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Taking the Shortcut: Shafak Ilyas

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Welcome back to Taking the Shortcut, a series where we interview our colleagues. The order in which we interview them is random, but that randomization is based on a process in which our Creative Director walks down the street, points at random strangers, yells "Hey, what's your name?!?", and then interviews a Shortcut employee who shares that stranger's name.

If you don't believe this is true, just spend enough time walking the streets of San Francisco and he'll eventually point at you.

These interviews are meant to provide a glimpse into what it's like working at a remote first company, while also exploring the topics of excel spreadsheets, Denistry, Long Island, and high quality cookies. For this edition, we spoke with Shafak.

How did you come to be at Clubhouse?

I was actually an auditor for one of the big four accounting firms. I was there for about three years and I was auditing all different types of companies. Then my last year there, I actually got put onto the audit of a SaaS startup and I really liked the vibe. Just the work environment and how everyone was interacting with each other. Everyone sat with each other. The co-founder, the president, the CEO, they all sat next to each other in front of everyone. It wasn't closed doors. After that, I started looking at startup companies to see who was hiring accountants and here we are.

I’ve heard a lot of startup accounting and origin stories that are very similar. "I was an auditor at a big firm and I happened to come into a startup and it was so different and refreshing." 

There's nothing that sounds more official than working at a big four accounting firm in New York City. That just feels like very hard work. Not that we're not working hard at Clubhouse but it's a very different environment.

Don't get me wrong. I liked my time there. I just thought it was time for me to move on. After seeing that I was like, "There's no way I'm going to stay here for the rest of my life."

Was there anything specifically about Clubhouse that drew you to it from other startups?

I met with a few people. The first person I met with was the old VP of Finance and I thought, "Oh, this is a really nice environment." It was cross-functional. What I was used to is only speaking to the accounting team or the finance team and I would just focus on what's going on in those departments. When I was interviewing here, I interviewed with marketing, I interviewed with CS and I was like, "That's crazy." I might never have met these people in my old company.

Even though you're in a specific department you're still on a larger team that has all kinds of different people on it, who can influence you. When I was at a company called Weebly, we had a VP of Finance, she was one of the best leaders I've ever, ever met. Her team loved her. I learned so much from her, even though she was leading the finance team and I was leading the support team. 

What brought you into the world of numbers and accounting?

Oh, funny story. When I started college, I was pre-dental. My first semester I was taking bio, chem, all those great fun classes and that semester was the worst semester of my life. I was like, "I'm never doing this again. I can't do this for the rest of my life."

Even though I was pre-dental, I was a business major at the same time. I just dropped all the pre-dental courses and switched to business completely. I was actually a management major, but that was just memorization. It was not really fun to me, but with accounting you actually apply the concepts you learned. It just made sense. I like working with numbers. Using Excel is my favorite thing in the world, I love it.

Hearing that word, that's terrifying to me, just the word Excel. The fact that you love working with it truly shows that you're on the right career path.

Also, anytime I interact with a dentist, I just think to myself, what are you doing? Why are you here? Why are you doing this? So what made you initially want to be a dentist?

I actually shadowed my old dentist for a little bit and I was like, "Oh, this seems interesting." I know being in people's mouths grosses a lot of people out, but it’s fine, you're wearing a mask anyway. It's not that gross. My dentist was a general dentist and he did a little bit of everything. I was able to see everything going on. It seemed cool to focus on one specific area of the body versus a general practitioner doctor who has to know a little bit about everything.

Then once I actually started studying bio, I was like, "This is just memorization. I hate this. I'm not doing this. It's not it. Not for me."

Two of my really good friends from school, they stayed in dentistry and they actually are dentists now. Good for them, but no thank you.

Good for them. That makes sense. If you're interested in being a doctor of some sort then dentistry makes sense. You do have that focus on, as you said, one area of the body. 

I feel like the results that you see are quick, not that quick, but if someone has a tooth pain, you can help fix that. They'll be able to see the result within like a week or two, whereas a doctor if it's internal, you can give them medication, whatever. You're not going to physically see the results.

Let's go back to your love of Excel. What's your favorite thing about Excel? 

There's so many things you can do in it. People don't even realize. Most people just use it to make spreadsheets. You can add, subtract, or whatever, all the easy functions, but there's so much more. A lot of stuff that I've been doing recently here at Clubhouse I run a lot of IF Statements. Some of them are huge, but they'll pull the information you need without having to do extra work. You can just put that statement in and it'll pull exactly what you're looking for.

Let's say you have two different spreadsheets, you can pull information from other spreadsheets directly just by searching one value in the one spreadsheet you're looking up. It's just like, it's so great. I love using it. I learned all these shortcuts before I started here. Then once I was starting here, they asked me, "Oh, do you want a Mac or do you want a PC?" I was like, "You have to give me a PC. I can't unlearn my shortcuts for Excel because it's so much easier."

In every startup I've ever been in, everyone has a Mac except for Accounting. You all have PCs because of the power of your favorite tool, Excel. 

Here's another Excel question for you. We'll just make this like an Excel help doc. Tell me about pivot tables. What are those? I would love to learn more.

Let's say you have a data set and you have different types of data. You have date, month, amount, person, or whatever you're looking at, you can run a pivot table on that data and then pull your pivot, like choose what set you want to look at. If you want to look at it by person, do you want to look at it by date? Do you want to look at it by amount? Once you choose that set that you're looking at, it'll pull in the information.

Let's say you want to look at people and amount. You can filter by people and then it'll pull in every amount associated with that person into one table. You don't have to manually do it. It'll just pull it all in for you.

If my friends are doing something and it's a group of us, let's say we're planning a vacation I'll make a spreadsheet. "I got this, I'll do it!" I'll put in what everyone's paid or owes. People probably don't like it, but I love it. It's great.

That’s a useful friendship skill to be the person willing to make the spreadsheet. Before the pandemic, you were not remote, you worked in the New York office, is that right?

I did. We were pretty flexible then too. I worked from the office like three to four days a week and then worked from home, like one to two days a week. It was great that I had the option to do that if I wanted to.

Whereabouts do you live in New York?

I'm in Long Island. I'm closer to the Queens side of Nassau. I live really close to JFK airport, so I see planes land and take off all day every day. It's great.

Very convenient for going anywhere. I take it that you grew up on Long Island.

I did.

Did you grow up in Nassau County on the Queens side of Nassau county?

Yes.

That's fun. Where did you go to school?

I went to Hofstra, which is on Long Island.

Long Island all the way. Are you going to stay there? Is that where you want to be?

I love New York. I don't know if I would stay in Long Island, maybe move somewhere else in New York, but I'm here for right now.

Obviously, things have been thrown in the air with the pandemic, but what do you like to do when you're not working? You like to make spreadsheets for your friends when you go on trips, but what else?

Right before the pandemic started I actually had plans to go to Italy and Turkey. Italy clearly did not work out. We were not going to go there. We had to cancel that, but I had a spreadsheet going for that, like, all the flights, the hotels, everything we already paid for. We changed it up a little bit and we went to Colorado and Vegas and did a road trip. That spreadsheet was useful because we were able to figure out how much people already paid and then allocate that to our new trip.

You say you love New York. What about New York do you love? Why do you want to be in New York?

I love the options of food here. I feel like we don't even realize how grateful we are to have all these different options because I've been to other states, and one of my cousins actually moved from New York to Texas. I was talking to her recently and she said that you don't realize how many bakeries there are, especially in Long Island in New York, because you can just stop by a bakery and pick up a cannoli if you wanted to, but just in Texas, it's so much harder to find a good bakery.

I didn't even realize because there's like a bakery everywhere around here. For me, that's one thing. My sister and I are actually on the hunt to find the best chocolate chip cookie in New York City, or Long Island. My top right now is Levain. Everyone's probably heard of that one, but if people have other recommendations, please send them my way.

Do you have a spreadsheet dedicated to the best cookie, and are you just eating all the cookies and then deciding what's your favorite?

My sister and my friend actually run a food focused Instagram account. They go to all these places, and I tag along with them. When they go, if we see chocolate chip cookies on the menu, we'll try them to see, "Oh, is this good or not?"

Okay. Levain is at the top. Which cookie? What's your favorite cookie?

From Levain, it's the Chocolate Chip Walnut. I usually don't like nuts in my cookies, but theirs is pretty good.

How else do you pass the time? What do you like to do?

Speaking of cookies, I've been doing a lot of baking. I don't know what has gotten into me, but I'll bake after dinner. Cookies are the top. I'm also looking for a good chocolate chip cookie recipe. I have found one, but I don't know if it's the best I would say because this one has nuts in it. If there's a recipe out there without nuts, then maybe that might be the best. I thought they would be so complicated to make, but they're really not that bad.

You don’t like nuts in your cookies but your favorite two cookies have nuts in them. They must be very good cookies. What are you most looking forward to being able to do when things are fully open again?

Well, travel, I think. Number one on my list is Northern Pakistan. My family is from Pakistan, but I've never been to Northern Pakistan. It's very beautiful up there. If you see pictures, it looks like it's Switzerland, but it's not. My family is planning on going. Hopefully, next year we can do that.

I just Googled Northern Pakistan and wow.

Yes, right?

That is beautiful. That is amazing. We rarely put pictures in these posts but I've got to put at least one shot of Northern Pakistan in here.

A lot of my friends went there and posted pictures on Instagram and I was like, "Oh, my God. That looks unreal."

Yes, it looks insane. Is there anything that you used to do in New York that you miss doing and now you're excited to get back to doing?

Just walking to work. I felt like that was my exercise. I feel like New York is fast paced enough that you would walk fast without realizing you're walking fast. That was how I would get my steps in for the day, walking up the stairs at Penn Station. I feel now that we're home, I have to force myself to get up and do something. I walk from my room downstairs to my desk. It's not that much of a walk. That's what I missed. I want to go back into just being out and being able to exercise without actually exercising.

I still have this mental image of the number of steps I take, just from when I used to walk to work. It's like, "Oh, yes. I walk like 12,000 steps a day." No you don't dummy. You barely leave your living room except to walk to a restaurant on your block and eat like a whole pizza. What are you talking about? Because I did that for years and years before. It used to be so easy. 

Last question: what's something that you feel like you've either learned or had reinforced from being at Clubhouse?

Two things: I know I mentioned this a little earlier, but the cross-functionality, I really like that here. Everyone works together no matter what department you're in. This is I guess adding on to that, there are no stupid questions. If I don't know anything, I'm not embarrassed to go ask someone else on a different team or even someone on my own team and I don't have to worry that they're going to be like, "Oh, my God, how does she not know this?"

Now that I'm at Clubhouse, I've really been able to stop worrying about what other people are going to think and just go ahead and ask the question. Even if it is a stupid question, if it's really dumb, I don't have to worry that they're going to be like, "Wow. Is she for real, why did she ask me that question?" I can just ask and no one cares.

That's nice. Clubhouse is full of people who are kind, but also competent at what they do. It's a very nice company. I agree with that. Interview adjourned.