Matt Trevathan is Senior Vice President, Product Management SaaS at Nymbus, a banking technology company for financial institutions. Early in his career, Matt worked at IBM as Chief Architect of Mobile Solutions for nearly a decade. He then transitioned into product roles at Kony, Inc., where he worked for seven years before it was acquired by Tenemos in 2019.
In our conversation, Matt talks about “the genie effect” when collaborating with others — i.e., narrowing your list of important objectives so that the other person can stay focused on what’s important to you. He shares how he used Myers-Briggs personality types to spearhead an innovative personalization strategy at IBM and offers his take on innovation in general — namely, that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
I’m a spinning propeller head, if you haven’t figured that out. I love innovative ideas and innovative things.
There are two ways to look at product: from a business perspective and a technical perspective. The business perspective looks at a business requirement and doesn’t worry about how to fill it. I look at a problem a little differently. I may take that requirement and say, “I want to shape how that’s delivered.” Sometimes, I’ll pull in a friend of mine who’s got more business depth to help solve problems and build solutions.
I’m like 3M — I don’t build the products you build. I build the products you build better. Our cloud solution, which is built from the ground up and moving out of OpenShift into AWS, is more on the technology side. The business person says, “I want to be in the cloud.” The technology person is thinking about what that means for availability, disaster recovery, and all of the other requirements that a business person isn’t going to think about.
I think there’s a good balance between having people with product backgrounds that are technical and product backgrounds that are sheerly business.
It depends on the roles that I’m trying to fill. I control all of our DevOps from front to back, and my DevOps guy is very, very technical. Our base platform is also very technical, so I’m in a role right now where everything that I’m doing has a very technical slant to it. If I’m building on a product I don’t know as much about, I still get educated on that product and I’ll hire somebody to complement what I do.
One of the hardest things is having strong leadership to drive direction at the top. I prioritize based on keeping my own vision for what I think my team should be doing and matching my vision with the person above me who’s curing the vision across the products. I’m making sure my vision aligns with their vision.
Where things go wrong is when people are asking you for one-offs and you’re doing them, and then someone comes in and says, “Why are you doing that?” Well, someone asked me to and I’m trying to make people happy. Your overall product leadership must have a strategy so that everybody’s rowing in the same direction.
I’m a genie guy. You can set direction in different ways. The first thing is having a vision that unifies all your products. The danger is if you’re trying to unify your products and you don’t have a vision for all your products, people are going to break down and develop individual products that don’t work together. The second thing is, as you hit that next tier, you need to row together. The less communication between product managers, the more they develop in a vacuum.
Having things like a quarterly business review for your product teams to make sure that they’re syncing is always awesome because it gives them a chance to bring their wishes for other teams and to interact with each other. Some people will say it’s not worth the time, but every time that we’ve done it, it’s always been worth it. As you move into that next release, you’re making sure that everyone understands the dependencies on one another, and you’re not getting caught in small details.
I’m also a three-wishes guy. I ask my team, “What are your biggest three problems that you need someone else for? If I’m a genie and I can give you three wishes, what are they?” I tell them to operate with other people with the genie effect. Because if you start giving someone 100 things that you think are important to you, they get to choose. But if you give them two or three things that are really important to you, it helps them stay focused on what’s important to you and your teams.
It really works on the larger teams because you don’t want to go to a larger team with 24 things that need to be done. You’re going to spend all your time tracking what everyone else is supposed to be doing. What are those three or four important things that are going to make you successful in integrating with these other teams?
People think about innovation and they think a guy invents something. When we think about Facebook, we think Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook. We think that Bill Gates invented Microsoft and Windows. These guys were prolific and built something, but they didn’t build it alone. When you look at Alexander Graham Bell, he had a guy sitting over on the other side going, “Hey, hey, I can hear you on the other side of that.”
Ideas, from beginning to end, happen with people working together in an innovative fashion. There are a lot of people that have great problems. They don’t necessarily know how to solve them. There are people who really know how to solve problems, but they need the problem to solve that provides value.
So you have to think about if this innovation is important to my company. Does it provide value? Does it give me some sort of a competitive advantage? You’re not looking at whether it’s unique, you’re not looking at if it’s patentable; you’re looking at what value it brings. And, again, if you do that alone, you’re not going to be able to understand where the value’s coming from because you’re not listening to anyone else.
I worked with a guy named Bill Shauoy at IBM when ecommerce was starting to take off. The sheer amount of data that you had to keep to tell someone, “If you like this, you’ll buy this,” was crazy. We talked about a way to leverage your personality type to deliver content to you. This means figuring out your Myers-Briggs personality type and then determining how to not only cross-sell and upsell but how to tailor content to the personality.
For instance, an intuitive person wants an overview of content, while a judgmental person would want details. And you actually present this content a little bit differently. We can identify personalities within products, too. We could put it into a learning mode and, as people with a personality start buying it, we learn the personality of the product. This is the type of person that buys it, so there’s a co-relationship, and then we can apply that back. And as we watch people buy and sell and the system is trained, we’re keeping four markers, and how positive or negative you are on those markers determines your personality.
The first thing we did was we put people who knew their Myers-Briggs personalities into the system and put their profiles in. Then, we put items that we thought would associate with certain personalities to see if they would present them. And then after that, we watched if the personality that we thought an object hit would match back to the person because there are traditionally things that are more introverted versus extroverted.
At Kony, we were doing a whole frontend rework of Visualizer to make it more user-friendly. One of the technical leaps that we needed to make that changed some of our features was being able to see our changes in real-time. React Native didn’t exist at that time. It reprioritized that we needed to make sure that users were able to do this.
That really affected us on multiple levels and was a big selling point when we went to market. It wasn’t just the revamp of our drawing platform’s frontend, but that ability put us heads and shoulders above everyone else that we were competing with at the time.
This is a dilemma I’ve always struggled with. I think it’s personal to everyone. There are patent trolls out there who look for easy wins by purchasing patents and then targeting and suing companies. I think it’s important to look at why you want to patent something and, just as importantly, why you don’t want to patent something.
I’m not a fan of creating patents strictly to sue people, but I understand the need to protect companies that spend significant budgets researching and developing an idea. There are also groups working in open source communities that don’t want their ideas patented, but also don’t want someone else to patent the ideas either.
One of the easiest ways to defend your IP, if you want to open it up but you want to have some protection, is by publishing papers. If someone else comes and says, “I did this,” you’ve got proof that you did that before them. You want to prove that you invented something before someone else. People have innovative ideas they want to share in a community. Releasing an article on how you did something makes the invention public, preventing other people from patenting the idea. This is a great idea for people who want to work on an open project and protect innovative ideas by creating published, prior art on the innovation. That’s the start of it.
I did a lot of patents at IBM because they were so patent-friendly, and I’ve seen both sides of this equation. I learned at IBM that you’re not always building an IP war chest to go after somebody. A lot of times, you’re building an IP war chest for when someone comes after you. When they do, you can exchange IPs with each other. Additionally, IBM used patents as a marker for innovation.
Each year, IBM said, “We have more patents than anyone else.” This is common with larger companies, but in small companies, the entire R&D budget may have been spent on an innovative idea that is a cornerstone of their company. A patent helps this company capitalize on its investment without risk of someone else simply copying their idea with little or no research.
For Kony and small startups like CitizenTrader, a few innovative features distinguish them from their competition. There is a balance here between sending money to innovate and being able to protect it. It’s what makes discussions about patents difficult.
I run an innovation group inside of Nymbus. It’s something that we’ve done at multiple companies that I’ve worked at, and we started it this time with younger talent.
We’re taking a small group of innovative people and POCing things out. Seeing what we can do with a piece of innovative software helps people feel like they’re working on something very cool. They pick up skills and can show the company where we can take our roadmap. They have a small group to shine in. This helps retention.
Retention isn’t just about how much I’m paid or that I can work from home. It’s about what you’re doing and if what you’re doing doesn’t interest you, being able to find something else to do.
Within the group, I open it up and say, “These are the ideas that we’re looking at. Is anybody interested?” People will come in and want to get involved. We’re never going to take something we’re already doing. Generative AI is a great example — we want to take it, bend it and break it, see what we can do with it, and then see how we can fit it into the product.
Innovation provides a mechanism for exploring new ideas within the company and a way for developers to grow their skills in emerging technologies. More importantly, you get people together that want to work on something new and are inspired to do so. The company wins and the developers win.
I like to look at what other people are doing. This is where it helps to look a little sideways and look outside of the industry. Then, we can assess what value it would bring to something like this, even in a proof-of-concept type of way.
I also try to do things in 6–8 weeks, and I’m a big proof of concept guy. I look at our primary goal and see if there are stretch goals. I like to get the minimal viable product for the POC, but a lot of times, we get done with that and look at what we can stretch to. When you think about this in terms of a sprint, you’re locking in what you think is going to fit in those weeks, and as we complete those, we can pull some nice-to-haves in.
Lastly, there’s always a security governance around something. In the banking industry or another regulated industry, it’s not as simple as going, “I’m going to take my customer data and send it to OpenAI and see what OpenAI says about my customer data.” Are you sending sensitive private information to an outside source? Are they using your data for future training? Can you trust the model that you’re using as a commercially viable LLM?
You have to think about things like AI, emerging technologies, and your industry and make sure that what you’re doing fits your industry, not only from an innovative practice but also from a safety and soundness practice.
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