Tech People in the Know: Agent IQ’s Slaven Bilac
In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus will profile interesting and intriguing tech professionals who are positively impacting the credit union industry.
For this issue, we visited with Agent IQ’s CEO and President Slaven Bilac. The San Francisco-based fintech offers financial institutions (FIs) a personal digital platform “supercharged” with artificial intelligence (AI) aimed at improving communication and engagement with members and customers.
By W.B. King
While he struggled with handwriting and language arts in school as a kid, mathematics always came easy to Slaven Bilac. So when he encountered his first computer, he thought: no more handwriting!
“Then I recognized the limitless possibilities that it could enable and since that day, I have never looked back,” he told Finopotamus.
After graduating from The University of Washington, Bilac earned his Master of Computer Science, Natural Language Processing, from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, followed by a doctorate in the same discipline from the same institution. Upon completing his education in 2005, he accepted a job with Google Japan as a software engineer.
At this post, he was responsible for improvements to user-aiding tools (e.g., spell correction, query suggestion, et al.) on the Google search engine. He advanced to senior software engineering manager and Japan search lead where he managed more than 50 people on search quality efforts, including mobile search, user facing features, vertical search and core ranking.
“There has been a noticeable shift in both the structure and the approach to technology since I started my career,” he said. “Initially, it was very much a top-down, carefully planned and slowly executed approach whereas now, it has become much more agile and fast-moving with more of a focus on actually ‘doing’ rather than simply ‘planning’ and then iterating quickly to try and achieve the best results.”
The move away from the “top-down” approach to a “bottom-up” idea generation and solicitation of input from all sides is (and has been) making a significant and positive difference in the industry, he added.
Making the User Experience Seamless
After eight years with Google Japan, Bilac returned to the states working as a senior software engineering manager at Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters. Not long after, he became Agent IQ’s chief technology officer and president, and then CEO in 2019. Today, the company counts two credit unions and 16 other financial institutions (FIs) as clients.
“My organization develops and deploys new technology, so within that context, our biggest focus is on making the user experience as seamless and intuitive as possible while also making complex, difficult tasks easier to execute,” he shared. “By advancing technology and providing end-user utility, we are regularly enabling credit unions’ staff to more easily accomplish something that they were not able to do before, which directly, positively impacts member service.”
To date, the company employees 25 people, 15 of which are tech-facing and most of whom “qualify” as millennials, he noted.
Bilac said the key to keeping the company’s employees motivated is ensuring that they understand how much they are valued and respected.
As an example, he referred to the noted “bottom-up” management approach.
“We do this by providing them the opportunity to be actively involved in planning product improvements and entrusting them with tangible areas of ownership where they can make important decisions and take responsibility for outcomes,” he said.
Since technology in the FI space is a moving target, specifically planning for all possible scenarios is a futile business philosophy, so Bilac coaches employees to keep an open mind.
“A better strategy is to empower our team to take action and adjust course as they see appropriate,” he continued. “When it comes to constructive feedback, I believe that timeliness and contextual examples are key, and I greatly value peer feedback as I’ve found that it is more likely to be ‘heard’ and internalized.”
Currently, Bilac hears the same chatter about the rapid advancement of generative artificial intelligence (AI) and AI-related technology as many other colleagues in the industry, which he said is for good reason.
“Systems like ChatGPT are orders of magnitude better and more useful than the systems from even just a few years ago and they continue to improve at an accelerated pace,” he said.
“These technological advances are the key to freeing up valuable staff to focus their time and attention on higher level activities for the institution," he continued. "This is something that we have seen first-hand drive additional service level improvements, enhance member experience and create meaningful operational efficiencies.”
Noting that applications related to banking “may have lagged behind some other industries to date,” he added “it is really exciting to see how the core pillars of banking — service, relationships and human touch — will evolve as use of this technology becomes more common.”
Bridging the Physical/Digital Divide
When Finopotamus asked what differentiates credit unions from other FIs, Bilac responded: “Credit unions exist for the benefit of their members.” This approach, he added, “drives the adoption of innovative technology that enables seamless, proactive, member-friendly experiences – ones that go beyond simply reacting to members’ basic banking needs.”
To this end, he believes Agent IQ mission to “help institutions use technology to deliver true, personal service within the digital space” is aligned with the credit union movement.
“In essence, we are helping credit unions extend the qualities that differentiate them in the marketplace and ensure that their special, in-branch service experience successfully bridges the physical/digital divide, he explained. “Ultimately, technology is a massive enabler that can amplify the positive impact that credit unions can have on their local communities.”
The CUSO Difference
Whereas fintechs weren’t always a great fit for certain credit union strategies, Bilac says there are more and more positive relationships occurring in the space, which is due, in part, to credit union service organizations (CUSOs) acting as venture investors.
“Although it is still early in some cases, I see the benefit to credit unions as significant as they get earlier access to new technology and are positioned to help shape the product roadmap of technology companies,” he continued. “In some cases, they even realize financial benefits as the CUSO grows. This model allows technology companies to better serve credit unions and their members from day one – providing tangible benefits over time to all involved.”