September 27, 2019
Erik Anstine on striking a balance between his passion for opera and programming
Updated on November 19, 2019
What does your software engineering role at Plaid entail?
I work on the Crawler team here in New York City. We build and maintain the Plaid integrations that extract data from different financial institutions. On a typical day, I might be working on a new build or tracking down bugs and solving outage issues if an institution isn’t syncing correctly. Most of my workload is based on an issue queue that comes from various support tickets or internal tools tracking institution health.
Is it gratifying work?
Solving problems for the company and our customers is really gratifying. It's like putting together a logic puzzle. We have to take a lot of imperfect data from many different sources and formats and think, “How do we get this piece of information?” and “Why didn't that work? It's still down.” When my team and I figure out the solutions to those problems, knowing there will be end-users whose financial lives will be impacted by the bug that we just fixed, it’s really cool.
What is it like working for Plaid?
It's super cliché, but the people are awesome. I enjoy my team. We work really hard, and we do high-quality work, but we also goof around.
What do you do as a team to keep up that positive morale?
Apart from the usual daily meme-ing, we have weekly social hours, and we’ll do a quarterly off-site. There’s a group of us who stay late a few nights a week and play Smash Bros. There’s also a pretty sizeable karaoke culture at Plaid. Right after the acquisition, we got fancy new video conferencing equipment in the main lounge in New York, and we quickly turned it into an impromptu YouTube karaoke party, which I think was an excellent way to break it all in. There are also official karaoke parties like at the afterparty for our tri-annual internal hackathon, Plaiderdays. I’ll usually sing Sinatra, Elvis, or Johnny Cash songs. Those are my go-tos—anything low, really. I can't do much pop music, because it doesn’t really fit my voice.
Speaking of your voice, you became a professional opera singer long before you were a software engineer. How did that come about?
I was in choir in grade school, and the more I did it, the more I liked it. When my voice changed, it dropped really low. My voice teachers heard potential in my voice and were very supportive. I participated in a high school choir camp a few summers, and that’s when I decided I wanted to make classical music at a high level. I was going to be a singer, and in my mind, opera singing was the most extreme, skillful version of that. So, I think a lot of it had to do with finding that thing I was good at and having people in my life who were supportive—people who said, “You know, if you want to do this, you could really make a go at it.”
Where did the decision to “make a go at it” take you?
After I graduated high school, I went to Germany to perform at a summer festival in Stuttgart. I was there for a month. I was eighteen. There was a stipend, and my expenses were covered. I thought it was the coolest thing. As I gained experience and learned more about opera throughout college and grad school, I realized how multifaceted it is—the combination of music, acting, performing, history, foreign language, literature, and culture all synthesized together to make this single art form. I really started honing my passion for it as much as my skill.
You have been a professional opera singer for eight years. What has been your favorite experience in that time?
For two summers, I had the privilege of performing at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. It’s like the Olympics and World Cup of opera in one. And then in 2017, I performed with the San Francisco Opera as Leporello in Don Giovanni. I was in a performance that was simulcast to Oracle Park, the baseball stadium where the Giants play. Twenty-four thousand people saw that show.
Are you still performing?
A bit less, but yes. I can't maintain a full opera schedule and work at Plaid full time. That would be insane, and I don't think either career would benefit. But I try to do two or three gigs every year. In January, I performed in Hamburg for a month. This winter, I'll be in Omaha, and next summer, I'll be in the Berkshires. Plaid is awesome about it. It’s a company that wants its employees to be happy, because happy employees do better work.
What’s left on your opera bucket list?
The top of any bass's bucket list is going to be the role of King Phillip in Don Carlo. I would also like to perform Méfistofélès in Faust or Don Giovanni. In terms of dream venues, the Met, definitely. That's a big goal, just because I'm American, and that's our great opera house. And then all the other big houses in Europe like La Scala and Covent Garden.
Why did you decide to make the transition from full-time singer to software engineer?
I had always been fairly into computers and started teaching myself to code here and there on a hobby level. Then, when I was in Zurich working for the opera hours there for a few years, I started feeling burned out. I wasn’t sure how happy I was only singing. So, I decided to move to New York, because I always wanted to live in New York. I gave myself permission to just see what happens. I started working more on coding. Briefly, I was working on my own startup. I coded 12 to 15 hours a day, only stopping to drink coffee or eat a burrito. The idea was pretty ambitious, and it didn’t take off, but I think that's what took me from hobbyist to being able to get an engineering job at a company like Quovo.
In hindsight, are you happy with your life-altering decision?
I am! I love working for Plaid and trying to find synergy between my two careers. And if it costs me more effort and hard work, to me, that's worth it. We'll see where both go—where either goes. I don't know what the future holds, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited about the work Plaid is doing. I feel like I am in a great place right now.
What are you passionate about?
I’m pretty passionate about learning new things, which I guess is how I got into programming. I’m also passionate about getting the most out of this combination tech/opera thing I’m doing. I still feel really fortunate to have figured out a way to do both. Every day, I am making this decision to pursue engineering and opera, and as long as I am making that decision, I'm going to pursue both as hard as I can.
What are you proud of?
I'm proud of coming back from being super burned out and turning that into an opportunity to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was 14 or 15. I'm proud of being a singer who is an engineer and an engineer who is a singer.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Back when I was still considering my next move, I applied to business school, thinking I might go that route. I had an admissions interview coming up, but I was also about to fly to California for that gig with the San Francisco Opera. That’s when my dad told me, “Don’t pursue anything just because you think it’s a ‘sure thing,’ because you never really know. Pursue the right thing for the right reasons.” He was referring to business school, and he was right; I saw it as a “sure thing.” I wound up not pursuing that path, and I’m really glad, because I wouldn’t still be singing, and I wouldn’t have found my way to Plaid.