CIO interview: Barry Libenson, global CIO, Experian

Experian’s global CIO has worked to change the company’s IT set-up from a “free for all”, taking a standardised approach to development, infrastructure and platforms

Barry Libenson, global CIO at Experian, is a well-travelled executive. Before joining Experian in June 2015, he was CIO of US retail giant Safeway. 

Libenson has also held CIO positions at food production specialist Land O’Lakes and manufacturing firm Ingersoll Rand. Even further back, he was employee number 190 at Oracle – the software behemoth had revenues below $20m a year when he joined it. 

So, unlike other CIOs, Libenson has avoided becoming pigeon-holed in a sector. He has taken pride in his ability to jump between industries during his career, and moving between sectors also helps to boost his interest in the IT leadership role. Yet what he has learnt since joining Experian is that his current industry suits him well. 

“I wish I’d found financial services sooner,” he says. “This is the fastest-paced and fastest-moving industry I’ve worked in. We deal with data and information at scale. It’s all about working with that insight and delivering products to customers – and that’s what makes this job a lot of fun.”  

When Libenson left Safeway, he was in no rush to find a new position. He already had two offers from major firms on the table when he agreed to talk with Experian. A recruiter contacted him about the opportunity. He wasn’t expecting to take the role, but met the executives running the firm and was eager to find out more. 

“I took a plane and met the chief operating officer [COO] in the Costa Mesa office in California,” he says. “I was really impressed with the people and the vision they outlined in terms of where they wanted to take the organisation and how they knew they needed fundamental change on the technology side. They wanted to move towards a centralised governance model for technology.” 

“This is the fastest-paced and fastest-moving industry I’ve worked in”

Barry Libenson, Experian

Libenson left the meeting with the COO and was asked whether he could to fly to London the next day to meet the CEO and chief financial officer (CFO). He got on another plane and was, once again, impressed by what he found. “These were passionate people,” says Libenson. “Their desire to change the company, despite it already being successful, meant there was a lot of opportunity.” 

He describes Experian’s IT set-up at the time as “a bit of a free-for-all”. Libenson says this decentralised model had worked well to this point, but the C-suite team also understood that if the firm was going to continue to grow at the same pace, there needed to be some changes.  

“That really impressed me,” he says. “Leadership teams, if they’re not familiar with technology, would not necessarily recognise that it was a big problem if different parts of the organisation used different methodologies and systems. They, however, knew that this decentralised approach would prevent the firm being able to deliver new services quickly and at scale. By the end of the week, they’d offered me a job and I’d accepted.” 

Building an approach

Fast-forward three years and Libenson, sitting in his office at the firm’s UK headquarters in Westminster, reflects on his time in the CIO role as a great success. “Emphatically, taking this position was one of the best decisions I have ever made,” he says. 

“I’ve found a place where I’m very comfortable. We’ve done a lot of meaningful work over the past three years. I love the fact that I can see measurable results, and I’ve also had a lot of fun travelling around the world.”

Libenson flew 250,000 air miles last year, and expects a similar total this year. But his huge amount of air miles is trumped by his own chief enterprise architect, an executive who has helped standardise development platforms and hardware operations at Experian. 

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It was clear the two would have a strong working relationship as the architecture chief has worked alongside Libenson for almost 30 years. Interestingly, this is not the first time Libenson has tapped into his contacts book. Working with trusted colleagues from previous positions helps push transformation in key areas. 

“When I joined, we needed someone on a global basis to specialise on architecture,” he says. “I knew we were going to be focused on standards and getting everyone moving in the same direction. We’ve worked to shrink the number of suppliers we work with to get it to a more manageable number.

“It’s a similar story in infrastructure. I wanted a very strong infrastructure lead because we run datacentres, cloud operations and colocated facilities around the world. Having someone who is well connected in that area was crucial. 

“Having one individual who could understand why we’re running different hardware in different locations, and getting somebody in place that would help rationalise all of that, was also important in terms of the way we do software development,” he says. 

Processing information quickly 

Creating a standardised approach to software development has been one of Libenson’s key achievements since joining Experian. He says he inherited a strong team of talented developers, but the challenge was around decentralisation. Different developers in different locations were using a range of coding standards, databases and platforms.

“I wanted to get everybody to use the same techniques – we standardised a lot more on open source,” says Libenson, who adds that the firm was keen to make it easier for developers to work across cloud platforms. Experian has supported this shift through containers and the adoption of Red Hat’s OpenShift platform. Libenson says the firm is also using the open source system Kubernetes to help deploy and manage its containers.  

“The reason we did that was to be cloud agnostic, so it gives us the ability to build on-premise, to build on Microsoft’s cloud, to build on Google’s cloud, to build on Amazon’s cloud, and then move things around,” he says. “I think we’ve come a long way in terms of achieving our aims in software development.”

“We’ve come a long way in terms of achieving our aims in software development”
Barry Libenson, Experian

Libenson has also focused on data ingestion. Historically, Experian processed data from multiple sources in a linear fashion. Libenson has led the implementation of a data fabric, which uses an Apache Hadoop cluster to create parallel versions of the ingestion process, setting up multiple engines instead of a single pipeline of information. This approach enables the company to process information quickly, he says.

“We will be rolling out what is called positive data capabilities in the Brazilian market in October, and that’s all based on the data fabric,” he says. “It takes an opt-in approach, so if you’re a consumer in Brazil and you want other data to be considered in your credit profile, such as your mobile phone payment history, you can opt to use that information in your profile. 

“Instead of ingesting that data into the mainframe environment, we separate it out and ingest it into a Cloudera environment, which is ultimately going to be where we store all our data going forward. But we started the process in places like Brazil using the data fabric for things like positive data.” 

Aligning on strategic decisions

Libenson says the key to his success at Experian so far has been his ability to create cross-business alignment around strategic technological developments. He says one of the reasons he was attracted to Experian was the working culture, and points out that Experian’s people are very good at aligning, even if they don’t agree on something. 

“So, for example, when we had to decide what our API [application programming interface] strategy was going to be, I made sure that we involved the leadership people from all the parts of the company so that we could get their opinions and make sure they were heard,” he says. 

Experian uses its API strategy to help clients hook into, and then make use of, its vast data insight

Libenson estimates that 90% of the leadership team was aligned around using Apigee as its API partner, and this was before Google had acquired the company. His guess is that there would have been an even higher proportion post-purchase. “People might not have agreed that Apigee was the right choice at first, but they did align ultimately,” he says. 

Experian started rolling out Apigee about 18 months ago. Since implementation, API calls going through Apigee have risen from zero to more than 30 million a month, and are doubling every six months. Libenson expects to hit a billion transactions running through the API hub some time next year.

There are three classifications of transactions: internal, where the firm uses the API hub to abstract out data sources; private, where Experian works with a client that needs specific data elements, such as credit scores; and public, where the business provides redacted or dummy data for financial technology firms and startups that can build products without a commercial contract. 

“The plan is really about execution now,” says Libenson. “We are continuing to deliver more in the form of API calls for customers, and we also want to continue to roll out the data fabric. Our focus is on rolling out the strategy and the technology we’ve been working on for the last couple of years.” 

Providing building blocks 

Libenson expects a series of key development during the next 12 to 18 months. “We have roughly 700 individuals working on the standardised approach to software development right now,” he says. “I want to see 2,000 by the end of next year, if we can. That’s one of the highest priorities.” 

At a broader level, Libenson hopes work around strategy and transformation will help his firm and its clients to make the most of big data. “Two years from now, I’d expect us to have a much broader set of API entry points for customers to use when they want to build out their own applications,” he says.   

“I think we’ll continue to see the penetration of that technology. I think we’re doing a world-class job already, but demand for future developments is really being driven by market forces. The key for Experian is to provide more building blocks to our customers.”

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