Ideation and Innovation: Rethinking the Limits of Fintech

With an agile tech stack and an intentionally crafted microservice architecture, SIMON’s engineers are setting the standard for the industry’s future.

Written by Kim Conway
Published on Mar. 02, 2022
Ideation and Innovation: Rethinking the Limits of Fintech

Financial services is not the industry that immediately leaps to mind for engineers looking to flip the script on object-oriented programming or craft an innovative tech stack. Further still, a company that spun out of a Fortune 100 global investment bank isn’t exactly the place a project manager might expect the ability to experiment. 

But if that’s your outlook, you probably don’t know SIMON. The company is taking a unique approach to financial technology by operating through a serverless, microservice architecture and programming with Scala. While its approach might be uncommon — and unfamiliar to some engineers — it works well for the team, as it fosters a transformative environment. “Our tech stack has resulted in a culture of innovation in building exciting products for our clients,” said Pranav Gandhi, SIMON’s head of back-end engineering.

One of the main ways the team makes an innovative approach possible is through its collaborative culture. From engineers and project managers to team members in sales, distribution and business development, SIMON employees are invited to share ideas that could potentially be implemented. Knowing your voice will be heard is something back-end engineer Abhinav Sinha really appreciates: “Regardless of what your title is, everyone’s ideas are listened to and entertained.” 

And on the flip side, the team’s technology choices also make an impact on that open, accessible culture. “Collaboration is so critical for a project to be successful. And it’s cool to see how integral it is in how we operate at SIMON — from taking an idea all the way through execution, testing and rollout to learning from the data and deciding what to do next,” said lead project manager Saba Qureshi.

To learn more about how technology and culture support each other at SIMON, we sat down with Gandhi, Sinha and Qureshi to hear about how the company fosters the growth of curious individuals.

 

What’s In a Name?

While SIMON stands for “Structured Investments Marketplace and Online Network,” the platform has grown to encompass more than its founding acronym, supporting a wider range of products, including annuities and alternative investments, as well as portfolio optimization tools.

 

What makes SIMON an exciting place to work? What qualities set it apart?

Gandhi: The people here are very fun and approachable at every level. And there’s always something new to learn, which is really exciting. The morning email is a ritual we found during the pandemic, where every morning, one person from the team sends an email about anything at all; it doesn’t have to be about SIMON or about the industry. It started off with our CEO keeping us engaged when we began working from home, then it became a rotation through the company. It’s quite fun. We have lunch and learns every Friday, where the whole company comes together to talk about a fun topic. It’s a way for us to eat together and learn about something new.

Sinha: It doesn’t really matter what your title is. Everyone’s ideas are listened to and entertained. Especially for new people, everyone gives really good, constructive feedback you can benefit from. Joining a new company where the tech stack they work with is completely different from what you usually work with can be intimidating, but everyone here does a really good job of taking the time to explain it to you when you need help and setting you on a path to succeed in any role.

Qureshi: It’s very engaging and open in terms of culture, new ideas and innovation. If there’s something you’re passionate about or you really want to try out, there are so many avenues for you to share your ideas — whether it’s the morning email or a lunch and learn topic. If it’s something more heavily engineering-related that would make sense for us to adopt and the whole team gets behind it, it could lead to a proof of concept or a full implementation. The willingness to hear those ideas and actually be able to move forward on them is cool.

Our culture is also very welcoming — especially for new people. For example, we have an all-hands meeting every Thursday, and when someone new joins, they get to introduce themselves and share a fun fact. We’re small enough that you feel like you’re getting to know them. We also have mentorship within our teams, and like Abi mentioned, everyone gives constructive feedback. Your path is open, and you’ll be able to learn and grow.

 

In what ways have you seen SIMON’s technology influence the culture?

Gandhi: Our tech stack is very new and very modern, but also atypical. We are evolving, and there is always scope for growth and innovation. Irrespective of your role or past experiences, if you think you can make a difference and make our technology stack better, then we are here to listen. There’s always somebody willing to back you if what you want to do is for the betterment of SIMON. It also leads to more collaboration between teams. For example, if somebody is trying out something new, there are a lot of opportunities to share it with a wider audience and get feedback. 

 

What is Scala and why isn’t it typically used for serverless architectures? How does using this tech change the game for SIMON?

Gandhi: Scala, which actually stands for “scalable language,” is a modern programming language that brings the concepts of object-oriented and functional programming languages into one. Typically, JVM-based languages like Scala and Java are not used in serverless architectures because spinning up an instance of the JVM can increase your serverless function’s start-up time. There also isn’t great support for Scala in the serverless world. What we’ve done to solve that is build our own framework that makes building Scala services that deploy on AWS lambda much easier. 

Scala has been very helpful, because it gives us the ability to write code in a functional and object-oriented manner. There is a learning curve, but once you learn the language, it allows you to write code and become efficient very quickly. That’s what I have seen happen in our case.

Sinha: I used to do all of my research in a functional language called Julia, which is basically just for math. When I first started learning Scala, it seemed like a language that was in limbo between object-oriented and functional. Many people who don’t like Scala are either stuck in the object-oriented way or they’re functional language purists. I realized that, as I got deeper into the language, Scala is actually very expressive. It provides elegant solutions to many criticisms people have about Java, such as excessive boilerplate in the code. Once you learn it, it’s very intuitive to writing services, and I think that’s what makes our team very efficient.

 

SIMON coworkers at a workspace have a team huddle looking at a computer monitor
SIMON

 

What was the experience of adapting to the technology at SIMON like?

Gandhi: I come from a unique position where I was not only adapting to new technology, but I was also trying to shape our technical architecture. It was a bit daunting, but it taught me how to think about technology from multiple perspectives. That was a pretty fun experience. Having to say “no” to a particular technology is also a big part of the job. When I learn about a new piece of technology, I have to analyze how it will impact SIMON and decide if it will be the right fit. One may be very passionate about a piece of technology, but it also needs to fit into the bigger picture. It’s a lot of learning and innovation overall.

Sinha: When I joined back in June as an intern, it was hard. I worked with Java, and I used to program primarily in a different functional language — I’d never worked with Scala. With the tech stack being so new, it’s hard at first to understand what all the components are and how they work together. In the back end, it’s complex, and there are a lot of moving parts. But everyone took the time to explain them to me, and I was able to figure it out from there. I learned to embody that cliché about being like a sponge: Absorb as much knowledge as you can, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Because that was my biggest thing — I was always scared to ask questions. But everyone here is really good at what they do and they’re all so willing to help, so the onus is on you to learn.

 

Enjoy the Work You’re Doing — And the People You’re Doing It With

Both the team camaraderie and life cycle of projects add to the general enjoyment of working at SIMON. Sinha notes the casual atmosphere where “everyone is friends with each other” makes the workday fun and interesting. As for Qureshi, she notes that interacting with people across the organization is a cool byproduct of seeing ideas through the development process. Gandhi enjoys the combination of learning opportunities and seeing his own team grow their technical and non-technical skills.

 

Why and how did SIMON choose to go the microservice route for its tech architecture? 

Gandhi: The reason we chose to go with a microservice-based architecture was scale. As our team grew suddenly from five or six engineers touching the code to 20 within a few months, we needed an architecture that allowed us to scale different parts of our application independently while also allowing our engineering team to increase efficiency. Microservices architecture also allowed us to set proper ownership and service-level agreements for different components of our application.

Originally, SIMON was incubated within a large financial institution. When it was officially established in 2018, we knew that in order to become fully independent, we would need to move all of our code and services to our own infrastructure. A microservices-based architecture made this much easier. 

 

 

How would you describe the engineer experience at SIMON? What is the team’s culture like?

Gandhi: Considering we are a much smaller company, we get to make a lot of decisions that drive the company’s roadmap, and that is exciting. I’ve seen this team grow from four to more than 20 people now. Getting everybody up to speed and telling them about the technical growth that we have made is very satisfying. I also consider myself a bit of a teacher — I don’t know whether others enjoy learning from me, but I enjoy getting to teach them about new technologies or why we’ve done something. 

The culture is very collaborative, and people are super motivated. There is a lot of ownership in the engineering organization at SIMON in general, which gives engineers more influence on the product roadmap. Everyone’s empowered to collaborate and drive new initiatives, not only within engineering, but across the board.

Sinha: I’ve interned at bigger companies where there was a dedicated release team. You write the code, but somebody else would deploy it, and you’d miss the bigger picture of how the process works. Since we do deployments ourselves here, it makes you a better developer and generally makes our releases better too. 

Getting the bigger picture is also important here, and leadership often creates opportunities to drive greater impacts with our work. SIMON emphasizes that an engineer should also understand the business side of things, and that helps us develop as good of a product as we have. For example, when I first joined, my manager told me that if I wanted to take the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority exams, I could, and the company would sponsor me. 

 

Seeking Supportive Perks

Since the pandemic, SIMON has made it easy for employees to transition away from working in the office. Despite the contrast in work environments, employees say they don’t feel a difference. “The company’s done a lot to provide technology solutions and tools so that we are comfortable and productive at home,” said Gandhi. The added flexibility allows SIMON employees to feel fully supported no matter where they’re working from. In addition to bringing the company together through events — including magic shows and cookie-making classes — SIMON recently went all-out to create an engaging hybrid holiday party experience for their team.

 

Saba, as a project manager, how do you incorporate collaboration into the way you operate? 

Qureshi: There are so many things we do to collaborate, whether it’s a high-level product brainstorming session, a roadmap review or the nitty-gritty details of architecting a solution and getting all the relevant people involved from UX to UI to back-end. I try to think about communication and transparency so that we’re getting the right people involved at the right stages and we’re open to the process of what we’ll be delivering. Everyone gets so excited to hear what other teams are doing and wants to share their ideas.

As a project manager, you’re thinking about how to get these projects to completion and how to roll them out quickly and move on to the next thing. The developer efficiency and scalability of the tech stack we have really helps with getting your code out quickly and starting work on the next feature. If you need to roll something back, you always want to have contingency plans to be on the safe side. If a change impacts something relatively minor, we can pull it back if we need to, and that’s a nice bit of confidence to have as you’re trying to push things out.

 

SIMON team members working in the office
SIMON

 

How do you envision your work impacting the wider tech landscape? What direction do you hope to take the technology next?

Gandhi: We have a good mix of open-source, in-house and commercial technologies. My hope is that, as early adopters of certain technologies, we can not only get feedback as to what we could do better, but also enable the wider community to benefit from some of the work that has happened at SIMON. 

As a company with a growing user base and feature set, the next challenge is scale. In terms of our technology, we are on a journey — we are not fully there yet, so we’ll continue to evolve, rectify some of the mistakes we make, reduce technical debt and go from there.

Sinha: Reducing technical debt leads to stability. We have a lot of moving parts that need to interact with one another to work. Part of scaling our platform is ensuring its core components are as robust as possible. If any service does fail, we should be able to minimize its impact and recover quickly. That’s one thing about the whole functional language paradigm: If your code errors out, your system should behave exactly the same as last time. You don’t want random unknowns or errors factoring into your services. The more stability you gain, the more potential you have to impact a wider tech landscape with what you’ve built.

 

What is SIMON’s team most looking forward to on the horizon?

  • “More users getting to experience what we’ve created and continuing to build a tech stack that will scale, ultimately driving transparency and more confident, data-driven financial decisions.” — Gandhi
  • “Solving more problems. A lot of problems we’ve had were very interesting, both technically and from a business side. The more features we add, the more fun this growth is.” — Sinha
  • “For me, it’s all about how much we can execute going forward, and learning and building off of everything we do. We have such big roadmaps and plans for what we want to implement going forward.” — Qureshi

 

What does it mean to know that you’re making a difference at SIMON, no matter how big or small the change is?

Qureshi: That’s actually a big part of why I wanted to come to SIMON. I came from a bigger organization, so knowing that you have so much more impact here and you also have the ability to choose. If there’s something you’re excited about and you want to roll up your sleeves and help out with it, you actually have that ability. Being able to expand outside of the boundaries of your role is awesome.

Gandhi: It’s easy for people to see the difference you’re making. You make a small change — like a two-line change that took you two minutes — but then you get an appreciation email saying, “Thank you so much. This changed my life. It saves me 20 hours a day, or 20 hours a week.” 

Sinha: I graduated from college in December, and I told myself I would never work somewhere where I felt like a cog in a machine. SIMON is the exact opposite — not necessarily because it’s a small company, but because everything you do is meaningful. And people realize the importance of it.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by SIMON.

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