IT and engineering under one leader drives an exceptional customer experience

Sheri Rhodes, CIO and CTO of Western Union, discusses innovation, talent development, and cultural change at the $5.5 billion global money transfer company.

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Western Union
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Western Union processes an average of 32 transactions every second and moves $300 billion around the globe every year across 200 countries and 130 currencies. In addition to hosting an extremely high transaction global platform, the $5.5 billion company runs more than 550,000 retail locations, which is more than Starbucks and McDonalds combined.

Driving transformation of this kind of scale could be daunting, but according to Sheri Rhodes, who is both CIO and CTO of Western Union, it is all about developing the right talent and focusing them on the customer.

Can you describe your role as CIO and CTO of Western Union?

Regardless of whether I am wearing a CIO or CTO hat, I am responsible for leading the fintech agenda, which has a key emphasis on driving customer engagement with our digital channels. Technology has always been a differentiator for the company, and we’re unique in our ability to connect the digital and physical worlds of money. We move billions of dollars across our platform, which includes our technology stack, APIs, foreign exchange and settlement engine, agent network, anti-money laundering and fraud detection capabilities, and of course our growing digital footprint. Our digital business is growing 22 percent per quarter, and 70 percent of our digital transactions now originate on mobile devices.

As CIO, I am accountable for IT, which includes corporate applications like ERP and finance systems, as well as customer support systems, HR, and all of those commercial off-the-shelf products. Corporate IT also includes DevOps and infrastructure.

My CTO role is focused on our intellectual property and the services we offer to our customers. As CTO, I manage the engineering teams who are developing the mobile experience and other solutions to ensure the seamless transfer of money across borders. The combination of corporate IT and solution engineering is critical to driving an exceptional end-to-end customer journey.

How do you structure the organization to allow you to wear both hats?

My senior leadership team consists of three engineering heads — digital, core money transfer, and B2B solutions — as well as heads of infrastructure, corporate operations, security, and architecture. Through this leadership team, I am able to structure and lead across corporate IT and engineering.

What does “digital transformation” mean to Western Union?

Digital is all about how we reach the customer. As a company, Western Union is in the middle of a transformational moment. Traditionally, we have been known as a cash business; our goal now is to digitize the customer experience wherever we can. Customers who want to send cash still need to come into a retail location, but we are allowing them to do much of the pre-work online, so their experience in the store is fast and efficient.

We measure the success of our digital transformation by tracking the channels our customers choose to use: web, phone, or an agent location. Our transition to digital is all about giving the customer convenience, simplicity, and options.

What are some specific examples of digital innovation that you and your team are developing?

I already mentioned our mobile app, which allows customers to initiate a transfer before going into an agent location. We are also investing in some artificial intelligence solutions. We have an extensive predictive modeling program to prevent against fraud. Security is always top of mind, so we are continuously evaluating technologies that can better protect our customers.

We are also piloting facial recognition tools that will allow a repeat customer to identify herself through facial recognition on her phone. For blockchain, we have established a cross-functional working group where people from treasury, finance, the business lines, and technology work together to explore how we can use blockchain effectively in our environment.  

What are you doing organizationally to drive that kind of innovation?

Last year, I opened up an innovation center in Pune, India. We went from zero people to 800 with plans to grow to 1,000, all of them full-time employees. We established the site from scratch. We built the building and designed a big open floor plan with lots of areas for collaboration and thinking. Bringing that innovation center to life from nothing has been a huge effort and it has been game-changing.

The engineering talent from the local market is amazing. They all want to be new and different, and they are bringing in new ideas. Because we started the innovation center from infancy, we’ve been able to establish approaches such as failing fast and agile development right from the beginning.

What advice can you offer for setting up an offshore innovation center?

Executive sponsorship is probably the most important part of setting up the center. I was the executive sponsor, since most of people in the center are from corporate IT or engineering. But our business partners have people there, too, ensuring that we have a good number of strong product and scrum leaders. Westerns Union’s entire executive committee came to Pune for our grand opening. That kind of presence and support really motivates the team.

Also, be disciplined in your talent acquisition. Really know what skills you are looking for and the kind of numbers you need. Make sure the innovation center leadership team is strong and committed. 

Customer centricity involves a new mindset across the company. How are you cultivating that new mindset?

Most people are used to thinking in parts — their own function or business line or department. To create an end-to-end view of the customer experience, we have a chief customer officer. That executive makes sure that everything we are doing comes together for the customer. And we use customer experience improvement metrics to evaluate ourselves as an executive committee. Also, we have named our cultural shift the “WU Way,” which is all about putting the customer first and being fast and nimble. We are embedding that mindset at all levels with templates and tools to drive new behaviors.

Our digital transformation is all about our people. My focus is on finding new ways to acquire, develop, and reward great talent. While I may be accountable for technology, my job is really to groom our talent and allow them to flourish in our environment.

About Sheri Rhodes

Sheri Rhodes is executive vice president and CTO/CIO with Western Union. As CTO, Rhodes defines and leads Western Union’s technology vision and digital transformation, directing strategy and technology investments in the company’s global money movement and payments platform, as well as oversees the company’s engineering, fintech, technology infrastructure, and development resources. Prior to joining Western Union, Rhodes served as CIO at EFI. Rhodes holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and an MBA from San Diego State University.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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