Equifax CTO: How to rally teams in a time of crisis 

Given an unprecedented sense of urgency, we can radically rethink how we create. Long-term projects now get done in hours or days. What can your team do when it's this focused?
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We are living through a time of uncertainty that few IT organizations were prepared for. We weren’t warned by consultants or our mentors to be prepared to shift our entire workforce remote overnight. There were no conference tracks focused on how to run your entire technology organization from your home office while your newly-remote colleagues simultaneously work while caring for their children and aging parents during a global pandemic. Yet here we are, wading through this uncharted territory together. 

I’m using this as a rallying cry to my teams because the next several months are going to be an important time for all of us.

This is a time for leadership. It’s a time to be visible with your teams. It’s a time to make sure that you’re keeping your teams focused. I’m using this as a rallying cry to my teams because the next several months are going to be an important time for all of us. 

At Equifax in particular, we are responding to the world’s need for access to credit and benefits right now. We’re seeing increases in lending, unemployment claims, and in some cases, hiring. This is leading to a massive volume across many areas of our businesses. Some of the signals are good, and some of those signals are, obviously, not good. Regardless, this is a time for our company’s technology teams to put our best foot forward. 

[ Want advice on leading remote teams? Read also How to lead in the age of newly remote teams. ]

I’ve been re-iterating to our teams how critical the work we’re doing is to the health of the global economy. We’re not the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, so we can’t help on that front. We can’t build ventilators. Aside from working from home like we are, there’s not much we can do on the health front. But there’s a heck of a lot we can do on the economic front. We can help people get employed, fill out their I-9s, and access the benefits they need. We can help people live their financial best by offering guidance and resources to consumers who may be impacted by this crisis.

Keep the trains moving

Now is the time for CIOs and CTOs to really challenge our technology teams intellectually. You can’t do this without first acknowledging the realities that come along with this massive shift to working from home – especially if you’re traditionally an office-based culture like we are. Of course you must acknowledge all the anxiety that comes with our current environment including: The anxiety of everything that’s happening in the world now, the anxiety of schools being shuttered and parents teaching their kids at home, and even the anxiety that comes with living alone while sheltering-in-place. 

All of a sudden, work is not the most stressful thing in their life.

The flipside is people need a distraction. Getting your head wrapped around something at work – a fun project, a difficult task, a challenging new piece of code to write, a test case to create, a project to manage – can help. Some of our teammates are excited to have work as an escape from other challenges. All of a sudden, work is not the most stressful thing in their life. That creates an opportunity for us to leverage these new at-home working environments and collaboration tools to find ways to build efficiencies. Because for technologists, one thing that often releases anxiety is pushing projects live and launching what you’ve been working on.

Last week, I was talking to my teams in Spain and the UK, and they had just pushed some projects into production for customers. I could hear, see, and feel their excitement partly because it’s almost like we’re rallying against this global crisis and we’re not going to let it keep us down. There’s energy that comes from that. I believe it’s healthy for the teams, in this time of uncertainty, to have something that’s positive, to be able to create value, launch it into production, and help people live their financial best. 

Moving faster takes on new meaning

So much has quickly changed about the way we work, including the need for speed. When your technology organization plays such a critical role in keeping your entire workforce productive, you operate on a completely different time scale.

Take VPN as a simple example. Imagine if someone from your team told you, “Hey, I’ve got a way to accelerate this VPN project. It was going to take us six months, and I’ve gotten it down to four weeks.”  In a normal world, you’d be like, “Wow, that’s amazing. Great work.” Right? That’s a massive accelerator. But in today’s world, it’s like, “Dude, I need it in four hours because people are having to work from home now.”  What was once great or would have been amazing in a normal world is now not even close to being okay.  

As a result of this unprecedented sense of urgency, a lot of our conversations are focusing on really radical thinking about how we create. We swiftly moved roughly 90 percent of our workforce around the world from an office environment to working remotely. We’ve been able to take many examples of projects that in a normal world would have taken a really long time now get them done in a matter of hours or days.

Are there things we can learn from our new day-to-day experiences that would be better in a normal world if we still operated like that?

Leaders have always known that great work can happen when people rally around a crisis. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a different level of focus that has come into play as we’ve worked on these projects. We’ve all surprised ourselves at how much we can get done and how quickly when we’re this focused. I believe that will be an interesting takeaway for our leadership team, and we’ll want to learn from this. How can we maintain that focus and prioritization when we’re not functioning in a crisis? Are there things we can learn from our new day-to-day experiences that would be better in a normal world if we still operated like that? What kind of productivity gains would we have on projects? These are all questions and lessons we’re filing away for discussion when we can come up for air. 

Don’t lose sight of your transformation goals

Amid everything that’s happening now, our technology teams are not stopping work on our never-ending transformation into becoming a premier technology company. In recent years, we’ve been rebuilding our capabilities in a number of areas including data, decision-making, identity, and fraud. And we’re rebuilding all of that using a cloud-native model. We’re staying focused on the delivery of that. 

Over the last several weeks, we’ve actually accelerated our cloud capabilities.

There’s a lot of movement happening in the credit world right now, and we’ve got customers that are wanting to double and triple their volume to us. Over the last several weeks, we’ve actually accelerated our cloud capabilities. We will continue to do so in the weeks to come so we can handle that growing volume on the cloud. Sure, it would be easier to go at capacity to our legacy technology, but as we help our customers we want to make sure we’re doing it in a way that accelerates our transformation journey.  

It’s been a great rallying cry for the team. We’re adding capabilities, and we’re doing it in a way that’s tied to the outcomes we’ve been talking about with our overall technology transformation. 

Work as an outlet

In the coming months, we plan to continue to challenge our technology teams intellectually. Doing so is important because, as we all stay-at-home and practice social distancing, we need something to intellectually stimulate us. In normal times, you can go out with friends; you can go to a restaurant; you can go play sports; you can attend a sporting event; etc. Currently, we don’t have those luxuries. But we do have other ways to occupy our brain. I believe we have some real opportunities to engage our team with challenging problems that help advance our business goals, but really – at the end of the day – are truly beneficial to our teams because they’re hungry for intellectual curiosity, and they’re not getting it through the normal things they would be doing.

Once we get through all of this, I also believe we can reflect and understand what we learned from all these changes. What are some of the things that we started doing while working remotely that we want to keep doing? Where did we gain productivity, and how can we continue to foster that. There will be many lessons learned that technology leaders will be able to take out of this.  

[ Culture change is the hardest part of transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Bryson Koehler is leading the technology transformation of Equifax, a global data, analytics and technology company. As a vision-driven, no-nonsense leader, he inspires his global technology teams to build products and services that create data insights – empowering customers and partners to make more informed decisions.

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