Sunday, July 5, 2020

Spotlight on James Marino Jr of Portfolio Insight

I now use Dividend Radar as my main watchlist of dividend growth stocks. A weekly auto-generated spreadsheet of stocks with dividend streaks of five years or more, Dividend Radar provides up-to-date fundamentals and added value data, including total trailing returns, a fair value indicator, and trailing dividend growth rates.

I'm collaborating with James Marino Sr and James Marino Jr of Portfolio Insight to produce and maintain Dividend Radar, a free resource for dividend growth investors!

A few weeks ago, I published a spotlight article on James Marino Sr. In this article, I'm shining the spotlight on James Marino Jr. We both have backgrounds in computer programming but, as you will learn from the article, Jim Jr took a very different route than I did... and while I no longer write programs for a living, I enjoy chatting with Jim Jr about what he does for a living!

Jim Jr, tell us about yourself, your family, where you live, and what hobbies you have.

My wife Lia, son Niccolò, and I currently live in Rome, Italy. We moved to Rome after the birth of our son following years of traveling back-and-forth between here and San Francisco.

I’m a passionate, some would say, fanatical, squash player. I love the sport not only because it is physically demanding but because it is constantly evolving and there is always something new to learn. Technology has had a huge impact on the sport, particularly in terms of how racquets have evolved from basically heavy wooden clubs to very lightweight composites with much more striking area.

But sometimes we tend to get too enamored with technology and its potential for change. For example, one of the simplest observations has had perhaps the biggest impact on squash in the last 30 years.

For those unfamiliar with a squash court, it is divided into two sections, the front area which is 18 feet long, and the back area which is 14 feet in length. For years, the conventional wisdom was to try and place the ball consistently in the back in a very defensive way. Then, about 15 years ago, Egyptian coaches and players (the Egyptians currently dominate the sport) made the simple observation that there is a lot more area in the front of the court to move your opponent. The great Egyptian players like Amr Shabana and Ramy Ashour began to use the front in a much more attacking style with creative use of angles and pace. The advances in racquet technology certainly made this style of play possible, but a reflection on length was what led to revolutionary change.         
 I often feel that investing follows similar patterns. There is a lot of hype about “robo-investing”, “machine learning”, and “artificial intelligence” in wealth management. In my opinion, many people would be much better off (financially) if they paid more attention to measurements. For example, how much advisor fees add up and how sound dividend growth stocks hold value better than other financial instruments, particularly in times of crisis. 

Please share a little about your professional background and where you went to college.

I’m a software engineer by profession, but I’ve taken a bit of a circuitous path, which I am grateful for since I think that has helped me be a better “builder”.

First off, I’ve never completed a computer course in my life. I took a college course in high school and then started a course in my first college year but stopped after a few weeks. In each case, the professors wanted the students to follow prescribed methodologies for solving problems and I wasn’t into doing that.

Despite my aversion to formal computer training, I have been around computers my entire life. I was introduced to computers at a really young age and I taught myself how to program, first in BASIC. I then moved onto other languages like Pascal, C, and 8088 Assembler. My parents encouraged this and thanks to them, I always had what in the day was cool equipment (my son laughs when I tell him the specs of what was “cool” at the time). Ironically, one of the first applications I wrote was a stock tracker for my father!

After high school, I had summer jobs as a software developer at various companies since it beat (and paid better than) flipping hamburgers.

I went off to college at Johns Hopkins and had a change of plans. I became immersed in history, political theory, and international relations. So, I changed course and decided to pursue that interest. I graduated, went to Oxford University, and completed my Master’s in International Relations. I also started to play squash there but did not “learn” how to play it. After Oxford, I returned to Johns Hopkins for my Ph.D.

At the same time, I was fortunate to meet a friend from New Zealand who had played squash for Cambridge and quickly taught me that I knew nothing about the sport! It also turned out he was a researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and they were looking for someone to come in and sort out their myriad IT problems. That wound up turning into a multi-year consulting gig while I completed my doctorate.

Shortly after completing my Ph.D., I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and received an offer to move to the Bay Area and work as a software developer. That was right before the .com craze when the commercial Internet was starting to take off. I took the job and that has been my career ever since.

I worked at ATG during the height of the .com bubble and then moved on to BEA Systems after that. I was focused on something called “middleware”. This was software that large companies like banks and telcos used to build highly reliable applications. Middleware would handle failures, system outages, and ensure data integrity – things that are critical when you are betting your business on software.

In 2008, Oracle acquired BEA Systems. The acquisition was good financially and I was looking for a change since my son was just born. My wife Lia encouraged me to go into business for myself. Leveraging my experience at BEA and ATG, I started a consultancy that focused on providing technical direction to software companies, financial services firms, and governments. These have included numerous startups, Microsoft, the Bank of England, and the Swiss government.   

Two years ago, I started to get tired of consulting. At the time, I was one of the technical leads on a project being jointly developed by Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. My father came to me with a problem he was having with his investment spreadsheets. At the same time, I was becoming interested in learning about dividend investing. As a software developer, I looked at the spreadsheets and the amount of data wrangling my father was doing and realized the spreadsheet approach would never work… That is what gave us the idea for Portfolio Insight.   

What is your investing background? What motivates you as an investor? Who inspires you most?

I’ve been fortunate with investing, but I don’t have deep experience in finance.

Back in the 2000s, I did not know very much, but I recognized my lack of knowledge. My original idea was to ride on the coattails of the crowd and invest in low-cost ETFs. That proved to be a great choice as our family has benefited from one of the longest Bull markets in history. In hindsight, if I had started dividend investing back then, I would have done even better!

What inspired you to create Dividend Radar and to make it free for dividend investors?

The idea for Dividend Radar came from our need to test and prove the underlying platform that powers Portfolio Insight.

Having worked extensively with open source software (software that is free to use), which by the way powers most of our modern computing infrastructure, our idea was to bring this concept to dividend investing. One of the motivations behind open source software is for people to use it, find problems with it, and contribute back, making it better for everyone. That’s what we hope to achieve with Dividend Radar.

Tell us a bit about Portfolio Insight? What is your vision and how do you see your role in the endeavor?

Instead of talking about Portfolio Insight’s features, I’ll go back to squash. Just like the realization that the front of the court is larger than the back, we want to help people take advantage of measurements and make the observations that bring success. One way we are doing this is by a strong focus on visual tools that make it easy to interpret fundamental data. Our belief is that like better squash racquets, technology may make a new approach possible. However, it’s up to people – in this case, active investors – to make the observations that bring financial rewards.

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Currently, Portfolio Insight is undergoing beta testing. 
If you're interested in being a beta-tester, please visit Portfolio Insight to sign up!

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