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May 12, 2020

Zoltan Szalas, Senior Product Manager of Growth at IBM, saddles up with us to talk machine learning, his early days at startup Croissant, and how to get buy-in across teams to hit goals. We also get a little spacey and talk quantum computing! *Hosted by Taylor Gibb and PJ Bruno LIVE at LTR 2019*






PJ Bruno: Taylor, take us there, we're hot.



Taylor Gibb: Here I go.



Zoltan Szalas: Let's rock and roll.



Taylor Gibb: All right. Welcome back to Braze for Impact. This is your MarTech industry discuss digest. And we're here in the middle of our humanity series, and I'm lucky enough to be seated across from Zoltan Szalas who is the senior product manager for growth at none other than IBM. This is a big deal guys. And Zoltan, we're so happy to have you in the studio with us.



Zoltan Szalas: Well thanks for having me



Taylor Gibb: Anytime. And to my left, as always, is PJ Bruno who runs client education here at Braze. PJ, how's it going?



PJ Bruno: Feeling so good, feeling right. I'm excited for this one.



Taylor Gibb: Oh, this is going to be a really good one. Zoltan, I know that you've done a little prep with PJ before the session.



Zoltan Szalas: I did, I did.



Taylor Gibb: It's exciting to think that you were thinking about this before coming in. I just want to hear from you a little bit about, I mean IBM. IBM is think, but what does that mean?



Zoltan Szalas: Think.



Taylor Gibb: Exactly. So obviously brand recognition isn't a problem these days, but are there ways that you're working to do things like leverage machine learning or push the limit in increasing your user base overall?



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah, that's a great question. And you're right, IBM, there's no brand recognition problem there.



Taylor Gibb: Right?



Zoltan Szalas: Like I got a job at IBM and my mom's like, "Oh my God, that's amazing." She has no idea what we do, or what I do. But she was so excited. But competition is fierce. I mean IBM alone has over something like several hundred products. And there are startups entering from all over the place, like entering our space and kind of biting away at the business. So growth for IBM, there's a granular level growth where we utilize things like machine learning. So one of the things that we're implementing right now is a retention AI tool. So what that does is when an account is going into defection, so when it comes up for churn.



Taylor Gibb: Lapsing user.



Zoltan Szalas: Exactly. It sends a notification to the according CSM or whoever owns that account. Now on the flip side it also does it for expansion. So for example, let's say somebody is expanding on their usage of natural learning processing or Watson Assistant, it's going to notify the CSM so they can reach out to them, have the conversation of upsell, cross selling. And we're going to be implementing that into, I know you guys didn't want to talk about Braze, but we're going to be implementing that into Braze for customers who don't have a CSM assigned, right?



Taylor Gibb: Really?



PJ Bruno: What's Braze?



Taylor Gibb: Yeah, never heard of her. Who is she?



PJ Bruno: Keep going.



Zoltan Szalas: So that's at the product level. And it's really kind of eating your own dog food, and really implementing things to grow the user base but on a macro level. Things like the Red Hat acquisition, right? Like understanding that and the significance that it's going to have. You have to ask the question of why did we spend $36 billion on an acquisition? That's a 15 to 20 year return. That's where the market is-



PJ Bruno: That is a long game.



Zoltan Szalas: It is a long game.



Taylor Gibb: And smart.



Zoltan Szalas: But that that strategic partnership is going to allow us to exponentially grow our user base.



PJ Bruno: That's future-proofing right there man.



Zoltan Szalas: Exactly.



PJ Bruno: Very cool. And I just love, like I know we talked about it a little bit, you and I got time to strategize and chat. And I just loved the idea that you're able to run a relatively lean operation with your guys in this big company. And it seems like you guys have already had a bunch of traction. And when I talked to you, you kind of were in the pivot situation where you were able to like, "All right, the stuff we're doing is working. I've gotten this buy-in, and now we're onto bigger and better things."



Zoltan Szalas: It's interesting because initially, as you said, I was in this position, pivotal moment. And it was really interesting because growth and innovation, sure, you have your growth stack, you have amplitude segment and things like that. But for a company like IBM that's over 100 years old, that's three digits.



PJ Bruno: Jesus.



Zoltan Szalas: There aren't a lot of companies in the world that have three digits.



Taylor Gibb: And definitely not a lot of tech companies in the world. Right?



Zoltan Szalas: Exactly. Exactly. So you have to ask yourself where does innovation come from? And it really happens within the culture, within the people. And kind of going back to that is when my managers started the growth program, one of the hardest things we had was to get that buy-in. So when people started to see that, "Oh wow, this actually works. This is producing results", then that buy-in comes a lot quicker. And now we're in this luxury place where people are like, "Oh yeah, yeah, do whatever it is that you do. I'm not really sure. But just go do it. And get some amazing results."



Taylor Gibb: That's great. And you guys have made room then for innovation, right? Other people within your company can feel more empowered to step forward with their ideas to start making these changes. And so it sounds like you're doing the right work.



PJ Bruno: The way you mentioned it, your first position with IBM, right, you had to get buy-in. You were a team, a guy, that had a solution, that had to go around, kind of shop it around. When you started there, how much was being prescribed to you by your boss and how much was like, "Figure it out"? It's like how much was a mandate and how much was that creative layer for you to like, "All right, let's get weird with it."



Zoltan Szalas: I was lucky to have great managers who gave me a lot of autonomy. I came on at the early stage of the growth program. So a lot of it was like, "Hey, figure it out, and find people that are willing to work with us to prove out this model."



PJ Bruno: So long leash then. I mean it just was like, "You're here to make things better."



Zoltan Szalas: Right.



PJ Bruno: Go.



Zoltan Szalas: Exactly. And I just transitioned from a startup of five people. And I'm like, "All right, you want me to execute?" I execute. I did a couple of things and I got yelled at for breaking a couple of pages.



Taylor Gibb: You got to break a few pages to make an omelet. Isn't that what they say?



Zoltan Szalas: Exactly. But what I did break the page, it resulted in, I don't know, like the annualized, I broke the page on something and somebody reached out to whoever owns a page. Because IBM's a matrix organization. So there is a person for everything, right? So it's hard to just kind of go in. And my mindset coming from a startup is like, "Okay, this should have been done yesterday. Let's get this done." But IBM doesn't work like that. And you have to figure out. I think the best analogy I got is it's like a duck. The duck floats on top of the water, right? It's very elegant and kind of flows through. But underneath its little legs are churning away.



PJ Bruno: Mile a minute.



Zoltan Szalas: Churning away. Exactly. So working on multiple projects and growth initiatives, that's how I figured out. Like how can you execute ... You just have to be able to focus on several things at a time and wait for things to come in.



PJ Bruno: And you got to break pages. I mean it's a special projects team. If you're not breaking pages you're not doing it right.



Taylor Gibb: You're doing something wrong.



Zoltan Szalas: Exactly.



Taylor Gibb: That's right. And you were working on all the different projects. One of them that PJ actually brought to my attention before we got in the room here was Croissant, which sounds like it started as a hackathon project, and then you were able to make it into this brand and this huge initiative-



PJ Bruno: A global brand.



Taylor Gibb: Global brand and initiative. So clearly you weren't just breaking pages, you were really making things happen. Do you mind talking a bit about that?



Zoltan Szalas: No, I'd love to. And do you guys mind if, my co founder Adam asked me to give him a shout out.



Taylor Gibb: Oh please.



Zoltan Szalas: And he wanted me to call him by his code name Savage. Is that okay?



Taylor Gibb: I think, do you know what?



PJ Bruno: Do you have a message for him or is it just?



Zoltan Szalas: Nope, he just wanted me to give him a shout out. Savage.



Taylor Gibb: That's the first-



PJ Bruno: Keep breaking pages Savage



Taylor Gibb: ... The first shout out in Braze for Impact history and I can't think of a way that it could have gone better. Well done. Savage, this one's for you.



PJ Bruno: We're making history here. Ba-da-bing.



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah, it came out of a hackathon project. We were working on this business that obviously didn't go anywhere, and one weekend we went to a hackathon and we kind of coded up this product that would essentially allow you to book a seat at a coffee shop. Because that company arose from like a very natural need. We were running around the city, working out of coffee shops. And it was a pain in the ass. Can I say ass?



Taylor Gibb: You saw that meme yourselves. Yeah.



PJ Bruno: Yeah, you can, we can't.



Zoltan Szalas: So it came out of a hackathon project. And in that one weekend we saw so much positive feedback from the people through media, through PR, that we just said, "We have something here." So we did a little bit of market testing. We shopped it around to coffee shops. Coffee shops didn't want it. They're like, "Oh no, no, no. This is a coffee shop. This is a democratic place. Nobody's going to get a seat here." But somebody had given us, like months prior, a map of all the coworking spaces in the city. And there were something like 200. And this was back at the time where the WeWorks was unknown. You would be like, "WeWork." People would be like, "What's WeWork? What's coworking? What's shared office space?"



Taylor Gibb: Interesting.



Zoltan Szalas: So we walked in randomly on one day, we're just like, we walked into a coworking space and he said, "Hey, we're building this platform. Would you guys be interested in coming on as a space partner?" And they said yes. And then we said okay. So the supply side is resonating positively. And then we sent out a bunch of emails.



Taylor Gibb: I think you emailed us.



PJ Bruno: I know where this is going, sorry.



Zoltan Szalas: We sent out a bunch of emails advertising our $300 product for MVP that just barely existed, and people bought. So we said, "Okay, we have something here. So what's next?" So we built out the product and we took it from inception to ... we've had over 10,000 customers on the platform. But it's really interesting because the story, as funny as it is, when you're building a business, you have very limited data to work with.



Taylor Gibb: Sure. You're starting from the ground up.



Zoltan Szalas: So every feedback you're using as a compass, right? Like, "Okay, this direction makes sense. This direction makes sense." At the very early stages, right, before you're collecting like hundreds of thousands or millions of data points, you're almost using qualitative data to get feedback on which direction to take your company.



PJ Bruno: Yeah, that's tough though sometimes. Sometimes you, I don't know about you, but I've taken lots of feedback and sometimes I'll give it the wrong weight. I'll take one person's feedback and make some sort of pivot that's going to affect the next quarter or something. So when you have all the data to work with, you have the quantity to work with.



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah, and you know what it is? You know that saying ignorance is bliss?



PJ Bruno: Yeah.



Zoltan Szalas: When I look back on the Croissant journey, it was the most reckless insensible thing I did. Just straight up quit my job and just follow this instinct. Right? But that ignorance is bliss to a degree because you're just following whatever is working. Right? So it's kind of almost a blessing to not have all the data that early on, because you're just, don't take this advice as sound, this is not guarantee, there is no money back guarantee. But if you follow ... Life gives you feedback, people give you feedback, the market gives you feedback. Right? So I think it's important to be proactive and just trying to get that feedback early on. But it was a lot of fun and we scaled it into, we're in over like 120 cities now. And it was a lot of fun.



Taylor Gibb: Wow. That is incredible. And you got there from following your gut, right?



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah.



Taylor Gibb: And trusting those instincts. Are you still able to bring a little bit of that to your day to day when you're at IBM?



Zoltan Szalas: Yes, but I have to get buy-in.



PJ Bruno: Got to get that buy-in.



Taylor Gibb: Some things have to change a little bit. But it sounds like you've been able to build that up.



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah, and I think IBM is a great learning ground for me. Because at IBM, more of your soft skills have to come into play. They have to come to the foreground. Because you're dealing with cross functional teams that each have their own objectives and a lot of times they're not aligned. So the question becomes is, "Okay, I want to change something on this page. How do I get the development team, the design team, the product team to come together and align to make that change happen?" And that's the biggest difference. When you're running a startup you have an insight and you're like, "Okay, well let's execute on it." You execute on it, you ship it out the door, done. Wait for the feedback loop, iterate or implement or do something else. Right? But with IBM it's been a real amazing time to learn how to use those soft skills. And I'm still able to use, you still go by your gut, like there's patterns that you recognize so you already know like, "Okay, we should do this, we should do this nurture or that nurture." So definitely.



PJ Bruno: That's so interesting to me, and it just identified a huge gap, and that's obviously understanding technology and your tech stack, that's something that we're all obsessed with. You mentioned soft skills. This isn't the same as leadership or conflict resolution. This is governance across teams. And like how you orchestrate, facilitate those conversations when you're not necessarily getting the right support from up above. So it sounds like you're cutting your teeth doing this stuff, man. This is fantastic.



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah, it's been a lot of fun. And luckily my managers are all great and the people that I work with are all amazing.



PJ Bruno: Your team has been stoked just watching you the [crosstalk 00:13:33].



Zoltan Szalas: They're so supportive.



PJ Bruno: You can't see it.



Taylor Gibb: Is Savage out there?



Zoltan Szalas: Savage is not out there. Savage is at TransferWise.



PJ Bruno: Well Sav, we're thinking of you buddy.



Zoltan Szalas: We're thinking of you.



Taylor Gibb: Oh man. So all right. You've got all these different projects that you've done. You've been able to work within IBM using this startup mindset, but also some of the soft skills that you've learned, and it sounds like you're iterating on there. What I'd be most excited to hear about now is anything that you can share that's coming down the pipeline, for either you and your team at IBM or larger initiatives that you're working on. We want to hear what you're excited about.



Zoltan Szalas: Personally, I'm really excited about quantum computing.



PJ Bruno: Oh yeah.



Zoltan Szalas: Especially since the headlines this week that Google is claiming quantum computing supremacy.



Taylor Gibb: I hadn't seen this, wait.



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah.



PJ Bruno: Yeah. Fill her in.



Taylor Gibb: Yeah, fill me in on quantum computing. This sounds like Star Trek.



Zoltan Szalas: It is kind of like Star Trek. So think of the most powerful computer in the world, and X that by 1000 or a million.



Taylor Gibb: I can't even conceive of it.



Zoltan Szalas: It's a very strange thing because, unlike traditional computers which work off of a chip, for a quantum computer you're basically emulating an environment where almost atoms and ions are just making the calculations. I mean we haven't been able to run an app on a quantum computer to date, but just kind of Google did something along those lines this past week. But why is that important? The reason that it's important because right now there are so many complex problems out there, whether it's logistics, cyber security, pharmaceuticals, or modeling that even the most powerful computers can't handle those problems. And if quantum computing gets there, we could potentially solve these problems.



PJ Bruno: Right. You were saying something like a calculation that would normally take weeks or months could be done in seconds, or something like that.



Zoltan Szalas: Exactly. So there's a really interesting article in Tech Crunch that came out. So Google is claiming they're ahead of the game. And what they did is they did a simulation with the most powerful computer that's available in the world. And I'm forgetting, but I think it's at the University of Waterloo in Canada. The supercomputer took something like a week to produce an outcome, where the quantum computer took I think 200 seconds.



PJ Bruno: Sounds about right.



Taylor Gibb: Oh my God.



Zoltan Szalas: So imagine that power.



Taylor Gibb: This is not a minuscule change. This is going to absolutely turn everything on its head.



Zoltan Szalas: Absolutely. Especially if you're looking at anything from ... If you're in security, that's troubling.



PJ Bruno: That's a red flag.



Zoltan Szalas: You should start preparing now because those quantum computers will just break your encryption like nothing.



PJ Bruno: Watch yourself.



Taylor Gibb: Yeah, geez.



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah.



PJ Bruno: Talk about future proofing.



Taylor Gibb: Yeah seriously.



Zoltan Szalas: I don't think, I mean you and I, PJ, when we talked that kind of went off crazy philosophical. Like, "Imagine if everybody had this, [inaudible 00:16:38]."



PJ Bruno: Yeah, we were nerding out. It was not late at night either, it was the middle of the day. Like, "Quantum supremacy, it sounds like the empire. Oh yeah."



Zoltan Szalas: Yeah. I don't think it'll ever go [inaudible] because I just don't think consumers need that type of computing power. But it's going to be interesting to see what happens when governments get ahold of it, and major corporations get a hold of it.



PJ Bruno: God save us all.



Taylor Gibb: And the hands of you at IBM, breaking pages. Be careful over there. Quantum page breaking.



PJ Bruno: Quantum page break.



Taylor Gibb: [inaudible 00:17:08]. Oh my God. Well, thank you.



PJ Bruno: No better way to end it I guess than-



Taylor Gibb: I was going to say, you've made me excited about what you're excited about here. I'm going to look into quantum computing right after this podcast. But in the meantime, thank you so much for joining us. It's been great speaking with you and hearing all about this great stuff.



Zoltan Szalas: Awesome. This was a lot of fun. Thank you guys for having me.



Taylor Gibb: Oh definitely.



PJ Bruno: Absolutely man.



Taylor Gibb: PJ, as always, thank you so much.



PJ Bruno: So very welcome. Great to be here.



Taylor Gibb: And all of you on the line, thanks again for dialing in. This is Taylor Gibb, CSM, Braze for Impact. We'll catch you next time.