[Techie Tuesday] From developing code to bypass chat restrictions in college to working with Paytm and Rivigo – the journey of Qasim Zaidi
“When one sets an expectation, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, it is always better to aim high and miss, than aim low and hit,” says Qasim Zaidi, former CTO of Rivigo, the Gurugram-based billion-dollar logistics startup.
Starting his journey from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Qasim has worked with unicorns such as Paytm and Indonesia-based Tokopedia. He later joined joining Rivigo but quit the company in search of better opportunities.
“I always switched organisations at unexpected times. I quit Paytm when it got funded by Alibaba; left Tokopedia after a year it became unicorn; and more recently, Rivigo. People often questioned my decisions, but I believe the best time to quit is when one is at the peak of their performance,” he says.
Qasim is always looking out for a role that will teach him something new and offer an element of risk. This week, YourStory traces Qasim’s journey from scaling the fintech giant Paytm to growing Tokopedia from a 50-employee team to 850 people strong unicorn.
He says, “Learning is not a function of any definite field. In the internet industry, learning comes from scale. It (scale) is a very good teacher and also very unforgiving.”
An accidental engineer
Qasim, now 40, was born in Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh. His father was an engineer who worked with the Department of Telecom. This meant most of Qasim’s childhood was spent hopping from one city to another.
While he spent most of his infant years in Allahabad and Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, Qasim’s formative years were mostly spent in Delhi.
Qasim says, he had never seen a computer until he was in Class 10. “My father ensured that my siblings and I had very limited screen time. We were allowed to watch television for only 30 minutes on Sundays. I was not even allowed to play video games,” he says.
He recalls how after moving to Delhi he would often drop out of conversations when his friends discussed computers and programming.
However, Qasim was never really inclined towards computers until his father got an i486 home when he was in Class 12. He says, he was more interested in Mathematics and Physics and wanted to pursue pure sciences in college. But life had other plans.
Right before his Board exams, Qasim was down with chickenpox and barely managed to clear his Physics paper. Thus, he did not stand a chance to apply for a Bachelor’s in Physics.
Only when he started playing around with the computer, he grew an interest in the subject. “I started very late with computers, but very early with the internet,” he says. Soon, he learnt about DOS and Windows.
After school, Qasim appeared for IIT-JEE. Unfortunately, 1997 was also the year when the IIT scandal made the headlines. JEE arranged a re-test, but Qasim had already got through AMU. He enrolled for the Electronics Engineering course since it was more reputed than the Computer Science department at AMU.
“In hindsight, I was lucky to graduate in 2001. The recession hit in 2002 and even IITians faced difficulties landing a job,” Qasim says.
Thirst for learning
“I had already grown immense interest in computers and was spending hours at my college’s computer lab. I was learning programming languages that interested me, rather than being forced to learn something because of my curriculum,” Qasim says.
In fact, he also created a website for the college alumni network, where he would publish the college newsletter every month.
In his first year of college, he learnt Fortran, and also got access to a VAX/ VMS mainframes. “I was very impressed by the dump terminals for its speed. I started spending six to seven hours programming and Unix got me hooked,” he says.
The college computer lab disabled the basic chat programmes and emails. This was his eureka moment to develop a code to bypass the restrictions that would allow students to message each other.
Qasim says he wrote an installation on Unix and built Q-Mail. Soon, the word spread, and it became a popular messaging platform at AMU. On a friend’s suggestion, Qasim also built a backdoor to Q-Mail and was surprised to know the number of students using it.
Qasim says, while in college, he was more interested in Unix, networking, and open source, than programming. He also tried his hand at hacking and was often approached by fellow students, and sometimes even teachers, to fix bugs in their computers.
Qasim also agreed to work as the administrator at AMU’s Applied Physics lab, when Professor Javed Hussain of the same department approached him. “The department had to deal with a lot of data, and it wasn’t easy to process all of that on Windows. Linux was new and I played around with it to set the data on it,” he says.
In his final year, Qasim learnt Pascal and JAVA and started programming in the latter.
“I hated C and decided to not learn the language. The CS students were already studying C, I wanted to learn something different,” he says.
Spending half the day at the computer lab meant Qasim was attending only those lectures that interested him. This translated into fairly low attendance and only after putting extra hours at the end of the semester did Qasim manage decent grades.
Once the exams were done, companies started visiting colleges, and every organisation was more interested in the CS students. Fortune 100 Company Jhonson Controls also came looking for students.
“They decided to conduct a test for the top 15 students, and I was sure that I wouldn’t make it to the list,” Qasim says.
To his surprise, he was shortlisted for the test. But Jhonson decided to test one’s knowledge in ‘C’ language. Qasim took a crash course from one of his friends a few hours before the test, and finally, cracked it.
But even before Qasim could join the company, Jhonson sold its business to Hughes Software System, and he joined as a software engineer, in 2001.
Qasim says, “The transition was more difficult than I had imagined. Because I had deliberately not studied what the CS had in the syllabus, I had zero knowledge about software development. My strength was that I had hands-on experience. I started doubting my decision for not opting for CS.”
Here, he worked on the wireless protocol. However, things improved in the second year, and he started writing protocols for 3G.
After working for three years, Qasim quit Hughes and joined Agilent Technologies in 2004 as the product development engineer. Agilent was a spin-off from HP and managed the latter’s test equipment technology.
Agilent wanted Qasim to work at the US head office. Unfortunately, the deadly 9/11 incident shook the world the very same year, and the USA tightened its VISA rules. Qasim’s VISA was rejected not once, but thrice. Thus, he started working remotely with the team and within the next six months, he was able to form Agilent’s tech team in India.
Qasim built products like the Firehunter, but was not very satisfied with his work at Agilent. His stint there lasted only nine months.
He then joined Solidcore, a B2B software company, as a senior software engineer. At Solidcore, he worked on Solaris Kernel and handled its project for General Motors and a few other prototyping projects.
Qasim says, “The problem with those projects was that Solaris Kernel was not open source then. There was no documentation that was required. It involved a lot of reverse engineering and my prior experience with hacking was put to use.”
At Solidcore, Qasim worked on HP-UX and IBM’s AIX. In 2006, he quit Solidcore.
“I was a difficult engineer to work with. I was very opinionated and did not enjoy a rapport with my manager,” he confesses.
Exploring the other side
Around the same time, IIM started its new campus in Delhi and Qasim enrolled for the PGDM course for working executives. The course lasted for three years, starting from 2005.
“I was not looking at switching my field. My two key expectations from that programme were that I would get good at making presentations and better at time management,” he says.
At the same time, he joined Tribal Fusion, a startup, as the technical head. It was also the first internet company that he worked with.
Unlike Solidcore, where there was always one to two month’s lead time before releasing a product, at Tribal Fusion, a new product had to be released every week. What made things more difficult for Qasim was that he had to work with the CEO, who was also the chief coder of the platform, and reviewed the code before release.
But here, Qasim also got the opportunity to travel to the US every quarter. He wanted to build something in the mobile space for Tribal Fusion. He says, “It was an internet company, and I was aware of how the world was gradually shifting to a mobile-first approach.”
However, the senior management dismissed this idea as a ‘fat finger’ problem and Qasim decided to quit Tribal Fusion after five years.
Qasim then got in touch with Abhishek Goyal, Founder of Tracxn, and former Associate with Accel Partners. Abhishek had built UrbanTouch, a Gurugram-based beauty and fashion ecommerce portal, similar to what Nykaa is today.
Qasim joined UrbanTouch as the VP, Engineering. “I had a lot of flexibility at UrbanTouch. I could decide how I wanted to build the tech stack. No COO over-ruled me there,” he says.
Qasim built UrbanTouch’s platform on Node.js. It was a fairly new language, and no one was using it in India then. LinkedIn was the only big company that used Node.js, claims Qasim. Although Abhishek was initially concerned, he let Qasim go ahead with it. It was a gamble that paid off.
Interestingly, before joining UrbanTouch, a friend had advised Qasim that ecommerce was not his cup of tea. Qasim says that it further pushed him to take the plunge.
A mini-recession hit India between 2012-2013, and UrbanTouch was unable to raise funds. It was acquired by FashionAndYou, and Qasim left the.
“All these experiences involved working as single-person teams or in small teams. It gave me the confidence that I could build any software, without necessarily copying anyone. It also taught me that it is important to work with smaller but experienced teams,” he says.
Riding the unicorns
In 2012, Paytm was still in its early stage. Qasim refused to join the fintech startup the first few times they approached him. However, a breakfast with Harinder Thakar, CEO of Paytm Labs, and a meeting with Founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, made him change his mind.
“I realised that Vijay had a vision and I decided to come on-board as the VP, Engineering,” he says.
The moment Qasim joined, Paytm declared that it wanted to build a new website for Windows users. “I was told that it had to be launched in the next 20 days at a press conference,” he says.
Qasim had to take the responsibility, with only a UX designer to help him. “This was Paytm’s way of throwing me into the river and testing if I could swim,” he jokes.
After he completed the task, he was then asked to build the marketplace. However, this time, he bought more time in hand. With a team of upto 20 engineers, Qasim relaunched the Paytm marketplace. The wallet and other products, including the recharging portal and ticket booking platforms, were all integrated under the umbrella of the marketplace. This allowed the company to do cross-promotion.
“Before Paytm, I was only fixing stacks and the technology. Fixing a team, its culture and then turning it around was what I learnt at Paytm. And it’s a much more difficult and satisfying task,” Qasim says.
This was also when Paytm got its investment from Alibaba. “Paytm was doing a lot of cashbacks at that time, but I wanted the business to be more sustainable," he says.
At the same time, Qasim met the Tokopedia team. The ecommerce company was doing 20,000 transactions a day, and it had secured a big round from Sequoia Capital.
Tokopedia was built on Perl and it wasn’t able to handle scale. The company was looking for someone to lead the technology.
“I visited them in Indonesia. The business was very organic, and they did not involve in strategies like free shipping or cashbacks, and still managed to grow,” says Qasim.
He was impressed, and accepted the offer and joined Tokopedia as the CTO in June 2015.
“The month I joined, its website was down for 20 days out of 30 days. Its survival was in question,” he says.
He was all the more excited about Tokopedia because the work culture was very different from all other organisations he had worked with.
Qasim’s first year at the startup was spent stabilising the website, rewriting it in Golang, retraining the developers, and figuring out the new hires. He also helped Tokopedia move to the cloud.
In his second year, Qasim built the recharging product and a wallet. In his third and final year, he was more focussed on setting up the team. Soon, Tokopedia became a unicorn.
When he joined the company, it was only 80-employee strong. By the time he left Tokopedia in 2018, the company had 500 employees in Jakarta and a development centre in India with 80 employees.
After his stint in Indonesia, Qasim moved back to India to join Rivigo in 2018 as its CTO. “I was bored with ecommerce, and Rivigo seemed different from everything I had worked on,” he says.
At Rivigo, Qasim worked on hiring and fixing the culture. He also worked on agility, i.e., making engineers feel more motivated and increasing the swiftness of delivering products.
“In a B2B company, the most important factor is delivering good quality products at effective prices - optimising the costs and agility. At Rivigo, I was able to reduce our AWS costs by 50 percent by optimising the platform,” he says.
Qasim has now quit Rivigo. He says, “I see a slowdown coming in the Indian logistics industry. I would prefer a company which is much smaller but has prospects of growing much more swiftly.”
Looking back, he says it is very important to be able to speak in both the engineering and non-engineering languages.
“Engineers have a tendency to speak in jargon and confuse non-technical people, exposing them to complexities and ultimately not making sense to them. I have learnt that speaking in simple language and understanding what your users want is the winning trick,” he says.
Qasim still continues to code. His current favourite programming language is GoLang. These days, he is coding on a few side projects, mostly playing around with his Raspberry pi, a small single-board computer. He is trying to figure out how techies would survive in the case of an ‘internet apocalypse’.
“What if the government shuts down the internet completely?”
Not willing to reveal where he is headed next, Qasim confirms he is moving out to work in a new country. “If nothing else, I am going to learn a new language,” he says.
(Edited by Megha Reddy)