UWM’s Jason Bressler on the role of failure in tech innovation

CTO talks about building a safety net where his team can thrive

HousingWire Editor in Chief Sarah Wheeler sat down with Jason Bressler, CTO at United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM) to talk about how the lender is developing a smart, innovative IT team by giving them a safety net to fail. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Wheeler: UWM develops all their software in-house. What are some of the advantages of that?

Jason Bressler: We’ve got control over the entire product from start to finish, so I’m never relying on somebody who isn’t part of my team to be able to build anything. When I build it all in house, I architect it from the start from both the technical aspect and business aspect, specifically for the wholesale channel and the broker model. At that point, I’ve got the ability to deploy and adapt as quickly as I want, which winds up being seven, eight, nine times a day sometimes to make the product perfect, instead of having to wait on somebody else.

So I’ve got speed, I’ve got control and everything I build is meant to be scaled as quickly as possible to as many brokers who come into the wholesale channel as possible.

SW: How is UWM leveraging AI right now?

JB: We are wholly invested in AI right now. Because we’re build versus buy, I am partnering with some very large AI firms to build an entire AI suite and vertical. We’re using AI in every facet of everything that we have: in all of our existing systems, all of our existing products and then also in new technology and new products.

SW: What’s the competitive advantage there?

JB: From a generative standpoint, it obviously puts information at the fingertips of our team members and our brokers. But the real oomph that comes with AI is the large language modeling and how you can get so predictive with the data that you have. And then you can use AI to very accurately detect fraud, for example. You can use AI to very accurately build out a data lake that gives you access to multitudes of different data streams and shows you things that you didn’t even know that you needed to know, to make great business decisions. From a data standpoint it’s those things that have changed the game.

SW: When I had you on the HousingWire Daily podcast in the spring, you and I talked about the way you source tech staff from other parts of UWM through your X program. How is that program faring with volume down?

JB: Even with volume down, we’re so committed to technology that my team continues to grow. When we talked in May we were at 1,300 team members and now we’re over 1,500. I think so many companies are missing out on the next wave of technologists because those people don’t have a degree, or they didn’t have adequate training.  

I see it as this is where I should be investing almost everything that I have —  getting them in now while the mortgage market isn’t as hot as it has been. I think we’re in for such an extended, long refinance boom, that the sooner that I get them in, trained and get them acclimated to the tech stack, the sooner that I make them solutionists. And that’s really the thing, we’re so big on making them problem-solvers, but that takes time.

SW: Are there any examples you could point out of people who you wouldn’t necessarily think would funnel into technology, who have done a really great job in the program?

JB: I mean, I could name 1,000! When I first started the program seven years ago underwriters made the best technologists because they are so oriented to guidelines and problem solving and analytical thinking. Now it’s a very competitive program and we have people applying from everywhere in the company.

We have one woman who was driving school buses for a while, then joined UWM in operations. She was in operations for a very short time before we brought her into the X program. She went through the developer program and moved into DevOps, and she’s one of our strongest team members. She was really smart, very ambitious, and then constantly just kept asking questions and trying to do different things and it just accelerated her career growth at UWM.

SW: What keeps you up at night?

JB: What we can do that will continue to drive our innovation. I really want to be the Google of fintech. So how do we become the technology team, working inside of this mortgage company, that creates product that is so far above what anyone else is doing that not only do technologists want to work here, but the rest of the fintech world looks at us and says, how the hell are they doing that?

SW: How do you make sure that your team is continuing to stary sharp and be innovative?

JB: Two things. One is something I instituted a while ago called lab time. Every week on Wednesday between nine and 11, everything in IT just shuts down. We do innovative lab time where I don’t want it to be something new, what I want is for every team to find ways to make existing systems, processes and technology more efficient, first and foremost. And that’s all they get to do. And then because they’re efficient with their time during the eight hours that they’re in these four walls, they find the time to work on that off to the side off of their existing backlog. There are so many innovative things that come out of that.

Secondly, I have such a strong culture and desire for people to constantly fail. If you’re not failing, you are not doing your job. They know that they’ve got a giant safety net at UWM to fail. As long as you don’t do it in production, you should fail as much as you possibly can and learn from it and just don’t make the same mistake twice. That failure has created so much innovation,because people are not afraid to just throw anything up against the wall to see, could this actually work? And then we just go all in and try to build off of that.

SW: Practically, how do you encourage that mentality?

JB: As the CTO, it all starts with me, so I will get up in front of all 1,500 people once a month and tell a story about how I failed that last month, or last week, or yesterday. And then I have people constantly sharing their failures to the entire IT team, so that everybody knows, they are not in this alone. It really is okay to fail — you’re not going to get fired, you’re not going to get reprimanded, you’re just going to learn from it and keep getting better.

SW: Your team works all together on one big floor of UWM. How do you think that gets better results than having people distributed?

JB: Part of what makes us so special is the fact that if you have a question, you can literally just turn your chair around and say, ‘Hey, I have a question.’ Instead of sending an email, or setting up a zoom call or teams and hope that somebody can explain it, that person can just literally turn around and look at your computer screen and say, ‘Oh, I see what’s happening right here, change this up.’ It’s small, tiny little things like that that you constantly get from having everybody in one office solution and all the time.

SW: What’s your favorite part of the day of the workday?

JB: Every Wednesday for 90 minutes I do open office hours. Anybody can come talk to me about literally anything for 10 minutes. If they want to talk about pay, they can come directly to me, or if they have a new idea, or want to know what their career looks like. Those are the best and most exciting times of my day — talking to team members about their career.

SW: What makes you excited about the role technology can play in mortgage this year and other years?

JB: Technology will be the everything in mortgage — it’s already trending that way. What excites me the most is I know that UWM technology will create a huge gap between UWM and whoever happens to be number two in the overall market space, not just wholesale. My technology and what my team builds and what we do — we’ll be the catalyst for all of that.  

I’m working at the No. 1 mortgage company in the country so I get to take more risks and there are more opportunities for me and my team to do all kinds of crazy stuff and be innovative.

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