[Techie Tuesday] Abhinav Lal on how a love for coding, passion for redefining healthcare led to Practo
As someone who has shied away from the limelight for the past 11 years, 32-year-old Abhinav Lal, Co-founder and CTO, Practo, has always believed in the importance of going deep in one expertise to solve real-world problems.
From learning to code at the age of 9 to building healthtech platform Practo while in college, it was his constant hunger for making things better that shaped his career to becoming a successful entrepreneur.
According to Abhinav, his product and tech journey has been the best one so far. He says, right from his early days in college, he was curious about how do you take a new piece of tech that is still evolving and solve real world problems.
And this probably sowed the seeds of entrepreneurship in him, which led him to start Practo along with Shashank ND after they realised that despite the growth of technology, it was playing no role in a problem that was affecting everybody.
Today, the startup claims to be the world’s leading healthcare platform that connects millions of patients with healthcare providers around the world, and helps people make better healthcare decisions.
Despite seeing success, Abhinav says, he no longer codes 48 hours straight like before, but he ensures he codes every week. He says: “My team is more equipped than me, and they definitely need to be at it more than I do. But I don’t think I can stop coding.”
Hailing from Bhagalpur in Bihar, Abhinav’s father was a labour enforcement officer and his mother was a homemaker. Abhinav had to move across Ranchi and Jharkhand during his childhood, and he had to suddenly move back to Bhagalpur after he lost his father in an accident. To make ends meet, his mother soon joined the labour enforcement department too.
Despite such difficult times, Abhinav’s interest in academics only grew. He says, “I was always into mathematics and science. I cannot recollect the exact moment when I like doing the subject, but I just did,” says Abhinav.
Coding for the first time
It was this love for mathematics that got Abhinav to dabble with computers in his school when he was just nine-years-old. In 1997, his school introduced computer science, and Abhinav’s curiosity for the subject soon turned into a fascination. He says, he wrote his first code then to create shapes.
“I was completely enthralled and fascinated by how a few keys could build those cursors. When I used a computer - the structure of the way it works, what you can create, and the process of creation was completely fascinating,” recollects Abhinav.
The 30 minutes computer class soon became one of the most-favourite aspect of schooling. “I would also go to a relative’s office later to use their computer, and I would try experimenting with different minor programs and code,” adds Abhinav.
For three years, Abhinav kept learning different programs and would do coding at school and at his relative’s office, until he got a computer at home. “I would get back home every day and code and tinker with different programs for as long as I could,” says Abhinav.
While academically sound, he never felt textbooks or cramming up theories would help him understand concepts, but he always believed in the power of doing things for learning.
“I always wanted to do something with business. When I was eight years old, my cousin gave me 40 comic books. I would take them to school and rent them for one rupee. I don’t know why I did it, but the idea was fascinating,” says Abhinav.
Abhinav also won several regional and national level mathematics olympiads.
Jaded by competitive exams
“I was sure I wanted to do computer science engineering, and I was also sure I would score well in math. But in my board exam, I got only 70, and it was a shocker. Despite the Olympiad certificates, all the schools that prepared for IIT wouldn’t take me in. I started getting jaded by competitive exams, and I didn’t want to give an IIT exam,” he says.
“I chose NIT Surathkal just by looking at the website and the fact that it had a private beach. In hindsight, it was the best decision. We started building Practo while in college, and the kind of leeway we got made a lot of things possible,” recollects Abhinav.
While in college, Abhinav, who already had a hang of coding and building calculators, collecting data, and managing small programs, began earnestly coding. He also started building the tech fest website, and then the entrepreneurship forum website, which he built from scratch. He worked on several other projects to earn some money, and helped setup tech and website for a few companies as well.
Building the college email suite
Abhinav created an email suite for his college, which was heavily inspired by Gmail. During that time, Gmail was invite-only, and when Abhinav got an invite, he found the system seamless and smooth. “I ended up building a similar one for our college email suite,” says Abhinav.
In 2008, during his third year, Abhinav’s batchmate Shashank ND, who is now the Co-founder and CEO of Practo, came up with the idea of a healthcare platform.
Abhinav says: “Shashank’s father had to undergo a surgery, and Shashank was frantically getting together his father’s medical records. But he was unable to find the necessary documents immediately, and realised how broken the healthcare system was in India. He also thought how challenging it was for consumers, and decided there has to be a better way to solve the problem.”
By then, a lot of verticals were adopting tech at a fast pace, but healthcare, which was an important sector, was not seeing the change, and that is where it all started, says Abhinav. Hence, they started building a core healthcare-focussed platform.
“In the first year, while building Practo, we travelled from Mangalore to Bengaluru every week. Every Thursday night we would take a bus to Bengaluru, and spend the next three days meeting clients, doctors, and understanding their needs, and Monday we would get back to classes. We were lucky to have a supportive HOD. I don’t think I attended a single class in my final year. I was mostly in Bengaluru,” says Abhinav.
Soon after college, Abhinav, Shashank, and three other friends moved to Bengaluru in 2009. They got along with some engineers from RVCE, Bengaluru, and stayed in a small house. “We slept on the ground and our make do office was on the first floor. We would code from noon until five in the morning,” recollects Abhinav.
Today, Practo has moved into a larger space in JP Nagar, Bengaluru, and has an engineering team of 110 people.
Abhinav says he no longer codes till five in the morning, but enjoys looking at a more holistic view of how the mix of technology, product, and design can solve a customer’s problem.
“I have started finding people as an area more interesting and it is exciting to see how organisations can retain culture and build strong productive teams,” says Abhinav.
Advising techies, he says, while it is important to learn something new every day, it is also important to go deep in one expertise.
“There is value in having in-depth knowledge - not just the technical expertise and utilising tech in itself, but how do you take a new piece of tech that is still evolving, and solve real world problems. How you write code hasn’t changed in the past 30 years, but it is the craft that differentiates a good engineer from a great one. One thing therefore I look for is passion. It just isn’t about technology. I always ask about the first application code they wrote, and a passionate engineer can go on for hours. The topic doesn’t matter. I was talking to an engineer on the physics of how the table tennis spin works, and we spoke about it for hours on end. And that is passion.”
Edited by Megha Reddy