A conversation on gender balanced tech teams and social impact startups with software engineer Yinting HuangFeatured

I spoke with Yinting Huang, an early software engineer at FreeWill, a social venture that has helped move $1 billion to nonprofit organizations through estate planning. Yinting and I discussed her career journey and how she decided to join FreeWill, the role of diversity and diverse perspectives in product development, and the experience of working with gender balanced engineering teams.Could you share your background and what led you to FreeWill?Prior to FreeWill, I was working in the technology department of a large investment bank. I soon realized that the firm did not have the engineering oriented culture I was looking for. Moreover, I felt a lack of mission alignment between the firm’s values and my own, and I wanted to be at a company where I could make a positive impact and not be a cog in a machine. So I was looking for a very different work environment when a headhunter reached out to me about FreeWill. I spoke with Jenny Xia Spradling, the co-founder of FreeWill and loved her energy for her team and what they were building together. From these conversations with her and the other members of the team, I felt a strong sense of purpose and passion that I wanted to be a part of, so I came on full-time as a software engineer.How did the engineering team and broader team grow at FreeWill? It’s been an amazing journey to grow with FreeWill. When I started, the company was quite small, with only 10 people total. Within a year, our engineering team has tripled in size and our company has quintupled. It’s kind of crazy to look back and see how much has changed.In the early days, everyone was playing multiple roles, with Jenny, especially, filling in all our gaps and needs as a product manager and QA engineer on top of her co-CEO duties. It was great fun but chaotic at times. Now we have nine engineers and two product managers, and have a lot more processes in place.What’s also amazing is what has not changed on our team. Our culture has remained incredibly collaborative, fun, and tight knit. We try and learn from successes and mistakes and always keep an open mind. Our team is not afraid of change, and this openness to evolution has been instrumental in our ability to grow and adapt over time.FreeWill has a truly gender balanced engineering team (50% men and 50% women). How has this and the broader culture at FreeWill impacted your experience as an engineer at the company?Jenny has been an incredible leader, role model, and example of the path forward at FreeWill as a woman, which has been tremendously inspiring for me and other prospective and current female engineers at the company. From the outset, the FreeWill team has been gender balanced. So as we grew, there was a sort of snowball effect where our talent pipeline (starting from interns at the earliest level of hiring), in part built by the current team, was gender balanced as well and we continued to preserve the 50-50 ratio. Compared to prior professional environments, in large part because of the gender balanced team and the culture it creates, I feel more comfortable speaking up. Everyone’s voice is heard when discussing issues, proposing solutions, and creating products. Decision making processes feel more democratic, and the organizational structure feels flatter and more collaborative as well. Through ensuring diversity, FreeWill has brought together more personalities and perspectives which has created a more robust technical planning process, so there has been a palpable impact on the product as well as the team experience. What advice would you give your younger self?Particularly with startups, I used to think that these companies only wanted people with much more experience than I had, so I shied away from applying. Imposter syndrome will make you feel unqualified for applying for a wide array of roles, but believe in yourself and your ability to learn and grow and go for these opportunities anyways. Put yourself out there and take chances!
Wow, I love this. A lot of the women I work with (I'm a career and business strategist) find themselves in male-dominated cultures--especially as they move up in their careers. I love that the commitment was baked into the culture from the beginning.