Growing up in Vancouver, Ian Wong didn’t dream of transforming a trillion dollar industry. That dream took shape in 2014 when he co-founded one of the biggest disruptors in the real estate market.
“Five million Americans buy and sell a home every year, but the process is still extremely complex, stressful, and time consuming” says Wong, CTO of Opendoor, a digital platform that uses AI and machine learning to streamline residential real estate deals. “What we set out to do is turn this complex, traditional home transaction into a simple, on-demand transaction that allows people to buy, sell, and move with the tap of a button.”
An insightful and mission-driven leader of a billion-dollar business, Wong joined ITWC CIO Jim Love for a February 2022 episode of Leadership in the Digital Enterprise, an ITWC podcast series focused on authentic discussions of leadership in this new digital era. A lively conversation focused on Wong’s perspective on leadership and his personal insights on the real estate sector.
Defining a Great Leader
In describing the qualities of a leader, Wong made a distinction between being a great manager and a great leader, describing the former as being centred around practical functions, such as taking care of employees and executing plans. “These are all bread and butter to being a great manager, and they are important components of becoming a great leader, but ultimately the thing that defines great leadership is having a vision of change and actually driving that change through the systems that you build around you,” he said.
Lessons Learned Along the Way
When asked by Love to describe some of the lessons learned along the way to creating a new real estate marketplace, Wong hypothesized that it is often easier and more straightforward to tackle the harder, more ambitious version of a problem instead of tiptoeing around it. He allowed that this may raise some uncomfortable questions, but in the end makes the problem easier to solve.
Other learnings came when assembling a team of data scientists, engineers, designers, and product managers to transform the real estate market. “You have to create a system, but also be able to adapt to individual needs and talents,” said Wong, who holds masters’ degrees in electrical engineering and statistics from Stanford University. “In a highly skilled field like software engineering or data science, each engineer and each data scientist has their own hopes and fears, and strengths and weaknesses. You actually have to modify your style of communication, depending on who you are with.”
The Intersection of Interest and Impact
On the subject of his greatest successes, Wong said he is most proud of accomplishments that are both interesting and impactful, including the founding of Opendoor. “It was really fun being part of that co-founding team because it was just three or four of us sitting around a table trying to dream up a pitch, create a website, create algorithms, and then get the people around us excited about the vision,” he recalled. “You think it’s going to be huge, but you also need to make sure you can instill that level of confidence in the people who have placed their faith in you, and rally them to get through the tough moments.”
Concurring with Love’s assertion that everyone is struggling to attract and hold good talent, Wong spoke to the critical role played by intrinsic motivators, like job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, opportunities to master a craft, and working for a company with shared values. He dismissed extrinsic motivators, such as compensation, titles, and company reputation, as mere table stakes, saying, “If I don’t get those things right, people won’t even join to me.”
Leveraging Technology to Make a Difference
Shifting gear to talk about technologies, Wong expressed his excitement at the consumer transition to online dealings. “We have become accustomed to hailing rides and ordering groceries with a click of a button, and I think this consumer expectation is going to reach over to real estate,” he said. “This is where I think technology entrepreneurship is so exciting, because on one hand you get to solve really hard, almost seemingly impossible problems, and on the other, you get to help people.”