“It was like a lightbulb went off in my brain,” says Tamara Bain, describing the first computer science class she took in college. Though she’d been coding since the sixth grade, it wasn’t until that class that Bain realized this could be her career. “From that point on, I was hooked.”
Her passion for computer science has fueled a diverse career, including founding two startups before joining the fintech company Robinhood in early 2020. Each decisive step, she says, has been motivated in part by a mentor’s advice: “Shift your thinking from focusing on how you can be most effective to how your team and company can be most effective.” Working for a company like Robinhood that is democratizing the investing industry was a no-brainer.
Here, Bain talks about what she learned launching her own startups, how Robinhood empowers its engineers, and the importance of networking.
Tell us about your career journey and what attracted you to Robinhood.
I’ve been fortunate to build two companies from concept to profitability in the last five years. I love building products that challenge the status quo and make people’s eyes light up. After my last startup, I knew I wanted to continue building these types of products but at a larger scale. I had burning questions about how a company changes as it goes from 1 million to 100 million customers. Robinhood is answering these questions right now. It’s a very interesting time to be joining the company.
What was the interview process and candidate experience like at Robinhood?
Absolutely stellar. The entire process took less than three weeks. The interview process covers a lot of ground, and you get the opportunity to show off your skills in a lot of different areas. One of my favorite parts was when my recruiter went through all the different engineering teams and we discussed what interested me or concerned me about each one of them. I felt like I had a lot of agency to choose the one I was most passionate about.
What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?
We’re hyperscaling and building some very cool solutions for handling multiples of our current traffic as we prepare for continued growth. We have an incredible responsibility to our customers and their money. We’re constantly asking ourselves how we can democratize finance for all. Everyone should have the tools they need to take control of their finances. There’s a ton of opportunity there and it really resonates with me as a person.
What is Robinhood’s approach to engineering and innovation? What design process do you use?
As a fintech startup in Silicon Valley, Robinhood has a strong engineering culture. We really empower our engineers to take ownership of problems and build roadmaps within the company. Our design process is peer-reviewed, but we don’t have any rules on who can spin up a design document for a feature. We encourage anyone who sees a large enough opportunity to put it in writing and propose the structure of a solution. Once it’s written down it becomes easier for everyone to voice concerns and feedback. This has been an especially helpful practice as we’ve gone to working remotely.
What do you like best about the company culture?
It’s rare to work at a company where everyone is so driven behind a single mission. Democratizing finance for all is a really powerful “why,” and that big picture inspires me. This manifests itself in a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. With respect to engineering culture, this means we don’t have unnecessary red tape. If there’s a good idea and the drive to see it through, anyone—from interns to principal engineers—can take ownership and champion a project.
You’ve successfully brought two startups from idea to profitability. What are a couple of the most important lessons you learned from your past ventures?
Metrics are the lifeblood of any startup. They are the difference between fumbling around in the dark and quickly getting better. On any team, one of the first things I think about is: How do we know we’re doing a good job? How are we measuring it? How can we get these measurements in front of everyone as often as possible? Once you’ve identified your metrics, you need to obsess over them. There’s a reason why the founders of Airbnb had the number of bookings taped to their bathroom mirror when the company was young.
Another mentality I’ve taken from startups is to always ask “Why now?” when you’re building something. The backlog is infinite, but time is short. It’s not enough to identify something important to build. You need to justify why it is the most important thing to build right now.
Finally, talk to your customers. Engineers run the risk of coding in a bubble without asking, “Is this what our customers or stakeholders actually want?” Take the time to sit in on a user interview or walk through the workflow of whoever will be using your software. Do this regularly and you’ll save time and build better products.
What keeps you motivated, especially in an industry where women are often underrepresented?
There are two things that really motivate me as a woman in software engineering. The first is thinking about the past. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer algorithm. Grace Hopper designed one of the first programming languages (COBOL) and was such a badass that she continued working for the U.S. Navy 12 years after she was supposed to retire.
Then I like to think about the future. The brilliant young women engineers who are just starting their careers or just discovering their love of software engineering. I want them to be fearless. I want them to be part of this industry that has and will continue to change the world.
Both these thoughts push me forward, even when I’m unsure. Our underrepresentation can be something we rally around instead of a weakness.
What advice do you have for women who are considering a career in software engineering?
Prototyping is a powerful tool that we use to test assumptions and gain knowledge as quickly as possible. We prototype new products and ideas for companies, but for some reason we completely neglect to prototype when it comes to the really important decisions—like what to do with our lives!
If you’re considering a career in software engineering, think about what your key assumptions are and devise a way to test those assumptions. Talking to software engineers is probably the easiest way to prototype being a software engineer. Connect with several on LinkedIn at companies you’re interested in and ask them about what it’s really like doing what they do all day. You’d be surprised at how positively people respond to that sort of curiosity.
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