If you met Satyam Kandula on the street, you wouldn't notice anything remarkable about him. He's your average Bangalorean, but spend 5 minutes talking with him, and it'll immediately be obvious that he's one of the smartest technical people you've ever met. And he's got the credentials to prove it too - Satyam is an Eclipse JDT/Core committer, which means he's one of the authors of the Java Compiler used by the Eclipse IDE.
I recently caught up with Satyam, who's quit his high-profile engineering job at IBM to launch his own startup, called "Little Eye Labs". I wanted to understand what motivates a technical super-star like Satyam and how he views technology, startups and entrepreneurship.
Me: At IBM, you were building the Java compiler. Your compiler is used by millions of developers around the world, who write billions of lines of code and ship trillions of dollars worth of software. That must feel awesome!
Satyam: I guess it's kind of cool, but I don't think of it like that. The reason the job attracted me, and the reason I was with IBM for nearly 10 years was the challenge of it. I get a real kick out of solving hard technical problems. An added perk is also that I was learning every day. On a global team like Eclipse, you learn not only from your own team but also from other technical leaders from around the world.
Me: So, what gets you up every morning is figuring out how to solve a big technical problem?
Satyam: Yes! What gets me out of the bed every morning is thinking about how I'm going to approach a big, challenging problem. Thinking of ways to attack the challenge, working with my teammates to brainstorm possible solutions and figuring out how to execute the best solution, while meeting the stringent constraints of the design is great fun! I absolutely love that part!
Me: Doing this kind of high-end engineering is obvious a very challenging job. What kinds of special skills are needed to be a great software engineer?
Satyam: The one quality that really stands out among all the great technical people that I've worked with is meticulous attention to detail. This one time, we had a bug reported in the compiler. The bug was not reliably reproducible at all, and in fact, had been reported only twice in the span of the whole month. I guess most people at this point would say "Works on my Computer" and forget about the bug, but our team simply couldn't let it go. We tried all kinds of ways to reproduce the problem, but couldn't. Eventually, Srikant, who leads the team, ended up reading every single line of code that could possibly affect the bug, mentally calculating whether that line of code could be the cause of that bug. And a few days later, we finally discovered the bug and fixed it.
This kind of slavish devotion to meticulousness, and the ability to do whatever it takes to build great software is what inspires me. It's the reason I enjoyed working with my team so much!
Me: A lot of people seem to be under the impression that high-value innovation is not happening in India. What are your thoughts?
Satyam: I did see lot of innovation happening in India and a lot of innovation was also happening around me. The problem is partially because of perception. Many big companies in India are doing great innovation and since many of them are MNCs, we don't see the innovation in the context of India. On the other hand, many smaller companies which developed some innovative products died because of lack of funding or because of lack of marketing power. I think this is changing now. Access to capital has improved in India, which I believe will help small companies pursue their ideas and eventually become known for their innovation. Marketing also seems to have improved because of platforms like Yourstory :)
Me: Thanks! Another problem that technical people face is the pressure to move into a management job or to move to the US. Did you ever face that challenge?
Satyam: Not really, I never felt that. I haven't moved into management, nor felt the need of moving to US ever, because I believe I was doing interesting work through out my career. I was involved in building various products at IBM until recently and now I am on my way to develop an interesting product in our startup.
Me: You said you are working on your own startup, but many entrepreneurs out there that have great ideas are facing a real shortage of technical co-founders. What is your advice to them? How can entrepreneurs convince highly technically skilled people such as yourself to join as technical co-founders?
Satyam: We Indians are generally conservative and hence not many technical folks seem to be open to taking the adventurous route of starting up on their own. Luckily, I believe this scene is changing and I think you'll see many "technical co-founders" will come on board in the near future.
That being said, finding a suitable technical co-founder could still be a challenge. Firstly, I think the entrepreneurs should really believe in the technical co-founder! I was talking to one of my friends who was a technical person in a startup, and he says that his partner does not understand the complexities of his work. Entrepreneurs seem to think technology is something that just happens, but it really does not. Technology cannot exist in a vacuum without a strong integration with the business problem it is solving.
In short, I think the entrepreneurs should trust the technical guy and only when the technical people see that trust, will they be willing to come on board. You'll never get a technical co-founder if you don't understand the complexities of technology and if don't trust and respect the technical co-founder.
I'm doing my own startup now, but if I were evaluating whether to join as a technical co-founder at a startup, I'd evaluate based on two criteria: (1) Is the problem technically challenging and high-impact? and (2) Do my co-founders understand and value the role of technology in business?
Me: Lastly, what advice do you have for young developers who want to grow to become globally recognized technology leaders?
Satyam: The single most important piece of advice is that don't fall into the peer pressure trap. In some sectors, especially the services sector, people get promoted quickly into management, and young developers feel like they also have to shift into management to grow. My advice for them is to not to worry about the titles or positions, but focus on learning and improving oneself. The other important thing is to keep some time off from the office work and spend that time for learning new things that are happening in the industry, and gain new skills. To be a true technology leader, you have to invest in yourself.
We thank Satyam for his time and wish him the best of luck with his new startup. You can connect with Satyam on twitter at @ksatyam