In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus will profile interesting and intriguing tech professionals who are positively impacting the credit union industry.
For this issue, we spent time with Michigan State University Federal Credit Union’s AVP of Digital Strategy and Innovation, Ben Maxim.
By W.B. King
As a young kid growing up in the 1980s, Ben Maxim enjoyed playing video games on his Apple IIe personal computer. He was so taken with the medium that he started programming with Lego Logo while in elementary school.
“I thought it was just so cool to be able to make things move by typing out commands into a computer,” said Maxim. “I also had a love affair with space, NASA and all the technology that came out of the space program, and like many kids, I was going to become an astronaut when I grew up.”
While he has not made it to space yet, Maxim counts himself lucky to work on “cutting edge technology” that brings “high tech solutions” to Michigan State University Federal Credit Union’s 300,000-plus members.
When Maxim graduated Michigan State University in 2007 with a degree in telecommunications, information studies and media, he entered the job market during the Great Recession. And whereas his peers were leaving town in hopes of securing work elsewhere, he took a summer position at the East Lansing, Mich. -based Michigan State University Federal Credit Union (MSUFCU).
“I was lucky enough to find a job that summer and didn’t really know then that I would have such a rich career with so much opportunity all from working at a credit union,” Maxim reflected. “I have been here almost 14 years now and have had many mini-careers along the way.”
Among these varied positions was becoming an iOS developer, a position that fed his growing technology hunger. This gravitational pull came after attending an industry conference where he learned about iOS developing as well as rich internet applications.
“I came back and knew we needed to build our own iOS app. I pitched the idea to my boss and she was extremely supportive of the idea and we set down a path to build our own online banking, iOS and Android apps,” said Maxim. “Being able to bring cutting-edge technology to our members in a way that allowed us to be responsive to their feedback was incredibly inspiring and was the moment I decided I was in the credit union game for the long-haul.”
A Digital Free Agent
When Maxim started his career at MSUFCU, digital banking was viewed as a cost center. And in order to remain competitive, an organization needed a website and online banking, but these were early days where it was “okay for all applications to be delivered by vendors,” he said. Members had to accept a poor experience because there was no alternative.
As the market began to change becoming more web-friendly, eventually mobile took hold leading to UX taking center stage, he noted. This made digital banking solutions an expected experience for members. Fintechs, he added, have also come a long way in meeting this challenge.
“When I started, fintechs were just called vendors and that’s how they were treated,” said Maxim. “Now they are innovative partners that help us achieve our strategies in an accelerated fashion.”
Maxim has held a handful of tech positions, including web and mobile development manager and AVP of programming and development. Where he has seen the most change is in digital solutions. And while initially the marketing team controlled all member-facing technology initiatives, the times have changed.
“As it became more complex, ownership shifted to IT departments and now more recently we are seeing a shift to a specialize CX (customer experience) focused group often called ‘digital’ with a chief digital officer overseeing these now critical business systems that are the faces of our institution to the world,” said Maxim.
In his current role as AVP of Digital Strategy and Innovation, Maxim explained that he is a “team of one” or what he referred to as a “free agent.” To this end, he works with colleagues across departments to build an “innovative mindset” throughout the organization.
“I inspire with sharing of ideas, helping individuals tap into creativity they claim not to have, but then light up when they realize they do,” he said. “I encourage collaboration and support learning of new skills and helping employee builds confidence in themselves.”
MSUFCU employs 85 people in its IT department. With regard to the demographic breakdown, 71% are male and 29% are female. And among this group, there are five Gen Zers, nine baby boomers, 23 Gen Exers and 48 Gen Yers.
“Our technology team has a philosophy of building enough structure to stand on, while still being able to remain flexible and try new things,” said Maxim. “This helps prevent processes from taking over and allowing people to remain passionate about their work and provides psychological safety.”
The Power of Partnerships
When considering what new technologies might best serve members and employees, Maxim said he is constantly reading articles curated on his LinkedIn feed as well as continually connecting with a diverse group of innovative thinkers in financial services and other industries.
“I try and see and ask what people are using and try and observe the trends as they are taking shape ‘in the wild,’” he said. “I stay curious and ask a lot of questions. Building a diverse network of people to lean on has been key.”
Among colleagues in the industry Maxim counts on are executives from a number of organizations, including Jack Henry & Associates, Filene Research Institute and Visa.
“As a credit union, we look to form partnerships with our vendors as we are only as strong as vendors allow us to be – there is only some much you can compensate for if the vendor is holding you back,” he said.
MSUFCU is also one of the owner members of the CUSO Members Development Company (MDC). This consortium is comprised of roughly 70 other credit union owner credit unions. Maxim likens MDC to a think tank.
“They offer a variety of resources, including supporting pilots, providing innovation training through a program called NextUP,” he said. “I participated in the most recent cohort virtually last year and met a lot of great innovative thinkers from credit unions all over the country and have since leaned on them as I have been working through various ideas.”
MDC also recently started a fintech investment CUSO called “CURQL,” which connected Maxim with an “incredible group of credit union leaders who are looking to change the industry and make fintech more accessible to credit unions” through partnerships and investments.
Since credit unions and other financial institutions can’t create all tech solutions in-house, Maxim said that cooperation between vendors and financial institutions will continue to grow, especially within the modular banking movement.
“One of the best evolutions I have seen in software development over my time is the adoption of APIs and SDKs for almost all tools and platforms. By being able to connect all these great technologies together the FIs are really focused on delivering an experience in digital just like we do in the branch,” he said.
“As institutions, we are able to leverage best-in-class tech and integrate it into the experience our members and customers are interested in,” he continued. “By offering more of a ‘market place’ of fintech apps for our members we can offer nice solutions to smaller groups as we don’t have as much of a lift to connect each new partner.”
Automation is the Future
As Maxim looks forward, the technologies that excite him include open banking/open finance solutions, which allow members to be in charge of their data.
“Financial institutions will have to participate in the ecosystem with the fintech or risk losing members to competitors that do enable these services,” he said.
Last summer, Maxim noted that many members were using the commission-free investing platform Robinhood, which allowed members to connect to their accounts at MSUFCU via San Francisco-based Plaid, which provides data transfer networks that powers fintech and digital finance products.
“We prioritized working with Plaid to make this connection work and as a result made many of our frustrated members happy with us again,” said Maxim.
Two other tech trends on Maxim’s radar are intelligent automation and embedded finance/contextual commerce. Intelligent automation is the next step for chatbots, he said. He further explained that as the number of chatbots grow members will expect their financial institutions to have a basic FAQ chatbot.
“The next step for all of us will be to improve the feature sets of our chatbots and make them better at providing value-added features that enable our members to self-serve and do the banking they want to do when they do it,” said Maxim. “This will be accomplished by adding automation on the backend of these transactions through robotic processing automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and other automation tools.”
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