How COVID-19 Forced A Shift In Technology Production At United FCU

The Michigan cooperative reworked its production calendar to address pressing member and organizational needs.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • In response to the coronavirus pandemic, United FCU escalated projects relating to online services and pushed back evergreen projects that were easier to reschedule.
  • The digital team works closely with call center staffers to better understand the needs of members.

Duane Wilcoxson, CIO, United FCU

A global pandemic doesn’t stop technology development, but it does cause schedules to change.

At least, that’s true for United Federal Credit Union ($3.2B, Saint Joseph, MI). The coronavirus pandemic has changed how United’s nearly 180,000 members across six states bank with the credit union.  Michigan’s fifth-largest credit union by assets entered the year with a planned development roadmap, but new needs arising from the pandemic required United to reprioritize projects and shift its calendar.

“We shifted a lot of our digital and analytical roadmap to align with COVID,” says Duane Wilcoxson, chief information officer at United FCU. “We had to.”

In this Q&A, Wilcoxson discusses how United’s development cycle has changed since early 2020, the need to escalate certain projects, the pace of development then and now, and more.

Before the pandemic, what did United’s development schedule look like for the year?

Duane Wilcoxson: One of the areas I oversee is digital. Coming into 2020, we front-loaded our digital roadmap to include a number of developments. For example, we planned on rolling out significant changes to online account opening in February because we were introducing a new online mortgage origination system in March. Then the pandemic hit in earnest, and we shuffled things.

How did you shuffle?

DW: Later in the year, we wanted to add the ability to request skip-a-pay online to make it easier for members. That feature became a much bigger deal when unemployment began to grow. Additionally, four times the number of online chats prompted us to escalate the rollout of a chatbot from later in the year to early June. We moved up those projects in our product development cycle and moved back others.

Our online banking provider was going to sunset the use of Internet Explorer on its platform in the first quarter of the year. But when we saw a 20% lift in online banking transactions, including a lift in Internet Explorer usage, we had to say we can’t take that from our members yet. That’ll be a focus later in the year. 

How do you determine what needs to move up or back?

DW: We work closely with our call center staff to understand what they are hearing from people. We are making sure we are responding to members’ needs, which have included more virtual capabilities and self-service.

We’ve improved our analytic capabilities over the past several years, as well, and have developed a data warehouse. Having that tool has helped us prioritize product review — if consumer lending is down, we can spend less time reviewing it — and member behavior, which is important in this new COVID environment.

We didn’t know the scope of the pandemic in March. Now that we’re several months deeper into the year, we can see some of our member behavioral changes. For example, we can see more online interaction with the credit union, especially among members who had not used that channel for 12 months or more.

What is a typical timeline for a new product rollout? Has that changed during the pandemic?

DW: It all depends on the project. 

Our new online mortgage origination system was a vendor solution and took approximately three months. I don’t know if we could have sped that up because we had to take steps with our vendor that we couldn’t control internally. 

As a credit union, responding to member needs is built into our DNA.

Duane Wilcoxson, CTO, United FCU

In-house developers built the online skip-a-pay. We planned for two or three months of development but completed it in about six weeks. We couldn’t wait to introduce that, so we threw additional developmental resources toward it and reprioritized other projects.

Our developers understood we had to do some things faster than our traditional QA-QC cycle. Maybe we would have been more methodical in the past, but there were projects we just had to expedite. 

How many in-house digital developers do you have?

DW: We have four developers and a development manager. They don’t overlap with our analytics department, as is the case with some credit unions. Including a manager, our analytics department is a team of eight.

As the pace of some projects have quickened, how has your development team responded?

DW: As a credit union, responding to member needs is built into our DNA. But, it’s still important to talk to employees about why projects are shifting and why we’re asking them to put in extra hours on something. We asked our developers to do both of these things. They fully understood and were on board.

Also, we haven’t created false goals for our team. They are working hard to deliver something fast that makes sense and has a tangible benefit. 

Additionally, we’ve been encouraging our team to take their vacation days. Even if they can’t travel, we’ve encouraged them to rest and recharge when needed.

Has the pace of development changed since the onset of the pandemic?

DW: Certainly on the technology side. We identified gaps in our service abilities, addressed them, and put solutions into place. I’d say we’re back to normal as far as new development goes. 

Our team showed the ability to quickly pivot and respond to changes, which will always be a valuable skill.

Duane Wilcoxson, CTO, United FCU

There were, however, some projects that just couldn’t happen. We were considering outsourcing data centers to co-managed locations. We had to stop work on that because the vendor was no longer allowed to travel.

And, some projects we put on hold are starting to ramp up. We recently signed on to complete a core and card services conversion, and we’ve already kicked off the core part.

What lessons have you taken from these past several months that you’ll apply in the future?

DW: We want to make sure we’re always responding to the needs of our members and organization. We can dream up a great roadmap, but it needs to align with what the organization is trying to do.

Ultimately, I think our team showed the ability to quickly pivot and respond to changes, which will always be a valuable skill.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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