Never Waste a Crisis: Using the Cloud to Become a Security Leader
A conversation with Mark Begor, Chief Executive Officer at Equifax
Equifax is a multinational credit-reporting and data analytics company that aggregates information on more than 800 million consumers and nearly 90 million businesses worldwide. In 2017 it experienced a data breach that damaged customer trust and spurred a ground-up re-examination of how the company does business.
Mark Begor was appointed CEO as the crisis was unfolding and was tasked with spearheading a recovery. In this interview with AWS Enterprise Strategist Miriam McLemore, he discusses the company’s decision to move its operations to the cloud, which strengthened security while simultaneously lowering costs and accelerating product delivery. He breaks down how the $1.5 billion transformation has also enabled Equifax to bring new products to market in a multi-data environment, with better uptime, giving it a strong edge over competitors.
Miriam McLemore: Would you tell us about Equifax and your role?
Mark Begor: Sure. Equifax is a global company. Equifax actually started in grocery store that had a file-card system offering their consumers credit. It developed into the data analytics company it is today, a global company that delivers data to financial institutions, insurance companies, and telecoms for credit decisioning.
I came on as CEO a little over three years ago to lead the recovery from the data security breach of 2017. Before joining Equifax, I had a long career at General Electric Capital, where I was a customer of Equifax and other credit bureaus. So I understood the value and importance of data, how data is used, and the importance of security. So I brought that customer-focused lens to Equifax.
It was a challenging time, with hearings in Washington, plus, since we are a data analytics company, many customers lost trust in our security. The data we hold on consumers and small businesses is proprietary, so it took a while to build that trust back, and that was our focus when I joined.
Miriam McLemore: You have called the company “the new Equifax.” What do you mean by that?
Mark Begor: After what we went through in 2017, we really had to remake the company. A big piece of that was investing in our data and technology because, at its heart, a data analytics company is a technology company. So that’s where we focused our efforts following the cyber-event.
A data analytics company is a technology company, and to have the very best technology, you have to move to the cloud.”
Miriam McLemore: When you came in to make that transition, was everyone behind the idea? Was the board all-in and ready to go?
Mark Begor: Not when I joined. We were still trying to figure out where to go. The scale of our data breach was unprecedented, so one of the first things I said before I started was, “We will be an industry leader in data security.” That was number one.
And then we started building a team. In the first few months of my tenure, we brought in a new CTO, Bryson Koehler, and a new chief information security officer who together changed the game. And we focused on where to go from a technology standpoint. I think it’s really important with a company like ours to keep in mind that we’re a data analytics and technology company. That last part probably wasn’t as strong as we wanted it to be before the cyber-event, so we took it to heart that that’s who we were going to be.
We could have spent a couple hundred million dollars and strengthened the security around our legacy infrastructure, but we had a window internally with our board and our investors to do more than that. So we opted to differentiate ourselves competitively by not only improving our security but going cloud-native with our technology, applications, and data. We have trillions of data records, so moving that to the cloud will transform us in a meaningful way.
The scale of our data breach was unprecedented, so one of the first things I said before I started was, ‘We will be an industry leader in data security.’”
Miriam McLemore: What was the business case or differentiator that made you decide to go cloud-native?
Mark Begor: It starts from my philosophy around business: Never waste a crisis. It sounds trite, but it’s true. When you’re facing a problem, there are various paths to solving it. Some are easy, and some are hard. Some will solve your problem for a while, and some will change the company perhaps forever. We opted for the latter; to do a massive transformation. We had to change a lot of the people and a lot of the culture. We had to make sure everyone was involved, and through a series of meetings with our board and the team, we concluded that we would double down on the cloud. A data analytics company is a technology company, and to have the very best technology, you have to move to the cloud.
When you’re facing a problem, there are various paths to solving it. Some are easy, and some are hard. Some will solve your problem for a while, and some will change the company forever. We opted for the latter; to make a massive transformation.”
Miriam McLemore: Why did you feel so strongly that this was the way to go?
Mark Begor: It will provide security like never before, increase uptime for data use, speed up data transmissions, allow greater data absorption, and accelerate our delivery of products to customers like never before. We believe it will give us a multiyear head start against our competitors and drive our market share. And certainly, when we put together the business case, we knew there would be cost savings and that it would take our security to a place we couldn’t go in a legacy mainframe environment. But the real transformation is what it’s going to do to our top line and competitiveness; that’s why we did the cloud transformation. We’re making a big bet that this 122-year-old company can transform itself and take what was a great company before the cyber-event and turn it into a company unlike any other.
Miriam McLemore: Many CEOs are still leaving the cloud transformation to their technology team.
Mark Begor: It won’t work. You can’t do it if the whole organization doesn’t embrace it. The CEO has to own it the same way the technology leader and product leaders do. It has to be an initiative encompassing the entire organization. And it really is going to change who we are. We made it a part of the goals of everyone on the team. My entire leadership team just came out of a two-hour deep dive on the technology progress. We do it every month. Where are we in executing the data and technology transformation? And where are we going to take it?
Miriam McLemore: You want to be the premier security company. Do you have proof points that are starting to show you did the right thing?
Mark Begor: No question. We’re one of the few companies to publish a standalone annual data and technology security report. It includes third-party metrics about how we’re performing versus others, and we’re showing great progress. One of the big reasons we did the cloud transformation is to take our cost structure down dramatically, which will allow us to invest more in growing Equifax. The real benefits are going to be competitive—what we’re able to deliver on uptime.
There’s a massive digital macro trend going on across the world where consumers and businesses are interacting digitally, and when you’re interacting digitally, your partner—that is, Equifax—has to be up. Uptime is critical, and you can’t get the uptime we’re going to deliver in a legacy hybrid cloud-server environment. The only way you can get that is in the cloud-native environment. The second macro trend in our industry: massive amounts of data. Data has really exploded and managing it is hard. You can’t manage that much data in a legacy or siloed environment.
Having a single data fabric and the ability to have multi-data assets that drive predictability was the other big, bold move we made. If you take data asset number one and add number two to it, you get a more predictable decision. That’s hard to execute without being in the cloud, and it’s another big benefit for us. And there are so many more; we’re just in the early days of learning all the benefits. This is a big project. We’ve been at it for three years and probably have another year to go to complete it, though there’s always more to do. And we’re just starting to be able to bring new products to market in a multi-data environment. We don’t believe our competitors can do that, so that will differentiate Equifax in the marketplace.
Miriam McLemore: This is a different paradigm for some regulatory bodies; have they caught up to the speed at which you are operating?
Mark Begor: Yes, the federal government is very open to the cloud. I think the regulators and our customers understand the commitment we have to do it right, be better, and improve our processes, and they’re behind us in that. We spend a lot of time with our big-bank customers that may be a bit behind in some of the cloud discussions, but they’re catching up quickly. They’re seeing what we and others are doing and seeing the benefits from it operationally, competitively, and cost- and security-wise. It really transforms a company.
Miriam McLemore: What can you share with other leaders who want to move faster and become more agile?
Mark Begor: You have to embrace the organization. We had to change a lot of our team. Almost half of our workforce is technology people, and we had to change out probably a third of that team to bring in cloud-native experts, and we had to train and upgrade the rest. That’s hard to do when you have 6,000 technology people.
It’s not for the faint of heart. You really have to believe in it and commit to it. As a CEO, you have to make it yours along with the rest of the leadership team and the board. We have detailed discussions every quarter with our board where we go into detail about how we’re executing this because it’s going to change our competitiveness.
Miriam McLemore: What are the key pillars of the investment Equifax has made?
Mark Begor: The first was to move everything to the cloud, starting with our data. We have data on every American’s credit history, and half of Americans’ payroll records. Those data elements are massive on their own, but they sit in siloed data assets. So, a big part of the investment was going to a single fabric where data is keyed and linked so that it’s readily accessible to deliver multi-data solutions that drive predictability and better decisions. That was a big project.
The second was to move all our technology applications and products to the cloud. Over the years, you accumulate versions of the same product, and you have to maintain them all because customers have different versions. There’s a ton of cost and latency associated with that because not everyone’s on the latest version. The cloud allows us to move everyone to the best product we have.
The next big pillar is exiting our data centers. We have 25 massive data centers around the globe, and we’re going to go to zero. That will create productivity savings and other benefits.
Finally, we’re taking all our products cloud-native, which will give our customers the best capabilities for accessing data to drive their decision-making.
Miriam McLemore: So, what does the next chapter look like?
Mark Begor: If the past three years were about investing and building in the cloud, the next chapter is about leveraging it. How do we leverage cloud capabilities that no one else has to drive innovation and new products? New products fuel solutions to help our customers grow and reduce their fraud rates. More applications mean lower losses and lower risk.
So we’re ramping up our new-product focus. Bringing new solutions to market has always been a big part of our industry—taking data assets and combining and repurposing them either into a new vertical or a new industry or helping customers solve one of their problems. We brought in a whole new team to move to a product-led cloud-native organization that can drive more solutions to market. Historically, we would deliver 70 to 80 new products a year; last year, we launched 134. So, we’re heading in the right direction. And in the future, we want to leverage our differentiated data assets—our cloud-native capabilities—to deliver solutions and innovation that can help our customers grow.
Miriam McLemore: At the beginning of our discussion, you talked about the need to earn back trust. Where are your customers on that journey? Would they say Equifax has earned back their trust?
Mark Begor: I think the trust issue is about security. Security is a priority for every board and every CEO, and it’s certainly a priority for Equifax after what we went through in 2017. It took us the better part of 2018 and ’19 to earn that trust back. It took getting our team in front of our customers, talking about our plans, and providing transparency about what we’re doing around security. Security is a massive issue, and it’s becoming more important every day, so it’s in every boardroom and on every CEO’s priorities. And after what we went through in 2017, we wanted to earn back trust through transparency. We brought in great people, and when you’re spending a billion-five, more than doubling your spending on technology and security in the cloud, you’re earning back the trust of your customer.
Security is a massive issue, and it’s becoming more important every day. It’s in every boardroom and on every CEO’s priorities.”
Miriam McLemore: So, where are you now?
Mark Begor: That’s behind us. We’ve shared third-party assessments of how our security has improved. We and others believe cloud-native is the most secure environment we can be in. There are fewer access points; we don’t have 12 versions of the application anymore, and we don’t have 60,000 servers to maintain in 26 countries. So we earned back the trust of our customers so we can—as we’ve already done in the past 12 to 18 months—leverage our cloud capabilities to help them grow.
We and others believe cloud-native is the most secure environment we can be in.”