Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Discover CIO Amir Arooni on shifting to product-based IT delivery

Sep 01, 2022
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

The financial services IT chief is giving the digital bank a competitive edge by empowering IT with a product-based mindset and a commitment to ‘extreme automation.’

Amir Arooni, executive vice president and CIO, Discover Financial Services
Credit: Discover Financial Services

Amir Arooni, executive vice president and CIO at Discover Financial Services, is a visionary IT leader with a passion for both the business and the human sides of technology. He’s also one of the best capital-D Differentiators I’ve ever met. He’s a strong believer in the importance of empowering people to do great work and developing them to be the kind of innovative anticipators who will continually deliver greater and more differentiated value for customers.

When we spoke recently for an episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, he generously opened up his leadership playbook and discussed how he differentiates through a combination of process agility, technology, and talented people. After the show, we spent some time going deeper on Discover’s Runway initiative, which is helping the digital bank stay ahead on the technology and innovation front by shifting from a project-based mindset to a product-driven structure rooted in the agile way of working. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: What was the impetus behind launching the Runway initiative?

Amir Arooni: If you look at the financial industry, you’ll see a lot of companies are providing the same products and the same level of services. The major question to us is, How can we differentiate? If you compare it with flying, everyone is flying at 40,000 feet, which is good. But what if we can fly at 80,000 feet? We will have a much better overview about what’s happening around us, and we will have much more opportunity to differentiate ourselves for our customers and continue to add much more to our stakeholders. The whole Runway initiative, those five work streams, are built to move from 40,000 to 80,000 feet.

Can you give us a high-level overview of each of those five work streams?

If you go through a big transformational change, you need to be sure that your availability and security are at the highest level and that you do not bring any risks in regard to availability and security to the company. That’s why we started with the work stream reliability — to increase the availability and security level in everything we do.

Number two, we have a lot of manual activities at Discover — business processes but also manual IT activities — and we thought, what if we shift from manual activities to automation? We call it extreme automation, and our strategy was actually very simple: Every manual activity at Discover needs to be analyzed, simplified, and either automated or eliminated. Our approach is unique in that we have created a well-defined hierarchy of repeatable automation patterns that can then be easily composed into higher order automations. The result is a self-service catalog where we have brought automation to the masses.

Number three is what I call engineering workforce — upskilling our workforce and changing the recruitment strategy. We wanted to have a higher level of skills within our team. I’m talking about a competent, proficient, and expert level of employees. That is our strategy for recruitment, and within Discover itself, we provide all kinds of learning journeys for different jobs so people can learn from experts how they can do their job better.

Number four is shifting the operating model from a project-oriented organization into a product-oriented organization and creating persistent teams who are responsible for the whole lifecycle of the product. That is a very important shift, and it’s not just to the technology function but in the operating model of the company, because you’re organizing your value streams around the products and not the project anymore. Instead of having project managers in your organization, you have product owners who are taking end-to-end ownership of their products.

And number five is the employee experience. If you do all these things, you need to be sure that your own employees, your own engineers, your own technologies, but also your own call center agents have a great experience at work, and that needs simplification of some of the processes and adjustment of some of the interactions and interfaces we have with our employees and our engineers.

So those five areas are shaping us to move from 40,000 to 80,000 feet.

What’s the impact of getting to 80,000 feet? What are you able to see differently?

If you have a much better overview about what’s going on in the market, you can be faster — that is a very important element — but also more productive. Less people delivering more results and value is the aim of our Runway strategy.

Let me just give some examples which make the case for the change. Before, we were able to deliver new initiatives, but it took us a long period of time and a lot of effort. In some areas, we would have three releases of functionality a year. Nowadays, we have one every month, which is significant, and if you ask me, our ambition is to get to any-moment deployments: You have an idea, you’re done, you can go in production.

That is easy said and very difficult done in an environment in which you have a lot of legacy systems and complexity. It’s not always simplified and modernized. So that ability is huge.

Number two, think about all the kinds of controls you have in your organization and your technology function. All of those controls are manual controls you do many, many times. You need to provide proof that those controls are working. But if we automate those controls, we can get a significant amount of time back to do something else to deliver new functionalities for our customers.

Third, with speed and market focus you start to achieve escape velocity, namely the space in our sprints where we innovate, learn, and improve. At Discover everyone innovates and continuously improves — our Runway strategy gives us the space to do exactly that.

So, the important value of what we do for our customer and for our market is the speed we’ll bring to the organization and the delivery of more with less. That is something which shapes your organization to a different model and provides us with a competitive advantage.

These 5 pillars complement each other brilliantly. But making that shift to product-based IT is a big change that requires people to move outside their comfort zones. How did you get people to buy in?

It’s a great question, and it’s the foundation of our journey. When we started with Runway and this transformation, we knew some important elements. One is that everyone wants to take ownership of and accountability of what he or she is doing, but somehow, because of the daily work and the way it’s organized, people are not able to.

But what if we bring ownership and accountability to a team and say, ‘This product is yours. It’s not a project with a beginning and an end; it is something you own and you develop and you maintain.’ Just that element — resolving the end-to-end ownership — was one of the issues, because at Discover, like any other corporate environment, our technology function was very siloed. Many solutions for the same problem. Many tools for the same use.

So when the question was, ‘How are you going to shape it,’ they said, ‘Let’s just move from the project environment to product environment.’ This team will take ownership, and they are going to take care of that product. They are going to make sure that everything on the product is used. And that’s shaped a lot of support in the organization. At the earliest stage, we had some significant results, and what we did was create a ‘go and see’ environment, so people could see what this new way of working means and what it can deliver. We got positive energy and reaction and went from 14 to 64 to 128 and now 750 teams who are working in this way.

How has this shift affected the way the business views the technology organization?

The interaction model with the business was another element. Technology people were just order takers. The business told them what they needed to do and they did it. This [shift to product-based IT] brought thought leadership to our environment. We shifted from taking an order to being a thought leader and asking the business what needs to be done, and we as a team will make sure that the best solution is there and that we are involved from day one to develop and maintain that solution.

You mentioned that extreme automation also entails eliminating unnecessary processes. But the strategy isn’t about cutting headcount, right?

Absolutely not. None of these initiatives are based on ordinary cost savings. It is about how you apply your talent to the most important initiatives you have. Consider the market today. We have a shortage of talent in technology functions. You want to deploy your talented people to work that makes a big difference so they can see their contribution and they can see the purpose and they can see that they have impact. That’s why those repeatable tasks you do every day, if you automate those things, you have time to do something else.

And that is our strategy. It’s to do more and to deliver faster by automating those activities which are just routine and can be automated, and you can use your brain and your talent to deliver new functionalities, innovate, and take advantage in the market. That is our drive. It’s nothing to do with cost savings. But if you focus on productivity and increase the skills and shift to different ways of working, your cost goes automatically down without having any attention to that.

Tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast for more insights from Arooni’s leadership playbook and his journey from political refugee to CIO of a Fortune 300 global powerhouse.

Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the Tech Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."