Plaid People: Eric Sprauve
When Plaid engineering manager Eric Sprauve recognizes a need, he can’t help but look for a solution. It’s a trait that has served him since his childhood, when he built his first voice-controlled digital assistant, to his present-day role leading a team of engineers through the ever-changing landscape of product development. In our latest installment of Plaid People, Eric lets us in on his approach to problem solving and team building and the best sort-of advice he has ever received.
What engineering function do you manage?
I manage the Financial Identity team. We call it FIT for short. FIT builds out new products that help consumers understand and use all of their financial accounts—bank, credit card, investment, payroll, etc.— to their advantage.
What does your role entail?
I have four main responsibilities. One is people management, including career development and helping my teammates solve problems to get the best outcomes. Then there's execution, which is making sure my team is working on the right projects and meeting our goals. I am also responsible for culture—making sure folks are happy and integrated and comfortable expressing their ideas and opinions. Lastly, I work on recruiting and helping my team grow. Even now, amidst all the changes and challenges that come with COVID-19, we’re still hiring.
How else has social distancing impacted your team, and what are you doing to thrive through the changes?
We are all working from home, so that’s the most obvious impact. Since we’re not seeing each other in the office, I am making sure to zero in on team culture to build in more opportunities for team cohesion and social time. For instance, our standup meetings, where we talk about the status of all the projects we’re working on, used to happen once a week, and now we have them every day. We also have an optional daily hangout session in the afternoon, and we meet remotely for lunch once a week. As far as our productivity is concerned, we aren’t letting the physical distance affect us, because we realize, more than ever, people are relying on the digital financial ecosystem we support.
Why is team culture and cohesion so important?
It makes everyone more comfortable working with each other. I believe in the notion of psychological safety and its impact on creativity. A study found that teams with a high level of psychological safety—defined as team members feeling comfortable proposing ideas—ended up generating more ideas and better ideas because of the trust they shared. That trust is a result of time spent together.
What is your favorite Plaid Principle? Why?
My favorite Plaid Principle is "Think rigorously; act with urgency," because it's essential that you balance the two when building unproven new products.
What’s the best part of your job?
The first aspect is the people. Plaid has great people, and my team in particular is filled with a lot of funny folks. It’s an eccentric team culture, which I love, and it fills my days with a lot of fun and laughter. The second component is around building new products. I love thinking about not just how we build something but how we build the right thing that will really drive impact for consumers and customers.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
We know exactly where we are going, but there's no single right course to arrive at our end goal. The primary challenge of my job is working within this open landscape. A lot of times, it’s weeks or months before we know if we're going to hit land and strike gold. We’re always trying to make the best of the information we have and getting creative about ways to gather new information.
What have you learned in your time at Plaid?
I've learned to reevaluate more frequently. At previous positions I've held, there were fewer open-ended possibilities, so I could more easily plow through projects. With FIT in particular, I’ve had to integrate a habit of continuously popping my head up to make sure that we're on the right course, because there is so much more creativity and flexibility in the approach.
What makes Plaid a great company to work for?
The culture and the mission. Most companies I’ve worked for had a single objective and offered limited space to individual employees to go after it. At Plaid, there is endless openness to explore and problem solve.
When did you know you wanted to become an engineer?
My mom jokes around that I learned how to program the VCR before I could speak. So, I was always technologically inclined. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor. I would do things like play with Legos and draw the different things I wanted to build when I grew up.
In junior high, I got more serious about trying to build things. My dad is an electrical engineer, and he would buy me books on the different aspects of engineering so I could teach myself. I started coding and soldering and building circuits and never stopped.
What was one of your first inventions?
In junior high, I would read in bed to fall asleep, but I always hated getting up to turn off the light. So, I put an infrared receiver in a microcontroller and made it so that I could control my light with an old TV remote. Throughout high school, I added more complexity to it. I made it so that it controlled my music. I ended up adding voice synthesis and voice recognition to it. I gave it a name: Solomon. I could say things like, "Hey, Solomon. Turn on the lights," or, "Hey, Solomon. Play Eric's music." And it would wake me up in the morning with a greeting: "Good morning, Eric. Hope you slept well. The weather forecast for today is blah, blah, blah." It was eerily similar to Alexa, but this was pre-Alexa. I started working on it in 2002 or 2003 and built it all the way through 2008, before I went to college.
What is your WFH setup like?
At my apartment, I have a sit-stand desk, Aeron chair, ergonomic keyboard and mouse, and an ultrawide curved monitor. It's actually a setup I had before working from home. I had a bulging disc a few years ago, so I invested in some equipment to help me work for an extended time without my back hurting. It has definitely paid dividends.
Do you still build and program for fun?
Yes! A friend and I recently built a model to predict our Halo outcome. Essentially, we found out there's an API you can use to gather all the stats of all the historical games you've played. So, we developed an ML program to sift through all that data and try to make predictions about how we would perform in the future given our current streak, what game type it is, the players we're going up against, and other variants.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
This isn't really advice but a saying that I particularly love that has stuck with me: necessity is the mother of all invention. It’s the belief that the best inventions, the best application of creativity to solve a problem, typically come from true need. It's kind of like advice, because I use it in a lot of scenarios to affect the action I'm taking.