How To Move At The Speed Of Technology

Four years ago, Michigan State University Federal Credit Union adopted the Agile Method for its IT project management. See why the new model helps the credit union move faster.


Data as of 12.31.18

HQ: East Lansing, MI
MEMBERS: 269,344
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 11.8%
ROA: 1.13%

IT is a fast-paced field, but Michigan State University Federal Credit Union ($4.2B, East Lansing, MI) keeps up with the constant change.

Rather than partner with turnkey providers, the MSU-affiliated credit union custom develops services for its digital channels including its website, online banking, and mobile banking in-house. It also develops projects, such as a prepaid debit card and an internal intranet, for outside its digital channels.

Having that level of control is exciting, says Samantha Amburgey, MSUFCU’s chief information officer. You can create something from start to finish. You can design it how you want. It’s a full software development lifecycle.

Samantha Amburgey, Chief Information Officer, MSUFCU

That ability to develop certain technological products and services internally brings with it the need for a different approach to project management. How does the credit union prioritize project requests? How does it incorporate feedback? With all that is tasked to IT, how does it make sure it gets things done?

Four years ago, the credit union adopted the Agile Method of project management. The approach prioritizes incremental, iterative work known as sprints to complete projects.

In this Q&A, Amburgey discusses the Agile Method, building versus buying, compromises, and more.

What are the benefits to building some technology services versus buying?

Samantha Amburgey: Control, for one, and customization. Also speed. You can provide a vendor all the feedback in the world, but if it doesn’t have time to make changes or it doesn’t put those changes in its roadmap, it might take years for it to get to your feedback.

But if you custom-make your items, you choose what gets done, the order in which it gets done, and the speed at which it gets done. There’s a significant advantage in doing that.

What are the challenges to building?

SA: We don’t make everything. There are certain services and programs we buy because they don’t give us an advantage if we were to build them from scratch.

There’s a lot of work involved with building, and it can require a lot of IT staff depending on how much you want to build or the items you are creating.

You also need to consider the controls and maintenance you need to make a good product. It’s pretty easy to make something new and shiny, but you have to keep refreshing it, you have to think about product lifecycles. With Agile, we are constantly refreshing products and services. We’re looking at what we’ve built every month or every week, even. We want to know what else is out there and what else we can add.

What is the Agile Method? How does it help you?

SA: Agile is a methodology it’s an iterative work process. You can adapt it as a way of doing more than just technology work, however, it works particularly well for software development.

Agile helps us focus on project management and work toward our goals. It forces us to ask: How can we launch things faster? How can we incorporate everyone’s feedback? How can we prioritize what we are tasked with? How do we get buy-in from all the folks involved?

You introduced Agile four years ago. Why?

SA: The digital landscape is changing, and we needed to change with it. We wanted to organize work into smaller portions so we could get things done faster and introduce a minimum viable product earlier. We wanted to organize our teams to work on projects in a faster cycle, broken down into small portions that are accomplishable, actionable, and digestible for all the individuals who work on them.

In a typical project, you end up thinking big picture, to the point where sometimes you can be overwhelmed. But if you take that big concept and break it down into small portions, you can organize your work in such a way that allows you to prototype and work in an iterative process to create a better product at the end faster than you might otherwise.

To be successful at Agile, you need to be agile.

Samantha Amburgey, Chief Information Officer, MSUFCU

What role does Agile play within your IT department?

SA: Because we do custom programming for our digital channels, it was natural for us to adopt Agile to prototype faster. Agile speeds up the process and allows you to incorporate feedback before you’ve completed the whole thing. In traditional IT work, you gather all your requirements in the beginning and then create your project in a vacuum. By the time you deliver it, quite a bit of time has passed. In some cases, you possibly have an out-of-date product that is no longer relevant to the individuals you’ve made it for.

In today’s world, you can’t wait that long. You have to determine what the minimum viable product is that will be usable and provide value. You can continue to work on it to add features and create a more robust product. Get the important stuff out there, let people interact with it, receive feedback, and iterate from there.

What degree of internal buy-in do you need for this to take root?

SA: When you roll out a project, you need everyone to understand you’re starting with something small and growing it. For some that’s a mind shift they have to work around. Some say, I want this cool thing with all these features. It’s going to be amazing. We have to say, Great. Let’s start with this one little piece. That can be difficult for some.

So, Agile requires compromise?

SA: Yes, we each get what we want. But, honestly, the winning part is the speed.

Most people in a project think they know what they want at first, but once they start to interact with it, ideas change. Agile allows us to be flexible and adaptable. When we produce something, we’re able to test it right away and what we thought we wanted isn’t necessarily what we want. So, we’re able to say, let’s change this or let’s prioritize that. That’s how humans work.

Plus, you’re able to cut down on waste.

SA: We’re not committed to so much code we’ve written that becomes no longer desirable. That’s a big advantage because we don’t want to waste time. When you’re working with any sort of technology product, you don’t want to waste money, time, or talent. And that’s the case when you have people focused in the wrong areas.

What products have you created using this methodology?

SA: Last year we launched an online membership and loan application system. We had a digital membership application we’d previously created in-house, but it didn’t include an LOS so we were missing out on brand-new loan requests from new members.

It was an iterative process, but it took us five months to roll out the new system in beta and another month after that to roll out to members in time for MSU new student orientation in August. We built on the concepts we’d used in the previous digital membership application, but we struggled with abandonment rates. So, we rearranged the system, made it feel a bit faster, and gave it more of a retail-like experience.

Now that it’s live, we’ve considered what other features to add because we can plug in additional items and keep it going. We’re adding youth account applications and additional loan products everything but mortgage.

What are some best practices for adopting Agile?

SA: It does take a significant amount of communication. You’re asking individuals to think differently and work differently. You have to be open and accommodating to that concept and help them see value in it.

Your employees are used to some consistency in what they do every day, and you’re asking them to change that. So, be considerate and help them by taking their feedback and adapting to their needs at the speed at which you want to move. To be successful at Agile, you need to be agile.

This article appeared originally in Credit Union Strategy & Performance. Read More Today.

Wait, There’s More!

This is just one section of the Anatomy Of Michigan State University Federal Credit Union series that appears in Credit Union Strategy & Performance. Read the whole discussion today.


August 12, 2019

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