Martha Heller

Q&A: Empowering agile beyond IT at Fannie Mae

Jul 27, 2022
Digital Transformation

CIO Ramon Richards and his team have matured the mortgage financer’s agile processes and CI/CD practices — extending the agile approach across the organization at large.

Ramon Richards, CIO, Fannie Mae
Credit: Fannie Mae

CIO is the seventh title Ramon Richards has held at Fannie Mae, a leading source of financing for mortgages in the US. The latest promotion came in August 2021 for Richards, who is in his 23rd year with the company.

I recently spoke with Richards to learn about the technology and business transformation under way at Fannie Mae, and to get his perspective on the future of the CIO role. What follows is an edited version of our interview.

Martha Heller: What is Fannie Mae’s digital transformation?

Ramon Richards: Our goal as a company is to deliver mortgage solutions that improve the lives of borrowers and renters. This means transforming our talent, processes, technology environment, and the way we deliver new solutions. Key to the digital transformation has been maturing our use of agile development, expanding agile beyond just software delivery, migrating our technology assets to the cloud, and automating our software pipeline through continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD).

When the pandemic started, unemployment quickly jumped up to around 14.7%. Our goal as a company was to help renters and homeowners keep their homes. So, we quickly deployed a new payment deferral workout solution. By leveraging our mature agile processes, we were able to deliver that capability a lot faster than in the past, and serve a critical need for the country.

Another example is the lender’s ability to use rental payment history as part of the credit risk assessment process through Fannie Mae’s automated underwriting system to determine if a borrower is eligible. This is now an automated process that we are able to deliver quickly because of our data platforms and our CI/CD delivery.

How would you educate a CEO on CI/CD?

I would start with the business outcome and the need for the software to be high quality with no errors once we are in production. I would explain that CI/CD allows our software to pass through automated checkpoints which help determine if the solution is meeting the right controls and cybersecurity requirements. I would add that CI/CD allows us to ensure resiliency and additional non-functional requirements, such as reliability, performance, and maintainability, are incorporated right into the product.

What was critical in your journey to agile development and CI/CD?

Our digital and technology teams were front and center as we talked about how to modernize our technology environment so that we could deliver more for lenders, homeowners, and renters. We talked about the need to invest in a new “one team” structure to better integrate technology with our business functions, and to encourage more collaboration.

We also discussed the importance of empowerment. If we bring a cross-functional group of people together in an agile team with a common goal, and give them ownership of the complete product delivery life cycle, they will be motivated to build the right solution with the right outcome.

Empowerment happens when you move up the agile maturity curve. Once a team that is working together on a common goal with a regular cadence of feature delivery gets a few wins, then the team trusts the process, and management trusts the teams. That’s when you get empowerment.

“Testing and learning” has also been an important concept for us. We cannot know that every idea will be the right one, so we are now structured to do the right proofs of concept with the right pilots and feedback loops.

How do you measure the success of the agile teams?

When we had finalized our target-state CI/CD software pipeline we set quarterly and annual objectives for the rate of new releases across all of our agile teams.

This allowed us to see which phases of the development process were slowing us down, so that we could identify conflicts and road blocks. When we removed those road blocks and started to pick up the pace, we tightened our next quarterly goal.

How have you kept the business engaged through the digital transformation?

This digital transformation, which is to offer innovative solutions to solve America’s biggest housing challenges, is a business transformation. This is not technology “doing something” to the business.

It all comes down to the “one team” model. The product leaders come from the business and lead cross-functional teams, so they are engaged. Our business partners are on our steering committees and help work through our progress and challenges, so they are engaged.

For most of the projects that fall under the transformation umbrella, our business leaders are at the table from an oversight perspective. So, the product leader is on the ground executing, with business leadership providing oversight on how we are tracking against our goals, what obstacles we are facing, and what trade-off decisions we need to make. And ultimately, we report on our progress to our management committee, as well as our board.

How is the CIO role evolving?

Today, my responsibilities include Fannie Mae’s technology assets, cybersecurity, our enterprise data assets, and implementation of our digital solutions.

I am also on Fannie Mae’s management committee, which reflects the vital importance of data security to our business, as well as the importance of digital transformation to the future of our business.

The CIO role will evolve to play an even greater part in developing an agile mindset and environment. For a long time, agile has been about changing the way product and technology delivery teams operate. But when we start to look at where our processes slow down and where there are opportunities for efficiency, it comes back to expanding our agile way of operating and thinking across the enterprise. The CIO role is critical to the development of an agile corporate culture.

The CIO also plays an important role in ensuring that our cybersecurity priorities are understood and accepted by our business partners. This means the CIO of the future will spend even more time on education and risk management than today.

What is forward thinking today is legacy tomorrow, so the CIO has to engage in continuous education, innovation, and building a team that brings new ideas to the table.

Martha Heller

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.

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