[Techie Tuesday] From building OpenTable to heading tech at Hotstar, Akash Saxena says curiosity is everything
“Always stay hungry and curious,” says Akash Saxena, SVP, Head of Technology, Hotstar. Akash, who started coding and working with BASIC programming when he was in Class 6, says he always knew computers were going to play a huge role in his career.
In the startup circuits, Akash is also known for helping build the tech stack of foodtech company Tinyowl early on. Today, at Hotstar, Akash and his team have built the platform that broke the concurrency record for a live stream: 25.3 million concurrent streams.
Akash belongs to Pune; his mother was a teacher and his father was a medical representative, who later went on to start his own hotel business. However, he lost his father at a young age.
“It was at my friend’s place that we would play different computer games. I found it completely fascinating,” he recalls. His love for computers was further reinforced when his cousin, then studying at IIT, gave him computer magazines to browse through.
"That was probably one of the big reasons why I didn’t do my Class 11 and 12, and had decided to do a diploma. In those days, a diploma was a last resort; it was something you did if you didn’t score well in Class 10 boards. But I knew I wanted to do only engineering and computers so I went ahead and did a diploma from Bharati Vidyapeeth,” Akash says.
It was during his diploma that Akash was exposed to assembly programming and micro controllers. One of the HODs at the department also ran an electronics consultancy, and it was there that Akash and his peers spent most of their time. They created PCB design safety programme micro controllers and early microchips. It was here that they would work on C and C++ programming.
Tasting the first failure
“I have a bit of a DIY streak in me. And while it was tough, it was something that I simply loved doing,” Akash says.
It was during 1991 and 1994 that Akash began tinkering with and worked around different systems and models. When he was 19 years old, he had his first lesson in failing to build something.
“I was a part of a super unrealistic project. My mentor told us that we were biting off more than we could chew, but in our naivety we thought we could conquer the world,” Akash recollects.
Most people go door-to-door for water and electricity meter readings, and Akash and his batchmates thought of creating a digital way to record these. They went on to build a PCP, putting in their own money. But when the final product was out, they realised it just didn’t work.
“We figured out a fundamental mistake in our layout. You can programme other languages, but when you are working on hardware, it is terminal; there is no room for error. It was educational from that perspective. It was a tough one and we were so psyched about what we were trying to build. Ironically, it was the first thing that I built that didn’t end up delivering,” Akash says. “I think it taught me more humility.”
After completing his diploma in 1995, Akash joined the Government College of Engineering, Pune. Here, he was exposed to the internet for the first time and says in was “in complete awe with Netscape”. It was also when he got his first email id.
Tinkering whenever he could
“I was exposed to a peer group that was superior and intelligent. We would walk around with hard disks in our bags; every computer and machine was always open and tinkered with. We would either be replacing RAMs or messing around with clock speeds. We saw technology grow and evolve in front of our eyes,” Akash recollects.
While at college, Akash and a friend collaborated on building a data glove. He says Keshav Noori, then head of TCS and also a visiting faculty, made him fall in love with compilers.
After engineering, like most peers, Akash gave his GRE. But his scores weren’t what he expected them to be. “I have never been good at theoretical computer science and engineering; it has always been applied principles,” Akash says. So he decided to stay back and work for a year, at Persistent Systems in Pune.
“I was employee number 80 I think. I remember in those days most of campus placement interviews were a written exam and a half-hour interview. And at the end of that you either got the job or not. But Persistent Systems was different. As the day progressed, each one of us kept getting weeded out. I had the longest time with the CEO, Anand Deshpande. I thought I didn’t get the job because I didn’t know any answer, but I did get placed,” he says.
Falling in love with databases
Akash calls his stint there as one of the most formative ones. Everything that Akash had to learn about systems programming he learnt at Persistent. “Systems programming was the data science of the 90s,” he says.
"I just couldn't keep up with the rigours of working in a professional environment for the first six months. It was another humbling experience, so I knew I had to keep my game up. A lot of my colleagues and mentors helped and rallied around me. I fell in love with databases at Persistent,” Akash says.
After a year at the company, Akash went to do his master’s course in Engineering at Arizona State University, US.
“I think just the cultural exposure, going there and adjusting to their style of education was very tough. I had no financial aid when I moved to the US. So I pretty much had money only for one quarter. A foreign education was out of my league and I knew I had to find some sort of financial assistance soon,” he says.
Having reached the US early, Akash began looking for jobs. Arizona State University had arrangements with off-campus companies, and he got placed at Vitrix.
Burning the candle at both ends
Vitrix build time and attendance software, and Akash worked here full-time while completing his master’s course.
“I was responsible for architecture and writing significant portions of the client server platform that Vitrix was developing at the time. The highlight was the third-party integration support we built into the product and the scale of using distributed components to orchestrate the entire application. The product worked with biometric solutions and we also had a WinCE /telephony interface at the time,” Akash says.
Here, Akash was bitten by the startup bug. After completing his course, he was looking for a job when a colleague from Persistent Systems told him about Exemplary Software, a spin-off from an HP Labs research project that built an ERP solution. Here, he built an application server from scratch.
“I wrote and managed the application server that we wrote for our products and was responsible for dealing with application-level access control for client requests,” Akash says.
Exemplary changed the trajectory of Akash’s professional life. By then, he had also got an offer from Oracle. “It was very common to get equity. I remember talking to my manager at Oracle and asking about equity; I was told it was given only to Ivy Leagues. The thing was my interview was as tough and yet there was discrimination. So on that point I joined Exemplary instead.”
The bust that changed it all
Soon, the dotcom bust changed things. The traffic on the road became half, because people lost their jobs and had to go back home to India, because they couldn't afford to live in the US anymore.
“Exemplary was no different. We went through three layoffs and I survived. As a young person, you're very idealistic. I think it taught me that this was business; it wasn’t personal.”
He built application servers to the front end at Exemplary. “It was just because I had some cross-skilling and I was curious that I got to stay back. We were up close and personal with how the whole company was running. We learnt about due diligence, how VCS works; the company was incredibly transparent.”
But Exemplary shut down and Akash was out of a job. It was a tough time, but a friend helped him with a job at Radvault, a medical imaging company. Here he took over the entire back-end engineering and wrote the backbone for communication framework, which was responsible for picking the closest data centre for medical records.
But in six months, 9/11 happened and Akash was out in the market again. “It was a hard time for me. But I learnt a lot during these adversities. I learnt how to survive and take things in my stride,” Akash says.
Building it all at Open Table
However, he got a break when he got a call from Open Table, San Francisco.
“It was a day-long interview. I remember in the end I figured I'd cracked it. I asked, 'how do you make money? What's your revenue model? How much is the red? What is the runway?' He said, 'we send people to restaurants and we charge the restaurant a fee for it.' I was very sceptical,” Akash recollects.
Going with his gut, Akash ended up working at Open Table for 12 years. He was part of the three-person team that re-architected the Open Table consumer website to operate under strict performance thresholds. He also built the logging infrastructure. “One of my friends jokes that some of code is still there,” Akash says.
When he moved back to India in 2016, he was asked to continue working at Open Table.
“I resigned and my CTO said, ‘why don't we try working remotely from Mumbai?’ I never worked at a more employee-friendly place. I moved back to India and took on all of Open Table’s internal systems and built a team here. It was fun because I was in Mumbai, my team was in Pune, and my stakeholders in San Francisco. We kind of perfected the art of truly working remotely,” Akash says.
By 2012, Akash was part of the team that had worked and built the company’s IPO journey. Soon, Akash felt he had reached a ceiling at Open Table.
“After seeing so much failure, being at Open Table was liberating. I saw what success looked like. I learnt the power of simplicity,” Akash says.
In 2015, Akash joined TinyOwl, the online food delivery app in Mumbai.
The TinyOwl journey
Akash says he knew he wanted to work for the Indian startup ecosystem. While TinyOwl was growing and Akash was hired to build the platform, the foodtech platform had started seeing its downward spiral.
“The hostage situation had just begun. I nevertheless continued there. I knew we could turn it around and worked towards building the systems and platforms. The experience was just brilliant. Turning a ship around, while you are still building everything, has its own high,” Akash says.
While he knew that the journey wasn’t long, Akash believed that the tech and product could be turned around. His journey at building Open Table and being a part of the early team helped.
The stint, unfortunately, didn’t last long. TinyOwl was soon acquired by Runnr, which in turn was acquired by Zomato.
“I nevertheless had a stellar team at TinyOwl; we built things every single minute and day. The platform was seeing a change and had begun to turn around. The team was in it for the long haul. But then not everything happens according to your plans,” Akash says.
After that, Akash had a small stint at Craftsvilla. He describes the stint as “tough” as there were several things that just didn’t work.
The HotStar experience
Soon, Akash got his break with HotStar through a common TinyOwl connect.
By now, he had many different experiences - in food, ecommerce, and CRM Systems. HotStar was then keen to scale the platform to a different level. At HotStar, Akash has been leading the tech team to ensure that the platform reaches a higher scale.
“HotStar already has a great scale. We have worked up to 10 million users but now we are looking at 50 million,” Akash says. While he doesn’t build everything hands-on today, he does take on projects with a long-term focus.
Today, when Akash is hiring people, one thing he looks at is attitude. He adds that culture fit is the most important thing.
“I am okay if you don’t answer questions. I just want to see if you try and are open to ideas. I believe it is important for engineers to be articulate. Be fundamentally curious. If you are curious, you become hungry, and you find ways to learn,” Akash says.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)