Creating CU Innovation Through Build-a-Thon Cooperation


By Roy Urrico


The returns on CU Build’s Build-a-Thon (in partnership with Symitar) — where credit union professionals participated in building solutions for the industry in a cooperative yet competitive environment — are still coming in and sponsors plan for it to become an annual staple.


CU Build’s mission is to spark innovation, cultivate learning and foster development in the credit union system. Similarly, CU Build structured the Build-a-Thon event to provide every opportunity for participants to solve real problems, create innovative solutions, grow skills, expand capabilities and feel proud about their work while leveraging the cooperative principles of credit unions.


Organizers of CU Build, originally planned the Build-a-Thon as a three-day in-person event centered around the Symitar Episys infrastructure for the summer of 2020, before the pandemic intervened. Fast-forward to the Build-a-Thon transitioning into an almost month-long August 2021 experience hosted via video chat, the Discord Chatter platform and various other technologies.

Brad Hickey, president of CU Build.

Brad Hickey, manager of application development for the Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines Federal Credit Union ($9.2 billion in assets) and president of CU Build, spearheaded the gathering, which he said grew out of a direct experience at an American Airlines’ HackWars event several years ago. Hickey started reaching out to his Symitar network and eventually had a volunteer team of about 12 people. Hickey said, “It’s really like having a dream team of Symitar experts around the country.”


As one of CU Build’s main sponsors, Symitar empowered participants to leverage its open Episys architecture to build custom solutions for the event. A division of Monett, Mo.-based Jack Henry & Associates, the company provides core data processing and ancillary technology solutions for U.S. credit unions.

Shanon McLachlan, VP at Jack Henry.

Shanon McLachlan, vice president of Jack Henry and president of Symitar, said, “We talk a lot about openness at Jack Henry, and with good reason. It refers not only to open banking, but also to being culturally open to working with others, and to collaborating for the common good. All of these came together recently at CU Build’s Build-a-Thon event, where we saw the Symitar community putting openness on full display.


The Frictionless Credit Union


The core CU Build team has worked steadily on a Build-a-Thon since June 2019. Hickey noted they opted for the ‘build-a-thon’ nomenclature since these events generally attract more non-techies to the event (than so-called hackathons), which ultimately brings a better balance to the solutions. This years’ event not only had developers as contributors, but encompassed a diversity of credit union backgrounds, skillsets and roles.


Hickey explained, “A lot of our participants don’t have the opportunity to participate in this type of collaboration and take products from end-to-end like they do at CU Build.” The Build-a-Thon, he said, empowers professionals at all levels of the organization to innovate and build solutions together, not in siloes.


For the event, which took place Aug. 2-Aug. 28, 2021, there were 46 participants from 24 credit unions across 18 states, two Symitar business partners, five Symitar staff, five judges, eight teams and eight innovative solutions.


The official 2021 CU Build team consisted of Hickey, Armando Aguilar, systems engineer, and John Woodling, information technology security analyst, all with American Airlines Federal Credit Union; Mike Blumenthal, president/CEO of Technology Happens; James Burke-Frazier of Symitar innovation projects; Adele Glenn, vice president, projects and consulting with CUTEK; Joe Knapton, core systems programmer of Educators Credit Union; Ben Maxim, vice president , Digital Strategy and Innovation of Michigan State University Federal Credit Union; Brian Sloan, chief information officer of Pioneer West Virginia Federal Credit Union and Brenda Hutzler Taylor, business system architect of 121 Financial Credit Union.


This year’s Build-a-Thon theme, “The Frictionless Credit Union,” challenged teams of participants to turn their ideas into proofs of concept in a competition. None of the teams contained more than one participant from any single credit union.


McLachlan described the winning concept, called “Promotable,” as a highly creative solution that enables users to create and publish a promotional campaign with a simple point-and-click interface – no coding required. The campaign involves members using widgets to play a game that qualifies them for a reward. Players advance in the game by taking actions, such as signing up for alerts or getting overdraft protection.


“There’s more to the CU Build event than the competition, however,” McLachlan noted. He described how behind the scenes, the first-ever instance of the Episys core hosted on Microsoft Azure, independent of Jack Henry infrastructure, made the Build-a-Thon possible. There were also several complementary solutions leveraged as part of the overall concept and solution. “We are all looking forward to future CU Build events and remain impressed and inspired by what the members of the Symitar community can accomplish together.”


Lessons Learned and Key Takeaways


“One of the biggest successes and secrets of CU Build is our ability to build people,” said Hickey. “Those who participated learned new skills, different ways to ideate, and strengthen their presentation skills, while experiencing how other credit unions and leaders innovate.”


In addition, “We were impressed by our industry; when there’s a call to create solutions for the greater good, a huge amount of people devoted their time and energy to build it.” Hickey added, “We were surprised by how much collaborative technology is available and underutilized by many credit unions today. Those within operations and IT development learned how powerful these tools can be when virtual collaboration became the only option.”


“We’ve had several credit unions reach out for some of the solutions created during the event. These solutions are built in a shareable open-source format and available to any Symitar credit union if they email info@cubuild.org,” said Hickey


When the 2022 event, scheduled for July 22-24, returns to an in-person gathering, Hickey anticipates retaining a hybrid model of collaboration because of 2021’s success. “We’re looking forward to continuing our mission to innovate for the greater good of our community.”

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