August 20, 2021
Building a new future: My path to becoming an engineering apprentice at Plaid
My story of becoming a software engineer at Plaid started in an entirely different field.
Out of college with degrees in finance and economics, I had landed a job at a small fintech startup in Product Operations crunching numbers, managing spreadsheets, and chatting with clients at financial firms. Growing tired of manual data work, I taught myself Python in my free time to explore spreadsheet automation and string manipulation that would’ve taken hours to do by hand.
As I created algorithms and applications that completed work in a fraction of a second, I felt the philosophical appeal of having the infinite possibility of creation at my fingertips. Every time I pressed compile in anticipation of seeing if my code had worked, it had an addictive feedback loop of an arcade game. I came home every day after a full day of work to dive deeper into coding, and began to realize that I enjoyed it much more than my actual finance job.
I had originally chosen finance as a career because my immigrant family didn’t have much growing up, and I was convinced that I had to make lots of money and connections in a business field in order to create something on a large scale that could help others.
This motivation stemmed from my core. When I was in elementary school, I saw the negative effects on my parents when they were unable to visit sick loved ones in South Korea due to our economic situation. That experience, accreted on top of many others throughout my life, made me understand the heartbreak of financial hardship. As I grew up, my background honed in a desire for me to do something to improve the lives of everyone.
With this desire in mind, I immersed myself in economics academia during college, chatting and reading with my research professor at my school’s economic think tank. At the time, I had drawn the conclusion that to create the grand development projects that I had read about, it took money and influence that I didn’t have. I entered finance thinking it was the only way to achieve my goal.
But once I began to lean into my late-night coding projects, I realized that I could create anything I wanted without immense wealth or a well-to-do network, and that the reach of digital products meant that I could influence the lives of an enormous number of people. There was something very cosmically beautiful in the fact that the only thing that limited my coding projects was my own imagination.
After a long night of experimenting with an NLP algorithm to automate data matching, I realized that I wanted to pursue coding full-time. I quit my finance job the next day, right before the worst of the pandemic shutdowns.
I entered a virtual bootcamp where I coded for twelve hours a day, six days a week. After I graduated, Plaid hosted a virtual webinar for the Apprenticeship Program. Plaid interested me because its mission was to enable financial access in a way that was not possible before. One of the main takeaways from my economics training during college was that the ability to ascertain information between economic parties encouraged efficient investment allocation, increasing wealth for all in the process.
Plaid’s vision spoke to me: In high school, I had created a bizarre online business in which I sold a certain plant species for aquarium enthusiasts. As a high school sophomore, I had really wanted to buy a nice pair of Nikes, and the absence of money at the time made me explore creative ways to make it. Looking back, I understood that financial infrastructure over the web had made this possible. By building financial products at Plaid, I had an opportunity to help people uplift themselves in a similar way that I had.
The interview process for the Apprenticeship Program was pleasantly holistic. The coding assessments focused on problem solving ability rather than obscure algorithmic knowledge, and most interviews focused on my connection with the team, the company, and most importantly, the work of software engineering itself. During a final ninety minute technical assessment, I remember having lots of fun as I worked through a coding challenge together with my interviewer.
After I passed Plaid’s interviews and accepted my offer, I found that the Apprenticeship Council structured its program to ease the apprentices into their new careers. Because I had a strong interest in working on an emerging product, my manager thoughtfully placed me on the Income team, whose product was still in the pre-launch stage. I had daily meetings with my mentor, as well as frequent check-ins with management to ensure I had support while I worked on projects.
The level of autonomy and trust that my team gave to me from the beginning was striking. I was encouraged to speak up not just in regards to lines of code, but also our design and product strategy.
At the beginning of my program, I had asked the head of engineering, and now Chief Technology Officer, Jean-Denis Greze (we call him JDG in short) why Plaid chose to hire folks who had no previous technical experience. His answer was that apprentices bring an infectious energy to the team, and new perspectives to engineering problems.
It was true that I brought new perspectives— I had worked directly with finance clients in my previous company as they used its tech product, and having this exposure made me suggest modifications to our product from the point of view of our end user. In addition, my background in economics research made me see our Income product through the lens of using economic development as a lever for improving the standard of living for all. I saw our product as a natural evolution to recent trends that attempt to bring more inclusivity to the financial world, like microlending. While information asymmetry was often a problem for these past ventures, it made me incredibly excited to think that Plaid could provide the tools and information for this kind of financial exchange to happen on a larger scale.
During my conversation with JDG, he had also mentioned that while there were net positives to hiring apprentices, another reason they launched the program was that it was simply the right thing to do. It was an imperative to bring more diversity of thought, perspective, and experience to the field.
I think Plaid’s Apprenticeship Program reflects Plaid’s mission in two ways: First is the conviction that— for those who want it— access is not just a nice-to-have, but a have-to-have, that we are entitled to it. This pertains to the access that Plaid’s Engineer Apprentices had to pursue an engineering career, but also to the access to their digital finances that folks gain with our products. Secondly, with trust, people can do incredible things. During my stint as an apprentice, Plaid had trusted me to offer perspectives and opinions about the trajectory of the Income product, in the same way that it trusts people to do amazing things when they are given information about their financial lives.