This 25-year-old data engineer is helping disrupt the world of finance
Robert Krzyzanowski is the kind of person who could choose to do many things with his life.
At 11, he scored in the 97th percentile in the math section of the SAT. At 16, Krzyzanowski, who speaks three languages fluently, was graduating from a special college-level program for gifted high-school students at North Central in Naperville, Illinois.
By 23, he had a Ph.D. in math from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and, he says, he wanted to find a job where he had a real-world impact.
So Krzyzanowski, now 25, joined a little-known financial-technology startup called Avant.
The Chicago-based online lending platform is one of a handful of startups that are looking to overturn the consumer-loan market by finding ways to approve loans faster than banks. For some people, Avant can approve a loan the same day.
Founded in 2012, Avant is the fastest-growing online marketplace lender, having raised more than $1.6 billion in three years. It's also a member of the unicorn club, with a valuation of more than $2 billion.
A couple of years ago, it might have seemed a risky place to start a career. Krzyzanowski's telling of his experience at Avant hits all the perks of working at a tech startup, starting with the motivation of his coworkers.
The startup 'drive'
"Even in grad school, where you have people that are from a wide variety of backgrounds and are generally motivated, I hadn't really seen the kind of drive that you do in the first few years of a really fast-growing venture," he said.
While his academic background is in math and statistics, at Avant he manages the programmers.
Krzyzanowski likes being able to wear many hats at Avant, another perk of being at a small operation. He's also able to see the direct impact of his work.
"Whenever we have customers streaming, the work that I do and the work that the people I work with do — it's constantly making decisions and at every second it's actually having an impact on our customers," Krzyzanowski said.
"So without that kind of tethering to the real world, it's hard to justify any work you're doing, and I found that to be true moving from academia into the industry."
What is data engineering?
Krzyzanowski's analytics team essentially transforms any insights that the company has on potential customers into useful data points that can be used to analyze their worthiness as a borrower.
"What we do boils down to making decisions — but making them better and making them faster," Krzyzanowski said.
Avant must be able to decide whether customers are fraudulent. (There are two kinds of fraud, Krzyzanowski said: soft fraud, such as using a current credit rating to get a one-time loan, even while knowing that, for example, some large debt may be coming in; and hard fraud, like identity theft.)
His team gauges that by using "offline" tools and machine-learning techniques to analyze hundreds or even thousands of variables to assess fraud risks. Most lenders are able to analyze only dozens of variables.
"Effectively what we're able to do is take these complicated algorithms and then translate them into code that can make the decision instantly," Krzyzanowski said.
They're able to do that because they've developed their own internal programming syntax and grammar.
"We really use best-in-class analytics and technology to provide a unique customer experience," Avant's CEO, Al Goldstein, told Business Insider.
Goldstein said that over 50% of Avant's customers get approved in real time, while virtually all of them get funded the next business day.
"The result of that is really positive customer experience and customer satisfaction," he said.
This week Avant launched an auto finance product, and plans for a credit-card product are in the works.
Goldstein wants to build out Avant's presence internationally, too, particularly in the UK and Canada.
Krzyzanowski's analytics team has grown from two people to 30, and his position continues to grow with it.
"Coming in to work here I thought maybe I'll stay here long term, maybe I'll stay a couple of months," Krzyzanowski said.
Two years later, it looks as if he may be in it for the long haul.
- Erin Callan, the one-time CFO of Lehman Brothers, wrote a book about 'leaning in too far'
- Execs from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and other top Wall Street firms share their best career advice
- A star Wall Street banker who breaks the mold reveals her 3 pieces of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs