So many ideas, so little time? No, we'll make time, says Intuit CTO

The two things that are certain in life: death and taxes. But Intuit focuses on both: the former as its corporate brainchild. And on the latter? How to stave it off, by innovating to the max.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: Intuit/YouTube

NEW YORK — There are two things certain in life: death and taxes. And Intuit, despite the fact the tax and accounting giant is celebrating its 30-year anniversary, the company has yet to show a single wrinkle.

In fact, one of the key takeaways from catching up with Intuit's chief technology officer Tayloe Stansbury at Intuit's Innovation Gallery Walk in New York earlier this week was how the company is investing in breakaway projects. For instance, employees are given the time and space to develop projects off the beaten path in efforts to stay ahead of the emerging technology curve.

Intuit, to anyone who has used their products, makes tax and accounting software "sexy" — a seemingly impossible task, one might think. 

It develops financial and tax preparation software and services for individuals and businesses. The company is probably best known for its TurboTax software, designed for North American customers. Intuit also facilitates mobile payments through with GoPayment, and has a notable presence thanks to its 2009 acquisition of Mint.com for $170 million. And in September, Intuit announced a new integration deal with mobile payments giant Square,

In fact, you name it, and it pretty much does it.

Stansbury and I sat down in a bustling hall to talk about where the company is, and where it's heading; notably its concepts and development for emerging technologies. We also discussed Obamacare, the company's push into landlord and tenant payments with SparkRent, emerging technologies such as Google Glass, and who Intuit eyes up as its main competition.

ZDNet: Intuit says it wants to help its customers tackle "the more complex tax process" regarding Obamacare. Outline some of the opportunities there for the company.

Stansbury: There are two. One is for people who are employees of our small businesses who use our payroll software. We've got an offering where small businesses can funnel additional money after verifying that they've actually signed up for a healthcare plan. Helping small business employees find a healthcare plan and recompense them for it is key for us. 

The other is the relationship with after tax, and how we can have people find out if they need to sign up for a plan, what the penalty will be if they don't sign up for one, and how much it'll cost if they do sign up for one. We've got a community answering questions for each other. We answer some, and the users answer others. That deals with the long tail of exoteric questions extremely well, and it builds off the same community we've got for TurboTax. 

ZDNet: SparkRent deals with landlords and tenants exchanging money. But PayPal already does this, though it's not marketed as such. For instance, I know somebody who pays their rent through PayPal and it just works. How is Intuit separating itself away from PayPal?

Stansbury:  Obviously this vision includes integrating all the data with Quickbooks, so the landlord can have all their data in one place. You see, instead of just collecting a payment, it tracks what a monthly payment should be, and whether or not the tenant has historically been good with making payments. And eventually, it sets up a community where you can see for a given renter who might be a prospective renter for another property, whether they have a good payment history or not, and whether they've trashed the apartment or not. It goes beyond payments to integration with other apps in our ecosystem. 

ZDNet: Is PayPal a competitor in this space?

Stansbury: In terms of moving the money, yes. In terms of having a vertical solution for rent payment, no. It's quite different. But we're not directly competing with PayPal. To my knowledge, it hasn't anything specifically aimed at this market. They're just for general payments. Now we have products that we shipped long ago as part of Quickbooks, which allows the merchant to make payments in general. And this is basically a very specialized version of that aimed at landlords. 

ZDNet: Why landlords and renters?

Stansbury: Because it's a big problem. A lot of renters don't pay on time. Many landlords don't even live in the same city as their tenants. There's no data entry involved as the data flows directly into Quickbooks. 

ZDNet: It's interesting as a target market. What do you get out of this, besides competing in a market where others have failed to really jump ahead of the curve in that respect?

Stansbury: Actually, it's a surprisingly large number of users, and it's growing like crazy. The adoption rate has been shooting through the roof.

ZDNet: Can you explain some of the technical hurdles you face as chief technology officer, and the company faces?

Stansbury: We've put together a technology strategy to allow for things like data and workflow integration between our applications. That includes platform and cloud. And as all our applications gradually adopt that technology platform and strategy, it becomes easier to integrate.

We're about two-thirds of the way online, so we're way past being a desktop company. We're more of a cloud and mobile company. Mobile is growing really fast. And as you move towards the cloud and mobile, the ability to share data is between customers is far greater. 

ZDNet: Tell me about Google Glass. Intuit has a concept app for the wearable technology (more on that later). Can you tell me more about that?

Stansbury: That's just looking at new ways of interacting with applications. So if you think about "do people want to type in all their data?" No, they don't. And so we want to have different ways of interacting with that data. In the mobile world, you're not going to want to be typing lots of things out on a small screen, so we have to get data through camera capture, voice, online, and various other sources. Glass is just a way of looking at a more future way of interacting with your applications.

ZDNet: What keeps you up at night?

Stansbury: Driving the pace of innovation, really. We do a really good job of that but I would like to go even faster in the future. We have so many good ideas. But, sometimes when you have a big organization, you really want to make sure the best ideas on the fringes of that organization make their way out to market. Building a culture in which those ideas can come to fruition. We use experimentation to test them in the market with real customers, so we can see what their behaviors and reactions are. And then we double down on those ideas. 

After the sit down chat with Stansbury, I wandered around the expo hall, and honed in on the Google Glass demo, wanting to hear more. For one, I am a Google Glass "in the enterprise" skeptic. By now there must be some enterprise applications (excuse the pun) to the gadget.

I spoke to Cindy Osmon, Intuit's senior staff software engineer, who demonstrated the new Google Glass application. It's designed to allow users of the specs pay for food at a restaurant, for instance, by "authorizing" the payment with a scan of a cashier-generated QR code.

"I made this in my spare time," she said. I looked at her slightly baffled. "I took an hour out here, and there, and I created this app for Google Glass. We're encouraged to take time out and to work on various things that we find interesting," she explained.

Osmon told me she was a hardcore coder at heart. She built what appeared to be a stable and fully functional prototype in the space of a few concatenated hours over the course of the past couple of weeks, since the wearable technology first landed on her desk. Though the Google Glass app prototype is only a concept at this stage, she explained the company was always focused on what's next, and what could be. 

The fact remains, in her eyes, that it's worth trying out anything and everything on the technologies they have access to. And if it doesn't work out, "At least we tried," she said. 

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