Chicago CTOs you should know: Paul Zhang, Avant

As one of the three co-founders of Avant, Paul Zhang, has been building their technologies from day one. Zhang had experience working with financial services technology startups previously, and now manages a team of more than 60 tech and analytics employees in Chicago.

Written by Tessa McLean
Published on May. 27, 2015
Chicago CTOs you should know: Paul Zhang, Avant

[ibimage==47544==Original==none==self==ibimage_align-left]As one of the three co-founders of Avant, Paul Zhang, has been building their technologies from day one. Zhang had experience working with financial services technology startups previously, and now manages a team of more than 60 tech and analytics employees in Chicago. He's continuing to expand the tech team of the rapidly growing company and is striving to maintain the startup culture of his team as the company grows. 

What technologies power your business?
We use Rails as our application backend. It’s known for being very flexible so that goes hand and hand with our strategy of being able to iterate off features very rapidly and release them and get them in front of our customers. We use Angularjs as our frontend, which is a rich javascript client framework. It allows us to have an application in the browser that we can modify without having to worry about the backend as much, which speaks again to that flexibility. We also have a very large data science department — it’s very important for us to be able to model customers and be able to price them well. We use R to build out our machine learning models, and we actually deploy that production. We’ve also been integrating some Apache Spark into our framework, that allows us to scale out our machine learning process. 
What are the biggest tech projects your team is working on this year?
We’re always working on iterating our Rails platform and building out more automation, which in turn makes us more efficient. On the data science side, implementing some of our models in Apache Spark is pretty cutting edge. We’re also trying to build out some internal tools and framework in R, which allows us to be more efficient in data science. We’re able to take software development principles and ideologies and apply those to data science, which is pretty exciting. 
What are the biggest technology challenges you've faced in the past? How did you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges for any company that grows as quickly as we did is scaling. From a process perspective, from an operational and technology standpoint, coming up with automation and how to scale our loan operation without having a manual person going through each loan and account. 
What trends do you see happening in the financial services tech scene over the next three years? How are you driving those trends?
Mobile will definitely become even more of a focus for financial technology companies. A lot of startups out of the valley right now are mobile first and I think that’s a direction financial service technology services companies will have to go. Right now, more than 50 percent of our traffic comes from mobile devices and that trend is only going to increase. Outside of even having a big mobile presence, leveraging big mobile technologies that you wouldn’t be able to leverage on a desktop, like being able to access a camera, maps, etc. It’s all going to create a better customer service experience. For us, we think the ubiquity of data science is going to be a big thing. It allows you to optimize and make very informed decisions about where you want ot go from a strategy perspective, marketing perspective and more.
What are lessons you've learned about working in Chicago that other local entrepreneurs can learn from?
Chicago is definitely still up and coming in terms of being a tech hub. It’s a blessing for newer startups — there aren’t as many entrenched players. Successful startups in Chicago are more special and it’s helped us get our name out there and we’ve been able to attract top talent and that’s all helped the growth of the company.
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?
Problem solving, flexibility and having a history of shipping. They have to have a degree of independence. Being able to deliver products, to demonstrate that you’ve worked on something that’s gone to production is so important. We’re hiring across the board and are scaling very rapidly. 
How does your team work together?
It’s very fast paced, but very collaborative. Even though we’ve grown very quickly we still believe in smaller tech teams — the largest tech team we have right now is five people. They’re working on very specific parts of their applications. It allows them to be very agile in terms of having features that release very quickly and then they can iterate very quickly. We’re still in a startup oriented mode whereas specs come out and dev groups have ownership and they’re responsible for everything from implementation to testing to release. It’s a fun environment — we have company get togethers, demo days, manager Q&As.
What else do you want the Chicago startup community to know about Avant's technologies?
We’re a young company that is growing very quickly and we’re looking for the best and brightest. We want to build a transformative company, jump on board and help us become even more successful. 
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