[Techie Tuesday] From failing Java in college to being an Android tech lead with Snapchat and Airbnb - Vinay Gaba's journey

In this week’s Techie Tuesday, we feature Vinay Gaba, Tech Lead, Airbnb. In the past decade, Vinay has created a niche for himself in the Android development space, and has built for companies like Spotify and Snapchat.
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As a technology lead for Airbnb , 30-year old Vinay Gaba leads UI Infrastructure and Design Systems on Android for the company in San Francisco. Having worked on Android systems for over a decade now, Vinay has always had a strong preference for this specialisation. 

He feels that his single-minded focus on building what he is good at even got him through the ups and downs that AirBnB faced during the pandemic year. He believes focussing on what one is good at and doubling down on that makes all the difference. 

Vinay has always worked for companies whose products he personally uses. “For me, it then becomes personal. It is about making my experience as a user better, and you end up working harder to build a world-class product,” adds Vinay.

Vinay Gaba at Airbnb, San Francisco

He has built systems at Spotify and Snapchat, and has been a speaker and panelist at multiple international conferences like Droidcon Americas 2020, Android Summit 2020, 360 AnDev 2020, Multimedia University of Kenya 2020, Droidcon SF 2019, Droidcon SF 2017, Columbia University 2016, Droidcon Montreal 2015, GDG Ahmedabad 2014. He is also an active contributor to open source, and author of popular open source libraries. 

An engineer by chance 

Despite his expertise in technology today, Vinay’s tryst with engineering, as he puts it, was completely serendipitous. Born and raised in Mumbai, Vinay's mother is a housewife and father runs a construction business. 

“My family has been completely removed from technology, and there were no role models as such when it

came to engineering or technology. But, my parents always believed in supporting every choice of mine, and that gave me the strength and drive to be this passionate about technology today,” says Vinay.

He also adds that he was an average student, and there wasn't any specific zeal or push to code from the first time he was introduced to computers in class five. And so, he never gave computers much

thought, that is until high school when things started getting more interesting, in terms of design and

building things.

“I got my first computer when I was in class nine, and I had to force my parents to buy me a PC. In all fairness, my parents had always associated computers with video games, and only when they saw me build things from programming did they understand why I wanted a computer so badly,” explains Vinay. 

Tinkering his way through high school, it was a no-brainer for Vinay and his parents that he would go on to pursue engineering. “I never thought of joining an IIT or an NIT, as I didn't know of their existence, and nor was I academically inclined to study for those entrance exams,” he says. 

Vinay completed his engineering in IT Engineering from Thadomal Shanani Engineering College in Mumbai in 2009. 

Failing in Java to becoming an Android developer 

“In the initial months of engineering, I felt rather lost amid all the different subjects. In engineering, the first year is about more generic engineering subjects. I even failed in Java. Ironically, today as an Android developer, I use Java. It is my bread and butter,” laughs Vinay. 

His grades started shifting when he happened to be a part of a committee that conducted workshops at college. And he happened to be responsible for people attending one such Android workshop. 

Since it was a Saturday, nobody turned up. 

“The professor who was there had travelled quite a distance to just make it to the workshop. Not wanting to cancel the session, I attended the workshop, and found it super intriguing. The session led me to work through the weekend, and I built a scientific calculator app and put it on the play store,” says Vinay. 

Once on the App Store, he left it at that, and went about his routine. A week later, much to his surprise, he had made $66, and people in 20 countries were using the app. 

“Making that $66 was a completely new experience. It was more than the pocket money I had for a month! Also, when you see people in over 20 countries using your app, it is a different high,” says Vinay. This made it easy for Vinay to understand the theory, and his grades started improving. 

Vinay during his engineering days

The cheat code

Spurred on by this success, he enrolled on the gig platform Freelancer, and bid for projects, at the lowest price possible. This helped him build more products for Canada, Israel, and US-based startups. 

“Many of those companies don’t even exist today, and even if I charged almost a quarter of what was the actual price, it still helped me learn. It was my cheat code. It was this practical experience that helped me learn things. It was what made me more passionate about coding and building different products,” says Vinay. 

After graduating, Vinay joined Deloitte in December 2013. For the first six months, Vinay says he worked hard, and put in long hours, but soon started missing the feel of coding and programming. He explains that while his job entailed both coding and consulting, Vinay wanted to spend more time coding. 

He was also in two minds about applying for his Masters in the US. “I only wanted to get into the top schools, but it was an expensive affair. Having earned my own money since 18, I just didn’t want to burden my parents,” says Vinay. 

Everything in between US and India 

The self-starter that he is, Vinay also decided to work on his public speaking skills, as he believes good communication skills is vital for anyone who wants to rise up the professional ladder. “I feel as techies, it is an ignored skill. Also, I have been shy, in school once my team lost a competition because I froze on stage, and I kept avoiding public speaking. Deciding to overcome it, I took an opportunity in Ahmedabad to learn Public Speaking ,and after that I kept working on it. Public speaking opened doors for me and helped me get the right connections,” says Vinay. 

He simultaneously also applied to some of the top US universities, and got through Columbia University and joined the course in August 2015. 

Being in a new country, Vinay grabbed every opportunity that came his way to learn new things. “We were told in our orientation programme that the best Teaching Assistant (TA) would get a scholarship. And I knew if I could get that in my second semester it alone would could cover 40 percent of my scholarship,” says Vinay. 

After several cold calls, emails and connects, Vinay finally landed a Teaching Assistant job, and worked hard to get recommended. “My professor liked my work and was kind enough to recommend me for the scholarship, which I received,” says Vinay. 

Vinay during his graduation from Columbia University

The Spotify ride 

While working as a TA, Vinay also landed a summer internship at Spotify in their New York office in 2016. Vinay recollects having some of the best experiences at Spotify. “Even as an intern, one had all the benefits of a full-time employee and was given equal responsibility. I remember participating in every activity, and even understanding the importance of work-life balance here,” says Vinay. 

He adds, “I like doing new things, I never say no to anything that is new. No effort ever goes to waste, it will eventually feel like it was worth it”

At Spotify, Vinay worked as an engineer in the monetisation/growth team. The monetisation team focused on creating standout promotional experiences for users, artists and brands. Here, he developed an internal tool for the Android client to help in the verification of translations across devices and locales. He also built the backend system required to support the tool.  

Besides this, he also worked on a project for Spotify. The app would test the product across 50 to 60 languages, and the process needed to be automated. "I took all the upsell surface areas and created a Tinder like experience, and the tester would see if the localisation looked good or not. This was previously happening on spreadsheets,” says Vinay. 

Even after his internship, Vinay continued working part-time at Spotify, alongside his TA job at the university. An aggregation of all this helped him cover 80 percent of his tuition fees. After his graduation in 2017, Vinay joined Snapchat in Los Angeles.  

Snapping away at Snapchat 

“I was using Snapchat extensively by then. A lot of people wanted to work for Snapchat, even those who missed the Facebook boat wanted to work with Snapchat. It was privacy focussed, when you signed up it never asked your gender, as they never wanted to do a gender-based ads. So when I got an offer I jumped at it. I also wanted to move to the West Coast,” says Vinay. 

Vinay used to work on sponsored creative tools. “In March 2017, users would take three billion snaps a day, and we had a 60:40 split, of which 40 percent were Android users. So, needless to say, the stakes were super high,” adds Vinay. His responsibilities included building new and innovative features, improving code quality, writing automated tests, app profiling, and performance tuning. It was a great training ground.

“I always seek mentorship and help from people. And that is what I did even at Snapchat. It helped me grow fast and get opportunities even within the company,” says Vinay. 

But one year into the company, there was controversial redesign, which did not work well, and the stock prices tanked. 

“These were early IPO issues, we bounced back, and I stuck through. We decided to rewrite an entire Android app. As an engineer, that experience taught me a lot about managing expectations, delegating work, etc. Snapchat bounced back, and they started escalating user growth to focus on Android countries,” says Vinay. He also worked on Snap Games. 

The Airbnb experience 

While he was happy at Snapchat, Vinay was hungry to learn more and grow. So when he got an opportunity to work at Airbnb, he jumped at it and joined the company in June 2019. Until January 2020, Vinay worked on Airbnb Plus, which lists only the top hosts. 

His then manager thought he would be a good fit at a verification product that Airbnb was working on. “I had earlier told my manager that I am super ambitious, and I need to keep doing new things. And when this opportunity came, he was kind enough to recommend me,” says Vinay. 

The proprietary verification product was Airbnb’s number one priority. It is a zero-to-one product with a lot of open-ended questions. Vinay successfully took it to launch during the most uncertain period the world has ever seen.

“When we had just started building the product, the pandemic started. Nothing has ever affected travel like Covid. But Airbnb has been able to IPO, and a successful IPO at that. In May, we had layoffs - 25 percent of the staff was let go. But many came back, and with everything, we were able to successfully build the verification product. I loved the quality and calibre of the Android team- all are prolific contributors to the open-source,” says Vinay.

From October 2020, Vinay has been the Tech Lead for the UI Infrastructure and Design Systems on Android for Airbnb. He continues to actively build on open-source. 

“My first open-source project in 2015 was an open-source library called credit card view. Apple had just launched pay, and had a beautiful credit card view. So, I built something for Android developers to add a credit card view in the app, it looked like an actual credit card, and had better user experience,” says Vinay. 

Today, while hiring engineers, Vinay looks for ambition. “I want people to not be afraid to build things from scratch and dive right in. If you are ambitious, you will figure things out.None of us are born with java knowledge, those who want to learn will learn. Nothing else matters.`` 

What advice does he have for budding techies? He says, “A lot of us get caught up in what technology to learn, and go through a lot of tutorials. But try building something focussed and then figure out the pieces. By spending time on extra stuff, you put in barriers to entry. Don’t worry too much, start small and launch continuously, that’s what I have done. That is just a gateway, it makes you a better engineer, gives you more opportunity. Everything feeds into each other,” he signs off. 
Edited by Anju Narayanan