Project Unplug – Actionable Takeaways from American Express’ Legacy Data Platform Decommissioning Journey

Interview with Kavita Gupta, VP - Enterprise Data Platforms, Enterprise Digital and Data Solutions at American Express.
Project Unplug – Actionable Takeaways from American Express’ Legacy Data Platform Decommissioning Journey

For years, IDN (Information Delivery Network) played a central role in American Express’ data infrastructure, facilitating data distribution and empowering numerous critical business functions. However, recognizing the shifting landscape of big data needs and evolving data management standards, the global banking and financial services giant embarked on "Project Unplug," a transformative journey to decommission IDN.

We interviewed Kavita Gupta, Vice President, Enterprise Data Platforms, Enterprise Digital and Data Solutions at American Express, to get an overview of the decommissioning process. Gupta and her team set out on an 18-month-long journey at the end of 2021 to decommission IDN, creating a migration plan for data, users, and use cases to the on-premises Big Data environment. IDN was officially unplugged on June 30, last year.

Gupta has been working with American Express for over 16 years, and she describes the transformation as “ of the largest change management initiatives,” she has seen rolled out in her tenure.

This interview delves into the rationale behind this significant shift, key learnings for the team, and critical takeaways for enterprise data leaders looking to make a similar move.

Edited Excerpts:


What strategies were implemented to ensure a smooth transition without disruptions to ongoing operations?


It was table stakes that we had a strong plan of action and partnership with 30+ stakeholder business teams to make sure Project Unplug could proceed without disrupting business.

Before we officially kicked off Project Unplug, we spent nine months laying out our vision and engaging senior leaders across the enterprise for their sponsorship. This was one of the most important steps we took as we would need key points of contact in every function. This pre-planning went a very long way in helping create a smooth operating model for actual execution.


How did you communicate the decommissioning process to various stakeholders within the organization? Were there any lessons learned regarding effective communication during such transitions?


Communication would easily land in the top three success factors for Project Unplug. With a scale so massive and the additional complexity of a legacy platform, we knew from the start we had to find creative ways to communicate.

Some strategies we adopted were:

A. The WHO – We reached far and wide with our distribution group of thousands of registered platform users. But we also went up several levels, regularly engaging leaders of the partner teams across the enterprise at varying levels of seniority to help with a top-down approach.

B. The HOW – We leveraged a multitude of channels, including one-on-one emails, notifications to focused channels such as bi-weekly team meetings with function leads, as well as outreach to broader channels like town halls, staff meetings, office hours, and in-office signage.

C. The WHEN – We kept our team connected and informed with monthly communications. As we progressed, we increased to bi-weekly communications during the last six months of Project Unplug.


How did different teams collaborate throughout the decommissioning process, especially the organizational leadership? Were there any noteworthy team dynamics or collaborative efforts that contributed to the success?


While our team was at the heart of leading the plan and execution for Project Unplug, it certainly was a team effort! The role of the data stewards on the project is an excellent example of cross-team collaboration. As teams were moving their analytics and processes to our Big Data environment they relied heavily on data stewards across domains like Risk, Marketing, Servicing, and more, to help them identify new data sources, mappings, and transformation logic to successfully move their processes.

More than 10,000 attribute mappings were consolidated across data domains by the end of the project – which is a testament to collaboration.


How did you ensure that the decommissioning process complied with data governance policies and regulatory requirements? Were there any specific compliance challenges that needed special attention?


It was important to us that the timely delivery of Project Unplug did not overshadow our standards of data management and governance practices.

Following are some examples of how Unplug wasn’t just a platform decommissioning effort, but also an opportunity that teams took to further our enterprise agenda of strong data governance:

  1. Data stewards were brought in as an integral part of Project Unplug, helping users point to our new platform’s data sources and mappings as they migrated their processes.

  2. In moving to the new platform, we ensured all new data and processes were taken through our robust metadata and onboarding frameworks in the new platform for ongoing data management.

  3. Regulatory requirements were rigorously adhered to.

  4. Lastly, where needed, we established transparent frameworks of ownership changes to ensure we are making consistent decisions and minimizing exception handling.


Were there initiatives to upskill or reskill employees to align with the new data platform? How did you address potential skill gaps to ensure smooth adoption?


In my 16 years of working at Amex, this was one of the largest change management initiatives I have seen rolled out and it was done under my leadership. It wouldn’t have mattered how successful the “technical migration” of the platform was if we’d missed the mark on bringing our colleagues along the journey.

One way we got our colleagues excited was by launching a full-fledged training academy that trained thousands of colleagues on a wide variety of topics, including the new platform’s tech stack, data domains, business intelligence tools, and coding best practices.

Performance management on the new platform we migrated to was a new area of expertise for many migrating users, and we created several customized training schedules to ensure this aspect of change management was given due attention.

We also invested significant time with technology partners to lend central expertise to re-architect their processes so that the decommission wasn’t just a lift-and-shift. Instead, it was a project that was larger than the sum of its parts and truly took advantage of the modern tech stack to power the larger goals of digitization, personalization, and best-in-class customer experience.


What lessons did the team learn from the decommissioning process that could be valuable for other organizations facing similar challenges? Are there any key takeaways or best practices that emerged from this experience?


I have already shared the importance of pre-planning and stakeholder buy-in, consistent and clear communication, collaboration across product, technology, data stewards, end users, and more.

However, there were a couple of other aspects of this project that I would strongly emphasize to other organizations attempting a similar feat:

1. Set an end date and make that date immovable. In fact, most decommission projects are usually plagued by moving goalposts and timelines which reduce focus and dilute effort. As Project Unplug was deemed an enterprise top priority and had strong sponsorship from our own leadership, there were uncountable times in the 18-month period when we stood our ground that no user would be able to extend their timelines.

2. Create champions, celebrate milestones, and provide visibility for partners who are engaged and making progress. Decommissions typically aren’t the cool projects, but as we showed colleagues the benefits of moving to the new platform, we provided recognition for our partners. In time, Project Unplug became one of the most coveted projects for partners to associate themselves with in 2023.

No matter how much you communicate, there will always be unforeseen circumstances that arise until the very end. When this happened during Project Unplug, as it often did, we plunged into “bias for action” mode. Meaning, we got extremely focused on the scope definition at hand and looped in senior leaders quickly for awareness, support, and prioritization while the teams resolved the issues.


Did you establish a feedback loop with stakeholders to gather insights into their experience post-decommissioning? How are the lessons learned being applied to continuous improvement in data management practices?


June 30, 2023, is when we officially closed all user access to the IDN platform and unplugged it. It was a great testament to the thorough planning and management our teams had done in the 1.5 years of the decommissioning process that despite the scale and complexity, we didn’t face any business-critical issues post-decommission. Further, no servers or data had to be revoked to accommodate any post-decommission fixes.

We are all always excited about building the next new and shiny feature or platform but are not great at putting the effort into decommissioning legacy assets that need to be scaled down.

Project Unplug has widely been recognized as a great example of not just doing what’s right, but also doing it the right way.

I am proud that our teams have been invited to several enterprise forums to share the secret sauce to making a decommission successful.

About Kavita Gupta:

A professional with 17+ years of experience in the financial industry, Kavita Gupta has held several leadership roles across Data and Analytics, Product Management, and Platform Modernization. In her current role as Vice President at American Express in Enterprise Digital and Data Solutions, she leads enablement and product delivery for real-time data solutions and the adoption roadmap for enterprise big data platform modernization.

She is also responsible for innovative charters like next-gen big data transformation to public cloud, the decommissioning of legacy platforms, and developing real-time capabilities to advance digitization and personalization that power best-in-class customer experiences.

Since starting her career in India, Gupta has worked in several geographic areas and across a variety of market segments including consumer and small business. A patent holder and a change agent, she thrives on leading teams. She is passionate about driving results for complex matrixed initiatives through strong partnerships. She is also passionate about mentorship, diversity and inclusion, and innovation through collaboration.

Gupta lives in New Jersey with her husband and two kids. Outside of work, its travel, music, her family, and close knit friends that keep her happy and inspired.

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