Innovation at scale requires a confluence of people, processes and technology, each of which can present a challenge. Tech talent remains hard to source, system rigidity can impede creativity and tools of the developer’s trade are constantly evolving.
Discover Financial Services committed to tackling these challenges through broad digital transformation almost four years ago, an effort dubbed “Project Runway” by the company’s former EVP and CIO Amir Arooni.
Technology was closely tied to business goals, Angel Diaz, VP of technology capabilities and innovation at Discover, told CIO Dive.
“We’re obsessed with helping our customers manage money and that permeates through our entire culture,” said Diaz. “What that means is we need to continue to get better every day and focus on becoming more digital. It means we need technology teams that support that process and technology platforms that support those technology teams.”
As part of the initiative, Arooni, who was succeeded upon his retirement last summer by Jason Strle, established an in-house tech academy and brought open source into Discover’s coding lexicon.
Prioritizing the tech academy and bolstering Discover’s distinguished engineer advancement program have been keys to building an innovation culture.
Open source, like cloud, automation and emerging generative AI capabilities, represents another digital toolbox Discover is using to accelerate digital transformation.
“If you look at this democratization of technologies, it's occurred through code, community, culture and people working together and getting consensus at scale from diverse points of view and use cases,” Diaz said.
The company expanded its active commitment to the collaborative coding practice early last year, joining the Linux Foundation and the Fintech Open Source Foundation, known as FINOS, in February and concurrently launching an open-source developer website.
As the year ended, the company tapped Michael Rhodes, previously head of Canadian personal banking at TD Bank Group, to serve as CEO and president in December.
Building on a theme
The shift to open source has already sped up the development process within Discover’s homegrown innovation lab.
The company’s inaugural open-source project, the Theme Builder accessibility tool, went from concept to pilot in just five months, according to Lise Noble, distinguished engineer of UI/UX at Discover. The tool helps developers more easily build user experience features into Discover technology solutions.
“Right now, we're identifying areas where we can absorb Theme Builder into the way we build customer-facing technologies,” said Noble.
The goal with Theme Builder is to ease the end-to-end CX interface building process, from design and development all the way up to deployment, using a modular toolkit that adapts with changing needs.
“Building user experiences gets more and more complicated as we add wearables and tablets to mobile and desktop and we have late modes and dark modes — accessibility becomes a moving target,” Noble said.
Noble likened the solution to building with Lego bricks. Developers start with small design features like fonts and icons, create parts of the tool, and then construct templates that become experiences that can adapt to user needs.
The tool is designed for multiple applications and potential use cases.
“We already have a couple of products coming out of our innovation accelerator lab that use Theme Builder technology,” Noble said. “And we have an ideation app where you can submit an idea and then follow it through its progression, getting other people involved, getting sponsors and applying for patents.”
An open culture of innovation
Discover adopted open source to provide its engineers with tools to accelerate product innovation. But the shift also aims to support employees.
Fostering engagement and project enthusiasm among engineers and developers is key to retaining talent and sustaining innovation. Discover’s success in these areas garnered industry recognition in November, when Foundry’s Computerworld put the company on its list of best enterprise IT shops for the 20th consecutive years.
Discover also elevated 22-year engineering veteran and open-source innovator Keith Nielsen to distinguished engineer, a director-level leadership position, in November. “We are living in a world where the pace of technology and business innovation has been fueled by open-source communities,” Diaz said in the announcement, pointing to Nielsen’s success leveraging open-source capabilities.
From a management perspective, open source not only drives process and design innovations, it also speeds up time to delivery for products like Theme Builder.
“If you're a product owner working with customer journey features, we have standard ways of how we do that defined by the community,” Diaz said. “If you're an engineer who's writing code, we have standard ways of how we do that, too.”
As open-source methodology works its way through Discover’s tech academy, it’s creating a more nimble innovation culture, as well.
“Our engineers can move from team to team and the onboarding time goes from a month to a day,” Diaz said.
The shift had an internal logic, according to Diaz, as most of the code used in software development originates in the open-source community.
“Even if you buy your software, it has open source inside,” said Diaz. “Participating actively in the open source community helps us as a consumer and it also helps us to shape the evolution of those technologies.”