A “strike team” approach to automating bank processes may be more involved than partnering with a technology vendor, but it can deliver faster results, provide more control and pay dividends down the road as the team grows together.
So says Brett Cooksey, chief information officer at $1.67 billion Sunrise Banks, a community bank in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., area that serves more than a dozen fintech partners through a national charter. The bank’s national business includes providing financial services for prepaid card, employee loan and credit builder loan companies.
Sunrise in February decided to put together its own in-house team to automate ACH transfer originations. The team comprises two software developers, a business analyst, a scrum master, an architect to create a process blueprint and a quality assurance (QA) automation engineer.
The alternative, Cooksey told Bank Automation News, was to “sign up with an independent software vendor that’s either selling a shrink-wrapped product or [providing] technology that we invariably end up paying for month over month ― and not really controlling.”
Instead, Cooksey drew from his own experience. “I’ve always built technology teams and then built the technology that best aligns and represents your business process ― that’s the value of building the technology yourself,” he said.
“There’s no right answer,” Cooksey said, adding that whichever route a bank takes to automate processes will have positives and negatives.
For Sunrise Banks, building an in-house automation team meant more than just owning the project.
“We don’t want to be [customer relationship management] specialists or build our own Salesforce; that doesn’t make any sense,” Cooksey said. “But something as foundational as ACH file processing, it makes sense for us to actually build and own that, simply because our operational teams are heavily engaged in that process.
“To try and find [an off-the-shelf] solution that’s going to match what we have today and our process is difficult, so building it yourself is a faster way to get there, in my experience,” he said.
The Sunrise automation team expects to deliver its ACH originations solution by the end of the year. The team ― which operates under an Agile, or iterative, development methodology ― has been working together so its members are learning “all the time,” Cooksey told BAN.
In the beginning, the team had to synch up its vocabulary and understanding as members met and set their goals for each “sprint,” or two-week working period.
Sometimes the team may overreach and come up short of expectations, Cooksey said, perhaps because of unforeseen obstacles or processes that weren’t fully understood. In turn, the team adjusts and learns from the experience.
Cooksey recalled an instance when the team first approached ACH file validation and discovered there was a 500-page process manual involved, which seemed like it would slow the automation project down egregiously.
“And then we said, ‘Hold on, there’s [ACH Network administration and governing organization] Nacha, the actual industry standard, and they have a library,'” Cooksey said. “In one [two-week] sprint, we figured out that we could use their open-source library that’s available to the industry, and that gave us our turnaround.”
Cooksey said communicating expectations and understanding what’s to be done is critical for the team and stakeholders involved. Each day, the team has a 15-minute “standup” meeting where the members assess the previous day’s work, current tasks and any roadblocks.
“That helps really keep the team moving,” he said.
The Sunrise team, which has become more efficient along the way, will address a new process to automate in November. Cooksey noted he already has “a laundry list of things that I believe could be valuable.”
“That’s a conversation we’ll have with the business to say, ‘OK, we’ve got this capacity of six people who can build technology now. What’s the next most valuable tool or function or capability we need as an organization that we can set them loose on?'”
Next up might be more work automating ACH capabilities, “because there’s not just origination, there’s returns and there are other functions,” Cooksey added.
“Or they could say, ‘You know what? Here’s another area in reconciliation where we’re receiving lots of information from many different sources that we need to weave together, and today it’s a lot of manual work,'” Cooksey said. “That could be another valuable target.”
“It really puts the driving, if you will, of that capacity and value in the business’ hands,” he said.