AI is Transforming the Real Estate Industry – Andrei Girenkov

All Interviews, Real Estate Experts

Andrei started out his journey as a software engineer from Carnegie Mellon University, experienced the world of stock markets, and studied securities law to upskill and understand the industry. Taking insights from his journey so far, Andrei inculcated technology and AI as the Chief Technological Officer at Greystar, the world’s largest residential property management firm. Andrei brings the perfect mix of his technical and managerial abilities to Greystar.

Q.1. Tell us about your journey from Carnegie Mellon University to Greystar.

A.1. I attended CMU’s master of software engineering program because I wanted to be a darn good software engineer.  A few years later I was heading up software development at a stock exchange on wall street, and found that as a technology leader you can’t be an effective business partner without a deep understanding of the business drivers for your organization.  You must be able to speak your business partners’ language and impact the metrics they care about or they will not hear you.  I went to Fordham Law School at night for 4 years to study securities law to understand how the exchange operates.  This lesson has proven itself again and again through other companies and industries, taking me on a journey through Wealth Management, Insurance, and now as CTO of Greystar, the world’s largest residential property management firm.

Q.2. What are some of the challenges that you’ve overcome as the Senior Managing Director of Technology at Greystar?

A.2. Just like in other companies there is always a mix of daily blocking and tackling and the really big rocks that change the company.  For us our biggest rocks are data and challenging the traditional operating model which requires hiring more people for every additional property that we manage.  Greystar properties are home to almost 2 million residents, who spend so much of their time in our buildings and systems.  There is a treasure trove of operational, financial, and resident behavior data that is just waiting to be weaponized – whether that’s to delight our residents – achieving better NOI for the property, or use the deep insights across a broad international portfolio to identify profitable deals quicker, underwrite more accurate performance for our investors and clients. 

Q.3. How are different proptech & fintech startups impacting the real estate industry?

A.3. To piggyback off the other big rock, there is right now a proverbial torrent of integration, workflow, automation, and digital self service solutions crossing over into the Proptech industry from other verticals. From smart locks which enable self guided tours, smart property management software that automates on-property scheduling work, to mobile solutions that allow residents to book services and amenities, creating a great customer experience as well as additional revenue streams for the property – we have seen so many great and exciting products over the past year. Customer demand for user-friendly real time digital solutions was already at critical mass based on expectations from their personal lives, and the pandemic has only poured more gasoline on that fire.

Q.4. How will the digital transformation effort being led by you at Greystar help increase their property NOI?

A.4 Many of our automation efforts center around reducing the required touch points, reducing on property staff requirements.  For example, enabling a prospect to chat with an AI based leasing agent, view virtual tours of our properties, schedule a self guided tour online, greatly increasing the number of prospects a single leasing agent can service.  Other examples include digitally marketed service offerings adjacent to the “modern living” area which generate additional revenue streams for the property.

Q.5. How will the role of Data Science evolve in the real estate industry?

A.5. 3 years ago we were only doing traditional reporting and analytics on operations – how did we do last month?  Today we are starting to gather more and more data about the residents and their preferences and behaviors in order to serve up moments of delight.  However to truly unlock the power of actionable insights we need to be able to predict what will wow the next resident or when we need to service the next appliance before it breaks, or which next deal will bring maximum value.  Having a robust data science platform and team is the only way we will achieve this next frontier.  I view this as the next level of maturity beyond traditional engineering & analytics.

Q.6. What was the last passion project that you nerded out on?

A.6. Speaking of AI, I am currently taking a remote graduate course on AI & Machine Learning at Carnegie Mellon. All the AI “black magic” is just calculus and linear algebra behind the curtain. I looked through my notepad this week, and my work notes are interspersed with matrix calculations. That’s pretty nerdy!

Q.7. What was the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

A.7. When I worked at the stock exchange, we were in the same office building as a now defunct company called Knight Capital Group.  Knight was the country’s largest market maker at the time (a type of broker dealer who provides liquidity on stock markets to retail investors).  Knight traded itself out of business in August 2010 in spectacular fashion, when a “rogue algorithm” took on losses greater than the market cap of the company in about 40 minutes worth of trading.  The developer behind it was my gym partner.  Making a long story short, he reused an old “unused” configuration setting to control some features of his new code.  When they tested the release over the weekend and rolled back they didn’t flip back the configuration setting since it was “unused.”  As it turns out there was some decades old code that was turned on by this setting and the rest is history.  This was like watching a car crash in slow motion.  The lesson for me is that what we do as engineers has a very real impact on our business, and highly scalable computers amplify both our successes and failures.  A software developer making a mistake in their work leads to countless people losing their savings.  As a result I am a big believer in design reviews, modern devops methodologies, use of feature flags, and generally avoiding relying on every team member to be perfect 100% of the time.

Q.8. What excites you about work right now?

A.8. I started my new position in September 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and have never seen the vast majority of my teammates outside of a zoom call.  Right before the delta variant flared up we got a chance to see each other in the office and for the first time.  It was a surreal experience and really made me appreciate the power of human connection.  One of them was surprised when I mentioned I’ve only been here a year.  He was so used to working with me on a daily basis that the fact that we were meeting for the first time simply didn’t register.

Q.9. You serve on the Board of multiple universities and help design their tech programs. In your opinion, what are the current industry needs and how do you mentor the students to develop the necessary skills?

A.9. I am a huge believer in paying it forward.  Education is highly correlated with income, life expectancy, generational wealth, and we have so many bright kids in this country  who never get the opportunity to go to a university because nobody encouraged them or they didn’t get that breakthrough internship that will launch their career.  I focus a lot of my time on student mentorship, mock interviews, industry outreach, sponsoring projects and providing internship opportunities.  The most in-demand skills that I see repeatedly are UI/UX, DevOps, test automation, Six Sigma style process improvement, data & AI, and product management.

Q.10. If you had to give one quote as advice to your former self, which would it be and why?

A.10. Pick something that you really enjoy and take on the opportunities that seem just beyond your reach, persevere and doubt yourself.  This will position you ahead of 99% of your peers.  You will always stay interested and engaged, experience success in most of your undertakings, and the rest will fall into place.

Avneet Khokhar

Avneet joined Home.LLC while pursuing her five-year integrated programme in management (IPM) at IIM Indore. She lives her life by the principles of extending helpfulness and resourcefulness to others.

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