Easy Agile Podcast Ep.5 - Andrew Malak, Chief Product Officer at Spaceship

by Teagan Harbridge, Head of Product

13 Dec 2020

I really enjoyed my conversation on the podcast with Andrew Malak, Chief Product Officer at Spaceship.

We talk integrating agile techniques in professional and personal life, tips on how to achieve a culture of accountability and so much more.

Andrew is a firm believer that the customer trusts your business by joining, and you have an obligation to repay that trust by helping them achieve their outcomes.

You can also listen to the audio on:

or almost any podcasting app.

Transcript

Teagan Harbridge:

Welcome to another episode of the Easy Agile Podcast. I'm Teagan, head of product here at Easy Agile. And we've got a really exciting guest on the show today, Andrew Malak from Spaceship. He's the chief product officer. Andrew is a true believer in creating products and experiences that solve customer problems. He believes that the customer trusts your business by joining, and you have an obligation to repay that trust by helping them achieve their outcomes. In his current role, Andrew aims to help people take control of their wealth from a young age, educating good money habits and helping people invest where the world is going. Andrew is a family man who loves his time with his wife and children. And believe it or not, he uses agile techniques in his personal and professional life. Andrew is an economics geek. He plays and coaches soccer, football. He's a big Liverpool supporter, loves to travel, loves amazing architecture, and loves working with children.

Teagan Harbridge:

There were so many takeaways from my chat with Andrew that I really struggled to pair it down to three. But if you say tuned, here are some of the things that you're going to learn from our chat with Andrew. Why we should stop using the term agile transformation and start calling it an agile evolution. Why it's important to be open-minded to our own limitations so to break the old mindset of protecting original scope. And tips on how to achieve a culture of accountability. So I hope you enjoy. Andrew, can you tell me a little bit about Spaceship?

Andrew Malak:

Oh, fantastic. Well, thank you very much for, first of all, having me, Teagan. Spaceship is a business that's on a journey to make good money habits and investing accessible to all people. So what we look for is trends to do with industries or companies who are building the future of both industry or economies. We invest in them for the longterm, we break down barriers of entry for people, we give them a fee-free product under $5,000, no minimum investments. It's really easy to sign up. You simply download an app and you sign up and make one product selection decision, and you're done. You can start investing on autopilot. We allow you to also invest your superannuation in a not too dissimilar way.

Teagan Harbridge:

So tell me a little bit about who your target customer is, then. Because it seems like you're trying to make something quite complicated accessible for maybe first time investors.

Andrew Malak:

Well, you're absolutely right. There's a niche segment of people out there at the moment, millennials or even gen Zs, that we just don't think have been well serviced by the incumbents. And what we're trying to do is resonate with these young people as much as possible. We're trying to reduce industry jargon and really make things simple to them, because investing doesn't have to be complex. It's really about a lot of discipline around, if I can manage my personal P&L, or money in, money out, then I can create a cash buffer that can go into my assets column on my balance sheet. That's really what we're trying to do. And that kind of language, if we can get it right, can really simplify things that have typically been in the hands of financial advisors and accountants and give it back to everyday Australians who are starting out in their investment journey.

Teagan Harbridge:

Yeah, awesome. And you've been on quite a journey before landing in the FinTech space as the Spaceship CPO. So can you tell me and our audience a little bit about what that journey has looked like?

Andrew Malak:

Oh, where do I start? If you asked a graduate Andrew Malak what he'd be doing now, I don't think I would've been speaking about this because at that point in time in my career I didn't know this space would actually be around, if that makes sense. So I'll go back to my younger years, and I always thought I was going to be an architect. I had this fascination with bridges and I wanted to design things and see them come to life. And let's just say that I do that in different ways right now, but I started out working in CommSec on the trading floor. I moved on to work as a business analyst, and that's where I started my critical thinking into how businesses work and how things can be made more efficient.

Andrew Malak:

I dabbled in teaching for a little bit, I taught high school economics and religion for a little bit. And then I eventually landed in a product role at St. George Bank prior to the merger with Westpac. At that point in time, the light bulb really came on. I realized, "Hey, I like creating things. I like to change things. I don't like to just do things," if that makes sense. And that wondering mind that doesn't like the conform was finally let loose, if that makes sense. And I haven't stopped enjoying it. I loved my time at Westpac, made lots of friends, worked on really cool, successful projects, and implemented lots of things that had great results. Worked on lots of things that have failed miserably and learnt a lot out of that. And when the opportunity at Spaceship started to surface late last year, it was just too good an opportunity to not really come in and have a go. So yeah, it's been quite the journey.

Teagan Harbridge:

Yeah, wow. And I love a good failure story. And you said you've had lots. Can you think, just off the top of your head, what one of those big failures has been?

Andrew Malak:

Where do I start? I think our first attempt at taking a digital experience to allow customers to acquire a product online was quite a failure that taught us a lot. We basically took the systems that our back office staff used and just made it available to customers. And the real good learning out of that is there was a lot of traffic and a lot of demand, but not enough completion ever. And the best learning that came out of that... This is back in 2006, so internet speeds were just starting to pick up. Broadband was starting to go mainstream and customers' trust around doing more transactions that used personally identifiable data was starting to normalize at that point in time. Up until then, people quite reserved thinking, "I'm going to lose my personal data," et cetera. So when we decided to do that, we saw that there was a lot of demand but we quickly came to the realization that we used to train staff for four to six weeks on how to use the systems before they knew how to service customers using them.

Andrew Malak:

But then we've deployed it into production for customers to self-service and realized quite quickly that the experience for customers had to be much more guided than the experience for a staff member. This is where the evolution of usability or design thinking started to come in. We started thinking of, "Well, how do we make these things so easy that a first-time user can go end to end and not encounter friction?" And this is where our understanding of design principles, customer testing using verbatim and anguage that can resonate with a first-time user becomes critical to the execution. It's not just good systems but it's good user experience sitting on top of systems.

Andrew Malak:

That's probably the one that resonates with me the most because I've held that to a very high regard throughout my whole career. Now everything I do I think of, "Where's the friction? How do we make sure there's no friction? What's the customer going to feel throughout this experience? How are we creating unnecessary anxiety in that experience for the customer, and how do we move that away? How do we become more transparent but still be simple?" And yeah, that's probably the one that resonates the most.

Teagan Harbridge:

Seems like a tremendous learning opportunity early enough in that project and something that's stuck with you since, so great learning opportunity.

Andrew Malak:

Absolutely.

Teagan Harbridge:

We've got a ton of customers who are at all stages of their agile transformations, and I know that this is something that you've had experience with if we go back to your St. George, Westpac days. Can you give our audience any tips or stories that you encountered when you were going through those agile transformations? What lessons can you share with our audience?

Andrew Malak:

Oh, I have lots of lessons to share, actually.

Teagan Harbridge:

This is what I love.

Andrew Malak:

Look, I like to position it more as agile evolution more than agile transformation because no matter what you try to do, you're not just going to drop waterfall and become agile next morning. Honestly, I've seen so many attempts and every single time I see that the graduality of the change is a better predictability of the final outcome that you're going to land. So ultimately the Holy Grail that everyone's aspiring to is that, as a leader, you can rock up to a team stand up unexpected and then, without being told who is in what role, who the product owner is, who the engineer is, who the QC is, who the designer is, it becomes hard for you as the leader to work out who's who because at that point in time the team is so well converged on customer outcomes that they will self-organize themselves around what each person needs to do.

Andrew Malak:

And most of the language being used is really around, what are we trying to define the customer? What's the best thing to do within the capacity that we have to deliver this feature to market as quickly as possible, capture value for the customer and the business as much as possible? This takes a long time to get to, where you can start normalizing to a standardized, common set of goals, common cadence, and common ways of working. And I think it's ultimately about how much empowerment you can give people and how much as a leader you can relegate yourself in the background to allow them to work it out themselves as long as you're coming in and nudging things along the way and helping people course correct along the way. So the good news is that I actually think at Spaceship, we're pretty close to getting there.

Andrew Malak:

We have been running scrum and we have been running sprints for a long time, but it has been largely ceremonials. But over the last quarter, we've done a really good job at embedding more cross-functional people into these teams. But the goal for us is that now we feel like our throughput has actually increased and that the constant flow of information between the teams is becoming more natural and there is actually less ambiguity between the teams around, "All right, we built it this way. The API is no longer consumable. It doesn't fit what we're trying to do from our front-end and there's less back and forth." So we can really see that the amount of friction between persons in the team is really starting to reduce dramatically and we're starting to see that throughput really increase. Having said that, the best way to go about an agile transformation is just get started.

Andrew Malak:

You can sit and plan out things and plan towards utopia as much as you want or you can actually just get going. So when I say by get going, I say you have to start by getting buy-in from all the leaders of the different cross-functional teams, because if you don't have that buy-in at the leadership level, it's just not going to work because there's going to be blockers, there's going to be escalations. And if all these things result in conversations around, "Should we keep doing this?" Or, "Hey, maybe this is not the right thing to do." That needs to be off the table really early on and it needs to be a total commitment at the leadership level that we're going to make this work and whatever we encounter we're just going to fix forward. Once you have that commitment at the leadership level, you need to very clearly define the values that the team is going to be handed to work with, because agile itself, it's not a process, it's a set of values that the team needs to just take and start working with.

Andrew Malak:

So we could go and rattle individuals and interactions over processes and tools or working software over comprehensive documentation. Well, give these to the team and they're going to say to you at day one, "We can't go to all of that straight away." So they might actually say that day one, "We're still going to need some documentation because we're not comfortable yet. We don't understand the language of the other people in the scrum team well enough to be able to go and actually code off the back of a conversation." But by the 10th sprint, the 20th sprint, that misunderstanding of what the product owner wants or what the designer is trying to achieve in an experience starts to become embedded in the mind of the engineer.

Andrew Malak:

The engineer understands the customer a lot more, and then you can make do with less process and less documentation and less negotiated outcomes and more commonality across the team. The other thing that then starts to kick in at that stage is that ability of the team to pivot in response to a change and not see that as a threat to what they're trying to achieve. The old ways of working was, define that scope, protect that scope, and not let things disturb that scope, whereas if you're halfway through a project and you get some really good information that tells you that maybe you are not on track to achieve a good outcome, you should be welcoming that. And the team itself in the beginning is going to find that an irritation, but over time they'll become more comfortable with pivoting off the back of new information.

Teagan Harbridge:

Yeah. It's a big mindset shift. I was just having a discussion today about, where does being agile and being reactive, where's that line in the middle. And when does taking information and pivoting because you think something will be better, when can we break that mindset of, "Oh, we're just being reactive?" No, we're being responsive.

Andrew Malak:

Yeah, yeah. And look, I think the word reactive itself naturally has a negative connotation to it, but agility in mindset allows you to flip that on its head and say that no one can work things out in totality to 100% of what's possible, so being open-minded to our own limitations first and foremost allows us to acknowledge that when new information comes in, it is because we didn't think through the solution 100%, but let's also be okay with that because no one can. So I think it's flipping on its head and acknowledging it upfront and saying that this is going to happen, but when it comes we will assess the information we have with the capacity we have with how far progressive we are and make a decision that's right for us, for the customer, and for what's possible.

Andrew Malak:

So I take it as the more information you get along the way, the more reinforcement of, are you doing what's right or should you pivot and change at that point in time? The other thing that happens really early on is that if you as a leader can create a really clear vision around customer outcomes and establish your first cross-functional team and hand over that vision to the team, it becomes theirs. Don't hand over the backlog to the team. Don't give them a ready backlog, just give them the vision and then tell them, "You guys work out what your backlog looks like." When they come up with their own backlog, as long as you as a leader don't see that it's just a list of Hail Marys in it and there is a fair bit in there that is well spread out between hygiene things, strategic things, and a few moonshots and the balance is right, if the team has come up with their own backlog, the motivation they have to build their own ideas just goes through the roof.

Andrew Malak:

And that's what you want to achieve. You want to achieve clarity that the work fits with the vision and the motivation that you get out of the backlog being created by the team itself gets you that throughput enhancement. The other thing that you're going to struggle with really early on is chunking things down to fitting within the sprint cadence. I think that's one that's often been my biggest challenge when moving towards agile practices early on. Typically in the first few sprints, you always have overruns and things don't complete in the sprint because we end up thinking we can do more than we can and it takes us a while to work out, in wrapping up something that becomes shippable in a sprint, you probably take a little bit less in that sprint because you've got to test it or you've got to do a release in that sprint, or you're going to do a PIR in that sprint, or you're going to do a lot of retros in that sprint. Start to sort of formulate what you're going to take through the next planning cycle.

Andrew Malak:

So you've got to budget to that capacity, and I'll find that teams underestimate the magnitude of that work. So be okay with that. Overruns in the first few sprints don't mean you've failed, it means you're learning how to plan better. And then make sure your retros and your pivot off the back of that into your next planning sessions is taking information that is now new to you, and making sure you're working with it. I think as the leader, though, you have to set the expectations that teams can make mistakes and that it's a safe environment.

Andrew Malak:

And I've seen many agile... I was about to use the word transformation, even though I've just said I don't believe in transformation. Any teams that are adopting agile principles expecting that in their first few sprints they don't have any hiccups, and that if throughput falls in the first few sprints, then there's a bit of a, "Oh, well you told me this thing was going to increase our throughput." Yeah, but not straight away. So I think just being realistic with yourself and what's possible, and that shift in itself, until it normalizes, takes a bit of getting used to. The teams need to know it's a safe environment, that if their productivity suffers, if they make mistakes or if they break things, it's going to be okay. We'll fix forward.

Andrew Malak:

But then also there comes a point in time where we have to be very clear about the culture of accountability around using that capacity really well. So what I've found, that the best use of that is the showcase. And what we've done at Spaceship, because we're trying to reduce the amount of ceremonies, we've combined both the planning playback in a sprint as well as the showcase into the same ceremony. So what we do is we play back what we built last session using a demonstration of working software and comparing the amount of work we've executed versus what was planned in the previous sprint. We're saying we've got 80%, 90% through the work and this is what it looks and feels like, and this is what we're deploying to the customer. Then we actually showcase what we plan to do in the next sprint.

Andrew Malak:

And that's part of the showcase, is our hand on heart commitment to, "This is what we as a team are committed to doing in the next sprint." And then that accountability to the organization becomes something that keeps us on track throughout the sprint. As distractors or things that are not committed in the sprint come our way, we quickly think about, all right, can we accommodate these things? Do they need to be done? Are they going to take us off track with what is planned? Are they important enough? Is it a major defect of production, and can customers no longer access our app? Well, drop what you're doing and attend to that. Otherwise, if it's not material, keep focused on the work that you've committed to in front of the organization.

Andrew Malak:

After this you're going to start to experience some growing pain, and the growing pain is good because it means that agile is working and more teams or more feature opportunities become possible for the business. There's going to be a lot more hype around moving to agile. Other teams are going to come across and say, "Oh, how do we piggyback off what you're doing?" Et cetera. This is good. This is good, but what it means now is that some new risks are going to actually start to be introduced. Working with common code, common dependencies, or even common people being needed to be doing multiple things just means that you now need more coordination. I'd say to anyone who reaches this point in time, this is where people feel compelled to start introducing some new roles, coordination roles. And I'd just say, be careful because that can start add to your overhead really quickly.

Andrew Malak:

I find the best way to ensure that teams continue to be in sync is with the right dialogue at the right level with the right rhythm. And this is where I think keeping it simple to just the scrum of scrums works really well. I like the scrum of scrums to be balanced between both product owner and tech lead from each team being present, and a cadence of one to two times per week works really well. And as long as the product owners across the teams and the tech leads across the teams know what the other teams are working on, know what could impact their own work from a release perspective or scheduling perspective or an environment perspective, I think that tends to work really well as well.

Teagan Harbridge:

Yeah, wow. Lots of nuggets in there and certainly things that resonate with our experience here at Easy Agile, being a small company that's grown really quickly. So I can definitely relate. We've had conversations about, do we introduce new roles into this company? We've introduced a new cadence of meeting rhythms only the last couple of months, so we're going through these things too.

Andrew Malak:

Absolutely. Absolutely. What have been your biggest learnings so far?

Teagan Harbridge:

I think that you cannot underestimate communication, and it really does come back to that cadence and that rhythm with the team. And we're experimenting at the moment with a daily huddle where we're talking about, how do we embed showcases more regularly in our cycles? We've got a big demo at the end of the cycle. How can we make that a more ingrained part of our culture? And it really does come back to that culture of accountability as well. So yep, it's all resonating.

Andrew Malak:

Yeah, absolutely. Look, you can go to whatever industry you want but the problems are usually similar. And the great thing is that having these conversations is very important to fast-tracking your way forward, because your problem is not unique to you. Someone else has seen it in someone else has figured out a way. And I think what I like about the FinTech industry is that we compete on products and services, but there's a lot to learn from each other. And even if you just go outside of FinTech, there's a lot to learn from other industries who have adopted agile practices.

Teagan Harbridge:

If we take a bit of a flip, we've gone from your professional career and your experience into a more personal level. You mentioned that you use agile techniques outside of work. So I'm not sure if many others are in the same boat, but can you elaborate on this? What does that mean? What does that look like?

Andrew Malak:

Okay, I hope you don't think I'm extremely weird. We actually have a family campaign. So I guess if I go back to how we've come to actually doing this. Becoming parents, we would look at our children and see so many things that we want them to be better at. And in trying to give them constant feedback, which felt like the feedback was so much that it's all being drowned out because there's so much of it. In fact, my oldest son actually gave me that feedback. He goes, "Dad, why don't we focus on one thing at a time?"

Andrew Malak:

And I was like, "Wow, okay." For a ten-year-old to tell me that, that was amazing. So we came to realize that we needed to narrow and focus on one improvement area at a time, and we don't move on to the next one until we've actually closed out the first one. For example, my oldest son, very clever boy. We're trying to focus with him on the discipline of process over just getting the answer right, because he is clever and nine times out of 10, ask him a question, he's got the answer and he just wants to say it.

Andrew Malak:

But we've started to try to break down the question and work more on the process with him so that in following the process, coupled with his natural ability, we will get more answers right more often. And that's what we're working through at the moment. So our family's scrum wall at the moment has a mix of things on it. Everyone has their own swim lane, and in each swim lane there are a few tasks, some related work or study, some relating to household chores, some related to health or exercise, and some related to acts of kindness. And what we aim to do is make sure that we're moving things across in all four categories every single day. So yeah, you can use agility wherever you'd like but I think that mindset in general, that if I wake up every day and do things that make me better than I was yesterday, then I'll get to keep moving forward in my personal life as well as my professional life.

Teagan Harbridge:

And do you have WIP limits?

Andrew Malak:

We don't at the moment, and we're not doing showcases at the moment. We'll see how we can introduce them in the future.

Teagan Harbridge:

And how was the introduction of a Kanban board at home? How was that received by the family? Have they enjoyed it, has there been any feedback?

Andrew Malak:

Well, it wasn't actually planned. It started by just sticking some Post-its up on the fridge to remind us of stuff. And then one day I said to my wife, "You know what? This reminds me of what we do at work. Why don't we formalize it?" She had a bit of a chuckle but then one day she came back and then she found it there. So yeah, it wasn't really planned.

Teagan Harbridge:

Awesome. And you've already been super generous with your time so I'll close it out with one final question. What advice do you wish someone would have given you when you took the leap from product management into product leadership?

Andrew Malak:

Yeah, that's a really good question. I think first and foremost, that you've got to make sure that you drop your need for perfectionism, because first and foremost, you might have been the best product manager yourself. You might have been amazing. And I'm not saying I was, but if you were and you step up in leadership role, you're going to have people of different abilities working for you. And what you need to understand is that they're going to need some time learning their role and learning their trade. And just don't get in the way of them learn. So for example, you might see someone doing something that may not be the best or most optimal use of that capacity in that sprint. You might feel the urge to jump in and course correct. But if you let them go and just hear their feedback post the retro, they might've had that learning themselves, and a learning that they get for themselves rather than being told by their leader is going to be much more useful for them.

Andrew Malak:

You have to drop your need to make decisions and be in control because, again, the more you can relegate yourself to a servant leadership role and let the team make decisions, when they make decisions and now have to go back up that decision with execution, they're more likely to put their heart and soul into it. The more they feel like you are going to make the decisions, the less inclined they are to think through problems themselves, and then they'll keep bringing the problems back to you. So every time someone asks you a question that has a black and white answer, throw it back to them and ask them what they think, because that way you're coaching them to work it out themselves. And then the last thing that's really important is, I feel like it's really important to think through how your organization allows you to be different and take advantage of that differentiation.

Andrew Malak:

So for example, at Spaceship here, because we're small, we're not a large corporate, our customers are a little bit more forgiving. So you have a limited capacity to build experiences and you can't do all things at the same time. Understand that and take advantage of it, and get your team to also learn that. Because if you're trying to how the all edge cases, it will take a lot longer to get something to market and you might use a lot of the team's capacity to build edge cases. And you can't really afford that when you're in a start-up.

Andrew Malak:

So for example, we launched a new investment portfolio yesterday. We launched the Spaceship Earth portfolio, our first sustainable investment portfolio and it's a sign of more things to come hopefully in the sustainability space. But in launching that, we knew that we have a limitation in our experience or our product set today where each customer can only have one portfolio. We knew that existing customers would want to invest in sustainable investing, but our commitment to them is that it's in our backlog and it's actually the next feature that we're actually going to take to market.

Andrew Malak:

And in explaining that to our customers, they've been very understanding, that they know our throughput is limited but they also know that their voice is being heard and we are building the things that they're telling us about. So I would say that the best piece of advice to tell my young self is to make sure that you get the balance right between the voice of the customer. That's going to tell you all the hygiene things that your product lacks in terms of experience or gaps. And then get the balance between new strategic things that you can go after and new things that you can take to market, as well as a few Hail Marys every now and again. We call them moonshots. They may or may not work, but it's exciting, and if it works, can 10X your volume. And they are the things that are likely to go viral. So getting the balance right is very important.

Teagan Harbridge:

It's been wonderful, Andrew. I've definitely taken a lot away from our chat today, and I'm sure our audience will too. So thank you again so much for your time, and good luck.

Andrew Malak:

No Teagan, look, thank you very much. And it's been a pleasure speaking to yourself and Easy Agile, and I wish you guys all the best too.

Teagan Harbridge:

Awesome. Thanks Andrew.

Andrew Malak:

Have a good afternoon.

Subscribe to our blog