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Engineering at Betterment: Do You Have to Be a Financial Expert?

When I started my engineering internship at Betterment, I barely knew anything about finance. By the end of the summer, I was working on a tool to check for money launderers and fraudsters.

Articles by Marvin
By Marvin Qian Engineering Intern, Betterment Published Aug. 17, 2015
Published Aug. 17, 2015
3 min read
  • Working at Betterment gives you the opportunity to learn about finance while still being immersed in a tech startup culture.

  • In some cases, knowing less about finance can be a motivator to learn quickly.

Last summer, I built an avatar creator for K-12 students. Now, a year later, I’m working on a tool to check for money launderers and fraudsters. How did I go from creating avatars with Pikachu ears to improving detection of financial criminals? Well, it was one part versatility of software engineering, one part courage to work in an industry I knew nothing about, and a dash of eagerness to learn as much as I could.

I was on the verge of taking another internship in educational technology, commonly referred to as ‘edtech.’ But when I got the opportunity to work at Betterment, a rapidly growing company, I had to take it.

Before my internship, finance, to me, was a field in which some of my peers would work more hours than I had hours of consciousness. Definitely not my cup of tea. I knew I didn’t want to work at a big bank, but I did want to learn more about the industry that employed 16.6% of my classmates at Yale.

The name Betterment jumped out at me on a job listings page because it sounded like it would make my life ‘better.’ Betterment is a financial technology, or ‘fintech,’ company; while it provides financial services, it’s an engineering company at its core. Working here offered me the opportunity to learn about finance while still being immersed in tech startup culture.

I was nervous to work in an industry I knew nothing about. But I soon realized it was just the opposite: Knowing less about finance motivated me to learn—quickly.
When I started working at Betterment, I barely knew anything about finance. I couldn’t tell you what a dividend was. I didn’t know 401(k)s were employer-sponsored. My first task involved DTC participants, CUSIPs, and ACATS—all terms that I’d never heard before. (For the record, they stand for The Depository Trust Company, Committee on Uniform Security Identification Procedures, and Automated Customer Account Transfer Service, respectively.) A few days into my internship, I sat through a meeting about traditional and Roth IRAs wondering, what does IRA stand for?

The unfortunate thing is that this is common for people my age. Personal finance is not something many college students think about—partially because it’s not taught in school and partially because we don’t have any money to worry about anyway. (Besides, no one wants to be an adult, right?) As a result, only 26% of 20-somethings have any money invested in stocks. At first, I thought my lack of exposure to finance put me at a disadvantage. I was nervous to work in an industry I knew nothing about. But I soon realized it was just the opposite: Knowing less about finance motivated me to learn—quickly.

I started reading Robert Shiller’s Finance and the Good Society, a book my dad recommended to me months earlier. I searched every new term I came across and, when that wasn’t enough, asked my co-workers for help. Many of them took the time to draw diagrams and timelines to accompany their explanations. Soon enough, I had not only expanded my knowledge of engineering best practices, but I learned about dividends, tax loss harvesting, and IRAs (it stands for individual retirement account, in case you were wondering). The friendly atmosphere at Betterment and the helpfulness of the people here nurtured my nascent understanding of finance and turned me into someone who is passionate about investing.

Before working at Betterment, I didn’t think finance was relevant to me. It took eight hours a day of working on a personal finance product for me to notice that the iceberg was even there. Now, I know that my money (well, the money I will hopefully have in the future) ideally should work hard for me instead of just sitting in a savings account. Luckily, I won’t have to struggle with building an investment portfolio or worry about unreasonable fees. I’ll just use Betterment.

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