It’s not often that you come across a person who’s had experience working with the biggest and hottest companies across the globe – Oracle, BEA Systems, Google, Twitter and now Flipkart. Meet Ashok Banerjee, a data scientist who is currently the VP of data platform and supply chain at Flipkart. More of a personal decision of moving back to India from the bay area, Ashok had offers aplenty but he chose Flipkart primarily because it is the most promising company in India that is on an exponential growth curve. We got in touch with Ashok to learn more about what excites him as a data scientist and the cultural differences of working with great companies across the world.
YS: Hello Ashok, you have a very interesting profile! A mechanical engineer who did his masters in Computer Science and went on to become a data scientist; how did that happen?
AB: Yes, it has been an amazing ride. Doing my graduation in mechanical, I realized that I liked the mechanics part of what I was studying but not the part which involved being on the shop floor and putting in muscular power doing Smithy, Carpentry and the likes. Mechanical engineering is definitely much more than that but Computer Science had always intrigued me. Even for my post-graduation, I had a very memorable incident. I had to get a research assistantship for paying my tuition fees. Having a different background, it was going to be an uphill task for me but I did everything in my capacity to get that place. I took a CS subject as an elective which I topped and for the place of RA, I chased the professor like anything! I waited for him for hours and made sure my resume reached him anyhow; I even flew in a paper plane version of my resume, through his open office window to make sure he notices my application.. And eventually I did land the role. Persistence pays off.
YS: Wow, that’s quite a story in itself! After your post-graduation, you went to Oracle and subsequently Google and Twitter. How was the transition?
AB: Well, Oracle was a prestigious job at that time and it is what makes me proud. They wanted someone proficient in CORBA and that is how I landed up there. Oracle is a large organization and is very well structured. BEA Systems which was a smaller company taught me a lot. It had a much stronger coordination and communication. Here I saw and learned a lot from a really strong Management team. Moving to Google was a very pleasant surprise! I was amazed at how disruptive Google was and is. Some of the best innovations in the modern age have come from Google and it shows! The culture is just phenomenal but one thing that I can point out as a bit of a negative from a personal point of view is that Google has a complete stack of its own. In my 4 years Google changed and felt much more structured and a larger company feel to it. Twitter was different as a smaller company. It was still much more of a startup and involved more pragmatic decision making around costs/constraints and tradeoffs. Twitter is what made me think about social networks, growth and exponential growth. As a company grows exponentially culture changes dramatically. Employees joining at $2 billion valuation is very different from someone joining it at $8 billion valuation. As a company grows, communication models change, the room for misinterpretation increases as people know each other less. The growth phase at Twitter was very exhilarating.
YS: Your role at Twitter was very interesting indeed; “User Growth Initiative”. Tell us about it.
AB: User growth is all about experimentation and recommendations specially for the new user. Where should you place an element on the page, what colour it should be and all such details are a part of it; and these factors have importance to the customer. A user may never return after the first interaction so if we cannot connect the new user to interesting personalized content he may never come back. The first visit may well be the last. For example, take in very few details from the user but make the most of it. The first name, Last name and IP can tell you a lot! First name gives the gender, last name gives the place of origin and the IP gives the current location. Clubbing these, a lot can be known. These helps you make targeted recommendations and helps you know what a user might want. This is a glimpse about how the “User Growth Initiative” goes on.
YS: Data is huge. And so is the hype behind it. Is this validated?
AB: I think it is. The rate at which the amount of information is growing in unimaginable; traditional databases will be found lacking. Taking an example, number of pages are increasing , number of queries are increasing but a person searching on google would expect a result in less than 0.5 seconds. Similarly on Flipkart the number of items we sell is increasing the number of customers is increasing but site must be equally performant and more performant. The technologies start to become NoSQL and custom systems.
YS: Okay. So, why Flipkart? Why did you decide to make a move to India?
AB: There were multiple reasons for this. I had personal reasons and desire to be closer to my mother. I had heard a lot about the growth story back in India and it excited me. I wanted to see a growth curve and an even earlier stage than Twitter. Looking at India, Flipkart satisfies the exponential growth great technology and culture. This growth story is what has lured me into Flipkart. I could have joined any other company but I also wanted to be present at the Headquarters because for any company, the HQ is where the core work happens.
YS: So, how has it been at Flipkart?
AB: Oh absolutely fantastic. I was skeptic as to how the work culture would be because this is the first time I was going to work from outside the Bay Area but it has panned out very well. Culturally, I think Google, Twitter and Flipkart are very similar.
YS: What are your views on the startup ecosystem in India?
AB: The ecosystem is still maturing and US has more senior people.However the scarcity of senior talent also opens up bigger, bolder opportunities for those who are ready and willing to step up.
We at Yourstory.in would like to thank the organizers at the Fifth Elephant Conference where we first met Ashok. We wish Ashok all the best for his new stint with the poster boy of India’s startup ecosystem, Flipkart and hope for many good things to come.
[For more on Flipkart's culture, read our coverage of their Hackathon: Flipkart Hackathon]