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Eric Haller, EVP at Experian DataLabs: “As steel sharpens steel, so does one person sharpen another”

The world is inevitably moving towards more decisions being made leveraging AI and more transactions taking place between machines we use (smart phones, tables, connected TVs, Amazon & Google smart speakers, laptops) and machines representing someone or something else (reservations, purchases, access to our personal accounts, etc.). We bristle when there is friction like typing […]

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The world is inevitably moving towards more decisions being made leveraging AI and more transactions taking place between machines we use (smart phones, tables, connected TVs, Amazon & Google smart speakers, laptops) and machines representing someone or something else (reservations, purchases, access to our personal accounts, etc.). We bristle when there is friction like typing in a password, having a code sent to our phone, asking funny questions we need to answer, but we panic when one of our accounts have been compromised. The challenge is reducing friction, while at the same time reducing fraud. When it works right, our lives are more convenient and safer, and it creates time for us to do other things.


As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs I had the pleasure of interviewingEric Haller.

Eric Haller is the Executive Vice President and Global Head of Experian DataLabs. Experian DataLabs is responsible for developing innovative products generated from break-through experimentation leveraging artificial intelligence and data assets from a variety of sources. He led the creation of labs in the US, UK, Brazil and Singapore that support research & development initiatives across the Experian enterprise. New products developed in the labs cover mobile, payments, consumer & commercial credit, fraud, targeted marketing & healthcare. Prior to Experian, Eric was responsible for new products with Sequoia Capital backed Green Dot where he created and brought to market the first credit card a consumer could purchase off of a j-hook in a retailer. Eric also co-founded identity fraud detection business iDawg which was later renamed ID Analytics. ID Analytics was acquired by LifeLock which is now part of Symantec. Other roles held by Eric includes Chief Marketing Officer of the first publicly traded machine learning company, HNC Software (acquired by FICO) and executive roles with Visa & MasterCard. Eric has a B.S. in Finance from San Diego State University and an M.S. in Technology Management from Columbia University in the City of New York; he is also a member of the University’s School of Professional Studies Board of Overseers.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started as statistical analyst at Visa. My job was pulling data from the mainframe on our authorization, clearing and settlement systems and assessing if there were any peculiar activities taking place that necessitated us changing our policies or system changes. This evolved to developing new products and services for Visa clients (banks & merchants) around the globe.

Back in 1994, I was absolutely convinced we were on the verge of a massive proliferation in data usage for decisioning and that analytics was going to be at the crux of it. I left Visa and spent my career focused on solving problems with leveraging data, analytics & software.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I learned a pretty valuable lesson presenting when I was 24 years old. I was presenting on anomalous chargeback behavior at a large global bank. There were about 20 people in the room and the senior executive from the bank in the meeting couldn’t read the “detail” on my slide. Back then they were acetate slides on an overhead projector. So the executive walked up to my projector, pulled the slide off and said they were going to have copies made for everyone in the meeting so they could read along as I explained the analysis. I was caught for five minutes or so standing in front of the crowd “killing time” until the executive returned with my slide and the copies. It felt humiliating. While the presentation wrapped up well because of the value of the work, it left me thinking I would never let that happen again. So I never put that much detail in a slide and if detail is necessary it always is distributed as a handout.

Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

I’d say there are a handful of areas we are experimenting with that show promise. We developed a generative adversarial network (GAN) that both creates and helps to detect synthetic identities. The effort performed so well that we immediately productized it and brought it to market in our US credit bureau. The new product, the Sure Profile™, promises to change how banks can be assured that they are pulling credit on a real individual. For the average person, this means that they are less likely to have their identity appropriated by someone attempting to commit fraud.

Another area we are experimenting in is in fair and explainable artificial intelligence (AI). What may be one of the most significant challenges that could evolve in this century — our ability to ensure that machines make decisions that don’t disadvantage classes of people that we believe should be protected is critical. So we’ve been experimenting with how we select and or constrain the performance of the “building blocks” of AI which are data attributes in order to manage how an AI system arrives at a conclusion. We’ve also created new processes of how we leverage un-biased / minimally biased external data sets to benchmark AI fairness throughout the entire model development process. This includes data inputs, attribute development & selection, algorithms, decision trees & rules and ultimately the outputs/decisions being made. The results will be measurable and demonstrable processes to prove out decisions are explainable & fair.

Perhaps what we’re most excited about is how we have eliminated rules and the use of expert systems from our ability to resolve the identity of an individual. We have developed a decision system that uses AI 100% in pulling together data elements when defining and validating the identity of an individual. This replaces the need to develop new expert rules and leverage human intellect every time new data elements are being introduced to help define who someone is when engaging in a fully digital, “faceless” transaction. As the world migrates towards a “touchless society,” where most of what we do is digital, this ensemble of AI developments will lead the way in reducing fraud while taking friction out of may processes.

How do you think this might change the world?

All three of these areas combined means that as the world changes, we can be more confident that the impacts to us as individuals will be positive. The world is inevitably moving towards more decisions being made leveraging AI and more transactions taking place between machines we use (smart phones, tables, connected TVs, Amazon & Google smart speakers, laptops) and machines representing someone or something else (reservations, purchases, access to our personal accounts, etc.). We bristle when there is friction like typing in a password, having a code sent to our phone, asking funny questions we need to answer, but we panic when one of our accounts have been compromised. The challenge is reducing friction, while at the same time reducing fraud. When it works right, our lives are more convenient and safer, and it creates time for us to do other things.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I love that show! But I don’t always agree with the endings. “Skynet” doesn’t have to become self aware — to borrow from Terminator.

When I think about the evolution of AI, I think it’s important that our lawmakers are aware of what’s happening so that as an industry, we can be responsible in assuring the right rules are in place to guide us. That’s what I find invaluable at Experian — we’re active handraisers when asked to discuss with lawmakers how we’re leveraging AI and where we see things headed. Because our roots are in understanding laws that protect consumers like the FCRA, GLB, HIPPA, DPPA and others — we evaluate everything we do in this context.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

I’m not so sure there was a tipping point. I’ve been chasing this dream for years. I co-founded a company to focus exclusively on detection identity fraud that eventually sold to Symantec for 185mm dollars. I was also the CMO for the publicly traded first machine learning company that specialized detecting fraud using neural networks. I feel more like a veteran warrior fighting the good fight — using the best data sources and best AI tools that society can leverage to protect people.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

With some of these items, like AI fairness, we’re working with clients to assess how well we’re doing what we set out to do and make whatever adjustments we need to make to scale. It’s the typical “proof of concept” to “product” process. With the others, Experian is actively leveraging our enterprise to begin scaling around the globe.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes! I am very thankful to a gentleman named Jeff Hug. He was the Chief Operating Officer for company I worked for in the late 1980s called Imperial Savings & Loan. He discovered me when I was working fulltime as a bank card customer service representative while I went to school at night to get my degree. I did some analysis on my own and turned it in. It wound up saving the bank a lot of money. He later recruited me to come to work for him as statistical analyst at Visa. He gave me the freedom to pull data from Visa mainframes, do a lot of analysis and build models. It set my career on the path that has led me to where I am today.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try and Experian has been very supportive. We’ve had the opportunity to recently work with the United Nations on two significant efforts. One around modern slavery & sex trafficking. We’re currently building a national database in Brazil that can be leveraged by the UN and others to identity potential victims and “hot spots” for abductions. We’re also working on three continents with the UN and others on Covid disease spread modeling and PPE forecasting. By improving how we model for disease spread and flare-ups, we can help consumers that are vulnerable and small businesses with high exposure to economic risk. Experian has given me many more opportunities than this to do good — it is something that we work on the company every day — we call it “data for good.”

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Spend more time with your kids when they are little. I was very obsessed with my work in my early days when my kids were young. They change so much every day from birth until about kindergarten. I think looking back, it would have been wiser to have slowed down a bit during those years and enjoyed them more. Our careers often span 40+ years, so over the long haul we have plenty of time to make an impact. But that window with our kids in their early youth is a small one.

Be more patient. I was interviewing for a spot in a very selective commercial banking executive training program with Union Bank my senior year of undergrad. One of the executives told me I was going to be huge asset for UBOC. He said that in three years I will likely be strong enough to be a VP in the bank. But it will take 5–7 years from the time I started before the bank will be willing to promote me to that position. He said whether I took the job or not, that’s likely going to be a problem I will face my entire career. I will always feel ready for something before others will be as confident as I am that I can do it. So his advice was to be patient. Even though I did get this advice before I started — I wish he had made his point even stronger! Because patience extends to many more aspect of our career than just our next role change. It extends to developing relationships, building products and creating new businesses. Things never go as planned and always requires patience, persistence, thoughtfulness and grit.

Take your vacation time; think of it as medicine to help avoid burnout. I have several stories here, but I think it comes down to some simple facts of life. If you have passion for your work and ambition for your life, it’s likely you work longer and harder than most people around you. But it’s not a requirement. Our passion and ambition can make us want to drink in the adrenaline rush created by our work with both hands….until we are drowning in it. Without a break, all those positive things we build up by working so hard can turn our mind into thinking others don’t work so hard, they don’t contribute as much, the business isn’t going a fast as it should, etc. It creates the ingredients of burn out. Vacations are very important — they force us to take a pause from that rush and help us to avoid going down the negative rabbit hole that can be created with working too much. It took me close to 10 years before I realized this one.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Until recently, I think my passion would be instantly oriented towards kids that don’t have parents. My heart goes out to them and I feel at some point I’m going to have to pay attention to that spark inside of me and take some action. But the past couple of years have me more concerned about the challenges facing our country. If I could stimulate a movement, it would be to bring back the art of compromise. Compromise is far more challenging to achieve and often considered a word with deep negative connotations. Yet it’s what brings divided people of different ideals together. Somewhere along the way, we’ve formed an opinion that there is a right side and a wrong side on just about everything. In the world of machine learning, I think I’d argue there is no perfect right or wrong — but there is an optimal point. And finding it gives you the best performance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“As steel sharpens steel, so does one person sharpen another.” This has always inspired me to try to meet up and work with the very smartest people I can find. I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by a gifted group of people that force me to step up my game. It is without a doubt when I’m most likely to perform at my best.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Experian gets my big ideas!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Just follow me on LinkedIn. I post what we’re up to that I think others will find interesting all the time.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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