Balancing Client Requests with the Long-Term Vision Is Crucial
Based on an interview with Mark Nahlovsky,
EVP – Product Strategy and Solutions Consulting at ActiFi, Inc.
ActiFi presents itself as an advisor success company. Mark’s role at the company is split between translating clients’ requirements, enabling the use of an advisor engagement process on their SuccessPro Platform, and leading the product team. For over 14 years at ActiFi, Mark has faced the challenge of balancing the long-term organizational needs and those of the customers. In this interview, we discuss how they deal with this issue, along with some of the more interesting practices that Mark employs to manage teams, recruit people, and associate with the other executives.
Flexible or prescriptive? The best integration strategy
In FinTech, there are more opportunities than time. One area where ActiFi is actively investing is visualizing their client’s requirements more quickly to push the boundaries of how their software can enable even more of their processes. The more that ActiFi can be viewed as its clients partner for enabling their vision, the more value its clients will receive. However, it isn’t obvious how to reconcile this rush toward new features and long-term product vision and needs.
“The pace of change with development frameworks has been a challenge—especially to explain to key business stakeholders why stories and spikes regarding framework research and updates are prioritized just as high as stories depicting features for clients.”
This also has affected the way Mark recruits employees versus partners with experts. The goal is to have employees who can be close followers to advancements and leverage partners to stay on the cutting edge of technology. This way employees can also keep their skills current by having expert third parties implement new frameworks or employ best practices with DevOps.
Another problem is integrating with the clients’ platforms. ActiFi provides a white-labeled software to financial institutions and integrates through both its and its client’s APIs, and they find this way more preferable than custom integrations. Still, there are plenty of firms that send them flat files with different columns and data formats, Mark admits.
“The big learning we are having is as follows: Providing a blank slate that can be customized (i.e., a Platform) is a daunting task for most firms. Providing a solution configured with a best practice and allowing the firm to configure the last 20% to their exact needs seems to be the best option.”
With integrations, the key insight Mark has had is to get better at being directive about the best way to integrate with their solution and not be “order takers” from large clients. They’ve been investing a lot in the documentation and are working to be more prescriptive in how they integrate to better scale and provide better support.
“Early on, we were overly flexible when it came to integration and in some cases too passive when it came to sharing what the best way to integrate with our solution is. We have changed course on this and are now being very prescriptive when it comes to how to integrate with our solution. This will not only make it easier for us to support integration points but also should make it easier for our clients to align to our specs.”
Navigating business and developers needs
According to Mark, they are really trying to shorten the list of tools the product team has to learn and use. Moreover, they switch only if enough research has been done to warrant the tool. The research includes a lot of networking with the third-party partners of ActiFi, as well as other firms in the Minneapolis area and FinTech space.
Still, before finding the optimal solution, Mark and his team went through a hit-or-miss period. For example, in the beginning, they used Trello, and it worked great for the development team while having a tough time engaging the business because it couldn’t provide meaningful reports. Yet, it was dead simple to use and was ideal for the purposes of the developers. Then they tried SmartSheet because they had business people comfortable with it.
“We thought we would ‘prove out’ our process for collaboration on requirements, product backlog grooming, and reporting with it. It worked well for the business, but the developers hated it.”
Finally, they switched to Jira and continue to use it today for both time- and task tracking.
“We used to have developers enter time in our corporate time management system, but it felt like more of a game, and [we] found using Story Points that are collaboratively set to be a much better indicator of what types of features/issues/tasks we are spending our time on.”
The business has found it to be quite difficult to navigate and obtain the reports. The development team has grown used to it, however, and it’s on par with Trello in terms of usability. The product team and Mark think it works great, but they still have to buffer the business a bit, which makes it less collaborative than they would like.
At the same time, Mark admits that they lack better means of visualizing the product road map and having prioritization discussions on features and investments. Currently, Mark and his team are evaluating Product Board, but they have some concerns that they will need to track things in both it and Jira.
Corporate culture as team management baseline
Mark feels that ActiFi’s culture and team culture are its greatest strength. They’re taking steps to improve the onboarding process and bringing the third-party partners in for that. The local market Mark and ActiFi operate within have some pretty large firms that compete for talent. So they’ve made a point of looking for employees that want to work in a smaller environment and leverage strategic partners to augment the team.
“Our key is to hire cultural fits that have a passion for our mission and partner with resources and firms where we need to augment technical skills.”
To bridge the gap between finance professionals and engineers, Mark implemented face-to-face meetings and design sessions with a clear objective and purpose, as well as established communication in dedicated Slack channels.
“We’ve found that our best work is done with both parties, making the extra effort to meet each more than halfway. The engineers and business people that haven’t ‘worked’ at our firm were the ones that would dig in their heels in their respective discipline and wouldn’t budge or make the extra effort to see the other’s point-of-view.”
With the CEO and other key executives, Mark holds product prioritization sessions to work through the strategic backlog and talk through major initiatives. These in turn get distilled into epics and stories that find their way into the product backlog and future sprints. Additionally, they have weekly lunches with the CEO and the product team, including engineers, where they have an open dialogue on pretty much any topic you can think of. The goal is to tap each other’s experience and passions to build camaraderie but also talk about trends and potential applications of their product. It is also a means of sharing knowledge – the business imparts financial services education on the product team and the product in turn shares trends with tech.
“We are bringing the entire company together for training and then team-by-team mentoring. The success of our process is because of the members of the team and their commitment to following a process, and there is a universal desire to get better. The organization as a whole is metrics-driven, and we no longer have meetings that do not have agendas or some sort of dashboard to guide it.”
To measure the team’s efficiency, Mark says, they report progress to management on a weekly basis (they leverage the concept of Quarterly OKRs) because there’s a culture of transparency within the company.
Mark says that he is personally motivated through being part of an organization that allows him to bring on other A Players and have those becoming experts and leaders in areas that he no longer has to be.
“When we started down the software path, the core team was doing a little bit of everything, and we have turned the corner and are allowing people to ‘pick a lane’ that they can excel at. I have the pleasure of leading a great group on the product team. They are all self-motivated leaders in their own right, which allows me to spend a lot of my time helping our clients implement solutions on our SuccessPro Platform.”