JLL is one of the biggest commercial real estate service providers in the world. They operate in 80 countries and employ over 100,000 people. They are also no strangers to tech. Back in 2017, the firm tapped two Silicon Valley veterans to head up their technology investment group called JLL Spark. In 2018 they hired a Chief Digital Products Officer, a Google engineer who helped create Google Maps, to head up their tech development. Shortly after, they started a new arm of their corporation, JLL Technologies, which helps its clients deploy a growing array of technology solutions.
But now technology is making its way all the way up to the highest level of the organization. JLL has just appointed the company’s first Chief Technology Officer who will oversee the company’s entire technology strategy. I talked with their new CTO, Yao Morin, to ask her about the company’s buy/build/partner strategy and how they prioritize their tech spend.
Morin’s background is in electrical engineering in a field that is now called data science. After getting her Ph.D., she worked for a defense contractor and then moved to the private sector helping the accounting software company Intuit build out their data science team. She was then appointed the CDO and Head of US Engineering at StubHub before being brought on by JLL.
Coming from industries outside of real estate gave Morin a refreshingly honest perspective. “We have a data problem,” she admitted. “The technology to do what we want already exists but we first have to get the data into a structure where it can be useful.” One of the difficulties that she has run into is how much of the data that the real estate industry uses is unstructured. Things like lease terms or marketing language aren’t always easy to extract from the millions of documents that JLL processes every year. The job is made even more complicated due to the immense amount of languages that the company does business in, each with its own terminology.
But it isn’t only the data that is getting in the way of the industry’s tech advancement. The culture at many real estate firms is also holding them back, according to Morin. “I don’t see the well-established corporate culture around data like I do in other industries, so there is not a systematic understanding of how data can actually be used,” she said. Morin thinks this is changing, though. As more and more companies start to outperform their competitors thanks to their use of data, others are starting to understand how vital data is to their long-term success.
As CTO, Morin oversees the company’s entire tech strategy, which she breaks down into two different initiatives: creating products to give their employees a competitive advantage and selling tech solutions to the larger real estate industry. These two goals can often compete with each other. If JLL sells a technology to other brokers and facility managers, it no longer becomes an advantage for its own team. This was likely the reason that their property analytics software Blackbird never got released. The platform was supposed to be commercialized after it was announced in 2018 but has since been made available only to JLL employees.
When I asked how JLL weighs the best use of technology Morin explained, “There are cases where the software itself is the key, in those cases we don’t want to sell it for others to use. But there are plenty of other times where it is the data that is the key and the tech is only helping unlock it. In that we are happy to sell the technology because we think that our brokers and FMs already have an advantage thanks to the data that we are able to provide them.”
Selling the technology has other potential obstacles. It can be difficult for a company to sell technology to its competitors, particularly in commercial real estate which is dominated by a few large players and has so much value coming from data. I asked whether she expected other brokerages to feel comfortable putting their information in a tool owned by a competitor. “We are very serious about data privacy and we can prove that the data used in our software won’t get exported or used,” she said. One of the ways that they do this is by hiring external auditors to look through their code and data schemas to make sure that sensitive information is protected and any data that can be used is anonymized.
Being the first CTO of a large company comes with a lot of expectations. The fact that JLL created the position at all shows how vital they feel technology is to the future of their company. But creating the tech strategy for such a massive company isn’t easy. Not only are there plenty of logistical challenges, there are likely internal ones as well. So far it seems like Morin has been given a lot of leeway to innovate; they have already launched a new technology that helps its clients decarbonize their portfolio. If JLL is able to achieve what it is hoping by appointing a CTO, in a few short years we might start hearing less about how commercial real estate is behind when it comes to tech and start hearing more about the ways that it is leading the way, one data set at a time.