Doing what I love — or why I choose payments over flying professionally

James Sherwin-Smith
9 min readFeb 10, 2019

If you live or work in one of the major cities of the world, you’ve probably found it difficult to avoid this slogan plastered to the side of a building that’s either being built or remodelled.

This banner is inescapable because wework, a company that has taken a relatively simple business model for flexible office rental (effectively a 21st century Regus), is expanding at an incredible rate on a global scale. wework create co-working spaces for individuals and companies to use as their offices, with all the sleek, modern design and facilities craved by start-up and scale-up companies, who are fighting a war for talent. After all, if your core employees are highly flexible members of a millennial labour market, you need to pull out all the stops to provide an environment that meets their expectations — particularly if you can’t compete purely on individual compensation.

But their slogan of “Do What You Love”, for all its brash in-your-face optimism that makes your average Brit recoil, is consistent with a simple company mission that is sadly, for many, elusive: “Create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.” In the back of my mind, when I read this, are the words of Alan Watts: if we are not thoughtful, we’re at risk of living a life that is “all retch and no vomit”.

For anyone reading this that knows me, it will come as no surprise that one of my true passions is aviation. This deep-rooted love for most things airplane-related comes from my father — a commercial pilot for over 30 years, nearly all that time working for different parts of British Airways. My dad often said he never worked a day in his life, he just happened to be paid to do something he loved.

As a boy growing up, it was noticeable that he worked hard, and he got drawn into many different “extra” aspects of his job — helping adapt operating manuals to match company aircraft types and procedures, training and evaluating colleagues, being a test pilot and even investigating accidents and incidents. His passion resulted in a truly varied career; while some commercial pilots today may fly only one or two aircraft types over their whole working life, my father was rated to fly almost 20 different types the last time we counted. He followed his passion.

I thought a lot about following in his footsteps. Pre-9/11 you could visit the cockpit as a passenger during flight — a practice that has since been banned. As a boy, I would spend entire flights strapped into a jump seat with a 5-point harness behind my father — watching him work as part of a well-drilled team, responsible for hundreds of lives, at the controls of a multi-million dollar machine that was a technical and emotional marvel.

For me (I studied engineering at university), the ingenuity of flight is only matched by the personal connections we can make and maintain as a result. To be able to just “get on a plane” to visit a new country, experience a different culture or simply spend more time with family, friends and colleagues — the world is truly a more connected, sociable, marvelous place.

I learnt to fly as a teenager, getting my Private Pilot Licence early in life before I went to university. I went to university so that I had an education to fall back on should the pilot thing not work out. After university, post 2001, the aviation market was depressed. It was a less glamorous, less attractive career path.

Gone were the glory days of a generous work-life balance. Previous to 9/11 crew members enjoyed big gaps between sectors which allowed them to rest fully, learn more about the places and people they served, and to pursue other hobbies that made them more interesting and better employees and colleagues.

Gone too was ab-initio training at your employer’s expense. If you wanted to be an airline pilot straight from school, you had to finance your own training costs — c. £100K. At the end of the process, a job was far from guaranteed, and the potential for a medical complication to ground you and deprive you of your livelihood was very real. I recognize that post the financial crisis, not to mention the paucity of education funding, the question is a pertinent one not restricted to a career in aviation: who would choose to go £100K into debt to pursue a specific career path, without knowing their earning potential thereafter?

Instead of aviation, I became a management consultant, focused initially in financial services, and then increasingly I specialised — into retail banking, and then specifically into digital banking and payments. I was lucky, because I’d done entrepreneurial things previously. My boss at the time asked me to help on projects where we built businesses for clients. Rather than churning out PowerPoint packs and talking about what people should do, we just got on and did it on their behalf.

It was a truly enjoyable, and expansive learning experience. I made some great, lifelong friends in the process. I learnt some things about myself in a short space of time that might have taken me a lot longer to learn doing something else. Often I would have to get on a plane to meet with clients in different parts of the world. Even when it was visiting the same place — sometimes only for a day, several weeks in a row — I was still in love with flying.

But something about management consultancy still didn’t sit right with me — while aspects of the jet-setting lifestyle were appealing, it was hard to claim I was passionate about it. I liked solving difficult problems. I liked working with smart people. I liked getting on planes. But did I love it? Deep down, I had a feeling the answer was no, but I wasn’t ready to act on it.

I took a sabbatical from work, and was fortunate to take the time to think more about what I wanted to do – what was passionate about? What got me jumping out of bed in the morning, buzzing about the day ahead, in a Dicky Fox from Jerry Mcguire kind of way?

And the answer didn’t come from my father, but from my mother. She has instilled in me a strong sense of justice and doing what is right. Whether it be writing to the paper or to government departments to vent her frustration at poor policy decisions or execution, running for local government, volunteering in her community, serving as a local magistrate, or feeding the local wildlife, she has followed her heart as much as her head, and is determined — through her own, humble actions — to make the world a better place.

For me, however, as a function of my upbringing, perhaps as a child growing up alongside the internet, technology has always had a role in what I do. The innate ability to be able to take an idea, make something relatively simple, and then offer it to people almost instantly and at a global scale, is for me the phenomenal power of technology, and particularly the internet, something I learned building Hitmatic with a school friend of mine.

Following a conversation with a university friend who was frustrated working as a hospital doctor in the NHS, I decided to take the plunge and start a non-profit called d4 during my sabbatical. Sadly, it never lived up to the mission statement — to “improve patient care by placing modern technology in the hands of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.”

The grand idea was to equip HCPs with smartphones, allowing them to be more productive at work and to collaborate with each other in a secure way. We’d offer a group purchasing scheme as a registered charity to reduce the cost for the individual and the tax payer — which we estimated was at least a £1 billion problem for the UK.

While we were successful in a number of the goals we set (adding to the body of evidence that phones in the hands of healthcare workers is a good idea, articulating how to think about regulation of the burgeoning m-health sector, and even collaborating with the people behind the award winning Mersey Burns app), we fell into the classic entrepreneurs’ chicken-or-egg trap: we needed discounts to get scale, and scale to get discounts.

Sadly nobody wanted to provide the seed capital to get the ball rolling — private individuals wouldn’t invest in a non-profit, nor would foundations focused on improving health outcomes, or the government itself. It is still an idea I hope to return to later in life.

I am enormously grateful to the people and organisations that supported me and shaped d4 during that period — in particular my board of directors and trustees, Oliver Wyman for my non-profit fellowship, Lippincott for the brilliant pro-bono brand identity work, and countless other friends and family members who helped me think through the problem. While healthcare was an industry I knew little about, it was a refreshing change from financial services, showed me that there was life beyond consulting, and helped me realise that what really motivated me was helping other people by leveraging the power of technology.

Which, reflecting on the above, is a really long-winded pre-amble – I am very happy, and privileged, to say I now love what I do.

I joined Vocalink in October 2017. You’ve probably never heard of Vocalink, but if you live in the UK, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand, and increasingly in the USA, you’ve probably benefited from our technology at least once in the last week.

We design, build, licence and operate account-based payment solutions. We are the technology provider in the UK to LINK (the ATM network), Bacs (the way most people get paid via a Direct Credit and pay their bills over Direct Debit), FasterPayments (the way nearly all mobile or internet banking payments are made) and ICS (the new technology that allows you to pay in a cheque by taking a photo of it, rather than needing to present the physical paper in a branch).

Vocalink was bought almost entirely by Mastercard in 2017. With Mastercard’s support, my new role is to help the team take what we do in the UK, and export it to the rest of the world.

The benefits of real-time payments from an economic perspective are readily apparent in an economy like Thailand: they take out cost, delay and risk for the benefit of all. The service we support there, PromptPay, has reached 45 million people in less than 2 years, and has processed over $100BN from a standing start. The government use it as a way to disburse benefits, people use it to send money to friends and family, and entrepreneurs use it to grow their businesses.

I’m excited, and proud, to be part of the team looking to export British technology and payment innovation to the rest of the world.

We couldn’t do this without Mastercard’s help — certainly not at this scale. The total addressable market for annual payment flows is estimated by Mastercard at $225 trillion. Vocalink processes more volume in the UK via account-based payments (c $10 trillion per annum according to UK Finance) than Mastercard does globally through its card network (GDV of c. $6 trillion pa as per recent public disclosures).

We have a lot more to do. But I’m proud to be both a #VocalinkEmployee and a #MastercardEmployee.

We do well by doing good. And so far our investors agree.



James Sherwin-Smith

Engineer by education, Consultant by experience, Entrepreneur at heart. My professional focus is #fintech & #payments, I’m an #avgeek + #cricket fan