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Tabitha Blagdon: "Life is too short to not love what you do."

Now a Platform Engineering Manager at Tally, Tabitha Blagdon started out in investment and portfolio consulting and eventually gave up on the corporate career to pursue her long-time side hobby of web development. At Tally, Tabitha and her team architected and built the back-end systems for the beta launched Tally Save product - the first and only free, automated savings app that rewards customers for saving.


In advance of her talk "Scaling Financial Automation on TypeBus" that she's presenting with her colleague Kaoru Kohashigawa, we spoke with Tabitha about finding her passion, about her mission to help people become less stressed and better off financially through financial automation, what attracts engineering talent to Tally, and what can make the Scala community more inclusive.


Welcome to Scale By the Bay! Please tell us how you started in software engineering - what inspired you, when was the moment that you realized that you want this to be your career and how did you make it happen?


My career as a software engineer began with an honest conversation with myself. For the first eight years of my career, I worked in investment and portfolio consulting at investment and asset management firms such as Merrill Lynch, Franklin Templeton, and BlackRock. After I  earned my MBA in Finance from UC Davis, I was well on my way to climb the corporate ladder of this career path that I had started on after college. But things didn’t feel right to me and I felt increasingly dissatisfied. I yearned for a more mission-driven career that could make a tangible and positive impact on society. I also loved solving puzzles, building things from the ground up, and thinking strategically and creatively to tackle challenging problems. All of this was missing from the work I was doing so I knew I needed to make a change. Life is too short to not love what you do. The hard part was figuring out what my career should be. 


At this point, web development had been a long-time side hobby of mine. When I was 11 years old and the Internet started to become a thing, I was intrigued by the emergence of personal websites and started to teach myself how to build webpages from scratch by reading source code. In college, I would often build websites on the side and serve as webmaster for several organizations. When I decided I needed to get out of finance, it finally clicked that I didn’t want coding to be a hobby anymore. I wanted it to be my career — and more importantly, I wanted to expand my knowledge beyond building websites and build full-stack applications and scalable backend systems instead.


To help make the transition to software engineering, I attended a coding bootcamp in San Francisco and got my start as a full-stack engineer. It was during this formative period when I realized that I enjoyed designing and implementing the back-end services, APIs, and platforms that power awesome products and that I loved being able to dig into algorithms and data modeling. 


Do you remember the moment when you decided to join Tally? What attracted you to the company the most?


Having already worked for numerous global corporations in the past, I decided to start my career as a software engineer at a smaller start-up. It was also important that the company I joined had a tangible mission where I could use my entrepreneurial and strategic thinking to make a meaningful impact on the business. Additionally, I knew that I would thrive in the FinTech industry, which would be an awesome blend of my passion for financial markets and engineering.


Tally checked all the boxes. I joined because I believed and identified with its mission to help people become less stressed and better off financially through financial automation. Furthermore, I was especially intrigued by the complexity of working on and building a scalable and reliable money transfer and payments system. It was also an opportunity to focus purely on backend engineering and learn functional programming in Scala, which was something I’ve always wanted to do.


What is your current role at Tally and what exciting things are you and your team working on?


I am an engineering manager for the platform team that supports Tally Save, a completely free automated savings app that rewards you for setting money aside and other good financial behaviors. To explain how it works: consistently saving money on Tally Save will earn you points that are redeemable for gift cards from top brands like Amazon, Starbucks, Uber, and Airbnb, or you can choose to use your points to make charitable donations.


Right now, we’re focused on scaling the resiliency of Tally Save’s money transfer pipelines and rewards systems. We are also iterating quickly on customer feedback from the private beta to improve the product and build new features to expand how we reward and gamify saving money.



What is the biggest challenge you are facing in your work and how are you addressing it?


One of the biggest challenges we face is making daily judgment calls on how to balance work towards the resiliency and observability of our platform versus the continuous rollout of new features on our product. Timing and speed are critical to any product launch, which often makes these decisions harder.


What is Tally's culture like and what makes it attractive to the engineering talent?


The people who join Tally genuinely believe in the company’s mission and work hard to make it come to life. Tally values accountability, showing empathy for our users and each other, and speaking up — even if it means challenging the CEO. This is reflected in our three core values that guide our hiring process: Own the Outcome, Change Shoes Often and Don’t Say Nothing. 


Tally’s core values played out when we were planning and engineering the launch of Tally Save. First, the Product and Design teams started by Changing Shoes Often with our potential users. We did a lot of user research to understand why people struggle to save money and how we could use technology to motivate and remove barriers to entry. During this phase, we realized that we needed to make saving money easy and rewarding. This is why we added the rewards feature and gamified the experience. 



Then, the engineering team was given the Own the Outcome autonomy and trust to explore the right technologies to architect Tally Save, given the product requirements. For example, Tally Save was architected and built with a very different stack than our legacy systems — Kubernetes, Kafka, Akka Streams, and Akka Cluster were a few new frameworks and technologies introduced for Tally Save. We also aimed to build an event-driven, distributed system that communicated through an event bus that could scale easily long term and allow us to process and act on user actions in real-time - hence, we built Typebus. 


To sum it up, Tally Engineering values collaboration, ownership, mentorship, learning, and trust. For example, we host bi-weekly engineering lunch-and-learns to foster constant learning and knowledge sharing. During these sessions, the team takes time to demo or learn new technologies together. If you’re interested in making a big impact on a business, solving complex financial systems problems, and love to learn and grow technologically with your team, Tally is a great place to take your engineering career to the next level.


What will you cover at Scale By the Bay and why did you choose this topic?


Financial systems are known to move at glacial speeds, so we wanted to show how building technologies for the financial services industry can be interesting and innovative. When building Tally Save, we developed a framework in-house for building distributed microservices in Scala using Akka Streams and Kafka. Called TypeBus, this framework allowed us to run various synchronous tasks while remaining available for customers to access their data in real-time. 


Whom would you like to meet at Scale By the Bay?


I would love to meet more like-minded people who are passionate about how automation can help people become less stressed and better off financially. I’m also interested in meeting women engineers and engineering managers. It’s especially important to me that we promote more diversity in this specific field and it starts by creating a community that is welcoming and encourages up-and-coming talent. 


Anything else you'd like to add?


My advice to anyone considering a career change to become a software engineer is this: making a career change isn't easy, but life is too short to do something you don't love. It's never too late to transition to engineering or any other career that you're passionate about.


Don't miss Tabitha Blagdon and Kaoru Kohashigawa and their talk "Scaling Financial Automation on TypeBus" at Scale By the Bay on November 14th. Book your ticket now.


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