IT Life: Providing Payments On Point

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Jon Marchant, CIO of PayPoint, tells TechWeekEurope even financial institutions are no longer afraid of the cloud

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you will instantly recognise the yellow PayPoint logo. The company is a British provider of bill payments and other financial services, delivered through a network of 24,000 local shops with PayPoint terminals. Lately, the company has started to branch out into Internet payments and mobile technologies. It handles almost 740 million transactions every year, worth over £14 billion.

Jon Marchant, the current CIO of PayPoint, has been working in finance IT for the past 15 years. His previous employers include Halifax, Scottish Widows, Capital One and the Co-Operative Group. Below, we talk to Jon about the benefits of the cloud, super-smartphones of the future and ethics in the financial sector.

The importance of morale

What’s the favourite IT project that you’ve ever worked on?
My favourite project was an internal change programme that I ran across the IT Operations department for Co-Operative Financial Services back in 2007.  When I took over the department, morale was at an all-time low, the costs were too high, there were too many incidents and most projects landed with several nasty bumps.

By the end of the two year programme, incident levels had dropped by 60 percent, costs were down 20 percent and the majority of projects had a smooth landing. On top of that, the department’s morale went from bottom of the company league to the top.

paypointI would like to say I was responsible for all of those things but it was the whole department that grabbed the vision and lived it. In particular, there were a number of individuals that were truly inspiring and lifted people to a new level.

What technologies were you involved with ten years ago?
Back in 2003 I was working for an American credit card company which was heavily into Oracle.  The company was the most analytical company I have ever worked for.  I remember having to derive and solve a number of simultaneous equations on the spot in one of my many recruitment interviews!

Oracle (and its associated applications) was the perfect database for the company. I vaguely remember a lot of Visual Basic and a big old legacy card system which may have had a touch of COBOL in it.

What do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
That’s a terrific question and almost impossible to answer given the speed of technology innovation that’s going on right now.  I suspect I will be using less of my own technology within my business as the ‘cloud’ becomes more mainstream.  I imagine, and hope, that most of the commodity IT services I look after today will be provided from the ‘cloud’.

There’s a view that user devices will converge into one super-smart mobile device that will be able to do everything from making the toast just the way you like it to giving you access to all your entertainment and business services. I personally don’t think this will happen – the carpenter has a bag of different tools and selects one according to the job in hand.

As technology has advanced, I’ve ended up with more devices, not fewer, and I don’t see this changing too quickly.  I do think we will see more companies exploiting open-source technologies in the future at the expense of fee-charging mainstream software providers. The convergence of information, social computing, mobility, and the cloud will change everything.

Things change, except when they don’t

What do you think is the greatest challenge for an IT company or department today?
The same challenge as yesterday – getting projects in on time, and to budget, while maintaining a high level of system uptime. Whilst the challenge is the same I definitely think it is becoming harder to achieve as the demands put on the IT department increase. In the mobile and e-commerce space, companies are being forced to make huge bets on initiatives that have a high chance of flopping.  There is a frenzy to get the next new thing out there and a real fear of getting left behind. This dynamic is heaping the pressure on the IT department to keep up.

cry2To cloud or not to cloud?
Definitely ‘to cloud’. There used to be a real fear, certainly within the financial services sector, of security vulnerabilities which I think are slowly diminishing as it becomes a more mainstream option for many services.  New businesses that emerge today generally default to the cloud for their infrastructure and core software, to get themselves set-up quickly and cheaply.

I’m going live with a cloud-based service management solution over the next couple of months, which negates the need for me to buy my own infrastructure and to set it up myself; a cloud solution was the obvious choice.

Who is your tech hero and who is your tech villain?
My tech hero is Sir Clive Sinclair. The ZX81 and ZX Spectrum got me into computing, something I’ve now managed to build a whole career of. I try to forget the C5!

My tech villain – Agent Smith from The Matrix.

What’s your favourite device ever made and what do you use the most?
ZX Spectrum for the above reasons is my favourite device of all time.  I probably use my iPad the most, although ironically it is usually to access the Kindle app.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire the most and why?
I really admire the Co-Operative Group for its ethical stance and environmental positioning. A lot of companies have jumped on the ethics and environment bandwagon in recent years, as it has become conveniently fashionable. The Co-Op was living by the right values for years before it was the ‘thing to do’.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
An astronaut, and I still do!

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