Words such as ‘crafts’, ‘guilds’ and ‘novices’ are what you might expect to hear spoken by an elite tailor working on Savile Row in London or a Swiss watchmaker working on luxury watches in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Amir Arooni is neither, but tell him about his worldview and he soon begins to sprinkle the conversation with those terms.
As CIO of Discover Financial Services, Arooni, 56, leads a team of 7,500 technologists at the digital banking and payments company, whose products and services include the Discover credit card, Diners Club International, personal loans, student loans and mortgages. Since joining the Riverwoods, Ill., Based company with a market cap of $ 29 billion in April 2020, he has made it his mission to promote what he calls “the craft of engineering”.
According to Arooni, the software industry has far too many managers, coordinators and team leaders who do not have a deep enough understanding of software. This is part of the reason why many IT projects still fall short of their cost and delivery targets. It also reinforces the idea that developers are like workers on a production line that produces code, rather than creative problem solvers who can help companies innovate.
“Suppose you have a doctor who hasn’t studied medicine,” Arooni says, making his point. “You’re not going to allow them to touch your body. Yet we have a lot of people who don’t understand a thing about technology, but they are on the cutting edge of technology.
His solution? To get people to see technology as a profession and to focus on improving themselves day in and day out. This belief underpins a strategic push, dubbed Runway, that Arooni launched at Discover.
It is based on three key pillars, the first of which focuses on building the skills of tech workers. The Discover Technology Academy is the cornerstone of Arooni’s development plans. A now virtual hub for training and learning, the academy organizes courses led by internal and external experts. Last year, it organized 42 learning sessions, attracting a total of 14,000 participants. Discover’s technical leader is also developing “learning paths” for the engineering workforce that create clearer pathways for advancement. Once the pandemic subsides, the plan is to host hackathons and in-person bootcamps again.
Investing more in training doesn’t make sense if developers are still spending too much time on basic tasks like testing code. Arooni therefore wants the software to manage them. “For years, we as tech people have automated the work of others,” he says. “Today we have an obligation to automate our own work.”
Hence the second pillar of Runway: a push to use software to automate areas like testing and code deployment. To prepare people for change, Arooni relies on what he calls “guilds” – small groups of software engineers who have already carried out automation projects and can educate others. employees on the “DevOps” automation tools and the necessary state of mind and behavior changes. Like all experts in a trade, they are expected to volunteer their time to help train others.
For years, we, as technology specialists, have automated the work of others. Today we have an obligation to automate our own work.
The final pillar of the plan is to change the way the technical team at Discover works. He began to move away from a traditional approach based on groups of software engineers meeting for specific projects, then dispersing to join various others. Instead, Arooni wants to create many small, tight-knit teams that stay together for long periods of time to create and evolve “products,” which can be specific apps, platforms, or other items. This should deepen the expertise of each group, with the learnings being shared with others through the academy so that efforts are not duplicated. A pilot project involving one of the company’s mobile apps showed an increase in productivity of almost a third without an increase in headcount.
Track and economic turmoil
Runway took place against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit Discover’s business hard as Arooni joined him after his previous position as CIO of NN Group, a Dutch insurance company, banking and asset management. In the second quarter of 2020, Discover reported a net loss of $ 368 million, increasing reserves against potential loan losses by $ 1.3 billion. In the same quarter of the previous year, it had made a net profit of $ 753 million.
The outlook has improved since then. Sales growth accelerated in the fall, and Discover reported fourth-quarter net income of $ 799 million, an increase of nearly 13% year-over-year. Announcing the results, Roger Hochschild, CEO of Discover, said he had cut planned spending by $ 400 million in 2020, but continued to invest in analytics, automation and core technology capabilities.
This includes bringing more technical work in-house. Arooni inherited an organization in which 70% of the workforce was made up of external contractors. Its goal is to halve that percentage by the end of 2022. Given that the software is now so strategic, it makes sense to create more of it with in-house teams that have been trained in engineering.
Arooni says he’s grateful for the support Hochschild and the rest of Discover’s management team have shown. Yet getting to the start of a pandemic was a huge challenge. The day after he arrived, he began working on plans to move all of Discover’s 18,000 employees to remote work within weeks. The health crisis, however, created a new sense of urgency within Discover and highlighted the willingness of its employees to engage in new ways of working. This is crucial, because no matter how good technologists are at their craft, they don’t work in a vacuum. “The journey we are taking is not a technological journey,” notes Arooni. “It’s a company-wide business.”