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December 16, 2020

Darius Simmons on the importance of finding your community

Madeline Perretta

What is your role?
I'm a Software Engineer on the Financial Identity team (FIT for short).

Describe what you do in a few sentences.
The FIT team works on products that help users easily understand and utilize their financial accounts. My job is to get these products from an initial idea to something that is ready to be used by millions of people. This work includes creating products that increase efficiency for verifying income and employment as well as products that allow users to easily switch where their paycheck goes. Think about how tedious it can be to apply for a loan or an apartment and then imagine easily doing the process through just a few clicks!

Plaid's mission is to unlock financial freedom for everyone. What does this mean to you?
It means we recognize that the financial system is flawed and a lot of these flaws affect people in various ways. At Plaid we build products that empower innovators to materially improve people's lives. We want to take the financial system into the 21st century. 

What do you love most about working at Plaid?
I like that I'm able to have a positive impact on people's financial lives. I'm heavily driven by helping people and feel fortunate to work on products that are changing people's lives for the better. 

What sets Plaid apart from other places you’ve worked?
Plaid cares a lot about employee health. This past year we have experienced many different challenges that have taken a huge emotional toll and I feel that Plaid has continually stepped up to provide support for these issues. We know we are not perfect, but we also understand that every experience is a learning opportunity for us to be better. 

How would you describe Plaid in one word?
Hungry. Although it is a little hard to describe a whole company with just one word I do think we're really hungry to accomplish our mission. Our determination to make a difference in the world is the connective piece that ties us all together.

What Plaid principle resonates with you the most, and why?
Make it better. At Plaid we have a culture where if you want to improve or fix something, you are encouraged to do so. I have definitely taken this principle to heart quite a few times! I also want to make things better in the world and in my community, so this principle speaks to me both professionally and personally.

Let’s dive into your personal experiences.

Where did you grow up and what was that experience like? 
I grew up in Frisco, Texas for most of my childhood. It's a suburb north of Dallas. It was an interesting experience because the area and the schools I went to didn't have many Black people, so I was often in spaces where I was the only Black kid. Although this was challenging, as I had to hide certain parts of myself, I learned how to adjust and code switch. I am hopeful that this country changes such that in the future, kids can just be themselves without fear.

Can you describe your journey into engineering? 
From an early age I  knew I wanted to do something math or science related. In middle school and high school I was always passionate about learning both subjects, however, once I got to college and took my first computer science class, I was sold.  After that, I pursued software engineering.

What made you want to work at Plaid and how did you make it a reality?
When I first researched Plaid and stumbled upon the product docs, I could tell there was so much thought put into creating them. Just from the docs, Plaid seemed like a put together company. The more time I spent learning about the industry and the product, I became really excited. I personally rely on various fintech apps, so the prospect of working at a company that directly impacts my life further fueled my desire to work at Plaid. 

What was the interview process like? What happened at your final onsite interview?
For the most part, it was pretty smooth! A friend from college actually saw that I had applied and reached out to set up time to discuss Plaid and how I could be a strong fit. This conversation went great and definitely built up my excitement to be in the process. The onsite also went well. I was really nervous at the beginning, but I enjoyed solving all of the interview problems throughout the day. I felt that the technical questions were more practical than abstract (in comparison to a lot of other companies). I also really liked meeting the Plaid team. When I received a call that I had an offer that same day, I was thrilled!

I know you're a founding member of Plaid's Community Resource Group, Plaids of Color (PLoC). Tell us a little about your experience.
PloC has existed for about nine months now. I started it back in February with another engineer, Marcus. We initially started with seven members and now have over 50!

During the beginning, it was more grassroots, but after George Floyd's murder and the increasing tragedies from the summer, PloC became a resource and a place for Plaids to find community. We are currently cementing our structure and building our vision for 2021. I really enjoy being a part of the process. 

Can you share how you worked through the tragedies this last summer?
Honestly, it was really hard. I went through a roller coaster of emotions and frankly, it was challenging to manage all of that in addition to my work. The positive with my role is that I build products to help people. So, keeping this in mind motivated me during the work day.  I also put a great deal of time into PloC so that I could better support the people of color here. Focusing my efforts on PloC was my way of doing what I could to improve things. We also worked with leadership to set company goals and to find ways to support the Black community. I feel my involvement really helped me focus my efforts on something bigger.  

What are some of the struggles of being Black in tech and what advice do you have for others in your position? 
Yes, happy to share my experiences and learnings. Firstly, it can become tiring to work in spaces where you are the only person of your background. Either consciously or unconsciously I change various parts of myself to further fit in. I think we can create spaces where people feel comfortable to bring themselves to work, but there are some parts of yourself you won’t bring unless you see examples of it in your environment. Additionally, in the age of technology, we are more connected than ever. Because of this it can be very hard to disconnect from what’s going on outside of work when we spend so much time working. There is a lot of pressure to avoid the noise to keep performing and this takes a huge mental toll, especially when many of your coworkers are not feeling the same emotions. 

Taking this into account, my biggest piece of advice is to know that you're not alone. There are so many people experiencing these emotions who can provide support to help you feel better. Finding my community has positively impacted my life.  I suggest reaching out to other people who can relate with some of the struggles that you’re going through. So, find that community. Whether it is in your workplace or in your general area, try to do your best to find a group of people who can support you. It is also really helpful to have a mentor who has faced these challenges and can coach you through. 

What's your single greatest passion?
At this time, my focus is doing what I can to improve the lives of Black people in America. The main way that I’m doing this right now is through mentorship. I didn’t have guidance on how to get into tech and how to best navigate the space. Now I’m in a position where I can make myself available to others where I can, whether it’s my family, friends, or friends of friends, or anyone who is trying to get into the tech industry. I am also getting involved in local politics. My biggest focus is how to end police violence.

What is the best piece of advice you have received? 
Great question. I have received a lot of advice through the years! Recently, a friend shared that, “you are the expert of your own life”. This has really stuck with me. As humans, we have a tendency to measure ourselves against others. This comparison may lead to feeling out of place or possibly insecure. But, for your own life, you are the expert. And no one else knows you better than you.

Last question here, what are you most proud of?
I generally think of myself as a fairly humble person, so this is a little tough for me to answer! I always try my best to understand the troubles and feelings of people. Connecting empathically with others is very important to me. Looking at my environment through this lens helps me become better educated on various issues, be a stronger supporter to those in need, and gain perspective on my own privilege -- which I try to never take for granted. As I grow as a person, I am most proud that I choose to lead with compassion.