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While some companies keep their executives at an arm’s reach from employees, at Earnest we focus on making our executive team involved in projects, and accessible to Earnies as they develop their own careers. Today we wanted to highlight Pamela Rice, CTO at Earnest, in this Executive Q&A
Before joining Earnest in February 2019, Pamela worked at Capital One, OnDeck, and PayPal in leadership roles, shaping how each company onboarded a new technology strategy to better function in the future.
We wanted to ask her a few questions about her role at Earnest, the challenges she is excited to lead our teams through solving, and the advice she would give to anyone building their career in engineering.
What Drew You to a Career in Technology?
I’ve always been technologically inclined, building radios in grade school and coding in high school. My father worked in electronic surveillance and I loved working on circuits and engines with him. What appealed to me then, and still appeals to me now, is the art of creating smart solutions to everyday problems.
Technology’s pace of change has accelerated. Now, more than ever, we all have to be hungry to learn and adapt. I am so grateful to live now and be part of a time when technology is the differentiator. Organizations that optimize towards technologies pace of change are better situated for the future. It takes work upfront and believing the investment in automation is worth it, but once you get there, the unleashing of innovation is palpable.
What’s Your Focus Right Now at Earnest? Are We in a Building or Refining Place as an Engineering Organization?
Earnest is focused on optimizing for what we do best, creating great student lending products, while also operationalizing software development and our platforms.
Software development is a craft. You can do it super clunky, using manual processes, tolerating bugs, and missed outcomes with increased costs for building and repairing. The alternative is to invest in automation and high engineering standards, and that is what we’re focused on. This year we’re moving from about 60 releases per week to a goal of 200 releases per week through automation, while also moving from taking 16 minutes to test a change to one minute with more coverage. These changes enable developers to reduce the time they start coding a feature to getting it to production from about ten days to about three. That not only fundamentally changes the kind of projects and timelines you can take on as a team, but the mindset of making changes.
One key project we are working on is the rebuilding of our Servicing Experience, because servicing, not just the initial loan agreement, needs a beautiful and thoughtful experience for borrowers. We are using modern open source technologies like Node.js and React to deliver rich experiences, built with microservices in containers and 100% on the cloud. The way we are building this is feature by feature while still linking to the old site for existing features. We are building with a rich set of product analytics and A/B testing capabilities up front so that we can get rapid feedback for our next set of features.
We know debt can be emotional and overwhelming, but ‘out of sight, out of mind’ isn’t something we want to build for clients. Because we get feedback after each feature release, clients are playing a key role in shaping the features we build and how we provide borrower education within the servicing experience. Earnest wants to remove the fear of looking at their student loan debt by breaking things down in simple terms and taking actions to show them we are on their side, like using text messages for reminders and letting them easily change payment amounts and dates.
We are also focused on making our systems self patching so that the microservices are logical and easy to understand. As part of this, we are expanding from 20 to 30 microservices in the next six months. What’s really great about this is we are all aligning to a North Star architecture, with engineering standards we have set and automatically check for code quality and vulnerabilities at the time a change is suggested for review with tools like SonarCloud and Synk.
Finally, we are focusing on culture and environment within Engineering where people are constantly learning and constantly helping each other. I think when we look back in a year where we are today, it’s going to be a difference between night and day, just like last year looks completely different from where we are today.
What Are Some Technology Challenges Specific to Fintech?
So fintech, much like legal services or healthcare, has done more adoption of emerging technology, but there’s still an awful lot left. If you think about it, the basic premise in fintech is that there is a central keeper of the truth, and that is a bank. Blockchain and crypto were built to disrupt that, and we get to apply these concepts to how we build products at Earnest while using emerging technologies that enable our products.
It is also important to remember that something like 95% of all currency today is digital and only 5% of it is actual physical paper money. So how do we make financial transactions instance free? How do we make sure that people have access to the latest information about their accounts at all times? These questions might not be unique to fintech, but when you are a part of someone’s financial life the stakes are that much higher.
I think we will see blockchain solutions in even bigger pockets throughout the next ten years, so how do we optimize that and get ahead of the curve as a lender? We move towards blockchain and crypto models. One example now is our migration from Monolith to services, we are implementing the principle of blockchain that you never alter the truth, you append it and the truth is always there for anyone to verify.
What Made You Pick Earnest?
There were a couple of compelling features about Earnest that made me interested, but I also wanted to make sure I was the right fit for the needs Earnest had. When I became aware of Earnest it had just been acquired, which can be a shock to a company and the culture. A lot of technical debt and attrition followed the change. My experience is primarily in growing teams, stabilizing platforms, exciting people with the future, and refreshing the mission. So Earnest was a clear fit for me and I knew I could be successful in helping this organization.
The second reason I was interested in joining was the focus on student lending. I put myself through three degrees as a single parent, working two jobs most of the time. I know how difficult it is to get a degree even without those added factors. I know how scary it is when you don’t know if you can get that next loan to finish the degree you are working so hard towards, and that your future and your kids’ future depends on it. Helping other students in that space touched my heart and I knew that my work at Earnest could have a big impact on others.
Those things all combined with the fact that Earnest has a great culture, a great leadership team, a great company. We hire really amazing and diverse people and focus on a learning and fun culture.
What Advice Do You Wish You Received Before Your First Executive Role?
If I were to look back at an earlier version of me, the one thing that I would have told myself is that nobody gives you permission to be an executive. There isn’t a line in the sand that you cross and somebody says, “You’re an executive now, here’s your magic badge.”
Each day you have a choice to say to yourself, today is the day that I’m going to start acting like an executive. And what that means is precisely what you want it to mean. For me, it was being effective, positive, and collaborative, but you get to define what that means and start acting that way today.
Waiting until somebody promotes you into a role is too late to act the part. Act the part today so that that role becomes an eventuality, not an aspiration.
What Are You Doing in the Fight Against Racism?
First, this is long overdue and I am both happy we are finally talking about it and sad that it has taken so long. There is so much to do. When we looked at all the options, one small step was staring us in the face every time we wrote a technical design or met with vendors. Engineering terminology is full of racist terminology. Databases use a notion of “master/slave”, we have “white/black” lists. There are many more examples. To help each other grow in this space we have decided to actively search out terms that are racist and biased, and create new terms we will use and hold each other accountable for. In this way, we are both able to actively think about what we are saying and the impact on others, as well as change our approach. If we can help each other to recognize and talk about systemic racism including our terminology we will be taking a step in the right direction.