‘When it comes to money, human creativity knows no bounds.’

Data detective’ Álvaro Meléndez is tasked with detecting suspicious financial behaviour - anything that deviates from the norm. This saves the bank and its customers a lot of potential trouble. But don’t we all sometimes deviate from some norm? A candid conversation about passion, inclusivity and tolerance.

The words ‘data scientist’ might call to mind endless rows of numbers on a screen. In other words, boring. Nothing could be further from the truth! ‘I’m not actually looking at numbers, but the behaviour they conceal. Most people engage in what you’d call “normal” financial behaviour. By which I mean behaviour that reflects the norm. Imagine the norm as a flat line. Anything that departs from that line sticks out, and I can see it thanks to mathematical models and fascinating technology like AI. These divergent patterns can turn out to be perfectly ordinary transactions, but they could also be indicators of money-laundering, human trafficking or terrorism funding.’

‘In other words, any ripples disturbing the normally smooth surface could be suspect. We identify and report these irregularities so that action can be taken against them. So as well as being the gatekeepers of the bank, we also protect our customers and hence society at large. If I do my job well, I’m contributing to a secure and reliable banking system, which is a requirement for financial assurance and economic growth.’

Looking for the person behind the number
‘It may sound odd, but I’m passionate about finding things out. As a child, I wanted to learn something new each day - it didn’t matter what. I was eventually able to satisfy my hunger for knowledge when I became a student. During my Masters in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence, I acquired programming and mathematical analysis skills. That’s essentially also what my team is very good at, but of course we also need to interpret all that data. That's where my other degrees, in philosophy, psychology and neuroscience, come in handy. Although at the same time I realise that the more I learn, the less I know! That recognition doesn't hold me back, though, since the power of applicable knowledge drives me on. In my work, I apply theoretical models to abstract information. This yields specific knowledge which we can then use for positive ends. Basically, I study data to understand a minority in order to help the majority.’

We’re becoming exponentially smarter
‘When it comes to money, human creativity knows no bounds. As a result, financial crime is taking many forms and expanding very rapidly. Take cross border transactions, which is a pretty murky area and hence a perfect environment for crime. But our team is at least as quick off the mark. We’re the fastest growing group of data experts within the bank, as shown by the investigation methods we use. These methods have a flywheel effect: the more we learn, the faster and more effectively we can make our products fraud-resilient.

I want our customers to know that the money they save or borrow is safe and “clean”. I’m thus adding to the positive impact ABN AMRO wants to make on society. Our discipline is a brand new one; we’ve really only just started and there’s a lot more to learn. But as I’ve said, learning is precisely what I love doing, so I’m in the perfect place.’ 

If you are yourself, you can never be ‘different’
In fact, Álvaro’s been in the perfect place since day one of his traineeship. ‘That’s true, but I was still a bit apprehensive. I don’t speak Dutch, my background covers more than just technical subjects and my sexual orientation isn’t one the majority of people share. But all these concerns turned out to be non-issues. First, half of all the trainees in the Data Talent Programme weren’t Dutch, so we communicated with each other in what for us was a second language. That disadvantage connected us. Second: my studies in the humanities provided a valuable additional perspective on my work. Third: ABN AMRO is only interested in your ability, not who you spend your free time with.’

‘I was welcomed with open arms and have never felt excluded for one minute. I work in a sociable and inclusive environment where it’s easier to show more of yourself. It’s also a comfortable place to be, since you don’t need to measure yourself against others and you're not compared with anyone else. The fact is, we’re all “different” in one respect or another. To begin with, I’ve left my family and country behind. That’s a choice which also says something about me, just as my work adds an element to my personal development.’

‘As well as technology, communication is very important in my job. I have to make complex data stories comprehensible to people from a wide range of backgrounds. That won't work if you only use terms like “loss function” and “logistic regression”. So I tell it in my own, slightly expansive way. Which I can, because I feel “safe” here. If you can be yourself, it gives you the freedom to extend your boundaries, both personal and professional. The first is fun, the second very necessary. Because at DFC, as everywhere else, there's still a world to conquer.’

Interview with Álvaro Meléndez, Data Scientist DFC (Detecting Financial Crime) at ABN AMRO
27 July 2021