Chicago CTOs you should know: John Higginson, Enova

by Tessa McLean
May 20, 2015


John Higginson joined Enova as Chief Technology Officer in 2014 — a big year for change for the financial services company. It's one of Chicago's largest digital tech companies, and in November 2014 it spun off from its parent company and listed on the NYSE as ENVA. Higginson runs the team that powers Enova's global business in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia and Built In Chicago caught up with him recently to learn about how Enova's technology is evolving and what they're looking forward to in the future. 
What technologies power your business?
We’re big on open source technologies here at Enova — Ruby on Rails, Postgres, Hadoop. We prefer open source vs. commercial software in most instances because we’re confident it gives us the best technology, it leverages some of the best technical minds worldwide who have a passion for that platform, and it allows us to contribute to the ongoing enhancement of those technologies.
What are the biggest technology challenges you've faced in the past? How did you overcome them?
“Scaling" is one of the big ones for us. In 11 years we’ve grown from a small startup with a single product to an 800M+ company operating in six countries. Through our rapid growth we’ve had to become very adept at building highly-scalable systems and at performance engineering. How we overcame them is a combination of two things: get a bunch of really smart people, and have those people work together to solve those scaling challenges. Over time those solutions have involved leveraging different hardware, using AWS, code optimization, database redesign. But it all comes back to smart people with focus. 
What are lessons you've learned about working in Chicago that other local entrepreneurs can learn from?
Chicago is a really strong tech center but that isn’t always well known because we all have the midwestern “quiet brillance.” We have awesome, awesome people here but we’re probably not as good at talking about it as much we could be. That’s changing through the efforts of organizations like Built in Chicago and 1871. So, entrepreneurs: don’t assume the talent you need has to come from somewhere else. It’s here, just get plugged into the community. 
Enova is known for data-driven technologies. How does Enova use data to empower innovation?
Data is at the heart of everything we do. We make real-time underwriting decisions using more than 1,000 variables from credit reports to location information. More than that, every decision we make is based on data. One of our core values is “best answer wins.” That means we always challenge what were are doing today, there are no sacred cows, and ideas can come from anywhere in the organization. 
Chicago is known for having a large talent pool of thirsty, young workers. What are the top characteristics you look for in a potential hire?
Three questions we ask: Are they smart? Do they have a passion for technology and solving problems? Can they work in a highly-collaborative and driven culture?
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