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Interview: Dan Phelps, chief architect, Travelex

Travelex is changing the way it works by combining people, processes and technology to transform the company and by setting up a digital platform

UK foreign exchange company Travelex is in the midst of a digital transformation, with ambitions to move 95% of its estate to the cloud within the next two years.  

The company has partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to build a microservices-based set-up to support the international payments business and move away from a monolithic, on-premise datacentre system.  

According to the company’s chief architect, Dan Phelps, the main goals of the cloud migration are to achieve a lower technology cost base, as well as more flexibility and less complexity, resulting in shorter times to market. 

“We wanted to achieve these goals, but still do it in a way that meets bank technology-grade security as well as all of our constraints and requirements from a compliance risk data protection perspective,” Phelps tells Computer Weekly. 

“So we created a modern engineering team with a modern, DevOps-based engineering culture, with cross-functional, small teams, centered around individual products and domains that we are building out.” 

When Phelps joined the business as principal architect in 2015, Travelex spent 18 months building a foundational layer for the AWS set-up and the first two products to go onto it. Currently, the firm has international payments and a number of other services on the platform. 

In January 2018, Phelps was moved out of that digital team – which became part of the firm’s product and product engineering group – and took the role of chief architect, under the chief operating officer. 

“We created a modern engineering team with a modern, DevOps-based engineering culture”

Dan Phelps, Travelex

His remit as one of the main people spearheading the change was to define the business’ strategy to 2020. This entails focusing on combining technology, people and processes involved in setting up the digital platform and transforming the rest of the core business accordingly. 

“As part of the different threads to do that, we created a strategy which is tightly coupled to our corporate strategy,” he says. “A lot of that was about maximising the value of our existing core business by driving efficiencies in there, diversifying away from some of our traditional business, as well as moving into things like international money transfer, remittances and other such products.”

Transitioning to cloud-first

When it comes to the various initiatives under Travelex’s cloud transformation, one of the key projects relates to the company’s datacentres, where most of its current facilities will be moved to the public cloud. 

To do that, the company is following a tried and tested method, with help from AWS using its migration framework. That part of the process, says Phelps, includes looking at its various systems and working out which ones will be migrated.

“That is so we can take advantage of the new characteristics of the new platform that we’ve got and tick all the boxes when it comes to non-functional requirements and security and data protection, and so on, in a very modern technology environment,” says Phelps.  

While some applications will be re-architected and re-platformed, some are in a bucket of what Travelex calls “strategic maintain”. This is about upgrading monoliths and moving them to an infrastructure-as-a-service model.

A lot of the company’s back-office functions, such as human resources (HR) and finance, are being moved to a software-as-a-service portfolio. The company is also further developing approaches to serverless technology as part of its strategy. 

Data transformation 

Tied to the overall cloud migration initiative is a data transformation subset. According to Phelps, the future state of cloud at Travelex will see a shift from a traditional data warehousing-style architecture into a data lake architecture with a fair amount of NoSQL applied to it. 

The data work is about taking that more traditional stack into a modern cloud environment and has a large initiative under a suite of business offerings.

“We have essentially built on our platform a number of different serverless and microservices components, which make up our payment as a service, accounts as a service, and so on,” says Phelps. 

These products, which the firm calls “cash as a service”, are the next big thing for Travelex, says Phelps. This is about taking a number of different monolithic applications serving the company’s cash business and converting them into microservices and serverless-based functionality. 

Part of that move is putting an abstraction layer between the firm’s trading environment and its back office. According to Phelps, that would not be done via an enterprise IT, heavyweight-grade system. Rather, the firm is looking at using AWS Lambda and serverless to be able to implement an abstraction layer between the front and middle office and its back office. 

Cloud is not only instrumental in how Travelex is expanding out its existing platform to take on cash, but also in new offerings around international money transfer and deploying that worldwide. 

“We’ve launched in the UK, North America and Australia region and will then be looking at how we can roll those growing products into more territories quickly using public cloud,” says Phelps. 

“We’ve put a whole framework in place which takes that pioneering work and then industrialises it, productionises it and allows a global business like Travelex to be able to safely and quickly expand new products and new features from one territory to all of our territories globally.”

Upcoming agenda

Since the cloud project went live at the start of last year – a microservices platform that the first commercial product (a B2C money transfer product) would be built on – Travelex has made a lot of progress in its overall cloud vision. 

The firm has taken the lessons learned in the initial project and employed them on a small scale across a number of initiatives. “We’re now transforming the rest of our development team globally, using scrum and agile to be able to then create the agility, pace and efficiency that we’ve driven in a small area,” says Phelps.

“It’s really about taking that pioneering work that the initial team did and spreading it across the rest of the business, industrialising that into global products and systems rather than in just one territory and one region.”

In terms of how far the team has got in delivering the cloud plan, the company is about 25% into the migration. Over the next couple of years, it will be doing the rest of the work, as well as building new features and products on its existing cloud environments.  

Travelex is also looking at other elements it can use from cloud providers and third parties around technologies such as robotic process automation, machine learning and chatbots 

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The company is also evolving concepts around how it does engineering around DevOps and ChatOps. It uses Slack as the backbone for that, with integrations into all its service operations and ways of working as an engineering and product team.  

Within the next year, the priority for Phelps will be around transforming the existing organisation, taking into account the considerable challenge of a multitude of older, monolithic applications in parts of its core business which are hand-strung in terms of their agility and ability to release. 

“We can only do four releases a year because of the way they are architected and the way we work on them,” he says. “So the real change will come when we move those into a more agile and continuous delivery, continuous improvement-style environment.

“So if, in 12 months’ time, our core services and products as well as our newer offerings are all benefiting from the agility that public cloud gives you, I would call that a success.”

Phelps also wants Travelex’s business and commercial teams to talk about the company’s technology and the work it is doing in that regard externally and in a positive light. 

“If I can do that, that’s part of my job done,” he says. “I think the other half is with our customers and with our partners in the B2B space.”

The idea here, says Phelps, is to get Travelex’s partners to sell its application programming interfaces (APIs) and services to other people in the market through word of mouth and recommendation. “We want promoters of our technology and our services, rather than detractors,” he adds.

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