The Good, Bad and Ugly of Technology Service Integration

We are rolling out a project next week that is really one of our crowning achievements as a small company.  The project involves replacing an out-dated and cumbersome Access database that runs a sales and loan process for our medium sized client with an end-to-end solution based on QuickBase.  What is most exciting is that we are integrating three external data sources as part of the process; web based application capture, credit reports and electronic signatures.

Our recent adoption of the Talend ETL technology to run our integrations has opened the door for us to tackle this project at an accelerated pace and reduced cost to our client.  Even with the new tools the human and partnering elements of the integration processes make a great study in the good, bad and ugly of system and service integration.

Web Application Capture

This integration was the easiest of the three but still brings to light some interesting challenges.  Early in the process we identified that over time our client had posted a number of application capture websites for their loan product.  The websites were hosted with different providers that had different data policies.  It turned out that only one of the sites was hosted by a provider that would allow access to the site database.  This restriction on the database can be quite common with low cost providers.

In the end we were able to work with the client to consolidate hosting providers and set up the domains on a single hosting service that allowed database access via ODBC.  We were then easily able to connect and extract the data using Talend ETL tools.

Credit Reports

As part of the loan approval process, our client checks credit on all applications.  They use the Equifax credit reporting service and currently pull each credit report individually over the web.  This process can take hours per day for the staff and also delays the speed at which agents can follow up and contact loan applicants.  Using the Talend ETL tools we were able to automate the credit report retrieval and push the data to QuickBase for review.  Low credit scores can automatically be filterd out and the applications reviewed and assigned to sales within minutes of the client submission.

Integrating with the Equifax credit reporting service is not without it challenges.  Administratively Equifax is very bureaucratic about gaining access due to security concerns.  This is not without good reason but needs to be planned for.  The API documentation is not published for the public, so can only be accessed when the (system-to-system) STS service is negotiated with Equifax sales.  Once we gained access to the API we also had to undergo and on-site security review of of our development facilities and our client had to work with Equifax to gain approval and access codes for the integrated service.

The technical integration with Equifax also has a number of complexities.  The most well documented method post fixed length data using HTTP.  Setting up fixed length data is quite cumbersome so we pursued the less well documented XML method.  Fortunately Equifax employs a full time staff person from IBM to oversee their integration services.  We were able to get some specific instruction on several minor nuances of the XML integration that are not documented and thus succeed in connecting and accessing the needed data.

Electronic Signatures

Especially in a loan processing environment, collecting signatures electronically can save tons of time, avoid errors and save overnight document shipping costs.  What’s exciting is the ability to not just get electronic signatures but to dynamically populate the agreements from QuickBase data and also collect data entered by the signers back to the QuickBase application.

Our client initially selected one of the larger electronic document services.  After struggling for weeks with a poorly documented API and a service department that admitted they were not even sure how their own API worked we succeeded on structuring the correct calls to connect to the service.  then just before going live the service informed our client that they would have to pay a $2500 fee to use the service with integrated data.  As a result we worked wit the client to find Agreement Express, a newer and exciting player in the electronic signature space.

Yet again, the integration with Agreement Express has not been without complexity.  Their HAPI API is designed primarily for web site based document creation and not system to system data exchange. Fortunately the Agreement Express technologists have a firm control and understanding of their technolgy and have been able to quickly work with us to develop a tailored API that fits our client’s needs and will likely benefit other clients in the future.

As we move to the roll out of this exciting project, it has been valuable to reflect back on the challenges above.  One of the most important takeaways for looking at system to service integrations is to understand that the underlying technologies, clarity and completeness of documentation and service technology staff all play a significant role in how well an integration project succeeds.

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