Retail SaaS Platforms at the Cutting Edge with Jason Zubrick of defi SOLUTIONS
Jason Zubrick has enjoyed a trailblazing career in retail finance, helping small-scale outlets revolutionize their technology approach, as the CTO at defi SOLUTIONS. defi’s loan origination solution provides banks, credit unions, and auto lenders with a flexible technology platform that enables modern lending programs.
Innovation and accuracy underpin performance in this industry and Jason emphasizes testing as central to ensuring defi remains ahead of the curve in a demanding market.
With 15 years in retail, including at video game retailer GameStop, Jason has a unique take on SaaS, retail, and trends in tech, as well as fascinating insights into what’s next in the field.
Ledge: Jason, Rob, really cool to have you guys here. Thanks so much for joining us.
Jason: Great to be here.
Rob: Pleasure. Thanks for having us.
Ledge: Could one of you just jump in and do a two or three minute background story. It’s fun to get a little tag team episode together.
How about Rob? Why don’t you tell a little story.
Rob: Let’s see. Defi Solutions. We are a technology tools company for lenders. Over the last seven years we’ve been putting together a technology stack that really is providing exceptional lending ecosystems.
We started with the idea of being able to get mom and pop shops up to technology spec today. Usually when you look at the lending space, the loan origination world, home lending is usually out there in front and technology, and you still fill out paper and pencil when you go into a car lending shop these days.
Really just helping everyone play with the big boys, and getting the quick decision model automated, kind of the game plan that we do.
Ledge: Alright. Obviously, innovation is big thing on there.
Jason, I’ll give you the mike for a few minutes or a few seconds. What do you want to add to that on the technology side? I am interested that you guys have both this innovation thinking and technology thinking, and particularly how those roles would divide across a SaaS business.
Jason: I think what’s so interesting is, innovation is where we come from. Our entire platform was built based on our founder’s vision for what we wanted to do in the auto lending industry. They are innovators in and of themselves and how they think about extending platforms and capabilities to our clients.
We’ve got the word freedom just broadcast around here loudly all over the place because that’s what we’re trying to do for our lenders. We’re trying to give them every possible feature at their fingertips as quickly as possible.
As you can imagine for a technology company, any time somebody says the word ‘automatic’ it’s immediately six months worth of work. Trying to turn that into something valuable for our clients quickly and safely is really important, especially in the lending industry. We’re dealing with people’s money, and we’re dealing with a lot of customer data so, how do you do these things in a risk-averse way, keep a platform up and running? It’s a lot of variables that fit into what we do every day.
I love the idea of a chief innovation officer. Rob fits that role perfectly. Maybe Rob can just talk about what he does. The way that I view it is that, a CTO has to deal with past, present and future and Rob, fortunately, is here to help me with that future. That’s what I see the innovation side doing.
Rob, you want to talk a little bit about that?
Rob: Sure. When you look at a lot of… We kind of hinted about it around the edges of this, but the big thing about what makes defi so interesting and why our LOS is a great player in that market is the fact that it’s really customizable.
All of our lenders, every one of them, has a completely different way of doing their work. Being able to have a system that can flex to whatever is necessary, not just for what they need but for what they’re going to need in the future is very important.
My division’s entire goal is we… I kind of joke that Jason deals with the business day-to-day, and I deal with the technology day-to-day. Looking at what’s coming next. Understanding where we need to take things to be able to quickly bring these new technologies to market and get them in lenders hands in ways that are safe and understood. They’re not trying to figure out what the next cloud should be or what technologies I need in there.
At the core of what I do, or our group does is, check those technologies. Understand how that’s going to fit within the architecture. Make sure that we get that done properly. Then, working closely with our clients and customers to get them the knowledge they need and the technologies they need to smartly do lending.
Ledge: That’s interesting. I wonder, how do you handle product? The way that an agile engineering organization might have product managers, or your customer success and those things, it sounds like you guys maybe have a different slice on those functions – the way that you’re thinking about innovation and technology.
That would be cool to unpack a little bit.
Jason: It is a little bit different. Really, what they’re doing is, our product management folks are taking direct input from our clients. Our clients are very needy. They have very specific needs. They need it quickly, because it’s really dollars and cents. If we can’t get this in by a certain date, it really means that they’re not going to make money.
It’s a little bit different than other software organizations where you could push it out a day or two, it’s no big deal. You push it out a day or two and, the features that these clients that we have were waiting for, now they can’t offer these things to their customers and they lose a lot of money.
The product management side of the fence isn’t all that dissimilar, it just seems like it’s a lot more fast paced. It’s constant context switching because we’re dealing with so many different features, we’re dealing with so many clients asking for all of these things that are so complex, and because the system is so feature-rich and it gives you so many different ways to configure a system, I’d say one of the hardest things that we have to do is test.
Most of the configurations, they’re data relationships and not so much code relationships. So, really, when you’re creating these configurations, being able to test them through their configuration so when an application comes in it is ridiculously difficult . To keep the platform safe so we’re not running into issues is a monumental task.
Rob: Definitely, when the customer is coming to us they’re coming looking for an answer. When you look at what my area does, we’re trying to keep an eye on what the market is. Our sales and business teams go to a lot of the conferences that in our area. They’re talking with our other vendors and such and making sure we understand what’s going on.
That information comes back through our groups. I usually like to make sure the innovation group is about a quarter ahead of what the development group is, so when they come looking for answers we have them to give. We’ve already been thinking about those things. We’ve done some work and done some proof of concepts that say, hey, these things are valuable and we should look into them next.
Jason: I’d say really, one of the biggest steps that we’ve made, coming on the heels of moving to AWS this last summer, is now we’ve been given an entirely new toolbox. Going from a traditional data center where you’re kind of stuck with whatever software you can manage, to now an infinitely scalable set of tools that really allow us to deliver features a lot faster and excite the hell out of Rob’s team. He’s got a whole bunch of things that he can play with and help deliver. I’d say that’s huge.
Ledge: What’s your CI/CD disposition? Obviously, you have that kind of rapid launch and ship code really quickly kind of vibe. I think this is important for any SaaS provider. It sounds like you’re really emphasizing speed of shipping code. How do you work that out from a technology toolchain and also from the organizational set up of the engineering teams?
Rob: Well, the core of what we’ve done, as Jason alluded to, we just moved out of a private cloud into AWS. The first thing we looked at is, how do we built automated deployment pipeline? We definitely looking at a DevOps kind of environment here at defi. Having developers be able to own from creation to production.
We spend a lot of time looking exactly what that pipeline would look like. Removing all those little stops and gaps between all those things so you’re not shipping large quantities of product before it actually hits production as quick as possible. One piece flow, is what we kind of talk about. A lot of, if you look at books like The Phoenix Project, things like that and you look at the three ways, we really try to instill that with all our developers here.
The reason why we looked at something like AWS is, if you ever looked at a book by like Ron Goldman, or Richard Gabriel – they wrote a book called Innovation Happens Elsewhere – these days, when you start looking at a lot of open source world out there and all of the work that’s gone into it, it really is someone else has done the 80% of the work that is necessary. If you can focus on the 20% where you’re adding value to not just your market, but the ecosystem overall and technology. You’re getting ahead and you’re able to focus on things that matter. You’re not reinventing the wheel.
Our pipelines are totally based on a Jenkins Playground, and from there we’re looking at Docker and Kubernetes for anything where we want to control the full stack. Anything where we’re not experts in, such as queuing systems, or elastic search engines, things like that. We look at pushing those into cloud native solutions where someone else is handling the overhead of that and we can just focus on what we do, which are decision engines. That’s really what we’re talking about at the core of this.
Ledge: What are the core values of a culture like what you guys are putting together? How is that itself innovative and different because of the nature of that high-stakes, fast-moving customer base?
Jason: I don’t know that we’re necessarily, our culture, is innovative. I think we’re just using principles that you go to any DevOps conference and they’re going to talk about. We’re trying to instill those in our developers. We want them to constantly be getting better.
What does it take to get better? How am I learning from my mistakes? We do not have a culture of reprimanding people when they make a mistake in production, or push code out. We roll it back, and we figure out what we did, and we try to automate so that doesn’t happen again.
I wouldn’t say that we’re any different than most companies that are adopting these principles. I do feel like we try to empower our employees as much as possible. We love our culture. Everyone who works here loves this culture, and I think it’s because we try to do everything we can to help each other out. Ultimately, I think that that’s at the root of what the whole DevOps movement is.
I kind of hate the word DevOps. I think it means way too many things to too many people. Ultimately, I feel like this culture is at the cusp of really gaining momentum here at defi, and to me it’s an extremely exciting time.
Our engineers are more empowered than they’ve ever been. They have tools at their fingertips that they’ve never had and that they couldn’t even dream of two years ago. So, to give them those tools and to see the amount of value that they can add and as quickly as we can add it, and give our business users a platform that’s stable, that’s performant, and give them the features as fast as they can ask for them, you can’t ask for much more than that.
Ledge: I can see – the listeners can’t see – that you’re both in different locations. You have at least in some ways a remote-friendly or maybe hybrid work arrangement. I’ve heard some organizations are really successful with hybrid, they use the tools the right way. Others really struggle there.
I wonder, what’s your remote and distributed work strategy? How have you made that work? What are the critical tools?
Remote work is a big thing that we get asked about a lot particularly, because a lot of times we’re onboarding the first or second remote freelancer to the team and they just aren’t prepared for that.
What’s worked for you and how are you making that happen?
Jason: I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years and, to be 100% honest, before I came to defi, I had never been on a video chat. Not one time had I been on any kind of video conference call at all where my face was shown.
What’s really unique is that, 75% of the folks that work in my engineering group – which consists of probably 25 to 30 people – they don’t come in the office. They’re hardly ever here – Rob comes in once a quarter or so – but I see their faces all the time.
Using the standard toolsets like Slack and Zoom, I used to use WebEx, and Zoom is like the most amazing. I would pitch it to anyone. I love it. I think just those stacks that allow you to communicate regularly.
I also think Slack can be a little bit of a hindrance as well. If you don’t have folks that can manage their own time, it’s very easy to get swept up into the amount of chatter going on in Slack. We use Slack and a lot of Slack bots. We have a ton of bots that are kicking out information about builds that are happening, or code merges, or stories that they might subscribe to in JIRA.
We’re using kind of standard software stacks but that remote culture, coming from a company that promoted you working from home once a week but didn’t necessarily understand how to manage that to now, it’s almost weird to see people in the office sometimes. Which is a completely different lifestyle. It just allows you to work from home. It allows you to work wherever you are. It’s good for the culture. I think it’s really healthy because people can communicate over Zoom and get their points across just as easily as in person.
It’s harder for me, coming from 20 years of not being on video chat, to assimilate to this environment but, once I did, I can’t imagine it any other way.
Rob: Yeah. I worked 15 at Microsoft and, like Jason, I hadn’t really seen a true dispersion of employees like this before.
One of the things that really allows us to do by opening that door and embracing that as a company – and that’s really the core of what we need to talk about here. The company has to embrace this game plan. Slack is now where your hallway conversations are, where your water cooler talk is. Being able to pop up the Zoom and talk, “Hey, let’s get together,” is the same as working to someone’s office or walking down the desk to talk to the next person.
If they embrace that and everyone puts the energy into doing that, then it very much makes remote employees a first citizen in the overall company. That’s super important when you start thinking about these things. If they’re willing to embrace it, and you set up a lot of conference rooms and you do that, you can be in a good spot.
The thing that I really also would recommend anybody that’s really interested in doing this, you do have to be dedicated. I talk to some very smart people who have said multiples times that, you spend a lot more energy when you’re trying to keep a remote employee base working together. If they’re not into it and they’re not really willing to put their effort in as well, it’s harder to do so.
It’s not for everyone. We do have some people in the company that do come to the office every day. But when you do have this, we now have the ability to start looking at where we can grab our talent from. We have people everywhere from California and what that brings to the table, and what Seattle’s brought to the table, as well as what’s in Dallas. Dallas has a big medical technology background, so we can influence on that. Seattle, definitely same idea of the Microsofts and Googles are here. Same with California. We can start to diversify what we bring to the table and the different expertise we have within it.
So if you can embrace it, it’s good.
Ledge: Absolutely. Well, that’s what we tell everybody, hey, give it a shot and embrace it.
Guys, it’s been really cool spending time with you. Excellent work at defi. I love what you’re doing.
Jason: Thanks, Ledge. Appreciate it.
Rob: Absolutely. Thank you much.