Technology Leadership in Credit Unions

An Interview with Ty Robbins, CTO, People’s Trust Federal Credit Union

Mark Haeussler spoke with Ty Robbins about the future of technology.  While the last time Mark was a system administrator was for an IBM AS-400, a box that looked like a major household appliance, he did learn an appreciation how technology, at its best, exists to service the business needs of an organization.

Mark:  What is the state of technology in general?

Ty:  No one wants to be in the “iron” business anymore; that is, no one wants to take care of servers and infrastructure.  And technology is so much less about that.  We no longer are stewards of massive infrastructure.  We have become the stewards of data, and the interpretation of data.

Mark:  Where do you see credit unions relative to other industries?

Ty:  The state of tech in the credit union industry is about ten years behind the state of the art of other industries. Data intelligence is something we were doing 20 years ago in telecom, and it is now the “fresh” idea in credit unions.  

Mark:  There must be a lot of issues you could speak to about where credit unions could go relative to this issue.  What two things do you see as the most critical areas for the industry to advance to better using technology?

Ty:  Most fundamental is the question of who really owns the data and can access the data.  As clients to technology vendors, when we want access to the data, we are beholden to them when we want to reinterpret data in new ways.  I know this perspective makes me unpopular with some of the vendors, but this is different in other industries.  The industry – this one that purpose is to serve people in a cooperative manner – needs to come together to reclaim its own data.

Tell me about what you have seen in other industries.

Ty:  When I was in the telecom industry, this never occurred.  Even though we were competing with one another, there was interoperability of the data.  The data structures were outlined in plain English.  I was able to access data from France to Japan.  Credit Unions need to require that they are the owners of their data.

Mark:  Let’s shift gears to the ongoing debate about physical locations versus using technology to deliver service.  There are leaders on each end who swear they are right.

Ty:  You always have people who find both appealing.  I love my Kindle reader.  But I also still buy books.  I do not think you will see the branch go away.  I love technology, but, as an industry, we have to remember that we are the farmer’s market of banking, where we are part of the community and put money back into our community.  At our best, we attract people who make a conscious choice to be a member of a credit union because of that community tie, that larger bond.  Technology is a tool to support that.

Mark:  Tell me about how technology best supports the physical branch.

Ty:  We need to streamline the member experience, to make it as frictionless as possible.  We need to look at how we handle our data in support of the human experience.  As many credit unions shift from the teller lines to more personable pods, the technology can be a better support.  We could increase the sophistication of the data systems that tells the customer service representative what is best or what is next for the member.  Think about how we could serve a member better if they came in, wanted to talk to someone about their situation, and the information – not just the data – was readily presented to our representative.  Instead of letting technology limit what we are doing, we need to view technology as how to deliver the end state.  It should be designed from the human standpoint.

Mark:  Some people criticize technology and its limitations.

Ty:  We need to move past our use of jargon and to not use data primarily as a way to reinforce policy and procedure.  Data should support getting to a meaningful conversation faster.  For example, think about the benefit if we can get leverage data to get us to empathy more quickly with our members.

Ty:  Let’s turn the conversation around for a moment.  Let me ask you what challenge do you see in the leadership of technology?

Mark:  We need to agree that technology is an integral part of delivering financial services.  It is not something on the periphery, nor is it about data, nor is it about some piece of equipment down in the basement.  Technology is about information, and it should support nimble decision making by humans that aligns with the credit union’s mission.  Executives do not need to be experts in technology, but they need to be expert in how it can leverage success.  As for technology executives, they can become more influential and more powerful by increasing their skills in communication so that other stakeholder feel listened to as well as becoming a stronger communicator of their ideas.

Mark:  It sounds as though you see technology – at its best – as freeing the human to make the best possible decision, and not as a barrier.

Ty:  Technology, at its essence, is to serve.

Mark:   Say, we have a CEO sitting with us having coffee, and they ask you what the key takeaway is for them and their organization.

Ty:  That the way we always have done it is immaterial. That we need to be open-minded to wonder what the best way is to do it.  There remains a lot of friction in terms of how we serve the member that technology could address.  Technology should support making loans on circumstance rather than just a credit score.  And like anything that can seem imposing, technology can be approached as one idea at a time.  What is one place where you could create the most delightful experience, and how can technology support that experience?  Lastly, I challenge what mindset you have about technology.  Is technology seen as a scapegoat, as a limitation on what you seek to deliver?  Or, do you see technology a leverage to move you forward to your goals with greater success?