[Techie Tuesdays] Shirish Hirekodi – The original dropout genius

“The Blues don’t change” – Albert King

Albert King was a great American Blues musician. One of my favorite musicians, John Mayer, interpreted this line in an interesting way. He said, “I think what he meant was the Blues won’t change, and they’ll be the same for me to be able to play it just like he did.” This is true for our Techie Tuesday today.

ShirishWhen I first called him to get this interview done, he was in the middle of an intense coding session. He politely asked me to call him later, as he didn’t want to break his concentration. Vishnu Raned, his co-founder at Twaang, had told me that he was one of those techies who has been a techie all his life and so I was expecting a staunch old timer, traditional coder.

Boy, was I wrong.

Shirish Hirekodi is the original dropout genius. He chose to follow his interests as a schoolboy in India, and chose to drop out of college to pursue his passion. He roughed it out, learnt on the job and worked with biggies like Reliance Telecommunications and popular startups like Agitar. Now he’s the technology brain behind Twaang, a music streaming app which focuses on classical and fusion music.

This journey is by far one of the most interesting stories that I’ve come across, and a reassurance that some good things in life will always remain the same.

Early days

Shirish comes from Belgaum, a town in northern Karnataka. He says, “I come from a small town and there was no access to computers back in the 80s. I did however love reading books and one of the books that I got was one on the Sinclair Spectrum. It was a British computer and I was fascinated about how with a few lines of code you could make the computer do so many things. Of course, I didn’t go any further with it, because I didn’t have access to a computer.”

Contrary to what I thought, Shirish said that he was a very bad student at school. He says, “I really had no interest in the subjects that I was studying and I was probably one of the worst students to have come out of school.”

His family chose to shift to Bangalore from Belgaum, where he got to meet a C coder called Srinivas Sharma. He introduced Shirish to C and Unix and there was no looking back since then. He says, “One of the first things that he asked me to build was a simple text editor and I was really enjoying it. One day, he was telling me about how using CAD you could design a car before actually building it. That was really fascinating for me. So I built a program using C that could handle vector graphics. He was very happy that I could build it and it gave me some confidence.”

Two important things happened after this. He bought himself a run down computer to start coding on it. And secondly, he dropped out. Now, remember that this was the early 90s, where dropping out was almost unthinkable. But Shirish shared that his parents were supportive of his decision – “I was really interested in programming and even my parents didn’t want to force me into something that I didn’t have my heart in.”

“Work was my alma mater, not school”

After hearing about his vector graphics program, a Mr. VT Chandrashekar, founder of an industrial automation company, Century Systems contacted him. He took Shirish on board as a trainee. But something strange happened a few weeks after he joined. He says, “Almost everyone in the engineering team decided to quit. Mr. Chandrashekar told me that I had to take responsibility of the software side of things.”

To Shirish, this was a period of rapid learning. He says, “I had to pick up many things and I had quite a few good mentors who helped me always. Mr. Chandrashekar himself had a lot of experience in the space, even though he wasn’t a hands on coder. He was a very kind man, but if I was to allocate one extra byte for my program, he would rip me to pieces! I still have that fear, and that’s one of the reasons why I have strong coding foundations. These were my formative years.”

He proudly says, “My work is my alma mater, not my school.”

Breaking into the corporate ladder

While at Century Systems, Shirish kept exploring other areas like core Java, LISP, neural networks and AI. It was around this time he got an offer from Palo Alto based software firm, Agitar – “They were building a eclipse plugin which would give you realtime feedback on how your code can be better. At this job, I was constantly on the road all over south, helping people understand how they can benefit with this plugin. In the process I used to get to see the banking systems of all of the east coast’s banks – the good, the bad and the ugly!”

Shirish was well aware of the inherent risk of working at a startup, and his fears were confirmed, when Agitar got acquired. They chose to shut down APAC operations, leaving many like Shirish without a job. However, there are always opportunities for those with the skills and Shirish got his with Reliance Telecom. He says, “They wanted me to help them improve a billing system. Of course they had one, but it could handle about a million clients. And we all know that Reliance is a lot more than a million clients.”

This job was between Hyderabad and Pune, which required him to stay away from his family. So he quit and came back to Bangalore and even landed a job at IBM. But he wasn’t going to take it…

Twaang

After his stint at corporate, it became certain to Shirish that he wasn’t a fit for the corporate way of life. He says, “Changing one line of code required 10 approvals! Now I know why these procedures are there, and they are necessary. I’m not a good fit for that.” With this in mind he was hesitant about joining IBM.

His co-founder at Twaang, Vishnu Raned, was his longtime friend, and he had forgotten his iPod at Shirish’s house. He says, “Vishnu had to put up with the noisy RJs and the modern day music. He was frustrated without his iPod. He was also a guy who’d never forget his phone. So the idea came to us, to make a streaming music app on a smartphone. I was learning Android then and I gave it a shot. That’s what you see as Twaang now.”

For a core techie, Shirish understands other side of running a startup as well. He says, “Anyone can build a good music player. The differentiator here is content. And we thought we could differentiate our app by having our kind of music on the app – classical, fusion and devotional.”

Do it only if your heart is in it

On a sign off note, I asked Shirish how we can produce better software engineers and if anything can be done to change the current state of software developers in India. His answer was simple, “In the 90s, there was a perception built that software engineering is a high paying job. That attracted people who wanted to earn money and most of them didn’t have their heart in computer science. You can’t be good at something if you don’t like it. And you can’t make people like something that they don’t like.”

His only advice to budding software engineers – “Do it only if your heart is in it.”

Connect with Shirish here.

Raghu Mohan

Raghu Mohan

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