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In Silicon Valley, a land littered with success stories, Sasan Goodarzi’s tale is anything but typical. Born in Tehran, he and his family immigrated to the U.S. to escape the Iranian Revolution. Within six months, his father died, forcing his older brothers to find a way to support the family. Coming to America as a 9-year-old, Goodarzi says he faced not just a new language and unfamiliar culture, but outright hatred and bullying in school, which stifled his love of learning and led to him graduating from high school in Orlando, Florida with a C-minus average.
Goodarzi found his footing and ultimately rose to become chief executive of software stalwart, Intuit, in early 2019, after earning a master’s in business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and decades of experience in the tech sector. Still, his early struggles inform his management style and worldview. When global protests over Iran’s treatment of women erupted in September, Goodarzi spoke out.
“The amazing people of Iran are showing what they’re made of,” he wrote on Twitter in early September. “Huge respect for the brave women who are risking their lives to let the world know the line has been crossed and are demanding their basic human rights. As a native Iranian, I stand with you and could not be more proud.”
A few weeks later, he urged his peers to get involved. “If you have a platform, make your voice count,” he tweeted.
Intuit, approaching its 40th anniversary in 2023, develops and operates a collection of software products and services aimed at helping individuals and small businesses manage their finances. But Goodarzi sums up the company’s broader aims as a mission “to power the prosperity of those that we serve.” The Mountain View, Calif.-based company’s offerings include TurboTax, QuickBooks, Credit Karma, Mint and Mailchimp.
Since assuming the role of chief executive, Goodarzi has not only set ambitious goals for Intuit’s growth, but has also made a bold public pledge to the company’s customers. That is, to double the household savings rate for people using Intuit’s services and to improve the success rate of small businesses on its platform by 10% over the national average—both by 2025. The average U.S. household saved about 7.9% of its disposable income in the two years before the pandemic, according to the OECD, and only half of small businesses survive beyond their fifth year. To date, Goodarzi says Intuit has surpassed that small business success rate and is over halfway to the household savings rate goal.
TIME spoke with Goodarzi recently about how the slowing economy is affecting his customers. He laid out one of his top concerns as a CEO, and talked about what it takes to get hired at Intuit.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Intuit has a portfolio of products that help individuals and businesses organize their finances. What are you seeing right now from your customers as inflation is putting a squeeze on consumers and small businesses?
We have a lot of data. So we see consumer spending on our platform. We see bank account balances, because small businesses connect to bank accounts. We actually see the number of employees and we see worker hours paid and hours worked. And I would just say in this environment, believe it or not, small businesses and consumers are generally healthy. Now, let me tell you about both sides of the coin, so I don’t mislead. The small businesses that we serve—they are growing. Their biggest issue is they can’t hire enough employees, and they’re thriving. Consumers’ unemployment is still very low. And when we look at account balances of consumers, they’re actually better than they’ve been in years. The other side of that is very real. Consumers and small businesses are paying more for rent. They’re paying more for food. They’re paying higher gasoline prices. And if you’re a small business, you’re also paying more for this very employee that you needed to hire now, versus five years ago. So that’s taking a chunk out of the pocketbook.
For about two years, many people weren’t commuting to work, or going to stores and restaurants. So they saved money. But do you think something fundamentally changed during the pandemic? Are Americans being a little more cautious with their money—saving more?
What we’ve experienced in the last 18 months is people were cooped up in their homes, and when they were un-cooped, people got out. They started spending money. They started traveling. That’s why airlines are reporting great earnings or bullish futures. I think what you’re starting to see now is consumers starting to pull back. They’re starting to buy cheaper brands, although they’re still spending their money. Why? Because they’re having to pay more for gas. They’re having to pay more for rent. They’re having to pay a lot more for food. Sugar is up 70%, for example. So consumers are starting to be careful about spending less in other places. But I don’t think that consumers are being smarter with their money. If they have it, they’re going to spend it.
As a CEO, what are your main challenges right now?
The biggest one—the thing we worry about most, that we talk about most—is speed. It’s about the velocity of innovation. It’s about moving fast, allowing our engineers to code, versus being in meetings, or being part of a decision. Speed is a leadership decision, and a company at our scale, if you can move fast and deliver for your customers, it actually becomes an advantage. The second thing is always making sure that we’re growing our employees and accessing great talent. We spend a lot of time talking about and architecting the company around speed and access to great talent.
What roles are you looking to fill most at the moment? Is it programmers or something else?
It’s in engineering, but it’s a couple of specific areas. The core element of our strategy is centered around data and artificial intelligence. Because it’s all about how we leverage the data and how we apply AI to accelerate our innovation. Therefore, the areas where we have added a lot of talent—and we continue to look for talent—is data scientists, data engineers, systems engineers that can think from a systems perspective, and mobile application engineers.
If you’re someone who has that kind of expertise and you’re interviewing at Intuit, is there a surefire way of getting the company interested in you?
Well, let’s use a data scientist as an example. We have a process that we call A for A, it’s Assessing for Awesome. That includes a one-to-one conversation. But there’s also a panel conversation of two or three people. That data scientist gets a case study, and they have to come in and present to that several-person panel, and explain how they would handle a situation. The things we look for from a data scientist is 1) Do they think about the problem from the lens of what they’re going to do for the customer and the impact they’re going to have for the customer? Because at the end of the day, our boss is the customer. And 2) Do they actually have the ability to apply their data science craft and demonstrate it, not just talk about it—demonstrate their capability around what technologies they’re familiar with, what code they’re familiar with, where they think technology is going, and how they would apply that to the customer problem. And then, of course, the third thing is interaction. How do they interact? Are they going to be able to work on a team? Because a data scientist can’t work alone. If I am hiring a data scientist executive, I’m really looking for the same things. But also asking: Can they lead at scale? Do they know how to hire great people? What track record do they have of transforming an organization?
Lots of people in your position are saying it’s really difficult to hire great people with the job market still very competitive. Is Intuit doing anything differently as it relates to hiring?
It’s been a challenging environment to hire the best of the best. If we’re competing with another company, once we get a candidate to visit and learn about the problems that they would solve for our customers versus somewhere else, our acceptance rate has been very, very high. They just felt like we had some hairy problems that they wanted to be a part of solving. Also, our attrition rate in the last year was five points lower than any of our peer companies. With all that said, access to talent has been hard, but we’ve been able to achieve our hiring ramp in the last couple of years.
Apart from this need to tackle thorny problems, what else do you think is drawing engineers to Intuit?
Well, I’ll tell you what I hear from the folks that we hire. I talk to new hires and I also spent a lot of my time doing chats with our frontline engineers at our different sites, particularly those that have been with us for one to three years. I get a firsthand feel for what they love, and also what we need to improve, which is a question I always ask them. The big thing is they like actually working on things that will impact another human being. They’re working on a project that will give you early access to your refund by five days, or instant access to your tax refund. They’re working on things that allow a customer to get paid much faster once they send an invoice. They’re working on benefit programs as part of our payroll platform. They also love it because when their code gets deployed, they can see on the other end the actual impact it had on a human being. And it’s a real impact, because it’s about money. Those are the things that really get the heartbeats of those new hires going much faster, and why they choose to join the company.
When you have those conversations with them, what are some of the things they say you need to improve?
The consistent themes I hear: They love how customer-centric we are. They love our culture. They love how everybody’s here to help each other collaborate and win. But they wish we would make decisions faster, and they wish they didn’t have to attend as many meetings to get their work done. In all those areas, we’re getting better, but I consistently hear the same thing.
Meetings are a real thorny issue. Have you figured out a way of reducing meetings and accelerating actual work? If so, do you have any tips?
First of all, we’ve improved a lot in this area. We are nowhere near where we need to be. There’s a couple of things we are doing. One is, we set no meetings in the afternoons for our engineers. One of the big things with engineers is you don’t want to distract them. They can’t code for an hour, jump into a meeting, come back and code for an hour, because they have to spend 20% of the time after they come back to figure out where they left off. So, now they always have four or five hours of uninterrupted coding time. That’s working, and we continue to monitor it. We also realize it’s not being followed everywhere in the company, so we keep working it out.
That’s a good one. Any other tips?
The other is the concept of two-way doors versus one-way doors. The majority of decisions we make, there are two-way doors. If you make it and you made a mistake or it wasn’t a good decision, you can come back in. A one-way door is you, once you make the decision, you can’t just turn around and say, “Oh oops.” If you pay $10 billion for an acquisition, you don’t just turn around and say, “Oops.” That’s a one way door. So what we’re working on is being clear, and it’s something we’re working on right now actually, is being clear that 95% plus of decisions are two-way doors, and to enable our teams to move without having to get into meetings. Because a lot of the meetings are two-way doors where you get into a meeting and you’re presenting to management, you don’t even need to do that, just go do it.
But culturally, there is a sort of need for a manager wanting to call a meeting on something that they don’t need to. So that’s what we are working on, and we believe it will work. The other is continuing to get better at when you have a meeting, good hygiene. Why are you in the meeting? What decision are you going to make? Who are the three, four people you need in the meeting, versus 50 people in a meeting? And then it should be a decision meeting or an ideation meeting. You shouldn’t get into a meeting just to inform someone and provide an update. That can be done asynchronously. So those are the things that we’re working on.
As we all emerge from the pandemic, what’s your opinion about whether work needs to be done in the office or not?
When the world shut down in March of 2020, we overnight went virtual with, right now we have over 17,000 employees. We went home overnight. And the good news is we’re a technology company. We have all the tools and we could work virtually. And frankly, many things over time accelerated, because people were actually more productive and effective. So we felt like we needed to really step back and think about what we wanted to do, versus just assuming we all come back to work. What that means to us is that we announce that we’re letting mission based teams decide which days they want to come together in the office and work, and which days they want to work virtually. We did not prescribe, “You have to be in the office Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.” We’re letting teams do it, and the reason for that is when we sent everybody home overnight, we didn’t give them instructions. Everybody just worked virtually, and then we figured out how to work in our mission based groups. So we are leveraging that learning as we’re in a hybrid environment.