Getting to Know Binti’s CTO: Allison Lacker

Tell us about your background and what brought you to Binti?

When I was in high school I had the opportunity to take some programming classes and absolutely fell in love. It’s such a fun combination between problem solving, building things, and creative design. While getting my degree at UIUC, I decided to specialize in human-computer interaction, because it leaned into the “how do we make this thing easy to use and really effective” side of problem solving that I enjoyed so much.

After graduating I really wanted to experience more of the world, learn about different cultures and see the impact of technology. I spent 2.5 years in Cameroon with the Peace Corps working with students and teachers in the tech space. Coming back to the US, I moved out to California and worked with Eventbrite, building and scaling at first their frontend architecture and then their discovery platform team.

When Felicia (Founder and CEO) reached out to me about Binti, I was immediately impressed by her passion for the mission, how the product would be able to directly improve the difficult day to day work for caseworkers, and the influence on long term outcomes for so many children currently experiencing foster care.

Working at Binti has been an incredible journey so far. From being the first engineer building features, to helping sculpt the placements product as product manager and engineer, to where I am now as CTO.

What lessons have you learned about managing a remote engineering team over the past 18 months? Any advice on how to maintain the culture?

Intentional communication is critical. When you’re in the office together, it is easier to see if someone is struggling by seeing them grimace at the test failures or chatting with them over coffee. In a virtual setting, I’ve been more proactive in my outreach with the team in order to build trust so that they know they’re able to chat with me about anything and provide help when someone has gone down a rabbit hole without realizing it.

Beyond technical communication, we really prioritize our values-alignment at Binti. We’ve managed to keep this front and center by having it be a core part of our interviewing and evaluation process. Two of our values that especially resonate with me in the remote world are “create love through empathy” as everyone struggles with the pandemic, and “empower with information” as we need to move all our communication digitally!

Some tactical strategies we’ve tried to maintain communication and camaraderie include:

  1. Moving our daily standup to video and socializing at the beginning. Historically, our standups were in written-format, but by moving it to video and kicking it off with an icebreaker has helped with team building. The icebreakers can run the gamut from things like “what’s your favorite breakfast food?” that usually ends up very lighthearted, to an open ended “how are you doing today?” which can get very serious especially during the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter protests.
  2. Intentional socialization time. Aside from our icebreakers, Binti also has an all-company “tea time” on Fridays or teams play digital games like Jackbox.
  3. We try to bring some of our virtual interaction to the physical world wherever possible, even though it’s challenging right now! For instance, during a recent team-building event we mailed these build kits to everyone and all hung out on a video call while we assembled our items. This doesn’t always go as expected though — another time we tried this, our Exquisite Corpse game got lost in the mail. I’m still hoping someday the drawings will just randomly show up!

Ice cream truck kit assembled and decorated by one of our amazing product managers, Austin Lan

What accomplishment are you most proud of during your time at Binti?

I’ve had a really phenomenal opportunity at Binti to wear many different hats and help out in various areas.

One very memorable time was when I had the opportunity to be both the founding engineer and product manager on our second module, Placements. I got to meet so many of our customers and families to hear about their struggles with pre-existing solutions. We were able to take key learnings from these conversations to quickly build and iterate on the new product which now has a full time team dedicated to it. I’m always excited to see what that team learns and builds next.

What projects are you and your team working on currently that you’re most excited about?

Making a configurable permission system, relationships modelling, and a child portal to allow youths to log into the system and provide their input. There are so many different types of challenges we’re always trying to solve — from complicated architectural problems to opportunities that improve the daily lives of social workers to directly impacting the youth– that it’s hard to decide. Luckily, we have a great team of engineers to drive forward multiple projects at once!

What is your next dream travel destination?

My husband and I got married on February 29th, 2020 right before everything started shutting down, so our honeymoon was cancelled. The plan had been to go to Japan for cherry blossom season, but now I’m looking forward to going at a time when we can climb Mt. Fuji! On an early vacation together we decided that we wanted to hike up a volcano, and it accidentally became a tradition. We’ve now hiked volcanoes together in 5 different countries, and Japan would be the 6th!

One of our volcano hikes in Grábrók, Iceland

Lastly, what advice would you give to a woman starting their career in engineering? What do you wish you had known?

I often struggle with this question, as everyone has different experiences in tech. When I got my CS degree, only 12% of my graduating class were women and being the only woman in a classroom of 100+ people was the norm.

I learned early on to be more stubborn than someone who thought I didn’t belong. I don’t want to give the advice for future generations to “just stick with it” though. We all really need to be changing the way technology spaces exist to be more inclusive for everyone. I’ve really appreciated that from the beginning, Binti has prioritized hiring and building out a diverse culture. I really hope that other companies in  the tech industry are starting to change and follow suit.

To that point, I think my advice would be “find a place where you are supported and feel comfortable to be yourself”. Those spaces exist, whether in-person locally or in virtual communities. Don’t give up, don’t settle, and find the place that welcomes you!