Fueling financial freedom with data: A Q&A with Darren Pedroza, VP Enterprise Data and Analytics at First Command Financial Services

For members of the military, financial planning is a difficult and ever-changing process. Few businesses understand this better than First Command Financial Services, which focuses on serving the nation’s military families with flexible solutions to home mortgages, car loans, and wealth management. With three-quarters of their financial advisors either military veterans or military spouses themselves, the company is uniquely positioned to help these families in their pursuit of financial security.

To help meet the evolving needs of clients, Darren Pedroza, VP of Enterprise Data and Analytics, has gone all in on cloud. In a recent episode of The Data Chief, Darren sat down with Cindi Howson to discuss how he is breaking down data silos and enhancing user experiences with a modern data stack. Read on for more.

Cindi Howson speaking with Darren Pedroza.

Cindi Howson: You're doing some interesting data-related things at First Command Financial Services, where all of your services are powered by data. What is the role of the cloud?

Darren Pedroza: We look at adopting cloud technologies, not just for data, but for partner systems. We're not a big company, so we have to be diligent about the build versus buy scenarios. Right now, our primary cloud is Azure. What we're doing from a build perspective is trying to adopt as much natively as possible for a couple of reasons. One is we want to make sure that the employees that we've had over the years have an opportunity to continue to upskill and grow professionally. Another is we’re thinking about SaaS providers, and one of our strategies is implementing Salesforce.

One of the roles that the cloud is playing is about scale. Number two is for a small company, we do have a data center that takes time, effort, and people to manage. It’s part of the evolution of, "How do we aggregate the company's data in the most effective way?" When I first arrived about three and a half years ago, there was a traditional data warehousing strategy that was in place that the company was trying to go through. We started adopting Azure in earnest about six to eight months ago. The power of looking at data from a pipeline perspective as opposed to a traditional warehouse perspective has changed our game. The role of the cloud in our data strategy is all about flexibility, agility, and democratization.

Cindi: If you think of where people were when your new leadership said, "We're going all-in on cloud," was their reaction positive, or was there hesitancy?

Darren: If you think of the cloud as the ocean, some folks are excited to go to the beach, look at the ocean, and get their feet wet. But as you go out there and swim more, you have this fear of what you can't see. What's swimming around under me? Our staff is like that with the modernization of our technologies, particularly with the cloud. One thing I love about the family at First Command is there is this one team, one mission mentality. However, as we wade out into the deep, you start to see the apprehension of, "I don't know what's next. I'm learning this skill, but where is it taking me?" There are so many assets that the teams are using and adopting, but not many people have been down this path before. I think that's been the apprehension more than anything.

Cindi: You're viewing the whole pipeline of data from the data capture in Salesforce through to a data product. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Darren: I believe that data is the connective tissue across the company, but good data doesn't just happen. When you think about, "How do we get to the point where you have fully trusted data across the enterprise?", for a while, the biggest challenge was that many of my stakeholders view data as an endpoint that's either a report or a dashboard. The idea that data has a life cycle and evangelizing what that lifecycle is across the company and how it impacts applications, data flows, our partners, and how we're impacted by our partners in return has been the biggest rock to keep pushing. The way we're looking at this is that we are not unique; I believe a lot of companies are experiencing this. 

I like to say there are two root causes of bad data. The first root cause is data silos. Even at companies that have great master data management and single sources of truth, because of data export tools like Excel and Access, you can create your version of the truth. Suddenly, you have reconciliation challenges across the company. The second part is that user experience is not easy. Having a simple, clear, and pleasant user experience is key to collecting clean data. We often think about collecting data as data entry or scanning a form, but the best data collection experiences are the ones that are good user experiences. Applications with great workflows are experiences where you don't have to have a break in the flow to get something.

With Salesforce, we believe that's going to unify the experience between our employees, our advisors, and our clients. It's going to make clean data collection more ubiquitous in the whole process and not an afterthought. Being able to simplify how the applications are going to integrate is also a big thing that's helping us with the data. That takes me to the third point of building the pipelines where we can uniformly aggregate data using either Azure Data Factory or Databricks. We're adopting a lake house architecture. It's allowing us to show our technology and business stakeholders the meaningful life cycle of our data.

Cindi: What brought about the acceleration of your adoption of ThoughtSpot?

Darren: At First Command, we've always been a face-to-face financial coaching company. When the pandemic hit, we had to quickly equip our financial advisors and support personnel to adapt our proven personalized approach and offer that virtually. What we were able to do, particularly with ThoughtSpot, was we picked some of the most critical company KPIs that we could automate to ThoughtSpot. We wanted to pick data that would tell us about our clients, our advisors, and the performance of the company.

We started out looking at our asset flows and put a daily visualization pinboard in front of our Chief Investment Officer daily. It allowed him to analyze, "What are our clients doing? Are assets moving in the ways that we think they are? How are our advisors coaching our clients through this pandemic and the investments that they're making? And then, as a company, how do those translate to our overall performance?" In some cases, assumptions were validated; in others, they were blown up. But it allowed us to push self-service analytics forward because here's a business group that’s got the data at their fingertips without an intermediary IT group building them some BI dashboard. It proved that they not only benefited from it but grew dependent on it.

Cindi: What was your process to go through that change management?

Darren: I think our biggest challenge was time to market. Anything that we provided required the beginnings of the pipeline. So, we built the pipeline to populate the data lake to then get ThoughtSpot up and running. That's the part that required the most education with my stakeholders, because the appetite is, "If you can give this to me today, give this to me today." The other thing I realized is everybody loves talking about data until you start talking about it. Putting ThoughtSpot in front of our decision-makers forced more questions. Before that, there were a lot of questions about the mechanics. But when they have something easy to adopt and use, the conversation quickly turns to, "Oh, this is telling me this. Well, can it tell me this?" It became a more insightful conversation.

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