October 30, 2018
Plaid People: Angela Zhang
Updated on November 19, 2019
Plaid engineering manager Angela Zhang has a penchant for pushing herself to learn and grow, but she never loses track of the team or having fun in the process. In our latest Plaid People interview, she discusses graduating from MIT in just three years, the value of bright green tracksuits, and why a sandwich is never safe when her dog is around--even if that sandwich belongs to her boss’s boss.
When you joined Plaid, you came on as a software engineer. Just six months later, you took the role of engineering manager. What was that transition like?
As a software engineer, I spent most of my day writing code and building stuff—a tool, a bank integration, a new system. Now, as an engineering manager, some of my time still goes into coding, but I also spend most of my time thinking about the people on my team as well as general processes. On the people side, how can I best support the engineers on the team? What are they blocked on? What projects are most aligned with their career goals and interests? On the processes side, how should we go about recruiting and interviewing full-time engineers and interns? How do we define our team strategy and roadmap for the next year? How do we make team meetings useful and relevant to everyone?
What do you look forward to most about going to work every day?
I work on the data science and infrastructure team at Plaid, and my team is just amazing. We own matching bright green Adidas tracksuits. Our new data analyst, Pau, teaches Core40 on the side. After she signed on to join the team, we all surprised her by showing up to her 6 a.m. workout class wearing our tracksuits. Last quarter, we went to Salt Lake City for a three-day team offsite and wound up riding electric scooters 4.5 miles while wearing mermaid leggings (long story) to a board game store.
We have a lot of fun, but we also do a lot of great work. Everyone has really high ownership over the systems our team owns, and everyone is always willing to jump in and do whatever is the highest impact and needs to be done. It’s just this really supportive and friendly environment. I look forward to coming in and working with this team of people every single day.
That’s awesome. What brought you to Plaid in the first place?
When a friend first told me about Plaid, I googled it and was shocked to learn that this small startup I just heard about was used by all of these fintech apps that I use on a regular basis—Venmo, Coinbase, Robinhood, Betterment, Gusto, Abacus, etc. The idea of working on a small team to enable products that I personally benefited from was really compelling to me. So, when a Plaid recruiter reached out to me a few months later, I was intrigued to learn more.
As I started getting to know Plaid, I realized how extremely rare it is for a startup at this stage to have already found product-market fit and to be growing at this superlinear rate. Not only does hyper growth lead to interesting technical problems and scaling challenges, it also means there are always more things to do than there are people, so I knew I would have the opportunity to constantly push myself in terms of learning and personal career growth. That is really rewarding.
After meeting some people at Plaid, I was blown away by how thoughtful and intelligent and approachable everyone is, both about technical decisions and about things like hiring, project planning, and retrospectives, making sure people across different functions get to know each other, etc. I knew this would be a place where I would love going to work every day and also learn a lot from everyone around me.
Sounds like the perfect opportunity for someone who is motivated by challenge and growth. What were you doing before Plaid?
I was a software engineer at Quora for three and half years, working on a range of different teams, from building user-facing features as a full-stack product engineer, to performance engineering on the infrastructure team, to building and maintaining data pipelines and A/B test frameworks on the data infrastructure team. Before that, I studied computer science at MIT.
Rumor has it you finished MIT early in only three years. How did you manage that?
Ha. That was definitely not planned.
When I first got to MIT as a freshman, I looked around and felt like I was very far behind all of my peers who had taken advanced math and CS classes, completed impressive research and internships, and won international programming competitions. I went to a public high school in Massachusetts and took AP computer science class through Virtual High School because my school didn’t have any computer science classes. Because I wanted to catch up to my classmates at MIT, I would take anywhere between 5 to 8 classes every semester and did undergraduate research and other projects on the side.
By the time the fall semester of junior year came around, I looked at the classes I needed to graduate and realized I had already taken most of them. So, I figured I would graduate early and stay at MIT for a fourth year to get my master’s degree. That same year, I did a year-long, very involved research project and learned that I was much more excited about the immediate user impact I could have working in the industry than the novel techniques that I would be exploring in academic research. I decided to interview for full-time jobs instead, and the rest is history.
Impressive! When you aren’t pushing your limits, what do you do to unwind?
Well, I adopted a dog from Berkeley Animal Care Services about six months ago, so, a lot of my weekends involve going to different parks and beaches around San Francisco with him.
Aside from that, I spend a lot of time with my friends—going to dinner, concerts, skiing, climbing, etc. A good friend and I also run a breakfast book club. Book club is a bit of a misnomer because we don’t read a book ahead of time and discuss it. We pick a 15 to 20 page article beforehand and have printouts for everyone. As we eat breakfast and read the article, there are different checkpoints where we'd stop and talk about what we learned and how our experiences agree or disagree with the points made in this article. And because we all come from different backgrounds and roles and industries, we get some pretty diverse perspectives on things.
Last but certainly not least, tell us about your dog.
His name is Mack. That was the name the shelter assigned him, and I kept the name because he looked and acted like those 18-wheeler Mack trucks. Plus, he already somewhat responded to that name, which was a nice bonus. Mack is a 100-pound rottweiler. Despite the size, he’s the most loving and sweet dog, and he’s really well behaved. Except when there’s food around. During my second week at Plaid, Mack met our CTO and co-founder William for the first time. As William stopped to say hi, Mack jumped up and stole his sandwich right out of his hand. Now, I keep Mack on a much tighter leash whenever I spot food nearby.
Mack comes to work with me every Friday, so you can find him at the Plaid office if you visit.