Digital transformation begins with audacious goals

Best practices learned from a four-year journey of disruptive change

Digital transformation, or the process of integrating technology into all areas of a business to fundamentally change how it operates and improve the customer experience, isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a cornerstone of innovation. But how can companies best apply digital transformation practices to truly transform from a traditional organization into a digital enterprise?

Being handed the technology keys to such a large and complex organization, counting nearly 50,000 employees worldwide, was both a privilege and a huge challenge. We’re in the midst of a once-in-a-generation technological transformation to become an entirely innovation-driven digital company that serves an increasingly mobile customer.

So, what have we learned from our own digital transformation process and where do we go next? (You don’t transform into a digital enterprise once and then you’re done; it’s an ever-evolving, iterative process.) And, most importantly, what can our learnings teach other businesses, large and small, implementing their own digital transformations?

Best Practice #1: Infuse Tech Into Your Mission

Not many people think of banks as tech innovators — after all, ATMs haven’t improved much in 30 years and we still use paper checks. The reason I joined Capital One in the first place was that we don’t just use the latest technologies, we create them and infuse them into everything we do. We think of ourselves as a customer-centric tech company that provides innovative financial services, not the other way around.

When you set a goal of digital transformation, the first step is to throw out the notion that technology can save your company. The only thing that can truly transform your company is to foster an innovative, inclusive culture that puts customers first. Then, you can make technology a core part of this vision, integrating digital practices into your operations in a way that delivers value to your customers. Start your digital transformation by asking this critical question: Which technologies will improve the customer experience?

For Capital One, our vision is to create the bank of the future that helps people lead simpler, more fulfilling, and more rewarding lives. Every technology we deploy — from AI and machine learning to the public cloud — is designed to better serve our customers. For example, we’re applying machine learning to almost every facet of our business, including call center operations, back-office processes, fraud, cybersecurity, credit monitoring, and more. Machine learning improves the customer service process, mining billions of data points to make interactions more intelligent , relevant , and productive. Eno, our intelligent assistant, helps customers manage their accounts and protect their money. Eno alerts you to suspicious charges, sends bill pay reminders and is even there for you at checkout online, to make shopping safer and easier. For every technology we create, we do so with a laser-like focus on our customers.

One of the ways Capital One leaned into its vision was to achieve company-wide buy-in for its cloud-first policy through the implementation of a robust cloud-computing training program. As part of the company’s commitment to lifelong learning by its associates, Capital One Tech College launched in 2017 to offer a learning development system built by engineers for engineers. Online courses and in-person workshops are offered to associates across more than a dozen disciplines, regardless of whether they’re tech practitioners or non-tech associates. We want them to be cloud-fluent and cloud-ready.

Best Practice #2: Start with the End in Mind

One mistake many companies make when undergoing a digital transformation is to try to patch up old systems, adding technology band-aids where needed. But this won’t work to transform your company; you have to begin with the end-goal in mind.

At Capital One, one of the main projects I’ve spearheaded in the last four years is to get out of our data centers. As part of a larger long-term strategy, we’re migrating off data centers into the cloud. And we chose that path because we believe building a flexible technology architecture provides the best foundation to create transformative customer experiences delivered in real time through software, data and algorithms.

At times, bold transformation can be painful. When I joined Capital One in 2014, we were consolidating data centers and operating a private cloud. Our decision to move to a public cloud infrastructure meant we basically had to exit our data centers and move forward. Getting out of data centers is a huge undertaking requiring collaboration between technology, accounting, compliance, legal, real estate, and business strategy teams. It’s well worth the effort as becoming an entirely cloud-based company is the cornerstone of our digital transformation.

Best Practice #3: Think Business Transformation

Even though I’m CTO, my main responsibility is to lead a business transformation, not just a technological one. Our entire company is focused on delivering the best possible customer experience in every sense. Our employees know their main task, no matter which department they work in, is to improve customers’ lives in meaningful ways. So, every technology we’ve deployed during our digital transformation — AI, machine learning, cloud, mobile — is focused on enabling our employees to better serve customers.

For example, we’re using machine learning to completely transform how we manage fraud. We can analyze massively more data using AI algorithms to dramatically improve fraud detection and reduce false-positive declines for our customers, ensuring their cards aren’t mistakenly locked down. Automated machine learning techniques have also freed our analysts up to focus on proactively identifying threats, so they can stay one step ahead of criminal trends.

Best Practice #4: Keep it Simple

Sometimes, the hardest decision during a digital transformation is simply saying no. There are so many great technology providers, each offering a bit different feature set, that it’s easy to deploy a patchwork of solutions in an attempt to cover all your bases. But this approach ends up causing complexity at the infrastructure level, which ultimately leads to chaos in the organization. Employees need simple, powerful tools to do their work every day so they can focus their energies on serving customers. When they have to toggle between multiple apps and learn new systems, it detracts from their ability to do their best work.

Simplicity was our aim when we decided to use one single public cloud provider, AWS, instead of a multi-cloud solution. This core decision has enabled Capital One to create a robust, nimble architecture at the atomic level that enables employees to thrive at their jobs. The bottom-line winners are our customers, who benefit from employees empowered to serve them.

In an effort to help our application teams migrate to the cloud in an unencumbered way, we established a governance function with security and compliance as top considerations. Early on, we took a key step to establish a cross-company stakeholder group including risk managers and cloud engineers, to curate capabilities and controls that would keep us well managed as we moved applications into the cloud. And our move to AWS is tied to having much more resilient architecture around applications we’re building for customers. As a result, our ability to withstand failure through chaos testing across a fleet of systems and apps has gotten better.

After more than four years leading a comprehensive digital transformation at Capital One, I’ve learned a few tough lessons and I’ve got a lot left to learn as we continue on our journey. For one, you simply can’t do a digital transformation halfway. It involves taking an honest look at your current systems to see what’s broken, scrapping what’s not working, and choosing the simplest path forward. It involves asking your employees what they need to better serve customers and then involving everyone in the organization to enable change.

Digital transformation isn’t top down, it’s bottom up. If your employees aren’t on board with the bold vision of becoming a completely digital company focused on serving customers, the transformation will never take place. Our view? You have to step boldly into the future and never stop moving forward.

George Brady, CTO

George Brady is Executive Vice President & Chief Technology Officer at Capital One, where he oversees shared technology services across the enterprise. As Capital One continues its technology and digital transformation, George is responsible for driving the organization’s cloud migration, data transformation, and machine learning efforts. He leads teams dedicated to foundational infrastructure, enterprise architecture, cloud engineering, analytic platforms, digital servicing, workforce technology, human resources, risk and financial systems.

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