Career Nav #46: Going from Engineering Management to Founder/CTO

Career Nav #46: Going from Engineering Management to Founder/CTO

Written by Pamela Martinez


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Shanna Gregory, Chief Program Officer at Women Who Code, sits down with Pamela Martinez, co-founder and CTO at Snowball Wealth. They discuss going from engineering management to founder and CTO and stories about jumping into entrepreneurship, the importance of financial literacy, and the contrast of different economic positions.

Can you talk about your early career and how you first started getting interested in technology? 

Growing up, I was always fascinated by computers and technology. I grew up in the ’90s, and I loved seeing that transition from video games to my first personal computer and even playing around with MySpace and HTML. That was my first venture into code. I started college and didn’t know what to study. I had no idea that Computer Science was a field I could enter. My exposure mainly was to careers like law or the medical industry. When I started college, I explored all the different areas across the board while figuring out what I wanted to do. I took a digital photography class, and it happened to be in the Computer Science department.  I got exposure to exciting computing and mathematical subjects I didn’t know about. I decided to take an Intro to Computer Science, and that’s when I realized how much I loved the field and decided to stick with it.

You worked at a couple of startups. Can you speak more about that? 

I have always really cared about the education space. I went to a magnet school and got exposure to many different fields. It was a college-focused magnet school in my district, so they took a very hands-on approach to education. When I went to college, I became interested in learning about how different people learn in different ways to innovate in the education space. After my first job at Microsoft, where I worked as a Program Manager for Xbox One, I decided to jump back into the education space. I looked for different EdTech companies and eventually learned about Clever, a platform for K-12 schools that makes it easy for schools to use technology. I loved that concept and the idea of working for a company trying to make technology more accessible in the classroom. I jumped in. I became an engineer. When I started my career, I started in the product as a PM, so this was my first venture into startups and engineering. It was a fantastic experience.

I was one of the first few engineers. I saw the company quadruple while I was there. I was part of one of the essential products that made the company scale and grow. It was an invaluable learning experience that helped me learn about the education space and grow as a software engineer.

What inspired you to create Snowball Wealth? 

I’m an immigrant. I moved to the US when I was 10. I grew up in a working-class family and became exposed to wealth for the first time when I started at Stanford. I learned and heard about the wealth gap. At the time, it felt like an academic topic. It didn’t hit me until I started at a very elite university. Then, working in the tech industry, where a lot of people around me came from really privileged backgrounds, had a lot of generational wealth, and people were making six figures or more. I became aware of the wealth gap, the gender wealth gap, and the racial wealth gap. As a young professional, I struggled to learn about and figure out the financial industry and financial services. After being out of school for a few years, I helped my sister pay through college. My partner had hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. I was trying to figure out how to save. I didn’t know how to invest.

I realized there was a massive gap in understanding and navigating the financial industry. That motivated me to figure out how to make this more accessible and easily understood. I became obsessed with FinTech and financial products. I was one of those FinTech nerds. Eventually, I learned the ropes. I realized that it wasn’t that complicated. We lacked the information and tools to make our best financial decisions. I took all of those learnings and decided to take on the challenge of making this field more accessible to people. How do we make it easier for first-gen college grads or people who are the first in their families to start making money and building wealth, navigating and understanding the ropes around it?

Tell us about how Snowball Wealth teaches these things or at least spreads the knowledge of sharing this financial literacy with people.

A lot of these systems are new, so this is why they’re not part of our education system. Credit scores are relatively new, as well as 401ks and Roth IRAs. A lot of things are changing in the financial space. A lot of this information gets passed down by word of mouth or through financial advisors that your family might have. There’s a lot of gatekeeping in the industry. Our mission is to open those gates and allow people to have this information. You don’t know what you don’t know. On the consumer side, we have our mobile app and web app. Our primary focus is building a community so that people don’t feel like they’re at this alone. One of the things that we learned when we first launched Snowball Wealth was that the first step for making these financial moves is really about a mindset. Many of us grew up with negative money beliefs or money scripts holding us back. A lot of people that come to Snowball are people that grew up thinking that money is scarce or they believe that you’re not good with money. Our first step is to help people unlearn some of those money scripts, have a more positive mindset, and how to address the emotional aspects of their money decisions. One of the big foundational pieces is having a community that can help you stay motivated. We also have financial tools like a net worth tracker and a financial roadmap that walk you step by step on how to build an emergency fund, start to invest, and so on, to help people take things one step at a time, depending on where they’re at.

What’s the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion within your company’s philosophy or tech itself? 

One of the main reasons I decided to start Snowball was that a woman has never managed me after working in the tech industry. I’ve never had a woman up my chain of command in my ten years of working at tech. I felt like there was a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in many of the companies I worked at. I realized that I had to be part of the solution to see these changes. My co-founder and I were both Latinas, so DEI is built into our company’s fabric. We both started this company because we felt like there was a lack of representation in the industry and financial services. We wanted to build a company made for and by women and women of color to support those around us. Much of our content also addresses topics that are really important to people who are the first in their families to go to college or those who are the first to build wealth. Our content is engaging and targeted towards millennials and Gen Z. We have a huge TikTok following. We’re focused on making culturally relevant content that’s engaging and built by people who look like our target audience.

Tell us about your transition from being an engineer at a startup to a founder and CTO at your company. 

I was always interested in entrepreneurship but was also very intimidated by it. It took working as an engineer and being at a startup before gaining the confidence I needed. I was always really active in extracurriculars, and I always had leadership positions there. While not the same, I think those experiences gave me valuable learnings about motivating a team and working toward your goals. I didn’t make the connection until later how those things helped me become a better leader. Once I graduated and I started working at startups, once I was in it, I realized that I was good at my job. Having managers around people who supported and encouraged me and helped me build confidence, gain skills, prepare myself, and get excited about potentially doing this independently. It wasn’t an immediate leap. While working at these tech startups, I found opportunities to continue doing extracurriculars, working on side projects, and starting my own companies with a much lower risk. One of my big critical moments was when I went to a hackathon, and my team won first place. Part of the prize was having access to mentors and also getting a startup coach to help us grow that idea. That gave me more experience. That program forced me out of my comfort zone. I had worked at startups. I had worked on my own thing on the side. I think all those things together gave me the confidence I needed to make that leap to become a co-founder and CTO on my own.

How do you think your approach to the hackathon really set you up for winning the hackathon? 

I almost didn’t attend the hackathon. I ended up going because a friend of mine was going. I loved it. It was a Latino-specific hackathon. It was Latinx in tech in Oakland. They were trying to bring the community together. I spent all weekend working on this project. I built an app from scratch, and we had a cool project and cool people. After winning and presenting the solution, we connected to many amazing people. It was that network and those connections that sparked something in me. Winning the hackathon also gave me additional confidence that I could do something. I think going through that process myself was just really insightful and exciting.

What else would you like to share with our audience? 

I was shocked to learn that less than 2% of VC funding goes to companies founded by women, and a fraction of that goes to those established by Latinx or Black women. It’s essential to recognize that there are a lot of systemic barriers that make it harder for us to take this leap. It also highlights the importance for us to work on making it happen. One of the essential things for me has been having a good support network. Taking small steps in your role outside of work helped me prepare for this moment. Being in FinTech and talking about money, I think it’s essential to prepare yourself financially. It can be scary to go from having a secure, stable income to no income. I knew that this was something that I wanted to do, so I saved up for it. I worked a few years in tech, had an emergency fund, and had a fund set aside so that I could go off and start my own company without worrying about how I would pay for my rent. Having that financial planning set aside can help you focus on the business and the company. The other thing I would say is a leap. It’s a learning process. No one’s ever really ready, everyone has a different path, and it also doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There are a lot of people who bootstrap their businesses if they’re not ready to make that full-on commitment. You can start on your project on the side. You can move in that direction slowly. It doesn’t have to be going from zero to 100.

What would you say to people experiencing something challenging within their career?

I’ve experienced all of those things. One of the things about getting out of your comfort zone is that you will not always be successful. You are going to have to deal with rejection and failure. Look at those as learning opportunities. I considered leaving tech after my first job. I was unhappy with my role. I didn’t like what I was doing. I was discouraged by the industry. I’m so glad I didn’t leave tech and stayed the course. It was really about recognizing that there will be challenges, finding ways to keep on going, and learning about the things that motivate you and excite you. After my first job, I rediscovered my passion for education. I met many other people interested in the education space, and that’s how I found and worked for my first startup. Being around those people gave me the energy back to keep going. Take it one day at a time. Part of rejection, failure, and having those moments that’s growth, and that’s what keeps you and gives you those valuable lessons.

What are a couple of quick takeaways that you really firmly believe, that you think would make the industry better? 

One thing is being kind. I know it’s a bit cliche, but lifting others around you can go a long way. It is a way that we can make the tech industry a lot better. Second, is holding yourself accountable as a leader and holding your leaders accountable. I think to continue to build a solid and positive tech culture. We must be able to point out the problems, be aware of them, and potentially be part of the solution. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself as well. Make sure you’re proud of and taking care of yourself, and celebrate all these small wins.


Guest: Pamela Martinez, Co-Founder and CTO, Snowball Wealth
IG: ipam73
Host: Shanna Gregory, Chief Program Officer at Women Who Code
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Press and Digital Content, Women Who Code