TD Ameritrade accelerates innovation with agile, design thinking

Your innovation center may indeed move fast and break things, but if you actually want to get products to market, don't underestimate the importance of agile development and design thinking.

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Everywhere you turn enterprises are setting up innovation centers, labs and digital accelerators, places where software programmers can hack together some incomplete ideas into something usable for their businesses. But here's the dirty little secret about innovation centers: There are no guaranteed outcomes.

Companies will allocate a certain amount of budget and resources to such endeavors and hope for the best. But even in an age where companies are expected to rapidly build, launch and refine digital products, software created in innovation centers often fails to find its way into corporate development, let alone make it to commercial production.

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TD Ameritrade CIO Vijay Sankaran is determined to break that cycle with the online broker’s innovation center. Originally launched in 2014 as an incubator with three employees, the Ann Arbor, Mich. facility has grown to more than 140 techies and has become a full-blown product engineering hub that is a launching pad for new digital products. Buoyed by agile software development, devops and other modern best practices for building digital products, the center recently launched a roboadvisor application and is poised to launch applications that tap artificial intelligence to make trading more efficient.

Innovating your way to disruption

TD Ameritrade's emphasis on emerging technologies shouldn't come as a surprise. An online broker before e-trading became fashionable, the company is seeking to become more of a disruptive force in the financial services sector. "There is an opportunity to leverage digital technologies to continue to disrupt," Sankaran says. "We need to modernize ourselves to be more like an Amazon or Google or fintech out in Silicon Valley."

Vijay Sankaran TD Ameritrade

TD Ameritrade CIO Vijay Sankaran

It's hard to find a hotter technology in financial services than roboadvisors. Launched last fall, TD Ameritrade's Essential Portfolios roboadvisor enables long-term investors to choose an investment plan for crucial financial goals, including retirement, college or home purchases. Using the app from computers or smartphones, clients can dial up or scale back their contributions and view a graphical projection of their investments over time. TD Ameritrade will eventually allow clients to aggregate non TD Ameritrade accounts. "It's becoming a digital financial cockpit for our self-directed, long-term investors," Sankaran says.

Many industry watchers eye roboadvisors with suspicion, as they are ostensibly replacements for financial planners at a time automation is viewed as a threat to jobs. But Sankaran says some TD Ameritrade investors use both roboadvisors and financial planners, comparing advice and recommendations from each to round out their planning.

Continuing in that automation vein, the innovation center is also driving TD Ameritrade's venture into virtual assistant technology and is ramping up bot production. Earlier this year, the company hosted a hackathon, called a "thinkoff," in which the company's software developers built bots to connect with consumers. Sankaran says he expects 6 out of 10 bots created at the event will go into production in the next couple of months.

One bot, built for Facebook Messenger and coming in a couple months, will allow clients to log into the social messaging app to conduct question-and-answer sessions for information on balances, positions and real-time quotes. Eventually, TD Ameritrade will expand the bot's functionality to allow clients to open accounts, close out positions and execute trades.

Harnessing application programming interfaces (APIs) that will enable the company to connect bots with existing digital services without a lot of additional development, TD Ameritrade plans to build text and voice-based bots for WeChat, Amazon Echo, Google Home and other popular consumer tools. This API set will also enable the company to extend the reach of the Essential Portfolios roboadvisor to Amazon Echo, Google Home and other assistant tools.

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