FinTech Female Fridays: Meet VP Engineering at Stellar Development Foundation, Karen Chang
Karen Chang is currently the VP of Engineering and Product at Stellar Development Foundation (SDF), a non-profit organization using blockchain to unlock the world's economic potential, with a mission to create a more equitable global financial system. (Refer to this earlier post where we featured the CEO of SDF). SDF has been going through a growth spurt as an organization over the last year, from 27 to nearly 40 engineers and PMs, and more to be hired. So internally for the organization, the challenge has been scaling up people, process and org structure. "Having worked at massive corporations I’m very careful about the line between autonomy and control as well as process without overreaching into bureaucracy, and I think it’s been really fun attenuating the right balance to our growth needs and helping my managers move from managing to leadership mindset." Karen says: "Also with the recent correction in the crypto markets, we’ve taken a lot of noise out of the system, and consequently, my team can really focus on the things that matter - and for SDF that includes building out our smart contracts platform, improving interoperability by adding a bridging network to Ethereum, and focusing on critical scaling and security for our blockchain."
When asked about her perception of culture at SDF, Karen shares that a large part of the culture is shaped by having a female CEO at the helm. "It’s the only company I’ve ever worked at where diversity and inclusion is really top of mind and not just a checkbox in our culture deck. When we talk about issues like business and technical strategy, making the network available and low cost for servicing financial equity use cases is always top of mind, and it’s a guiding principle for how we make technical decisions."
Karen has a unique balance of pragmatic experience in the world of finance and technology, as well as real alignment to the goals of the mission. Karen started her career during the Web 1.0 boom in the 90s. "I was at Netscape during the heyday, and ended up leaving Silicon Valley to move to New York where I ended up working at Goldman Sachs for a decade." She closed that chapter and moved back to Silicon Valley and has been at Netflix, Salesforce and a SAAS startup that went IPO - and now in the crypto space.
Karen sees being able to map her experience and different patterns she has seen throughout her career to a smaller organization is where she can contribute. For example, she remembers living through the 2008 financial crisis, and the palpable fear on Wall Street both on an individual level - Goldman cut 10% of its workforce at the time, and the daily alarm of these massive institutions teetering, and not knowing the contagion effect of MBS’s and CDS’s defaulting. "I think we’re at an interesting cyclical pivot in the financial markets today that is creating rapid liquidity tightening conditions, and that disproportionally impacts frontier markets like crypto. We are having our own Bear Sterns moment with Terra blockchain teetering and the Luna coin effectively going to zero." Having navigated that kind of volatility in 2000 and 2008 and understanding the cyclical effects of the macro-environment helps gives Karen the context for managing the right level of engineering investment in projects in a risk-off environment. It also helps her evaluate the kind of risks in the world of DeFi and other exotic innovations in the blockchain world as she is thinking about building out the platform.
For Karen, there’s a compounding effect to certain jobs especially early in her career. "When I think about all the opportunities I had because of Netscape on my resume in the early part of my career, I think about how lucky I was to get the job, and how by some blind luck I didn’t get a job at Traveler’s Insurance company. At the time I wanted to move to New York City from SF, and if they had offered me a job, I would have taken it. What a different path that would have been!" Moving forward, one of the more challenging issues Karen sees was her transition back to a pure tech company after being at an investment bank for so long. " I was always more technical than most of my cohorts in finance, but having to go through programming and algorithmic challenges even as a manager was something I had to re-acclimate myself to do!"
More on Karen
Can you tell us about a time someone encouraged you to try a task or take on a project you didn’t think that you would know how to do/or be good at?
I had many great mentors, but one of my favorites helped me switch from infrastructure engineering to a team implementing Goldman’s quantitative risk platform for one of our buy-side business units. It was an incredible learning experience because I had to learn the proprietary functional programming language, work with quants, learn about Goldman’s books and records, and understand all the interesting types of derivatives Goldman transacted as well as how they were priced. I learned a lot about the business and managing risk, and also how to scale out some pretty gnarly distributed systems problems.
What is the most important lesson you have learned from a mistake you’ve made in the past?
As a manager, I feel like I’m always growing and learning from my mistakes. Earlier in my people management career, I think I took a more perfectionistic, serious approach to problem-solving that was focused more on the outcome instead of the process. Even though I got good results quickly it was to the detriment of trust. After I made those mistakes, I got enough negative feedback from my peers and teams, that thankfully I was able to course-correct. For me now, creativity should be baked into the fun of engineering, and giving myself more license to bring that spirit to my daily interactions with the team has been a real joy.
Do you have any productivity hacks? What keeps you motivated?
The only productivity hack I have is to make sure you have a passion for what you are doing. It’s important for you to be able to answer the rhetorical question “in my life I’m on a mission to <fill in the blank>”. If you fill in the blank with what you’re passionate about, then there’s a natural blurring of these categories of work and life and it feels less onerous to make that context switch because you’re authentically the same person. For me, my mission is to both become the best version of myself, and for me to help others as best I can achieve their own personal mission.
8:30am: Travel into the office. We are in a hybrid model and right now I’m spending 1-2 days in the office.
9:00am: Recruiting Standup. My team is scaling quickly and it’s important to me to stay connected to the process. Building the right organization with the right people is key to our success.
10:30am: All Engineer Manager Weekly Check-in.
11:00am: Emails. Even engineers have email debt!
12:00pm: Lunch Break. Since SDF is still relatively small, we try to eat together when we are in the office. It’s always been part of the culture and it’s been nice to get back in touch with folks after two years of completely remote work.
1:30pm: Management bi-weekly. Checking in with senior management and our CEO to discuss company initiatives and goals.
2:30pm: Business Development & Ecosystem Sync. We have great relationships with our business development and ecosystem teams who help bring in and support builders on the Stellar network.
3:30pm: Partner meeting. We work closely with partners building on the network so our team is always building and improving the network with insight and input from other builders.
4:00pm: Candidate Interview. Like I said, we are growing!
5:00pm: Commute home. Surviving bay area traffic is its own accomplishment!