Building an Engineering Culture at Neighborly

Since I took my first economics class in eighth grade, I’ve been obsessed. I championed my favorite economists like an avid sports fan, tried not to bore my middle school pupils in the economics class I taught, was threatened with death by an angry voter in response to my political canvassing calls, and devoured the news. For years, building just and decentralized government and economic systems fascinated me.

Attending Stanford, I was conflicted about whether to major in computer science or economics. I decided to focus on computer science, but I still hoped to combine my passions for economics, government, and technology. And this summer, I got to do that. Hunting for an internship at my college’s career fair, I met our CEO Jase Wilson. He briefed me on Neighborly’s mission: making public finance — an overlooked but enormous ($3.8T!) market that funds our community schools, infrastructure, and other projects — more transparent, efficient, and individual. I was excited. Of all the companies I talked to that day, Neighborly easily stood out.

Over the past few months as an engineering intern, I worked on projects in data science and web development while learning a lot about finance and business. Though I was only here for a few months, I had a lot of discussions about what makes Neighborly unique. A few traits make our culture stand out.

Passion for making finance and government more transparent, efficient, and tailored to the needs of communities.

We’re “bug-obsessed,” as our investor Joe Lonsdale put it in a recent article. We confront “bugs” in an existing system — public finance — to implement better versions. We’re automating the bond issuance process, with the goal of cutting out millions in fees that currently go to bankers and lawyers.

We’re also democratizing municipal finance, making it easier for investors to access the bonds that fund the infrastructure they all rely on. Through our online bond issuance and purchase platform, we’re helping local governments issue smaller-denominated bonds that their own community members can buy. Using our extensive data platform, investors can easily compare and contrast issuances instead of searching through PDFs.

Interdisciplinary people and work.

Neighborly’s team isn’t only technical, but also financial. Every new engineer spends a significant portion of their first few weeks just learning about the complex municipal bond market. Many of our technical people have financial backgrounds: our Lead Data Scientist was a bond trader and our Head of Product used to report on bond markets. Our CTO was Code for America’s founding CTO after receiving a PhD in economics.

We’re geographically diverse, hailing from small towns in the Midwest, to other countries like Brazil and the UK, to big cities like New York City and San Francisco. Neighborly’s team has been impacted by diverse municipal projects — parks, transit systems, etc. — firsthand. I think this diversity in knowledge and backgrounds clearly improves our product.

Engineering first.

Despite the interdisciplinary skills of our team, our company culture is centered on engineering. Neighborly’s product is built on a massive and complex data platform. We’ve amassed data on public finance and economic indicators from more than 50 data sources to build the most sophisticated data platform in public finance. We built a data model for California, developed a native pricing curve using machine learning, and parsed official statements using natural language processing. And, because we believe that what has been missing from this market is transparency and access, we’re making this data available to everyone, for free.

Pair programming, mentorship, and humility.

Neighborly engineers frequently work in pairs. The fast pace of a startup means that priorities quickly change and engineers often rotate between teams. Pairing helps engineers gain proficiency in our various technologies as they mentor and are mentored. Working with the data scientist, for example, empowers the front-end engineer to solve data problems for himself in the future.

This is especially valuable for interns. I worked with engineers at every step of the data pipeline, from ingesting and cleaning data to persisting it the front end. Enlisting help from an engineer to fix some frustrating problems with my development environment turned into a small project to improve our documentation. Now I could help new interns and visiting data scientists debug their environments and acclimate to the stack. Neighborly balances shipping with training. Engineers here are patient and willing to teach. Everyone is friendly, open, and humble — or, should I say, neighborly.

“We’re sharers — we share our computers when we pair, we share our feelings in our frequent ‘retrospectives’ and we share our victories when we ship. I really feel like I’m part of a team here.” — Faye Keegan, Engineer

Confronting our weaknesses.

Pair programming reflects a broader trait among everyone at Neighborly: constantly trying to improve. Whether studying for the Series 52 exam to become licensed to market municipal bonds, attending civic hacking meetups, improving testing coverage, or looking for ways to refactor existing code, Neighborly team members aren’t content to push out a minimum viable product, but care about writing well-designed code and deeply understanding public finance to identify improvements.

Learning is constant. At our frequent “Lunch ’n’ Learn”’ sessions, for example, we’ve had visiting speakers from Palantir’s head of engineering to the former mayor of DC. They talk frankly and openly on topics like building an engineering culture, regulation in public finance, and programmatically generating legal documents.

Monopolizing a problem space.

We’re the only startup in the $3.8 trillion municipal bond market, and we’re growing fast. We’re backed by Joe Lonsdale, Ashton Kutcher, Stanford University, and other investors, and we’re about to raise our Series A. Our team will be expanding and improving in the next few months. This is an exciting time to join: our future is bright and we’re iterating on our product quickly. If you’re interested in government tech or financial tech, Neighborly provides both.

I’m back at Stanford, but I’m always available to answer questions about my experience. Feel free to email me. This was my first technical internship, and these are the most driven and friendly group I’ve worked with. Ultimately, people here see municipal finance as a vehicle to improve urban residents’ happiness, health, and prosperity. If you care about empowering communities, consider Neighborly!

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