Building the future of international payments: our vision

Engineering

Moving money across the world should be instant and easy – like sending an email. But moving money between different currencies and countries is still difficult, because regular banking infrastructure is expensive, slow, inconvenient, and lacks transparency.

For the past ten years, Wise has been on a mission to make international finance work for everyone, everywhere. Rather than relying on the traditional SWIFT messaging infrastructure and correspondent banking relationships, we’ve built our own system to move money around the world.

As strange as it sounds – with Wise, your money rarely actually crosses borders. Suppose you’re sending US dollars to Thai Baht with Wise. In that case, you’ll pay US dollars into our bank account in the United States, and we’ll pay your recipient from our local account in Thailand. That way, we bypass the slower and more expensive correspondent network altogether.

Graph describing correspondent banking structure versus Wise structure

Our vision: build a single network to move the world’s money

How are we planning to do this?

1. Integrate more local payment systems to make money move instantly 

The thing about big banks is, even if they’re international, they usually operate locally — through localised branches, domestic operations and technology. This allows for fast same-currency payments. Moving and managing your money domestically is usually an ok experience. 

But for international transfers, your local bank typically partners with other banks — correspondent banks — to help them move and settle funds internationally. 

So when you send money abroad, the quality of service you receive is based on the quality of these correspondent banks. And while this invisible chain might seem harmless, it makes payments much slower and more expensive – each bank takes their cut of your money!

No one’s ever built a single global network which hooks into all the different local payment systems around the world. So, we’re building it.

We’re trying to connect to local payment systems either directly or indirectly. For example, in the UK, we became the first non-bank payment service provider to become a direct participant in the Faster Payments Scheme (FPS). We obtained a settlement account with the central bank, Bank of England. It allowed us to make the GBP part of your transfer instant. In countries where this is possible, we’ve replicated the same set-up, whereas, in others, we connect indirectly via our bank partners.

Map showing Wise integrations around the world

But we can’t just immediately connect to a local payment system when we enter new markets, we have to go through phased building blocks. 

  • Phase 1: We use an aggregator or banking partner to quickly build a product, to see if there’s customer interest in the market and then iterate on the product we built
  • Phase 2: If there’s a product-market fit and interest, we onboard multiple banking partners to make payments faster and cheaper
  • Phase 3: We integrate directly into the payment system to cut out the intermediary entirely. This makes payments even faster and cheaper

So far we’ve directly integrated with four payment systems – FPS in the UK, AFR in Hungary, SEPA in the Eurozone and FAST in Singapore. And there are lots more in the works. 

Working on direct integrations is just one example of the complexities involved in payment systems across the world.

team members working together

It’s an exciting time to be an engineer at Wise. You’ll understand the complex architecture of moving money globally and try and build a simpler version. With these direct integrations to local payment systems, you’ll get to deploy code and interact with a system that moves billions of pounds (or SGD, USD, AUD etc.) every day. 

You’ll be creating something that’s never been done before – and other companies will be building on top of your work. You’ll directly impact the global economy with what you’ve built. 

2. We’ve moved from being a B2C and B2B company to a platform business model

Everything we build, we also make available through our Wise Platform API. This enables other businesses, marketplace platforms and banks to integrate Wise directly into their products. 

Companies like Monzo, Xero, Quickbooks and GoCardless already use our API. It gives them access to the cheaper, faster international payments infrastructure we’ve built over the years. This is just the start – there are lots of other partnerships in the pipeline and more innovative tech we need to build to further improve our service for our partners and their customers.

I’m often asked why building an API for international payments is a hard problem to solve. API based products aren’t a new idea. Stripe and PayPal created an entire business around making it super easy for developers to build checkout flows. How hard can it be? 

Well, international payments is still a wild west when it comes to standardisation. Take bank accounts as an example — there’s no standardised way of identifying them across the world. In the UK, they’re specified by a sort code and an account number. In the US, it’s routing and account numbers, and in Europe, it’s an IBAN. We’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting to make our API easy to use, so our partners can focus on what’s important 一 delivering a seamless experience for their customers. 

When you become a platform based business, a whole new set of questions become relevant. 

For example: How do we build an API product that adapts to the different release and iteration cycles of our partners, but doesn’t slow down our own product development? 

Banks who integrate with us may release their app once every six months, whereas at Wise, we do 3000+ releases a month. And we launch new routes and currencies every quarter. 

That means we have to make our API dynamic. As a result, once a partner integrates with our API, they continuously get the benefits of new features launched on Wise without any engineering work on their end. So if we launch a new currency route tomorrow, it’ll be automatically available for our partners on the same day. 

This means building a strong infrastructure is vital.

Over the past few years, we’ve come a long way by increasing the reliability and availability of our services. Our move from a hosted solution (running in a data centre) to AWS has helped us make our services even more available and robust. This move cut 2-4 days of yearly downtime down to just 14 hours in 2020 (including all maintenance!). 

There’s always room for improvement, but we’re proud of how far we’ve come.

Modern, purpose built platform

Graph describing the structure of the Wise platform

But running on AWS alone doesn’t make you reliable, so on top of that we’ve:

  • Deployed cutting edge technologies to run our platform
  • Invested in building a strong platform infrastructure to add velocity and scale to our systems 
  • Built tooling to give engineers the ability to spin up new services and move fast while getting monitoring, alerting, logging and everything out of the box 

Now our engineers don’t have to waste lots of time instrumenting their systems for availability and reliability. But there’s still lots more to do to enable our engineers to do their work efficiently. 

3. We’ll continue to invest in machine learning, automation and prediction 

Over the past two years, we’ve grown from 4 million to 10+ million people and businesses using Wise. Our scale requires increased efficiency. So we’re continuing to invest in automation. From quality control of documents, to real-time transaction monitoring and automated verification, we’re increasingly using machine learning to streamline our processes.

With the data we have, we’re able to predict money flow patterns through our network accurately. For example, how many customers will send money during the weekend via a specific route. Or how much liquidity we require in our local accounts. The better we predict this, the more we can lower our costs and lower prices for our customers.

The tech complexity, combined with the increasing volumes we move, means our engineers and data scientists have many interesting challenges to tackle. 

4. We’re scaling sustainably

To reach mission zero and tackle all the challenges ahead of us, we need more hands on deck and we’re hiring at speed. But we only hire at the rate at which we can onboard people well and set them up for success.

We’re coaching and mentoring our Wisers internally to provide a path to senior positions and team lead roles. At the same time, we’re investing in hiring interns and graduates who can grow here.

Maintaining a culture of autonomy, ownership and accountability

Our engineers have a lot of decision-making power

Our engineers can truly influence our product roadmap. Our engineers are part of small, autonomous product teams. Together, each team prioritises what they ship next for our customers. There’s no top-down “this is what you’re going to build next” direction. Instead, teams are trusted to pick the most impactful projects. Everyone has their voice heard and can truly see the impact of their work.

Two team members having a meeting in the office

And all without corporate bureaucracy 

At Wise, we function like a startup within a scale-up environment. Within our autonomous team structure, you don’t have to deal with the processes and bureaucracy you’d often get in the bigger corporations. But you still get hands-on support within a fast-growing company.

I hope this blog gives you an insight into the vision behind what we’re building and some of the challenges behind the scenes. It’s not been an easy journey, but I’m so proud of what we’ve built together over the years as a technology team and how much impact this has on people and businesses. Last year we helped our users move £54 billion across the world. But the number we’re more proud of is that we saved our users £1 billion compared to if they’d used their banks. We’re not done yet and we need many more curious brains on the job.

If this sounds interesting why not join us to build the future of international payments? We’re hiring. Check out our open positions here.