[Techie Tuesdays] From the power capital of India to the powerhouse of India’s largest e-commerce company - Amod Malviya, CTO, FlipkartAlok Soni & Aditya Bhushan Dwivedi
Right from the very early days, I have been interacting with machines. I had a huge urge to open things up. The very first toy I had was a toy train and the evening I got that, there was a guest with his child who was visiting over. I still have vague recollections of opening up the toy train and showing it to the kid – ‘look this is how it works.’
By the time I was 10, there was no electrical or electronic object in my house that I did not open up.
Talking to us in a meeting room at Flipkart’s new office wearing a crisp short khadi kurta, Amod Malviya says he is not used to ‘speaking about himself’. But, he was clearly loving every moment of the conversation. There was no other reason why a meeting with the CTO of India’s largest e-commerce company, scheduled for 30 minutes, would extend to nearly two hours.
An IIT-Kharagpur alumnus, Amod’s choice of taking up electrical engineering in college wasn’t decided in a hurry. This was brewing right from his childhood. The majority of his family (including both his parents) are electrical engineers. It was common to have conversations on induction motors at the dining table when Amod was a mere 12-year-old boy. He had two elder siblings (a brother and a sister) and a younger brother in the family.
Shock laga laga laga shock laga
Amod’s father was working with NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) in Shaktinagar. The city is also known as the power capital of India and generates the largest volume of power in the country. As a customary ritual, Amod and his family would visit the power plant and study all the machinery on the day of ‘Vishwakarma Jayanti’. It was there that his fascination for machines kept on growing.
In the process of opening up equipments, electrical shocks became a routine affair. In fact, in the absence of a tester, he would touch the wires to check the flow of current. In his entire career tinkering with electrical equipments, spanning for five-seven years, Amod was accused of dismantling devices many times but he never left any evidence.
Tinkering stops, nevertheless…
My tinkering stopped when I reached class eight.. My interest in Mathematics and Physics picked up big time. I remember my dad brought a book called ‘Conceptual Physics’ and I spent my summers reading it. I was hugely intrigued by the idea of how hydrogen bombs work, how electricity works and how you can be timeless. I used to have this theoretical world, that existed in my head where all this knowledge was a secret. I would even tell my younger brother not to let this out to people.
Thanks to this love for Maths and Physics, Amod decided to attempt IIT entrance examination and got through. He recalls the reaction of his girlfriend’s mother who was his would be mother-in-law then, “ 'tumahara kaise ho gaya?' (on clearing IIT).
Tryst with computers
In his very first interaction with computers (at his school), Amod typed out on the command prompt, 'Who is the President of India?'
Though Amod had done a very basic degree of programming in his school days and was fascinated by the idea of what computers can do, it was only in his first year of college when he got his first computer, for which his father had to take a personal loan of Rs 60000.
And owing to his habit of tinkering with machines, within a matter of few months he opened up the very precious computer as well. There was no objection from anyone as only Amod could repair it, if at all. Since reinstalling Windows was an arduous task then, he ended up spending his Durga Puja holidays installing Linux. He recollects,
All of the 10 days of vacation, about 10-12 hours a day I was spending on just hit and trial. By the end of it, I had made a reasonably good set of guesses about what works (and what not) and which is what. It became easier for me to understand when I went back to college and read about these things.
By the end of second year, Amod was made the system administrator for his department, youngest to be so at that point. He spent all of his time in the labs and as a result his attendance in the first year and second year fell short of the minimum requirement to be allowed to appear in examination. However, because of his ability to repair the computers of the professors, he could still attempt the exams.
Amod was involved big time in hacking, and there was hardly a network within college that he had not broken into (including that of a bunch of other colleges). But because of his ethical upbringing, he ended up notifying each of the concerned authorities about the hack.
Looking back, Amod feels happy about his decision to take up Electrical engineering. According to him, there are a lot of underlying concepts in hardware e.g. clock timings, how buses work, signaling, image processing which are derived from Electrical engineering. A lot of these concepts were very natural for him given his branch and it also gave him the opportunity to continue to tinker with electronics equipments around him.
'Beta jab IAS ki naukari lagti hai to pure parivar ki naukari lagti hai'
Amod’s father wanted somebody in his family to be an IAS officer. He was one of the choices after his elder brother’s attempt. There was a common saying those days, 'beta jab IAS ki naukari lagti hai to pure parivar ki naukari lagti hai'. So, Amod ended up investing a lot of time in the preparation of UPSC examination (while still at college). Eventually, Amod finished with a CGPA of 7.54 (a.k.a sadhe sati in IIT-KGP).
Amod graduated from college in 2002. The job market was in a huge mess then as it was just emerging from the Internet bubble. Those days, it was a common practice that the companies would make offers and then they would retract. That way, Amod considers himself lucky and felt very grateful for joining i2 Technologies. But eventually, this company turned out to be the first and the last corporation (large company), he would ever work for. He was building a web services management product there and it was his first exposure to ‘Very High Scale’ systems.
About six months into his first job, Amod had already started looking out for another opportunity, it was just that nobody had a job to offer. At that time the number of famous companies was abysmally low and the ones which were actually there did not have any openings. It took him almost a couple of years of hunting before he joined Itellix software solutions.
Itellix was a 12-member team and Amod liked working there. He had his freedom back and could do a lot there. He learnt a lot about scaling as the company was doing a million transactions. Since then, he has been working with only startups (well, technically Flipkart was a startup in 2010 when Amod had joined). After Itellix, he worked for a startup riya.com - an image processing company where he was working on visual search technology to detect faces and identify similar faces. He joined the infrastructure team of the company and was exposed to machine learning for the first time. At that time this was a ground breaking technology that was being built, and this company had some of the best image science PhDs out of Stanford University. This was Amod’s first managerial experience as well.
The only break in seven years
Amod recalls his journey since Itellix,
Startup life has been heavy. There was a time when I went without salary for about six months. Even the pressure on the personal life had become too much, and all this when I was still working 16 hours a day on an average. I would wake up, code and sleep.
In mid of 2008, Amod shifted to Mumbai full-time and started consulting ApnaPaisa to create their technology team in-house. One of the co-founders, Hemang Desai was his colleague from Itellix and had persuaded him to do the job. This was the time of 2008 financial market crisis. Amod helped the company in hiring students from college and selling them the startup dream. He says,
It definitely taught me that management is very hard. However hard a technological problem is, it's an easier game than managing people.
In 2009, Amod took a break, the only one in his career since graduating from IIT-KGP and later joined Flipkart as an engineering manager in 2010.
‘And when I was almost broke…’
It was around 2006. The startup because we were a small number of people doing a great amount of work. The product was scaling massively. Everyone was owning one huge set of products, So, from that perspective, the amont of toll it took on personal lives was massive. It forced me to have a conversation with my wife that what kind of career choice one has to make. It led me to realize that being in a startup world is not a personal choice. Your family becomes a startup family.
Flipkart from the eyes of Amod
Amod joined Flipkart when the company had just taken up a space in front of Forum mall, their first office after the Koramangla office (which was an apartment). At the time of his joining, Amod told Mekin Maheshwari (CPO, Flipkart) that though he’s coming in as a manager, he’ll probably shift to an architect's role in six months. But with time, Mekin managed to continue to convince Amod to stick on to the managerial side of things.
Mekin was heading engineering and I asked him, ‘What will we do with this much space?’ He said, “Work and fill it up(grow).”
And true to his words, in a matter of few months there was a space crunch and ever since then we have been struggling for space.
In the initial days of Flipkart, the co-founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal had written a bunch of codebases for which Amod kept nudging them about, sportingly.
'matlab bahut hi mehnat karwaye ho'
Amod continued coding at Flipkart till late 2011. Now the only code he writes is the therapeutic coding as it is called. In late 2010, Amod took an important call of shifting the data centers of Flipkart from US to India. Flipkart was a relatively much smaller organization in 2010 but its ambitions were very big. Even then the team knew if they become India's largest ecommerce company, they'll end up being India's largest internet companies as well. It was not possible without having the gene pool of having those capabilities in-house. It might actually be easier for a company to give out the data to corporations outside and just use their services. In a fair number of cases it actually makes prudent business sense. However, in Flipkart’s case, due to their high numbers (of transaction) it didn't even count for a prudent business decision. Flipkart was cognizant that at some point of time it’ll have to play a significant role in the evolution of India's internet architecture and India's internet future, and that they will not be able to do justice to that role and opportunity if they do not have in-house capabilities. Because of this reason, the company ended up taking the call of having/moving all of their servers based out of India.”
“You’ve been hacked Flipkart”
Amod might maintain that serious look on his face most of the time, but he has an equally naughty personality, in hindsight. Among his famous pranks, the one which ranks topmost is ‘2011 April Fool’s Day prank’ at Flipkart. He says,
On April 1 2011, I changed settings to the server in a way that if you access Flipkart from internal network, it will show up the message,
“You've been pawned. We have all your data now."
I pulled in two engineers with me otherwise everyone will start changing setting and the actual impact might be different. All of a sudden somebody shouts 'oh my god, Flipkart has been hacked' and Sachin jumps from his chair, Mekin comes running. All this while, I was trying to maintiain as much of a straight face as i can and said, 'you got to focus'. Meanwhile Sachin had already started preparing a PR to send out.”
Looking at the panic level, Amod had to spill the beans then.
Technology at Flipkart
According to Amod, technology at Flipkart is defined by certain characteristics about which he talks to his team as well:
- Concept of platforms - Instead of building solutions, we should build platforms. This means taking a capability oriented approach to build a product. For example, if you need to build a website, you can simply code it in PHP or you can establish mechanisms, layers of codes which enable capabilities to exist. The latter is taking the platform approach.
Instead of being code monkeys, I tell my team to be an engineering guy. There's a difference between coding and engineering. Coding is taking an algorithm & implementing it out. Even a 10yr old can follow the instructions to code, but that won’t make it extensible and scalable.
- Idea of systemic intelligence: Build systems that can think and can evolve. Don't just build systems that are acting on rules. There would be scenarios where you would actually want just a system that automates, but in a surprisingly large number of areas, you would want to build a system that can think. Simple example, if you try to build out 'how do I use the technology to determine the optimal pricing of a particular product'. You can implement it with a bunch of rules or you can build it using learning algorithm. Same applies to the supply chain system. Can you build out systems that can learn the most optimal paths?
‘20 years down the line this is how I want my movie to play’
Looking back Amod would like his journey to be one where almost every day he woke up to something new. That's the fascinating thing about Science and Mathematics. It's like being in a wonderland. Amod says,Engineers are fundamentally artists which is one reason why I just hate code monkeys. I pray to god that organisations that we see in future are the ones which foster the culture creativity.
Another important aspect for Amod when he looks back is his contribution to India. He believes that we're at the cusp of internet revolution taking place in India. He says,
I want to see the internet of India being defined by us, not by anybody else. I'm not just talking about myself and Flipkart team but Indians. And if I'm able to play a role for this it's going to be very gratifying for me. I'm hoping and counting on the fact that Flipkart is able to contribute significantly to that.
Amod believes that internet infrastructure in India has to be built on massive scale. He further says,
The largest internet company in India has to be an Indian company. For me it would be a shame if it's not the case. That means we need to have massive internet infrastructure in India. How do we improve internet infrastructure in India if I host my servers in Singapore. It's only when I start distributing my servers across Indian geography forcing various players in the ecosystem, ISPs, data center providers, last mile connectivity providers to step up their game, that's when this will take shape.
He hopes for a strong debate about Indian consumers data being in India. It’s even important because with the complacent servers like NSA which tap into pretty much every single kind of communication, the amount of dependence that we as a country have is massive. But Amod doesn’t want us to do it only for the sake of patriotism, instead he says,
I would want us to do it we already have better technology and capability of doing that. I think it's possible in next five yrs. The kind of scale that we are seeing now enables us to take those calls. Flipkart is also looking to make huge investments in infrastructure next year.
Words of wisdom
While interviewing in colleges, the only question Amod asks candidates is,
Outside of curriculum and outside of what your professor has asked you to do, tell me one thing you ended up doing on your own in this space, because if you're willing to take this as a career, you've got to be excited about this space. For example, if you're a mathematics guy, tell me one problem statement, that you've been mulling over and over and what progress you've actually been able to make. If you're a computer science student, tell me one computer science project you ended up doing on your own, one open source contribution you did on your own, not the typical bug fixes.
A surprisingly voluminous amount of people just have no answer to this question. Amod considers this painful because there's so much information on internet out there now, and everybody has a laptop and access to internet. One can just read and in four years do something which expresses his/her love for this space.
What people don't know about you?
Amod took some time to answer this question because he wanted to make sure that he comes up with some things which people rarely have an idea about. He says,
1. OCD: I'm usually prone to OCDs(Obsessive Compulsive Disorders) and cleanliness ranks among the top. Grid lines on the floor is another. I've to enter the office in a certain way and have to try really hard to not notice them.
2. Practice and not instincts: Most of my good habits are less a matter of instincts and more a matter of strong rigorous practice. There's a fair amount of overhauling that I'm gone through in my career.
3. ‘Ab to band kar do’: Many people see me as very stiff and demanding person whereas I'm someone who does a lot of leg-pulling, to the point where sometimes people say that 'ab to band kar do'. People who have not interacted with me think that I'm a very hard task-master. People who work closely with me know the reality.
4. Small town: People don’t believe that I come from a small town in Uttar Pradesh (almost a village) and that I grew up and became a teenager in that town.
5. Manga fan: I’m a big time Manga fan (Bleach and Naruto being favourites)
6. Marathon boy: I can run 10+kms at a stretch with ease
And with his ever smiling face, he signed off.
That is Amod Malviya, Chief Technology Officer of Flipkart for you. For us, he’ll remain that small town boy with an infinite curiosity and humility, who has led by example, not just his team but his domain and industry, and watch out for him to lead India’s way to internet infrastructure glory as well.
You can follow Amod on twitter.