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Advice / Career Paths / Career Stories

Returning From Mat Leave Was Hard for This Engineer. Here’s How Her Company Stepped Up.

Lauren Brown, a senior software engineer at Koalafi
Lauren Brown, a senior software engineer at Koalafi.
| Courtesy of Koalafi

Lauren Brown always envisioned a life beyond the confines of her small town. “I knew from an early age that financial independence and living somewhere else were important to me,” she says.

But what Brown couldn’t figure out was what her path to independence would look like. “Growing up, I was torn between becoming an author or an engineer,” Brown says. “I really enjoyed writing, but I was more challenged by math and sciences.”

Her perspective shifted after a few influential female role models opened her eyes to the possibilities of working in tech. “Learning about their jobs was the first time I could picture myself with an engineering career,” she says.

After falling in love with computer science as a student at the University of Virginia’s engineering school, Brown pursued various software engineering internships. “After my first one, I knew that was the career I wanted,” says Brown, who today is a senior software engineer at the fintech company Koalafi.

Here, Brown shares how Koalafi supported her in a time of personal vulnerability, why the company’s mission of financial inclusivity resonates with her, and the key to maintaining work-life balance as a new parent.

Before joining Koalafi, you were an engineer at one of the biggest banks in the U.S. Why were you excited about joining a smaller startup?

For most software engineers, there’s a point in your career where you have to choose whether you want to continue writing code or take on management responsibilities. In my last role, I was quickly approaching that point when I realized I wanted to do both. Koalafi seemed like the perfect place to do that.

Now that I’m here, I feel like my contributions matter more than at my last role. It’s easier for me to understand the business, make meaningful suggestions, and have my voice heard. The projects I work on are customer facing, so any changes I make could have a direct impact on the company and our customers.

What was the candidate process like at Koalafi? How did it confirm that the company would be a good fit?

Actually, I initially turned Koalafi down after I interviewed! Throughout my interviews, everyone I spoke with was friendly, smart, and clearly driven. I could tell they were passionate about the company. I knew I wanted to work for Koalafi, but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to give the role the focus it needed at the time.

I was renovating a house in October, moving in November, and getting married in early December. I hadn’t planned to look for new roles until after my wedding, but the Koalafi opportunity just fell in my lap. Ultimately, I felt I had too much going on in my personal life to say yes. I told the recruiter why I was declining, also mentioning gaps between their offer and my current benefits. I wished her the best and said to keep me in mind for future opportunities.

Two weeks later, I got a call from the recruiter. Not only had they made changes to the benefits, but they’d be willing to accommodate a future start date! I was stunned. That told me so much about the company and gave me such a good feeling that I knew I had to make the opportunity work. It reinforced what I saw while interviewing, which was that Koalafi cares about each individual employee and will do the best they can for them.

What are you responsible for as a senior software engineer?

I work on our integrations team, helping to build the tech that supports integrating Koalafi financing with external companies, other finance platforms, and e-commerce plugins. My time and responsibilities are split between designing and implementing new features for our current projects and integrating with new external partners.

At the senior level, I’m expected to think critically about how a task or project fits into our company objectives and roadmap. I’m also expected to add ideas to our backlog for new work, enhancements, or tech debt cleanup. Outside of ideation, most of my time is spent either working on backend API or leading an external integration with our partners.

What is one project you’re particularly proud of, and what impact did it have on the business?

When I first joined the integrations team at Koalafi, we were solely building e-commerce integrations and our APIs only supported e-commerce applications. As a consequence, we weren’t able to integrate with external financing platforms that only offered in-store options, which restricted the stores where we could offer financing.

To support in-store applications, I redesigned and rewrote large chunks of our system. I updated our database schema to expand our definition of a store, and then made changes to our API to read that information and use it throughout the code. I also ran regression tests throughout our UI to make sure that the e-commerce and in-store flows worked as expected and didn’t interfere with the other.

The redesign took a couple of months but now, almost a year later, the majority of our external integrations take advantage of that new in-store flow.

Tell us about Koalafi’s mission and values. What resonates with you the most, and how do you embody it at work?

Koalafi’s vision is a world where no one has to put an important purchase on hold, and they want to make that happen by providing inclusive financial products that help businesses and consumers succeed. For me, that also means making sure our applications and products are inherently easy to use. One of our values is to ask, “How can this be better?” This resonates with me because I always try to show up to work as my authentic self, and a big part of that is asking questions.

What does it take to succeed as a software engineer at a company like Koalafi?

You need to understand the business and the problems you’re trying to solve. I think a lot of engineers get hung up on how they’re going to solve a problem instead of focusing on why. Don’t get me wrong, implementation and writing good code is a crucial skill to success, but if you don’t understand why a problem exists and why it needs to be fixed then you’ll never be able to build the best solution. Once you know the business, the next step is to proactively start suggesting newer features, improved designs, or ways to reduce tech debt.

We understand you recently had a baby. Congratulations! How has Koalafi supported you as a new mom?

Before I became a parent, I had a lot of ideas of what life would look like when my son was born, but almost none of that went to plan. We spent the first three weeks of my son’s life in the hospital; our childcare arrangement fell apart; and I was running on fumes. One thing I didn’t have to worry about was work. I had 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and the flexibility to use it as I needed it. I took my leave in two chunks, which gave us time to figure out childcare. While I was out on my first half of maternity leave, Koalafi gave me a new parent stipend and my team sent us several meals that kept us well fed in the hospital.

Two days after my leave ended, my son was admitted to the hospital again. Thankfully, it was treatable, but it required us to stay in the hospital for the rest of the week. My team encouraged me to go completely offline and focus on my family even though I’d just been out for six weeks. I’m very grateful for the understanding and space for recovery.

I work with a great group of people, and they were very accommodating when I came back to work. They were constantly making sure I was doing OK and would rearrange team meetings if they conflicted with my pumping schedule. There’re also a few other new moms who reached out to offer support and advice on work-life balance. It was nice to have a group to talk to about the challenges of being a working mom.

How are you maintaining work-life balance? What tips do you have for other new parents?

Once I realized that a healthy work-life balance isn’t always 50-50 but a balance for the stage of life I’m in, it got a lot easier for me. After my son was born, my husband and I took some time to talk about the expectations we had of ourselves, each other, and our family. When I returned to work, I melded those personal expectations with my professional goals, and I use that as a guide to find my daily balance. I try to make sure I’m getting what I need to be successful in each moment and if I need to take time to recharge, I ask for it.

My advice for new parents is to prioritize your mental and physical health. It’s like they say when you fly, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first before you can help others. I think it’s the same for parenting; if you’re in a bad mood or you aren’t feeling well your kids will pick up on that and react to it. It’s easier said than done, but I’ve found that taking a little time for myself every day, even if it’s just five minutes of fresh air, makes a huge difference.

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

I’m pretty shy, and early in my career I lacked the confidence to speak up in meetings. I constantly compared myself to my peers and would get nervous that I wasn’t performing as well as them. In hindsight, I was suffering from imposter syndrome, but at the time I didn’t understand what that meant.

The best advice I received was from a good friend. She told me to remind myself, “You were hired for a reason. The company values your experience and opinions, so speak up and ask the question, share the thought, or respectfully challenge ideas. You’re here now because they want to hear from you.”

The phrasing has changed as I’ve grown in my career, but the sentiment of the advice has stuck with me.

What’s something most people would be surprised to know about you?

I love podcasts! My favorite ones include My Brother, My Brother and Me, Behind the Bastards, The Bechdel Cast, Pod Meets World, and New Heights

Last year, some friends and I created the HerHax podcast as a place for us to discuss technology and cybersecurity in a way that’s fun and accessible to everyone. We cover some of the topics I mentioned earlier in more depth, so shameless plug to go listen to HerHax!