E-commerce and the digital wallet: A Q&A with PayPal’s James Barrese

Born and raised in Silicon Valley, it’s not surprising James Barrese grew up to become a technology innovator.

PayPal’s chief technology officer lent his skills to the U.S. army as a high-frequency communications specialist, to Stanford University as a programmer, and to e-philanthropy company Charitableway as vice president of engineering.

At eBay, Barrese was vice president in charge of delivering open platforms, infrastructure, systems software, analytics, and site operations.

At PayPal, where he started in 2012, Barrese has been largely responsible for the company’s shift from a web payments processor to a mobile-first operation.

Barrese is one of several tech leaders who will speak at Interzone, a Canadian Cloud Council event in Banff, Alta., next year, in a fireside chat called “From Old To New Order Technology At Breakneck Speed.”

I caught up with Barrese last month for a discussion of application programming interfaces (APIs), pin codes, and the future of mobility.

Image courtesy of PayPal
Image courtesy of PayPal

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Freeman: We’ve been watching PayPal innovate for the past few years. What have you done to get more developers on board using PayPal and integrating it for e-commerce?

Barrese: A couple of years ago, there was a big shift to focus on developers and we’ve been doing a ton to make our APIs much easier for engineers to use. They’re just simpler. They’re more convenient and we’ve improved the documentation. Interestingly, for mobile, we’ll be making it very easy for developers to just pull PayPal into their mobile apps. We’re handling the security and it’s easier for them to just drop in a software development kit. It lowers the barrier to doing payments in a mobile app.

In fact, PayPal acquired Braintree, which has a fantastic set of tools and just a great culture for working with innovative developers, and we did that very much in part to strengthen PayPal’s ability to develop the market.


Freeman: Why do we need to do away with PIN codes and passwords?

Barrese: Humans aren’t designed to remember lots and lots of very complicated strings of letters and numbers. So the issue becomes that everyone reuses their passwords and unfortunately there are hackers in the world who have been building up comprehensive data sets about what kind of passwords people use. The hackers are getting better at it and there are just fundamentally better options.

Now with more and more people on mobile devices, we know more about you, your location and your behaviour, so that it’s actually feasible to develop an authentication that doesn’t have to be a password. You’re seeing it with fingerprint authentication now becoming possible. I think ultimately though, we’ve got to hit that tipping point of convenience and that’s what I see coming. It’s not quite here but there’s enough happening that I think we’ll actually be able to get better security with less friction.


Freeman: I know it means talking about the competition, but what other e-commerce platforms have you been impressed with?

Barrese: What I really like are well-designed platforms and well-built systems. I have to say I think the Apple ecosystem is really well done. They’ve put a lot into the innovation of the new products. I think Google has a lot of interesting concepts. At PayPal, we’re a payments platform for the industry and I think that’s a mindset shift we’re working with. We’re not just a consumer platform, we’re a payment vehicle that really wants to empower and enable merchants and anyone who is buying or selling to build payments into their apps.


Freeman: What’s the next big thing in mobile technology?

Barrese: Just to back up, I think the biggest thing with mobile is that it may be more sophisticated than computers were not that long ago, and from the moment that people wake up to when they go to bed at night, they’ve got it with them. Almost 24/7. We’ve never had that in the history of humanity; an upward thing that so many people around the world are carrying within arm’s reach or in their hands. It’s a very sophisticated computer that has so many capabilities. So I think we’re still in the early days of what mobile is going to do, and for us it opens up this new potential for payments.

Mobility really brings your wallet with you. Your digital wallet can be in the cloud, so it can be accessible through multiple channels, from your PC to your tablet to your Android, or through your OS in your Windows phone. It’s pervasive. But then what’s great is that mobile is also a gateway to the physical payments as well.

Here’s an example. During SXSW this year, I visited this coffee shop in Austin, Texas, and right next door was a clothing boutique for kids. The proprietor of the coffee sh0p was telling me they often encounter customers who go for a jog and just bring their phones. The coffee shop now accepts PayPal so these customers don’t even have to bring their wallets. Customer can come in and just check-in to pay using the PayPal app.

The boutique next door also accepts PayPal, which means you can grab your coffee and easily head next door to buy a gift card for their new nephew. All with your phone — a phone that’s also very convenient for tracking your run and their health metrics. It all just seamlessly starts to flow together.

Shawn Freeman
Shawn Freeman
I’m Shawn Freeman, an entrepreneur, personable geek and founder of IT services company TWT Group. I’ve worked on big and small tech projects, and have never let the corporate ladder dictate my path to doing what I love. I’m passionate about cloud computing and data security, and like to share my ideas in and on the TWT blog. IT should be the easiest part of your day. I’m passionate about exceptional IT services and being better, faster and more affordable than the big guys. TWT Group works with partners in oil and gas, accounting, agriculture and more across western Canada. Want to hear more? Email me at [email protected].

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