Intuit’s CEO on the $7.1 billion Credit Karma acquisition, reorienting toward A.I., and reskilling workers

December 22, 2020, 11:01 AM UTC
Sasan Goodarzi, CEO of Intuit.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sasan Goodarzi didn’t like doing what he did last June, but he felt he had to. 

As CEO of Intuit, maker of TurboTax, QuickBooks, and other finance software for consumers and small-business owners, he oversees a longtime stalwart on Fortune’s ranking of America’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, currently No. 11. But in June he laid off 715 employees, an unprecedented event in the company’s 37-year history. “It is with a heavy heart that I communicate these changes,” he told employees in a long blog post. His reasons and what he’s doing now are worth a close look because companies across the economy are facing the same issues that Goodarzi faces and will likely confront some of the same decisions.

Intuit isn’t laying off hundreds because of crushed demand or cost cutting; business is booming, and the stock is hitting all-time highs. The challenge is keeping the company ahead of disruption by disrupting itself. That’s a core competency at Intuit, which has stayed independent by disrupting itself over the decades to meet the advent of the Windows operating system, the Internet, mobile devices, and cloud computing. In recent years the company has created new business models in which it connects its traditional customers with accountants and bookkeepers, with all parties using Intuit software.

Now, in the era of artificial intelligence, it’s time to self-disrupt again. “With customer needs rapidly evolving and competitors aiming to disrupt us, we need to act now and with urgency,” Goodarzi told employees. That meant eliminating jobs that were “not aligned to where we are investing for the future” and hiring over 700 new employees “to build the capabilities needed as we look ahead.” 

The broader issue is reskilling, a hot topic for companies in every industry as the pandemic accelerates technology trends. Is training a realistic option, or does today’s urgency require hiring the needed skills? Intuit does both under chief data officer Ashok Srivastava. The company offers employees a rigorous six-month course in A.I. in which students “go through it from the definition of A.I. all the way to algorithms,” he says. A one-day course is available for those who want “a glimpse of A.I.,” and Srivastava teaches a five-part course that he created for product managers, executives, and others who are less tech-focused. 

But that isn’t enough, so Srivastava also oversees the hiring of the specialized software engineers Intuit needs right away. His description of how he chooses them is a valuable guide for anyone hiring or looking to be hired for the new skills a company needs, whatever they may be. “Obviously [candidates] should have the right technical credentials,” he says. “That goes without saying. But I can tell you what I’m really looking for. I’m looking for people who are flexible thinkers, who are mission oriented, people who can communicate and collaborate very effectively with others, who can see the world from another person’s point of view, who can represent diverse ideas, diverse ways of thinking about things. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Goodarzi, 52, became Intuit’s CEO in January 2019 after leading each of its major businesses. Born in Tehran, he came to the U.S. at age 9; he worked at Honeywell and Invensys before joining Intuit 14 years ago. He spoke recently with Fortune about Intuit’s latest reinvention, the recent acquisition of Credit Karma, a Federal Trade Commission investigation of TurboTax marketing, and more. Edited excerpts:

Many companies are using A.I., but you’re doing more—putting it at the center of Intuit’s reinvention. How come?

Goodarzi: There have been two platforms that have ignited global innovation. One was electricity, which was long before our time. The second was the Internet. It ignited an incredible amount of innovation, and we’re still innovating based on that. And to me, the third one is A.I. We’re going to look back at A.I. in five to 10 years and, undisputed, it will be as powerful as the impact of electricity and the Internet. 

That’s why it’s core to our strategy. We spent quite a bit of time describing what we mean by A.I., because everybody uses the word “A.I.”—it’s a fancy word to use. We defined A.I. as machine learning, knowledge engineering, and natural language processing. Those three elements we believe fundamentally can accelerate innovation. 

When you look at our strategy, it is about being an A.I.-driven expert platform. It’s all about technology solving massive customer problems and digitizing services. 

Practically, what will be the role of A.I.? What can it do that couldn’t be done before, and how will it add value?

If you’re in New York or California and you’re engaging with an expert, the expert can be anywhere. They can be in Boise, Idaho. A.I. instantly helps that bookkeeper in Boise understand your tax situation based on everything we know about you. It will lay out the three insights the bookkeeper needs to share with you. It’s all about building your confidence and building a relationship. A.I. will help the bookkeeper deliver insights that will save you money. It can do the same thing with a small business. Based on all the data we see, we think you can go buy inventory. And by the way, based on what we know about you and your creditworthiness, you’re eligible for taking out a $100,000 loan. A.I. does all that rather than the bookkeeper having to crunch all the work. And based on what it knows about you and people like you, it also knows how to skip a bunch of stuff that’s not relevant for you.

Intuit has never laid off as many employees as you laid off in June. Why was that the right way to go?

To manage these complex distributed A.I. models in the cloud, we need systems engineers, full-stack engineers, engineers who have a lot of experience with native computing and mobile computing in the cloud. We need a lot of workforce analysts and process engineers. This requires training our folks, but it also requires bringing skills in from the outside. The training side is really hard. It’s really hard. It’s much easier to go hire someone with these skills versus training, but there aren’t actually too many people like this. So you have to invest the time doing both. 

We’re investing in our training capability because we do have people who understand systems engineering, for example, or full-stack engineering, but we need to build the capability to provide the training. So the approach we’re taking is to build out our educational capabilities and teach internally while also using partners like Amazon—we’re very close partners with them since we’ve shifted everything to Amazon Web Services—to teach these capabilities.

And in the past 18 months we’ve made three “acquihires” where we’ve brought in skills in this area—Applatix [a maker of cloud software], Origami Logic [marketing analytics], and we just acquired TradeGecko [software to help small businesses manage inventory and orders].

The U.S. Justice Department recently cleared your $7.1 billion acquisition of Credit Karma after the company agreed to sell its tax preparation business to Square. Why this deal?

We have 57 million customers; Credit Karma has 100-million-plus customers. They have all your spending and credit history. We have all your income information. With your permission, we’re going to give you the power of that data so you can get access to the best financial products that are right for you at the lowest rates—credit cards, personal loans, home loans, auto loans, home and auto insurance. Right now, when you go get a credit card, you don’t know if it’s the best rate you can get based on your credit score. We can now make that happen. 

Last year 23 million people went to get payday loans and paid exorbitant amounts of money. We can give you early access to your tax refund and your paycheck based on what we know about you. And by the way, we can give you live expertise if you need it, because it’s just a service that will plug into Credit Karma.

Intuit’s mission is “powering prosperity around the world,” but the business is still mostly in the U.S. When will it become truly global?

We are getting traction. We now have almost 30% of all of our cloud QuickBooks customers international, and revenue is growing at 52%. We studied our own history to understand, when we went into a country, how did we make that decision? What choices did we make? We also studied companies that were born international or have been successful internationally. So we studied one of our competitors, Xero [a New Zealand–based tax and accounting software company that operates globally]. We studied Airbnb and PayPal to understand how they approach building a global company. All of that informed a global playbook, and because of that playbook we’ve been able to accelerate in countries that we’re in and make decisions to back off of certain countries. We just announced in September that we’re backing off from India because financial management is not a strong category in India. A lot of other things are, but not financial management. 

You’ll probably be talking about the success of international with the next CEO, because it’s going to take us another 10 to 15 years to really have it be a substantial part of the company. But I like our progress. That’s essential to our future.

The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating Intuit over allegations that it deceived users of TurboTax into paying for the service when they could have filed for free through the IRS Free File program. This all arose out of reporting by ProPublica. Where does the matter stand?

Our very strong belief is that the notion of making free taxes available to customers is an important part of what we do as a company and actually an important part of our strategy. The work that we’ve done with the IRS around the Free File program has all been philanthropic. It has all been around doing good, and the matter has just been very much twisted by a certain outlet. So far in every engagement we’ve had with the FTC and attorneys general, their feedback has been, “Now that we understand the data, we’re not actually sure what the fuss is about.” So we have a lot of confidence in terms of how this will play out, because we have not only a track record, but documentation that everything we’ve done is philanthropic. 

The biggest learning we’ve had, and I’ve shared this with the company, is that even when you’re doing something that’s good and philanthropic, if you have a hard time explaining it, then it’s time to step back and say, well, is this the right place for us to be investing philanthropic efforts? That’s what we’re evaluating now more than ever. It’s proceeding, and I would say the facts are on our side, and that will reveal itself very soon.

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