Product Hero: Jonathan Gowins

by C. Todd Lombardo

Jonathan Gowins

Money is inherently emotional. Saving to buy a new house, purchasing a gift for a loved one, or figuring out how to pay for costly car repairs all spark emotional responses in us. In the age where we’re instantly connected to people around the world, we expect the same level of access and control over our finances. Jonathan Gowins is a pioneer in keeping the financial industry current and constantly evolving by drawing from the latest in emerging technology. As a product manager at D+H, he’s skilled at listening to diverse stakeholder groups and distilling those wants into products that work for real people and their assets. Jonathan knows that the end user is a priority and puts an emphasis on testing at each phase of building a product. As part of the first team to bring augmented reality to fintech, he’s always looking for ways to improve customer experience. For these accomplishments, keen focus on the future of fintech, and passion for collaborating with stakeholders, Jonathan Gowins is a real Product Hero.


I had the opportunity to ask Jonathan about his career in fintech product management, and the future of the industry. Below is a revised and condensed transcript of our conversation.


C. Todd: We’re here with the next installment of our Product Hero interview series. Today, I’m here with Jonathan Gowins. Jonathan, thanks for joining me.

Jonathan: Thanks a lot for having me.

C. Todd: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into product management.

Jonathan: A long time ago, back when I was fresh out of college, I actually started in banking, which is kind of the opposite of product management; highly regulated, with a lot of policies and procedures. The quick version is that I ended up joining the marketing department for a financial institution and doing a lot of the messaging for them. While I was there, the team I was on noticed that we were lacking a lot of modern technology. We had an old website. We were missing a mobile site. We didn’t have any native applications. So, from the ground up we just started building those out, and it kind of evolved. It was impromptu product management, if you will, and it was a lot of fun.

From there I ended up jumping over to a global fintech provider that focuses on software for banks and credit unions. I ended up doing that full-time trying to solve problems for clients and enjoying the journey along the way.

C. Todd: What are some of the things that you spend most of your time with given that you’re in this fintech world of product management?

Jonathan: There’s a lot of industry research that we do, which is actually a fun part of the job. Seeing what your competitors do, what’s up and coming – not just in the industry, but also technology trends in general. At one of my prior organizations I was with, for instance, we were looking at what other institutions were doing. We also saw that augmented reality was coming onto the scene, which wasn’t adopted anywhere in the fintech world. I had the opportunity to actually bring augmented reality into the space for a credit union that I was serving at the time and that came about from industry research. So research is a huge piece. Also, we work with clients to validate ideas.

C. Todd: Cool. I’m fascinated with the idea of an augmented reality for a credit union. Can you say more or share more about that?

Jonathan: Yeah, it seems like a far reach. Right? Like how could those possibly be married together? It can because actually at the time, finding an ATM was a little bit of a pain. I had moved to the San Francisco Bay with my wife, and I was new to the area. When you want to find an ATM you would typically go to your bank or credit union website and pull up a map and try to find the location, and then navigate to that place. The thought occurred to me, what if you were in the middle of San Francisco with its towering buildings, its grid of streets you might not be familiar with, and you need an ATM. How would you find one quickly? An augmented reality similar to the Yelp app where you can pull up Yelp and you can look at a reel of restaurants, and as you move your phone you see the real view of the restaurant, and overlaid you see reviews of each restaurant. What if you could do that with ATMs and you could hold up your phone and it would tell you where an ATM is, how close it is to you, and whether or not it had a fee accepted by your institution?

We partnered with a big augmented reality leader at the time, Metaio, who I think was just acquired by Apple actually, and we made that happen. It was a lot of fun to be able to hold up your phone and see, “Okay, there’s six within walking distance and I can just follow my phone to get there and can tell which has a fee.” A really fun project. That was 2010.

C. Todd: You talked about industry research as you’re looking at other technology trends, what are some of the ones that are on your hot list to understand and maybe bring into the fold where you are currently?

Jonathan: Great question. Banking is traditionally on the slower side with regard to adoption, but there are a couple of things. A lot of solutions are still catching up with responsive design with Mobile First, so taking a look at cutting edge mobile UX is a huge part of what I’m doing right now.

Also, bots, intelligence, AI, interactions. How do you facilitate interaction between a consumer and a lender or a bank officer in a way that’s more automated, or can you remove the person, but still make it feel personal? I’m doing research in areas like these right now and that’s the direction the industry’s heading right now.

C. Todd: What are some of the things that you personally are struggling with? As a product manager in a fintech organization what are those biggest challenges that you’re really trying to tackle?

Jonathan: There’s a lot of algorithms and machine learning being leveraged in disruptive startups, and that I find is harder to just tap into. As a product guy, you can be scrappy. You can look at best practices with UI, with design. You can look at competitors’ solutions. You can do a really good job saying, “How do we improve this? How do we take it to the next level and build something great?” But when you talk about automation specifically and the data science behind it and the architecture supporting it, it’s more complicated. There’s a lot of investment and overhead that goes into proving out those concepts from a business model perspective. I would say that’s a struggle to try to find and achieve a certain level of machine learning and algorithms to support banking. That’s another direction that the world is going with banking. There’s some tension there with some clients, they still want to be really hands on, and bleeding edge institutions are adopting automation. Figuring out how to execute that requires a lot of resources that aren’t always readily available.

C. Todd: What are some of the types of data that you typically look at and how do you think about translating that to measuring what’s successful for your products that you manage?

Jonathan: There’s a couple of points specifically with lending software. Most of us can relate to lending on some level, whether you borrowed for a house, a car, a credit card, a business loan, or whatever. Depending on the complexity of that you have two sets of data points really. You have your personal data point: What’s your credit score? How much money is in your bank account? What’s your credit history? A lot of that. Then there’s the business side of things, and you’re talking cash flow and revenue and that whole world of financials. That’s where things get very complex. There’s a lot of nuance there when you’re talking about understanding the data, assessing the data. Banks have a lot of smart people doing that underwriting, doing that analysis, and to replicate the nuance especially. You get into bigger loans, commercial loans, and that’s where it gets to be a lot trickier and looking at all the different financial data points and trying to make something out of that.

C. Todd: How do you determine which of those that you need to pick as like your KPIs, or key performance indicators, or OKRs, whatever acronym you choose for measuring the success, how do you look at all of that and say, “I’ve got a reservoir of data here that’s coming in and it’s a fire hose”? Do you have a process for how you pick and choose which ones to focus on and why?

Jonathan: Not necessarily from that angle, but one KPI is revenue. That’s just a simple one. If we can’t sell it, can’t generate revenue, then it’s not performing. The other is NPS, net promoter score, which has kind of swept basically all industries by storm. So we’re in touch with how well it’s performing with client and what perception is. Also just the hard dollars behind it because some of you can sell something and you can be really adept at the pitch, or the premise, or the value prop. Then once something’s live, maybe it actually tanks and it’s problematic. NPS will come in and pick up that sentiment and share that with us and give us that feel for the product. We use both of those things.

Then as far as data goes, we work with our clients because they kind of set the precedent for what they need. Ultimately we deliver the solutions that they need. If they buy it, that’s validation one. If we get a strong NPS, that’s validation number two.

C. Todd: Cool. You mentioned working with your clients. Can you talk about how you and your team interact with your clients and understand how your product is meeting a need? It sounds like NPS is one … The revenue and NPS are two measures you constantly monitor. Are there other ways you interact with your customer to understand, what do they need and how does that fold into your products?

Jonathan: Yeah, actually awesome question because there’s a danger with NPS and revenue. That is to measure both of those post-launch. It’s too far down the road once what you have made has been shipped. Then you’re asking for hindsight, and hindsight is 20/20, and so what we want to do also is validate along the way. We don’t have as specific of KPIs in that process, but the tenets of agile or lean UX or design thinking. We’re pulling all those in right now.

C. Todd: Speaking about visionary things, I’m curious how you and your team and your organization deal with product roadmapping?

Jonathan: Our inputs for a backlog that goes into a roadmap come from several sources. First, the strategic input from executives sharing where they want to go. Then, where product managers think they should go. Then we also get input directly from clients on things they want better. Then input from sales on what’ll help them sell. There’s a different agenda between each of those different parties. We want to listen to everybody, but we want to put some thought into it and we want to validate along the way. Kind of a three step process, or things we look at. We take our different requests and we’ll look at three buckets. It’s a pyramid to help prioritize. I know it’s been adopted by Intuit and some others. The base layer of that pyramid is jobs to be done: “Does my solution do what it fundamentally needs to do? If it’s an eCommerce site, then can I actually buy something on this site and checkout?” If I can’t, then that really needs to go to the top of the roadmap to tackle, because it’s nonfunctional at that point. Most of the time those jobs are checked off.

The second level of priority, if you will, would be ease of use, and saying, “How do we make things easier to use?” Or, “How do you make an enhancement that enhances that job to be done?”

Then the third, the top of the pyramid, is delight. You eat with your eyes first, how can you make this shine, and stand out among other solutions and competitors? That’s a loose framework that we use …Or that I personally use for slotting work.

C. Todd: How do you define the relationship between your product management team, engineering, design, marketing, how do those all work together?

Jonathan: We have a really tight relationship with engineering right now. The whole design model that we alluded to earlier, I know you guys are great at doing that over at Fresh Tilled Soil. Lean UX is a proponent of this as well; involve development early and don’t just use some cold hand-off once you’re finally ready to build. Try to share some concepts, have some discussions. There’s room for improvement there for sure. I would love to be even more integrated with development. It’s another one of those trade off costs, which is how much time do I take up getting them ramped up versus letting them do the development. That’s one thing.

Then there are stakeholders in marketing. We’re doing a new project right now so we’re just starting to pull in everybody as early as we can to say, “Hey, this is our prototype. We’re going to validate this internally, or at least evangelize while we’re building.” Again, it’s not a cold hand off; “Hey, in one month we need a website and a marketing schtick,” and that sort of thing. Really trying to integrate those teams early in the process even if we’re not ready for them to take action.

C. Todd: Tell me a little bit about what the product management community like in Portland, Oregon.

Jonathan: If you’re not familiar with Portland, it is kind of a sister city to San Francisco. Everybody in Portland wants to visit San Francisco. Everybody in San Francisco wants to visit Portland. It’s kind of a funny trade off. If you’ve seen Portlandia, then you have a sense. That’s obviously a caricature, but there’s truth in caricatures. We have lots of organic chicken and all kinds of interesting things.

It’s great out here. It’s actually nicknamed Silicon Forest because of the lush amount of Doug Fir and we’re right on the other side of the coastal range in Willamette Valley. There’s a lot of startups actually in Portland, either on their own, or they branch off from San Francisco or New York and have a presence here in Portland. We are growing from a tech perspective. It’s actually quite a boom, and there’s a lot going on. Product management wise, there’s room to grow, but it’s definitely not something that’s foreign or new to Portland.

C. Todd: Cool, so let’s talk a little bit about you specifically. We’ve all made mistakes in product management and becoming product managers. What’s the one or two that you’ve thought, “Oh man, that was a big screw up. I’m never going to do that again.” Do you have one or two of those battle-tested stories you can tell us?

Jonathan: Yeah, definitely. Honestly, I learned a hard lesson through a failed integration with an outside vendor. I was pretty new. I was so excited about this new technology, but I didn’t understand the impact organizationally. I was only thinking about the value to the end user, and once the project was started, and the money was paid to the vendor, I had these internal stakeholders saying, “Whoa, my whole department is going to need to support this.” I had no idea. I was scrambling. Then development said, “This is going to take us forever.” I was just way under water with that. That was a big learning experience, and I had some senior leaders who gave me a lot of grace, which is important in the product management world. It was humbling, and it just really showed me, like you said, share early and often with as many people as possible.

C. Todd: When it comes to product management, what’s something that’s missing in the conversation for product managers right now?

Jonathan: I’m actually going to say that the design thinking approach is missing. A lot of times, product managers don’t think of themselves as designers even though they’re designing a product. They might not be doing the particular UX or the UI, but they’re designing a product one way or another. There are a lot of pressures for product management. There’s no off switch. You serve a lot of stakeholders and there’s a lot to tackle and the demands are endless, so Peter Drucker actually, in the “Effective Executive” laid out some points for how you have to structure your day, how you can carve out time to get things done. I’ve seen so many product managers that are burnt out and they don’t have the bandwidth to tackle hypothesis validation. They’re too responsive and reactive to all the demands, so that’s a huge piece for product managers is figuring out how do you really manage your time in a way that lets you prioritize validation.

C. Todd: If you could learn one thing instantaneously, it could be anything, what would it be?

Jonathan: I’ve got a four-and-a-half year old daughter, and I like card magic but I’m pretty terrible at it, so I’m going to go ahead and say card magic. I’d love to be an expert at card tricks.

C. Todd: That is fantastic. Cool. Well, Jonathan, thank you so much for spending time today. This has been great. You are what we consider a Product Hero, somebody is fighting to make an awesome product for their users, so thank you for being you, and thank you for sharing your experience today for all of the product folks out there.

Interview notes:

  • The future of banking: AI, machine learning, and bots. Adding a human touch and personalized interactions with these are important to success.
  • Prioritizes product updates into a pyramid. First level of priority is fundamental updates to the core of the product. Second on the priority pyramid are features that increase ease of use. And third is creating delight to stand out from the competition.
  • Two KPIs that Jonathan uses to measure performance: revenue and Net Promoter Score. Be realistic about the story you are drawing from these data points as they only tell you the results of shipping a product. Testing along the way is imperative to success.
  • Connect with Jonathan on LinkedIn.

Know a Product Hero? Email us with who we should interview and their contact information.

About C. Todd Lombardo

C. Todd is a leader who wears many hats, all at once: Author, designer, scientist, professor, and visualizer.  After originally beginning his career...