Payments people is our interview series celebrating payments and product leaders. We discuss the experiences that have shaped them and tips for navigating a career in payments.
This week, we’re chatting with Alana Parsons, Chief Operating Officer for Caxton, a payments company that processes more than 8.6 million transactions per year. Alana tells us about turning a college job into a two-decade career, how payments have changed in that time, and why saying “no'' in the right way is so important.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Caxton
I’ve been at Caxton for almost 19 years now. I'm the Chief Operating Officer, so I'm responsible for the day-to-day running of the organisation. That includes things like product development and project management, all the way through to account management and customer service.
I joined Caxton for two weeks during a college break. I was studying to be a legal secretary, but once I found my footing at Caxton, I saw how exciting the payments space was. So that’s how I began my payments journey. There weren’t many players in the space back then. There were just a few fintech organisations and the banks, so it’s a million miles from where we are today. But I saw it was going to be an exciting area, and not just for a year or two.
I was employee number one and throughout my life at Caxton I was able to move through multiple roles and get a deep understanding for how everything pulls together, which is why I was drawn to operations.
How have you seen payments change over that time?
Drastically. Payments have changed, but so has the technology and the regulation surrounding it. When I cast my mind way back to the very start, we were dealing with mainly CHAPS in the UK and the SWIFT network in terms of international payments.
Then Faster Payments in the UK came along and suddenly payments were happening 24/7. It didn’t matter how you wanted to facilitate the payment or when it needed to go out or how much it was. And then came things like SEPA Instant, so you can do the same with euros across the European Economic Area (EEA).
We’re only just scratching the surface, though. As consumers we expect everything to be with us immediately — you can order from a retail website in the morning and have it delivered a few hours later.
It’s no different with payments. In fact, it's probably more important because payments are all about money, which people have much more of an emotional connection to.
How have you stayed ahead of the curve?
Although I've been at Caxton for almost 19 years, it doesn't feel that way. The space has changed so much and we’ve evolved to stay ahead. We were one of the first to come out with a prepaid travel card, and we processed the second ever open banking transaction back in 2019. We used the technology to top up one of our cards, which was super exciting.
So we've always tried to innovate and partner with the right people to stay ahead. People don’t just use Caxton for its pricing. It's the expertise and the stability of the organisation and the quality of the staff we have.
Finish this sentence: payments are done right when…
They get where they need to be on time. It’s great when they’re straight through, when there's no interaction, and when the user journey is brilliant. But ultimately all we want them to do is get to where they're going on time. It’s that simple.
Best career advice you've received?
Learning how to say no. That might sound a bit odd, because early on in your career, you don’t want to say you can’t do something. But it’s more about understanding where you excel and realising that you don’t have to say yes to everything, especially if it’s going to impact your performance.
Part of that is about understanding what tools you have around you to make something happen. So it could be that you don't have the time, or you might not have the right skillset to complete a certain task, but actually, there are three other people around you who do. So if you’re able to identify them, collaborate and work together, you can still deliver it without having to say no.
What’s the one thing that motivates you, that gets you out of bed in the morning?
Behind every payment is a story for someone. So it’s about understanding that connection, but also knowing you've been able to improve someone's day whether it’s a client of a staff member by providing them with the right tools and equipment. It could be big or small, but each day it’s good to know that you can affect people’s lives and make a change for the better.
What are the habits that have allowed you to thrive in your career?
Making sure that I’m always learning. You shouldn’t assume you know everything, because you can learn from people who report to you and you can learn from people that you report into.
To give an example, there could be new theories that are being taught at universities that you just didn't know about because you’re two decades on. But actually, that knowledge becomes super helpful. So it’s about learning from everybody and being open.
It’s also important to have respect. For me, that’s key. If you have respect for other people, they’ll respect you and it’ll make for a much easier working life.
Name something you’ve read that has helped you in your career
The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. It’s about understanding that we all have a chimp instinct to survive and a human instinct to thrive. Through mind management, you can dial both of those elements up in a way that works for you.
I read the book at a real discovery point in my career, and it helped me learn that how you perceive and react to things matters as much as the actions being taken and the people around you. For example, I’ve seen when people think they are being criticised and the immediate response is to get very defensive, when actually, it wasn’t criticism and defensiveness isn’t the answer.
The book really helps change that mindset. It led me to understand that you can’t change what everyone else is doing — we’re not responsible for other people’s actions. But you can alter your own outlook.
What’s the one thing that keeps you awake at night?
My role is incredibly varied. It changes constantly, and there are always topics that keep you up, from cybersecurity — even though we’re excellent in that area — through to new innovation and ideas.
Each week brings something new and for example we went through a live card migration almost 18 months ago, and that was the scariest thing at the time. There was a lot of lost sleep.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in payments?
First, I’d tell them to look at the culture of their organisation. When you join a company and its values don’t align with yours, you can get put off from a career, when it’s not the chosen career that’s the issue.
We all want to feel like we fit in, and there’s nothing worse than not wanting to get up and go to work in the morning. But rather than thinking that the industry isn’t for you, you may just need to find a smaller company, or a larger one, or even just a different department.
The other thing is to consider stability. When you’re starting out, it can be tempting to go for a start-up. There are so many success stories, but you rarely hear about the ones that don’t work out.
When you’re applying to work for a company, look at their financial stability. Who’s behind the organisation? What have they done? How many people work there? If you consider the culture and stability of an organisation, you can make sure it’s the right environment for you in order to learn and grow.
What’s your biggest prediction for payments over the next five years?
We’re seeing some innovation in this space already, but I think further innovation in global instant settlement is on the horizon. We’re seeing it in pockets with Faster Payments in the UK and FedNow, which is a Faster Payments equivalent, coming in the US. We’ve also got SEPA Instant. But what we’re not seeing is an instant transition from one currency to another.
Now some companies are using things like crypto in order to deliver this. But in the same way that SWIFT was initially created as a global language for payments, we need a global language for payments that’s instant. And I think that’s where we’re headed.
How does open banking fit into Caxton’s current roadmap?
We’re in the process of relaunching our open banking offering with TrueLayer. We were one of the early adopters of open banking. Since then, the technology has moved on quite a bit. With things like variable recurring payments (VRP), there’s so much more that we’ll be able to do now.
Part of that involves having open banking as a payment option for customers when they go through our system. Whether it’s topping up their card or using it to make payments abroad or domestically, it lets us expand on our options.
From a product innovation perspective, there’s so much we can do with open banking, from using the data to help us speed up the onboarding process to powering credit propositions.
Using TrueLayer for VRPs and payouts also enables us to become more efficient and much more cost-effective. The margins are extremely small within our industry, so being able to replace costs where possible is always at the top of our agenda.