Shelley Leonard and James Owens, CMT, of Xactus on Trends in Mortgage Technology
Shelley Leonard is President of Xactus, Broomall, Pa., a provider of verification for the mortgage industry, and is also a member of the Board of Directors. James Owens, CMT, is Chief Technology Officer with Xactus.
MBA NEWSLINK: What are the biggest changes you have both seen in mortgage industry technology in your 20+ years in the business?
SHELLEY LEONARD AND JAMES OWENS: Over our careers, the mortgage industry has been through numerous technology hype cycles – some meaningful and some not so much. We think the most impactful changes that have occurred are around our use of data, automation and how we connect and interact with our ecosystem partners. Data is incredibly important and can be a strategic differentiator if you know how to put it to work. As an industry, the top players have figured out how to use data to inform every part of their operation. This includes underwriting, determining the next best action, and finding ways to lower risk, increase operational efficiency and lower costs.
The industry has moved away from customization and towards configuration with some standardization. We’re increasingly realizing that it’s often more difficult to do things vastly differently from others especially from a compliance standpoint – and that it’s possible to achieve some differentiation through configuration. There aren’t huge differences in the technology platforms that are out there from a customization perspective – that’s where RPA and API come in. They have ushered in a huge change that have allowed people to adapt technology. The financial crisis was a springboard for these innovations.
Robotic Process Automation has made it possible to easily automate routine, repetitive tasks and has been a great way to create operational efficiency and decrease costs. The key is to automate away the mundane tasks and create space for your team to focus on the “knowledge” work.
Application Programming Interfaces have provided the industry with a standards-based way to connect with our mortgage ecosystem partners – replacing what used to be complex, expensive and proprietary point-to-point integrations. APIs have become the industry standard for how we exchange data securely with our numerous and disparate partners who we rely upon for any number of business functions. APIs have also made it much easier to provide dynamic and frictionless digital experiences to our customers and employees.
NEWSLINK: We hear the words “scalability” and “agility” a lot. What do they mean to you?
LEONARD, OWENS: Both terms are deeply embedded in our beliefs on how a high-functioning technology organization should be led. Scalability is about being able to adjust your resources – whether staff or technology assets – moving them up and down to match the volume of work. Scalability means being able to throttle your resources in as close to real time as possible. If you can do this well, it becomes a huge expense management tool and ensures commitments and service level agreements (SLAs) are being met in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible. The Cloud is a game changer when it comes to scalability as it natively provides scalability “out of the box.”
We think of agility in several ways. From a software engineering perspective, it’s all about being able to release features and products quickly and in minimum viable product increments. Gone are the days of going away and building something that gets released a year later. Agility is also something we drive as a cultural mandate. We want our team to feel empowered to go fast, make smart decisions and quickly learn from small mistakes. Fail fast and always learn from your mistakes. Also, by working in smaller increments, risk gets front-loaded and small mistakes are easier and cheaper to recover from. We place a very high value on working in a repeatable fashion at speed. Also, if you are going to be good at innovation, you must have teams that accept and operate under an agile mindset. In other words, they should “always be delivering”. Don’t let perfection get in the way of something great in half the time. Then iterate ruthlessly. Time to market in the product world is massively important.
NEWSLINK: James – you joined Xactus in May. What attracted you to Xactus and what do you see as your first priorities as CTO?
OWENS: Earlier in my career, I had worked with Shelley Leonard and had enormous respect for her both as a person and a leader. She was clearly very excited for the opportunity at Xactus and after several talks with her, I was able to meet Perry Steiner (CEO/Chairman) and several other executives. It was very clear that there was a big vision, and the team was playing off the same sheet of music. Everyone was palpably excited by the mission ahead.
Verification services haven’t really innovated much in the last 30 years and the notion of being able to create some disruption and innovation to the space was very appealing to me. Nothing gets a technologist more excited than being told to go create something that is going to fundamentally change how an industry works.
My first priorities as CTO were simple due to the caliber and quality of our people. Xactus was formed out of the acquisition of seven different verification and services companies over a 24-month period. While the operational segment of the business had gelled, the technology organization wasn’t organized to support a company of our new size. And how we thought about building software wasn’t ready to scale to our new size as well. We have been focusing on building products vs. projects and adjusted our engineering processes and tooling that were more supportive of going faster and shrinking our time to market for new feature releases. The company is very change positive and in a short four months, I’m already seeing positive results. We also have a very permissive culture – I want the teams to feel empowered to make quick, smart decisions – it shows trust, respect and acknowledges their expertise.
NEWSLINK: How challenging is it taking a vision and turning it into a product/platform?
LEONARD, OWENS: Product doesn’t have to be difficult. You need a foundation of the right people, culture, and a deeply rooted mindset around customer-centricity. As an organization, Xactus is flush with mortgage expertise, and our people are passionate about providing innovative solutions to the industry. Beyond this, you need to be organized in a way to optimize how you design and build your products. As such, we’ve made some changes to orient around specific product lanes and brought in some specialized skillsets like Customer Experience designers to help us better think about what an optimal customer experience should feel like.
We are very focused on providing our customers with a frictionless user experience and are trying to automate away as many mundane tasks as possible. This addresses the “how” part of the equation. The “what” part of the equation is harder – what does a truly innovative product look like? How is it differentiated? How will the customer use it to do something better than they can today? This is where Xactus really excels because we have so much mortgage expertise in our product and strategy teams – they bring a unique perspective and vision to how we can differentiate in the market. We have some incredibly exciting products coming in our pipeline!
(Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect policy of the Mortgage Bankers Association, nor do they connote an MBA endorsement of a specific company, product or service. MBA NewsLink welcomes your submissions. Inquiries can be sent to Mike Sorohan, editor, at email@example.com; or Michael Tucker, editorial manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)