June 16, 2017

When you walk into the Amherst office, you’re greeted by an ultra modern, glass-walled conference room. The sleek space practically screams Wall Street, so no one would fault you for being confused: Is this the nimble Amherst InsightLabs? Or a fixture of the financial world?

Actually, it’s both.

Amherst Holdings is a 20-plus-year-old financial services holding company specializing in real estate, mortgage and related investments. Its startup-esque branch, Amherst InsightLabs, is just down the hall — and with more fitting decor: putting green, pool table, lounge area and the conspicuous absence of corner offices.

CEO Doug Fashenpour sits in a wide open seating area. And CJ Zhao, the company’s financial modeling SVP and formerly a Fannie Mae portfolio manager, can often be found working in the communal window bench overlooking Lake Austin, enjoying a Diet Snapple.  

We recently met with the team here to find out about their ambitions to grow and take their in-house products to market.

FOUNDED IN: 2014

NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 42

WHAT THEY DO: Create in-house software, data analytics platforms and technologies to power Amherst’s broker dealer, asset management and single family buyer/renter platforms.

WHO THEY DO IT FOR: Amherst Holdings and third-party clients.

WHERE THEY DO IT: A rock’s skip away from the Pennybacker Bridge on Lake Austin.

WHO THEY ARE: A cornucopia of business analysts, data scientists, software engineers, infrastructure engineers, quantitative developers, project managers and quantitative research scientists.

POWERED BY FOOD: The team receives daily catered lunches every day that are health conscious (with a cheat day every Friday) and Breakfast Taco Thursdays!

WHO THEY LOOK FOR: People who will own their work.  

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Doug, how is the technology from Amherst InsightLabs used?

Fashenpour: Our Austin office supports and deploys billions of dollars in capital every month through the platform that we’ve built. We’re a technology company but our mission is to support Amherst and help Amherst do a few things really well.

We study a massive dataset on real estate, mortgages, the economy and demographics to determine how things are right now and how things will be going forward. We also make the data usable. We do a lot of simulations and projections to understand if an opportunity looks good now and also if it looks good on a go-forward basis. We then build the technology, workflows and supercomputers — whatever we have to do to support the initiatives that are born from the data study.

What technologies power your business?

Todd Lawrence, SVP of Emerging Technologies: We’re mostly a Microsoft shop, and we’ve historically been that way because the tools available for Microsoft development and SQL Server, including all the business applications, were very quick to get to market. We’ve been in RAD mode (Rapid Application Development) for 20 years, so that’s what we’re really good at. For languages, we use C#, C / C++, a little bit of Python, T-SQL, and some people have their own things that they play around with for prototyping like F#. And the modeling group uses SAS.

Todd, you joined Amherst Holdings in 2001 when it was just you and three other guys writing software tools and applications. What is it like now to have such a depth of talent?

Lawrence: Having all these people gives us redundancy so people can feel comfortable taking time off, and they don’t have to worry about checking e-mail at home. Having a large team also makes it easier to take on all kinds of projects, when otherwise we’d say we can’t do all these things at once.

We really want to promote a good work-life balance, which is one reason we’ve built this office with a game room and host regular team dinners. We want to make sure everyone has a good time and is compensated well.

Jeff, this company was just five developers when you came on board. What changes have you seen now that the team has grown to 42?

Jeff Franks, Senior Data Engineer: We certainly brought in a lot of talented people and that’s been a huge change. But I don’t know if we’ve changed as much as we’ve grown. We still have the same philosophy to aggressively pursue the opportunities that we see. We charge hills and we take opportunities. That’s who we are. That’s fundamental. I don’t think that will ever change.

Change comes more along the lines of how to integrate new people into our environment to help them be successful. We’re getting really good at understanding that each person brings a different mindset to a problem, how to learn from them and how to help them understand how we think.

What’s a specific project your team recently completed?

Lawrence: For Main Street Renewal, an internal company that manages Amherst’s single family homes, we have a call center for tenants to find out the status of work orders and general information. In less than one week, we created the ability to introduce an automatic, pop-up info screen whenever a call comes through for the agents at the call center.

So when a call gets to an agent, we link up the phone number to our system to pull in pertinent information about that phone number. We can pull up tenant info, the person who is calling, any open or closed work orders — really any information about the property that they are renting from us. We can have it instantly at the agent’s fingertips.

Tell me about a time when the entire AIL team had to come together.

Lawrence: In about three months, we implemented our custom prepayment model for government-issued agency bonds that our businesses trade. We were tasked with removing a product the company paid over $2 million a year for, and replacing it with an in-house application. We actually built our own in-house, high-performance compute cluster — a supercomputer, and we’ve gotten 10 to 15x the performance off of what we would’ve had in the cloud.

What’s on the horizon for the AIL team?

Fashenpour: We’ve never had a consumer-facing technology product, and I think we’re going to spend the rest of the year developing that. We’ve monetized through investment, but we’ve never tried to monetize the technology itself in the bond market.

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CJ, you came to AIL from Fannie Mae in D.C. and you now head the data modeling team. What has it been like for you?

Zhao: Amherst has a very strong reputation in the analytics financial industry. At conferences, people genuinely respect what the company says. This space is beautiful and Sean Dobson [Amherst Holdings’ CEO] treats everyone as family. We’re also doing more as a team with social responsibility: Sean has a charity that we as a team regularly get involved in. And in general, we just have a good time. We tease each other and joke around.

What’s different about working here than any other place you’ve worked prior?

Franks: I think our flat organization. We’re looking for contributions from people immediately. All the key players will get into a room and come up with ideas together. It doesn’t matter if you got hired last week; we’re going to put you on the spot and ask you: “‘What do you think?”

Fashenpour: We allow people to be creative, and we allow all of our team’s contributions to flow to the top.

What do you look for in your recruiting process?

Zhao: I always make sure candidates have a research mentality and critical thinking skills.

Fashenpour: Fitting into our team is highly critical. The Amherst people take a lot of ownership and pride in what we do. We’re looking for people who do the same and really understand our investment strategies and the technology set.

Photos by Rudy Arocha. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.