August 07, 2020
Plaid People: Kate Adamson
Updated on August 07, 2020
Kate Adamson is a product lead on Plaid’s Financial Identity team (also known as FIT). Over the last 5 years, Kate has played an integral role in helping build and shape the company that Plaid is today. In our latest Plaid People interview, we talk with Kate about her role, her background, and the big, off-roadmap project she was happy to lose sleep over.
What are your responsibilities as a product lead?
I’m responsible for managing the success of FIT’s products and products managers. FIT’s mission is to help consumers access financial services - like a bank account or a loan. We want to make the way that consumers apply for financial products more inclusive and more seamless. For example, our team manages Plaid’s Assets product. With Assets, consumers can control and share a digital snapshot of their asset information across accounts when applying for a loan.
Leading this team, I'm ultimately accountable for the success of the products we build in service of that mission. That means I’m helping manage investments across a portfolio of products, building our product strategies, defining and executing our roadmap, and helping make decisions around how products get built.
How has your role evolved since you started at Plaid?
When Plaid had 25 employees, I was doing anything and everything that needed to get done—really, whatever was the most urgent and highest impact. My internal role may have been “business”, and my goal was to increase the number of both consumers and customers using Plaid through sales, marketing, partnerships - any lever under the sun. As we grew, I started focusing on sales. First as an amateur, and then learning from Paul, our now Head of Sales, who taught me everything about executing a rigorous sales process and managing a sales pipeline. In my 2 years in that function, I helped scale the team from 2 to 25. It’s now over 50 people, and an engine! In that role, I helped develop and then take to market our first product for lenders: Assets. I found that I loved the product-building process. So then I changed positions to product. There, I have helped build out our Product team. Two years ago, there were five product managers and now we have 15.
After the CARES Act was signed into law to provide financial relief during COVID-19 stay-at-home measures, you led a team at Plaid to develop a product that would make it easier for small businesses to apply for a Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan. What did that product look like?
To apply for a PPP loan, a borrower needed to calculate their historical payroll costs. This calculation can be complicated for both borrowers and lenders - confusing for the borrower to understand and difficult for the lenders to manage. We knew we could standardize and retrieve the relevant payroll data, helping the borrower to share it with a lender, and then standardize the output so that the lender could process the data more efficiently. The project itself was definitely off-roadmap, but we saw an opportunity to help do good, solve an urgent economic problem and to be there when people needed us. This project was directly aligned with Plaid's mission, which is to help increase access to the financial system, and the FIT team’s mission, which is to increase access to credit. It wasn't a business opportunity. We didn't charge anything for the use of the product.
How fast did you have to move to get the product built?
Very fast. The first tranche of PPP funds was expected to run out and not cover the full demand, so speed to market and speed of application to borrowers was essential. Our ability to streamline the process could make the difference between a small business getting money and not getting money through the program. We probably did one day of discovery and scoping. We talked to potential customers. We talked to potential partners from a payroll data access perspective. Within that day, we put together a proposal outlining what we thought the product would look like, what it would take for us to build the solution, and how we would distribute it. We got a green light from Plaid’s Head of Engineering and Head of Product, and they gave us two weeks to take the product from conception to market adoption. This served as a strong reminder about how much more opportunity and need there is to digitize financial services and how quickly Plaids from across the company came together to build something significant.
What was that experience like?
It was bananas. We worked through the weekends and got very limited sleep, but we had tons of adrenaline to keep us going thanks to the commitment of the team involved and the mission to contribute something positive during the early advent of COVID. I would send out a twice weekly email summarizing all of the happenings and updates, and the subject was always “PPP-Pressure Makes the Diamond,” -- the latter part is sort of a personal mantra of mine.
It helped that we were able to leverage a lot of Plaid’s existing infrastructure to pull it together in quite a scrappy way. The team was savvy. The result was an integration that was familiar to our small business fintech lender customers, which helped us get it adopted quickly. In the end, we helped more than a couple thousand small businesses access funds that they otherwise might not have received.
Which of the Plaid Principles resonates with you most?
“Make it better." I like it because it captures the energy and initiative of our culture, which is: if you see something that's broken, step up and fix it or if you see opportunity for improvement, take action, and be an agent of that change. The expectation here is that you will take ownership of your surroundings and improve them. Even if it’s just 1% better, you make it better.
What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in Washington, D.C. I was raised by two lawyers. I’ve danced all my life and was, effectively, a pre-professional dancer. I actually spent more time at the Washington Ballet each week than I did at my high school. I could dance before I could walk, so in some ways, I've always been a performer and an artist. I appreciate that creative side of my brain, and hopefully it has translated to some of the product work that I do.
How did you go from pre-professional dancer to your current line of work?
I also really liked math and science, so I went to Princeton to study engineering and then transitioned into economics with a minor in dance. It was very tough to do extracurriculars as an engineer, and I wanted a broader educational experience that allowed me to do both.
What made you want to work for Plaid?
The people and the product.
At JP Morgan, a colleague and I began exploring what's next in our careers, and we were comparing notes on early-stage fintech companies. He ended up joining Plaid and told me how great the team was and mentioned that it was only 13 employees at the time. Due to its strong reputation from both a brand and product perspective, I had thought Plaid was this big company. Joining a lean, high-growth startup and team sounded like the right career challenge to me. I was convinced it was the right choice once I spoke to members of the team.
How did you turn that interest into a job opportunity?
I had a call with Zach, one of Plaid’s co-founders and CEO, and I left the conversation energized. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was so excited about the future of the company and the consumer-first mentality that Plaid still believes in. But when I asked to interview for a role, I was told that it wasn’t the right time for a generalist business hire. They didn't tell me no, but they didn't tell me yes either. So, I continued to interview at other companies, but nothing was as exciting to me as Plaid. When another company flew me to San Francisco for an interview, I emailed Carl, who's now our Head of Growth, and asked to meet with them while I happened to be in town. Thankfully, Carl took the meeting. I shared all the ways that I could help contribute to building Plaid and my honest take: that it would be a mistake if he didn't hire me.
Did you get the job then?
Not quite. He wasn’t sold, yet. Next up was a take-home case study. It was an opportunity to continue to try to prove my stuff. After that conversation in San Francisco, I needed to fly to Scotland for my sister's graduation from the University of Edinburgh, and I completed the take-home from there. In Scotland, I was surrounded by plaid everywhere—the fabric design, like Scottish tartan plaid. I took it as a sign. When I flew to San Francisco from Scotland for my final-round interviews, I brought some plaid souvenirs back with me to convey my enthusiasm for the company and the mission. I was committed to leaving a positive impression. And I guess something along the way worked!
How’s your work-from-home setup these days?
I've been mostly working from Florida, but I am currently working from my parents’ house in the mountains of North Carolina. My corona “pod” is my family. I have been working from a forgotten chair at a forgotten table. It's all not very ergonomic. That said, I have a really amazing view of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains from my desk. That - and getting to spend time with family - are major perks.
How are you keeping yourself busy at your parents’?
Because I’m working from the East Coast, I am often free in the mornings, so, in addition to trying to sustain some fitness, I've been helping my parents move. We’re using it as an opportunity to go through a lot of their accumulated artifacts, old notes, books of meaning. My dad calls them his “friends”. I’ve been revisiting a lot of their life, which has honestly been really special.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
It's something like, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit." I like it because it asks you to focus on impact, not glory. Change is what matters. It also speaks to the idea that teams accomplish things, not individuals. I think it’s consistent with the importance of continuously training and inspiring those around you to do the job better than you can. That's a lesson I’ve learned at Plaid.