PrimeLending CIO: How to move from project to product mindset

A shift to a product focus delivers big benefits for PrimeLending
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At PrimeLending, our IT group had traditionally been focused on projects: We ranked and assigned resources to them as staff became available, which meant that project managers and QA managers, for example, would regularly rotate in and out. There were no dedicated teams for a product.

As we moved into the digital mortgage space, we decided to make the leap from a project-based team to a product team, to support a new initiative called Apply Now, a digital mortgage tool.

We built Apply Now for our borrowers; it’s a tool that allows them to apply for a mortgage right from their phone. You can upload documents and connect to your bank account to access your pay stubs, for example, which eliminates the need to find these documents, download them, scan them, then upload them — making the application process easier and more transparent for the borrower.

Moving to a product mindset was significant: Our plan was to assemble a group that would develop a deeper knowledge about the product since team members would no longer be rotating in and out. This project would always be a priority since it wouldn’t be competing against other projects month after month.

Staffing realities

When it came to staffing this team, there were people we knew we wanted because of their unique skill set. We’d sit down with them to ask if they were interested in going deep on a product and dedicating themselves to one mission. Some weren’t: They expressed that they liked the variety of working on different projects and learning about the business by being exposed to different departments.

[ Leading change in your organization? See our related article, 7 leadership rules for the DevOps age. ]

As you shift to a product mentality, you want a team that’s willing to stick around for the long haul and go deep, but it’s okay if you have people in your organization who enjoy bouncing around on short-term projects. At Prime Lending, it was about 50/50 with the team members with whom I spoke.

We also knew we needed to build this product team horizontally, from project manager to business analyst to developer to quality assurance. When this team was staffed, we decided to move everyone into once space to underscore the unity of this new team: They were no longer part of their individual PM, BA, developer, or QA teams.

This move elicited a lot of resistance from managers; they didn’t want part of their team to reside on one floor, and another part on another floor. The managers were worried they wouldn’t be able to manage effectively if they weren’t all together. This change was uncomfortable for them, but it proved to work incredibly well.

Gaining a sense of ownership – and speed

Of course, it wasn’t foolproof. There were some people who got in early and realized they actually preferred the variety of project work, and so we had to make some adjustments. It’s been about two years now without any turnover from this team, and the benefits of assembling one dedicated to a product have been significant.

Everyone feels like they have the opportunity to contribute to the end result and that their voices are heard, for example. You’re part of this team all year long, year after year, instead of just a short cycle of the project. People feel ownership, and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie that there wasn’t before.

Communication is better, too. Sitting in close proximity to the rest of the team members means you no longer have to travel to the opposite side of the building to have questions answered. This has tremendously increased the speed at which we work. We’ve just moved to monthly sprints rolling out new upgrades every month, which we had a tough time doing while we worked on the project basis.

And perhaps most importantly, moving to a product mentality is keeping PrimeLending relevant. Apply Now is a revenue-generating product, and we’re competing in the purely digital space with nontraditional retail mortgage lenders. The ease-of-use of this product and the team that supports it keeps us in the game.

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Tim Elkins joined PrimeLending in November 2008 as Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer. In October 2012, Tim was promoted to executive vice president, chief information officer, and he is responsible for information security, IT operations, and technology initiatives.