A summer spent with Aleks and Thomas
Sunday, August 25, 2019
August 2019
Interviews with interesting people about their sustainability journey
A summer spent with Aleks and Thomas

This summer we absolutely lucked out. Thomas, a sophomore computer science major at Stanford, and Aleks, a grad student pursuing computer science at NYU, graced us with their coding wizardry, positivity, and impressive work ethic as engineering interns here at Ethic HQ. They spent the summer working on various features that improve our data, security, and platform capabilities. 

We wanted to get their feedback on the summer and insight into their interest in sustainability. Below, with their permission, we share their responses as a peek inside our culture and our work. We believe that the people we surround ourselves with can make all the difference in both the quality of our lives and our product, and we were thrilled to spend our summer with Aleks and Thomas. 

The responses are unscripted and, we promise, real! (no bribes were paid in the making of this content). 

What’s one thing that surprised you about Ethic?

Aleks: I remember being pleasantly surprised by how organized, focused and efficient Ethic turned out being. Startups sometimes have a reputation for being all-over-the-place and lacking a clear direction. Ethic isn’t like this at all - there is a firm sense of what projects need to get done and what the company's long-term goals are. In fact, my first summer project was beginning work on an idea that was first hatched 4 years ago when the company was just getting started, there were just more pressing things to accomplish first. Discovering how well thought-through and balanced the company’s actions were, and just how far back its planning went, was surprising and impressive.

Thomas: I was impressed to see that the Ethic team maintains both a relaxed work environment and impressive work ethic. The office’s cheerful interactions and casual dress code are accompanied by a dedication to developing the product quickly yet carefully.

What did a typical day look like?

Thomas: I started working a bit before 9:30am every day, usually planning or writing code. Aleks and I would spend much of each day working side by side, offering suggestions and bouncing ideas off each other. Most days we’d have a meeting or two to sync with the rest of the engineering team. The most exciting meetings were the full product team meetings, in which we would brainstorm additions to the platform, spec out new features, and plan out software development timelines. I loved being able to watch the full development process, from the identification of pain points to the release of platform features. 

In the early afternoon, I’d grab lunch and some coffee, play fetch with Roux for a few minutes, and get back to my project. Planning, writing, and reviewing code with Kamel, Michelle, André, and Rey, all of whom were incredibly helpful and generous with their time, taught me a ton about creative problem-solving, coding best practices, and efficiency in meeting the software needs of a growing product. I normally finished working a bit before 7:00pm, staying later if Doug started blasting Blink-182.

Aleks: I get in early, usually around 9:00am. If Jay was in the office there would be freshly baked bread on the kitchen counter with almond butter and avocado spread waiting to be eaten. Otherwise, I’d make my morning cup of black tea and get to work.

The first thing on the agenda, more often than not, is some coding problem I’d got stuck on the day before and turned over in my mind during my evening and morning commutes. Usually a night of sleep is enough to come up with a fresh perspective. From there, it’s a full day of coding punctuated with meetings, reviews, demos and occasional company outings to Italian sandwich joints and sustainability-focused cafes. 

The office is always humming. People are milling about, huddling together, planning, debating, scheming. On most days Roux, a gorgeous mahogany Pointer, is also on active security and fetch detail. (She also attends most of our meetings.) Although this sounds like it could be chaotic, everyone is so focused on coming up with solutions and moving their work forward that the overall vibe is motivating and inspiring. 

Towards the end of the day things begin to get a little bit more relaxed. Everyone is still hard at work, but whatever music is streaming through the office speakers gets just a little bit louder. On Friday afternoons the entire team gets together to grab some beer or kombucha to celebrate some recent victory or hear Doug talk about what the company is doing. These meetings always start with a quick gratitude session, a lovely Ethic tradition where anyone on the team can throw out a thank-you to someone who helped them that week. It gives everyone a chance to highlight each other’s contributions and feel good about the work being done. It’s the perfect end to a day and a week at Ethic. 

Pick three words to describe Ethic’s vibe

Aleks: Laid-back, laser-focused, intensely welcoming. 

Thomas: Fast-paced, collaborative, jovial.

Has your view on creating impact changed at all this summer? If so, how?

Thomas: It has been interesting to see Ethic making an impact in an industry not typically associated with social or environmental progress. The company’s success in enacting change by promoting sustainable investing seems to result from the practicality of the product, which is user-friendly and doesn’t necessarily require sacrificed returns. Seeing Ethic’s approach to impact has illustrated to me the importance of offering a practical and valuable product in social entrepreneurship.

Aleks: One of the big takeaways from working at Ethic is that you have to create impact by any means necessary. Because Ethic is a financial company, it needs to balance the financial desires of its clients against the demands of sustainable investing. For some clients that are less interested in the altruistic side of sustainable investing, that means selling a sustainable portfolio as something that minimizes active risk (because unsustainable companies can ultimately be poor long-term investments) instead of something that makes the world a better place. One of Ethic’s strongest qualities is that it is able to approach different clients through whichever lens works best for them, all while maintaining its mission of reducing harm. Being realistic about what it takes to transition to a more sustainable future is extremely important to affecting true, meaningful change.  

What sustainability issue is most important to you? Has your view of/approach to that issue changed this summer?

Aleks: The most important issue for me today, as I’m sure it is for many people, is climate change. It is the defining crisis of our era and demands everyone’s attention. I wouldn’t say my view of climate change has changed - I don’t think it’s any more or less important - but I do love the fact that working at Ethic means that I am contributing to fighting the problem. That makes the issue much more personal for me. 

Thomas: Gender equity is one sustainability issue that matters a lot to me. It has been gratifying to see how Ethic enables divestment from companies based directly on data (e.g. percentage of management that is female). Screening every asset in a portfolio with the same criteria prevents any single company from flying under the radar-- it doesn’t take a highly publicized scandal for Ethic to promote divestment from a company with poor gender diversity. It is also encouraging to see that half of Ethic’s own team is female.

What was the hardest thing you did this summer? What was your favorite?

Aleks: Part of what makes working at Ethic so challenging and rewarding is the pace. Everything moves quickly, and you have to be able to keep up. From that point of view, being thrown into full-stack development for the first time was definitely challenging. Writing my first web-page and linking it to a database and backend code, making sure everything hooked together correctly and ran efficiently was a laborious process. There was so much to learn about! I absolutely felt a sense of accomplishment when things finally clicked together. 

Thomas: Presenting my first project at an all-team meeting was one of the hardest and most rewarding tasks of the summer for me. It was a challenge to summarize a long-term technical project and demonstrate the relevance of its results to the entire team. At the same time, it was rewarding to showcase a feature that I had worked hard to implement and was being released to the platform.

What technology interested you the most? Why?

Thomas: I really enjoyed learning HTML and JavaScript, having had almost no experience with front-end software development before interning at Ethic. My projects ended up being full-stack (by choice), which meant I was able to take a hands-on crash course in front-end coding and website design with the help of André and Kamel. Focusing on the user experience while writing code was an exciting and relatively new aspect of the software development process for me.

Aleks: I loved learning Javascript. It was, oddly enough, my first experience with the language. I had taken a web design course previously but the language it used was PHP. I found Javascript to be so much more flexible to work with and interesting to learn about. It was different enough from languages I had previously worked in to keep things interesting, while also being similar enough to keep the learning curve manageable. 

What is your biggest takeaway from a technology point of view?

Aleks: That you have to expose yourself to a lot of different tools and techniques if you want to be an effective developer. It isn’t enough to get really good at any one language or skill because everything in a modern engineering environment is interconnected. You should be able to jump into a problem at any stage and solve it if you want to make the most impact in your role. 

Thomas: A web-based product is a complex network of interacting software components, and frequent and constructive communication between team members, from the engineers implementing elements of a feature to those who will be using it, is crucial from conception to planning to coding to release.

What’s one thing you wish more people knew about sustainable finance?

Thomas: That it’s not a negative constraint! Sustainable portfolios can mitigate risk by divesting from companies that have potential for ESG-related failures or scandals.

Aleks: One big thing is that sustainable investing doesn’t automatically mean worse performance! Everyone at Ethic spends a lot of time and energy identifying sustainable options that can perform just as well or in certain cases even better than conventional funds. There are ways to eliminate toxic companies from an investment portfolio without incurring additional costs and while making a positive financial impact on the world. It’s a no-brainer.

The other big thing about sustainable finance that people need to know about - and this pertains to Ethic in particular - is that there is no one-size-fits-all “sustainable portfolio.” Sustainability means different things to different people - one person might really care about animal rights, another will want to focus on climate and racial justice. And even within a single sustainability category there are different thresholds for deciding whether to not divest. Ethic takes all of this complexity into account, crafting custom portfolios that closely align to a customer’s moral and financial values. It makes the act of investing sustainably a much more personal act, as it should be.

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Sources and footnotes

Aleks Itskovitch, originally from Brooklyn and of Russian heritage, graduated from Hunter College with a B.A. in Chemistry and German Language & Literature. He worked at the Cornell Laboratory for Elementary Particle Physics and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Computer Science at NYU. 

Thomas Maheras joined Ethic as a summer intern on the technology team. Thomas is studying computer science at Stanford University.