People and Money: How Capital One is Reinventing Personal Finance

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The first time I saw Dan Makoski, his bold white glasses, bright red sneakers, and friendly disposition did not strike me as the demeanor of a finance executive. He handed out his business cards (a Jolly Roger formed with two pens and a lightbulb) attached to $7 bars of chocolate, and told stories of the time he drove a velcro-covered van 8,000 miles across the United States in search of inspiration.

Makoski has had an illustrious career in the world of innovation. He was most recently the Head of Design at Google’s secretive Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, where he spearheaded Project Ara, the tech giant’s modular phone project. He joined Capital One last year as it’s first ever VP of Design, and claims to be bringing the innovative ATAP ideology to the company. His team works above San Francisco’s Capital One 360 Café, one of ten locations nationwide dedicated toward Capital One’s online banking arm. The upstairs office space, where Dan and his motley crew of interdisciplinary design pirates work to break the mold of the banking industry, reflects every bit the team’s design-centric thinking.

Capital One Innovation Space

Compete with beanbags, movable desks, bamboo paneling, and splashes of blues, yellows and reds, the Capital One innovation space looks more suitable for an episode of Silicon Valley than the offices of a finance company located in the heart of Financial District. But in a city that champions the word “disruption”, it was only a matter of time before a banking company made the news for its digital innovation.

Together with Dan Makoski and Toby Russell (Managing VP of Digital), BrandGarage teamed up with Capital One this past month to create exciting new tools for personal finance management through the People and Money Hackathon. Over the course of a caffeine-fueled weekend, over 200 developers, designers, and strategists put their heads together to create almost 50 projects to answer a very important question: how can we leverage mobile technology to improve people’s relationships with their money?

The challenges were split into two tracks. “Money for Millennials” tasked the participants with developing personal finance management tools for the digitally connected generation, while “Kicking the Fear of Finance” sought to tackle the public’s general apprehension to thinking or even talking about money. And with money being such a touchy, yet universally relevant topic, it was no surprise this was BrandGarage’s most contentious hackathon held to date, with 47 submissions total.

Presentations

 

The Grand Prize winner for the “Money for Millennials” challenge was Sway, a mobile application designed to help users make better-informed purchasing decisions by finding attractions (restaurants, bars, etc) around the user, and overlaying an estimate of how much they can expect to spend at each location. The Grand Prize winner for the “Kicking the Fear of Finance” track was SaveSense, an app that teaches users to be “financially healthy” by identifying hidden savings opportunities (like avoiding Starbucks), then making recommendations on 30-day challenges as to encourage incremental improvements on spending habits. Both teams took home the top prize purse of $12,000 in cash, plus a bevy of smaller API partner prizes. The second place winners for Money for Millennials and Kicking the Fear of Finance were Olivia and GeniusFund, and the third place winners were Budgie and Goal$.

Sway particularly impressed the judges for being one of the only one-man projects, nevermind winning the Money for Millennials Grand Prize. It’s developer, Ashwin Kumar, studied business economics in college and spent several years as an investment banker with Merill Lynch before making the transition over into software engineering. Notably, he had no prior professional coding experience, but took a 6-month intensive full-stack development course with DevBootcamp. We caught up with him after the hackathon to see if he had any insight to share for people considering similar career transitions or coding schools like DevBootcamp or General Assembly:

 

  1. What prompted you to make the switch from investment banking to software engineering?

The main impetus for me to switch stemmed from a desire to work more closely with a product; banking (and business in general) was a great way to study the higher-level aspects of a business – accounting, cost controls, revenue projects, and strategic actions like deals and mergers. However, I felt a bit removed from the actual product that was the essence of the company. Engineering seemed to be a great way to directly work on a product and intimately understand the user pain points and design decisions that are crucial to creating a purposeful product.

  1. How was your experience with DevBootcamp? Did you experience any unexpected difficulties along the way?

I had an amazing time at DevBootcamp and learned an immense amount of knowledge about coding, working with teams on products, and most importantly how to learn things (something developers need to be constantly doing). The main takeaway I got from attending a coding bootcamp was the confidence and ability to break a complex problem into smaller, more manageable problems. This allowed me to face a very confusing new technology or situation, and understand smaller parts of it until I could get a grasp on the bigger picture. That has helped me tackle other programming languages and environments, as well as problems in general.

  1. Any advice for people considering coding schools.

As expected, making a large career switch isn’t always a smooth transition; having to start from scratch and build up a knowledge base, network of people, and new work skills is a major step, but I think it’s well worth the effort. For someone contemplating doing a similar switch, I’d recommend really sitting down and thinking through the reasoning; if it is simply to make more money or follow a trend, the switch will not be that rewarding (and it will be very difficult to have the motivation to keep learning and building up skills from scratch). If programming is something genuinely interesting to you, then I highly suggest exploring it a decent amount before jumping to a coding school. Free sites like CodeAcademy can give you a taste for coding, and if you feel a sense of passion towards it you should absolutely apply to make the switch!

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