Developing Enterprise Applications with Robert Cooke of 3forge
In this episode we look at the way one Fintech company is amplifying the process of developing enterprise applications. Robert Cooke, Founder and CTO at 3forge joined us to talk about building a framework focused on the financial industry to improve the way humans interact with data and increase reusability of code.
Payments & Fintech Insights In This Episode
- The 4 Vs in developing robust software in Fintech.
- The importance of reusability of code and software in the financial industry.
- How to improve and increase the way employees interact with data.
- The primary challenges a company faces in the process of innovation.
- And so much more!
Featured on the Show
- Connect with Robert Cooke: LinkedIn
- Connect with 3forge: LinkedIn | Twitter
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- Subscribe to the Show: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Show Hub
Heather: Welcome to PayPod. I’m your host, Heather Bodie. And today we’re gonna be talking about, amplifying the process of developing enterprise applications. And joining me is Robert Cooke, founder, and CTO of 3forge. Robert, welcome to the show.
Robert: Hi, Heather. Thanks for having me.
Heather: Absolutely. I wanna get started. I’d love to start this way. I wanna talk about you before we get too deep into the company. Tell me a little bit about your career path into Fintech, a little bit about yourself, and how you got into the industry.
Robert: Sure. Well, first off, I’ve always been a lover of computers even before I really even knew what computers did or what they meant. Maybe just from seeing them on TV in your early ’80s, I just kind of had this…
Heather: You just liked the shape of them?
Robert: Yeah, I liked those old boxes that could nearly fit on your lap.
Heather: I mean, at the time, they were like the size of cars, and they…
Robert: They were big. You didn’t wanna move them around. I think just the disc drive weighed more than most computers now, yes. But I just kind of saw them as this magical box that I didn’t really quite know what they did, but I knew there was something interesting about it. Just reading about the sort of problems they were solving. And so I really got into computers. And naturally, as a kid, I focused a lot on video games and that sort of thing. And then in my teens, I started thinking about…we had this club, so I built an accounting software product for our club. And then I actually went out to L.A. I was working there for a few years. And I have to concede that when I was into computers and building video games and doing all these things, I actually thought Fintech would be a very boring kind of stodgy use of computers. Boy, was I wrong? Because once you start to get into Fintech, you realize several things. One, you’re dealing with very fast-moving data. Two, you’re dealing with data that could never be wrong, or at least it shouldn’t ever be wrong.
You know, there’s really not much room for error. People don’t like to lose money due to technical issues. So, I kind of call it the four Vs, which is basically you have to focus on the validity of data, everything has to be done correctly. You have the variety of data. There’s so many different systems, and you’ve got foreign exchange and things like that. You’ve got the velocity of data, which is how fast data is moving. And then you’ve got the volume of data. So, there’s huge amounts of data. And those four Vs pretty much give you the perfect storm in trying to focus on building robust software. And then along with that, I go back to the variety piece of the bit, which is the one thing I’m realizing more and more, even to this day, is that I used to have this vision where your software and systems were built and then you put a bow tie on them, you know, a ribbon on them and you’re like, “Okay, I’m done with this piece of software.”
Heather: Right. Delivered it like a present and walked away, right?
Robert: Exactly. But they’re living things. And the developers who work on it, they come and go, the use cases evolve, they change, the industry changes, cryptocurrency comes in, all of these things. And so it’s this evolving, interesting sort of living thing that really, I think, kind of sums up what Fintech is.
Heather: So, let’s talk about 3forge. What was that? The fairytale in me wants there to be this sort of aha moment in those early days. Is there that kind of a tale to it? Or was it sort of a slow development into becoming what it is today?
Robert: Well, through my travels in Fintech, and I worked at several tier one banks and I had some senior positions as head of infrastructure at the dark pool Liquidnet. And through my travels, what I identified was that most of the problems had a 95. I’m making that number up, but a very high percentage overlap between the problems, yet they were being solved from scratch over and over again. And so, for me, I always had this belief that the idea of computers really is around reusability of code and software. And I felt that we were not, as computer engineers at large, we weren’t doing a good job of honoring. And systems were just being built over and over again when there was a lot of chance for reuse. So, actually, 3forge, the original name was Forge Financial Framework. So, the idea was basically building a framework to solve problems focused on the financial industry. Forge Financial Framework was a very long name, so we shortened it to 3forge, but that really has been the goal.
And so what I did in around 2012 is I went back to the various peers in the industry and I just had open conversations about what sort of things senior managers felt was coming up in the horizon, where was a lot of money being spent that didn’t need to, etc., etc., And I decided that something that could really be focused on and was critical was how do humans interact with data? Because, you know, I kind of envision all of this as you have… So, first off, straight through processing, STP, that’s a big part of finance. The whole idea, the way you make money is you use computers. And from there, a transaction comes in, it gets handled electronically all the way through, and then the transaction goes out. Whatever sort of asset class you’re in, that’s generally the idea. The more automated you can make it, the lower your costs are, etc., etc., all pretty obvious stuff. But the problem is you always have exceptions, and you always have stuff you can learn from that data. And I felt that we were doing a poor job, as an industry, of basically allowing the employees themselves to interact with that data. And systems were being custom built each time to do that. And so I really stepped outside and said, “Well, what does it mean generically to solve that problem?”
Heather: Wow. I’m captivated by the fact that you saw something that you could not have been alone in seeing, right? You could not have been alone in seeing that development teams were starting from scratch over and over and over again. How did you approach…initially, those early days, how did you approach saying, “What is the foundation here? What are these sort of bones, the infrastructure, the stuff that everybody else is using?” That’s part of the question. And then the second part of the question is, why was everyone reinventing the wheel? Was there a sticking point in actually moving from building that base idea and then having people adopt it?
Robert: Right. So, let’s talk about why everyone is building stuff over and over again. And I think if you look at any sort of technology that comes out there, once there’s something that works, people are just going to gravitate towards doing that. And I don’t think there’s necessarily a lot of people that are thinking outside the box, and saying, “Look, let’s try something completely different. Let’s try a different way of doing this. Let’s try to come up with a better or more generic solution.” And there are those people that do that, but then what’s the chance of them succeeding? So, it really takes a lot of trial and error to get there. And the kind of the analogy I use is if you’ve ever… I don’t know if you have ant problems at your house, but if you’ve ever seen how ants travel, you know, from point A to point B, you’re gonna see almost all the ants are gonna follow the same line, right? And then occasionally, for whatever reason, there’s been a lot of studies on this, one ant will decide to go off on a different direction to try to find food. Occasionally, another ant will go off in a direction to try to find food, and they almost always fail. But eventually, an ant does go off and find food, not following the pack, and then it basically changes things for all of the ant colony.
And I look at it as, you know, I’ve always tried to think like those ants that leave the herd. And when you see a lot of teams building things from scratch, there’s this idea that, well, this is how it’s done and this is how I need to do it. And frankly, I’ve seen a lot of efforts where people would try to make frameworks, and those frameworks would not succeed. And so then there’s also this stigma around, can it even be done? And again, the analogy I would draw there is it’s the ants that are going off in the direction and not finding food and having to come back to the herd. But I actually now kind of now going back…the second part of this is why do I think 3forge has succeeded where a lot of others failed? Well, I tried to build frameworks like this at my employers. Now, there’s an interesting challenge here, which is, first off, when you’re at a large company and you’re trying to build a generic solution, there are certain things working against you, I would say.
One is, you’ve got the business cycle, which basically means, over time, you know, you’ve got profitable years where heads of business are willing to pour lots of money into new innovative technology, and you can usually grab a bunch of funding to try to build a framework. And then you’ve got the down years where they’re cutting costs. And the first place they’re gonna go cut costs is innovation. And the problem is, I think when you’re building a framework or something as robust as one needs to do to solve this problem, it takes at least five years. It takes longer than at least what the business cycle usually is. And there’s other things too, which is there’s constant changing of the guards, which makes it hard to constantly be justifying what you’re doing. People want their bonuses at the end of the year, building these big frameworks that take long periods of time. All of these things kind of work against that idea. And that’s actually why I decided to step outside and do this independently, basically, step outside, and say, “I’m gonna spend the next 10 years building this out, get to where I need to be. And then we’ll go back into the industry.” Fortunately, we had a few early adopters, so we were actually… You know, started the company in 2012, and we were in production with a tier one by 2014. So…
Heather: Oh, wow.
Robert: Yeah, that was very fortunate. But that’s because we had… You know, I was listening to the customers and saying, “What is it you guys need?” And once I found something that could be done in a concise period of time, I focused on that, all the while knowing that I had much grander plans over time. So, yes, you know, we managed to bootstrap it in 2014, we had our first client, and then from there, we’ve continuously been bringing on more and more tier one banks and so on and so forth.
Heather: So, let’s talk about that ideal client. What exactly is the relationship once a client adopts the framework that 3forge has built? Do they have an in-house team that is then building on top of that and then managing that, or…? Yeah. Tell me a little bit about what the client relationship looks like.
Robert: That’s a great question. So, first off, we don’t really call them customers, we think of it more as a consortium. And the reason I say that is because our roadmap is largely driven off of listening to what the consortium needs. So, in my mind, the best customer, to go back to your question, would be a customer that’s highly engaged with 3forge and giving us feedback, letting us know what we’re doing wrong, what we could be doing better, what we should be putting into the roadmap. Because, basically, the way that the…even the licensing of the product is set up is that there’s basically this fixed fee, you become a member to the consortium, and then you get to help drive the roadmap. And then we look at the roadmap requests from all the different members. And then we use that to add the features. And lo and behold, usually, there’s a lot of overlap. If you go to the different tier one banks and you ask them what they think the future is, you’re going to get a somewhat similar answer. So that to us is an ideal customer. One that really is willing to work with us.
And I just go back to the beginning here, which is when I would work at Company A, in the beginning, and then I would go to Company B, and then Company C, it just came across to me like they’re all paying top dollar to have the same thing built over and over again. This is a perfect example for creating a consortium. And actually, I forgot to mention this before. One of the barriers also to doing this is there’s a bit of an identity crisis, rightfully so, within Fintech, which is, are we finance or technology? Are we a technology company or are we a finance company? And that question still goes on. So, you’re gonna get people that say, “Look, we don’t want a consortium, we must build everything ourselves from scratch because we’re a technology company.” I disagree with that. I think that these are companies that use technology, they curate technology, they adopt technology, and they use that technology to solve financial issues. But to be reinventing the wheel simply to say they’ve reinvented the wheel, I think is inefficient.
Heather: So, when you talk about that minimum five-year cycle of diving into a project to the point where we get to an actual ability to launch and utilize the application, how does the engaging with 3forge shrink that cycle? I mean, I was on your website and saw this sort of focus over and over again on speed and efficiency. What do you see from the folks who engage with your company? How much does that timeline shrink?
Robert: Right. So, I would say to start off with, the product itself, we focused very heavily from day one. In fact, 2012, 2013 was really about scalability. So, a lot of people look at 3forge, we have dashboards, we have this front-end dashboard, you can quickly drag and drop and build dashboards, publish dashboards, all of that stuff. And it really does drastically reduce like 99 to 1 the cost or the time it takes to build front ends.
Heather: That’s incredible.
Robert: Right. So, we’re often seen as a front-end solution, yet at least half the time is being spent on how do we move a message from point A to point B? How do we do failover? How do we do replication? How do we do load-balancing? All of these sorts of things. Because, to me, the reason a product, ultimately, meets its demise, or at least within Fintech is because of performance. Eventually, the requirements outweigh, or I should say outpace the actual software architecture itself, and then you end up having to throw that out and start over. And, in fact, when we go in, that’s usually the first thing they ask during a demo is, “Well, you know, what are your numbers? What are your top limits? What can you do here? What can you do there?” Because everyone in the industry knows that’s generally the Achilles heel of software. So, focusing on the ability to scale and scale easily, I think, is one huge benefit that people get by using a platform. So, that gives it staying power. And by the way, when I talk about our first customer in 2014, that product is still in production today. Volumes have gone almost 10X…
Heather: Oh my gosh.
Robert: …yet that product is still in production today. So, that’s a big thing, you know, to always be focusing on so that you have that staying power. And then the next thing is really just looking, again, at the common problems people are trying to face or trying to implement in software. And basically, build those as almost building blocks and provide it to the customer.
Heather: Pardon my ignorance in this question that’s about to come your way, but can you clarify for me, are the majority of the products being built through your application, are they internal? Are you seeing a lot like majority internal use cases? Or are these applications being built for sort of an average day-to-day consumer to engage with?
Robert: I would say most use cases are internally focused. So, we did a study, about 50% of the use cases are for support or support-related services, meaning that it’s internal desks basically needing to react to information, or run queries, or look at data, etc., etc. Then when you break up the second half, that’s really now broken up between people doing more like, I would say, data analytics, almost could call it BI in a way. And then the other quarter is actually used for development itself. Because developers themselves, when you’re developing products, you need to actually have a window into what you’re developing and what already exists. And another way to put it is there’s very infrequently at this point that people are building truly Greenfield solutions. Almost everything we’re developing these days is a replacement or an augmentation to something that already exists. So, having good visibility into those helps you build newer solutions faster, or to replace or augment those solutions faster.
Heather: That’s incredible. This is so fun.
Heather: My brain is on fire with so many curiosities. You’re so easy to talk to.
Robert: Yeah. Thank you.
Heather: One of the curiosities I’m having is when you mentioned computers in the ’80s, my brain traveled on a path of just how short and how also massive the speed at which the internet shifted our world over the last 25, 30 years. I mean, we’ve just seen incredible rates of change around that technology. And I was thinking about the fact that, in those early days of the internet, who had a website? What was it to even go to a website? And then we hit a tipping point where it was like, if you run a business of any size, whether you were an in-home daycare or a major enterprise, if you don’t have a website, you don’t exist. I feel like there was a similar… I mean, I know that you focus on internal use cases, but I’m curious, in your experience, was there a moment, was there like a tipping point where companies, employees, and the functionality inside a company turned this use of internal applications into a must, they have to exist, they have to be bespoke to the data that we’re analyzing and utilizing for our choices? Did you see this sort of spike in the use?
Robert: Well, I’ll give two parts to this. One is, you know, we talk about how everything has pretty much exploded, I mean, in all different directions. And, you know, I made a lot of predictions. I definitely made a lot of predictions. And there’s one prediction that I could not have been more wrong on. I felt when I was a kid and I realized that I could write this piece of code, and that code could be reused, and reused, and reused, and could be copied and other people can use it. And I realized that the more time I put into that function and the better and faster I can make that function, believe it or not, it seems like it’s almost endless. You can always optimize it a little bit more. You can take almost any problem and continue to optimize it. So, I had this prediction that what was going to happen is you’re gonna have these top, top computer scientists that were really good at writing code and optimizing code, and they were gonna be basically doing all of the pipes and plumbing, and there would be almost no developer jobs left, right?
And that’s where I say I could not have been more wrong because it’s still stupifying to me that the same problems are being solved over and over and over again, but almost, in kind of just a minimum viable way, barely enough to solve the problem. When instead, we have everything we need. Humans have all the tools we need. We have the ability to communicate, we have the ability to share, we have the ability to do all of these things so that someone can sit there and really, really solve a problem perfectly once and then make that available. And then people can build on top of that. And I feel like, at some point, that went away. And the examples I use is, at some point, the first hardware computer came out. And when that first hardware computer came out, people worked really hard, they came up with a way to do this, and they created kind of what we call the Turing machine. And everyone uses that. And then, at some point, we realized, “Well, computing time’s expensive, we need to create a compiler.” And a lot of effort goes into it. And a lot of scientists worked really hard coming up with how a compiler should operate and the sorts of features and functionality they need. And we get there.
And then we realize, you know, we’re writing to disk manually, we need to have a database. We need to really focus on how could or an operating system is in there in between. I skipped over that. Now, you need a database, and how can you write safely, store data, and load data, instead of having to worry about reel-to-reel every single time you wanna read information? And so, for a long time, up until the mid-’80s, I feel like there was this great reuse and sort of emergence of technology that could be reused. And then it stopped. I feel like it just stopped in the ’90s. And now it’s just been plowing ahead and just creating over and over and over again these solutions, as opposed to thinking, how can we move up the technology stack, solve the next layer of problems so the next generation can build on top of that. And that’s really what I’ve been focused on. So, I do think there’s been an explosion in terms of the hardware sides of things, and that’s been incredible. But I personally don’t feel like, on the software side, it’s been as good. I think there’s actually a lot of room for improvement there. That’s just my opinion.
Heather: It’s so fascinating because the question that’s on my mind is, why do you think that’s happening? And my assumption, right, the wondering I’m having is, is the fact that because things are changing so quickly and because that landscape, like you said, I think you used the word explode, right? That every developer, especially folks who are new to the industry, if you’re not learning right now, you’re behind the times, right? Like, if you’re utilizing something that was popular six months ago, your old news. So this feeling of, like, I need to start from scratch because I’ve got the latest and greatest. Do you think that is part of the culture around why everybody’s starting from scratch?
Robert: Well, it gets a bit philosophical. I mean, I think that there’s so many choices of things to learn. To me, what’s unfortunate, and all I really know is computers. So, I can’t draw analogies to other industries like medicine. But I would guess that in other industries, like if you want to be an architect or an engineer, you kind of start with basic principles. And I think a lot of that is overlooked. And so I think with education, a lot of focus has been on how do we build the next great app? How do you teach kids how to build apps? How do you teach people how to write Python code, etc., etc? When, in my opinion, lesson one, day one should be, what is a jump clause inside the assembly language? How does a computer actually…not physically but how does it function? Like, what is the logic gate? What does it NAND gate? What are these things? And then you build up from there. Because when you skip all of that and you just jump to the end, I think you’ve got a very superficial understanding. And again, this is just my two cents. I know we are a little off topic here, but that’s how I…
Heather: Yeah, no, no.
Robert: That’s how I see it. So, what I always look for and what I always teach is you start with math. Without math, you can’t have computers. So, first, you have to learn math, get good at math, and then you can build up from there, and then start to get into what is a state machine and these sorts of things. Anyways, I think if there’s more focus on those basic principles, then we might be a little better off in terms of how we’re reusing stuff. And I’m not really that cynical. I’m just saying that, first off, it’s only been 30 years. I mean, the amount of stuff that’s happened in the last 30 years is absolutely amazing, and we will get there. I do believe we will get to the point where people are using these next-level frameworks. A lot of times now it’s called low-code/no-code. But however, you want to term it, I think there’s going to be a big push to start using these sorts of platforms that allow people to rapidly build applications. And the only reason we say rapidly build applications, because right now it’s so slow. If everyone starts building these platforms and this becomes the norm, then we can start to think about the next problem.
Heather: I love that. I mean, it’s the same principle as needing to start with ballet when you’re training to dance, there’s like a foundational language and a foundational practice that you can then build and explore upon once you have that ground floor, so.
Robert: Exactly. And that has been around for a long time. It’s been around for hundreds of years, maybe longer. I don’t really know. But you can tell I’ve my ballet.
Heather: You’re not a ballerina?
Robert: No, I’m not. Sorry. I’m I on the wrong podcast? But, you know, the thing is, though, at the end of the day, you look at a lot of the disciplines out there, ballet being one of them, it’s gone through generations and generations of how to teach and learn. I mean, computer science has barely had a generation. And so you’ve got a long way to go in terms of understanding how to teach it, how to learn it, how to describe it, how to evolve it, etc., etc. But one of my favorite things I’ve realized about software is that, and I think it’s unique to software, which is every year, I feel as though I can look at the way I thought about things and solve things just a year ago and I’m embarrassed. It’s just constantly evolving and changing things. And to me, that’s what makes it so much fun. You know, I played sports as a kid, I played tennis. I was never that good. But at some point, I hit this plateau and, you know, almost everyone eventually hits a plateau. But with software, it just keeps going and going and going. And it’s really just you against yourself in terms of getting better at it. And I think it’s that sort of mentality and looking at it with that sort of excitement is really what’s necessary in order to kind of take it to the next level and build these frameworks.
Heather: Beautiful. That actually is a fantastic transition. I wanted to wrap us up by talking a little bit about advice you might have for somebody who wants to build their career in Fintech. And I feel what you just said is like a chef’s kiss moment. Like, you know, having that sort of relentless excitement to continue to improve on your own understanding and exploration. That’s really incredible.
Robert: That’s exactly right. And, I mean, we live in this, I feel like, I don’t know if it’s a brief period or whatever, but we live in this period where there is just so much to explore and learn and so many places to improve. To me, I don’t know, I couldn’t be happier or more excited about what we’re doing and what we’re building. And I think computer science is just so much fun because, in a way, it’s kind of the science of all sciences, it’s just math with a really great engine that lets you do what you wanna do.
Heather: Fantastic. Robert, thank you so much for joining us today. This was such…I had such a good time. If folks wanna be in touch with you or if they wanna learn more about 3forge, where should they go?
Robert: Sure. So, really we focus our social media on LinkedIn. So if you just look for 3forge on LinkedIn. And we’re doing a lot of podcasts. We basically do posts every few days. One thing I didn’t get a chance to talk about a lot, we probably have integration with over 100 different databases. So we have an entire lab that’s constantly looking at new technology and how can we integrate with it, that’s part of being the platform. And so we’re always sharing insights into what’s going on there. So, yeah, a lot of drive has been on updates on our LinkedIn. So, I definitely recommend following on there.
Heather: I love that. And is there anything to close us out? Is there anything exciting coming up or any sort of… Can you give us any, like, inside scoop of new projects that 3forge is working on or something that you’re feeling sort of bubbling with excitement about?
Robert: Yeah. Well, there’s always several things. One of the coolest things is the roadmap. The more we do, it seems like the more there is we can do, you know what I mean? It’s just this like blossoming tree, there’s always something more. The thing we’re focusing on right now is this ability to do aggregation of logically, or at least plausibly in unlimited amount of data in real-time. And then basically give you a feed of that. So, even if you have millions of rows that are changing very rapidly and you wanna be able to aggregate that up and see it, you can do that. I shouldn’t say millions, I should say billions. And this is an important thing for finance because you have lots of things moving around, you want to be able to basically aggregate all that up, calculate limits, and see where your positions are and things like that. So, that’s something that we’re focusing on that’s right now on the front burner.
Heather: Incredible. Thank you so much for joining us today. It really was a pleasure having you.
Robert: Well, thank you. Yeah, it was great.
Heather: If you enjoyed this episode and wanna hear more, head on over to soarpay.com/podcast to subscribe on your podcast listening platform of choice. That’s soarpay.com/podcast.
Our mission is to empower developers with a hybrid application development platform and support users with performance, scalability and flexibility. From the start, we set out to make software that does exactly what people expect: to provide unfailing support in tackling even the most complex issues. At 3forge, we are perfecting the balance of powerful, fast and accessible – helping companies thrive by quickly turning opportunity into action. For data-driven industries.