A Tech Superstar Shares Her Journey of Innovation
Big ideas are key to your company’s success. But how do you create culture of innovation?
Elizabeth Hoemeke shares her Journey of Innovation
After seven years at Elavon, this Atlanta super-star reflects on her success, what she would do differently, and what the future may hold for the Innovation Lab she helped found.
Digital transformation is one-part technology, one-part vision and strategy, and two parts leadership. RCG Global Services started on the transformation path with Elavon seven years ago, partnering with Elizabeth Hoemeke to assist her in realizing her vision. Throughout these years, the pace of change has increased significantly, both in Elavon’s market and within Elavon. This change in pace is driven by the expectations of consumers and the customers (Merchants) of Elavon. Key elements of a successful digital journey are the applications that drive transactions. For Elavon, these include the applications that bring in new merchants as well as the point of sale tools and applications used by the merchants to effectively transact and manage their businesses’ revenue streams. These applications exist in a variety of platforms including the cloud and are available through multiple browsers and operating systems. They undergo continual change and need to ensure that the end users experience quality interactions. The sheer growth in changes and testing requirements has required that Elavon continually re-think approaches and innovate solutions to improve results, lower cost, and increase scale.
Elizabeth Hoemeke is the Senior Vice President of IT Strategy & Global Business Services for Elavon, Inc. She is a technology professional with extensive experience in IT leadership, building high performance teams and transformational initiatives. Her concentration is in software development management, utilizing a discipline-based approach to delivering business solutions that drive customer satisfaction, retention, and revenue. She is focused on solving customer and business challenges through technology innovation, producing high quality software, maximizing throughput, and ensuring on-time delivery and quality. Elizabeth has led the journey to establish the Innovation Lab for Elavon, and she agreed to share her story with RCG Global Services.
What life or work experiences prepared you for the Elavon journey?
Prior to Elavon, I worked for an organization for two years that was really trying to figure out how it was going to accomplish the goal of going public. There was a tremendous amount of leadership churn and therefore constant changes in strategy and direction. My own personal role shifted eight times during those two years. I discovered I had a few very valuable skills that allowed me to come into Elavon and really be effective.
To begin with, leadership was under fire and the culture was toxic. Every time there was a change in direction, I started to notice my team watching how I reacted to the change in direction or the change in my role. If I was calm they were calm. If I handled it with grace and professionalism, that gave them the confidence to do the same. The other skill that I realized I had was the ability to thrive in ambiguity. Switching directions and plowing ahead when the road before you is dark can be very daunting. I embraced the uncertainty and got moving. We embraced the expression, “pave the road just before you drive over it. With a few guiding principles and a North Star, you can figure out the rest along the way and be very successful.” I am finding these two skills especially valuable as we are in the middle of an agile transformation company-wide.
What are the most significant changes and capabilities that have emerged within your marketplace in the last several years?
The most significant changes in the last few years really have been the number of new capability creators in the marketplace—not really competitors in the traditional sense. Payments and payment methods as we’ve always known them are changing in a very accelerated way.
What do you think about these new payment capabilities?
Ideas that were attempted several years ago and failed are back.The digital wallet is now becoming popular again because consumers are ready for it and much more comfortable with it. Payment capabilities like Venmo and Zelle speak to millennials, which will further pave the way for digital currency or alternative currencies. The gaming industry is having a dramatic impact on payments and currency. For example, coins that are being used to buy armor, costumes, weapons, food, and supplies represent this digital currency trend.
What are the expectations of a consumer and how do help your merchant customers to meet them?
Speed and effectiveness are having a pretty dramatic impact on our industry. Consumers expect to be able to pay on their phones with minimal effort to set it up. Merchants are the same consumers, and they have the same expectations. There is a convergence between our expectations as consumers and our expectations within our businesses’ roles. Work must be as easy as our personal lives in how we transact, purchase, and take advantage of new capabilities. Just like Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi industry, Uber Eats and Grub Hub are changing the way consumers get takeout. Several years ago, you may recall WebVan delivered groceries, and it was an epic failure. Now Amazon, Blue Apron, Hello Fresh and many others are broadly accepted and very popular. Who will be the Uber or Blue Apron of payments? I’m not sure we completely know the answer to that yet, but when it happens, it will happen at once—overnight—and it will represent exponential transformation.
How have you needed to adapt to meet these changes?
For starters, we had to catch up and then leap forward to get out in front. We made significant investments in improving our software development processes, adding extensive automation including the development of actual robots to perform credit card transaction testing. Our whole organization is shifting to scaled agile delivery model so that we can better respond to changes in the marketplace and in technology.
You mentioned before about trying to catch up, what advantage does this give you when responding to changes within the marketplace?
Yes, we were a bit behind but from a FinTech perspective, I feel really good about where we’re at now. We may be a late follower in some respects, but it allows us to implement with a lot more speed and minimal disruption to our business because we’ve allowed so many others to make the mistakes before us. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I have found that as we got good at blocking and tackling, consistent delivery, very high-quality— and with the incorporation of automation—we were able to give ourselves space and time to think about innovative ideas for solving internal and external problems. Over the last two years, we have created a technology innovation lab which has evolved into a set of capabilities that we offer not only to our company but also to customers.
What was the most significant challenge when you took on this role?
Seven years ago, the software testing organization that I took over was understaffed, highly fragmented, and lacked a vision and strategy. Our relationship with the development organization was OK to poor, our business had very little confidence in us, and our coverage was light. I was told that our company couldn’t make up its mind whether they even wanted to have a software testing organization, so they would start it, kill it, then started again, then kill it again. This is the second company where developers asked me why we needed QA. Their point of view was that it’s the businesses’ job. I almost fainted. I think we’ve won almost everyone over, but we can’t rest on our laurels as the world is changing around us every day, and we must keep up.
How has your environment changed throughout your time at Elavon? What is something that you feel has made a big impact on the overall changes?
We now have a global organization; quality is exceptional, and we are executing on our third hype cycle of transformation. This latest transformation includes moving to an automation-first testing approach. We have decentralized test automation; we are upskilling our entire QA workforce from manual testers to automation engineers, and reorganizing to align to the new scaled agile delivery structure. This structure groups internal and external products together into portfolios that are solely focused on delivering customer value and enhancing their experience with us. From the first sales contact, to onboarding, to transacting, to getting their money, to how we service them and help them run their business, our teams are aligned with the product managers that create the vision and roadmaps to deliver the experience that our customers want.
How has your culture of innovation changed over the years?
It’s very difficult to have a culture of innovation if you never have time to think. We had a lot of work to do to get really good at software delivery, and we started with overhauling and dramatically improving our waterfall processes. We went from chaos to a well-oiled machine with very high predictability and very high-quality. The downsides, of course, were long lead times and a lot of waste. As we improved our software delivery capabilities, we created the space we needed to focus on creating a culture of innovation and a set of capabilities that could be leveraged by anyone within USBank and Elavon. We focused on Horizon 1, which is using existing technology in a new way to solve a problem. There were a lot of people who made creating the Greenhouse, our Technology innovation Lab, harder than it needed to be. As in many large organizations, trust was also a challenge. The only way to change our own team’s beliefs was to consistently behave in an open, transparent, collaborative manner. To walk the walk of our mission, we believe in creating not competing.
What are some important factors that you found to be crucial in the success of creating a culture of innovation?
After many successful projects were completed, including research and the development of infrastructure that can be used by anyone for rapid prototyping or exploratory research, more and more teams are knocking on our door. The missing trust has given way to collaboration and partnership. We are here to support and help teams that want to test an idea or find a new way to solve a problem. One of our project stakeholders recently said, “We have tried for five years to move the needle on solving this problem. Because of our work with the Greenhouse (Technology Innovation Lab), we now have a solution and we are moving forward.” The Greenhouse is charged with staying two years ahead; we are focused on sharing the learnings, expanding our capabilities to more groups, and expanding our internship program to include more colleges. Diversity is very important to us, not only the diversity you can see but also the diversity of thought, experience, and perspective.
How have you challenged your internal team and partners to innovate?
Step one is getting really good at what you do otherwise you never get to innovate. Once you achieve that, the next challenge is to stop asking for more people to throw at a problem but to evaluate technology solutions to help you scale. Leverage partners who frankly know a lot more than we do and have access to thousands of bright minds. There still exists a fear that if someone admits they don’t know how to do something, they’re going to be viewed as non-critical. I believe that the smartest people are those that recognize they don’t know everything and go after the best help they can get from sources they can trust. Partners, consultants, network connections, and other FinTech companies are all great sources of information and inspiration. I have invested a great deal in building a vast network in Atlanta and beyond. I share what I know and those in my network do the same for me. We’re not giving away secrets, but I do benefit from the experience of my peers.
How did you create a foundation for success and how do you ensure that the foundation stays relevant?
I think success requires never being satisfied with where you’re at. As soon as we get really good, I let my team know that we’re going to change, improve, innovate, and transform again. We are constantly changing. It's important to teach people how to embrace change and deal with it, create safety, and how to give voice to different opinions. By putting people in a position where they can be successful on their own, lifting up others for their accomplishments and celebrating them, and fiercely defending them when attacked by outside forces, you create a family that works hard together and looks out for each other. We may disagree sometimes, but at the end of the day we want to do great work, take good care of our customers, and help our company grow.
Many companies move offshore as a price play. You have leveraged a dual-shore outsource strategy very effectively and continue to invest. What convinced you to consider and implement offshore outsourcing?
I was part of outsourcing when outsourcing wasn’t cool. When it was forced and resulted in layoffs. The pendulum swung too far in one direction and then, many companies swung way back the other way and started to bring the offshore work back on shore.
I chose to take the best of both worlds, leveraging an offshore partner so that we could increase our scale without increasing our costs and have access to resources that we didn’t have to own full-time. Partners also give you access to the capabilities and experiences that they developed with other clients. The expansion of coverage was critical to QA reaching critical mass. Companies do not invest nearly enough in documentation and training. That’s another benefit of a partner. They have the scale and can tap into disciplines that we benefit from. Yes, it all gets added into the rate, but I’d rather pay a dollar more an hour and get the benefit of a vast set of skills and capabilities instead of trying to fight to hire one or two people to do it internally.
Having a partner provides you with more flexibility, but what would be another benefit when implementing offshore outsourcing?
The other huge benefit of the partnership is the ability to have burstable capacity on demand. We had a huge source of contention with our business before we had the ability to add resources in a moment to cover an extra project or a change that they were willing to pay for. With an all FTE staff you can’t do that. Adding another partner resource for five weeks for a few thousand dollars is totally worth it to deliver on a priority versus getting an employee requisition approved, posting it, interviewing, hiring, and then having to train the person from scratch. And you can’t do that for a short engagement. You also can’t just add a staff aug contractor because you have to do all the same amount of work to get them up to speed. Partners are the only way that you can have flexibility in your workforce. Perhaps when the digital human becomes more sophisticated, she may be an option.
As you reflect on your success with outsourcing, what are the key shifts a leader needs to make to successfully implement an offshore component?
I think the most important thing for a leader who is considering outsourcing is to first think carefully about what you’re trying to achieve. Outsourcing is not an answer to a pure cost play as the cost to re-train is very high and there may be unforeseen collateral damage that will be done to the rest of the organization if you do outsource the entire function. I replaced my entire contract labor staff with a single partner. I did not lay off a single employee, although I did fire some for poor performers and encourage others to move on due to their inability to lead and manage consistent with my values. As a leader, you also must really want it to succeed, and every leader and manager in your organization must understand the benefits and the downsides. But everyone must be on board. Internal sabotage can make an outsourcing engagement very difficult. That is why I like the cosourcing approach.
What types of work do you consider for co-sourcing?
Personally, I think just about anything can be outsourced. The key is to find the right balance of employees and partners, so you can leverage the benefits of both. You don’t want to give away your company’s IP, strategy, or customer relationships, but most disciplines can be enhanced with help from the outside. Having strong leaders and managers that maintain the right tension with a partner also is critical. Partners can take over and run amuk if the releationsip isn’t well managed.
You are in a very competitive market with lots of innovation. How have you set your organization up to keep pace with and leap ahead of competitors?
The wave of transformation that we are currently engaged in will start to generate savings over the next year or two. I will re-invest those savings into the expansion of testing and automation, the creation of new automation capabilities like chatbots as a front end for automating recurring internal employee activities, and hopefully, a few things we haven’t even dreamed of yet. By the time we’re done with that, there will be new technologies, AI will have advanced well beyond where it is today, and likely we will be evaluating some of these exponential technologies for inclusion in our product delivery ecosystem.
Where and from whom do you discover new ideas for innovation?
Our innovation team is a web of really great talent. It is composed of very smart people, a group of strong partners with a lot of depth in innovation and FinTech, access to the some of the best and brightest college students in our internship program, and the vast collection of startups that we have an opportunity to engage with through our partnership with Atlanta Technology Development Center (ATDC) at Georgia Tech.
What is one obstacle that you have had to face within your journey to innovation?
The only real obstacle to innovation is opening the minds of the rest of our organization to the possibilities of looking at a problem through a different lens. Willingness is the challenge, our company and our employees have the capability to innovate, we simply need to show them how. Once the teams that spend time in the Greenhouse experience Design Thinking, they are sold.
What were the key milestones in your journey to this point?
If I think back to the book “Good to Great”, first you must get the right people on the bus and then you must get them in the right seats. I moved people around, helped some to move on, and brought in some new talent. I do my best to unlock the potential of my organization by creating a safe environment with a clear vision, protect people when they need it and celebrate their success, and expect everyone on the team to be learning all the time. I cherish the team we have and we help them grow professionally and personally every day.
What is your next major milestone?
A huge set of accomplishments this year include completing the agile transformation, integrating our test automation with our DevOps program, and continuing the implementation of an automation first strategy along with upskilling our workforce. No small set of tasks, but all very achievable by the amazing organization with whom I have the distinct privilege of working.
We’ve no doubt you will succeed.