At this point in my life, I’m 19 years old, been in college for one year and have only ever worked one real job so far – fast food. Yes, I managed to hold down a fast food career for five years. With the advent of a new position in an office environment needless to say I was very, very excited.
The new company was not very big. The total number of employees was around 8 including me. The office was located in what the owner called “office condos” out in Marietta, GA. This new location marked the beginning of my metro Atlanta commute experience as it was 30 miles from my home and took at least an hour to travel to.
My first few days in this new job were largely about getting to know the people and getting to know the computer systems. Of course, as the computer nerd I gravitated towards these new and unfamiliar computers and systems. The old fascination bug kicked right in.
In my first week, the owner spent some time with me to explain his perspective of the computer problems they were having. The problems largely amounted to an inability to synchronize data amongst the loan originators and the loan processors. He had purchased a robust software package called MortgageWare. He proudly informed me that this was the same software that a very large local bank used for its own mortgage business.
In addition to the data synchronization problems, there were some other less serious concerns about sharing printers, system backups and helping the employees with the word processor packages. Since the top concern was the data synchronization, I started on that problem first.
In order to understand what was going on, I had to learn a bit about the MortgageWare application. The package was a DOS based menu driven application. The menus were broken down into modules that each operated on the same data but allowed the user to view and interact with the data in different ways. Since I did not understand the business, understanding software like this was challenging.
Until my arrival, the MortageWare system administrator role was held by the lead loan processor, Linda. She was delighted to get to hand me the system admin reins, so she spent more than ample time with me getting me up to speed on how she used the system in her daily work.
This experience would be my first lesson in business process analysis although I had no idea of the concept or the term at the time. Linda spent just a few hours each day walking me through the steps she used in the system to process a mortgage loan. I had my pad and pen at the ready and took pages and pages of notes.
I learned how the mortgage application process works from start to finish. The process starts with an application that the borrower completes and provides to the loan originator. In 1993, this was a paper application on a standard form prescribed by FNMA. This form was then brought to a loan processor to enter into the system. This step is the first time the system is used in the process.
Residential mortgage loans are generally one of two primary classifications. The first and most common in 1993 was the refinance. The second was a home purchase. If the loan was a purchase we also needed information from the sales contract to enter into the system. With either loan type, we also received an application fee up front that covered the credit report and loan processing.
As soon as the application was entered it was now time to order the credit reports, appraisals, title searches, deposit verifications, income verifications, request copies of tax returns, etc. Luckily, the MortgageWare system was specifically designed for this business process, so all of these functions were triggered and trackable within the system. To order a credit report, for example, we simply pulled up the application and printed out the credit report order form. The system would print out a credit report request form completed with the applicant’s information, and we would then fax it over to the credit reporting service.
Essentially all of the post-application processes involved ordering a service from another company and then tracking the delivery of the information. The loan processor was largely responsible for driving the process once the application had been entered. However; this was not always the case. This behavior was the source of our first issue.
This was 1993. Small businesses did not usually have LANs in 1993. Another key point was that everyone had MortgageWare on their computers. When a loan originator would work with a client ahead of the application process to do estimates of costs, the originator would do those estimates on his own copy of MortgageWare. Sometimes, the originator would ask Linda for a copy of the database from her system so that they could look over their loans.
What would happen is that the loan originators would change the data, issue new documents to the borrowers and then not tell Linda about it. This uncoordinated action created a data sync nightmare many of which were not discovered until loan closing when the attorney’s HUD-1 did not match our information.
Exacerbating the issue was the fact that the owner was not interested in getting a LAN. The reason was that the MortgageWare package was quite expensive. It was much more expensive for a LAN version. He felt like the cost was not justifiable. Based on his decision, I had to figure something else out.
After learning a bit more about how everyone worked I created a rather simple system. At the end of each business day, I took a full data export from Linda’s system and copied it to each loan originator’s system. Since there were just four originators, this did not take much time. Just to set the technology context in time, these were desktop computers, no remote access so there was no risk of data modification by anyone outside business hours. Additionally, the entire database fit on a 1.44Mb floppy disk. This procedure took about 15 minutes each day.
The reality was that the originators really needed to know the application processing status more than they needed to do what-if simulations. By giving them a fresh copy of the data each day, they had up to date information and therefore were much more comfortable.
In addition to the administrative routine, we did implement one process control as well. All documents generated for the loan package come from Linda’s system – the “master” system. This way we would not have any incongruent data going out and creating problems at closing.
With the data sync process solved I then directed my attention to updating forms and reports. The scenario was that some of the service providers would request additional data on the request forms we sent them. No one knew how to get the data onto the forms, not even Linda. The processors were having to remember to hand write the information on the work orders before faxing them over. This was often forgotten and resulted in process delays and errors. I decided that I would take this on as my next challenge.
In order to make changes to the forms, I had to learn the form design and programming language of the system. I have no memory of the name of the language however I do remember it was like nothing I had seen before. Unfortunately, there was no manual however there was a help function built into the system and some other forms that I could look at to help me learn. Over the course of several days, I learned the form development language and the structure of the system database.
After my brief learning period, I printed out all the existing forms and took them around to the loan originators and other processors and asked what they wanted to be changed. They marked up the forms for me, and I looked them over. There were just a few conflicts to resolve, and I worked those out with the persons who submitted the changes.
With my requirements now in hand, I proceeded to develop the changes to the forms. I managed to get all the changes in just a few days. The owner and all the processors were thrilled! They had waited so long to get these changes made. Before I took on the challenge, they were considering having to pay an expensive MortgageWare consultant to do the work. To me it was just something necessary and fun. I was surprised at the reactions, but I felt an interesting sense of accomplishment.
Once these two larger issues had been resolved, and I was more comfortable in the job, I began to get a little bored. You see, I had fixed the major pain points. There was little for me to do now except the daily system refreshes. One day I decided to mention this to Linda. I had always known her to be extremely busy, but I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.
Linda decided that now was a great time to make me into a loan processor. She took a few new loans off her queue and gave them to me to process completely. I was a little nervous. I was now responsible for some family getting a new home loan or refinance. Luckily Linda was a great coach. The next thing I knew I had become a full-fledged residential mortgage loan processor and my computer nerd role was something I just did on the side as needed.
Time passed, and I became comfortable in the role and with the company. I began to learn about people and working styles. Since fast food was all I had known I was used to working around people that were either my age or my education level. Now, I was surrounded by white collar professionals who were all old enough to be my parents. The owner in particular had a behavior pattern I had not yet experienced.
Each week on Monday’s we had a staff meeting. The owner would basically tell us what new loans were coming in and discuss any pressing concerns. While this seems rather innocuous, what was most concerning was the manner in which he would communicate with us. Yelling, screaming pounding the table, threats were commonplace in the Monday meeting. It was a very uncomfortable time.
One day during the meeting, the whole company was getting their weekly tongue lashing when I picked up on a particular point. The owner was griping about not having a view of the status of all the loans in the company. He had very specific questions for each originator, and they always had to “get back to him”. This made him livid. He had questions, and he wanted answers right then.
One of the originators and I had developed a good working relationship. After the meeting that day I went back to his office and explained to him that I knew where all the information the owner was asking for was located in the system and that I’d like to try and solve his problem. The originator was ecstatic! I asked him if he would help me mark up a report and that I’d get to work on it.
Right then, he and I spent about an hour together identifying all the data that would be needed to answer the owner’s questions. We sketched it out on some blank copy paper as to where each element of the report would be located.
That afternoon I took the sketched out design and got to work developing the report.
Here it all comes together. The form language I had used some months earlier was the same language used to create reports out of MortgageWare, so I already knew how to build reports. In the process of changing the forms I had learned the database structure so I knew where the data was located. Through executing the business processes as a loan processor, I knew what data was relevant to the decisions the owner needed to make.
By the end of the second day after the copy paper design I had my first working report. I brought it into my working partner, and he suggested a few changes. I made the changes quickly and presented him an updated version. It was perfect. He and I were so excited that we decided to put our names and the design date at the bottom of the report. We couldn’t wait to present it to the owner at the next Monday meeting.
Monday arrives. My working partner and I have copies of the report with us. We keep them hidden until just the right moment. As usual the owner starts his banter. He starts asking questions of the originators and processors about loan status. He is exceptionally raw on this day. At just the right time, my working partner interrupts him and summarizes the questions the owner has asked. He then proceeds to answer ALL of them precisely. The owner is surprised and just before he speaks the originator places the report in front of the owner.
“You can get these answers whenever you need them, right out of Linda’s system,” said the originator. The owner sat silent then took off his glasses. He pounded the table and yelled “Dammit! I have spent my entire career trying to get these answers about where my business is, and now here they are. Now what am I going to yell about?” he smirked.
The owner then openly thanked myself and the originator for taking the initiative to help him get the information he needed. Honestly, I just wanted him to stop yelling, and I wanted to do something fun with the system. Remember I was only 19. Little did I know that this was immensely valuable to this little mortgage business and its ability to provide a valuable service to its applicants.
Many years later, I found myself married and ready to purchase my first home. I had moved on from the mortgage company several years earlier but still kept in touch with the owner and my loan originator friend. I thought it would be great to get my mortgage through my old employer.
The owner and I worked out the details and he took my application over the phone. I sent him the information he needed right away because I knew the process intimately. Since law requires it he sent me the required disclosures shortly after I applied.
Inside that package of papers was a copy of the report I had made for him all those years ago. It still had my name on it and was completely unchanged since my co-worker and I had designed and developed it.
The moral of the story is simply this: knowing the tools is not enough, knowing the business is not enough, but, by learning the tools AND learning the business someone can solve very costly business problems in much less time than might be expected. One just needs to know where to look.