CommonBond democratized internal tooling with Retool
CommonBond is a New York based leading financial technology company that offers a suite of student loan-based solutions to consumers and enterprises. Consumers benefit from more affordable, transparent, and simple ways to pay their student debt. Enterprises benefit from tech-forward acquisition and engagement capabilities to scale their businesses with Millennials and Gen Z.
Financing loans is no walk in the park: there are layers and layers of operational overhead, workflows, and approval processes to take care of on the backend. With tight regulations and compliance requirements, these processes need to balance speed and efficiency with rigidity and transparency.
CommonBond wanted best in class internal tooling to effectively handle the volume of loans coming into the system and get decisions to customers quickly. Their operations team leverages external data sources, reviews loan application data, and writes decisions back via internal APIs. Early in CommonBond’s product, they invested heavily in an admin UI to take care of all of this work on the backend and give a simple frontend to non-technical ops users.
The problem was the admin UI needed support to scale as fast as the rest of CommonBond: as new layers kept getting added to the product, internal tools were not as seamlessly able to keep up. Every new feature in the core product required additions and maintenance to the admin UI, but the necessary admin changes were not happening as quickly. Core workflows for the operations team were starting to get backed up and require engineering time, impacting downstream decision processes and timelines to support their end customers and their applications.
Engineering would try to dedicate a sprint every few months to some of the growing backlog for the PHP-based admin UI, but it was often times an uphill battle. CommonBond’s CTO Dean McRobie contrasted internal dashboards with customer facing features: “your admin tools never get the kind of developer focus that your product features get.” Without a tool for working with new product APIs, engineers had to manually muck around in databases: according to Dean, “this gap was costing us thousands of dollars in terms of time lost triaging and manually solving problems.”
CommonBond started building their internal tools in Retool to speed up their build time and ease the maintenance burden on their engineers. Using Retool, CommonBond’s engineering team were able to stop worrying about the annoying, repetitive parts of building internal tools – like maintaining components, triggering queries, and auth – and build more robust, useful tool sets for operations and marketing. The engineering org had started using tools like Mode and Looker to get more users access to read data, but team members weren’t able to act on that data until they started using Retool.
The CommonBond engineering team was also able to connect more disparate data sources than they were able to in the past: for example, they were able to use the NSC API to pull in degree verification data that was needed for loan approval. This would have been too time consuming to build into the original admin UI tool, but took only a few minutes of work in Retool. For Dean, “surfacing data across silos has been really powerful: ops to marketing, marketing to underwriting, and underwriting to risk modeling.”
Since deploying Retool, CommonBond has been able to overcome the growing backlog of internal tool requests and continue providing a best-in-class customer experience. CommonBond has built 50 operational product tools in Retool and has virtually eliminated the backlog of delayed stakeholder requests.
One of the biggest benefits of Retool for CommonBond was democratizing tool maintenance. If a button needed to be updated to a dropdown, default values changed, or queries updated, that used to be a ticket on an engineer’s backlog; now, people on the ops team can take care of that themselves. People who wouldn’t be able to build frontends from scratch can build their own tools now: “they’re not traditionally technical people, but now they don’t need to work with a dev to get things done.”
Dean didn’t let us go without a request: “I tell every technology leader I talk to that they should look at Retool as a way to reduce the burden of building admin UIs and democratize that kind of stuff across their company. So I’m going to need a referral code from you guys to collect some kind of bonus.”