Women in Technology: Featuring Four Samaha & Associates Senior Consultants
Updated: Jan 12
A special (and final) edition celebrating Women’s History Month 2022!
In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus spotlights innovative women who are positively impacting technology applications in the credit union industry, and beyond.
For this issue, we visited with Samaha & Associates’ Senior Consultants Disa D’Andrea, Tracy Helm, Janeace Liles and Olivia Reynolds. The Miami Beach, Fla.-based credit union consulting firm has been serving the credit union industry for nearly 25 years.
By W.B. King
Credit union executives understand the importance of staying current with technology. Third-party technology providers are focused on developing next-generation banking tools to sell to financial institutions. Ensuring these two parties’ respective and collective goals are realized often falls to trusted consultants acting as conduits.
Over the course of Samaha & Associates’ nearly 25-year tenure, the firm’s knowledge of core and third-party systems, architectures, databases, applications, and interfaces has helped hundreds of credit unions of all assets classes improve operations. And among the firm’s team are four women who have contributed to the cooperative nature and success of the credit union industry. Interviewed individually, the praise and support of one another was unanimous. This is their collective story.
With core competencies in process improvement, software implementations and support, client relationship management, contract negotiations and project management, Disa D’Andrea has spent approximately 25 years as a technology professional.
“I was hired into the first accounting officer development program at Bank One Corp in Columbus, Ohio in 1996. The objective of the program was to create officers that were well-rounded in banking so everyone in the program had to move to a different department every six months,” D’Andrea recalled. “During my last six months, I was moved to the technology department within finance and accounting, and it just clicked.”
Not long after her shift into tech, Bank One merged with First Chicago NBD Corporation where D’Andrea became the program coordinator for implementing systems, applications and products (SAP).
“I received my project management certification during this project and ultimately this is where technology and projects came together for me,” said D’Andrea, a graduate of Ohio State University, who recently trained as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.
Prior to joining Samaha & Associates, she served as director of client service at Fiserv where she managed a team responsible for the operational support of over 300 Fiserv DNA clients. In this role, she formulated department strategies, created goal-oriented development plans, executed company initiatives and developed annual staff budget using Workforce software.
Often the only woman in the tech department when she began her career, today, she noted, “most of my colleagues are women.”In her view, the “culture and style” of an organization is directly related to the purview of senior management. “It is so important to find the place that is the right fit for you.”
When asked about mentors from her early days, D’Andrea acknowledged a First Chicago NBD Corporation program director who taught her tough lessons.
“As a young professional, I worked long hours and felt my manager was way too hard on me. We put together a lot of presentations at the time and although I felt I was pretty well-written at the time, boy could she use that red pen. In hindsight, I learned so much from her,” she said. “I think back now about her being a woman in a world dominated by men and what she had to do to get to get to her level. After 20 years, I still think of her often. She was just trying to help me do better.”
D’Andrea also referenced a technology manager she later worked for who today is still a mentor, colleague and friend. This person, she added, had a big impact because he always “believed” in her and “motivated” her to produce winning work products.
“As a consultant with Samaha & Associates — when I work with clients, the same premise applies when doing projects. I pay it forward by helping clients with a seamless conversion,” she continued. “[I’m] tough when needed but they always know my motivation is to help them succeed and I am their biggest champion.”
Aside from noticing an increasing number of women in tech roles, D’Andrea said technology has been a constant change agent over the years. Financial institutions that embrace transformation, she added, remain relevant.
“Going paperless, making it possible to accept secure payments in-store or remotely, using a physical card of mobile device, online or through an e-commerce site or mobile app,” she said, citing examples. “For a credit union, the technology project is all about what they can do for the member — provide better rates and services.”
A seasoned technologist who had overseen countless core conversions, D’Andrea said this type of technology undertaking is not without risks and challenges.
“It is a lot of hard work. Much of the staff at our financial institutions during a conversion are doing twice the work, with long hours and vacation moratoriums,” she said. “We have had so many successful implementations during my tenure. Their success and the success of their members are so rewarding.”
Beginning her professional career as a tax accountant for Minnesota Mutual Life in 1990, Tracy Helm’s entry point into the credit union space was uncommon. At age 25, she was encouraged by a group of progressive women to become the president of Minnesota Mutual Life Employees Credit Union in St. Paul, Minn. The credit union was located literally next door to Minnesota Mutual Life. While nervous, she threw her hat in the ring and landed the position.
“I have always had women – even in my early career – supporting me,” said Helm, who also would serve as president of the CUSA Northwest User Group. “It was the women in the credit union space that encouraged me to keep broadening my horizons.”
Helm also received encouragement at home. Her father was a dual-engineer who introduced his daughter to computers. At that point in her young life, interest in technology took hold, noted Helm, who later studied psychology at Arizona State University before transitioning to the University of Minnesota where she earned her degree in accounting.
After overseeing the core conversion at Minnesota Mutual Life Employees Credit Union, Helm’s interest in banking technology caught fire.
“It was a small credit union,” Helm said of the $6 million dollar institution that later merged with a larger credit union. “But it was enough to get a taste.”
She next worked at Jack Henry & Associates spending 20 years honing her skills in electric fund transfers (EFTs), card services and core implementations. She was responsible for leading team members on initiatives on the Symitar Episys platform. Projects included implementations, programming and development, product management, project management, quality assurance, consulting, and customer care. And throughout her tenure at Symitar, female leadership lifted her up.
“When I got to Symitar, my boss was a women, actually two bosses were women. They always gave me opportunities,” Helm recalled. “I went from implementation coordinator all the way to director of card services with the help of women and Symitar.”
While having this type of encouragement was not an ordinary experience for Helm’s contemporaries, she has never forgotten the support she received and is thrilled to see more women working in different tech roles.
“The credit union space has changed significantly. Whereas the leaders of the credit unions were all men, now you see a lot of women in leadership positions, such as director of IT, chief information officer and programmer – there is a good balance now,” she said.
Working for Samaha & Associates, she said, is a natural extension of her 30-plus year career that has been defined by inclusion, innovation and collaboration.
“We all come with different expertise and we all build on each other. Disa [D’Andrea], for example, has an amazing Fiserv DNA background. I don’t have that background, so I’m going to tap into her knowledge,” Helm said of the Samaha team she joined in 2020. “Everyone is so willing to work with each other. We make such a great team.”
The firm, she added, is fueled by the cooperative spirit that defines the credit union industry. This includes CUSOs, she explained, which help credit unions share in the cost of purchasing and implementing leading-edge technologies.
“Credit unions want to deliver the best service – always – to their members. Members are so important – you’re not just an account and this is what differentiates credit unions from the rest of financial institutions,” Helm said. “They want to provide topnotch services and they also want to help other credit unions – they share information.”
In the early 1970s, Janeace Liles learned that a local credit union was in need of “summer relief.” She didn’t know much about credit unions but needed the money. “So why not,” she reflected. This decision started her on a successful career path leading her hire as one of Samaha & Associates’ trusted senior consultants.
“I was a backup teller. It was the first time I had ever worked with a computer – they were old and clunky then but I liked mechanical things, so it was an easy transition for me,” Liles recalled. “I’ve never really left the credit union industry since then.”
Eventually, Liles became the credit union’s backup computer operator. In this role, her interest in technology increased. She was also inspired by a senior manager at the credit union who wrote a computer program for spreadsheets and budgeting, which was later purchased by other area credit unions.
“He was always innovative and showed that technology was the way of the future and that it was going to make life much easier,” Liles said. “He was always encouraging us to do things like get an education.”
She would go onto study program coding and engineering before earning earned a bachelor’s degree in transpersonal psychology from John F. Kennedy University.
“After that, all I have been in is technology. It was natural to me and speaks to my curiosity. I have an engineering mind,” she said. “It’s just fascinating to me and I have been involved on all kinds of levels.”
Liles spent nine years with AEGON’s Creditor Resources, Inc. (CRI) as a field engineer and business analyst. This experience, she noted, allowed her to hone her installation and third-party conversion skills as well as writing interfaces to the CRIterion lending system and insurance products.
“It’s always been about learning about connectivity,” she said. “It’s what I do today – move people through a process they have no idea about. I like to learn, apply and help people.”
For the next 15-plus years, Liles served as part of strategic implementation and project management teams for CUNA Mutual Group and Harland Company and its Ultradata Systems. In this role, she was involved in the project management for core computer system conversions, managing customer relationships and support for the company’s sales and service units. She is also well-versed in automated processing, including call centers, internet applications, automated document production and form generation, and insurance products.
Like her Samaha colleagues, Liles has also seen a change in the number of women in the field of technology, which she welcomes.
“In the beginning, being a woman who wanted to mess with computers – people just didn’t want to deal with me. In the computer rooms, you saw very little women if at all – even support people,” Liles said. “Now I run across core vendors who have women as head of engineering or developing the core – you see them at both the hardware and software levels. And I am seeing more young women interested.”
With regard to her female colleagues at Samaha, and the team at large, Liles has been continually impressed with the caliber of knowledge and expertise each person brings to a project.
“I’ve been with the company almost 12 years and everyone who has come in has really been experts in their area and it is an environment where everyone shares what they know,” Liles said. “We all have a little different perspective on how we understand credit unions. Our advantage is our combined knowledge base is so huge. When there is a question, we know who within our group has that expertise to answer that question. We are a tight, congruent group — a hive mentality.”
What has continually drawn Liles to working with credit unions is what first impressed her about the industry: Credit unions care about their members.
“Credit unions have always been about service and doing what is correct for your membership,” she said, noting that it is increasingly important to offer digital services that attract younger demographics. “The credit unions that embrace this are the ones that thrive.”
Beginning her career as an account coordinator for Estee Lauder, Olivia Reynolds knew a little about the credit union industry because her mother was the first female pipe fitter at Granite City Steel. The Granite City, Ill.-based company founded GCS Credit Union for its employees.
“That’s where her payroll hit and that’s where we opened an account,” Reynolds said, adding that her single mother was employed at the steel mill for 30 years. “Her hard work is instilled in us today,” she added, noting the influence her mother also had on her siblings.
In time, the travel associated with her Estee Lauder gig became untenable and she learned that GSC Credit Union was hiring. Reynolds applied for the position of training manager and was offered the job in 2004. She would stay in that role for a number of years before becoming the credit union’s EFT manager.
“I was a member at GSC Credit Union but I didn’t realize the movement, philosophy and dynamics [of the industry] until I started working [at one]. It was very grassroots and I liked it,” she said, adding that she later moved on to 1st MidAmerica Credit Union, serving as vice president of e-services.
What interested Reynold was how members embraced technology, especially as card services was morphing into digital wallets. In time, she would oversee business systems, online banking departments and manage and coordinate projects related to core processing, third-party vendors, loan origination system, credit and debit processing, online and mobile banking, card networks and the ATM fleet.
“I’m always interested in the next new thing. It’s ever-changing, exciting and fun,” she said of the cards space.
Earning her bachelor's degree in science and business administration from Lindenwood University, Reynolds added that she has a passion for teaching financial literacy to high school seniors and to underbanked communities.
Since beginning her career in the credit union space, women have become more prevalent in a variety of tech roles. She noted anecdotes related to development ideas offered by women designed at making payments increasingly frictionless for members. Additionally, when issues related to backend and frontend applications arise, women, she said, are usually more inclined to encourage people to work together to solve the problem.
“When I talk to department managers, I tell them this isn’t an IT conversion or project, this is a credit union-wide event and everyone has to have a seat at the table,” she said, adding that more and more women are serving in CEO, CFO and CTO roles. “Overtime, credit unions have to realize that we have to break down the walls and barriers and allow everyone to contribute. And this allows [more] women to come to the game.”
Joining the Samaha team in 2021, Reynolds said she enjoys the collaborative experience and agreed with her fellow interviewees that each consultant brings a valuable skillset to each project.
“Coming together with these bright consultants has been great. We are here with the same common goal – save our credit union clients’ money, improve their technologies and keep them relevant,” she said. “We respect the journeys it took for us to get in the positions we are in. Each brings something different to the table, but when it comes together it is a really good symphony – it’s refreshing. We are always sharing ideas to improve our clients’ experience.”
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