November 18, 2021
Max Johnson on the power of reflection
What is your role?
I am a software engineer lead and recently started helping as an architecture council representative.
Describe what you do.
I help lead a team responsible for one of our new product initiatives. As the technical lead, I'm responsible for the technical output of the team. One of the challenges of a rapidly-growing and highly-technical team is making sure we have a long term technical strategy that everyone is bought into, which can serve as a guide during planning. I also help out as an architecture council representative which is a part-time role representing our team to the architecture council. The architecture council representatives are high level individual contributors on various teams that provide feedback or ideas of their own to ensure we are building the right technical foundations across the company.
Tell us about the culture of inclusion at Plaid.
Inclusion means different things to different people. For me personally, I think about how I can be the best leader for my team. I believe strong leadership begins with mentorship. I am acutely aware of the importance of setting my colleagues up for success by providing and being open to receiving feedback. I feel that creating space to have these conversations allows my team to grow both personally and professionally.
Furthermore, I want my team to feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work each day and to feel pride for their impact at Plaid. We set up regular team events to help people create connections and build relationships. A strong rapport helps people feel safe giving feedback, asking for help, and being themselves. I recently set up a team-specific praise channel on Slack where we can celebrate each other's day-to-day wins so that every individual feels their work is appreciated.
What do you love most about working at Plaid?
There's a lot of reasons to be excited about Plaid, but I think at the end of the day what makes me happy working here are my coworkers. I really like my team and enjoy the culture of collaboration at Plaid. In the past, I have been part of teams where people make decisions based on personal benefit or ego reasons and this usually makes it impossible to agree on some common decision framework. At Plaid, we're really good at sharing foundational values and debating in good faith, so that we can come up with rigorous solutions to problems together.
What sets Plaid apart from other places you have worked?
Since being here almost 5 years, I would have to say the engineering culture is a big part of what makes Plaid unique and why I love being here. In addition to enjoying the work I get to do with my team, I feel that overall the team is grounded in self-awareness and reflection. We are constantly reassessing our work and challenging ourselves to think bigger and better. I believe this mindset is extremely important, especially for a growing company like Plaid. There is also a great deal of transparency around how our leadership team makes decisions and how different teams within the engineering function make decisions. This transparency empowers us to push back or raise concern if we feel something isn’t scaling properly. Feeling that your perspective is valued in business decisions is pretty special.
Given you've been at Plaid for almost 5 years, how has the company changed?
When I first joined Plaid, the entire company was around 65 people and now we have over 900 people!
Though some years have passed, I will say our ethos to constantly challenge ourselves to be better is still very much true today. In the early days on the engineering team we were super scrappy. There were no teams - there was just the engineering team. Now that the org has significantly grown and is made up of focused teams, we have the ability to be more ambitious with our products, paving the way for exciting new efforts.
How has your career developed over time?
I've grown a lot as a more senior engineer and I credit that to my experience at Plaid. I’ve always been pretty good at finding gaps in our systems, but I haven’t always been good at turning that into action. It’s easy to look at a problem and feel cynical or grumpy about it, but directly expressing that can hurt morale, and not saying anything at all is unhelpful. Over the past couple of years at Plaid, I’ve learned to turn these observations into something positive and productive, by building a case for the potential impact of solving the problem, and getting others excited to tackle it. It has taken me a lot of reflection and feedback from my manager and colleagues to get here, but I am really happy that I can use this skill more productively now.
What paved the way for you to pursue engineering?
I had a lot of positive engineering role models growing up, and I’ve always loved building and creating things.
My dad is an Imagineer for Disney and has helped design rides in the Disney parks in Paris, Orlando, and Tokyo. He really is a jack of all trades. I think to do that job, you need a surface level understanding of everything. You need to understand all engineering disciplines and be ahead of the curve on new technology so you can bring them together for an artistic goal. I was always inspired by all of the cool things that he worked on.
I first tried programming when I was 11 or so, but only C++ really existed at that time so I didn’t get too far. Still, I loved the feeling of creating something out of nothing. When I was a teenager, I started doing web development for side cash, and 3D computer graphics modeling. It culminated when I was probably 16 or 17, when my friend and I built a 3D game for the iPhone together. He did most of the coding, and I did most of the graphics and modeling. It was a flight simulator game, so you tilt your phone and the plane tilts. I am pretty sure it was one of the first real 3D apps for the iPhone.
How did you learn about Plaid?
Well, our CTO, Jean-Denis, was my former manager at a previous employer and in a twist of fate, we happened to be looking for our next roles around the same time. I vividly remember chatting with him and comparing notes on companies we were pursuing. We both shared our top three companies and Plaid was on his list, but not mine. He was still in the interview process at Plaid, but had great things to say, so I added Plaid to my list and the rest is history.
What ultimately influenced your decision to join the Plaid team?
I was looking at a bunch of different criteria. I think at that point I was feeling like I had seen enough of Silicon Valley to be able to play the VC game a little bit. During interviewing, it helps to think like an investor. I was trying to answer questions like, “Do customers really want what they're building? Have they proven that? How far could this thing go?”.
Secondly, I wanted to be at a company where the engineering team is a big part of the company’s success. And lastly, to feel that I am working with top engineering talent who will challenge me to grow and produce quality work. Plaid basically knocked it out of the park on all three dimensions, so I knew I found the right place.
Plaid is a high performance environment. How do you unwind?
Let's see. I really like the outdoors. I love hiking and backpacking. I am also really into electronic music and, pre-pandemic, going to live shows and festivals.
Do you make music too?
Yeah! I'm in the process of learning how to write and mix songs and I have some of my own production equipment. I wouldn’t say I am great at it right now, but I am having fun learning something completely new and figuring out my creative process.
What is your single greatest passion?
At the end of the day, I have always been passionate about building and creating, which is why I love coding. My passion projects outside of work even include coding!
What is the best piece of advice you've received?
The number one thing that I've learned from my mentors is the value of self-reflection, which as I expressed earlier happens to be the universal mindset on engineering at Plaid. Ideally, people you work with would always acknowledge your success and provide feedback where you fell short. However, this is not necessarily the reality. People will do their best to support you and help you grow, but ultimately the onus is on you to drive these conversations. Reflection poses the opportunity for us to take a step back and to look critically at our work, career, and skills to develop a hypothesis around what could have gone better and to consider alternative solutions for the future. Through this reflection process, you are not only learning but also setting yourself up to ask meaningful questions to your peers that will warrant thoughtful responses. Instead of asking someone for general feedback, you can ask questions about specific things that you feel went well or could have gone better. Developing the muscle of reflection has been hugely beneficial as I have progressed in my career.