Founders Federal Credit Union goes all-in with autonomous operations

Fresh from an IDC win, FFCU's CTO explains how it achieved award-winning results with automation.

By Bob Bender, chief technology officer, Founders Federal Credit Union

In September 2021, Founders won the IDC Best in Future of Digital Infrastructure Award for autonomous operations. Of course, it’s wonderful to receive this recognition but our motivation has always been our customers rather than accolades. Particularly at Founders, where our customers literally own the business. They’re our principal stakeholder and the driving force behind every decision, including the one that earned us the IDC award in the first place: To uplevel automation, impelled by an ambitious goal of attaining greater agility in the IT organization.

With approximately $4.2 billion in assets, a 40% annual growth rate, and planned growth ahead, we needed an IT environment that could scale and take data from a haphazard state (a mere residue of what we did) to an asset. The IT environment needed to be able to collect, analyze and strategically use data to drive better decisions on behalf of our 220,000 plus members.

Wind back the clock 10 years and it was clear that the aging IT infrastructure wasn’t up for the job and as a corollary, nor were our people, given that nearly two-thirds of the IT staff’s focus was on internal audit procedures to ensure regulatory compliance. Since the IT systems were largely dependent on human inputs and interventions, it felt like we were always catching up to members’ needs. For all intents and purposes, the IT organization was an order taker; we did not have a seat at the table.

With ambitious growth top of mind, we partnered with Dell Technologies to achieve audacious levels of IT agility.

Choosing to work faster and smarter

Our double-barreled goal for the IT team was to move with the speed of business and respond rapidly to the evolving needs of members at over 30 locations—and counting.

To move with the speed of business we overhauled our back-office administration and support. This sounds like a leviathan challenge however, we offloaded the burden to intelligent automation. For instance, we implemented an environment that simplified and automated firmware updates and workload shifts while balancing our need for consistent availability of our 24×7 online transactional processing (OLTP) systems.

With our newfound agility, we’re freeing-up IT staff to provide more value-added strategic and operational contributions to our member base.

To respond to evolving customer needs we embarked upon a journey to democratize data science for employees and other average end-users, irrespective of their technical skills. We recognized that to get in front of members’ financial health and wellbeing we needed to equip everyone with real-time access to insights, so they could proactively identify areas of improvement.

At the same time, we equipped senior management with the insights they need to evaluate whether employees were being incentivized to do the right things.

Achieving efficiency and repeatability with Level 4

Our route to getting here has been via Autonomous Operations. Our destination is level 5. We’ve already reached Level 4. This is what Level 4/5 looks like for us:

  1. Maintenance windows have gone away entirely, and software maintenance and upgrades are now accomplished with no impact on real-time processing.
  2. Automation has simplified our system builds and fortified our security in every delivery. Inconsistencies caused by people-and-process variances have all but been eliminated. Workflows are measurable, manageable and repeatable
  3. By offloading IT asset inventory and empowering a real-time ordering service, we’ve transformed our procurement and budgetary process. And by moving to plug-and-play solutions, we can implement software upgrades and changes in a matter of hours, not weeks.
  4. We’ve attained a huge uptick in computing speed, with hundreds of thousands of transactions, backups and data encryptions completed in seconds. Data is always available, always in use, and always protected.

None of these are small feats and each achievement has had huge ramifications for our employees and customers alike, for the better.

We’re now serving members, not just fixing things

Hands-down, the over-arching transformation is that we’re now wholly focused on proactively serving our customers, rather than exhausting resources reacting to breaks and inefficiencies.

Distraction-free, we’re working towards real-time management of the enterprise architecture. What’s more, by converting the staff from IT techs to engineers with free rein to innovate with confidence, employees’ job satisfaction and morale have never been better.

There have been other benefits as well, a few unexpected. Because we are no longer hampered by ad hoc, break-fix engagements with our lines of business, we have all but eliminated “shadow IT” projects that used to be started with the idea of saving time but risked security issues and uncontrolled costs. Now that IT plays a critical role in every strategic decision, business units are no longer resorting to running things under the radar. Plus we now have the flexibility to support them.

We’ve won back time

You don’t hear this very often but we’ve become time rich (relative to before), thanks to autonomous operations.

For instance, with richer data sets we were able to develop a new commercial product that offered small personal line of credit loans to more than 40,000 pre-approved members using AI to allocate loans in minutes without human intervention. By automating this process we’re not only saving more than 1,000 hours annually but we’re also able to offer much-needed finance to more of our members.

Similarly, through automating protection, we’ve cut the annual time it takes to address fraud (even though fraud escalated during the pandemic) by 3,600 hours. This time is being redirected to serve our customers and innovate.

An example of this: we’re currently in the throes of developing an AI decision-making engine for on-boarding members that can quickly and accurately predict which lending product lines will serve them best. And we’re bridging the war on talent with intelligent automation to steam through a six-fold increase in mortgage applications (which would have been impossible to do given the industry’s current struggles to find skilled workers).

Each win is saving more time and begetting more gains, to the point that we’re now competing with bigger banks. Technology has leveled the playing field. We may be small, but with autonomous operations, we’re having a mighty impact, and in the process making good on Founders’ mission to provide the “highest level of quality services to our members.”