Sanjay Saraf
Sanjay Saraf
Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President, Digital Product Engineering
Western Union

Professional Background: As Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Western Union, Sanjay Saraf leads a team responsible for developing next-generation web, mobile, digital wallet, and stored-value payment products and services. Saraf also leads the company’s technology strategy and the development of its fraud and risk management solutions, and he develops platforms based on Hadoop for online personalization and forensics analysis. Prior to Western Union, Saraf was Vice President of eBusiness at Symantec Corporation, where he was responsible for managing a global e-commerce platform that generated over $2 billion in annual revenue. Prior to Symantec, Saraf spent a long career at management consulting firms such as Accenture.

Education: Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Wyoming and a Bachelor of Science from Bombay University.

Personal Passions: New challenges, building complex projects from the ground up, hiking, climbing, and skiing with his nine-year-old daughter.


By Sanjay Saraf, CTO and Senior Vice President, Digital Product Engineering, Western Union

Western Union is on a new mission. We believe our global retail network and deep understanding of what it takes to move money nearly anywhere in the world — combined with a singular focus on the customer — provide a great foundation for digital transformation. And we are harnessing the best available technology for the task so that we can better understand our customers and their needs.

The truth is that Western Union has always been an innovator, in technologies such as microwave data transmission, automated switching and networks, communication satellites, and more. Today, technologies are evolving faster than ever, and so are we.

When I worked for companies such as Symantec, I had to explain to my mother what the company is and what it does. By contrast, when I took the CTO position at Western Union, she immediately recognized the name and was sure I was doing the right thing. That’s just one example of Western Union’s global reach and brand value.

In 2013, we completed 242 million consumer-to-consumer transactions, moving $82 billion of principal, and we completed 459 million business payments. The company has a passion to make a difference in the lives of the tens of millions of consumers and businesses we touch. And we know our markets very well. The Netherlands, for example, is very modern, but the adoption of credit cards is limited. People prefer direct credit or debit, even for online transactions. As we modernize our payment systems to meet those kinds of local needs, we see an immediate uptick in customer satisfaction scores.

Our core strength is in cross-border money transfer. Nobody in the industry can match our scale, size, and the complexity of the cross-border elements we deliver. Today, our focus is on enhancing and modernizing our methods to meet current demands, and the biggest part of that is introducing more digital capabilities, whether on the web or through mobile devices, and making it easier for customers to do cross-border transactions. That is the journey we are on. It is web, mobility, and global payments, without forgetting the strength of our existing retail network. We want to drive that omnichannel capability and stitch everything together more seamlessly without losing our existing strengths.

Taking Advantage of Data Analytics

Although we don’t often look at it this way, our customers represent a global social circle that is comparable in many ways to the leading social networks.

We have an opportunity to unlock the potential of the global scale of our business and customer base. Our CEO is a big believer in the promise of data analytics — not only for our business but also for how we address social issues and effect positive change for consumers worldwide.

Western Union has been using data for a long time for tasks like segmentation and for insights into the propensities of individuals to conduct specific kinds of transactions. We’re now taking it to the next level. We are focusing on data complexity, large data sets from multiple systems that are both structured and unstructured. We are looking at legacy systems integration and alignment with new mobile and online capabilities.

We have a staff of data scientists who are leveraging the power of data analytics to identify the trends that will shape our business moving forward. We see the potential of predictive analytics for consumer engagement and advanced data mining for risk management. Such efforts can support our decision cycles and contribute to strategic business planning and, ultimately, to delivering a consistent omnichannel experience. In fact, our data is an integral part of our customer-centric strategy.

Customer-centricity is at the heart of everything we do, and it is driving our transformation. A focus on customer-centricity means using data to observe behavioral changes in sending and receiving and to deliver a customer experience tailored to individual users across multiple channels (retail, online, mobile, etc.).

Data can also help us see the economic predictors and migration shifts that can help shape business priorities, such as regional expansion.

A lot of the data we have and are already using is structured. We are using it to look at customer segmentation and propensity to buy. The new element we are bringing in is unstructured data from web and mobile transactions. We are trying to marry that unstructured data to the structured data in a Hadoop-based system so that we can mine in a faster and more targeted fashion to understand customer segments, buying patterns, and preferred methods of payment. For example, a given consumer will usually perform certain types of transactions on the same day of the month. We can drive that analysis close to real time so that we can provide the right offers at the right time.

Going Modular and Mobile

We have been trying to do smart things, so we are making some strategic investments in transformative technologies and business initiatives. By using Hadoop and Cloudera, we established a robust data ecosystem in just five months. We’ve also invested in making our web architecture more mobile-oriented.

Our CEO recognized that doing these things would require some new skill sets. So he established a digital venture team in San Francisco. It’s our customer-focused, online, and mobile efforts that are helping to transform our global brand. Now we are taking a two-pronged approach, inspecting our legacy systems while embracing new tools and technologies.

Our traditional platform is pretty robust. We just needed to turn our legacy capabilities into consumable APIs or gateway systems that newer systems can connect with. We also decided to work with innovative technology companies and leverage these relationships to build new processes.

We have invested both in our operational capabilities and in our technical architecture. We are now working to be more modular. I am of the view that you apply core IT capabilities to your key strategic differentiators. In other words, some of our capabilities and processes are unique to Western Union and must be protected. Outsourcing works well in cases where design standards have been defined and you are executing to a well-defined architecture. We have a combination of both. We are using some strategic service providers; HCL is one of them. Especially in the digital space, I am working closely with HCL, which is accustomed to building products for consumers.

Delivery is one area where we are adopting methods that bring product development and engineering closer together. Specifically, we have adopted agile, sprint-based, and scrum-based approaches. That is core to what we do. We are not 100% there, but we do have the ability to fast-track that methodology, and we are rapidly expanding it to other parts of our tech ecosystem. For it to work, there has to be tight integration between software product definition, including business case or gap analysis, and actual engineering.

The way we are architecting our solution leverages our feet-on-the-ground knowledge and capability. By taking a modular development approach, we can deliver a version of our applications for an individual country, such as Germany. That approach may involve slightly more complexity and effort to account for local and regional regulatory requirements while still delivering core functionality to the consumer.

We are also moving aggressively on mobile. We want to optimize that experience so users have the option of using a specific app as well as a browser. The work we have done in that regard has already paid off. The feedback has gone from just average to extremely positive in less than eight months; our app now has a nearly four-star rating. So far, that is just in the United States and Australia, so there are further opportunities for us.

The great thing is that many elements of our digital transformation are applicable to the part of our core business that still relies on our retail network and retail agents. For example, we want users who need to pay in cash to be able to prepopulate forms from their devices rather than having to fill out paper forms. They can do this in advance of visiting a retail location and just provide a PIN or a QR code when they arrive in order to quickly complete the transaction.

Developing Frictionless Processes

Corporate evolution is not a single strategy or set of rules. Nor is it about technology for technology’s sake. It’s a way of doing business. It’s awareness and a commitment to understanding and meeting customer needs. And it’s about helping the different facets of the company do their jobs better and deliver results.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is stepping back to answer the essential questions: Are we doing enough? Are we doing too much? Are we focused on the things our customers need? Are we helping to propel our business forward?

I work with our Global CIO to address those questions and connect technology capabilities to their business strategies. We, in turn, work with colleagues across the business — senior management in the regions, marketing, sales, finance, legal, compliance, and other areas of the company — to identify where we can leverage the power of technology to transform their operations, create a better consumer and agent experience, and enhance loyalty.

At Western Union, we are focused on optimization and agility, both in terms of internal processes and external-facing initiatives. We talk about “the next generation of transacting” and a “new generation of financial services.” What that really means is building frictionless processes — for Western Union employees, our agents, and our customers.

The bottom line is that we are focused on revolutionizing our technology footprint to forge a deeper relationship with our customers. We believe our efforts will help ensure long-term value for the services Western Union offers. And we believe we will be able to support and enhance an omnichannel experience that will span geographies and cultures.

Originally published in CTO Straight Talk, No. 1 (August 2014)

The Takeaways

Leverage the power of data analytics to identify the trends that will shape your business moving forward.

Consider establishing a digital venture team that is focused on online and mobile efforts that will help transform your global brand.

Develop frictionless processes—for your employees, your partners, and your customers.