Having already started its digital transformation, this credit union was ready for workers to come to their homes and continue to serve their members.
Karen Roby of TechRepublic spoke with Mike Upton, CTO and Chief Digital Officer of First Technology Federal Credit Union, about the organization’s transition to remote work and its success during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
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Karen Roby: We’ve talked a lot now that we’ve been successful on this side of the pandemic. And we look back and talk about things that companies have done well, things that they haven’t done. There was glaring light on some companies that weren’t ready, that weren’t digitally transformed enough to get them through what has been a very difficult year 2020 and part of 2021. So, let’s talk a bit about your credit union, the digital transformation you’ve been through, and how it’s helped. When the pandemic hit, what position were you in regarding your technological setup?
Mike Upton: We were really lucky that when the pandemic hit, a lot of the work we had done before the pandemic really paid off for us. And what I mean by that is that we had already started, what we call, our hybrid cloud strategy, where we were moving out of our physical data center to the credit union and moving our services to a colocation and cloud installation.
And so, when the pandemic arrived, we were able to take advantage of that scale. And we were able to take advantage of a lot of our VPN technologies that we had developed to support remote working before the pandemic. But really, what he did was he sped up a lot of things. So a lot of the things that we had planned, that we were working on on the foundation was there. So when the pandemic arrived, we were able to take advantage of it. But that, sure, then put a lot more attention on it and it sped up a lot of things that we had already planned to do.
Karen Roby: Do you think, Mike, that a lot of financial institutions have been caught off guard? Did you hear that? It kinda seems that way.
Mike Upton: Yes. When we speak within the industry, people are in different places. There were certainly a lot of people who had these plans, maybe they weren’t that far from them. And they have found it much harder to cope with the realities of the pandemic, needing to quickly allocate their workforce. And then, too, really focus on your digital channel and your digital solutions. Because, as we know, our members, the consumers, it was also a shock to their system. And so, they couldn’t return to the physical branches. They weren’t able to do business like they used to. And they had to adopt a lot of digital tools, a lot of digital technologies. Some people were really not ready for this volume.
Again, we have been fortunate not to have seen any disruption to our digital products or digital services, but we have certainly experienced explosive growth.
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Karen Roby: Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? This is what you hope to see, especially during a really difficult time for everyone personally and professionally. Mike, talk about the technology behind the technology.
Mike Upton: Yes, we offer online banking, mobile banking, kind of traditional channels. But the other technology that really helped us was that we put a lot of emphasis on automation. So we had a lot of automated workflows in place, a lot of robotic processing, so when the volume went from store, branch to digital channels, we didn’t have to bring in an army of people to manage the volume.
We had automated a lot of the background work. And so, once again, we felt very lucky to have made these investments before the pandemic, because we knew that automation and ease of use was something that consumers were looking for. And then the pandemic and the volume really accelerated it all and accentuated it. So luckily we were well on our automation roadmap. And it really helped us manage the volume.
Karen Roby: And artificial intelligence, machine learning, Mike, a lot of those used here too.
Mike Upton: Now we are still at the beginning of real AI. We’re still learning about that one, but robotic processing, we’ve really invested in it. The automation of workflows, we have really invested. Machine learning, we are also very early there. But, again, all of these things are accelerated by this event.
Karen Roby: And how do you see, Mike, the future for you guys, the industry as a whole that’s really changing as a result of what we’ve been through?
Mike Upton: This is an excellent question. I think what it did was it opened a lot of eyes, certainly I think within the organization two things. First, we can work effectively as a distributed organization. Much of the traditional leadership believed that the only way to be truly effective was to have everyone at their desks in a company facility. A sort of old guard, a traditional working model. And I think it surprised people in a delightful way that we distributed 1,500 people in one day without disrupting business, without disrupting what we were delivering. And, as the pandemic continued, it became more evident that many of our senior executives felt more comfortable that we could do this. And that our culture is resilient. And that our ability to deliver was uninterrupted.
So now as we think about how we get back to work, it’s definitely changed the way we look at it because we’re going to be a lot more flexible in bringing people back to a head office because we recognize employees really have started to desire some of that flexibility and some of that freedom so to speak of having to be in a company facility five days a week, nine, 10 hours a day, and that we are able to do that . So I think it was a huge learning curve.
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The other learning for us was really that our clients, our members were also very resilient because, we have to keep in mind, this was a huge shock to the system at all levels. We created a virtual experience center, we created a bank by appointment, and our members were really interested in these things. And they really appreciated this flexibility. And we think a lot of them are going to continue to use these digital services, these digital channels, because they’ve become familiar with it.
And those who were a bit on the borderline that maybe they weren’t quite sure about the whole mobile thing, depositing a check, they found it to be actually more convenient and enjoyable. . So we expect people to return to our retail experience centers, but we just don’t think they are going to come back in the same volume as before. And we certainly don’t think they’re going to come back for basic transactions that they now know they can do digitally.
Karen Roby: Yes, I have to agree. It will be interesting to see how or not people fall back into ways that were comfortable for them before, now that they have seen a different way of doing things.
Karen Roby: Well, Mike, before I wrap up let me ask you a question about safety, of course, of the utmost importance, especially in your industry. Was it difficult to wrap your arms around the safety? When you talk about moving so many things digitally and people working from home, I mean, it really opens up a lot of channels, so to speak, for things to happen. And, of course, in your role, safety should always be a priority.
Mike Upton: Ah, without a doubt. Safety is clearly a priority for many reasons.
When it comes to moving company employees to their homes, our VPN, a virtual private network, was already in place. And so, we were able to increase that. And that was really one of the essentials of security in terms of a distributed workforce. We had planned, and now the deployment of the virtual office is accelerated. And we are in the process of doing that right now, which will further strengthen our security and scalability to support remote working permanently. So in terms of the company employees, we said, “Hey, take your gear home, keep it home. Do not bring it back to our environment ”.
We have a sanitation program that we’re going to roll out as we start bringing groups of employees back to the office to make sure that a lot of their devices, peripherals like monitors and things like that. are not infected. We don’t know what everyone’s home network is, how secure they really are. So we’re going to be safe in terms of returning equipment. But in terms of working from home, we felt very safe and confident about our safety there.
The other side of the security is clearly that the bad guys didn’t miss the pandemic either. And we’ve seen a huge increase in what we call social engineering and phishing attacks on our members because the bad guys know people are now in their homes and in front of their computers. And maybe they’re doing things they’re less used to. So our cyber teams really had to step up their games. Our marketing teams have had to step up communication to warn members of some of the bad actors out there. So safety on all fronts is definitely something we take seriously.