Illustrated by Matt Peet
It’s unarguable that COVID-19 disrupted—and is still disrupting—business and tech. Not all companies will survive. Yet others will thrive in the most unexpected ways, even in inhospitable environments. They’ll make it, Scott Lewis says, because they will do two basic things: they’ll adapt for the moment while looking at the future, and they will take care of their foundations.
Scott is the VP of Engineering at APiO, which reimagines the lending process for small and mid-sized business loans. He was also a cofounder of Exemine, Director of Mobile Development at Deseret Digital Media and an engineer and architect for numerous companies in the financial sector.
In this interview with Pluralsight, Scott looks into what’s changed for tech companies like APiO due to the pandemic and what strategies they can take to ensure their survival—and even improve their business—while looking into an uncertain future.
He discusses how companies can step into market inefficiencies caused by such disruptions both for immediate wins and to shape the long game. He digs into how organizations can lean into their foundational principles and practices while also reshaping themselves for flexibility and resiliency. And, he explores how organizations who take care of their people will ultimately improve their results.
Look for new opportunities veiled as inefficiencies in the market
Broadly speaking, the supply chain naturally tightened with the onset of COVID-19. Money flow stagnated. Scott likens it to a financial traffic jam. “The happy days of getting paid in thirty days kind of went away,” he says.
For APiO, a company focused on disrupting and improving the lending process for small and mid-sized business loans, this could have spelled a massive slowdown. It would have, if they had ignored the heightened inefficiencies in the market. Instead, they identified widening gaps and stepped in to fill them.
Play for immediate wins
During times of rapid disruption, the companies that survive are the ones that ask the question, “How can we pivot our strengths to benefit customers in ways that weren’t needed before?”
That’s what APiO did. When COVID-19 began to cause a financial traffic jam and backups for companies, APiO looked for ways to help get money moving.
“Money is tight. People are starting to struggle to get money, and it takes a long time to get a loan,” Scott says. “We’re bringing in a brand new way for banks to understand risk, understand markets, understand how they can go ahead and deploy that money. Not only that, but we’re making it so it’s a lot faster.”
APiO saw an opportunity right at the outset of the pandemic. They knew almost every business was about to face delays with incoming cash flow and that traditional means of securing business loans would take too long when businesses needed to move fast. They were perfectly poised to pivot into that arena with a solution and supply loans to businesses in dire need of meeting short-term goals.
“You might have been fine before COVID, with a great business plan,” Scott says. “But even the bigs of the bigs, like NASA and the Department of Defense, can get into a little bit of a crunch. You can be a very good business and still get into the traffic jam.”
Play the long game
Other opportunities require taking a longer look at the pandemic and post-pandemic world. They ask for approaches different from quick-pivot problem-solving. For Scott and APiO, one such opportunity goes beyond offering faster, more efficient resources to COVID-jammed businesses. They realized they can revamp the way that business loans work in the first place.
Applying for consumer loans is easy. Scott offers the Apple Store as an example. Customers can walk out with a thousand-dollar iPhone on credit in a matter of minutes.
“It’s not like that for businesses,” he explains. “There’s no such thing as a credit score for businesses.” Instead, loans are based on such analog ideas as character and tend to require face-to-face meetings. Paper books aren’t the norm anymore, but the PDF equivalent of “the books” is still standard. “It’s a lot of gut feel and unorganized processes,” he says. “And it’s an expensive process. It takes many thousands of dollars to determine if you will get a loan.”
So APiO started exploring how to digitize the entire industry. They anticipate that in 2021 and beyond, with higher loan demands and other pandemic repercussions, the business loan process will become more mechanized. It will rely less on lunches and breakfasts and more on hard facts. Scott notes that many companies are working on this exact transition, and that it will suit the expectations of younger generations.
“Our feeling is it’s going to be big and we think that we have figured out product market fit,” he says. “The world is changing for this mechanization of lending money. What we’re excited about next year is bringing forth all these interesting ways to get funding, so that it’s more accessible to a lot more people than it has been in the past.”
Look for ways to reimagine teams with resiliency and flexibility
The realities of the COVID and future post-COVID world were slow to sink in for many of us. In March 2020, Scott figured everyone would be back in the office by April. Now, he says they’ll be lucky if people are on-site by April 2021. So he and APiO are now exploring how they can take this moment in time, and not only build better business opportunities, but build a better internal structure as well.
“Our plans have been blown out of the water,” Scott says. “We went into hunker-down mode, and now we’re emerging from that. Ideas are bubbling up. What is our 2021, 2022?”
Bolstering the basics
One new idea Scott has is actually an old idea: get back to the core of what APiO’s team is and how it functions—even if that looks different in these new circumstances.
“We have gone back to basics,” Scott says, “in the sense that we’re not in this high-flying world prior to the COVID slowdown. We have tried to stay lean because we don’t know where this [pandemic] is going. So we decided to work with what we’ve got, see where things go, and forge new partnerships with financial institutions and distribution channels. We’ve even delayed our Series A so that we don’t get over our skis.”
This opportunity has enabled Scott to examine the practices within Engineering and make sure they’re really working to support the team. Stand-ups are now remote, for example, which is his chance to make sure they’re still adding purpose to the engineers’ week. Grounding the team in its foundational practices has helped them operate at peak efficiency, even as they have taken on a lean and frugal approach.
Strengthening the remote culture for everyone
The pandemic has forced Scott to realize that his team may never return to a brick-and-mortar office. The Engineering team has always been partially distributed; and now that everyone is working from home, he’s realizing the benefits of embracing a remote culture.
“We’re going to start looking for talent that doesn’t necessarily have to be sitting nearby,” Scott says. “And we haven’t figured out those strategies yet. Everyone is going to have to figure out how to draw great people. How are we going to change our perks to be available to people who work remotely? It’s one of the big areas I’m trying to figure out myself.”
When Scott discusses “perks,” he refers to this idea: How can an Engineering organization build a remote culture that works great for everyone—that isn’t a lesser experience for anyone outside a co-located office? The pandemic has allowed him to see for the first time what it’s like to lead an entirely distributed team, and therefore, how to do it even better.
“This has given us the ability to see the shortcomings that the remote people were already dealing with,” Scott says. “It’s given us new ideas for how to make it better for the remote people and not just live with the inefficiencies.”
These ideas, distilled to their essence, offer a universal maxim for tech leaders: Take care of your people.
Take care of your team
With all the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic, Scott points to the North Star of them all: “The bigger things to think about are the same since the beginning of business and commerce,” he says. “You need to take care of your people. That’s the number one thing you’ve got to do.”
Taking care of the team goes beyond offering perks to watching out for their wellbeing. That’s particularly true in trying times.
“They are why you’re in business,” Scott says. “It’s not only to sell stuff. It’s the people, the family that you have inside the company.”
Building in socialization
As Scott’s team transitioned to working from home full time, he needed to maintain the touchstone of the standup, while acknowledging that a distributed team needed to claim something deeper from it.
He discovered the idea of the daily cafe. It still functions as an efficient standup meeting, but it always starts or ends with a socialization section. These meetings build more personal relationships while also smoothing out day-to-day engineering issues.
“We do the water cooler talk, chat about the game, do some smack talk about your team, your school, whatever,” Scott says. “You can show pictures of your new car or your new board. Maybe twenty percent of the meeting is now that.”
Scott learned to incorporate socialization early on with the remote team. It builds camaraderie, and although it’s not directly work-related, he recognizes its importance to the work.
“It’s the time that you become friends,” he says. “You learn about each other, and your relationship is not just all business.”
Inclusive celebrating, and celebrating inclusiveness
Now that he oversees a remote Engineering org, Scott extracted a lesson from his pre-COVID days.
When the team accomplished a major milestone, they always made sure to celebrate. One time, as an example, everyone who was co-located went go-karting. But at that point, an entire remote team was based in Costa Rica, and it didn’t make sense to fly them to Utah just to drive go-karts around a track.
Although the company funded a separate celebration for the Costa Rica team, some of his engineers were concerned about their peers being left out. Many of them asked Scott directly what he was doing for the remote team so they could all celebrate together.
“One of the main things we learned was that we can build a team remotely as well as in person,” he says. “So much so that your team actually feels like they’re part of it together. They want to make sure their remote teammates have the same things.”
The lesson extends beyond celebrations. Open access to all—not just to engineering tools, but to camaraderie, to the emotional connection with the team, to sharing in accomplishments and contributing to overcoming challenges—builds a team of first-class citizens. As a leader, it’s your job to maintain that personal touch so that distributed teams don’t feel disadvantaged, but included.
Metrics are an ally
Connection creates community, and a data-driven culture supports it. The Engineering organization at APiO has benefitted from evaluating the frequency of commits and story points over the goal line. Scott also introduced code reviews. The initial reactions from his engineers were not atypical—they worried about their flaws being exposed to their peers and the effects of Big Brother supervision.
“But what it ended up doing was raising all boats,” Scott says. “They started looking at outcomes.”
Now the culture at APiO is that everyone can learn from everyone else. Engineers check in with one another frequently to offer support and code reviews. Interns come in with new ideas that senior engineers pick up, and the senior engineers help out the newest team members to help them get up to speed. Everyone learns from what the best engineers are doing, and the data helps them understand how to replicate those good behaviors.
“The main thing that we as leaders need to always be cognizant of is how do we help them get to where they are trying to go, while at the same time benefiting your company,” Scott says. “But building people is more important than building companies. Build people, and companies build themselves.”
COVID-19 has been the greatest disruptor to business-as-usual in recent memory, but disruptions happen all the time. Scott Lewis, VP of Engineering at APiO, offers these insights and strategies for building resilient teams into the future.
- Search out business opportunities widened by disruption. These opportunities can be immediate gaps that an organization is particularly well suited to address—such as APiO helping businesses with incoming cash flow at a time when invoices are backlogged and loan applications are slow. Companies can also play the long game, looking for future pivots in their industries.
- Reimagine teams built for resiliency and flexibility. In some instances, this means bolstering the foundations of a team—the processes and principles that define their work and keep them from going over their skis. And when inevitable changes happen, such as teams forced to work from home during a pandemic, focus on strengthening the culture to the benefit of every team member.
- Take care of your people, and the business will take care of itself. Scott stresses that people are what build a company, so their needs must be met—through socialization and camaraderie as part of company culture, by including everyone in the triumphs and challenges, and even counterintuitively by relying on metrics to raise all boats.
“Businesses are adapting,” Scott concludes. “And we’re going to be surprised at the human ingenuity. We’ve seen it in restaurants. We’ve seen it in grocery stores. We’ve seen it in a lot of the essential businesses. Now some of the unessential businesses are starting to learn and adapt as well. And so it might just change a lot of things for the better.”