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Inside look at Equifax's $1.5B digital transformation journey

A massive digital transformation effort at Equifax is gaining momentum. CTO Bryson Koehler talks about overhauling data environments, infrastructure, applications and more.

Bryson Koehler joined Equifax as CTO in 2018, not long after the company experienced its massive data breach. Since then, he has helped drive the credit agency's digital transformation journey. The $1.5 billion effort aims to rebuild the company's vast technology underpinnings -- from moving IT infrastructure to the cloud and modernizing applications to maximizing the value and accessibility of its data.

The results to date have been impressive, according to Koehler, and they keep coming. 

Customer onboarding processes that used to take six months now happen in less than a day. "I saw an example literally last week with a customer that was 40 minutes into their welcome meeting with us, where the engineer was already developing a coding in a sandbox against the API," he said. Customers of Equifax security services are seeing an eight-fold increase in fraud detection. "Why? Because they're able now to bring more data sets together in real time than they would have before," he said. With the shift to the cloud, latency has improved 400% to 600%.

The ambitious digital transformation has also brought major changes to Koehler's large technology team of 7,500, which includes a mix of full-time staff and consultants in more than 30 countries. Over half the team has been "refreshed," Koehler said. "We've trained 700 of our engineers to get cloud certifications," he cited as an example. "We're very proud of the work our teams are doing to re-skill themselves and reinvent themselves as IT professionals."

In a wide-ranging interview conducted over Zoom, Koehler talked about what digital transformation means for Equifax as it moves forward and about the challenges -- and rewards -- of accomplishing this work during a pandemic. Be sure to watch the accompanying video, in which Koehler talks about what's required of today's IT leaders.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I understand Equifax's digital transformation initiative includes moving 63 legacy data centers to the cloud. This is no ordinary IT refresh.

Bryson Koehler: It's been quite a journey we're on. Equifax is a global company. We operate in 24 countries around the world, and we help people make good decisions and live their financial best. In doing that, we have made many data acquisitions over the years that created a very big tail of legacy data centers.

But our digital transformation journey has been around not just lifting and shifting and migrating workloads out of a data center into the cloud but about really rebuilding our data environment into a common data fabric and rebuilding our applications.

Bryson KoehlerBryson Koehler photo

As you think about AI and how it can be used to help people make decisions -- how do we help expand financial literacy, financial inclusion -- AI works better with more data, with better catalog data, with better organized data. If you throw AI at a bunch of uncategorized and disconnected data sets, you're not going to be able to achieve the outcomes or the improvements that you would like.

We had hundreds of siloed databases around the company that would give different answers to questions like who is 'Bryson' and what do we know about him. That's not a good starting point or a foundation for machine learning to add a lot of value.

So, we knew that we had to do the data side first -- reinvent our ingestion process, our data cataloging and governance processes, as well as our keying and linking. Instead of all these silos of data, let's look at it as entities: people, places and things, and the attributes that we know about 'Bryson.'

Once we understand the attributes and those attributes are now linked against an individual, machine learning has a real opportunity to help us and help [the individual] start to learn and make better decisions, as well as to provide guidance around predictive behavior -- what might happen.

What are some of the concrete results that you're seeing so far from all this work?

Koehler: We've seen tremendous outcomes. We've got customers where we would have taken six months before to onboard them. I saw an example literally last week with a customer that was 40 minutes into their welcome meeting with us, where the engineer in the room was already developing a coding in a sandbox against the API. So, six months to 40 minutes.

We have customers in our identity fraud space who are seeing an eight-fold increase in fraud detection. Why? Because they're able now to bring more data sets together in real time than they would have before.

We're seeing examples of uptime improvement as we are now moving from legacy single points of failure to multi-region multi-zone cloud implementations. We're seeing 400% to 600% improvements in our performance and our latency. So whether you look at uptime, look at latency, at speed of implementation or the outcomes of the products themselves, the examples are amazing.

I send out a winner of the week, every week, to the company. I've been doing it for over two years now, and I have a growing backlog of wins that the team wants us share.

Climbing out of the pandemic, 'hybrid is hard'

Equifax has pursued this huge project during the pandemic, a crisis that has forced companies to make tremendous changes in order to thrive. Which changes do you think will be part of the future of work and why?

Koehler: One of the changes I've seen is how it brought people together. I've got teams all over the world. As I've made the rounds with folks, the last year and a half has been in many ways heartwarming, because the teams are all going through the exact same challenges. As different as we are, we're not that different. I've just seen that from a team-building perspective to be tremendous. We had a common rallying cry. I hope that sticks because it shouldn't take a pandemic to realize that we're all in the same boat together.

As people have changed their work locations and work styles to adapt to the pandemic, they have also found ways to interweave work and personal life in new ways. I don't think that'll go back, and it has in many cases improved productivity.

One of the things that I think will change is the purposeful use of time and travel and being more thoughtful about making connections. If you had a connection during the pandemic, it was easy to maintain it; building new connections was hard. So thinking about things like, when can I use a Google meet, when is a video call needed, and when is the appropriate time for us to meet in person, will be important.

How are your teams working as we climb out of the pandemic? Do you have flex time? Will they be required to return to the office?

Koehler: We were flexible before, and we're going to be flexible moving forward. But at the same time, we recognize that we are social creatures. As I've seen teams start to come back together, it's been great to see how much they missed each other.

I think we'll probably see people coming into the office organically, maybe three or four days a week, because that's what they want. As a company, we like being together. But we don't expect everybody to be in the office five days a week either, and I think it will vary depending on what type of role you have and where are you in a project. Are you kicking off a sprint? Are you halfway through one? Are you in the design phase? Are you a product manager? Are you a test engineer? I think there's no cookie cutter model.

The other thing I would say on that topic is that hybrid is hard. When the team is all together, it works quite well. And when the team is all virtual, it works quite well. But when you try to intermix a room full of people that are there together with some folks that are virtual, I think the virtual folks just inevitably lose out. They lose out on the nuances of the room, some of the undertones, some of the sidebar conversations.

So I think one of the things as leaders we have to be thoughtful about is being purposeful in how we set this up. If we're going to say, take Wednesday and have that be the day that we want to work from home, let's all do that, right, because that way we're all in the same place.

CIO role in the pandemic and post-pandemic enterprise

I want to talk a little bit about the role of the top IT executive -- the CIO role, the CTO role. Did you see your role change at all during the pandemic?

Koehler: Yeah, I think it did. I think people really looked to the technology team to help kind of lead the way, frankly, on this way of working. [That's] because I think in many cases, the technology teams were further along in remote work with diverse and dispersed teams. We're used to having teams around the world. We're used to people being remote. Not all parts of the company had that culture.

One of the things that I said almost on Day 1 to the senior leadership team at Equifax was that all of you need to take a part in having a camera-on culture, because as we went from voice being kind of the norm -- even though we had video, most people just used it as an audio conferencing system -- we had to learn how to make sure our cameras were on to actually get the full effect that video would have.

So technology leaders really had to step up and provide a lot more cultural support to the organization to help them evolve -- not just making the tech work, not just making sure VPN was up. Those are all table stakes -- but how are we going to work? How are we going to use this technology? How are we going to collaborate? And how do we make sure that our productivity continues to rise as we go through this?

I think the role of the CIO and the CTO played a really critical part, just because of our histories of we've been doing this for a long time … at least I have in my career. I've been working with globally dispersed teams for 25 years. And so I think we had an opportunity to really lead there.

Some companies during the pandemic had to reimagine -- not just tinker with -- their business model in order to survive. One of the things we're hearing is that IT executives are not just operators but actually involved with thinking about business model changes. Has that been true for you?

Koehler: Absolutely. I view myself as a business executive that just happens to love and know a lot about technology. My job is to help our company achieve its goals.

We're a publicly traded company, so we have goals to our shareholders -- that's why we show up. We're not doing tech for the sake of tech. And so [we're] thinking about self-service, thinking about APIs, thinking about developer-friendly interfaces, thinking about the right set of developer enablement materials, so the developers can self-serve on their own, [providing] sample code, the right videos, documentation -- those sorts of things.

While in many cases, these [projects] are tech-led, they really are business enablers. … In a world of the pandemic … you want to be able to really see that self-service pick up because you're not going to be able to get everybody together and walk through it. You're going to need people to be able to self-serve on their own time.

So we've been very thoughtful about making sure that we are a developer-first mindset internally and externally, because that's how our customers are going to consume from us. We want customers to be able to self-serve on their own very quickly with the right tools.

That's a technology-led thought process around digital self-service, but it's been great to see so many of our business unit presidents now fully seeing the rewards of that. And now they're their own champions of APIs, our developer portal and those types of capabilities.

That to me is the biggest reward and success is I got the flywheel going. It was my job for us to push us to think differently. I had to place some bets and make some forward investments because I knew that's where the puck was going. But then to turn that back over and now let the business drive and use it on their own. That flywheel will now never stop, right. That a new Equifax. And, and that really kind of, to me, sums up my job is to help build the new Equifax, get that flywheel going and then get out of the way and go work on the next thing.

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