Hello Remitly

I’ve found a job! On Tuesday September 22, I’ll begin full-time work as a Senior Software Development Engineer for a Seattle software startup called Remitly.

What is Remitly?

Let’s say you’re an immigrant worker from Honduras picking cherries in Yakima, or maybe a Filipino construction worker in Saudi Arabia, and you want to sent part of your paycheck home to your family every month. This kind of small international money transfer is called a remittance, and it’s a huge source of income in developing countries. But how do you get that money back to your family?

You could…

  • Go visit a Western Union office and pay a big transfer fee
  • Send an envelope full of cash through the mail
  • Use this fancy new app called Remitly

The idea is that Remitly eats Western Union’s lunch by being more convenient and just as secure at a tenth the price. This is accomplished by clever software, economies of scale, and operational efficiency.

About the Company

Remitly is a late-stage venture capital-funded startup. Earlier this year they raised $85 million in series F funding on a $1.5 billion valuation. The desired exit seems to be an IPO (CEO Matt Oppenheimer is adamant about maintaining control of the company), and general consensus they’re on track to do so “in the next few years” (which you should, of course, take with a grain of salt). Their business has been doing great in 2020 – no one wants to risk getting COVID by physically going to a Western Union office, so they’ve acquired a lot of new customers. Wooo tech economy!

I’ll be joining their “new initiatives” team, working on a new project that hasn’t been officially announced yet! Exciting! You’ll probably see another post here when that goes public.

I’ll be working in a back-end / server-side role (as opposed to working on the app itself). The tech stack is Go and Java running on AWS. I’m super pumped about learning go! I am somewhat less excited about re-learning Java, though I hear it’s improved a lot in the last decade. AWS I’m somewhat ambivalent about. I found it frustrating to use while I was at Ada, but a lot of that was because I was debugging weird student issues, and because I never spent enough time on it to feel like I knew what I was doing. But whether or not I learn to love it, I suspect working with the cloud will be an incredibly valuable and powerful skill-set, one that’s all but inevitable for a software engineer in 2020.

But the thing that drew me to Remitly is that it’s not just about eating Western Union’s lunch. Remitly is fully committed to helping improve the lives of immigrants and their families by providing useful financial services. It’s an extremely mission-driven company, and this manifests itself everywhere I’ve looked, from their website, to conversations with current and former employees, to their press coverage.

The Mission

I am totally stoked about Remitly’s mission. I think they’re actively making the world a better place, by helping the right people in the right ways for the right reasons.

People – I love the idea of working for a company that provides useful services to immigrants. These are people who have made a huge sacrifice in search of a better life, for themselves and their families. They want it, and they’re gonna go get it. People who are willing to upend their lives in search of something better (a group which includes Ada students) tend to be excellent, and tend to be a great investment. They also have intimate, direct knowledge of how they money they send can best help their loved ones back home.

Ways – Remitly helps those excellent people in a way that is useful, sustainable and dignified. Its product takes a part of their life that was both important and a big pain, and makes it easier, cheaper and safer. It’s also a “fee-for-service” model, which I like much better than something e.g. ad-supported, where the user is not the customer.

Providing the tools motivated people need to help themselves is a sustainable business model, a good fit for a private for-profit company, which in turn allows for faster growth and nimble action. It fits nicely into the theory of capitalism as an engine of wealth generation and human development (the “good parts” of capitalism, as my socialist brain calls them).

Reasons – This one is a little more complex, and I’m going to get into armchair political economist mode. Bear with me, and please do let me know when I say something dumb!

The promise of modern / postmodern / neoliberal economics, particularly the theme of globalization, over the past 3 decades has been two-fold: human development and liberalization. The idea is that poor backwards countries, when exposed to western ideas and western money, would of course become nicer to live in and more free.

The first desired result has pretty much happened. If you compare China, Vietnam, India or Poland today to where they were 30 years ago, it’s pretty clear when is a better time to live there. Of course there are many exceptions to this (particularly places where the US government meddles directly like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc.), but the general trend has been a huge surge in human development and standards of living in recent years.

Much (or some at least) of this development is the direct or indirect result of investment in those economies by western companies and governments. Often this takes the form of companies moving factories overseas to take advantage of cheap labor markets. We complain (justifiably!) about bad working conditions, pollution, etc. in these factories that is hidden from the consumer and insulated from western regulatory environments, but ultimately the jobs get taken, the countries get richer, and the people who live there are less likely to starve and more likely to send their daughters to high school.

On the other hand, the liberalization component doesn’t seem to have panned out so well. China is cracking down on Hong Kong, Poland and Hungary just re-elected far-right governments, and the POTUS is an unabashed fascist. Authoritarianism is on the rise globally, despite the earnest promises of neoliberal economists from the 90s.

My somewhat uneducated suspicion is that this is partly a result of the top-down pattern of aid and investment. Governments give money to governments, corporations invest in corporations, and there are many layers for power to trickle through before anything reaches The People. What incentive does an Eastern European oligarch have to liberalize their government, or to protect the rights of ethnic minorities? None – in fact, such changes would make it more difficult to control and exploit their workers.

Remitly (and immigrant labor in general) represents a somewhat different approach to globalization. It’s bottom-up globalization, a movement of people and mixing of cultures that I think bears a bit more promise. An immigrant worker is directly exposed to western ideals, without a propaganda filter or great firewall. They are paid directly, and can send that money directly to where it’s needed most, supporting whatever people or causes back home they think are worthy. At the same time, their work is subject to labor and environmental legislation in the countries they come to – there’s no offshoring of the negative consequences, so they must be dealt with up front.

Besides which, there’s plenty of evidence out there that immigrants are also a net financial gain for the countries they immigrate to. Plus that’s where you get great innovations like Vietnamese and Thai and Mexican and Italian restaurants in every town. So who’s complaining?

Wrap Up

Huh, I got a bit excited there.

Anyway, work starts on Tuesday. I’m ready. Funderemployment has been pretty alright, but I am very ready to have coworkers and interesting problems and a mission that gets me out of bed in the morning. Even if my commute is only the 10-foot walk to my computer. I am a little nervous about returning to private industry after 4 years of nonprofit work (“but mooooom! what if they’re all robber barons?”) but I think Remitly is as good a way as any to get back into it.

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