[Techie Tuesday] Meet the man who built patented systems at Yahoo, and is now leading tech at Acko
Vishwanath Ramarao needs no introduction in the world of technology and engineering. In two decades, he has developed over 15 patents in search system designs, IM, mail, and communication.
Today, as Chief Technology Officer and Chief Product Officer of digital insurance startup Acko, Vishwanath is responsible for data science, product, design, and engineering, and focuses on ensuring newer strategic technology initiatives.
His belief has stood him in good stead: “If you fall in love with your craft and look at technology as an art form, you will have a very satisfying career path and trajectory.”
Born in Kolar, a small mining town near Bengaluru, Vishwanath’s father was a supervisor at the Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML) while his mother, was a housewife, Carnatic musician, and radio artist.
“My sister, who’s five years older than me influenced me to take up technology and engineering. She paved the path for me, as she had taken engineering before me, and I wanted to follow her footsteps ” he says.
Vishwanath got his first computer when he was in Class 12, and learnt Fortran programming. He was good at math and science, and engineering seemed the way ahead.
“I was analytical as a child, and was encouraged to take up engineering.”
By this time, his sister was already studying engineering. But in 1994-95, computer science was relatively new; engineering meant electronic communication as the country then was looking closely at manufacturing.
“I grew up in an era when getting a job was important. In my middle-class upbringing, entrepreneurship during or immediately after college was unheard of,” Vishwanath recalls.
Learning to code
Hailing from a middle-class family, Vishwanath went to SIT Tumkur, which seemed economically viable in 1996. He took the electronics and communications stream and in the second year of his course, the college had a “placement process reengineering programme”.
It was a new effort with a minor university and Bengaluru’s PESIT, and close to 70 people across the university were trained for software services. By 1997, Wipro and Infosys had started growing and trained people were needed. This programme was to help students skill up, and Vishwanath was one of the 70 chosen students.
“We were trained by industry experts on being ready for the then-new work. I got the sixth rank. I would travel to Bengaluru each week, and took a two-year intensive programme on the weekends,” he recalls.
Vishwanath says this is where he learnt different programming languages. “It was a brand new world. I had come across the idea of a coding standard, for the first time. It took time to master the course content.”
As a part of the course, Vishwanath got placed in Wipro in 1999. He worked in the telecom group with hardcore C++ coding, building apps for the internet as the Valley boom rubbed off.
“The analog telephony network was getting replaced by packet telephony. Networking systems were coming in. One of Wipro’s clients was a Canadian startup, Nortel Networks. They were building telecom switches for the internet, and I was working on the project,” he says.
At Wipro, he feels he learnt to be a professional and what it actually means to be a professional engineer. Connecting with one of the seasoned Nortel engineers who spent two months with the Wipro team was “transformative”.
“Talking to seasoned engineers like him helped challenge my thought processes and the world I lived in,” Vishwanath explains.
Penn State and more
Vishwanath soon got an introduction to Silicon Valley, and the new technologies that were being built.
“Suddenly I wanted to be great at what I did. This desire pushed me to do my master’s at Penn State University,” he says. This was in 2000, and Vishwanath got deeper exposure to technology and how people looked at building products and tech.
Vishwanath says, “Universities in the US are the bedrock of technology development and professors end up being mentors for several entrepreneurs.”
This opened the possibility to try different routes, think critically and problem-solve, and break away from the services mindset.
Vishwanath had initially wanted to do a PhD, but after his master’s course he chose to focus on building solutions rather than pure research. For more than academics, the heart of building for a problem appealed to him.
The fact that he worked with a professor’s startup, Decision pro, while he was doing his master’s from 2000 to 2003 may also have contributed to this. It was his first exposure to a startup, and Vishwanath realised he was learning and applying at the same time.
“The constant feedback loop was something I always wanted. Seeing a product go live and seeing tech being used can be extremely transformative and addictive,” he explains.
Building spam tech at Yahoo
By 2002, the internet bubble had burst. It was a challenging time and Vishwanath returned to India and joined Yahoo’s Bengaluru R&D centre in 2003. He was there for the next seven years.
“Since it was a new centre, we were looking at different problems that Yahoo was potentially interested in solving and that could be done out of Bengaluru. People in the US weren’t paying too much attention to us then,” Vishwanath says.
A small group was building these products. During this time Vishwanath worked on a problem on tracking captcha for nine months. The question was: could it be cracked in an automated way, which meant a better technology.
In 2003 end, Vishwanath worked on a computer vision problem to solve the problem using his master’s ideas, and made a presentation to the SVP, who had come to Bengaluru to see different products that were being built.
Vishwanath was roped in to deal with spam technology problems as they had captcha foundations. He ended up starting the spam team in Bengaluru and went on to become the tech lead and recruit other engineers. By 2005, a steady stream of work was being done out of Bengaluru.
Building sponsored search and mail
That very year, Vishwanath’s then fiancée moved to the US and he wanted to be there as well.
At that time, Yahoo had acquired a search company, Overture. It was the original sponsored search business site for paid search links that primarily powers Google now. The Overture acquisition strengthened Yahoo’s position.
As Vishwanath had built the spam tech, he had open offers and joined as the sponsored search international expansion lead at Yahoo in Los Angeles.
“We were trying to do sponsored search data analytics and some amount of statistical machine learning,” he says, adding that he ended up building patented technology here.
In 2008, Vishwanath and his wife were looking for a change due to personal reasons. The person running Yahoo Mail then reached out to him, seeking help with their spam issues.
Vishwanath moved back to SunnyVale, worked on Yahoo Mail, expanded to Messenger, and also worked with general abuse technologies at Yahoo.
“I realised we had a 10-year old stack and had to take a fundamental approach. A lot of the university training and the ability to innovate and think help, rather than just systems building or software development.”
The team built a new architecture and technologies, and worked on dual tracks - the existing one and a new stack. “We used a lot of traffic management algorithms. We worked closely with Yahoo research labs to develop brand new anti-spam systems.”
His own startup
By 2010, Vishwanath had worked with multiple leaders at Yahoo. Having seen the company change, he realised it was time to move. He teamed up with a few colleagues and started Impermium, a startup that built social algorithms, in Palo Alto, California.
Social media was taking off, and everyone was producing a lot of content. Taking the background of his work, he started building social algorithms for the management of spam and abuse, enforcement of social terms of service, and content moderation.
“We were building real-time, adversarial machine learning frameworks to protect the next generation of social web applications. We were doing 25 billion transactions, and the scale was massive. So we decided to build an API,” Vishwanath says. “We were valued at $40 million within a year.”
Vishwanath lost his father in 2012, and sadly couldn’t visit his father much when he was unwell. It was a watershed moment. Keen to be closer to his family, he wanted to do something in India. “ I realised if you have the confidence to create technology, you can do it anywhere,” he says.
Exiting his company, he chose to do something different. That was also the time that Imepermium was acquired by Google, and Vishwanath explains that most of the tech they had built was used by the systems at Google.
He went on to join Eventbrite, a marketplace for event organisers and creators, and was there for a year before moving back to India in 2014. “For me, Eventbrite was different from mail and messaging,” he ays.
Working with AOL and Hike
In August 2014, a colleague and friend from Yahoo who was at AOL asked Vishwanath to join – this was his ticket back to India.
Here, he led engineering for AOL.com, AOL Mail, Messenger, and Desktop.
“In addition to existing products in the AOL portfolio, I did the lead engineering for Alto Mail, the best mobile email client out there. I worked with amazing people with fire in their belly,” he says.
“We launched a brand new email client called Alto, an Android award-winning client for mail management across multiple providers. We built several multi-media technologies; this was alongside the M&A,” Vishwanath says.
Soon Yahoo was acquired by Verizon and it was like life had come a full circle for Vishwanath.
He continued working and building technology for mail and messaging, and in 2016 got the opportunity to join Hike as CTO.
“My background has been in scale and messaging, and it was a brilliant problem to solve for a billion people. We tried several pivots at a time. Whatever tech we built, we were always behind a Snapchat or WhatsApp, and had to hit the reset the button,” he recalls.
From Google to Acko
After shutting the messaging centre in 2019, people from his old startup - now in Google - got Vishwanath to the search engine giant in Mountain View. He learnt many lessons in technology, but Vishwanath wanted more speed.
“I had seen the pace at Hike, and I had done a lot of work in three months in a smaller company. And I wanted that again,” he says. He also wanted to take learnings from larger companies to smaller ones, and build a critical mass.
In 2020, he decided to join Acko. Vishwanath says, “Acko is at a critical mass stage where it can grow super big, and insurance and fintech are booming in India. The scope to use technology at scale is really strong.”
Today, while hiring engineers he looks for discipline and curiosity.
“I look for curious people with the ability to learn and the discipline to achieve their goals. This is not a space where what you have learned stays for too long. You have to keep picking up new skills, reading, keep reinventing yourself. You have to keep thinking, being curious.”
Edited by Teja Lele