[Techie Tuesday] The unlikely story of Gurteshwar Singh of Karix, a college dropout turned cloud telephony expert
What do you need to land your dream job? The obvious route for many entails getting the grades, acing in college, and bagging a degree or two. But not for Gurteshwar Singh, Director, New Product Development at mobile enterprise engagement platform Karix.
If anything, Gurteshwar’s story is testament to the fact that there is no single, obvious route to success. And most importantly, that you don’t need a fancy degree to land your dream job. Just an unwavering passion and fascination for the field of your specialisation, which in Gurteshwar’s case was technology.
Gurteshwar’s love for technology began early. More precisely, at the age of nine. At a time when most children his age were being rewarded with bicycles and chocolates for excelling in school, Gurteshwar’s parents had a different bribe to offer: a computer.
It was on this computer that Gurteshwar first taught himself coding. This, at the mere age of 13. He discovered the world of the Internet, the many possibilities it offered, and his inherent flair for all things coding. And he was forever hooked.
Interestingly, the college dropout’s early fascination for voice over internet may very well have laid the foundations for an eventual career as a cloud telephony genius. The self-taught coder is today credited with having helped build the core tech layer at cloud telephony company Plivo.
Gurteshwar Singh, who currently heads product and technology at Karix, is also responsible for successfully taking Karix’s product, Karix.io – or its cloud communication platform as a service (CPaas) – to international markets at the Mobile World Congress in 2018.
In an interaction with YourStory, Gurteshwar charts his unlikely journey from that of the son of a middle-class Punjabi family from Jammu & Kashmir, to one who dropped out of college to teach himself coding, to eventually become a cloud telephony genius at the centre of technological disruption.
The world of internet
To be clear, it was as if the stage was set for Gurteshwar’s nearly life-long romance with technology. In 1996, Gurteshwar’s house was the first in his hometown Jammu to get an internet connection.
He recalls that day as vividly as if it was yesterday. He says,
“I remember the BSNL engineer telling us that (we now have internet connection) with complete joy. He opened the ICQ (a cross platform instant messaging and Voice IP client. Also referred to I Seek You) and was chatting with someone in Australia. The whole thing blew my mind away. I asked him several times: ‘Is it real? When you type, is a real human responding on the other end.’”
At the time, Altavista was the only search engine that worked. And the first thing Gurteshwar looked up online was a WWF wrestling match, he recalls fondly.
“The internet connection we had was 16KBPS, and I would spend most of time on DOS playing some cricket. It was a constant complaint among my uncles and relatives,” he laughs.
And yet, the internet was like magic for a small kid. But that was only the first step – a window into the immense possibilities of the world of technology and coding.
Gurteshwar Singh during his Lawrence School days
Soon, he began reading more about Request for Comments (RFC) of protocols like Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TC/IPs). During his teens, Gurteshwar would fire up wiresharks and see packet traces on the wire.
From there, his interest slowly moved towards voice networking, which he started studying closely -- chatting to voice.
He wanted to study more protocols as there are more complexities and challenges in working and understanding voice. He says when there is an end-to-end latency of more than 200 ms, the caller will just keep saying ‘Hello.’
“The mix of voice in internet intrigued and challenged me. I like being challenged, and nobody was working on it then. Actually, even now. In India, hiring people with voice expertise is extremely hard,” says Gurteshwar.
Even his school’s internet connection came from his home in Jammu. The school went briefly online for the first time by dialing to Jammu as it was yet to receive its own connections' credentials. It was dialup so they could call anywhere and we decided to try calling Gurteshwar's home exchange.
“When the wire came in, there wasn’t any dial-up number and I asked the technician to try ours, with Jammu’s relay code 0191 and it worked,” he adds.
Learning to code
Back then, Gurteshwar started to write code and capture the IP packets of calls. And these baby steps led to giant strides for the model student who excelled in both academics and sports alike.
After school, he joined the Maharashtra Institute of Technology, choosing Electronics and Communications Engineering, but soon dropped out midway. He explains the reasoning,
“I only wanted to do subjects that interested me, but in engineering, not all subjects are of your interest and I didn’t want to do anything that didn’t interest me.”
At the time, Gurteshwar tried changing his course midway to computer science, but he wasn’t successful. So, after two years of college, he dropped out of his engineering course and convinced his parents that he would pursue a distance education in BCA.
All this while, Gurteshwar continued teaching himself coding.
“I had begun opening Wireshark (tool to read packet captures), and I would see how call initiations and controls were made and compared those to the others,” he says.
The only thing I needed to learn is, understanding how to learn, says Gurteshwar. Thanks to open-source software communities, there is no such thing as proprietary knowledge, he adds.
“I just discovered it all online,” he says.
In fact, when his sister went to London for her higher education in 2008, Gurteshwar ensured that she could speak with their parents regularly. Gurteshwar would ask his sister to call on a particular number, through which he would connect her to their parents.
Soon, he realised he could earn some money this way, through freelancing.
“By then, I had learnt that you could build a basic call-centre-like system in hotels with a CPU and basic intercom calls,” says Gurteshwar.
“I would request people to buy the PBX box, and I would install the software. I would give them a sheet - where 1001 was one number, 1002 was another phone, and so on,” says Gurteshwar.
It was the early 2000s, and products like Zipdial and Exotel were already in the market.
Lessons from starting up
Pooling in some of the money he made with the freelance gigs, Gurteshwar, along with his school friend Fateh Sing Khara, decided to start up and launched Treehub.in in 2011.
“We wanted to productise it. Clients could buy a virtual number with us, make calls, and have an analytics system. The idea was that the client could have different numbers they could advertise for different media - print, radio, and hoardings. Based on the missed calls, we would help them generate leads, and which channel had the best RoI,” says Gurteshwar.
For Treehub, the duo took a line from TCL and created a centre at Greater Kailash I datacenter. The team also researched on different companies, clients, and the offerings.
Gurteshwar with the Plivo team
“That was the naivety and mistake. We started out without talking to any real customer or even talking to the market. It is a bubble most tech guys are in. We believe we have built the best product and people should buy it. But it doesn’t work like that,” he says.
So, when rubber hit the road, the duo realised that the real-world was different.
“We had built a product sitting at home and assumed we could conquer the world. It all seems simple in your 20s,” he recollects.
He candidly admits that they received zero traction and didn’t make any money out of the product. But every cloud has a silver lining. As a college dropout, Gurteshwar was finding it difficult to get a job. But it was this failed startup that eventually helped him land a job, in 2013.
Entrepreneur in training
“While I knew I had great technology expertise and knowledge, I had no idea how a business worked. So, I felt I needed to learn that before starting up again. I wanted to learn how to do sales and marketing,” he says.
When Gurteshwar interviewed with Plivo in 2013, he was a natural fit. The team did not have anyone with expertise in voice communication, other than its CTO Michael Ricordeau.
“To debug call issues, you need expertise in voice packet traces. That is the only reason I got the job,” says Gurteshwar.
He remembers how he would work nights to prove that he was worthy of the job. In the first week, the team reloaded the entire outbound calling to refactored the latency by half. He also worked on writing code for several new voice features, as there weren’t many people who could do it.
At Plivo, Gurteshwar began working even on SMS protocols. The team then had integration points to serve only two markets - England and the US; Gurteshwar changed this to a worldwide offering.
Prior to his arrival, the revenue share of SMS and voice was five percent and 95 percent, respectively. By the time Gurteshwar left, it was 50:50.
“It was hands-on and a challenging role. I would do every single part of the coding in the initial days. I learnt a lot, and I owe it a lot to Plivo,” says Gurteshwar.
At Plivo, he joined head first into voice -- coding for everything to do with voice protocols. Designing telephony systems is a little more complicated. There is infrastructure that is geography redundant. For example, if the servers are in Hong Kong and London and you have someone dialling a destination number, you need to ensure the call lands on the appropriate server or else there is a latency.
Still, in his desire to learn more about consumer-facing businesses, Gurteshwar joined Grofers in 2016. He was hired as the software engineer team lead and was called in to build the merchant-facing marketplace system. On the platform, kirana stores would list their inventory and the order would be fulfilled through the consumer-facing app.
Gurteshwar with Karix team at Mobile World Congress
A techie at heart
In 2017, Gurteshwar joined Karix as the Director New Product Development, where he handles the tech and product launches of the company.
Even today, while Gurteshwar doesn’t code every single line at Karix, he works on the basic framework and architecture, and is as ‘hands-on’ as he can be. But understanding the business needs of technology is just as important – something Gurteshwar sought to do at Karix.
“I feel I can understand the business needs of a particular technology. It is very important as tech people to respect business aspects. At the end of the day, you are building a certain product and technology for an end consumer to use. If you don’t respect the business aspects, you can’t continue building products.”
Today, Gurteshwar believes he has finally achieved that synergy and balance in the business of technology and products, and is able to bring that to Karix.
But once a techie, forever a techie. For Gurteshwar, who still aspires to start up again, staying true to his love for coding will mean continuing to do so.
Or as he adds,
“I feel you should be able to code or at least direct your team of engineers to do so. That is the core-competency of any engineer, which I strongly believe in. I have been coding since I was 13, and I don’t intend to stop. I just want to learn the aspects of the business, so that when I start up again, unlike the previous time, I go in completely armed.”
(With inputs from Sampath Putrevu; edited by Megha Reddy, Saheli Sen Gupta, and Tenzin Pema)