March 06, 2019
François Chu on the unique learning opportunities at Plaid
Updated on November 19, 2019
How did you come to the realization that you wanted to be an engineer?
As a kid, I wanted to be an astrophysicist or a lawyer. Then my cousin, who is much older, suggested that I consider a career in engineering given my science and math skills. I quickly realized that it could be a captivating path. I liked the idea of understanding the world, deconstructing it, finding the rules and laws of nature and, from there, creating and building things.
Were you always so curious?
Growing up in a suburb of Paris, I lived across from a library. I often found myself there, reading books that explained how the world works. I still distinctly remember slowly going through the Library of the Universe, a book series by Isaac Asimov about planets, stars, galaxies...it was very stimulating.
You studied at the prestigious École Polytechnique, where military service is a requirement. What was that experience like?
I ended up in the military police in the countryside of France, which functions more like a sheriff’s department there. My main assignment was to design a flooding plan for the area I served—how to reallocate police staff to make sure that they had electricity and communication lines to help the general population in times of emergency. I also became involved in field operations, which included investigating potential crimes to chasing drug dealers.
How did you decide to spend a year studying at Carnegie Mellon?
My school is very specific that students’ final year has to be completed somewhere else, and I knew I wanted to go to the United States. At the same time, I became interested in the intersection of computer science and neuroscience and learned that Carnegie Mellon has a really good program in human-computer interaction.
Your first job out of school was software engineer at Google in Mountain View, California. How did that experience serve you?
Google is a great place to get hands-on experience in both engineering and product management best practices, and I feel very lucky to have gone through that and learned from extremely knowledgeable coworkers. At the same time, I wanted a faster-paced environment where there's more new things to build. I think that's what ultimately guided my decision to leave.
When you left Google, you took some time off to evaluate your next move. Tell us about that time in your life.
I took about a year and a half off and traveled— to Taiwan, Croatia, Hungary, Denmark, New Zealand, Germany, Israel, Morocco. It was nice to really engage with the world. Between locations, I would come back to San Francisco. I would spend time here with friends, reading, working on my own projects, going to the gym, and trying to learn how to cook, which turned out to be a failure.
What did you learn?
It's easy to get caught up in a routine, trying to optimize one's life around narrow metrics of career and success. Taking this break felt like breaking out of a cage, as if I finally started to understand the important things in life. I spent a lot of time writing down my life goals, things I wanted to learn and experience, which were not necessarily clear before.
That’s when I realized that I wanted to join a startup, somewhere fast-paced but also with some structure. I started looking, and that’s when I received an email from Zach, Plaid’s CEO, asking if I wanted to speak with him about opportunities there. I had no idea what Plaid was but agreed to chat since I had a lot of free time.
What sold you on Plaid?
During the interview process, I remember thinking, "Wow, everyone here is so nice." But maybe too nice. Like, are they faking it? But after multiple rounds of conversation with Zach and other folks at Plaid, I realized everyone is genuinely that nice, which is a testament to how happy they are here.
Then there’s Plaid’s mission around empowering companies to improve people’s financial lives. I think the timing is right for the fintech industry to mature, and I think Plaid is very well positioned to tackle a lot of the problems the industry presents. That’s what drew me from a career perspective.
Another thing that's awesome about Plaid is the diversity of backgrounds. My coworkers have such interesting and varied life journeys to learn from. That continues to delight me.
Outside of the office, how do you maintain the commitment to introspection you made during your time off?
Last year, I started spending more time improving my meditation skills. I try to meditate 45 minutes every day when I wake up. I don't do anything guided. It's 45 minutes of me experiencing my breathing. It is a big investment of time, but I get so much back from being more present and focused. Overall, I get more things done, and I feel that life is more vivid.
By slowing down and being very introspective, I am better able to appreciate the nuances of my consciousness. Then, in situations where emotions are high, I’m able to pause and tune into what’s really happening in my mind and body. Obviously, I'm not all the way there. I'm reading a book to help me in my practice, and there are ten stages to enlightenment. I'm at something like stage four.
Rumor has it you’ve also recently taken up the violin. How’s that going for you?
We’ve had two recitals so far. The first time, it was me and a bunch of six- to nine-year-olds and their parents. I was too self-conscious to invite my friends. At the end, some of the parents came up to me and told me I did very well. It was kind of funny.
The second time, I invited a few close friends, and they were very supportive. It was intimidating but gratifying to show that I was making some progress. It also encouraged me to be more diligent about practicing. When I took up the violin, my goal was to learn to play Bach’s Chaconne. When I confided that to my teacher, she replied: "Yeah, maybe in 10 years..." So, it looks like I have a ways to go.