From Sion to Silicon Valley and then Pluto: Kamakshi’s stellar journeyBinjal Shah
For this pure-bred Bombayite who grew up in one of those rooted south-Indian households of Sion – what was served for dinner every day was an emphasis on high-quality education, with a stress on mothering mathematics and science for dessert. Safe to say Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan was coding herself to be ‘The chosen one’ amongst the high-on-testosterone herd of techies early on. But given her circumstances, this code working was more of a eureka moment than any other!
There might have been nothing in common with what she studied in Bombay, what she pursued at Stanford, what she crafted for NASA’s most high-profile space shuttle New Horizon to Pluto, and what she achieved for Google– apart from one disturbing theme. Everywhere she went, Kamakshi was against every stereotype in the rule book, perhaps the square peg in the round hole, certainly an object of novelty – for a sin that half of us are guilty of, really.
The cardinal mistake of being born a woman.
“How did you do it?”
“It’s simple. No one told me not to!” exclaims the genius.
Odd Woman Out
Oddly enough, Kamakshi is almost certain that the gender ratio in engineering classrooms in India is less botched than some of the premier institutions in the west. “Not that the benchmark we were chasing was too high to begin with, but in India, the percentages were still double digit. The air got much thinner when I went to pursue my masters.”
After completing her undergraduate degree in Mumbai, Kamakshi went on to study information theory at Stanford – and the subject she said was as theoretical as the name suggests.
“People in my field typically go on to become academia, or to manipulate the financial markets on Wall Street through quantitative trading. But I always knew that I wanted to be a high-impact individual. Safe to say I am a massive anomaly in terms of the career path I chose.”
The path she was treading on had an extreme paucity of women role models. Investment bankers were thronging her letterbox with offers that you and I wouldn’t have it in us to control our salivatory glands over, but Kamakshi always desired to be more than just a ‘spoke in a large wheel’ that large corporates tend to make one feel like.
Infiltrating the pack of ‘Brogrammers’
This yearning to do something path-breaking led her to AdMob, then a start-up, where she was exploring the idea of machine-learning stack as the lead scientist. Thoroughly intrigued by what this mastermind may have concocted, I asked her to dumb it down for the curious fool in me.
“When I graduated, there were explosions of large computing infrastructure – big data – new discipline emerging for people with my backgrounds, not necessarily go to the dark side and apply learnings into internet applications. When I first joined AdMob, I was very new to online advertising, let alone mobile advertising. Think of it this way – throw in a set of observations – and try to create technology where you can go – hey, I can observe the next set of observations based on this set in the past. It may have been governed by basic principles – but very complex mathematics and algorithms went into fashioning this. And a whole lot of predictive machinery. My aim was getting to know our users and creating the propensity for the users to engage with an ad. There are ways in which I can develop algorithms based on statistics and user theories to predict consumer responses to engage in the form of a click or a conversion.”Why it was interesting for AdMob to have Kamakshi on board was that she brought in a fresh perspective – not tainted by the working styles of the Googles and the Apples. Moreover, her attitude was that she was unphased by the odds that seemed to be conspiring against her growth because of her gender.
“When I first joined, I was the only woman on the team. Startups typically attract people who are very ambitious, somewhat of a misfit in other companies, who want to create an impact, be creative and entrepreneurial. This profile typically belongs to the old boys of the game.”
And sure enough, her space was crawling with ‘brogrammers’ – in a high testosterone-driven environment, where there is not only a concentration of men, but also attitudes and socialisation processes that are male-friendly.
“They’re almost like a fraternity. And many women get turned off by this behavior. But, my personality was that I didn’t give a damn. I always figured out a way to make myself, my presence, and my impact felt.”
Finding New Horizons
It was when Kamakshi was doing her PhD that her thesis began to make sense in the larger cosmos of things – quite literally. The technology she was developing went on board New Horizons, NASA’s farthest space mission to Pluto.
“At the time, I didn’t realise how high profile that NASA project was. It was the most expensive spacecraft that NASA had built. It carried seven experiments – one was REX –which stood for radio science experiment. A radio signal was to be sent from the spacecraft to the surface of Pluto, and the diffraction that the wave goes through tells a lot about the characteristics of the surface as well as the atmosphere. The chip on board the spacecraft, that is collecting the signals and sending it back to the space station three billion miles away would still have a finite amount of power last the mission. But a fly-by all the way to Pluto meant that you’re talking about a chip that must be designed with a supremely low power consuming design.”
Yours truly made the new algorithm, and built the chip, that brought us the information on a planet we were questioning the existence of.
Entrepreneur by chance
This intensive drill taught her problem solving with limited time, money, and resources – and the ability to start from scratch. Although she wasn’t an entrepreneur by design, but by chance – she went back to learning stack to now craft an ingenious technology of her own, in the form of Drawbridge – which went on to be America’s fastest-growing women-led company in the Inc. 5000.
Currently based in San Mateo, California, she has been building a complex algorithm to be more intuitive about how users interact with ads online, as well as across different interfaces – smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. Drawbridge will also know if a given user views a mobile ad, but it gets converted to purchase on another device he is more comfortable with, perhaps.
Moreover, Drawbridge endeavours to build an anonymous database of consumers, where their identity remains undisclosed to sellers, but their preferences and tastes wouldn’t. “The future of the internet is where my internet would look different from your internet. My experiences, my content, would be engineered to be a perfect fit for what I need.”
In the past three years, the five-year-old company’s annual revenue grew an enviable 23,000 per cent – making this top-techie nearly $33 million in 2014.
Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable
If you think that there is scarcity in terms of female role models and female patrons who have spent time in tech, engineering, and math – add on the entrepreneurial filter, and the list of the ones that survived the reckoning is much tinier than of the ones that got away.
“I was joking with my husband that I know very few women carried forward from my school days, that I have a professional equation with, or can talk about my work with. For varied reasons, they have made choices – and a day in the life of Kamakshi is not like the day in that anybody else who I knew.
“But, I’m used to it. Walking into a room and being the only woman – tech forums, investor meetings – I feel like a set of eyes is constantly evaluating me. If you do well you stand out, if you do badly, you are held up for it. Let’s just say you are unlikely to get the benefit of the doubt – you have to earn the confidence in the room.”
But my advice to women aspiring to be techies is – be comfortable with the uncomfortable. There are a lot of first times involved – which by definition is meant to be uncomfortable. But learn to accept it. Moreover, always remember that no one’s success is a solo stunt. Have the right team and the right support system. And the single rudimentary mistake you can make if you are aspiring to be an entrepreneur is if you’re shy of taking risks. Running a business is just a collection of millions of tiny risks, and everything you will ever be proud of – you will see that it was achieved as a result of a risk gone right.”
Swear by Kamakshi’s commandments, and there is no way on god’s green earth that your success doesn’t take you to Pluto and beyond.