March 28, 2017
Photographs by Jay Hagstrom

Startup life has some huge perks — you can be agile, jump on the latest tech and respond to changes in the market quickly. But being part of the tech team at a more established company has benefits too — you aren’t beholden to venture capitalists, have a larger pool of talent and you can weather storms that may take down a fledgling startup.

At iLoan, you can have your cake and eat it too.

The company is a OneMain brand but operates with a startup attitude. Just like it’s parent company, iLoan offers borrowing solutions to consumers. But it is wholly focused on online lending with a simple, transparent process to securing a loan.

“I think the biggest thing that sets us apart is that we have a very startup-like mentality — but with the backing of a big financial firm,” said Afra Ahmad, a software engineering manager at iLoan. “There have been times [at previous jobs] when I've gone to work and had to nix a product due to budget constraints. These issues haven't been a problem at iLoan. The focus doesn't change on a monthly basis because of what a VC decides we should do.”

We sat down with some of iLoan’s engineering team (including Afra Ahmad, software engineering manager; Ryan Krage, software engineer; Crystal Ye, technical product manager; Jen Trudell, software engineer; and Jose Natalini, senior software engineer in test) to talk about what sets their lending tech apart, their biggest challenges and how much an engineer really needs to understand lending to make it in the industry.




Let’s talk tech. How are you modernizing borrowing, and what products are you building to get us there?

Afra: A lot of it goes back to augmenting all these things that make borrowing hard. Previously, there was a lot of manual work. We are alleviating that by integrating directly with the vendors — that saves a lot of man-hours on a weekly basis.

Ryan: ​Secured lending is the big one that I'm working on, which basically means putting up, say, your vehicle as collateral to secure a loan. ​That decreases risk for us, so we can give people more loans essentially. There are a lot of challenges with that, as you can imagine. We have to integrate with all sorts of different vendors, so there is one vendor for getting the value of the vehicle, another for getting the history report of customer's vehicle, and so on.

What makes iLoan's tech team stand out from other Chicago tech outfits?

Ryan: What sets us apart is our employees. The developers are open to new ideas, and we're always talking to each other and management as well. If you go to them with a different idea or approach from what we normally do, they're usually very open to that sort of thing.

Afra: And from a technical point of view, we have a wide range of skill sets. We always try to bring juniors up through experiences. You can always ask anyone for help, and it's always encouraged. We look at each employee like a long-term investment.




That level of freedom must mean your team has some cutting-edge coding chops. Are there any parts of your tech stack you’re pretty proud of?

Crystal: A really nice thing about working here is it's cloud based. We can also do really fast releases. We can actually do multiple releases in a day if we wanted to. Sometimes, when we catch a bug we can put out a fix within an hour. There are a lot of companies that have to support tons of different versions. They don't get the luxury of releasing every single day if they wanted.

Jen: On the back end, we keep our Ruby and PostgreSQL version relatively up to date, so we're not dealing with software releases from two years ago. On the front end, we're moving a lot of our consumer-facing front end from Ruby on Rails to a React front end — and working in React is fun.




Secured lending is something I wouldn't think most engineers have on their radar. How much lending knowledge did you have coming into this role, and how much of it is built here?  

Ryan: I've been here for about year now, and I know a little bit about the lending industry. As an engineer here, it helps to have that knowledge — but you don't need to be an expert in it.

Jose: I have no prior experience, but I'm learning every day — because it's part of my job but also because it's very interesting, as well. You have to go really deep, because as a QA you have to make sure the software works as expected. You have to get your hands dirty to manage all the details.

Jen: I'm a career changer, and before this I was a finance attorney. I've worked with a lot of loans and secured loans for corporations. The general details of how loans amortize and things like that transfer to this job. I know a lot of the vocabulary. That gave me a little leg up on getting used to our code. 

Crystal: I don't think you need to have finance knowledge coming in. You just need to have the capability of learning it.




Definitely —  a hunger to learn may be the most desired trait across the tech industry. Is that a big thing you look for in new hires?

Crystal: One big attribute we're looking for is people who are self-starters: if you don't know something, you're going to seek out the answer. For example, if I was interviewing someone for product, I’d want to know how you go about staying on top of the field. Are you going to product meetups? Are you going online to forums and reading about product management?

Do you have any other advice for people looking to get a job at iLoan?

Jen: It helps to know what you're interested in outside of work. My outside projects are all code based. I'm very into social justice causes and one of the things I’ve done is volunteer with the Exoneration Project in Chicago, which gets people wrongfully convicted out of prison. I made an intake website for them.

Jose: I'm always honest in interviews, but I was really honest in that I didn't have a lot of experience in the main programming language we use. I was using different programming languages, so they gave me an exercise and I did the exercise to the best of my knowledge. In the interview, we didn’t focus so much on the technologies, but more on the reasoning and programming knowledge I had. It wasn’t about the specific software.




Now that you’ve been hired, what’s one of the best days you’ve had at the company?

Jen: Quite honestly, almost every day here is the greatest day. I really like working here. I really like getting up in the morning and coming to work. Even recently I was in a team meeting with senior colleagues and I provided input on a problem we were having. We went with my idea and it just felt really great. I knew what I was doing, and I was being listened to.

Crystal: We're adding support for joint loans, like for married couples, within our platform. I wouldn't say it’s necessarily the most technically difficult, but it’s complex. The scope literally touches every aspect of the platform. It's a lot of work to redo that, and we end up hitting a bunch of tech debt. The way we approached the development was to build pieces of the functionality one at a time. You couldn't necessarily see the final product, because you needed a certain amount of pieces to be developed for it work.

The best day was after months of development when we were finally able to see the functionality actually show up in our system and be able to go through a demo or walk through of it. It's great validation to actually see it live, in front of your eyes instead of just knowing it's there in the code.

Transforming the theoretical into something more tangible is always gratifying, but it sounds like an uphill climb. How else has your work at iLoan challenged you?

Afra: The company I was at before it was just stagnant. It was the same routine every day, and it was one of the reasons I left — I wasn't being challenged. They say as soon as you stop learning the job, it's over for you. Here at iLoan, people are always happy to be learning new things. Our teams work with lots of new tools and new patterns, which can be hard, but helpful as well. Nothing is off the table, nothing is set in stone. People think outside box, which is what I really, really like. You don't get that from a lot of places.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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