Winning the hunger games with tech: key insights from Dale Vaz of Swiggy at Future of Work 2020
As she entered the stage for a fireside chat with Swiggy tech head Dale Vaz at YourStory's Future of Work 2020 conference, YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma asked, by a show of hands from the audience, how many of them had used the Swiggy app. From the mass synchronised rating of hands, the popularity of the food delivery and logistics app was apparent.
And rightfully so. Swiggy today is regarded as one of the success stories of the Indian startup ecosystem, having risen in popularity to become the leading food ordering and delivery platform in India.
The innovative technology, large and nimble delivery service, and exceptional consumer focus at Swiggy has enabled a host of benefits that includes lightning fast deliveries, live order tracking, and no restrictions on order amount, all while having the pleasure of enjoying your favourite meal wherever you’d like it.
As the Bengaluru-based foodtech and logistics startup attempts to solve some of the unique problems in hyperlocal discovery, on-demand fulfilment, and hyper-local supply chain management, Dale Vaz, Head of Engineering at Swiggy, a man at the forefront of this transformation, talks about how they are doing it, and his personal transformation story.
Shradha opens the conversation by telling Dale that she has great respect for his work and his humility and how he has decoded tech for non-techies, before going on to ask him about his own growth trajectory -- which has been nothing short of amazing.
Speaking about his journey, Dale said his career had seen three phases: understanding the services industry at Indian IT services major Infosys, witnessing unprecedented growth and scale at global retail giant Amazon, and finally experiencing life in a fast-growing startup at Swiggy where he witnessed first-hand the transformation of Swiggy to an AI-first company.
But how does one make that kind journey, Shradha asks, and Dale responds in his unassuming manner.
“Part of it was serendipity and being at the right place at the right time,” said Dale. He believes the advice he received from his boss at Amazon, who asked him to ‘Focus on accomplishments first and titles would follow’, stood him in good stead and helped him with tough career choices later on.
Dale also realised that the opportunity and possibilities of what Swiggy can do in India and for India was unprecedented and game-changing in the long run. He particularly believed that the next phase was going to be all about making India the tech capital of the world and building big tech businesses from the country that the world would look up to.
Delivering in the long run in India
On being asked how Swiggy was playing for a long run, Dale spoke about how Swiggy was focussing on optimising for inputs and not outputs.
“If you take care of the inputs, the outputs take care of themselves,” he said, adding that companies often tend to get caught up on getting to a vanity metric, which is not good.
Speaking about the Indian opportunity, Dale said, “It’s not a one-size-fits all scenario. We have to build a product that works for different kinds of customer cohorts. This is particularly tough for India. The kind of variance and numbers is unprecedented. It’s super hard but also equally challenging and interesting.”
On staying on the pulse of the customer, Dale also stressed on the importance of having your customer at the front and centre of your development strategy.
“It won’t work if you sit in a cubicle solving problems for a customer far removed from your life. Engineers also need to be in direct contact with the customers.”
He added that Swiggy got its insights from three kinds of customers: end consumers, restaurant owners, and drivers.
“We try to stay on the pulse of all three kinds of customers. For drivers, we have a drive-along programme, where they get a first-hand experience of deliveries. We do restaurant visits, and we also have programmes to help us understand the end users.”
On being asked how they approach solving problems at scale, Dale said he believed ideas could come from anyone, and that one way Swiggy facilitates innovation is by a gamified approach of organising their people by pods comprised of employees of various capabilities tasked with solving a particular problem and then presenting their solutions to a leadership team.
On data, AI and Swiggy
Swiggy naturally generates substantial data from its customers, and Dale pointed out that the first rule of data is to ‘keep it safe and be responsible with data it collects with sound encryption’.
“We leverage our data to identify patterns and deliver a wow customer experience. The goal is to be able to wow customers by connecting the right restaurant with the right customer at the right time based on customers’ affinities. Data patterns also help our restaurant partners optimise our driver fleet and even in the detection of abuse.”
Swiggy has also deployed AI in the customer and delivery experience in a big way. Order traffic algorithms generate a ‘heat map’ denoting where orders are likely to come from in the next 15 minutes.
“This heat map helps drivers be proactive and be present near high activity zones. This saves time and is also fuel efficient for the drivers,” says Dale. “We have a team of scientists working with forward-looking technologies like voice, text, and computer vision innovations.”
Speaking about a recent innovation, Dale said how a camera rigged to a deep learning system was set up to identify dishes with 98 percent accuracy and prevent wrong orders from being sent out, and was now used across nine kitchens.
“The future of AI is about unlocking human potential. AI frees up humans from mundane tasks and leave them for more creative jobs,” adds Dale.
How to stay relevant for the future
Given the tech-oriented audience at the venue, Shradha wrapped up the fireside chat by asking Dale for his advice on staying relevant with the rapidly changing tech dynamic.
“We are living in a digital world where information is available at your fingertips,” answered Dale. “It’s much easier staying abreast of change these days as opposed to a few decades ago, where one had to rely on books and libraries. The opportunities are plentiful, so it’s really about having the curiosity to constantly learn new things.
Dale also stressed on the role of mentorship in constant learning, adding that Swiggy was keen on tracking and improving the earnings per week of its driver fleet and ensuring their earnings go up.
“For drivers looking at delivery as a career, we look at giving them career options such as driver mentors and offer them medical insurance and other benefits. It’s early days and a challenge that still needs solving,” he adds.
Connections, conversations, and collaborations
“We are always on the look-out for niche products and startups that can help us solve problems for our customers - particularly food tech and deep science startups,” said Dale on being asked if Swiggy was looking to acquire or partner with startups.
Dale also revealed he was open to mentoring people from the ecosystem if he found their questions relevant and interesting. “Look me up on LinkedIn,” he signed off to a rousing applause.
(Edited by Megha Reddy and Tenzin Pema)
A big shoutout to our Future of Work 2020 Sponsors: Alibaba Cloud, Larksuite, Vodafone Idea Limited, Gojek, Adobe, Udaan, Pocket Aces, Junglee Games, ShareChat, Open, Vesta Space Technology, Maharashtra State Innovation Society, Kristal.AI and GetToWork; and our Knowledge Partner: Ascend Harvard Business Review