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How we built a flagship global payments hub

Natarajan Sriram

27 Sep 2021

Home > News > Industries > How we built a flagship global payments hub
Natarajan Sriram is the CIO of Transaction Banking at Standard Chartered. He shares his team’s journey and lessons learned from building SCPay from scratch.

As one of the world’s leading banks offering global cash management, we’ve invested heavily in our payments transformation to meet the present and future needs of clients and network partners.

Cross-border payments are essential to global trade and our goal is to offer our clients a best-in-class payments experience.

In 2018, Standard Chartered was evaluating options for building a global payments hub, so clients have access to 24/7, real-time payment capabilities that are scalable, reliable and secure.

We are an extremely diverse bank, spread across multiple client segments and geographies. And we needed to offer customised solutions for our clients. After a thorough assessment of various solutions in the market, we couldn’t find an off-the-shelf product that would perfectly fit our requirements. After careful evaluation of buy versus build, we took the plunge and decided to build it ourselves.

SCPay started with a collective leap of faith.

Defining our focus

When we talk about payment platforms, it’s worth noting that we cater to a diverse set of clients – from corporate banking, financial institution clients, retail banking to our own internal department payments – such as financial markets, treasury and trade finance payments.

Offering consistent experience for these clients was crucial regardless of the channel of origination; this becomes even more important for global corporates who operate with us in different jurisdictions.

With the significant surge in the digital payments adoption rate, predictability and offering a real-time, frictionless experience for our clients were extremely important as well. That defined the ask for ensuring an always-on service. Given that this must all operate in real-time, it was imperative for the infrastructure design to be high throughput and low latency – hence we lab-tested the ability to handle 14,000 transactions per second.

Equally important focus was to be able to rollout these new capabilities at speed, at an affordable cost and to progressively reduce the per-transaction processing cost with volume growth.

Designing for flexibility, security and high value requirements

From the onset, we laid down clear design principles that would call for having an open architecture. By open, I mean not only in our choice of one technology stack over another, but it was also vital that the architecture was future-proof and can adapt to the rapidly evolving technology landscape.

SCPay is built on a secure foundation and modern cloud-native architecture, designed for high scale, low latency processing powered by containerised services, APIs and data analytics. The architecture is adaptive to rapidly evolving technology stacks and designed to operate on a multi-cloud and even cloud-agnostic environment.

Being cloud-native today means that you get the best outcome possible when you’re running on the stack provided by that cloud provider. On the other hand, being cloud-agnostic means that you don’t have to be married to one specific solution for all time – and by design, that you’re able to evolve rapidly.

Our architecture has proven demonstrably adaptable. A database migration process can typically take 12 to 18 months. By contrast, we’ve already been able to change three databases within a span of six months. Likewise, we’ve managed to evolve and change containers and the middleware service bus without the need for a disruptive “rip & replace” approach.

In addition to flexibility, security was of paramount importance during the design. One of the most profound differentiators was tokenisation service which we embedded into the design. Because we were moving into the cloud, we had to ensure that data privacy and data confidentiality requirements were thoroughly addressed. To this end, we identified a tool which is currently one of the very best in the market and went a step further; partnering with the vendor and ‘containerising’ their services so as to meet the desired scalability needs of the platform.

Anticipating future use is equally a key element in designing for success and address explicit requirements. Corporates tend to ask questions such as: ‘Can we process specific payments exactly one minute before a payment deadline?’ Other clients who do payroll services want settlement on a specific day, regardless of their employee’s bank. If we’re making millions of payments, how do we ensure that these specific requirements are catered to, and that we offer consistent services?

With SCPay, we can give specific requests a dedicated bandwidth, via priority highways. Our intelligent rule engine, upon receipt of a payment request, applies its smart prioritization algorithm and determine the respective priority lane to direct the traffic to which is best aligned with the service levels and market cut-off time requirements.

Given the need to operate 24/7/365, especially for fast payments, we brought in blue-green zone deployment, meaning you that we  can route traffic through different lanes, and at times use a small segment of internal clients to test a new feature. Once it’s proven effective, we implement those changes for the high-volume lanes. This avoid the need to secure downtime for software deployment or having a maintenance window; a very important advantage while operating platforms across different time-zones

So, while it boils down to predictability and guaranteed service, this certainly does not happen by chance; it is the product of extensive and careful design.

Creating a nimble learning culture 

When you have the right attitude, are passionate about learning and are driven by a purpose, that’s when the magic happens. And that’s what our team truly demonstrated.

The team embarked on a crash-course to update their knowledge on all the background services and technologies that we’d be integrated. Within a very short time, they were able to demonstrate the aptitude to make this happen; as a self-driven and a highly motivated group, they embraced the buildout of the modern payment hub as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

We set up distinct teams in different geographies, including the hiring of some very smart rookies from the market (e.g. by hosting technology hackathons). In addition, we also sought to fill some roles with differentiated skills in cloud, micro services and security considerations.

Then with teams onboarded, we partnered with a few vendors to ensure we brought the best-of-the-breed together, internally and externally, in one unified build team.

It was through challenging each other to achieve greater heights that we discovered so many true gems of learning, attitude, and positive energy, focused on the goal to create something profound.

Lessons of team leadership

In conclusion, I have three leadership takeaways from leading this landmark project.

The first lesson begins with trust, particularly where the stakeholder relationship is concerned. We were transparent from the outset with our business partners, sharing the areas where we’re confident, as well as what can go wrong. Fortunately for us, we have excellent chemistry and partnership.

Secondly, the entire approach of being agile in the investment process has helped us. Because we were doing things in sprints, followed by a stage to review, there was never a make-or-break decision. Rather than ‘fail fast’, we went for ‘learn fast – and keep course-correcting’. This ability to learn fast has helped us a great deal; we made decisions at logical points, making course corrections and informed decisions as we go. Even as we speak, we’re making changes to the platform through an agile methodology. If we’d approached budget approvals the old way, as a do-or-die decision, it would have been extremely difficult.

Thirdly, what have I learned about the new ways of leading? I’ve discovered that it’s not necessary to lead in a top-down way; there must be buy-in from all parts of the organisation. And while there needs to be a leader, you don’t always have to lead from the front. At times, a leader must lead from behind, and make heroes of their team.

When guiding a team of leaders, these are critical: enable, empower, and offer a helping hand when they need it. To me, that’s what ‘servant leadership’ is all about.