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WWCode Conversations #66: Payments and Capital product offerings for a Cannabis

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Written by WWCode HQNovember 2, 2022

Jesse Barnes, Software Engineer at InMoment  and Women Who Code NYC Lead, and Stevie Palmateer, Sr. Director of Engineering at LeafLink, sit down for a fireside chat. They discuss engineering at LeafLink and current projects that Stevie’s team is responsible for. Stevie also shares their commitment to DEI being a priority in any company they work for. 

Tell us about LeafLink.

LeafLink is a unified B2B platform for the cannabis industry. The platform itself is built upon a wholesale marketplace. It streamlines commerce between licensed cannabis brands and retailers. It does this through the full-order life cycle. That includes the payments and working capital management that my team oversees, as well as the logistics, fulfillment, insights, and marketing services. We move about 4.5 billion in gross merchandise volume. We have over 10,000 businesses that we operate and support. Right now, we're a little over 250 employees. We're a series C with 131 million in VC funding. That's the snapshot of LeafLink as a whole.

Can you tell us more about the software engineering side? 

Our engineering team is a make-up of AppDev, QA, and DevOps, and right now, we have ED in that group. When I joined, it was just around 25. In a little over a year, across product design, data, and engineering, essentially all of our techs, we're about 120. We plan to double that next year as well. If you're interested in enrolling on my shameless plug, please do reach out. There are going to be so many opportunities in management, associate, mid-senior staff engineer, and principal-level roles. We follow the Spotify tribe and squad model, of course, we have our own slight variation on that. The importance is that we deliver as cross-functional units that are autonomous. 

Techstack is always interesting. We're on AWS, EKS. We're primarily Vue.js on the front end and Python on the back. We are starting to introduce Go and GraphQL. I think when we think about career, which is always really important to me as a manager and leader in engineering, we really do want to highlight the managerial and tech tracks. I think it's really important to highlight and support everyone's strengths and development. I know that there's a divide in the industry where sometimes, to advance in your career, you have to be a manager or you're a tech lead, and that's kind of a hybrid. We want to make sure there's a separate track to provide to our engineers.

What types of projects are you working on at LeafLink?

Payments and liquidity technical strategies and teams. When I joined in October 2020, it was really in its infancy. There was some build, but they hadn't launched anything. There were only two engineers. It was like, let's get these MVP products out. Let's build the team and meet those milestones, and I am proud to say, we've done that. I lead a team of 22 now. We've launched a bunch of products. Some of them are even beyond the slate MVP phase. They allow our retailers, our brands, to pay and get paid the way they want. We offer flexible and direct payment options. Our flexible payments are where the credit, capital management, and cash flow come in. If you were to get a credit to spend on the platform with the due date, and our direct payments are essentially like an ACH facilitation, think like what Venmo does. We've had to face a lot of obstacles because cannabis is not federally legalized. We've had to innovate a lot and slightly build things that kind of already exists out there quickly in order to get the money movement aspect of the integrations with our bank. That's been something I think the team has been the proudest of, of our accomplishments so far. 

Tell us more about managing other engineers and managers. 

My team includes engineering managers and staff engineers. In my last role, I managed a team of 90. My direct reports primarily were senior managers and principals, so I have had a breadth of being able to manage different seniority types and different autonomy. How do you make sure you're empowering and giving space to individuals? They're going to require different things based on their roles. In addition, I've managed globally at all three companies where I was a people manager. That comes with its challenges, and I think makes us all better to constantly be reminded of inclusion, especially during the pandemic, when you have people who don't have the same access to things that we do right now. If I had to describe my management style, it would be empathetic, humble, empowering, inclusive, and distributed. There's a style out there known as feminist leadership. It's made famous by a lot of NGOs. Action Aid has a big program on it. I have those elements trickled in as well. Other elements are being reflective, zero tolerance, feedback, and self-care. Mental health days are real health days. I think the biggest one is eliminating bias and recognizing that we're all diverse and have all different needs. 

Tell us about your management style, company culture, and your journey. 

Culture is an interesting thing. Depending on the person, it can be interpreted differently or sought differently. I think that culture is the output of the behaviors and actions of a company's employees. When I think about LeafLink's culture, I think it embodies our core values. Our core values are surrounded in collaboration, inclusion, and cultivating a better community, which is one of my favorites, transparency, and trust. I think that's a great way to describe our culture. We also show up and create a space where people want to show up daily. We have an amazing people team with a person dedicated to employee engagement. We're constantly doing different things and getting people together.

Tell us how you've become Director of Engineering and what that journey was like. 

I could go as far back as when I decided I wanted to be a computer scientist. I was fortunate that my mother showed me access to that early on. It wasn't very transparent and visible, one of the biggest missions of Women Who Code because it's still an issue. I think it was age 10 when I realized I wanted to do it. It was “bring your daughter to work day.” I went to Lockheed Martin, where she worked at the time. I remember we got to see the Mars rover prototype. I was a space nerd. We went into the server room. The guy said it had two servers, "I make this. Talk to this." I was like, "Magic!"

My mom struggled to find my basic resources, let's learn this height, remember keyboarding classes, and then Intro to Microsoft Office. I was able to learn on my own and find my own avenues. My Space, of course, was a great way to learn HTML. I found access to some programming courses in high school. I competed a bit, and it was evident that I was on the right track. I went to school for computer science, and then I minored in Business Administration. I also was very fascinated by business. That's been a trend in my career, the intersection of finance and tech. It also gave me a lot of really great fundamentals for management and leadership as well.

I started in financial tech I went to Wall Street. I worked at two major investment institutional banks, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley. I learned a lot. I did all kinds of different things there. I did algorithmic trading, pricing engines, and integrations with major companies like Bloomberg. I got to work with some of the smartest people and quantitative strategists that worked under Steven Hawking. Once I got to management there, it was clear that I was getting further away from tech. Although the domain was great, I was passionate about being an engineer. I was moving into management, maybe a bit more quickly than I was ready for at the time. Also, I identify as gender fluid; my pronouns are she and they. I identify as queer and date multiple genders. It was hard for me sometimes to feel like I could be my authentic self. That's not a stab to Wall Street or big companies, it was just my experience then. I wanted to be able to be my authentic self at work. I wanted to encourage and create those spaces for others at companies I was part of. I also wanted to take a step back to IC work and engineering. I wanted to hone in on the craft and explore what was out there.

Why is DEI important? 

I don't know why it wouldn't be important, but it's also important to know that we understand what it means. Diversity is the presence of differences. Equity promotes justice for the inequalities of diverse and marginalized groups through procedures, processes, resource allocation, and systems. Inclusion is the outcome to ensure that the diverse feel they are welcomed and are part of decision-making. I identify with multiple under-represented groups but recognize my privilege as a white Caucasian person. It's about realizing that there are multiple facets to it.

What do you do personally for DEI? 

I need to show up in these spaces, be a listening ear, and help where I can. I talked about my privilege and amplifying those around me. If I had to say there's one other thing, it's also participating where you have influence. In all the companies I've ever been at, I've been an active participant in DEI initiatives and making it a priority. I don't usually join companies unless they have DEI initiatives. I want to show up as my authentic self and feel welcome there.

Do you want to give us some LeafLink women's stats? 

The stats can always be better. I think it's hard when you're at a company doubling yearly to maintain a proper ratio when these pools are already so lean to pull from. LeafLink started in 2016 with four members, two females and two males. It was 50/50. Now, 33% of the employees at LeafLink are women. In tech, it's not as good. It's 17%. As someone who is a leader in tech, I prioritize wanting to close that gap. We have a great strategy with our diversity mandates from our talent acquisition team. We have good representation for sourcing. We do unbiased resume scrubs for hiring managers. We have objective and consistent interview processes. It's not a lack of intention. 

What is your advice to women engineers?

I love advising because I think there was a lack of it; as I was advancing in my career, it was really hard to find women or women-identifying role models in tech that I could lean on. The biggest thing I tend to tell people is, don't get caught up on what's next and where your deficiencies are. It is easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you must put hours and hours into your development. There is real fatigue in that. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I need to know to be slightly better at what is right in front of me?” Do you understand the latest version of the language you're using at work or the next one in beta that you could influence your company to leverage? Do you feel fluent in the frameworks that you're working within? Are there things you think are magic that you could understand a little bit more? Also, focus on team delivery and partnership. I think this is where our humility lies. I'm really big on humility. We all have our strengths and geniuses, and we will forever be a work in progress with areas for improvement. I think leveraging your team to complement those and stepping in to help out others with your strengths is a great way to focus your energy.

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