May 17, 2018
Plaid People: Joy Zheng
What do you do at Plaid?
I am a backend engineer here at Plaid. I just switched over to the Core Services team, which is responsible for a lot of services in the middle of our infrastructure—between what our clients see and the backend of all of our data sources.
How would you describe Plaid in a few words?
Super impact-driven. There’s always a sense that there are so many different projects that we could be working on and we’re trying to make sure we’re focusing on the most important things. Second, I would say that the people here are very generous with their time. They are always willing to speak with you or explain something that they’ve done or are working on. And last, I would say, “humble.”
There are a lot of companies with cool products, but they’re not necessarily what I would want to work on. There was a clear problem that Plaid was solving and making better, and it was very clear to me what the benefits of that were. This also overlaps with the engineering work that I find most interesting. Then, when I came in and met the team here, it made my decision much easier as this was one of the most thoughtful groups of people that I have ever met. I think maybe one thing that does not necessarily come across initially is how much humor and fun there is when you work here.
What excites you about your work?
The nice thing about Plaid is that I have had the opportunity to work on a variety of projects. Some of those have been immediately, “This is really cool, and I want to keep doing it.” Others have been, “Okay, I’m really glad I did this, and I’ve learned a lot, but now I know that this area is not as interesting to me.” Career-wise, it’s been very useful in just helping me learn what I am most passionate about.
I moved back to Core Services because I wanted to work on that more. Core Services is almost like the gap between all of the other parts. There’s one end where the data comes from—the bank integration— and there is the one end where data exists, which is the API and the product itself. We fill in and work on a lot of those things in that space. I like being in that layer because my work is directly related to the product, but there’s that layer between you and the direct product, and we’re just trying to figure out how to build the right abstractions there.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned here?
Prioritization. I’m definitely a perfectionist by default, but what I’ve learned at Plaid is that if you don’t let some of it go, you’re never going to get through the important things. In a broader context of my role, on the general engineering side with systems, it’s easy to work on things individually, but it’s even easier to make really efficient changes if you understand the broader context of how the service is going to be used. It's the same thing when we’re talking about customer-facing changes. To be successful, it’s important to have an understanding of the consumer and our clients.
What's a typical day like for you?
It’s busy! I get in at 8:30 AM, eat breakfast, have coffee and run through emails. There’s usually some type of “team sync” in the morning a couple days a week, and then just work time. With Core Services, right now I mostly work with the direct team, but when I was working in lending, it was a super cross-functional team involving the business side of Plaid.
We have a nice open office with a lot of couch seating pods, and I work all over the place. I got rid of my chair because I figured that would force me to stand at my desk, but…. then I just ended up on the couches. [Laughs.] I really enjoy working in an open space with people talking around me.
When you were in college, you participated in Harvard’s Privacy Tools Project researching differential privacy in a mathematical setting. What intrigued you about that project, and does it relate to fintech?
One of the really interesting questions that the project was trying to get at was, “What does privacy actually mean?” How do we define privacy, how do we measure privacy in a quantifiable way? I think a lot of the agreement there was that we don’t actually know what the right way to do it is, in a way that’s usable in practice and also very simple.
[In fintech] I think there is a lot more consciousness now on the part of consumers about the fact that your data is out there—what are other people using it for? I think there will be more demand for transparency from the products consumers are using.
You represented Plaid at last year’s Grace Hopper Celebration. What resonated with you most at the event?
There were definitely some cool talks! One was a panel of a bunch of folks who had worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign, and they were talking about how, for that, you build all this tech knowing you’re just going to throw it out three or six months later, and you’re very much building for speed more than building to last, which is different from a lot of other engineering problems. There was another interesting panel about space tech, which—here, we can deploy things and run our code pretty immediately and constantly, but in that arena—the price of just doing one deployment is so high. Hearing how things change in that environment is really awesome.
What are you typically doing outside of work?
I do a lot of baking and cooking. I wander around the farmer’s market every weekend. I keep wanting to approach cooking more scientifically, but I haven’t quite gotten there, so I just end up trying different things for fun. Baking is my preference, because then you can bring everything in to share!
Are you involved in any Plaid extracurriculars?
I just led a Plearning (Plaid + Learning) class teaching colleagues how to make truffles at the office, and I also run Plaid’s book club. The group varies by literature; I’ve been trying to alternate between fiction and nonfiction, so the group attracts slightly different people from book to book, and there are always some constant people, too. We send out a survey with books that were suggested, then we pick the book and read it, and to conclude we gather together a month or so later to discuss over lunch!
You’re an avid reader. Can you tell us about your book website, and about the last book you really enjoyed?
The website was one of those side projects where, two years ago, I registered a domain, but I didn’t do anything with it, so I finally decided I should just do it. It’s joy.fyi. I wanted to get better about the variety of authors I’ve been reading for a long time, and I wanted to track that, so I started doing that with the website. I track statistics around when I’m reading, author demographics, page length, format, genre, etc. One of the most recent book club books we read, “The Financial Diaries,” was really interesting because it highlighted some Plaid customers, so it was a deeper view of the problems they are solving and the awesome work they’re doing. The other is from my own side-reading, “The Fifth Season.” It’s part of a trilogy, and the first two books won the Hugo Award. I like sci-fi, but I’m really picky about it, so this was one of the few for me that was just a really great new sci-fi book.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a software engineer?
Hmm. There’s all the baking, but I’m not sure I’d actually enjoy it as much if I were doing it every day at 6 a.m. instead of just tinkering around on the weekends! Maybe I’d be out in D.C. My minor was in political science.