Inside Ally Financial’s technology strategy

Already digital banks are disrupting the financial services model, building responsive offerings readily available through apps. It’s a threat to traditional banking, but digital banks are also subject to fintech challengers. Nimbleness is required. 

In the next three to five years, digital capabilities will “stop being exotic,” according to a 2020 PwC report on financial services technology

Financial services organizations have the same burden as other IT-heavy companies; legacy technology stacks grew through acquisitions. Introducing more technical flexibility allows organizations to prioritize digital in an environment where change is constant, according to PwC. 

Sathish Muthukrishnan, chief information, data and digital officer at Ally Financial

Though a digital company, Ally Financial had legacy technology in its stack. Before Sathish Muthukrishnan, chief information, data and digital officer of Ally Financial, joined the company, the company migrated off its mainframe to a modern architecture. 

There were more than 300 interfaces across Ally and 72 systems that had to be addressed, Muthukrishnan told CIO Dive. It had around 100,000 test cases, all of which required testing when the company wanted to make a change. 

Now the company has a modern platform that is easily configurable and allows for quick product iteration. The infrastructure and network teams are critical for resilience, driving continuous development and assisting with speed.

That way, technology can focus on building customer-facing applications without having to focus on underlying infrastructure, Muthukrishnan said. 

In response to COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, Ally was able to within two days launch an application to allow customers to apply for forbearance. Once a customer enrolled, it automatically connected to all the backend financial systems. It was all done in a weekend, Muthukrishnan said. That is the level of nimbleness mainframe modernization enables. 

It’s also the level of nimbleness banking customers have come to expect and need in an uncertain economic landscape. 

The digital demand

Most recently chief digital and information officer at Honeywell Aerospace and a former American Express executive, Muthukrishnan joined Ally in January to lead the company’s technology, data and digital transformation teams. It’s a role that requires balancing long-term strategy attention and quick wins. 

Reporting to CEO Jeffrey Brown, Muthukrishnan’s responsibilities bring together the data and digital organization, along with digital transformation and traditional technology delivery (including the security organization). 

In many cases, IT is more often run like a utility rather than a “strategic” part of the businesses, Robert Naegle, research vice president at Gartner told CIO Dive. It’s up to CIOs to understand the needs of the business and tailor response to underlying needs. 

It’s “not just enabling technology,” but business outcomes, Naegle said. 

If you look across the financial organization, design and security are often separated from tech, Muthukrishnan said. His role creates end-to-end technology visibility. The long-term strategy of the company provides a charter and roadmap for personal learning, so he can apply past experience, he said. 

The challenge is, how can you build tech advancement that creates products and services across the financial life cycle with speed and efficiency, Muthukrishnan said. Ally has to accelerate its strategy, and be “four or five steps ahead” by anticipating the demands of internal and external customers. 

The speed of execution is a priority, particularly as the economy changes, competitors spring up and the pandemic disrupts business plans. 

COVID-19 “forced a reprioritization of work,” centered around business outcomes, Naegle said. It decelerated technology’s more speculative transformation activities. 

Ally needs to operate at a speed it hasn’t before, Muthukrishnan said. It requires bite-size chunks of innovation, offering modifications or enhancements in closed loops. With small iterations, there is less risk and businesses start to see return. 

APIs becomes critical for enabling speed and time to market. Ally is focusing on searchable APIs so it has a centralized repository and minimize relearning. The goal is not to relearn something people have already figured out at Ally, Muthukrishnan said. 

Muthukrishnan has established pillars for technology operations: 

  • Building an always on, digital organization: Digital and data capabilities are Ally’s key assets, which the financial services company needs to protect internally and externally. 

  • Separating platforms from products and services: For example, Ally can build an end-to-end data platform and wait for use cases to go to market. 

  • Simple customer experience

  • Collect data and insights to understand performance, and ensure product and platform security.

  • Execute, by driving infrastructure and cloud for scale. This includes adoption of DevSecOps, agile, bot technology and automation. 

  • Enable technology through talent and culture. 

In the near-term, the technology organization is focused on creating a centralized data platform underpinned by open source technology, which can democratize analytics.