Discover explains why digital transformation is a marathon, not a sprint

December 2, 2019 Madison Schlegel

In 2016, Discover Financial went through an organizational transformation, aligning its business and technology teams to focus their efforts on a singular goal: Transforming the business to best fit the customer needs

“Our vision [was] to build a cloud-native system that really evolves with the customer and the business needs, " said Ying Zhe, director of new account acquisitions at Discover, during a session at SpringOne Platform 2019. "We understood the concept of event-driven architecture, but really we didn't have the expertise internally . . . to be able to build this system.” 

During her talk, Zhe elaborated on how the transformation was focused on aligning the company's core disciplines and bringing together various teams to work on transforming the customer experience. However, this was challenging because her team had to support a monolithic mainframe system that was running on two different platforms, with only 10 engineers that really understood it. In needing to modernize how it operates as an organization, Discover first had to modernize its platform.

Zhe's team partnered with Pivotal Labs on an “event-storming session,” mapping out the entire customer journey. In the end, they made the decision to build around an event-driven architecture that's optimized for the best-possible customer experience. Here's how she explained the process of making that decision and getting started implementing it:

“[We decided] we're going to build a cloud-native system that's going to evolve with the customer's needs, and also it's going to be event-driven so that it provides greater flexibility. But having a vision is not enough. We have to be able to know how to build it, how to make it a reality. Do we want to build this system iteratively, or do we want to build it on the side as a big bang, where . . . once it's all done we're going to cut over from the old to new?


"The decision we made was we're going to build this system iteratively. We worked with the Pivotal teams to use a strangler pattern, to move the capability from legacy to modern iteratively. This really help us to validate some of the key architecture assumptions that we made early on, so then we'll be able to learn from each iteration."

As a result, Zhe and her peers have been able to focus on building the product instead of concentrating on what they think they should be doing next.  And the process has helped reduce the “waste” associated with teams having to stop working toward a goal because of a priority shift.

Other big improvements at Discover included learning to build out in smaller chunks to allow for testing and validation, and creating a product team to build out and evolve the CI/CD pipelines. The latter helps teams move faster and provides guardrails to mitigate any potentially risky behaviors. Zhe ended her presentation pointing out another big lesson: Digital transformation isn’t a quick sprint, but rather a marathon that requires endurance from people as well as organizations:

“Transformation is a marathon, it's not a sprint. It takes endurance. It takes persistence. We've had some great days, but we have some really, really bad days. More than anything else, it's really the commitment from all of us to not fall back when things get really, really hard—and then there were days that were really, really hard.


"In order for us to continue to sustain and improve, our focus right now is really on people. We want to make sure everybody from business to technology has the commitment to this, and to not fall back when it gets hard. Also, to foster the culture of continuous learning. We are still on our learning journey, we're not done. Transformation is never done, we continue to just move on."

Learn more about digital transformation at Discover

About the Author

Madison Schlegel

Madison is a Business Operations Manager for the Tanzu Vanguard, a super user community comprised of VMware Tanzu’s most passionate customers. She previously supported Pivotal’s Product Marketing team as a Customer Marketing Specialist. Madison holds a double B. A. in English and Communications from the University of California, Berkeley.

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