Culture of Learning

Michelle Leung on her First Months at Domino


After spending her early career at a Big Four accounting firm, Michelle Leung wanted to do something different.

Michelle knew a startup like Domino Data Lab was a place where she could make an impact—and in less than a year as the team’s controller, that’s exactly what she’s done. Below, Michelle reflects on her decision to join the company, explains how she encourages her team members to learn from one another and grow their careers, and shares the challenges she’s faced so far and the ones she’s tackling next.

What do you do at Domino Data Lab?

I’m the financial controller, which means I lead our Accounting team. Part of our work is serving as a gatekeeper for things like business expenses—the Finance team sets the budget and forecasts how much we should be spending, and then we manage what we actually spend to make sure it’s within policy.

We’re also responsible for maintaining the integrity of our records, ensuring that they’re accurate and transparent. That not only keeps us in compliance with statutory regulations, but also allows us to be ready for something like a new round of funding, because investors use our financial statements to help them understand the health of the company. Of course the same will be true if we eventually move toward an IPO. People make financial decisions based on the information we share, so it’s important that our numbers are sound.

Tell us about your background and why you joined the team.

Right after college I went to KPMG, which is one of the Big Four public accounting firms, as an independent auditor. It’s like consulting—I looked at clients’ financial reports to make sure they were accurate and to help them identify and mitigate risks. I spent more than eight years there, and last fall I decided it was time to choose whether to stay and pursue the partnership or do something different. When it comes to work-life balance, being an auditor is pretty challenging. You’re on call every day, and you work whatever hours necessary to get things done. So I was definitely interested in moving to an in-house role, but I didn’t want to be at a large public company with a lot of pre-existing structure and red tape.

My primary focus at KPMG was start-ups, both pre-IPO and newly public, so I’d worked with a lot of different tech companies in the Bay Area. It just so happens that Domino is also a KPMG client and I learned from my peers that this team really values innovation and process improvement, and the industry was interesting to me, too—I think there’s so much potential in data science and automation. Then a friend from KPMG who had joined the team here referred me for this role, and he had great things to say about the culture. He talked about how much people care about each other and how much he was able to grow. It just seemed like a very collaborative environment, where everyone learns from each other.

What kind of impact do you want to make?

Like any company that’s maturing, we have a laundry list of things we want to accomplish! We’re brainstorming with the team about different improvements and tackling them one at a time. Our CFO, Tom Gleason, is new as well, and I’ve been bouncing ideas off of him about changes we can make. He’s been great—very supportive.

Essentially, I think we really want three things: good processes, good systems, and good people. With processes, we’re getting more structure and workflows in place, making sure we’ve delegated responsibilities correctly and everyone knows who’s doing what. For systems, it’s thinking about how to streamline day-to-day operational work like creating contracts. I never want my team spending their days on data entry; we can automate those tasks.

Then in terms of people, culture is big for me. I want my team members to trust me enough to tell me when they run into challenges—and to feel safe to fail, because that’s how we grow. It’s also important to me to create a team-oriented environment, where people are really collaborating and learning from each other. Accounting teams tend to be very siloed. One person handles billings, someone else does payroll, a third person does invoices. But I want to build something different: I don’t want people worrying about taking time off because no one else can do their job, and I also don’t want them stuck doing one thing. I want to focus on cross-training, because it not only creates a more efficient team, it also gives people opportunities to develop their careers. Hopefully that means we promote them here at Domino. But even if they eventually leave, I want to make sure I’m supporting their growth. That’s what I would want my controller to do for me.

Pictures of employees throwing axes.

What’s been challenging in your first months here?

It was a little rough at first, because being a controller is so different from being an auditor. In that role, I was working with an end product someone put together for me; here, I’m the one putting it together. I’ve gained a lot of empathy for my former clients! Now I know firsthand how much work was on their plate, and I’ve run into some of the same challenges they faced. Even something seemingly simple, like running a report—it might actually be really difficult to pull that information in the way it’s been requested, just because every system is different. The team has a lot of videos that helped me get up to speed, though, and I picked up a lot through trial and error. I still have plenty to learn, for sure. But I’m at a point now where I can start thinking about how to apply my previous experience—both the challenges my clients faced and how we can avoid them, and the best practices I’ve seen that we can implement here.

What qualities make someone successful on your team?

One that comes to mind is the ability to solve problems, because so much of what we do is figuring things out. Why was this expense incurred? Why haven’t we received this invoice? How can we configure this report? Even little things like emails—I’ve struggled with that one myself, because I get about 200 a day. But I’ve learned helpful tricks like tags and snoozing, and I try to pass those things on to the team. In part, I want to make their jobs easier; if I’ve already figured out how to solve a sync issue in one of our systems, of course I want to share that with them. But I also do it to help make problem-solving part of our team culture. When I show them something I messed up and then walk them through how I investigated and figured it out, I’m helping them build those same tools for themselves.

“I think another key is curiosity. If there’s a duplicate invoice or an unusual charge, we’re the ones who can catch that. Any time we book something, we should know exactly what it is and why we’re booking it. So we have to stay alert and ask whatever questions we need to in order to truly understand.”

As you look to the future, what’s exciting to you?

The growth we continue to see is really exciting. Data science is the future! It’s helping people solve problems they never could before, because they either didn’t have the right information or didn’t have the right platform to understand what it meant. So I think this work is important. And I’d love to go through the IPO process, if we eventually get that opportunity. I’ve done it as an auditor, and it was really rewarding. I think seeing it from the internal side would be even better.

In the meantime, I’m excited to keep building a best-in-class Accounting team, and to see the whole Domino team continue to evolve. I think we have a strong company culture, and the people we’ve been hiring contribute to that. Our leaders are approachable and transparent; there’s a lot of open communication and collaboration. Even as fast as we’re growing, it still has that small-company feel.

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