May 06, 2022
Ashley Cornall on building roads that lead to highways as a Product Manager at Plaid
What’s your role?
I am a Product Manager focused on bringing our new products to market. I’m currently working on our Transfers team, thinking about how to improve users’ experiences when making account-to-account transfers using their bank so they can do things like fund a new account.
Describe what you do in a few sentences.
I work with our engineering, design, and our go-to-market teams to bring to life new products that enable magical experiences for consumers! A critical component of my role is listening to our customers share feedback on what they want, and then determining if Plaid is the right company to help build the products that best fit their needs.
I also spend a lot of time thinking about specific areas that are frustrating for consumers when they are trying to manage their financial lives, and then working out if we can help solve that problem in tandem with our customers. When I talk about my role, I sometimes use the metaphor that at Plaid we’re in the job of building roads. Our core products teams have to maintain the quality and traffic for the existing roads that we’ve already built, but our new products teams are trying to predict where people might want to drive, if only there was a way to get there. We start with laying a dirt track and see if there’s any interest in driving there, and hopefully, someday that evolves into a high-traffic highway!
Plaid’s mission is to unlock financial freedom for everyone. What does this mean to you?
When we create a product at Plaid, we are intentional about building something that is inclusive and can help lift up people who otherwise don't have great access to financial products. We never want to leave people out of access to our products, so we take a very thoughtful approach. We have created a set of product principles that help ensure any product and algorithms are free of bias, and a neutral term policy that we apply to our documentation.
Furthermore, people’s personal experiences can impact how they achieve financial freedom. For instance, if you are a veteran or an immigrant it is extremely challenging to build credit. As an immigrant, I found the experience frustrating and difficult to navigate when I first moved to the United States, so it was particularly motivating to spend a few quarters recently with our Credit team thinking about how we can improve that experience for more consumers.
Tell us about the culture of inclusion at Plaid.
I think the big thing for me here is that we are a flat organization and have maintained this despite our rapid growth through the years. This is especially true for the product teams that I am part of. Having previously worked at a big company, oftentimes the PM comes in and will make a decision, then leaves and everybody is expected to execute. That is not how we work at Plaid. Our best product ideas do not come from me. They come from the team that is working directly on the product and thinking about it every day. If we built our roadmaps with me just decreeing things we wouldn't get nearly as much done. Roadmaps are built collaboratively. We make decisions collaboratively. Every decision has space for somebody to voice their opinion or debate it and I think we are stronger together because of this. We have a foundation built on trust and people feel included, respected, and valued.
What do you love most about working at Plaid?
I have the most cliche answer for this…it’s the people! This was one of the things I was really sad about during the pandemic because I couldn’t spend time with my colleagues in person. Being in the office with the team is really special. I always joke that when I walk into a room full of Plaids I feel inadequate because everyone is so incredibly smart, but I love that feeling! To feel challenged and inspired by your peers is the most energizing experience. I have chosen to work from our offices now that they have opened up again and it has made a huge difference for me. I definitely have that little buzz again of feeling a connection to everyone.
What sets Plaid apart from other places you have worked?
I think what sets Plaid apart from other places I have worked is how expressly mission-oriented and ethically seriously people take their jobs. What I mean by this is that although people are driven to do technically good work, there is a further emphasis on the impact they are making on the world. This collective mindset gives me so much faith in the future of Plaid. Trust is also huge here. I trust that my colleagues are going to make good decisions, and they can trust that I'm going to make good decisions because we have this shared fundamental respect for the impact we can have; both good and bad.
Describe Plaid in one word.
Humble. Regardless of our reach, we don't assume that we're going to win, which I think has positively shaped who we are as people. Because of this we work a lot harder and are more thoughtful about the things we build because we want to absolutely nail the opportunities that we take on. I think it changes how we talk to each other. It means there's a pretty low ego environment.
What were you like as a child? What were you passionate about or interested in?
I have always been a relentlessly curious person. Growing up I needed to know everything and was constantly asking questions. I also consider myself a generalist of sorts - in the best sense of the word, where I get joy out of splitting my time between a bunch of different things. And so I was a dancer, I played the saxophone, and I played some sports. Was I the best at any one of those things? Absolutely not! But, being part of different activities allowed me to meet new people and try interesting things along the way. Learning new things has always brought me a lot of joy. I think curiosity is a big part of my life.
Describe your journey into Product. How did you choose that career?
I've often described my background to get here as pretty alternative. I think it's easy for people to feel like they don't have a path to product if they didn't study computer science in college, but there are plenty of us who didn't and still ended up working in this role!
Originally, I wanted to be a journalist when I went to university. I studied film, television, and media. I was interested in documentary filmmaking, but upon graduation optimized for a position with a bit more structure and found myself in management consulting. I really enjoyed consulting and wanted to treat that time almost like a sampler platter of different industries, different countries, and different kinds of projects. I felt a particular interest in all of the tech projects that I worked on and decided to pursue something in that space next.
I then took a strategy role at a big tech company. This was a great opportunity for me to leverage my strategy experience from consulting and to make way for learning about how a big tech company works. How do decisions get made? What are the challenges or risks? This experience was really cool because even a small improvement to their product suite touched the lives of a lot of people. It was also special to have the opportunity to work on something that was so core to my experience with the internet growing up and getting a behind-the-scenes look at how everything is made.
What sparked your interest in product?
The team that I was on did a mix of product projects and operational projects. I knew that out of the two, I was better at and more energized when I was working on product projects. There were also a few projects that I worked on where I wasn't explicitly the PM, but I was having to sort of step in at times and work with the team as if I was a product manager. And I was getting feedback from PMs that I worked with saying things like, "I think you'd be really good at this. You're very empathetic. You're good at working with a team. Your instincts on business are right. You should consider moving into Product”.
As somebody who struggles with imposter syndrome, that feedback was invaluable to me. I feel lucky that my teammates expressed their support and encouraged me to pursue product because otherwise, I think I would've talked myself out of it.
When it came to my next career move, I knew I wanted to become a product manager. I considered staying at that company, but felt that the things I spiked on, like empathy, talking to customers, and making sure that the people on my team are happy and motivated might be a better fit at a smaller company. When I interviewed at Plaid and saw that we had a really diverse set of PMs, people who came from a lot of different backgrounds and brought totally different skill sets to the table, made me feel a lot more confident that I could make an impact and learn from my peers.
What advice would you give someone who is exploring career opportunities?
The recurring theme for me has always been variety and experience – whenever I've had a choice about what I do next, I always lean towards the one that will help me learn more, or experience something new. I think this makes me a better product manager in general. Having curiosity and empathy for other people's experiences also informs what we should focus on and how we should prioritize things. A big part of how I got here is not necessarily picking a linear direct path from point A to point B, but choosing things that I thought would be interesting and motivating along the way.
What made you want to work at Plaid, and how did you make it a reality?
I sometimes refer to my experience interviewing at Plaid like falling in love! During each stage of my interview process, I felt a greater connection to Plaid’s mission, the people, and the opportunity ahead of me. I left each conversation with Plaid team members feeling kind of giddy – they clearly loved what they did, were super smart, had a good sense of humor, and were thoughtful and caring about me. I had been dubious about going to a smaller company because although I wanted to work somewhere where I could be scrappy and make decisions and ship things, I was worried that if I went somewhere really small, I wouldn't have the same level of impact and scale that you can get at a really big company. However, the more I learned about Plaid, the more I understood the impact and reach that our products have on consumers’ lives.
I do believe wholeheartedly that falling in love with the team and really feeling like the culture was a place where I would be happy was what sold me. Everyone that I met was incredibly smart, but also really funny and humble, and showed a lot of thoughtfulness and empathy in relation to me when I was interviewing. I knew I wanted to be part of this team. I mean, by the time it got to the stage where they gave me an offer, I was totally smitten with the company!
Plaid is a high-performance environment. How do you unwind?
I’m a big believer in making things in my downtime like knitting, embroidery, painting, or baking. Using my hands really relaxes me, and it’s so satisfying to see physical progress after spending a few hours on something. The latest big project I finished was a scarf that I slowly knitted over 2021, where each row represented that day’s temperature – it’s knitwear, data visualization, and a journal all in one. During the holidays I usually knit my friends a pair of socks or a hat and then mail it to them :)
I'm from New Zealand, so I'm still ultimately a nature girl. Getting out into nature and going hiking grounds me even when things are intense at work. I also love to read and probably go through at least 60 books a year.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
The best piece of advice I've been given is: do the things only you can do. That's been a good reminder for me to recognize the things I'm uniquely good at, and lean into them. It's also prompted me to regularly take inventory of the things that aren't bringing me joy, or someone else would really excel at, and find other owners for them. Like most things in life, I find my job is all about finding the right balance between maintaining my energy reserves and feeding my enthusiasm, and this advice has helped me get better about prioritizing where I spend that time and energy.