Systima Technologies CFO: Taylor Banks

Summary

Taylor was born & raised here in the PNW.  He received his undergraduate degree in accounting from the UW, then went to go work for Blue Origin, which is where he found his passion for space travel.  Even though his job was in accounting for the company, he felt passionate about the mission of the company.

After 3 years at Blue Origin, Taylor decided he would leave and join a startup in Texas that was working on building rocket-powered aircrafts to fly into space.  After the company had gone through financial struggles, which Taylor admits was one of the best experiences in his life, he decided he would move back to the PNW, and ended up at Systima Technologies.

Today, Taylor is the CFO of Systima Technologies, a multi-million-dollar aerospace & defense company.

Podcast Transcript

Note:  There may be errors to this transcript (some funny, some confusing - we used an automated transcription software!)

00:00:02 Ash Faraj: Hey, it’s Ash here. Today’s guest is Taylor Banks, Systima Technologies CFO. You want to be sure to stick around to the end to hear about how Taylor found his passion for space travel, what his mindset was like in his twenties in order to maximize the opportunities he was given, and ultimately how he was able to work his way up to becoming the CFO of a multi-million dollar airspace and defense company.

00:00:25 Ash Faraj: Welcome to Season 3 of ExecuTalks. It’s the podcast that connects you with today’s top executives. You will hear interesting childhood stories. Stories of extreme setbacks and disappointments and ultimately hear the story behind how these top executives were able to build an amazing career for themselves.

00:00:44 Ash Faraj: So really quick, before we get into the show, we’ve started to invite our audience members on the show to connect with our guests and ask questions towards the end of our conversation. If you’d like to be a part of our show, you need to make sure you’re subscribed to our newsletter on our website and look out for emails that invite you to be on the show. And as always, you can reach out to me directly if you have any questions. My email is Ash@ExecuTalks.com.

00:01:08 Ash Faraj: Taylor was born and raised here in the Pacific Northwest and his memory is filled with the bonds he built with his teammates in sports. He knew he wanted to pursue a higher education from an early age, so he began working as soon as he turned 16 to start saving up for college. If there’s one thing Taylor’s parents instilled in him, it was independence. Taylor would have to rely on himself financially if he wanted to go to college or do anything else in life.

00:01:32 Taylor Banks: Yeah, growing up I was one who would always work hard academically, work to get good grades. I didn’t go to many parties or wasn’t out running around doing stuff too late. I was pretty focused from an early age. That’s probably a good testament to my parents and what they instilled on me. But growing up it was sports and school were kind of the two big things I was working on. As a kid I did start working early on kind of knowing I wanted to go to college and that financially I would have to find a way to afford it. Didn’t really need to lean on anyone to help get me where I wanted to be. I obviously had tons of mentors in what I was doing, but that level of independence that my parents helped drive was huge for me in my career. Accountability is something that they really instilled in me. So, you know, between that independence and accountability they really set me up for where I am today. But I’ve always had this drive to work and be as successful as possible in whatever I was doing; whether it was something as, you know, a grade on a test or a paper or sports or even a board game or doing something around the house. I’m a pretty competitive person. Hard to translate that into an emotion, but it’s something that I’ve always had from an earlier on age. I think I see it in different aspects of what I do and there’s different levels of ambition, but that’s something that has definitely stuck with me since early childhood.

00:02:57 Ash Faraj: So Taylor got his undergraduate degree in accounting from the University of Washington, then went to go work for Blue Origin which is where he found his passion for space travel. Even though his job was in accounting for the company, he felt passionate about the mission of the company. But you can’t find your passion if you don’t try different things. The more experiences you have, the more you begin to realize what you’re actually passionate about.

00:03:22 Taylor Banks: So I’ve always been driven and kind of guided to these smaller companies. I just feel like you can learn a lot more at them and you have more of an impact. So that’s something that’s always been pulling at me where I went. At Blue Origin, there was a saying, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you need to find a different room.” At Blue Origin it was almost the opposite. I’ve never walked into the room and felt like the dumbest person more than I had in there and just putting yourself with these highly intelligent people, really hard-working people, was pretty eye-opening to me; all the people out there, and very humble people, very hard-working. But I think that’s what I took away most from there was just how smart all these people were there in trying to bring back rockets from the first time to land them on earth after they’d been to space was amazing. I was a business student in accounting. I’d never had much exposure to that. So it’s a very exciting industry, exciting field, and great people to meet and be a part with there. That was my biggest take-away was how much I still had to learn when I was entering this new field.

00:04:32 Ash Faraj: So I know you’re passionate about space and space travel, right? When did you first realize that it was your passion?

00:04:41 Taylor Banks: I think the first time was when I was able to walk the floor at Blue Origin and actually see a spacecraft six inches in front of my face and then a few years later actually go watch that spacecraft fly into a mission. There’s something pretty exciting about actually seeing it in person. Watching an engine test and feeling the energy hitting your chest from only a few hundred yards away. There’s some exciting things in the world, but space travel, human space travel, is quite out there. Before then, I didn’t have much interest. My grandpa had worked for NASA. So I might have had some underlying interest that was kind of through my subconscious, but it was really there in person. Before I worked there, I’d never heard of Blue Origin. Probably hadn’t heard SpaceX and companies now that everyone knows in every home across the country.

00:05:40 Ash Faraj: Obviously, you’ve had a lot of success in finding jobs, and getting your foot in the door, getting job offers. What do you feel like is the best way to look for a job, to get your foot in the door?

00:05:52 Taylor Banks: I’m a big advocate for LinkedIn. A huge advocate. So folks out there, if you don’t have a LinkedIn account, get on it. Keep it up to date. I’d worked a few other internships and I had some full-time offers on the table, but I wanted to go and take a risk and see what this company was about. Once you go out and see a spacecraft there’s not many other places out there that can top it in my opinion.

00:06:17 Ash Faraj: Now, Taylor, you’ve obviously had this good fortune of working directly with Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest person in the world, this great visionary leader. What’s he like?

00:06:28 Taylor Banks: When I was at Blue Origin, a pretty small company compared to now. I think the big take-away I had from him is just his level of focus on the things that really mattered. It’s easy to watch his interviews and hear how he talks about obsessing over the customer and putting the customer first. But if you really dive into it and his level of focus is just so detailed on that is what truly matters and not some of the distractions he might see. Seeing him more on a personal level and up close. Just that level of focus, how he can really obsess on the customers was pretty eye-opening for me. It was great working for that leader. This truly mattered to him. It wasn’t something that was a quick investment for him to make money. It was his passion. When your leader is passionate about that mission, it’s so easy to follow them to whatever end it may be. He truly believed in it. He had believed in human space travel since high school and that was very public. You get inspired when you see that person having that passion. It’s easy to hop on and help support them however you can.

00:07:41 Ash Faraj: Wat are some things that you saw in Jeff that you feel would translate very well to our audience?

00:07:47 Taylor Banks: Definitely following your interest to your passion is number one. It might not be your field or what you do. For example, I can’t say I have a passion for accounting. I think my passion is space in the way that I impact it and that value is through accounting in business. The passion is not the debits and credits and financial statements. But I was able to find that passion while I was working and, unfortunately, not before then. The other advice would be, you know, build your network early. My first internship, the first one I ever got, was through a mutual friend whose father was looking for an accounting intern. So it’s a big network that you can build in college. It can just be a personal friend and contact. I think that’s a lot easier than trying to send cold applications into these large companies where you end up in a pool of a thousand applicants. Lastly, just try and find some place that you’re genuinely interested in. Not trying to just see what’s it in for you, but how can you help this company? How can you help others in your network? Not just be out for looking out after yourself, because people are looking for help. We’re always looking for interns at our companies. I’m wanting to help these folks learn and get that experience just like I was fortunate enough to get it when I was going through school. I love when people reach out to me on LinkedIn with a friendly message or something that’s personal. If it’s one big tip, I would say make your networking personal and genuine. It’s pretty easy to tell who is trying to network just for personal gain or who has the genuine interest. When I get messages either on email or LinkedIn, I try to be accessible. I love sharing my thoughts or my experiences because I was really fortunate to have great mentors in college and in my first two jobs. Yeah, being genuine and reaching out through social media or emails. When you’re in school there’s lots of clubs and organizations. We’ve met during one of the Case competitions which is great. We ended up hiring three or four people from that team, just out of a coincidence. There’s lots of ways to get involved into networks and not just in a professional setting.

00:10:02 Ash Faraj: After three years at Blue Origin, Taylor decided that he would leave and join a start-up in Texas that was working on building rocket-powered aircrafts to fly into space. During this period, he was still in his mid-twenties with no kids, so he realized that this is when he could take a huge risk by leaving a very comfortable job and taking a position that was somewhat unstable. After the company had gone through financial struggles, which Taylor admits was one of the best learning experiences in his life, he decided that he would move back to the Pacific Northwest and ended up at Systima Technologies.

00:10:34 Taylor Banks: So it’s an interesting story. I had recently proposed to my fiancée, now wife. About a few weeks later I said, “Hey, I’m actually going to move to Los Angeles and then Midland, Texas, to go with this new company.” I had this kind of career plan. I knew in a few years that I’d be starting an MBA at some point. I’d recently gotten engaged and then took a trip, and she stayed back in Seattle. The company went through some financial struggles which is a great learning experience for anyone especially in accounting and business. I had previously been at Blue Origin funded by one of the richest people in the world. Now I’m at a company who’s trying to fundraise and running out of money, so a great learning experience. But fortunately, I had the opportunity to come back to Seattle, and Systima was looking for a position, so it was a great fit in that space and defense industry.

00:11:28 Ash Faraj: So what happened with that company? Why did it end up failing?

00:11:32 Taylor Banks: The company was in a fundraising round. Fundraising had fallen through. So in parallel with my wife, my fiancée at the time was still in Seattle. So, you know, there was a good fit to help leave the company especially as it was getting more financially difficult and personally too. It’s tough to be away from someone you care about. From Seattle to Midland, Texas, is quite a distance. It’s something that I viewed as in the short term this learning experience is going to pay long-term dividends in what I want to do in my career. Not saying it wasn’t hard. It was extremely hard but looking back I think we definitely made the right decision. So it was great to have that 6-month learning experience and then come back to Systima and back to the Northwest which I love. Something big in my life is… I set a really definitive goal in my first ten years to learn as much as I can. If that was on the job, going back and getting a master’s degree. I’m taking classes. I wanted to learn as much as I could. I had an opportunity to move to a different company that was a little bit smaller and had some different business ventures. They were VC funded and angel funded so it was a great learning opportunity. The big drive for there was for me to just to continue learning within these first ten years. So I had a great experience at Blue Origin. I learned so much. Really built a good foundation, but my drive and focus to keep learning in those first ten years is what led me to go step out and take a risk. A big piece of advice is mostly when you’re young it’s a lot easier to take the risk and fail. You don’t have usually the family responsibilities, you know, in debt or mortgage. If it didn’t work out, I didn’t have the huge financial implications or family implications. So I wanted to take that risk and see could I really continue that exponential learning curve early on in my career. It’s not chasing money, chasing prestige of the company name or the job title. It has to be learning because without that knowledge you are going to flatline. If you ever stop learning in whatever you’re doing in school or in a job or in anything extracurricular, look to move because you have to keep learning.

00:14:01 Ash Faraj: So you decided to go back and get your MBA. Why did you make that decision?

00:14:07 Taylor Banks: My undergrad was in accounting. I’d probably say 80 percent of the folks in my cohort went on and did a 5th year master’s in accounting. Me personally, I knew that accounting wasn’t my passion. It was the space industry and business more so than just going and getting a CPA. I went into industry first because I wanted to figure out what is it that I want to do with my life? I was very fortunate to find that industry. So then, what I did wanted then was go back and become more well-rounded in business. In my undergrad, I was super focused in accounting. I took so many classes that I didn’t get the experience anything beyond just the accounting sector. So that was a big focus for me to go back and get my MBA, as opposed to doing a CPA route or a master’s in accounting, because I wanted that business experience. Foster and U-Dub had a great, and they still have a great entrepreneurship program which was my big focus. So I wanted to go and learn a lot about entrepreneurship as opposed to maybe a finance focus or a marketing focus. Entrepreneurship is really important to me. Then lastly, it’s a great way to meet people and network. I think you’re right you can learn a lot of those skills in a book or on online classes or being self-taught, whether it’s the business skills, but meeting people in different companies and different industries and working in a team so that’s when I was taking my MBA program. I wasn’t really focused as much on the curriculum, but more what are those above and beyond extracurricular activities where you’re meeting with groups and where there are case competitions or outside things that I can learn from. Those are the things that you can’t really go and pick up a book or watch a YouTube video and learn. My focus is never climbing the ladder. It was learning as much as I could. I know I wouldn’t have been able to be where I’m at today and have the relationships I do and meet with people I do if I didn’t have that learning experience. My advice, again, is if you’re not learning, you need to change something and keep learning because it gets very hard to continue to get where you want to be in your career. Climbing the ladder is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be, but I think learning is for everyone. You should be out there learning, especially early on in your career, because if you get to a point where you eventually want to move in your career path or move upwards and you don’t have that foundation or that knowledge it is extremely hard no matter how many years you’ve been working or who you know. There’s different ways to learn. Some people do it through just industry experience. I know people who just went to high school and never went to college, but they found ways to learn in industry or outside of formal education and that’s totally fine; but the key there is learning however you have to do it.

00:16:59 Ash Faraj: And I feel like now, you know, we live in the information ages, you can learn anything online, right?

00:17:04 Taylor Banks: Once I got that first job offer from Blue Origin, you can believe my YouTube search filter was, you know, rocket launches, and how do rockets work, and human space travel. That’s just what interests me. I wasn’t going to go and study or do a master’s in aerospace. It was going and just learning that industry knowledge or talking with people. You know it’s fun to go out to Happy Hour and just pick someone’s brain. People love talking about what they do. It’s really easy to do if you show that interest. I’ve had plenty of times that I’ve asked someone, “What do you do?” I wouldn’t get another word in for 45 minutes. I’m just learning and absorbing, and people they just love talking about their passion. But, yeah, it’s all about that learning. If you ever look back, I’d never thought I’d be at the same place for five years but that’s a testament to learning. I’m still learning every day, and it’s very easy and exciting to wake up in the morning and go learn. We’re over 200 people now. We’re getting close to pushing 250. We recently signed a deal for a new building, almost 300,000 square feet. We’re working on man space missions. We’re working on rockets, critical defense technologies for our country. So it’s very easy to wake up and have that passion and go to work. And going from 40 people to 250, there’s a lot to learn. We’ve never been this type of company before or have this much revenue or this many people. So every day is exciting. We’re looking forward to doing bigger systems, more important, more challenging technical risks every single day.

00:18:52 Ash Faraj: Hey guys. Thank you for sticking around and listening to Taylor’s story. We’re now at the last segment of our show called “Connection Session Questions” where we ask questions that allow you to get to know our guests on a much deeper level.

00:19:06 Ash Faraj: So if you were to meet the 25-year-old Taylor, what advice would you give to him?

00:19:11 Taylor Banks: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t know if I’m at the point now where I know the decisions that I’ve made at 25, it really paid off or not. I think that answer is going to change. You know, that was for me only five, six years ago. So a lot of that I think is still to be determined. I think I’ve made those right decisions, not only in the work environment, in the industry, and my career, but I think also with my family and my wife and my kid. It’s all been great. I think my one piece of advice I would reiterate, or make sure that I stuck with, is not be patient. I think there’s a sense of telling people when they’re early in their careers be patient, take your time, and it’ll come to you. I think patience should be very focused. If you’re not able to get the answers you want or to be doing what you want or you’re learning, it’s okay to be impatient. I think I have a sense of impatience, and I had wanted to learn and moved around in my career early on. I think that paid off. Time will tell, but that’s something that I would continue to reiterate even though I’ve had managers tell me to be more patient. That patience better be purposeful. If not, it’s okay to take risk and be impatient. If you’re going to be patient, make sure it’s extremely focused. The impatience I would like to see is so many times I’ll hear people say this job it says it requires five to seven years of experience, so I can’t apply for that job. BS. Go apply for it. If you know what you’re doing what is years of experience or having this degree matter? If you want a promotion in your career or a raise, the worst answer you can get is no. Save those purposeful patience for when you really need them. Don’t go out and always be the one who is requesting those things for things that don’t matter to you, but there’s a time to be impatient. Don’t be afraid to be impatient when it truly matters.

00:21:20 Ash Faraj: What in your life do you feel like has given you the greatest sense of fulfillment?

00:21:24 Taylor Banks: Obviously, my wife and kids. Huge sense of fulfillment. Fortunately, they’re gone today. They’re out of the house. It’s so nice coming home after a busy day or a stressful day and being able to play with my family and see my wife. I’d say in my career, I get a lot of fulfillment from that ambition and getting things done. I love to be successful. And that’s less so me personally being successful, but my team and who I work with being successful. I remember working with you in the business plan competition. I had such a little role in that, but when you guys were able to go place in all those competitions. I mean, just seeing that success and being part of that team and team success was so fulfilling for me. And I think that’s why I got back into coaching. I love working on these teams and what I’m doing is having that ambition, that success.

00:22:24 Ash Faraj: If you could be remembered for just one thing, what would you want that to be?

00:22:28 Taylor Banks: The impact I had whether it’s in mentoring someone early on in their career or in the coaching I’ve done with young athletes and young people. Even now, I love when I get texts from players I’ve coached five and ten years ago, who maybe in fifth grade I knew them, and they send me a message once they’re in college or after college. I can get a lot of fulfillment from seeing these people who, I hope and I feel, I helped build the foundation for their success in their life. No real interest in the long-term financial recognition or having this job title. I have really had that fulfillment in seeing other people succeed and feeling like I was able to offer my advice or my support to them.

00:23:19 Ash Faraj: In your opinion, what is the most important life skill?

00:23:23 Taylor Banks: Drive and focus. In this day and age with any job, large jobs going to automation and globalization and the world getting smaller and smaller, it’s less of kind of what you know and maybe who you know that’s going to set you apart. I think that most important skill is having that drive and ambition. When your back is against the wall and it’s going to be you or someone else, or your team or someone else’s team, are you going to be the one to satisfy your customer? Are you going to be there to do the hard work to come out on top and win? It might be called competition. It might be focus or drive. But all those words which I think is the skill that you can work on and you’re not just born with the driver ambition. I think that really sets you apart from others when you’re applying for a job or you’re trying to get that next promotion or to win business from a new customer or go to raise money. Are you going to roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth in, and go make it happen no matter what it takes?

00:24:30 Ash Faraj: What is the best advice that someone has ever given you?

00:24:34 Taylor Banks: That’s a really good question. The best advice someone’s ever given me. I had a boss, a previous boss, at a company who told me -- and I forget the setting whether it was a meeting or another job interview or where it was, but -- to always be the most prepared person in the room. I use that to this day in so many different settings. I’ve used it in job interviews when it comes to taking a test, or even at a basketball game scouting opponents, or being really sure what you’re going to do. You can’t control the outcome or control what other people do, but you can control what you do. If you are always focused on being the most prepared, the most-ready person in whatever you’re doing, you’ve given yourself a chance. It might not work out. But if you’re not prepared, if you’re not set up, you have no chance. And so that’s something that I take with me in everything I do is I’m going to be the most prepared person. My group, my team, is going to be prepared because without it you have no chance. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win if you are prepared, but it gives you a shot. That’s all you can ask for.

00:25:49 Ash Faraj: And the last one is, if you were stranded on an island and had access to one meal, what would that meal be for you?

00:25:55 Taylor Banks: I’m a big pizza guy. No matter what type. I’m a big pizza guy. Now, it depends though because is it only one type of pizza or do I get to change my pizzas all throughout? That’s the best part about pizza. I’m more New York; I do like the thinner crust. But the pizza, it’s never the wrong time for me to have pizza.

00:26:19 Ash Faraj: Thank you so much for listening. Now, if you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts. It only takes a few seconds, but it’s worth so much to us. We’re helping new professionals in a very unique way, and we need people to hear about it. We need you to help us reach more people by leaving us a rating and review. I hope to see you again next week.