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Here's How This Team Created an AI-Powered Money App (Psst: They’re Hiring!)

When you think of a career in tech, you probably imagine working at a software giant, or a digital pioneer, or a major digital platform. You might not think of a financial services company. But maybe you should.

As investors become more tech-savvy, companies like Charles Schwab are racing to provide innovative technology. The latest example? A new app that can help customers easily find information and complete tasks the same way they might ask for directions to the store, or look up a phone number.

The app, called the Schwab Assistant, lets customers type or say what they want. And thanks to the artificial intelligence that powers the app, they’ll find answers to common financial questions, explains Christopher Tillman, Senior Application Engineer at Charles Schwab, one of the leaders on the project.

From Concept to Customer

The idea for the voice-activated app was born at one of Schwab’s in-house software competitions, where teams come up with new products and assemble rough versions of them. The app idea, which won the contest in late 2018, started beta testing internally last year. It’s now available to 300,000 Schwab customers, with a broader launch to its more than 1 million customers targeted for late summer 2020, says Aisha Shaikh, Business Systems Analyst at Charles Schwab.

In that time, it’s evolved into a crucial tool for Schwab customers to easily find information about the markets, the stocks and mutual funds they own, and their overall portfolios—plus complete tasks, like accessing tax documents or setting up a travel notice for their accounts. The ultimate vision is a go-to app: intuitive, easy to engage with, and continually updated.

Better, Bigger, Faster

Speed and innovation are watchwords at Schwab. Tillman’s team is in the process of making the voice-activated assistant even better, while bringing its capabilities to entirely new sets of customers. As anyone who has wrestled with the speech-recognition feature of a phone menu can attest, there’s a lot of room for improvement in speech-recognition technology.

Making real strides when it comes to improving a voice-activated assistant involves heavy use of artificial intelligence, says Tillman: “It gets smarter over time.” How? For example, the AI identifies instances where it appears that a user didn’t receive what they requested. To fix it, the program focuses on learning the words used and creating a better outcome.

Today, the company’s speech recognition technology identifies up to 400 separate customer intentions. That may sound like a lot. But it could possibly identify as many as 2,000 intentions in the not-too-distant future.

At the same time, Tillman’s team is finding ways to connect improved speech recognition tech to other Schwab interfaces. That could mean allowing people to talk to the StreetSmart Edge trading platform on their desktop or laptop. Or it could mean streamlining the experience customers have when they call into Schwab’s 800 number.

Mobile First

This new tech, while impressive, is becoming essential. People are increasingly relying on technology as their primary connection point with their money. At Schwab, the company estimates roughly 40 percent of clients are now mobile-only.

“More people want to take financial moves into their own hands, without direct human assistance,” Tillman says. “These days, people feel more secure in their choices, and they do it themselves.” In the last year, Schwab saw a 25% increase in mobile users, with more than 1 million customers using their phones to check on the markets and their accounts, and to make adjustments.

It’s not enough just to make the technology available. It also has to be intuitive: “We want to decrease the learning curve of the app,” Tillman says. Responsive voice controls save people from having to click through multiple pages in the app, adds Shaikh.

Hiring for the Business of the Future

With a new generation of hands-on, digitally savvy customers, Schwab is focused on reaching them with state-of-the-art technology. That means recruiting top tech talent, which currently makes up 35% of the company’s hiring.

After a career as a software developer in the real estate and aerospace industries, what first appealed to Tillman about Schwab was the name recognition of the company, and the atmosphere of the office when he came in for an interview. “The interviews were actually fun,” he recalls.

In her career as a business analyst, Shaikh has worked at tech companies, automobile manufacturers, and in aviation. It was a former colleague from the tech world who recommended she apply at Schwab. Like Tillman, she found the interview process to be a positive, welcoming experience. And in her year-plus at the company, she’s had a chance to learn and grow in her role, interacting with digital-first customers in new ways, and guiding the development of products that will impact them the most.

Tech Beyond Silicon Valley

In his time at Schwab, Tillman has risen through the ranks from a senior developer to a leadership position on many projects. The next step on that path is likely a move to application architect, which he says his manager is helping him prepare for. In the meantime, he’s continually taking on new responsibilities and learning new tools. Working at Schwab has allowed him to advance quickly, and to work on bigger projects than he might have at another company, he says.

Shaikh is likewise taking advantage of her time at Schwab to dig into the details of everything from trading applications to cashiering. These are all vital technical factors that add up to one thing: a better customer experience. She sees herself growing into a product-development expert.

They’re both bringing cutting-edge technology to life and improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of customers. And they’re both building exciting, future-proof careers, and having fun along the way. As Shaikh puts it, “There’s great teamwork, and quick turnaround that affects clients directly.”