[Techie Tuesdays] From the streets of Lucknow to building one of the largest adtech companies in the world - Mohit Saxena, co-founder InMobi
Mohit Saxena is one of the busiest people you'll ever meet. It was easier for me to interview Bjarne Stroustrup, the Inventor of C++. It took us four rounds of scheduling and cancelling before we could get to the interview. Finally, we met for lunch at Aloft in Cessna Business park where got to know more about the Co-founder and VP of Technology at InMobi and all I can say is that it was worth the wait.
Brought up in Lucknow, a good part of his childhood in the 80’s was spent playing cricket and marbles. He was obsessed with flying and had developed a good amount of expertise in it. He participated in many tournaments and won some of them too. Mohit's father was working in the health department of the Uttar Pradesh government and his job involved a lot of traveling. Thus, it was his mother's company which ended up having a huge influence on him. Since childhood, Mohit wanted to be an engineer, but was never sure about what he wanted to specialize in.
He recalls an engineering adventure during his childhood when he opened up a bicycle to figure out 'the how' of its working but wasn't able to put it back together. He wrapped a bedsheet around the bicycle parts and took it to the mechanic to get it fixed. Fortunately his mother never got to know about it.
The 'IIT-ji' dilemma
After Mohit cleared JEE, he was selected for IIT Roorkee and IIT BHU. He could not get any of the 'elite branches' (Mechanical, Electrical, Electronics and Communications or Computer Science). He opted for Metallurgical and Material Sciences engineering in IIT Roorkee the same year. The first Year at IIT was quite uneventful, however things were about to take an interesting turn.
Most of his friends were in Computer Science and IT department. And to join them, Mohit also took C++ as an elective in the second year. This got him hooked and the added advantage was that the computer lab was in a newly constructed building, which also had air conditioning. It made for a good venue to sleep as well. This would turn out to be a good decision in retrospect.
The American Dream
After engineering, Mohit got a job at Tata Steel. However, Mohit did not like the idea of working on the shop floor, and instead chose to join the Computer division. There was a project to automate, which would help things run more efficiently. The labor union was afraid that automation would take away their jobs. That conflict was a great learning for Mohit during his short stint of nine months. After this, Mohit joined AT&T Pacbell labs and went on his first US trip on Christmas Eve in 1998. Little did he know that he would end up staying there for a decade. Life at AT&T was quite laid back and fortunately for Mohit, the telecom sector was largely unaffected by the 2000 dotcom bubble.
After AT&T, Mohit joined Virgin Mobile, which had just entered US. Unlike AT&T, the culture was more of a startup and there were a lot of problems to solve. The initial team at Virgin Mobile USA was quite small and Mohit was managing the operation teams. This is where he got his hands dirty at scaling systems, an experience which would come handy later, at InMobi.
It was in 2007 that Mohit met Naveen Tewari, Amit Gupta and Abhay Singhal. They decided to come together and start a venture in the mobile market. The company started as mKhoj and later pivoted to serve ads as they saw the app market ripening.
The team moved to Mumbai to start up. Mohit says, "It gets difficult to move for other people as you spend time to think about it." It took him only 15 days to move to Mumbai from US and set up an office there. Soon, the team moved to Bangalore where there was a better support system for tech startups.
Mohit coded the first ad server for InMobi and has been at the helm of technology since then. He is the expert at building large-scale blueprints of complex architectures.When asked, he prefers to call himself a generalist, but is quick to point out that this may not work for everyone - 'in the initial days, it is the fundamentals that matter.'
When it comes to hiring candidates for technology positions for InMobi, Mohit says he makes it a point to meet every candidate who is selected and the process is very rigorous running to over 8-9 rounds. "Had I not been the cofounder, even I would not have been able to clear the interview rounds," he quips.
Talking about the phenomena of Software Engineers aspiring to be Managers, Mohit adds,
I never wanted to do an MBA, I always knew that I wanted to do tech and build systems. Whenever I would need an MBA, I would hire them to cover up for me. We have people who have been coding for over 12 yrs and still want to do more. To me, a good software engineer is nothing less than a celebrity. I would pay every penny to get a good engineer who loves nothing but coding.
Other than InMobi, Mohit also works closely with the cancer services. It began in 2012 when he found that his mother was suffering from stage four breast cancer. "We felt like educated fools. Despite knowing about it I did not take my family for regular examinations," he says. Fortunately, timely intervention saved her life. But the period was very stressful for him. Now he regularly helps other people. InMobi also raises funds for SVG Cancer hospital.
Talking about the future, Mohit says he wants InMobi to be the biggest tech company in the world and is not leaving any stone unturned to achieve that aim.