Q&A: Habito CTO on the new mortgage market

By Michael McCaw | 13 January 2020

Over the past few years the mortgage market has grown increasingly complex, leading to the growth of broker websites that aim to help consumers make informed choices. One such provider – Habito – has seen exponential growth rates since launch in 2016 and last year announced a move into the lending market itself driven by a £500m injection from an institutional backer. bobsguide caught up with the company’s chief technologist, Will Jones, to find out how the firm has enjoyed such growth.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What led you to Habito?

I started working in technology at Wonga around seven years ago. While I was there, I was fortunate to gain exposure to a company and engineering team going through a phase of hypergrowth. Indeed, many of the challenges we faced at Wonga formed the basis for the choices we made in engineering at Habito (though we would of course make our own, different mistakes instead).

After leaving Wonga to pursue other ventures, I was contacted by Daniel [Hegarty], founder and CEO of what would become Habito, who wanted to know if I’d be interested in the deeply uncertain future that only an unproven, new business could offer. Needless to say he was compelling and the prospect of getting to see something grow from the very beginning was too much to turn down.

How does the company stand out?

Mortgages have existed for hundreds of years. And it’s been that long since anything related to mortgages was genuinely designed around the needs of the end customer. A mortgage involves large amounts of repetitive data entry and document submission; piles of jargon and unclear documentation; processes so tedious that consumers will accept interest rate hikes and expensive monthly repayments rather than ever going through the hell of an application again.

At Habito, we really want to sort everything out. We started by tackling the mortgage selection, application and brokerage process and now we’re branching out into lending and origination, so that we can genuinely solve all the problems home owners and purchasers face. Using technology to stitch together pieces of a process that have traditionally been disconnected under a single brand that champions the customer is not something anyone else is doing.

How do you ensure you stay ahead of the competition (from a technical perspective)?

We want to move as fast as possible without compromising on our values or letting down our customers. From a cultural standpoint, a large part of this is constantly asking whether we are building the right thing. For the parts of our product which don’t differentiate us, such as account security or content management, are there existing best-in-class solutions we can harness or integrate rather than build ourselves? For the parts of our product where Habito should surprise and delight those who use it, such as helping customers assess what they can afford, or giving customers an instant decision on their mortgage, how can we quickly test and learn what customers actually want? Armed with that knowledge, then, how can we build something transformational?

Taking in the business more broadly, our desire to fix all the issues facing home owners and purchasers has moved us out of the highly-competitive mortgage brokerage space and into a unique position of brokerage/lender/something brand new. Keeping our eye on actual customer needs is another powerful way for us to move where the competition might not be.

Is there much pressure on your engineering teams to stay up to date?

The rate of change an engineering team has to cope with is astronomical; doubly so in a fast-growing company. The technology landscape continues to change at an unprecedented pace, whether it’s in the cloud and infrastructure space or in the heart of the product in the browser on the front-end. To name but a few evolutions in the four or so years Habito has been running, we’ve twice migrated hosting infrastructure to improve performance and reduce costs (currently running on AWS’ managed Kubernetes offering); heavily scaled our continuous integration and deployment methodologies to enable faster and more reliable releasing (moving from self-hosted Jenkins to a more managed solution in Buildkite) and grown from ad-hoc infrastructure management to something more rigorous using Terraform. And that’s just infrastructure! Just over a year ago we created a team dedicated to developer experience and infrastructure, which has been crucial to helping the wider engineering function adapt and enjoy their work.

How much of what you do is automated? Are there plans to change that in the future?

Across the industry, manual processes still dominate large parts of the customer journey. At Habito, we’ve taken an approach of automating from the ends inwards. On the brokerage side, we collect a mortgage applicant’s data and search for and recommend products that best suit them. On the lending side we have an automated origination platform. In the middle we have our wonderful team of humans working to bring it all together.

Some of this work includes things we’ve still yet to automate, such as working with lenders who don’t offer APIs, but much of it is work we actually want to leave to humans so that we can help customers through what is typically a very involved and stressful journey. So there’s plenty left to do, but we’re unlikely to target 100 percent automation as long as our customers tell us that they value the human touch and expertise that Habito offers.

What technologies do you see shaping the market, and why?

I think where technology will play a larger role going forward, is by simplifying the data entry and checking processes that humans still do in most mortgage applications.

With more transparency from banks and lenders on mortgage eligibility criteria, linked by Open Banking to give an applicant’s accurate income and spending data, added to APIs from institutions like the Land Registry and supported by paper-free applications, consumers could get near-instant offers - cutting down the time from application to completion to hours or days, not weeks. Which would be pretty helpful.

And what’s next for Habito?

We’re gearing up for another really busy year. Following Habito becoming the first broker to move into lending in 2019 when we created our own buy-to-let mortgage products, you’ll see us create and launch more new product offerings in 2020. As part of this, this month we’re back on TV advertising our ground-breaking residential product - Habito Go that we launched in Q4 2019. Go is a service that gives would-be homeowners the chance to boost their bid and upgrade their mortgage to a cash offer upfront, giving buyers huge speed and certainty advantages and greater price negotiating power with sellers. Nothing like it exists elsewhere in the market, so it’s potential to really help buyers is something we’re really excited by.

Aside from new products, we’ll continue to develop the best customer experience of getting mortgage advice in the market. This means we will continue to invest in our APIs so that more and more partners can build simple, streamlined journeys for their customers looking for help with their mortgage.

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