Ledgy: How do you feel today and why are you sitting here?
I’m feeling great! Thanks for putting this together. I’m not so surprised that you asked me to kick off this interview series. Whenever someone new joins the team, particularly if they are not on the engineering team, I’m always very conscious of how they are welcomed. The gap between engineering and non-engineering teams can feel enormous if you don’t know how to approach each other. For example, the biz devs are always at the front line, so you are our best resource for understanding what the users need. If you see pain points, bugs, or places to improve, it only benefits the company if you feel comfortable approaching the engineering team.
Ledgy: How did a neuroscientist and serial entrepreneur join Ledgy?
Well, entrepreneurship has always been a part of my life. My parents owned a small winery and honey company, and I have founded two companies. I see working at Ledgy as a great way to support the entrepreneurial community.
As for neuroscience, my brother had a pretty terrible skiing accident when he was 12. He was in a coma for 11 days with a traumatic brain injury. During his recovery, I was fascinated by his displays of neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change in order to adapt. The accident affected his speech, motor skills, memory. However, since he was young, his brain had higher plasticity and was able to almost completely rewire the damaged parts of his brain. The whole experience led me to cognitive neuroscience. Then, because my degree was highly interdisciplinary, I was exposed to computer science in my studies, and it eventually led me along a path that went went more and more into tech.
Ledgy: I see you’re passionate about narrowing the gender gap in tech through education, mentorship and community. Tell me a little bit about it.
I benefited hugely from the women in tech communities in the Bay Area. I had several experiences in college where I didn’t feel confident enough to ask how to contribute to software projects. I was a co-founder of the Multimedia Orchestra at Berkeley, which was a performance group building projects with programming, art, music, and hardware like the Oculus and Microsoft Kinect. I wanted to contribute code, but didn’t really know how to dive in. I would ask how to get started and the answer would be, “Oh, yeah, just fork it on GitHub—super easy.” This was a huge barrier to entry, because if you’re starting from scratch with your developer environment, what sounds like a simple step (just run a few lines in the terminal), is basically impossible.
I overcame the barrier by going to more and more to women in tech events. Everyone was starting from scratch. You could always ask what felt like dumb questions, since mentors were available and conscious of our general level of expertise. One of the greatest skills I learned through this was pair programming, where two people work simultaneously on the same project, on the same screen. It’s a fantastic way to practice articulating when you are confused or debugging. I also started going to hackathons which helped get my foot in the door. I spent the next two years building increasingly complex projects, and then eventually completed a fellowship at Hackbright Academy in SF to make the full switch to engineering.
Ledgy: Why did you come to Switzerland and how do you feel at ease here in Switzerland?
The first time I moved here, I gloriously failed. My now-husband had just started his PhD at ETH, but we weren’t married then. In Switzerland, and Europe in general, for the work visa you need a degree or 3 years of experience in your line of work. I had 3 years of experience as a product manager and co-founder, but had just switched to full-time software engineering. So I and my cognitive neuroscience degree sat in a tiny, dingy apartment on Langstrasse eating dirt cheap boxed pasta and studied like crazy for coding interviews. I had some promising leads, but no one could guarantee the visa, so I eventually moved back to San Francisco to work at Eventbrite. Once we were married, everything was simpler. When I moved back to Zurich, I had the on-paper engineering experience, found a job at a nice company, and the visa was just a bit of extra paperwork.
One huge difference I see between then (early 2017) and now, is the women in tech scene in Switzerland. Initially, I was only able to find big, interesting events every few months. So, when I moved back, I joined the board for the local Geek Girls Carrots chapter, started organizing events, giving talks, training people for coding interviews, and started teaching and mentoring with Code Excursion. I wanted to bring part of the Silicon Valley spirit to Switzerland. Now, women in tech groups seem to be exploding in popularity. There are so many events, talks, and meetups that all the different groups now have to meet regularly so that we can coordinate. It’s simply breathtaking to see this trend.
Ledgy: Why do you believe that startups benefit from Ledgy?
I think that in the last 10–15 years we have seen a huge uptick in SaaS companies that help us be more productive. When you’re founding a company, you think, “I’m going to build this self-driving unicycle, it’s going to be great, people will love it, I will spend every waking minute building this self-driving unicycle.” But actually, as a founder, you have so many other things to take care of. You expect to spend your time building great features for users, and instead you find yourself drowning in payroll and accounting and administrative tasks. If founders can use Ledgy to help organize all the data, documents, calculations and complexity of equity management, it leaves more time to bring great products like self-driving unicycles to market.
Thanks Jahlela! You can find her on Twitter @jahlela