Exclusive Interview: Praxis Head Discusses Growth in Colombia’s Finance Sector, But Critical Data Security Challenges Remain
Finance Colombia recently sat down with the Director General of Praxis in Colombia, Carlos Chiquillo, fresh off their celebration of a successful first year of operations in the Andean nation. The Mexican based multinational opened operations in Colombia due to strong demand from existing clients, who wanted their provider to have a local presence, and their analysis of the growth prospects for Colombia’s banking and finance sectors, as well as other business areas that the IT services firm serves.
Praxis opened with a strategy of establishing a strong presence in their 14 specialty service areas, bringing their customized “Software Factory” to Colombian customers; and also their specialized Capability Maturity Model Integration methodology, which according to the firm, is a way of analyzing and evaluating business processes of customers to improve operations.
Praxis has obtained CMMI Level 5 certification, adopting AGILE software development methodologies, and RCP &REP certification from the PMI (Project Management Institute). The 15 year old firm has a service offering in Mexico, the United States, Brasil, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Central America, Chile, Perú, and Spain; as well as representatives and sales offices throughout the Americas, the Middle East, Russia, Asia, and the Pacific.
FINANCE COLOMBIA: Speaking of the financial sector, what is the opportunity that Praxis sees here in Colombia with the banking sector, the insurance sector, the securities sector?
Chiquillo: The opportunity that we have detected here relates to quality; quality and testing. That is something that here has been a bit unattended. When we started to research the market and spoke to people in the industry, everybody had software development capabilities. But we noticed they didn’t have quality assurance suppliers, facilities for testing, something really important. It appeared to us as a flaw because in terms of method: if someone is developing, they should test too. The person who creates your systems must take care of them, control them, they are in charge. The testing team should be completely independent, where they assess the quality of what is given to you as two different teams. We have found a couple of banks who have quality teams that are working well, and with good methods. In Praxis when we spoke to them we started offering coaching and mentoring services in ISQB, the quality standard in testing, and in TMMI, the equivalent of CMMI. That was the main idea.
Finance Colombia: Praxis has stability; it has a presence in several countries, but what next? You are in Colombia, also in Mexico and other countries, fighting against ‘elephants’ such as Infosys and TCS. What is the difference between Praxis and the competition? Because the giants are big in the region and they can go to a client and say: “yes, we are here, we are worldwide and have the size to do what you need done.” Praxis is by no means a startup, but how do you face and compete with those global giants?
Chiquillo: There is something complicated in the Colombian market, I have to tell you. Those “elephants” came with really low prices. If I am to be honest, at this moment, our competition strategy is not price. We try to level up or bring it a bit higher. As you put it, the difference between being big and being gigantic, that’s the most significant thing. We have three main strategies: 1. We have to level up. What are we doing? This year is an acquisition year. We are investing in the Caribbean, which has very good universities, the education has improved, and there are good development resources, much cheaper, in order to compete. Nevertheless, that is not our main purpose at Praxis, we do not compete on prices, we compete on quality. We have certification as a super company; we have been awarded that ever since 2008, every year as being a “Best place to work.” Our professionals enjoy working here; our specialties are well distributed to attend to the different aspects of our clients’ business, so at this moment what we offer is service and quality. That is the factor that differentiates us; our financial clients are happy, they have no problems and have a long, ongoing relationship. When we replicate the model in a new country—it’s been a year and a half here in Colombia—it happens to be much easier.
Finance Colombia: That is because your clients told you: “Look, we want your presence in Colombia because we have operations there”—or how did it happen?
Chiquillo: Praxis started as a small company, it kept growing, and now our objective is to work anywhere in the same way. When we started the expansion project, that was the first thing we saw: we have to manage global accounts, and this financial service sector is very global. We have to take possession of it. So that was the starting point, although not the main objective. In the end, we decided that was the way we wanted to handle Praxis Global. Currently we are developing India, New York, London and have representatives in Israel and Australia, for instance. We reached a point where we want to attack at a global level, fully global. Banking strategy is the same. We want to tell them: “You opened operations in Mexico, we are also in Mexico and can help you in the same way.”
Finance Colombia: Apart from banks, and speaking of security and regulation, governance; if we see the insurance sector and stock exchange, what are the specific challenges?
Chiquillo: If we want to be specific, we offer them security. We approached the security issue with two main aspects, products and consultancy. In product we try to reach authentication systems, filtering and control. What does “authentication” mean? To give them all those things you mentioned, e-mail systems, two factor authentication…So we have products, integration and consultancy. Over 10 years of experience so, regardless of the organization, when they need double security—beyond a password—we implement all those services for critical data.
“We reached a point where we want to attack at a global level, fully global.”
Our bet is not to compete with the services of the giants, but to give clients a version of cloud based software development, of strong authentication where they do not have that high level of investment. We charge per user, we provide software-as-a-service, they connect to the cloud, and all those authentication services run through us. Likewise we do it with SOX (Sarbanes Oxley Act) Compliance.
Mail is filtered so that everything is real. We don’t want spammers or malware; we want the data to be real. We are at that level; Security Control and coaching as a product. Protocol management, security control, virtual courses and training sessions for all organizations, telling them, “These are the security mechanisms in organizations worldwide,” to avoid personal hacking, phishing, apart from control and analysis, to say: “please don’t use personal data in your passwords.” We are also working on that.
“Human talent is really good; the students come out well prepared from the universities.”
And consultancy is secular financial management, we attend to what the Colombian government tells financial entities they have to comply with, in order to attack those concerns first in terms of security, for instance in one case it was a requirement for a strong authentication network, so we had to bring the banks into compliance last year. And now we continue with controlled hacking. Lots of ethical hacking, we want to certify our systems are safe.
So the thing we want to offer and work on mostly, is consultancy, ethical hacking, and all the services of control. We already have strong experience with the energy sector, there are companies where we have found the flaws through the use of our ethical hacking and fortunately, remediated them. The companies were pleased.
Finance Colombia: Yes, I imagine that here or in Mexico, in the US they are very worried. The energy network is so smart now, so controlled, that hackers are able to try and go for a power grid shutdown. They have to be worried about those aspects of their critical infrastructure.
Chiquillo: If we speak about Colombia, the government is really concerned—about everything.
Finance Colombia: It’s more than hacking down an electrical tower; rather a hacker sneaking in the system…They are hacking with a hammer. “I’m a hacker!”
Chiquillo: And then it appears on the news: “Electrical network hacked with a hammer.” The idea is education and consulting mainly. That’s what they need. That is, products…in one area what we are doing is developing easy products, the right fit for companies, and that secures them. Because, one of the greatest challenges of selling security is that, if a company is big, it will require protection, but inn each level [of company size], everybody needs to have access to secure platforms.
Finance Colombia: I believe that many businesses, small businesses are scared, and think “we cannot afford a consultancy which will cost a lot and require a big contract…” they know they need something but they are scared of the price tag.
Chiquillo: What do we do in those cases? We take risks, just like the example you just gave: A company who says “I need to protect myself, I cannot by the RSA solution used for strong authentication, which costs $120.000 USD, plus integrating my systems and so on,” so what we do is, ask: “How many users do you want?” “Two” (a small company); “which resources do you want to protect?” “These ones.” So we provide strong authentication for users and we charge them monthly, let’s say a crazy number, $3 USD. Two users, that’s it.
Finance Colombia: One thing I have seen that impresses me is the quality of talent that exists here in Colombia.
Chiquillo: I wanted to tell you that. Something really cool that has happened to us is that Mexico and Colombia are quite similar. Culturally and in terms of normal interaction between management and teams and so on. Ecuador, which is right next to us, is different, yes? Venezuela is quite different, almost another planet. And they are there on the border. But if you ask me, all the media we received here in Colombia since the 40s and 50s, was Mexican, from when TV arrived until the 90s more or less, when the Peruvians entered [the Colombian media market].
“We want our employees to feel well, to have time for everything, for their personal lives.”
But I assure you that culturally, Colombia is very similar to Mexico, and it has helped our company work. You said it: you have seen in both Mexico and Colombia the level of innovation, of trying to give solutions instead of applying ready-made answers.
Human talent is really good; the students come out well prepared from the universities. I believe we are the sector who offers the best pay to recently graduated professionals. I think every day, how do I have to fight with [competitors] for a human resource, a good, recently graduated Java developer, to compete against all the giant firms. So what did we have to do? Good planning and development practices, work-life management. “Sir, you check in and have to work 8 hours. Arrive anytime you want, within reason do your eight hours. If you have to stay longer, then there is a planning and resource allocation problem. But it’s not your problem, it’s ours!
Finance Colombia: It is important to believe in having balance; as the saying goes “work-life-balance”, because otherwise, in most cases, somebody changes his or her job not only because of salary, but other reasons such as lifestyle and office pressure, “It leaves me no time to attend to my personal affairs, family, whatever.” Companies who have more balance in those aspects, will have more loyal employees. If it is pleasant, then I want to be at my office, with my co-workers, and producing, if it is a healthy, functional work environment.
Chiquillo: We want our employees to feel well, to have time for everything, for their personal lives. And it has gone well for us and attrition levels are low, even while everybody is looking to poach resources from us all the time.
Finance Colombia: It’s also better for clients, because they are working with the same team, with some tenure and stability, without people always coming and going.
Chiquillo: And with our financial clients that stability is really important.