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Big Data Management at American Express. Interview with Sastry Durvasula and Kevin Murray.

by Roberto V. Zicari on October 12, 2014

“The Hadoop platform indeed provides the ability to efficiently process large-scale data at a price point we haven’t been able to justify with traditional technology. That said, not every technology process requires Hadoop; therefore, we have to be smart about which processes we deploy on Hadoop and which are a better fit for traditional technology (for example, RDBMS).”–Kevin Murray.

I wanted to learn how American Express is taking advantage of analysing big data.
I have interviewed Sastry Durvasula, Vice President – Technology, American Express, and Kevin Murray, Vice President – Technology, American Express.


Q1. With the increasing demand for mobile and digital capabilities, how are American Express’ customer expectations changing?

SASTRY DURVASULA: American Express customers expect us to know them, to understand and anticipate their preferences and personalize our offerings to meet their specific needs. As the world becomes increasingly mobile, our Card Members expect to be able to engage with us whenever, wherever and using whatever device or channel they prefer.
In addition, merchants, small businesses and corporations also want increased value, insights and relevance from our global network.

Q2. Could you explain what is American Express’ big data strategy?

SD: American Express seeks to leverage big data to deliver innovative products in the payments and commerce space that provide value to our customers. This is underpinned by best-in-class engineering and decision science.

From a technical perspective, we are advancing an enterprise-wide big data platform that leverages open source technologies like Hadoop, integrating it with our analytical and operational capabilities across the various business lines. This platform also powers strategic partnerships and real-time experiences through emerging digital channels. Examples include Amex Offers, which connects our Card Members and merchants through relevant and personalized digital offers; an innovative partnership with Trip Advisor to unlock exclusive benefits; insights and tools for our B2B partners and small businesses; and advanced credit and fraud risk management.

Additionally, as always, we seek to leverage data responsibly and in a privacy-controlled environment. Trust and security are hallmarks of our brand. As we leverage big data to create new products and services, these two values remain at the forefront.

Q3. What is the “value” you derive by analysing big data for American Express?

SD: Within American Express, our Technology and Risk & Information Management organizations partner with our lines of business to create new opportunities to drive commerce and serve customers across geographies with the help of big data. Big data is one of our most important tools in being the company we want to be – one that identifies solutions to customers’ needs and helps us deliver what customers want today and what they may want in the future.

Q4. What metrics do you use to monitor big data analytics at American Express?

SD: Big data investments are no different than any other investments in terms of the requirement for quantitative and qualitative ROI metrics with pre- and post-measurements that assess the projects’ value for revenue generation, cost avoidance and customer satisfaction. There is also the recognition that some of the investments, especially in the big data arena, are strategic and longer term in nature, and the value generated should be looked at from that perspective.

Additionally, we are constantly focused on benchmarking the performance of our platform with industry standards, like minute-sort and tera-sort, as well as our proprietary demand management metrics.

Q5. Could you explain how did you implement your big data infrastructure platform at Amex?

KEVIN MURRAY: We started small and expanded as our use cases grew over time, about once or twice a year.
We make it a practice to reassess the hardware and software state within the industry before each major expansion to determine whether any external changes should alter the deployment path we have chosen.

Q6. How did you select the components for your big data infrastructure platform, choosing among the various competing compute and storage solutions available today?

KM: Our research told us low-cost commodity servers with local storage was the common deployment stack across the industry. We made an assessment of industry offerings and evaluated against our objectives to determine a good balance of cost, capabilities and time to market.

Q7. How did you unleash big data across your enterprise and put it to work in a sustainable and agile environment?

SD: We engineered our enterprise-wide big data platform to foster R&D and rapid development of use cases, while delivering highly available production applications. This allows us to be adaptable and agile, scaling up or redeploying, as needed, to meet market and business demands. With the Risk and Information Management team, we established Big Data Labs comprising top-notch decision scientists and engineers to help democratize big data, leveraging self-service tools, APIs and common libraries of algorithms.

Q8. What are the most significant challenges you have encountered so far?

SD: An ongoing challenge is balancing our big data investment between immediate needs and research or innovations that will drive the next generation of capabilities. You can’t focus solely on one or the other but has to find a balance.

Another key challenge is ensuring we are focused on driving outcomes that are meaningful to customers – that are responsive to their current and anticipated needs.

Q9. What did you learn along the way?

KM: The Hadoop platform indeed provides the ability to efficiently process large-scale data at a price point we haven’t been able to justify with traditional technology. That said, not every technology process requires Hadoop; therefore, we have to be smart about which processes we deploy on Hadoop and which are a better fit for traditional technology (for example, RDBMS). Some components of the ecosystem are mature and work well, and others require some engineering to get to an enterprise-ready state. In the end, it’s an exciting journey to offer new innovation to our business.

Q10. Anything else you wish to add?

KM: The big data industry is evolving at lightning speed with new products and services coming to market every day. I think this is being driven by the enterprise’s appetite for something new and innovative that leverages the power of compute, network and storage advancements in the marketplace, combined with a groundswell of talent in the data science domain, pushing academic ideas into practical business use cases. The result is a wealth of new offerings in the marketplace – from ideas and early startups to large-scale mission-critical solutions. This is providing choice to enterprises like we’ve never seen before, and we are focused on maximizing this advantage to bring groundbreaking products and opportunities to life.

Sastry Durvasula, Vice President – Technology, American Express
Sastry Durvasula is Vice President and Global Technology Head of Information Management and Digital Capabilities within the Technology organization at American Express. In this role, Sastry leads IT strategy and transformational development to power the company’s data-driven capabilities and digital products globally. His team also delivers enterprise-wide analytics and business intelligence platforms, and supports critical risk, fraud and regulatory demands. Most recently, Sastry and his team led the launch of the company’s big data platform and transformation of its enterprise data warehouse, which are powering the next generation of information, analytics and digital capabilities. His team also led the development of the company’s API strategy, as well as the Sync platform to deliver innovative products, drive social commerce and launch external partnerships.

Kevin Murray, Vice President – Technology, American Express
Kevin Murray is Vice President of Information Management Infrastructure & Integration within the Technology organization at American Express. Throughout his 25+ year career, he has brought emerging technologies into large enterprises, and most recently launched the big data infrastructure platform at American Express. His team architects and implements a wide range of information management capabilities to leverage the power of increasing compute and storage solutions available today.

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On Big Data benchmarks. Interview with Francois Raab and Yanpei Chen. ODBMS Industry Watch,2014-08-14


Presenting at Strata/Hadoop World NY
Big Data: A Journey of Innovation
Thursday, October 16, 2014, at 1:45-2:25 p.m. Eastern
Room: 1 CO3/1 CO4

The power of big data has become the catalyst for American Express to accelerate transformation for the digital age, drive innovative products, and create new commerce opportunities in a meaningful and responsible way. With the increasing demand for mobile and digital capabilities, the customer expectation for real-time information and differentiated experiences is rapidly changing. Big data offers a solution that enables this organization to use their proprietary closed-loop network to bring together consumers and merchants around the world, adding value to each in a way that is individualized and unique.

During their presentation, Sastry Durvasula and Kevin Murray will discuss American Express’ ongoing big data journey of transformation and innovation. How did the company unleash big data across its global network and put it to work in a sustainable and agile environment? How is it delivering offers using digital channels relevant to their Card Members and partners? What have they learned along the way? Sastry and Kevin will address these questions and share their experiences and insights on the company’s big data strategy in the digital ecosystem.

Follow and ODBMS Industry Watch on Twitter: @odbmsorg

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