cloud or nor to cloud?
To cloud – where appropriate. Incorporating enough verification checks to allow the user to feel as safe as they would in a physical environment is key, otherwise using the cloud won’t work.
Who is your tech hero and who is your tech villain?
I don’t think I have a villain or hero. I have respect for those who challenge traditional thinking and use this to promote good –for example someone like Tom Farrand, who created an online community to help innovators and entrepreneurs help each other. I dislike those who see tech as a way of simply taking out of society and giving nothing back.
What’s your favourite device ever made and what do you use the most?
Boring I know, but for me it’s still the smartphone! I I’m old enough to remember memos and telex. I carried one of those first generation “mobile” phones – which were bigger than a suitcase is nowadays! It amazes me that today, I have a device in my pocket that not only allows me to make calls but also allows me to send e-mails, surf the web and download hundreds of apps.
To me, the smartphone has changed the face of this planet in a way that those of us who remember the “old days” sometimes find it hard to communicate to those who weren’t around then, as the thought of not owning a mobile phone seems so alien. Laptops, tablets, iPods – they’re all great, but the device I reach for the most often is the smartphone.
Apart from your own, which company do you admire the most and why?
I tend to look for four things in a company: Innovation, great products, communal responsibility and the ability to develop talent. Putting all of these criteria together, the company that I think fits it the best is Walt Disney. It’s a company that has moved with the times, has understood its key assets are it people and has been prepared to innovate – even when it’s the market leader.
I always remember a great, famous Disney quote that basically says what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
I think this kind of attitude can be applied in both your personal and professional life.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a racing driver and then a car dealer – I’ve always had a love of cars.