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Visa's outage shows the value of modern quality assurance

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Earlier this summer, Visa experienced a significant system failure in the U.K. This outage caused Visa card payments to be rejected at the point of sale all across the country. Ten hours elapsed before systems were fully restored, and social media exploded with consumer outrage over the inconvenience.

Given the position that Visa holds within the electronic payments industry, the outage made international headlines and initiated a Parliamentary inquiry. This isn’t surprising, as Visa’s leadership position in the payments domain means it is subject to the highest levels of accountability and public scrutiny.

While working to downplay the impact of the outage, it must have been very difficult and somewhat embarrassing for Visa Europe CEO Charlotte Hogg to write in her letter to Parliament, “Given that consumers may have access to another payment brand's credit or debit card, cash, or Faster Payments, many more purchases are likely to have been completed. For context, we estimate that 40 percent of debit cardholders in the UK also carry a credit card from MasterCard or American Express.”
While there will be an ongoing effort to determine the damages caused to impacted cardholders and merchants, there is really no way to estimate the reputational damage done to the Visa brand.

Also in her letter to Parliament, Hogg referred to a “very rare, partial failure of a switch that directs transactions for processing.” In fact, this specific reference was mentioned six times.

Something for everyone to remember is that these things will eventually happen in any highly advanced system, even if you are Visa. There are just too many components, connections and configurations for us to consider otherwise. So, I would argue that there really is no longer any such thing as a “very rare” failure. Strange and unusual things will happen in any complex network, which means that planning, preparation and testing have become more important than ever before and must be taken to extreme levels.

Even as the payments landscape has become increasingly complicated and convoluted over the past several years, many industry players have not kept pace with their payments testing methods or tools. Too many payment providers still rely on dated, decaying and disjointed systems for monitoring, testing and maintaining their payment channels. This legacy approach to testing is ultimately more costly and less efficient, typically testing only a fraction of the total possible processing scenarios and introducing unnecessary risk into the payment systems.

By investing in and implementing automated testing capabilities, payment providers can develop and deploy new products and services more quickly, with higher quality and at a reduced cost. Automating simple, repetitive testing tasks (robotic process automation) also significantly decreases any potential for manual errors and frees expensive human capital for more strategic activities.

The Visa situation illustrates this point clearly, as it seems that Visa may have put too much reliance on people to properly understand and respond to problems in their environment. The Visa letter to Parliament states that “ … it took far longer than it normally would to isolate the system at the primary data center; in the interim, the malfunctioning system at the primary data center continued to try to synchronize messages with the secondary site.” While automation is not an answer to every question and will not solve every problem, it can provide significant value to an organization in a wide variety of testing scenarios.

Given the obvious benefits of automated testing, why do so many providers put testing on the back burner and continue to rely on manual processes and outdated tools? Well, it often comes down to the simple issue of prioritization. Revenue generating projects typically take priority over “infrastructure” improvements, like implementing automated testing tools. Across the industry, decisions are made every day to cut costs, skip tests and take risks. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t, but there is always more analysis, planning and testing that can be done.

Consumers today demand 24/7 access to their information, data and financial services, and they have no patience when these things are not available instantaneously. However, many financial service organizations are struggling to support these increasingly demanding expectations.

Complex and disparate systems, dated processes and legacy testing tools put their consumer facing systems at constant risk. While payment providers can’t prevent all issues from occurring, by implementing modern test tools and leveraging automation effectively, they will be better equipped to navigate today’s complex payments landscape and manage whatever comes their way.

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