Trending tactics: What 9 Chicago tech companies do to stay inventive

Source:- builtinchicago.org

It’s easy to believe that innovation in the world of tech is primarily based on the utilization of the most new-age tools or processes available; and in many cases, that is the way things go. But in just as many instances, innovations, and the benefits they bring, are born from looking at a common problem from a different angle, or taking a new route down a frequently traveled path.

Below, leaders at nine Chicago tech companies shared details on what they do to evolve their teams and the business overall and what they expect will trigger more growth in the future.

Guaranteed Rate assists those in the market for a new home with tools to quickly find, apply for and get approved for mortgages. Founder and CEO Victor Ciardelli said the company is looking forward to evolving the capabilities of one of its key products in the future.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

Since founding in 2000, we have always invested significant resources in building technology that enhances our customer’s overall experience. The mortgage industry is highly competitive and the pace of innovation in the last few years has accelerated dramatically. In 2015, we introduced our digital mortgage tool, the first online, lock-to-close mortgage processing engine. While we are proud of being first to market with that tool, we have worked tirelessly since then to improve its functionality with the goal of making it as fast and easy as possible for consumers to obtain a mortgage.

We’re always working to make our existing technology better and exploring new tech to make us more efficient.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

We’re always working to make our existing technology better and exploring new tech to make us more efficient and ahead of the curve. It’s all about changing the future of homebuying. People don’t want to wait months to close and sit at the closing table for hours signing documents. Being able to do things quickly and transparently for consumers is our overriding goal. Our tech team here in Chicago is expanding and we’re hiring the best of the best to dream up and create more of the technology that sets Guaranteed Rate apart in our industry and in the eyes of consumers.

IMC Trading is a technology-driven trading firm that operates on over 100 international, regulated trading platforms. Hardware Engineering Team Lead Rob said the company’s efficient use of technical tools supports its ability to innovate in the solutions they provide.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

The field-programmable gate array group here is always looking for ways to improve our iteration speed. Inspired by our success with modern software release processes, we heavily invest in verification, release and integration automation in ways that you just don’t see in the larger hardware world yet.

We heavily invest in verification, release and integration automation.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

Looking forward, we’re excited to explore how caching build tools like Bazel can help us push our ability to iterate on hardware to the max.

HealthJoy offers a healthcare guidance platform intended to help employees easily manage their health benefits. Vice President of Engineering Sajal Dam said his team, and the company as a whole, is big on keeping tools and processes in place that facilitate efficiency and collaboration.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

We follow project planning methodology that enables us to be highly agile in terms of continually paying off technical debt and embracing new tools and technologies. Our architectural practices, such as microservices and strangler pattern, help us frequently replace legacy parts selectively and safely. Using devops best practices, we minimize the risks in regularly upgrading and deploying new technologies.

Our culture is also a vital part of staying ahead of the curve. We cultivate creativity and learning, and enable our people to benefit from the latest technology trends.

We’re also looking into new development tools for better collaboration across our distributed engineering teams.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

We’re continually eyeing improved software development techniques and tools to increase the speed of delivery, supportability and scalability of our microservices architecture. My team is analyzing multiple Docker orchestration tools to dynamically scale, discover, monitor and maintain our SaaS solution. We’re also looking into new development tools for better collaboration across our distributed engineering teams.

I’m presently evaluating new plug-ins for our continuous integration and continuous delivery pipeline to improve our build, test and deploy process. Our tech team is also excited about using more machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities in our platform.

Homeowners can leverage Kin Insurance’s data-focused platform to find the perfect insurance policies for them. Co-founder and CTO Lucas Ward said the success of any tech tools or systems is based on the people using it, not the other way around.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

Instead of letting tech drive all our business decisions, we first focus on hiring smart and hungry people and empower them to effect change. Your tech is only as good as the people implementing it, and that understanding tends to keep us ahead of the curve. We don’t chase trends, we chase talent. Once we find those people, we empower them with powerful tools to make better decisions. Tools like Looker or Segment give us the insight and ability to adapt and evolve how our service team interacts with our customers. We can revamp these operational systems while our engineering team focuses on building complex insurance systems.

We don’t chase trends, we chase talent.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

We’re excited to use machine learning technology to help produce better predictive models for catastrophic risk. We also believe that as our homes get smarter, we’ll be able to iterate on the insurance products we can offer. But the technology we’re most excited about right now is Kin’s own policy administration system. Think of this as the backbone of a modern insurance company – it handles everything from accounting and billing to underwriting and rating.

CityBase offers various digital services to government and utilities agencies including the ability to connect with residents and businesses, accept payments and more. Director of Engineering Mike Awine said the company feels innovation is based on input – from everyone.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

We stay ahead by hiring people with a propensity for innovation, who are excited about their craft and the problems that we’re solving. We foster an environment where teams have ownership and individuals seek to have their ideas challenged. These things, coupled with transparency around company goals and progress, will provide people with the data they need when deciding how best to move forward.

Navigating a perpetually changing business and technology landscape requires the diversity of thought of many people, not just a single person. We conducted our first multi-day companywide hackathon late last year and are planning to have another soon. We also sponsor engineers to attend relevant conferences, like ElixirConf, and openly share articles and conference talks that have piqued interest.

Navigating a perpetually changing business and technology landscape requires the diversity of thought of many people.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

Our data science and machine learning efforts are ramping up quickly. We continue to gain greater access to data, and — leveraged correctly — it will provide us with valuable insight into how we can further improve the interaction between constituents and state and local governments.

In addition, we’ll further move the needle on continuous integration and continuous delivery efforts through focused improvements to our monitoring and instrumentation working toward canary deployments.

Using a combination of AI and natural language technology, Narrative Science turns data into plain English stories and reports. COO Nick Beil said having the backing of influential members in the tech space keeps the company on good footing to address challenges and create new wins.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

We have an amazing board of directors with members from successful venture capital firms who have made investments in industry-leading consumer and enterprise technology companies. We have also built an advisory board that consists of former senior executives from companies like SAP, DocuSign, Google and Microsoft. These groups provide us access to different points of view across many dimensions of problems and opportunities.

One of the trends that we’ve adapted to is the belief that customer-facing teams, as well as product management, sales and marketing operations, need to be in sync rather than operating completely independently. They need a unified front on how they approach customers from the top of the marketing funnel through the sales cycle, then to customer experiences within the product and customer success team. We’ve evolved marketing, sales and customer success into a de facto revenue operations team.

We’ve evolved marketing, sales and customer success into a de facto revenue operations team.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

From the external vendor perspective, we’re planning on launching Drift, a conversational marketing platform on our site. We’re a storytelling company, so we’re excited to see the impact from introducing conversations earlier in the customer journey.

In terms of our own technology, I’m most excited about launching Lexio, which translates our Salesforce data into plain English stories. We’ve rolled out Lexio to all Narrative Science employees and it enables everyone, in any role at the company, to quickly and easily understand our sales performance. Our entire team gets stories emailed to them from Lexio as if an analyst was sending them in real time. It’s spurred a continuous internal dialogue about our business performance and has increased cross-functional collaboration.

Foxtrot is a tech-enabled delivery service providing foods, beverages and other goods to customers in Chicago and Dallas. CTO and co-founder Taylor Bloom said knowing whether to ‘build it or buy it’ when it comes to tech is an important part of doing what’s best for the business.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

I think the key to staying ahead is having a thorough understanding of the trends and tools that are popular, while also realizing that sometimes the best tool for the job may not be the hottest new technology. We try to stay ahead of the curve by balancing the two.

In a fast-growing startup, it’s important to be able to understand if it’s worth actually building something, or if we can adapt a tool off the shelf to meet our needs and save time. Depending on the situation, we’ve landed on both sides of that question.

It’s important to be able to understand if it’s worth actually building something, or if we can adapt a tool off the shelf.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

We’re always looking to stay on the cutting-edge by keeping an eye on technology trends — anything we can do to help improve the experience for our customers both in-store or online is of interest to us. Most recently we’ve been exploring how we can use machine learning to handle use cases like surfacing relevant product recommendations for customers, and to more effectively route our courier fleet.

Commercial real estate operators utilize Builtout, Inc. to market their listings and manage their communications. Director of Engineering Alan Spadoni said the company looks to younger techies to help it remain on the cutting edge.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

One way we stay ahead is by engaging younger students through our internship program. Tech is evolving so fast that it’s become easier to learn on your own, and we feel the traditional model of focusing on juniors and seniors might not hold up anymore. Making an investment in freshmen and sophomores allows us to develop new engineers and recruit the best talent before they get scooped up by bigger companies. This summer, our interns will focus on a project to use machine learning to make the workflows and lives of brokers easier.

Making an investment in freshmen and sophomores allows us to develop new engineers.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

When we think about new technology, we have a bottom-up approach. We encourage people to learn, try things out and teach the rest of the team. For example, an engineer recently led an investigation of Vue and React for our front end, and we’ve begun exploring adding Elixir to our tech stack.

The tech-enabled brokerage is becoming a huge focus in commercial real estate. This is an industry still in the early stages of tech development, so we get to see firsthand how the technology we build benefits our customers. The feedback we get lets us know that we are doing the right thing to help the customer, their companies and the industry at large.

Avail is a platform that acts as a wide-ranging management suite for landlords and a payment, maintenance, and lease-signing tool for tenants. Co-founder and CEO Ryan Coon said the company evolved its platform based on changes observed in the habits of its users.

 

How do you stay ahead of the curve as a business? 

We stay ahead of the curve by keeping the customer at the center of every decision we make. As we look to improve our users’ rental experiences, we frequently challenge how things have been done in the past and ask “why?” By challenging the status quo, we’re able to find new, innovative ways to stay ahead of the curve.

When we started the company, we noticed that both landlords and tenants used Avail on desktops. Eventually, landlords continued using Avail primarily on their computers, but the majority of renters were on mobile devices. We now build our landlord-facing product with a desktop-first approach that shrinks down to mobile. The renter-facing product is built mobile-first and expands to a desktop view.

We stay ahead of the curve by keeping the customer at the center of every decision we make.”

 

What new technologies or trends are you excited about or eyeing for future initiatives?

We’re currently spending a lot of time thinking about the gig economy and how an on-demand workforce could improve lives for landlords and renters, especially around property maintenance — one of the biggest pain points in the entire rental cycle. As a renter, your goal is to get the problem fixed ASAP. It’s frustrating to be stuck waiting for your landlord to schedule a time with his or her handyman. Imagine if getting a problem resolved was as easy as a few taps on your smartphone and waiting a few minutes for a handyman to arrive.

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