The People of PayPal
During my time at Edelman’s Seattle office, I managed to weasel my way into working with their Collaborative Journalism team. It’s a burgeoning department that I can only see growing, currently producing work best described as top notch ghost-written content with an editorial bent for clients.
As merely an intern at the company, I was entrusted with writing PayPal’s employee spotlight series, People of PYPL, which was published on the company’s internal blog. Despite several requests for links to the finished and published articles, I was never furnished with them. So I’m posting a few of my favorite profiles here below.
People of PYPL
Brielle Harrison is a bisexual, transgender, self-taught software engineer who has worked for Google, Netflix, Facebook, Apple, and now PayPal. And she speaks 7 languages too, as if her resume wasn’t impressive enough.
As the face of Facebook’s custom gender initiative when it was unveiled in 2014, Brielle appeared in magazine features, radio stories, South By Southwest talks and a documentary. She isn’t afraid of the spotlight and uses it to illuminate a path toward a place where everybody can be their authentic selves.
The technology industry is notoriously male dominated. What has your experience been like as a trans woman working in that culture?
Before I transitioned I was privy to a lot of conversations that I don’t think women typically are. The biggest thing I had to deal with was the loss of my male privilege. It was totally new for me. It really opened my eyes to biases I had and issues that women have to deal with, like your ideas being ignored and then applauded when a male colleague says essentially the same thing or getting questioned like you can’t have come up with an independent thought.
You’ve been a real force for change at each of the companies you’ve worked at though, most publicly with Facebook’s custom gender initiative. Tell us about some of more behind the scenes ways you’ve helped improve culture for LGBT* people?
When I was working at Facebook, I met the new head of benefits as I was heading home one day, and I was explaining the struggles of insurance being trans. She was really inspired by that and wanted to make a difference. For the next year we collaborated and when it came time for medical benefit enrollment, Facebook had a very comprehensive trans medical coverage plan available to everybody.
I did a similar thing at Apple, but the plan was extended to retail store employees too, which drastically lowered the bar to people who probably needed the help more than the well-paid engineers in Silicon Valley. When I came to PayPal, its plan was already better than the other companies’, but I’m still talking with the insurance folks to find ways to continually improve it.
You’re an activist, but also an incredibly talented coder. How did you get into software engineering?
I grew up as a redhead on a farm in California, so I never took to the outdoorsy lifestyle. I was always fascinated by how things worked though, and when I was first exposed to computers I was amazed by how I could press a button and make something happen on a screen. When I bought my first computer years later it was still before the internet. If I wanted new software I’d have to write it myself. Out of those confines came a creativity and a passion for solving interesting problems and building new things that weren’t there the day before. I started programming professionally around 2000, but I taught myself by just playing with code.
In addition to coding languages, you speak English, Japanese, French, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, and Portuguese – where does your fascination with language stem from?
I found the first foreign language I learned, French, to be an escape from the internal struggles I had growing up trans, but as I learned more I realized that cultures and the ways they see and interact with the world are shaped by language. I found through studying spoken languages I gained almost a more complete picture of the world, which has helped me in a few ways.
Firstly, I was able to see how programming languages related to one another similarly to the way spoken languages do. Secondly, there’s no one right answer or approach to anything you’re trying to solve. I find people from other cultures, perspectives and genders often have better solutions to problems than I do because they think about things in a different way to me. And lastly, I started appreciating the power of words and names. By naming something you’re defining the way you’ll think about it, which can be very limiting and hard to deviate from. I’ve learned I need to do my best to describe things rather than name them.
You seem to be a huge believer in the potential of communication. Why do you think it’s key to furthering the LGBT* cause?
Over the last two terms of Obama’s presidency, American culture has been pushed forward by simply talking about things that previously made a lot of people uncomfortable. Now in California at least you don’t even bat an eye if you hear somebody’s gay. That’s a monumental step forward. When gay marriage was becoming accepted nationwide, the trans community got some of that spotlight, and the next step is to have conversations to educate people about what it means to be born this way. Having that discussion in the light rather than whispered in shadows helps further the whole movement.
People of PYPL
Sergey Erenburg is a data scientist at PayPal’s Wilmington, Delaware office, but he has another title too: Chess grandmaster.
The Russian expat grew up playing chess before moving to Israel aged 15, claiming the title of national champion at 21 while he was still performing his mandatory military service. His affinity for the game stemmed from a love of solving ever-new problems, so just when he was reaching the upper echelons of the professional circuit, he retired to seek new challenges, and found one in data science.
Tell us about your extraordinary journey to becoming a chess grandmaster at age 20.
My parents introduced me to the game on vacation when I was 5 years old. I spent the whole summer playing, and when I got back home I was able to beat most of the other kids at the local chess club. I won youth competitions and became one of the strongest young players in Russia before my family emigrated to Israel.
I won the Israeli championship at every age bracket, even though I was still prioritizing school and my studies. But when I went into the Israeli military to do my mandatory service, I was able to dedicate a lot more time to chess. I won more competitions, was named a grandmaster, and by the end of my service was the absolute champion of Israel.
What was the personal highlight of your career?
For a few years after becoming the champion of Israel, I played professionally. I qualified for and placed in the top 64 at the Chess World Cup and I made it to 2nd place with Israel at the 2005 European Team Chess Championships, but I’d say the peak of my career was placing 9th at the World Blitz Championship in 2006.
Why did you decide to leave the game?
By the time I was competing at the World Blitz Championship in 2006, I’d already decided to quit. I wasn’t progressing as rapidly as I had been, and I wasn’t selected for the Israeli national team that year despite being the current national champion. I realized there were too many risks involved in pursuing a career as a professional chess player. I’d also never intended to play professionally – my plan changed because I won the Israeli championship, but I’d always intended to go to college.
How did you get into data science off the back of your chess career?
When I went to college I wasn’t sure what I was going to do! But my favorite thing about chess was the challenge of solving problems I’d never encountered before. A big part success in the game is pattern recognition, which translates easily to quantitative disciplines like math, coding, or data science. I went into the finance industry after I graduated and found there were opportunities in data science to use problem solving skills to help people improve their financial situations, which I found rewarding.
In what ways are you able to use your data skills to help the small business owners that you work with?
I help analyze data to determine which applicants for PayPal’s loans or products are eligible to receive them. Data also helps decide their interest rates and repayment plans and flag any that need reviewing. On multiple occasions I’ve reviewed some of PayPal’s rules and internal processes and found ways to meaningfully improve the customer experience and make our services more accessible. I have a lot of respect for small business owners, and the ones we work with have typically been unable to get financial backing from larger banks, so by giving those businesses a fair shot to succeed, I feel like we’re improving the financial environment for the world.
Since arriving in America for college, you’ve also spent time teaching chess at local schools. Does chess culture differ in America from other parts of the world you’ve played in?
Chess is an intellectual game which requires very little investment to learn and play. You only need a board and the pieces. It’s an excellent way for kids of all backgrounds to channel their energy, learn important quantitative reasoning skills, and stay out of trouble. It was a very eye-opening experience for me to teach it, because I had to learn how to simplify things for the audience. It was a good lesson for me to learn.
In Russia, chess is a legitimate career choice, whereas in America it’s viewed as more of a hobby. The U.S. may not have many notable players, but it is improving. The USA won the most recent chess Olympiad, and three of the top 10 players in the world are American. For me, the best part of playing in American tournaments is they allow non-professionals to compete, and they’re usually held over the weekend, so I still get to play regularly. I’ve played in five tournaments since the start of 2018 and won three of them!
People of PYPL
Sam Suri grew up in India as a science fiction fan, though the senior software developer at PayPal’s Singapore office couldn’t have imagined that he’d one day be helping create the technologies of tomorrow.
At his desk, Sam develops brand new ways for people to interact with their finances, but he takes his other roles at PayPal just as seriously. As a vocal and passionate ally, he spent the past year leading the office’s LGBTQ* inclusion efforts, and now heads up outreach to the region’s developer community -- the program that drew him to the company in the first place.
Before we get into your work with PayPal, you left your home in India to move to Singapore when you were in high school. How did that opportunity come about?
The Singapore Ministry of Education runs a scholarship for Indian students to study there for two years pre-university. My school in India had a lot of kids who’d been awarded it and I always wanted to go, so when I was chosen after I applied I was never in two minds. It was my first time living in a new country and a different kind of lifestyle which took some time to get used to, but it’s been 10 years now and I love everything about this tiny island.
You went to college for electrical engineering rather than software. What was it you enjoyed about software that inspired you to pursue that instead?
There was a software component to one of my university first courses which I enjoyed and excelled at. Software engineering forces you to break down your thought processes and question your assumptions, why things happen the way they do, and how they can be improved. Because of my course load I couldn’t switch my degree, but I tailored my work toward software as much as I could. Then for a project my senior year I explored deep learning and saw how software principles could even be applied to the workings of the human brain. The possibilities with technology are endless.
A lot of the work you’ve been doing recently at PayPal has been on the Money page. Tell us about the project and the process of working on it.
The Money page is a new tab on the homepage when you login and it’s the first drag and drop user interface on PayPal’s site. It’s a new way for people to manage their money, and it allows you to create new financial products, categorize them, move them around, and plan them out. We’re hoping it’ll ultimately help the unbanked market become better integrated into the digital economy.
It was especially exciting to work on because myself and another engineer from Singapore got to travel to the San Jose campus to collaborate with the design and product teams directly and see how they operate. Ironically, even though the project was pretty rushed I got to approach it more holistically than I usually would! I’ve also been presenting it at internal conferences and meetings, and I’m going to a tech conference in Bangalore soon to do a presentation on the technology behind it.
You were recently promoted because of your work on the Money page, but also in recognition of your leadership on some of the office’s outreach efforts. What makes your work with the local developer community important to you?
One of the main reasons I was initially attracted to PayPal was because of the development center here in Singapore. It hosts regular tech meetups, has a strong presence at local tech conferences, and sends employees to speak at university events. It helps maintain our visibility and contact with other developers in the area while keeping our own employees current on the technology landscape. When I joined the company, I couldn’t wait to get involved -- I was so enthusiastic I even designed our own developer outreach t-shirt! It’s a lot of work, especially the conferences, but getting to plan the events is part of what makes my position so much more exciting than just a tech job.
Last year you lead PayPal’s Pride efforts, even though you don’t identify as LBGTQ*. Why is it a cause you identify with so passionately nonetheless?
I want to show that there’s a space for LGBT people in the tech community. Moving to Singapore was the first time I’d experienced racial discrimination, so by the time I was in university, I felt very passionately about equality and fighting structural discrimination in all its forms. It took me a while to realize that I don’t need to identify as LGBT to identify with and support the cause, but I’m proud to support it as an ally, and I hope to lead by example. Everybody should have the freedom to live as they wish and showing up and being there is just one easy way to show your support for these people.
People of PYPL
Like most people, senior recruiter Steve Dazzo never planned to go into recruitment, but rather fell into it. Nonetheless, he took to it wholeheartedly, and since arriving at PayPal about five years ago, he’s found his calling in leading the company’s internal veteran network, SERVE.
Steve’s grandfather and father both joined the United States army, but in his role at PayPal, Steve’s able to serve the military in a different, but essential way: Helping reintegrate those who’ve fought for the country into its civilian life and make the most of the values they’ve dedicated their lives to uphold.
How did you get involved with the SERVE network?
I was familiar with military hiring from my agency days when I recruited for the Department of Defense at Fort Monmouth. When I started at eBay, I volunteered to join the diversity council to help with veteran hiring and just ran with it. I saw the difference I could make in people’s lives and when PayPal split off I volunteered to join the SERVE network to lead veteran hiring for the company. I have an ability to help people transition out of the military and it’s probably the most prideful aspect of my career.
What are the skills that veterans bring with them to jobs outside of the military?
Veterans are invariably equipped with priceless life experience and intangible skills like leadership, discipline, and perseverance. They may not be the skills you’re looking for on paper verbatim, but hiring veterans is about looking for potential. They typically thrive in project management, programming, and operations jobs, but we’ve seen them be successful across the board – whatever is going to be thrown at them in a corporate setting is going to be nothing compared to active combat.
In college you wanted to work in the sports world – how did you end up in technology recruitment?
I’m no different to most recruiters in that I fell into the industry. There’s no career track for it. I spent my entire college experience dreaming of going into sports, and after I graduated I moved to the West Coast to work for the Anaheim Ducks as a media relations assistant. After about a season and a half which included a Stanley Cup final, the NHL went on strike and I got laid off. I realized it wasn’t really for me. I got into technical recruiting after that, but I found it fascinating; how applications are made, how technology’s run, and now the payments side of the industry. I went to loads of technical meetup groups to learn and just threw myself in.
One of the most exciting parts of your job must be the constantly evolving nature of the industry. How has technology recruitment changed since you began?
The main thing is that there’s now a lot more data available to recruiters. I got into this industry before LinkedIn was LinkedIn. Back then it was all about posting to job boards and old school networking. Now so much of it is automated, but it’s still a people business and you have to be human. I can identify the innate qualities a person needs to have to be successful at PayPal better than a machine.
I understand it’s unfeasible for some of our teams because they’re hiring such large volumes of people, but I live on the phone and make a point to communicate with people whether the news is good or bad, so they can learn and progress in their career. Sometimes it’s very time consuming, and nobody likes hearing bad feedback, but I get more thank you’s for declining people and giving them feedback than I do for hiring them!
Sports may not be your day job as you’d once hoped, but you stay in touch with it by voluntarily coaching youth soccer. What inspired you to get involved in that?
I’ve been coaching soccer for 12 years now. I’ve played soccer my whole life and I’ve been coaching for 12 years. I still play in an adult league too. I’ve been to three World Cups, and I saw that globally, soccer is a low-income sport. That should be the case in this country too but it’s not. I want to help kids experience the game and if I have to pay out of my own pocket and dedicate my time to teach it then so be it. I enjoy sharing it and watching it grow in the States.
There’s a mentorship aspect too. Some of the kids I work with grew up in very tough conditions, so I want to be a resource for them, teach them about hard work through sports, and help with resumes and life skills for outside of sports. I get no greater joy than watching them succeed off and on the field.
People of PYPL
Archie Puri began her career at Braintree managing the development of specific software solutions, but as the senior director of product management, Archie now spends most of her time managing people.
In her role, Archie is responsible for overseeing the entirety of the Braintree product portfolio, but more importantly the teams responsible for those products. In the past year she’s added new talent, improved functionality, and increased visibility and transparency throughout her department. In recognition, she was recently named as one of the most influential women in the payments industry for the second year running.
Congratulations on the second award from PYMNTS! How do you feel the recognition was different this year?
This year I felt more like I deserved it! Last year what lead to the award was how we at Braintree view product, product management, and product craftsmanship in general, and how we’d influenced the industry. This year it was that we’d taken all of that, everything we knew worked well, and then implemented a swift, full scale transformation of our team that lead to tangible results. That being said, I’m not particularly motivated by awards. I want to be better every day when I wake up in everything I do -- for my team, for our merchants, and for Braintree and PayPal.
When you were recognized for the award last year, you spoke about a shift you’d had in your thinking and the way you approached your work that was similar to Neo in the Matrix. What was your epiphany?
If you do something for a long period of time, living, breathing and thinking about it day in day out, at one point all of it will fit together in your brain and a pattern will emerge. I’d always been looking just one or two days ahead and thinking only about our next product. I realized I needed to spend more of my time observing the world around me as it currently is, thinking about the possibilities of how it could be and then drawing paths of how we get there. Like Neo when he’s able to see the code, now I see more fundamental pieces of change that I could bring about that would have a greater impact than the day to day.
Before you joined Braintree, you were working in paid advertising at Yahoo. What attracted you to the financial technology industry?
We had a great computing program at my middle school and I’ve been interested in technology and software since. I was always very attracted to the idea that you could build something with a piece of code that can simplify so many people’s lives. While I was at Yahoo I’d done some soul searching and concluded that I wanted to work on a more relatable product. Paid advertising is very big business, but I wanted something where I could see the impact of what we were doing. Around the same time there was a lot of movement in financial technology and it seemed like a space that was ripe for innovation. I did my bachelor’s in accounting and financial management before I decided to pursue software professionally, so it seemed like a great fit.
Your move between companies was also significant in terms of size. What appealed to you about working for a smaller company like Braintree?
When I moved into a product management role at Yahoo I became really interested in it and wanted to go deep into the craft. It’s much easier to do that at a smaller company as you’re able to be involved in all aspects of the product journey, from idea to launch. With a smaller team you have to do everything, even take out the office trash! The other part that appealed to me was that Braintree’s San Francisco office had just opened about a month before I started talking with the company. I’d get the opportunity to help create a team and drive the culture, all while learning the craft of product management.
In addition to all your responsibility at Braintree, you keep very busy outside of the office with projects. How do you stay motivated and on top of everything?
I am a planner and an excellent list maker! I have large overarching goals and I make sure everything I do day to day is working towards those. But I’m a builder at heart. I cook, bake and I practice calligraphy. Recently my daughter and I tried to make a radio and I’ve gotten interested in landscape design -- a few of my friends and neighbors have taken me up on plans too! Whether it’s assembling teams that can slickly solve core payments problems or creating with my hands, for me building is the most satisfying thing.