Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Why we can't have good personal finance software any more

This Nov 2023 blog post from the CEO of a budget/financial management software firm (Monarch) tells us a lot about why we don't have alternatives to Intuit ...

... personal finance apps, which typically rely on data aggregators (Plaid, Finicity, etc) to connect to tens of thousands of financial institutions to aggregate the necessary financial data. These data fees are quite expensive, which means a personal finance app is losing money on each free user and must make it up in some other manner...

... Personal finance apps are only as useful as their underlying data. As mentioned above, keeping this data up-to-date is a massive and expensive challenge that everyone underestimates. Subscription-based services are incentivized to constantly invest in this data architecture; otherwise, customers churn...

... Unfortunately, no single data aggregator provides complete coverage of all financial institutions. So we have integrated with all of them at Monarch. What’s more, we’ve spent years (and millions of dollars) building an intelligent data infrastructure that can route users to the best aggregator for a given financial institution. We’ve also invested heavily in AI-based transaction cleansing and classification. I believe we have the best financial data infrastructure that has ever been built for this use case. In full transparency, this is an ever-shifting landscape and there are still a few large institutions that don’t want to share their data, so our coverage is not yet 100%. We plan to get there eventually...

Intuit got the relationships early and has some leverage over banks (which seem to be normally greedy but extraordinarily incompetent). Everyone else is at the mercy of the aggregators. An evil (or just profitable) dominant vendor might spend quite a bit of money to keep this moat as deep and merciless as possible.

Friday, January 12, 2024

CrossFit in my 65th year: Act II

It wasn't a pretty lift. My butt came up but my chest was slower. The depth was marginal. But on Jan 2 2024, into my 65th year, I more-or-less equaled my back squat from two years ago. Even so, it was 10 lbs less than my "lifetime" best set when I was just 60.

And that was the end of Act I of my CrossFit journey. After 10 years, starting when I was a kid of 54, I've archived all my lifts and numbers. I'm a blank slate now, setting new numbers for the next few years.

Seeing my MRI helped me face the truth of oldness. I had squashed a disc (not my first) during some warmups 6 weeks before, and with persistent L4 numbness I decided it was time to get my first images. Forty-four years after some poor body surfing choices, and a bit of living, that spine looks ugly. 

Even I had to admit the obvious; I'm not going to set any more personal lifetime bests. Of course I only got them in my 60s because I started late! Also, no more standing on my head for handstand push-ups. That cervical spine ain't so great and cervical nerve problems are real bad.

It's not impossible that I'll figure out a way to do a ring mucle-up before I die, but I'm fine if I don't. It's a relief to start fresh.

Act II came a lot later than I'd expected when I started, but I never thought I'd be doing my big lifts at 85. I'm a physician, I know how it goes.

I think I'll be able to clear the bilateral L4 fragments with some physio and staying under 200 lbs of axial loading for a month or two (easy, just do more reps). For $30 a year I'm using the machines at my the community center. Emily and I make a date of it! CrossFit used to look down on that nautilus-type equipment but we're all older and more pragmatic now.  I can get a good leg workout there without loading the spine.

I think I'll clear the disk fragments in another 4-6 weeks; I'll be getting a physical therapy plan in a week or two. I figure machine lat pull-downs with some programmed flexion will combine a bit of traction and fragment smushing. If physio doesn't work there's always (ugh) surgery. Physicians generally avoid surgeons, but they do have their uses.

Act I is done. Act II has started. I'll figure out Act III if I get to to it.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

Quicken for DOS cannot be recreated: Why we can't have good personal finance software any more.

Almost 40 years ago we used Quicken version 2 or 3 for DOS 3.1 on a Panasonic 8086 with 640K of memory and a CPU too feeble for a modern toaster. 

Every month a 3.5" (not 5.25") diskette came in the mail with our bank and credit card transactions. We loaded that into Quicken. We entered cash transactions manually. It worked pretty well, though Quicken was plagued with database corruption bugs until the 90s. When Microsoft Money appeared one could migrate transactions and history from one to the other.

There's no modern equivalent. Today's vendors sell our data to third parties and then market products to us. Vendors have a hard lock-in. This kind of service decay is now known as "enshittification". Today in a mastodon thread I listed what drove that enshittification*:

  1. The banks feared disintermediation and commodification so they stopped cooperating and/or raised transaction costs. 
  2. Selling services to customers and selling customer data were both seemingly painless ways to increase margins for a publicly traded company
  3. Costs and user experience both favor user data in the cloud — which aligns with selling user data and services.
  4. Customer data lock strategies became irresistible and with cloud migration they were easy to implement.
Of these the first is the big one. If customers could get their data then small vendors could produce niche subscription products. But the banks aren't going to cooperate. They know better now.

I don't know if we'll ever see good products again. Perhaps if Apple or Microsoft went into banking they'd provide an API for developers to use. Of course we'd all have to use Apple's Bank for everything but, speaking for my family, they already own us.

*With two 't's per Doctorow.

Is it possible to have too many wizards in software development?

Once upon a time, long ago, a middle manager (D.P.) in a tech org told me she didn't want her team to be made up only of wizards. I don't recall her exact words, but the essence was that developing quality products takes a range of skills. A wizard or two is useful, but much of the work is methodical and tedious and repetitive. A wizard will get bored and restless. A methodical, disciplined, and reliable non-wizard who enjoys or tolerates the less celestial work will be happier and more productive with many tasks. 

Basically, the tasks of producing and maintaining quality software products requires a range of skills and talents and temperaments. Sometimes you need a carpenter, sometimes you need a finisher.

I realized today that I've only ever heard that from her. It seems Google and Microsoft only hire wizards. So maybe she was wrong, but I've thought of it often.