4 years at fb (and in the US)

October 25, 2015

I have been at Facebook and in the US for four years. It seems like a really long time. Many times during this time I wondered how on earth did I end up here because the one thing that I was absolutely convinced of, four years back, that I was a mediocre guy who could just about manage to keep a software job.

I remember a conversation with my friends on the terrace of Kendriya Vihar in Gachibowli right after I landed a job at Google, back in 2011. We were doing some old style BC. ‘You keep saying you are a bad engineer. How the hell did you end up with Google?’ a friend asked. What he did not know what I was rejected 5 times for a position at their Hyderabad office before I got this offer from the Mountain View office. Yeah, interviews are funny like that. Anyway, I told him ‘I just had to fool five people at Google into believing that I was good enough’. ‘Well, you should try Facebook as well. That wont be easy’ he said. I managed to fool not five but twelve people at Facebook into thinking I am good enough. But I also remember thinking to myself ‘fuck mediocrity’ then. That did not make me a rockstar overnight but it began a lot of introspection and I think I have become more serious about my contributions both as an engineer and as a human being ever since. Both have improved with my move here.

The Tech Stuff: Cutting to present, I am still an average guy at facebook but at the same time my accomplishments in the four years probably overshadow all of my work before that. Not just because it was great work but because I threw all caution to the wind and picked an area where I sucked. My grade in Computer Networks at college was D, just above the dreaded F for fail, and I could not even identify different layers. Even if I had gotten a good grade it would not have mattered: I like IIIT, but as far as the courses on Networks are concerned, we really failed to meet even the lowest of the bars (this was then though. I am sure this is fixed now). Given that background, it was a risky move but it got me in touch with some terrific teams and probably now I am a network person more than I am computer vision or machine learning person. Over this time, I helped  teams here build a world class cdn, a global load balancer for one of the largest sites in the world and a mobile http client that runs nearly on every smart phone. Solid stuff for a guy who nearly failed a networks course. My mentors, engineering heroes and role models at Facebook are the ones responsible, I guess.

The other major thing I learned here was to not get stuck up with titles like SDE, SDET or SRE. At facebook I played multiple roles based on the context: dev, tester, sysadmin and even a PM at times and it worked really well for me. This is why now I like the title Engineer better than anything else. Being well rounded is as important as gaining depth in one area. I wrote an internal post about why this is important. Hopefully, one of these days I can adapt it for sharing it wider.

The Non-Tech Stuff: I never doubted that joining fb would benefit me on the techincal front a lot. But having to move to the US because of that brought about a big and probably more important change. The number of non-Indians I met before I came here was in single digits and it now is probably 1000+. Surely, I made a lot of friends at facebook, the company, and built some close bonds. That was bound to happen at any US-based company, I guess. But the world outside work was the real factor behind the change. IIIT friends or folks in my family know this well: I was someone who would not even respond to a stranger’s smile, leave alone bring up personal stuff in conversation with a stranger. I did not deal well with crowds. I avoided our own batch picnics, celebrations and even refused to cut my own birthday cake once. I guess I had to be thrown into a different world to appreciate the value of talking to people. Now I am usually the first one to strike conversations with strangers, talk about their country or city, family, politics and what not. The willingness of other people to talk was a big surprise.

Silicon Valley and New York (which has now become my second home in the US) are crazy diverse. If you are into talking to people about things other than technology your perspective is bound to widen. I enjoyed striking conversations with people from all the over the world from the hot bed of middle-east to little know countries like Burkina Faso, in various professions from directors of companies to taxi drivers, from various religions and ethnicities. I will narrate my interesting experiences with people separately. The point is: It definitely made me less cynical, many stereotypes are broken and I think am a better person now. And not all of it is just because of age. I doubt if there is another place where I could have gotten such exposure to different people. Someday I wish India and many more countries will become economic hotspots and get this diversity. The discourse it enables will do the world a lot of good. I used to say I learned all of what I know of Computers and most of what I know of life at IIIT-Hyderabad. I think now that definitely has changed a bit.

The personal stuff: Marriage brought its own unique gifts. I will not lie by saying it was a smooth road all along. The first 6 months or so was really stressful for both me and Bona. I failed to adjust to the reality of living with someone for the first time in about 18 years and she was away from parents for the first time. An immigration system that made us feel less than welcome did not help. But we turned it around pretty well. She found work here that she is passionate about and got bold enough to become my most useful critic. She encouraged me to take bigger steps in profession and finally get over fear with things like motorcycling. Finally, I am willing to say marriage has benefits. I intend to keep unlocking more potential with her help.

The Future: Friends always ask me if we will move back to India. First off, Its not really up to me in my case due to the immigration complexities. But if you put that aside, I never thought I will have a doubt in my mind when I was coming here. I already disliked US then, so a return was never in question. Now, I am more ambivalent and probably a little in favor of staying here. But like a colleague of mine said: there is really no going ‘back’ to home. If we move to India now, it will be like moving to an entirely different country. It would only be moving forward. And with how fast India is changing, it surely would be moving forward.

For me, home has always been where my parents were. Or so I thought. But I left that home at 15 and never returned, going from city to city mostly for work or education. Now I realize, for me, home is where work is. And it is great to have work that is very fulfilling and aligns well with my goals of having a direct impact on people from where I came. If you did not understand why I was defending the seemingly indefensible with stuff like internet.org, now you know. For now, we are placing work above anything else. And we will be here until that work is complete.

On Internet.org

September 30, 2015

The misguided idealism of the critics of internet.org is the roughly same as the one that demonized reservations in India touting meritocracy/economic-equality. This is no new position of mine after I turned out okay, I wrote this when I was a student without reservation: https://ranjeeth.wordpress.com/2009/09/21/anatomy-of-hypocrites-argument/.

The people who are the intended beneficiaries of internet.org are not even part of this ‘debate’. And those who are debating concluded they know what is best for them. This is same as a privileged class preaching meritocracy or people who never lived under naxalism praising it as a freedom struggle.

People who tout the pure ideal say we have to wait around many more years (or decades) until we give true free internet to everyone. They have no idea of the cost or complexity involved in deploying even one service free of cost to millions of users across geographies and carriers. And like zuck points out there is no fast lane created here or disadvantage to others.

It seems that the problem really is the bundling of facebook (I presume the resistance would be way less if it was just wikipedia). To that, I say this : It took 2 years to get my parents type a single e-mail to me but they embraced facebook in a week. And now everyone from the village is trying to get on it. And I would like to make it easier for them. If the utility of the service has reversed the traditional direction of adoption (facebook after internet vs. internet after facebook), I am okay with it. That how we accelerate the transition to the ideal place where everyone gets true free internet.

This wont be last solution we build to connect the world and there will be better ones. And if you want to give true free internet to everyone, come work with the people who are trying to make it possible rather than block their every iteration. Talk to me when you appreciate the scale of humankind we touch with this or if you are really working on a solution.

Farewell, Doug !!

June 5, 2015

It was back in 2011. I was frustrated with my job in India and was generally struggling for motivation. Someone told me that facebook was beyond a fad, I should use it more and that their photo storage system was an example of how serious they were about building great things. So I downloaded some OSDI’10 paper named Beaver.pdf. For several weeks, I did not bother to read it and it lay there on my desktop. Then one day I read it by chance. It impressed me a lot and that was the beginning of serendipitous sequence of events that ultimately ended up in me joining facebook, the company. I was really scared though. I was considering joining a team working on networks and I had no clue about that area. My bootcamp mentor told me ‘what does not kill you makes you strong’ and coaxed me to mail and meet someone named Doug who runs that team. Doug was really encouraging, told me to jump in and that I would be surprised how fast I will pick up the knowledge required. It was only after the meeting I connected his full name, Doug Beaver, and the document that started it all (I never read the authors’ names earlier). Often that single nudge makes a lot of difference. 3.5 yrs later I still work on networking and I love it. Without even trying he was an inspirational mentor and one of the biggest influences on me. Due to facebook’s role in helping my parents become computer-literate and stay connected with me across continents I have a very personal connection to my work. I always believed that we were actually changing the world. And I felt Doug shared a similar attachment and actually cared about both the quality of our work, its significance and the people involved. That is a really rare quality. It made me less averse to managers and I am glad he was my first manager here. This week, he decided to move on from facebook and I feel like its the end of an era. The professional and personal satisfaction I derive from working here is immense. And I will always remember Doug for his role in me coming here and developing this connection.

P.S. The OSDI paper is this : https://www.usenix.org/legacy/event/osdi10/tech/full_papers/Beaver.pdf.

On Turning Communal

October 7, 2014

On a recent trip to another city a friend remarked that I turned communal going by my facebook posts. It did not surprise me entirely. I have been sharing quite a few things that blast Islamic Extremism. People who really knew me would be sure that I was not out on a campaign against the entire Muslim world. On the contrary, I deeply worry about increasing extent of polarization today and about the prejudice against the average muslim. The background here is that I have read the Quran (twice, as a child and as a graduate) and many associated readings like Hadith and Sunnah. I worry about how the criticism of Islam is taken as  an indictment of all muslims majority of whom have nothing to do with the extremism. The audience of these critics often fail to look at in context. Failure to see the broad spectrum of practice of Islam is very dangerous and plants mistrust in people on both sides. I worry about this not out of any altruism but because of the awareness that most religions I know spew the same bullshit in their books and the majority of their following does not take take it literally too. Now don’t get your atheist bazookas out. The reason I tolerate religion itself is another topic. The jist is that I look at it as some people’s way of dealing with metaphysical inquiries, eternity etc. or as simple substitute for visit to a therapist. Trying to take that away from an individual will backfire owing to basic nature of human spirit. Anyway back to my communalism, so my recent outburst against what’s going on with Islamism is in line with my general belief that we are being too nice to religion. The specific outburst on Islamism came in three bursts: during the lead up Indian election, the Gaza conflict and the current ISIS crisis. I could write a long incoherent essay on why here but I will try to organize a bit and show why I decided to poke this hornet’s nest.

Admitting that there is problem is the first step: Now to the question of what really convinced me that I have to start sharing certain uncomfortable questions on a religion that I don’t follow. I should have no business there, right. Because I care about people on either side of this divide. On one hand ISIS has expanded its targets, in stages,  from yazidis, women, rafidah to employees of a company in the silicon valley and then to every non-believer. Sure their armies amount to less than a population of small town but their message resonates far and there have been killings far off from their base in response. On the other hand many of muslim friends don’t even want to acknowledge the existence of these problems. Over time I realized that many of them have never read these books in full to see that their religion is not infallible. Or they are too defensive to acknowledge reality. My guess is they don’t want to give any further ammunition to the extremists from the other side. They are super nice people but the former group (as much as they hangout/mingle with each other) is never sure of their loyalties when it comes to this aspect. There is always an awkward diversion of topic even when it comes up. I hate to put my muslim friends in a spot. But on rare occasions I do, I am often met with a disdainful ‘so are we supposed to hyperventilate every time some incident occurs and put disclaimers disowning these bad guys’. Certainly not, but at least admitting the problem would help others believe that they don’t have to prepare for a war in case this blows up. Asking questions/talking of your own religion might help others know the unknown a bit (which in turn would reduce their fear). And if they don’t care enough to get into that mess, then they should not be bothered when others lampoon their religion too. That is when I decided to give the precious few muslims who speak about it some visibility by asking those same questions. It is the least I could do. And these are hardly original questions and many have asked them before. I was just was not asking them in the effort to appear politically correct.

Recognize that the criticism always seems to come from outside for a reason: My first experience with Islam was so intense that I practically considered myself a muslim for a while. (except for accepting Mohammed. Not out of hate but I anyone claiming final solution with suspicion. Its was only much later I read full biographies and contradicting accounts of his life. His sexual life and wars make him an unacceptable character to me) . But the bullshit in it is not exclusive. All abrahamic texts have concepts of exclusiveness and chosen-ness deeply embedded in them that instantly fills people with a sense of superiority and connection with cosmic ruler. There are good lines too but nowhere to compete with the delusional material. But, if you don’t want to accept the former fact then reading this post further will be of no use. The whole point here is to question the relevance of the text (or at least the bad parts of it). The sad thing here is there is an age group with which such material resonates very well (psychologists have some data on this). This is why people are worried about indoctrination. That turns lethal if the consequences of this absolute confidence in their spiritual master translates to physical danger in the real world to others or political control of others. (I take great pains to clarify when I say that these are nearly orthogonal worlds and never succeed. Hopefully some people ‘get it’). This is why these uncomfortable questions are basically of no value when asked by someone who does not follow the religion. These questions need to be asked by those people with whom Islam has resonated in the first place and not by others. And whenever that happened a long line of such questioners  ( I could give a long list here but Ali at the beginning, Ghulam Ahmed somewhere in between, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Irshad Manji etc. in the modern age should suffice) have been basically purged from the religion. So it appears that only questions you can ask are from the outside. This is what makes me single out Islam more often than not. ANY dissidence is met with the most brutal purge. Is it any surprise that criticism always seems external?

The silence of moderates is a death-warrant for others: Islam as it trends today translates to death for me eventually and I have that selfish interest apart from concern for people around me in talking about this. But the more worrisome issue is the lack of mobilization of internal forces of change. I always wondered at what point would muslim moderates stop getting so defensive with lines like ‘there are black sheep in every religion’ and instead acknowledge the reality a bit, just like followers of other religions do. When they use the defensive line what it really sounds to me is ‘hey, look this violence is okay and you have to live with it because there is some degree of it always in every religion’. The only problem being we would not be ‘living’ with it.  When they ask me to ignore every evidence of disproportionate terrorist activity that is out there? the number of terror groups associated with Islam, the number of conflicts with Islam on one side, the number of  political interferences by islam. I find it really hard to fathom how anyone can hide behind such excuses. When they do that they are basically approving a doctrine that is a death-warrant to others. And they are surrendering their religion as they know it. Sadly most would rather not get into the mess in order to not join the list of apostates. So it appears to me that these moderates, if they exist, either get defensive (due to a bigger scare of extremism from outside) or are scared of offending their extremists or threatened to silence or are actually dead. So whether it is cowardice or complicity, it is just sad. I often wonder if the followers of religions have done so terrible a job in building a bridge of trust that muslims would rather have their extremists win than extremists from the other side. If that is so, I think we collectively have failed.  My experiences as a minority in India and in the US tell me that is not case. Hopefully I am right.

So what do I intend to achieve with all this information overload:  When I was writing that last paragraph, I felt briefly like the US government claiming that a despotic regime in some other country is silencing every opposition so they will intervene to take it out. I have no such intention. I raised my voice on these issues only when it started affecting something I am really passionate about: India’s future was at stake in the election, I strongly oppose anti-semitism disguised in whatever form (I hate religious philo-semitism too, btw) and religious violence of the nature seen in ISIS’s actions. I really think anyone outside Islam are the worst candidates to criticize it because very often they don’t take the time to know it more or at least its followers more. And the vast diversity in how the religion is practiced makes it impossible for a non-believer to ever do a comprehensive study of it. The fact that wahhabism and associated extremist thought is threatening every other sect/flavor/school of thought is undeniable though. And the best candidates to face this threat are the muslims themselves assuming they disagree with this evidently evil ideology. In light of that I decided to throw my weight behind people like Tarek Fatah, Majid Nawaz, Tawfik Hamid or even little heroes like Malala who are voices of that change. They need all the visibility I can give them. I felt sad sometime back when I felt the tools I help build as an engineer contributed to the world negatively. This is one way I can use them positively. Rather than keep blasting the religion in my unsophisticated way which is only worsening the polarization I see, I am going promote their views instead. I hope that encourages other muslims who care about their religion enough to take it back into their hands.

I think it’s very important for us to build a two way trust here: for the muslims to believe that these critics don’t hate them as people or their freedom altogether. And for us to believe that muslims are capable of reforming their religion on their own. It’s never been done before. That is why it’s a challenge for our age. If I can play a role, I gladly will.

Time Cards and Status Reports

August 22, 2014

One of the things that thoroughly shocked me on my first full-time job was this concept of Time Cards where you would have to account for the time spent during the week (sometimes even the day). This was complete antithesis of how I did things till that point : spending time as I liked (not that it was always good. I decided once to experiment with the datastructures course by skipping all assignments and trying to get through based on exams alone. Needless to say, I scraped with a C-). This sudden change was hard to adjust. So whenever I had the opportunity, I made absolute mockery of such reports. Sometimes to the point of just avoiding a conversation with HR. I felt this is basically a sign of mistrust in organizations. Over time, I got to places that made me view these positively and I do play well with them. But the old habit sometimes returns. Here is a sequence of such mocking reports I posted that I thought you might enjoy (anonymized to protect identities and such):

Reporting remote office A: Today, I had a really greasy giant burger and spent mostly pondering on the next useful-but-not-the-most-urgent-or-important thing for my structured procrastination. The burger digestion is chugging along nicely. It should be done by dinner time. I just threw the burger box in the bin. It landed quite nicely in the bin.
It is getting cold and dark outside remote office A. I was feeling thirsty and went to the mini-kitchen but could not find any of the reusable water bottles here like back in the HQ. I felt guilty for a while but picked the other bottle anyway. It struck me then that bottled water does not carry nutritional information usually but I had to be fit. I googled ‘calories in water’ and ‘calories in ‘Fresh Spring’ water’. Both fortunately indicated it was 0. I drank the water, discarded the bottle and returned to my desk. I pondered further on how useful this habit of checking nutritional information is if everyone followed it. 
Looks like a slow day thus far back in the HQ. Things here in the remote office A are happening though. I walked along the streets this morning with no respect for the pedestrian lights or the oncoming cars. I get to the building and well, what do you know .. no valet parking!! I twitched and quickly got to the company floor to avoid further disappointments. I saw that my boss got here too this morning and I quickly had to pretend to be doing some deep technical work. I contributed some thoughts to the systems programming using bash discussions. While checking various websites that had nothing to do with work, I occasionally threw in quick phrases ‘come on perforce’, ‘damn you C++’, ‘this shit needs to be fixed’ so that my coworkers were sure I was working on something really challenging. Pretending to do work is hard because I noticed you end up doing work pretty soon. I plan to take breaks to avoid the phenomenon of work creeping onto my time. I will post how it goes later on.
Today I was burdened with further pretending as the boss was still here. But he left later in the day for the HQ so I was relieved and continued slacking off at good pace. I even munched on ‘SENSIBLE FOODS Crunched Peanuts’ snack to celebrate. Each seed was exquisitely dried and salted just the right amount. It struck me then how these little details matter. I quickly verified if I added the 2 bucks I spent at the YourGreen store yesterday to buy ‘Colgate Optic White’ travel-sized toothpaste to the work-trip reimbursement claim. The paste might even outlast my trip. I figured integrity is very important in these matters. So I decided to leave it in one of HQ restrooms if the outlasts the trip. This will be my last report for this week since I will be busy this weekend adding more items to my reimbursement claim.

Solitude, Independence and such

August 17, 2014

Its been more than a year since I wrote anything on the blog. I was too frustrated after that episode, I guess. But over the last year I made a decision that was quite unlike my usual self. And I think it had a really positive influence. So I thought I will just write it down as notes for anyone who thinks like me. I have always enjoyed spending time alone since childhood. My idea of an awesome life had been always to live like a hermit doing things alone. The thing itself did not matter at all: it ranged from being a shepherd to being the president of a country. I just wanted to do it all alone. I treated having to ask help or needing to hangout in a group as a weakness and told others the same. Sure, I joined forces with others for a cause but never worked towards building bonds beyond that cause itself. I did deliver very nice lines at various places of work about team work and how one person could do only so much but I never applied that in personal life. That mercenary attitude stuck with me for long and I think it worked really well for me in many ways. I never had trouble giving up job or a course or a place that did not appeal to me or making ruthless choices when I had to. Life, in India while hopping cities and in US, played very well with that too. As humble as I wanted to be, the chest-thumping guy inside was always going ‘you did it all by yourself man .. from the dusty streets of your village to these fancy cities. you can go the distance. stay awesome like this.’. I almost settled on a plan to buy a ranch or a farmhouse, buy cattle or horses or something and live that hermit life. 

Then, my dad got hit by a nasty brain-stroke (right after I wrote that last post I think). He was the ultimate life-hacker and a hero for me. He was fiercely independent and yet made friends everywhere he went. All of his friends looked at him as a person who could fix any problem, pull them out of any trouble no matter how bad things were. And when he came down partially paralyzed with this, not only did it hit him but it hit me really hard. Till I landed in India after I got the news I was thinking what I would say to him: ‘You are infallible. Look at us, we are lions. This can not bring you down, let’s pick us ourselves up now’. I was probably telling that more to myself actually. But the moment I landed and saw him in tears for the first time in decades I could not say anything except give him some support to walk. Before I spent more time with him, I met my long-time friend and a psychologist in the making, Bona. She really drilled sense back into me. It often takes such a major shake up to realize you are being a total jackass. It was the first time l looked back to realize that it would be impossible for anyone to claim that they did something all by themselves. Whether I acknowledged it or not, there were people whom I heavily I relied on. And in most cases, they did not expect acknowledgement and probably just cared a tiny bit about me and wanted me to succeed. I learned a lot of lessons on that trip as I talked to my dad about how he felt as he recovered. His confidence would one moment be at the top and he would do a few pushups or squats, the next moment one of his limbs would give in and he would be in tears. I would just listen to him and help him doing the next set of exercises. And it felt fine. He was no less a hero, he just needed help at that moment. And in week I was able to see him walk and felt really proud how he pulled it off. And that’s when it struck me that there will be times like this for everyone and taking help is not a shame always. Its only human. A thing as obvious as that did not strike me earlier at all.

As dad recovered, I was still learning lessons on this. Most of them were from that same friend of mine. Bona and I have some similarities but are really diametrically opposite on many things. I go by logic/reason, don’t trust people until I have a reason to, am a heavy critic of faith etc. She has this amazing intuition and an advocate of ‘unconditional positive regard’ for people, whoever they are. Of course she is religious as well. As odd as it seemed this opposing viewpoint was precisely what sparked our conversations and made me realize how often she made total sense. I always thought if a girl would shake me out of my solitary animal mode, it would be a girl who was from engineering/science and so good at it that I cant stay away from her. I threw all those things out of my head and went with what heart said. I decided if I ever wanted to break out of the hermit model it would be for someone who was able to make me a better person this way. So we got in to a relationship. After that I really gave her a hard time with all my rants, ramblings and criticism on everything. It is beyond me how she manages to stay at peace AND be that calming influence on me. It did really help that she already liked me but I never saw someone so patient at dealing with me. I can be a total jerk when arguments take off. We talk about everything ranging from statements-of-jackass-ranjeeth like ‘crying is unpardonable’, ‘marriage is yoke for a man’ to feminism to religion etc. Needless to say, she succeeded in making me saner more often than not. Recently, she started this ‘painting a day’ series which was a lesson in consistency for me. Things are positively getting better for me and I could not help wondering: things were great when I was operating in the solitary/independent mode but could they have been greater with someone to share the journey with. They just might be. As usual to me, the logical answer is ‘results still pending but looking good’. Bona’s intuition will say a resounding ‘yes’. And I hope with all sincerity that it is so. 

Tale of Two Kinds of Books

January 19, 2013

During early new year and the vacation before that, I had a tough time enjoying anything other than the little work I managed to get done . Then it slowly improved. Here is how it happened.

Few months ago, before the vacation, I began reading a lot of non-technical books on various topics like history, arab spring, religion etc. The authors of these were highly educated. But almost all of them had selective amnesia. Each would claim objectivity in the foreword and then proceed to glorify one side and demonize the other. The Arab narrative would go like: ‘Our invasions brought architecture and science to Andalusia while the crusaders brought death and destruction’. Israeli narrative would be ‘We made this godforsaken desert bloom amidst savages’ and so on till the information age. When you superimpose those black and white views you look at an abyss of darkness : hate, narcissism and bigotry majestically chronicled. Even if you choose one side, there is no escaping the depression caused by the vileness of the other and extremities of your own. After it has shocked me enough, it made me a very bitter person. I ranted against anything remotely religious or sectarian, I was not sure about believing any news/opinion at all, I felt like burning those books to express my anger, I probably hated many things about humanity .. I dont think I was more disturbed on a non-personal issue ever.

Then, somehow a book on urban engineering led me to a series of books that were basically a history of both ancient and modern engineering. These books stated merely numbers, procedures, scale and impact. It took me through the stories of the Interstate Highway System of US that shaped its destiny, the Statfjord oil field that effectively ran the motor of the world, Japan’s Bullet train system, Ferdinand de Lesseps who connected half the world with Suez Canal and lost half his men and fortune trying to build the Panama Canal, Norman Borlaug whose efforts saved more lives in the third world than any philanthropic organization did and so on. These are glowing tributes to our ability to build and fix things, courage and thought. And they are not in books, not in our imagination .. but in front of us .. still working. They ‘connect the world’ in the true sense. No matter from which side you view these, it is hard to find anything that is depressing in these. They are sources of pure joy. It surprises me that science, logic and technology etc. are usually associated with lack of any emotional aspect to them and yet they result in such fulfillment and sense of purpose. Anyway, that calmed me down a lot. I still work the same amount but I worry much less.

It does bother me that burning a revered ‘holy’ book causes the world to go in flames while the most reviled products of science, nukes, proved to be the best peace-keepers we ever had. I does not bother me in the ‘I hate this shit’ way but in the ‘We need to fix this shit soon’ way. I struggle to explain people when they ask me what I think ‘value’ is. Hopefully, you will find the story useful.

Caltrain Stories

September 8, 2012

Back home, I always used to think of the experience on public transport vehicles like a bus or train as a strong indicator of the culture and tastes in the surrounding region. I was mostly right, beginning from the loathing of Hindi in TN to the MC/BC gaalis in Noida, the behavior of people in this vehicles was a true mirror of many aspects of the societies around. When you talk directly to people, the basic sense of decency takes over and you rarely have a bad experience. But you never see what the true picture is. Its not always bad but it would only be visible when people can simply merge into the ‘public’ and no personal responsibility whatsoever exists. In many ways that was colorful actually, making it exciting to travel on these vehicles. In California, however, public transport is not the primary mode. And since I cant drive anything other than  a bicycle and a ripstick, I usually take Caltrain for longer commute. On these trains, no such excitement exists. Its partly because its the Silicon Valley : people are glued to their palm-sized glowing screens or working on their laptops en-route to work or back or (at best) speaking to another friend on phone about plans for the next Friday or the new hot start-up. So stories are rare but I did run into some experiences on trains and train-stations here which were thought provoking. I record them here more as a reminder to myself.

‘The poor in a rich society’: So one day, I was at the Menlo Park caltrain station, a homeless guy (a decent name for a bum) approached me. He was an elderly man with glasses and a grey beard which made him look like a profound thinker who enjoyed great wealth earlier and somehow ran into some ill-fate. He asked ‘could you spare me some change sir’. Influenced by his sympathy-evoking appearance, I gave him a 2 dollar bill (much more than typical ‘change’). His tone after that was really surprising to me. He took the money like someone who had the right to it and went on to say ‘You know, many of the youngsters here are anguished when I ask money. They are pained!!’. I was already puzzled but more was coming : ‘You know, the poor in a rich society are not so poor unlike ..’  (an awkward pause and a stare into my eyes) .. the poor in India’. ‘You see, I have 60 dollars with me now. It could last me a while if I ate at McDonald’s but I want to eat some good food and it costs money.’  It was hard not to show my feelings on my face because I do eat at McDonald’s once in a while. I wanted to give him 10 more bucks and say ‘Here sir, I value my hard-earned money but my pride does not come in the way eating what I can afford, so I can spare you some more money’. But by that time he sensed it probably and walked way quickly. I did not want to assume that his pride was with out a some virtue to reinforce it, but his inability to deal with the reality was quite shocking.

A similar incident that left me with quite opposite feeling happened during my first week in San Francisco. I was looking for a place to stay in the nearby city Oakland, a much maligned area in the press and in general public due to high Afro-american population and crime-rate (an implied correlation, although nobody explicitly states it). But since rents were cheap, I decided to give it a shot anyway. Talking to many of the people there who were almost implying ‘come live here, this is our home. why would we want this place to be a crime-filled area?’, I was confused. While returning,  it was quite late in the night and I was in a very lonely underground train station and was struggling with the ticketing machine (being a first-time user). A heavy well-built (you can guess the remaining attributes) man was approaching. I was sh**-scared but was still trying to make the ticket machine work. He stopped right beside me and took my card saying ‘I got this, man .. I got this’. Not only, he made it work and returned me the ticket and card but also showed me how to use it with tips. I thanked him and was walking back with a lot of relief. He called me again and said ‘Can I ask you one small favor, brother!! I need a dollar to get to the city’. (The city usually means San Francisco around here). Obviously, I gave him a dollar very happily. Contrasting the stereotypes (Menlo Park is the classic ‘civilized’ area with loads of venture capitalists camping there) and the realities was a lesson to me. There was not much talk in either case, but what people implied via their actions spoke volumes.

‘As long as you understand that English’: On yet another ocassion, I biked to the station and was waiting for my train. I saw a train on the platform but it was not mine and I was taking a breath. So there was this lady who was running towards the train door with her bike. The way these doors work is that if a ticket collector sees someone rushing she can stop them from closing. I was expecting that to happen but somehow it did not. I don’t  know the cause, but the lady was literally a foot away from getting in and the door closed. She was so anguished that she let out a a scream that went on on for over 5 seconds I think and started kicking the door. A bunch of kids made fun of her, she gave up on the door and chased the kids on her bike. I was quite amused and was feeling bad for her and then something struck me:  I was waiting on the wrong platform and my train had almost approached. As reality struck, I raced towards the underpass that took me to the other platform. Usually, bikes are supposed to go to a special bike compartment which was at the far end from me. But in the back-drop of the experience minutes ago, I just entered some random compartment with my bike. The ticket collector looked at me like a crazy guy and said ‘Alright, you are in the wrong car but I will allow you to stay on-board provided you get down at the next station and get into the right car’.  Still trying to catch my breath, I gave the classic Indian head-nod that confuses people here. They never figure out if its a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. So this time with slight irritation she repeated the instructions. Now I was irritated and said ‘I understood what you said, I was short on time so I had to get in. I will move to the bike car at the next station’. She shrugged, gave me a condescending look and said ‘As long as you understand that English’. I was saying ‘Listen lady ..’. She was too angered by that time and turned away without listening to me. This place works like a clock. You better not mess with the order around here.

The Special Child: On the return train of the same trip, I took great care to enter the bike car and settled down on one a seat beside a kid who was about 14. He started talking to me about fairly random things. I responded and we were having a fairly decent conversation. Although it was random topics he was very coherent. Then he suddenly went off ‘I went to this birthday party of my friend and I ate all the pancakes .. haa haaa’ and broke into a laughter that was so loud and continuous that it turned everyone’s heads in the compartment. His dad who was on the seat facing both of us said ‘shh .. Don’t laugh like that Sammy!!’ with a look of embarrassment. It was then I realized that the kid was a special child. But what deeply disturbed me was the reaction of his dad. As long as I was talking to kid, he looked normal but probably was praying that his kid acts ‘normal’. When the kid broke into laughter, he was visibly embarrassed at the exposure. It was like a carefully built image suddenly broken for him. From that point on, even as I kept talking as I would with a normal child I could clearly see the father’s discomfort. He somehow made me feel that me talking to the kid was an act of sympathy which was making things only worse for him (the dad). On the other hand, I was till that point concerned because the kid was not happy so far but suddenly there was this unbridled sense of joy in him. The fact that he was mentally younger than 14 mean that he was just a happy child recollecting a good memory. I haven’t been around a lot of special children but that incident made me realize that while the kids need the therapies and conditioning, our expectations out of them need conditioning too. I can sympathize with the parents who are constantly trying to make them ‘normal’ and ‘fit in’. The whole affair sucks.

So those are some stories. I get too little time to recollect or write these days. So excuse any incoherence :) !!

Christmas .. counting the blessings !!

December 24, 2011

For over the last few years, my Christmas routine was to go to my village and celebrate it with my parents and my ever so pretty niece at the little church nearby at Bodhan. This time I cant do that, so I thought I will just recollect the memories and count the blessings.

The journey along the unlit road: To me, Christmas’ specialty is that we welcome the day right at midnight of 24th Dec which is different from how we enjoy other Indian festivals like Ugadi or Deepavali. For the lack of any transport at that hour, we pick an auto at 10:30 in the night and start off on a 15km journey in the chilling December cold. The auto guy Afsar, a Muslim by religion, has a persistent calendar entry for this in his mind and never forgets to call and tell that he is gonna be there on time (even before we ask him for a ride). As the auto motors along the unlit road, my Dad,  Afsar and I start a discussion on the current hot political topic and then come to a conclusion that we cant do much about it (yes, it happens every year and we never learn). All the while my Mom switches between dropping in her two-cents on the topic, coaxing me to be away from the cold wind and protecting my niece’s cheeks from the cold breeze (I actually think she gets prettier as the cold breeze gives her cheeks a tinge of pink :)). The usually modest-looking church wears a spectacular look on this night with those colored lights, glittering X-mas tree and a ceremonial mood all around. It amuses me that although no one says so, each family splits up in to three units, the men, women and children .. and sit separately as long as the prayer goes on.

Children and God:  The children usually lose the luxury of sitting on the benches on busy days as there are too many adults but it works very well for them anyway as they all want to form their own group. The beauty of this festival is in how much it revolves around children. Last year, they got gifts from all over the world from unknown benefactors. I usually sit with them on the floor rather than occupy the benches which are reserved for the elders. I forget that I am over 28 now but most of the kids are still nice enough to use ‘Anna’ instead of ‘Uncle’ .. pretty nice feeling that. The entire mood changes my  priorities on what I should pray for from the entity called God. My thoughts run from things like Atheism/If I am really religious or agnostic or atheistic/If me praying makes sense etc/If I am being a complete jackass in thinking like that in a church. Then I see the cute kid who tugs on my shirt to make some space for her. She does not care about all the crap that is going on in my head. She simply wants to enjoy the new dress, sing and dance with her friends and wait for the gifts and cake. With that I ditch all that crap in my head and simply conclude that I should think of God as a supreme scientific being who probably chose evolution etc. as his methods of going about creation. If anything we should try and be very scientific, productive and rational like him and that is a way of knowing if at all he exists or not. Its like in under 15 min I have rediscovered my own theory of religion which I frame every year and forget over the next 12 months. That gives me peace and I again get back to this world. Then, instead of asking for money and other stuff, I usually end up asking for the ability to make this world better over the next year, be more productive and smart, come back again to see these children and their innocent faces knowing that I have made things better for them. Yeah, the mood that makes me think of productive work as a form of worship, as a license to exist and enjoy the beauty of the creation of supreme scientific being also makes kinda feel altruistic.

The community get-together: The prayer itself is actually a semi-religious affair which has a dose of general wisdom as well religious stuff getting delivered. I talked about Vatican’s respect for local cultures and how they take the path of least disruption with rituals etc. So I don’t feel very odd or as if we practice a very different religion. In fact, the priest usually includes a ton of local problems in his regular prayer which is pretty amazing. (last time, the prayers even included a plea for a speedier solution to Telangana problem so that everyone could get back to work).  The part after the mass is what I guess everyone looks forward to. This is the phase where families do not rush home after the roughly 1.5 hr long prayer and instead brave the cold, gather around the small bon fires in front of the church, meet each other and exchange warm wishes. This is the part where everyone gets a 1-1 meeting with the priest (‘Father’ is more common word and I dislike having to use priest for him actually). This is where I meet my school teachers (the school is right beside the church) to seek their blessings, or my Mom comes to know of my cousin’s marriage and migration to Australia, or my Dad plans a friends get-together for the new year. This is where I get to meet distant and close aunts. cousins, nephews and pretty much everyone I care about in the entire parish. This is also precisely when calls from every corner of the world start coming in from distant sons/daughters to their parents. This is the part without which Xmas would be incomplete for me. This year I will miss that feeling. But at least my Dad will proudly speak of how he makes a skype call to me every evening, uses facebook/gmail/maps and will use the line ‘maa vaaadu states lo unnadu’. And of course, I am gonna call him right at that time :).

Counting the blessings: By the time the get-together is done, my niece will have had more than her share of cakes, and will be fast asleep with her head on my shoulder. We would wake up Afsar and offer him some tea and cake. We return with great memories. We seldom sleep before its 4:00 am or so, just recollecting how the year has been. It always feels that year has been good when I sit with them and think about it. This year I have already done that exercise with them on skype and in fact this year has been better by any objective standards as well. So here is the list (I am going with the top 5 chronologically, with a bit of detail on each) :

1. Built something : Professionally there was a lot of improvement. I contributed to a real product at Microsoft and the code will see light this time. Its gonna be my first such project and I feel good about it. Of course, I left Microsoft. If someone were to a write history of Computer Science,it would be incomplete without a chapter on M$, good or evil .. does not really matter. It feels good be associated with them. I worked closely with Nokia as well. They are still ‘the’ phone company for me. Hope they will come out well.

2. G$ and FB : Two of the biggest blessings have been being able to get offers from Google, Mountain View and Facebook, Palo Alto which are almost universally considered as the big two in tech. currently. Google was a long-time dream come true because it had so much aura around it, I admired it like hell because all the smart and cool kids from my college days went there. I fumbled with their interviews so many times that I began doubting myself. This year I got an offer to be at the root of all their awesomeness i.e Mountain View which made me feel pretty confident. Probably I carried that confidence in to Facebook interview and did well. It was a heartbreak to have to choose between Google and Facebook ( and another personal goal, see blessing 3). Google was the place I always loved for technical excellence, but the latest coding champions and cool kids (who did well at things like ICPC, topcoder) seemed to hold Facebook as the place to be. In short, Facebook seemed what Google was when I left college. They also gave me my first trip outside India for the interview. A solitary walk then along the corridors of the great Stanford University suddenly made me realize that I am not too old to seek a retirement job and since I knew by that time that I would mostly make it to fb, I made up my mind even before I got back to India. I chose the riskier path with the hope that what does not destroy me will make me stronger.

3. Civils : There was another little blessing but which was as big as the above for me. My Dad always wanted to see me as a collector. My constantly shifting priorities never allowed me to focus on it. But this year I managed to get through the Civil Services Examination – Prelims and that too with little preparation. It suddenly made me realize that I don’t have much time to explore this other path which could be very impact-making one. After some weeks of confusion, I decided not to get carried away by that result (which could have been serendipitous given that the pattern this year seemed to favor Engineering students). The other reason was the humbling experience I got from the visit to Facebook and Stanford. Its still a long way before I can claim that I am a great engineer. But the awesome initial phase at fb convinces me that I am on the right path.

4. (No) Marriage  and NRI-tag : I luckily escaped getting married last year by a thin margin and consciously avoided it during this year. It turned out an awesome choice because without it 2 and 3 would have been very tough to do. Also, I met some pretty good girls, went to theater/acting auditions, spent more time with kids from my village and did my bit  in their job-hunt. All of this would have been harder with a wife who would take a lot of the time away. I even enraged a few friends for suggesting that marriage is an impediment to the creative and productive abilities of men and that they should prolong the bachelor phase as far as they can. Avoiding those curious relatives is still a pain though. Now its more tricky since I, to quote a relative, ‘moved to the states’. I think Andhra folks are obsessed with the NRI-tag. I dislike the needless emphasis they put on this.  Nevertheless, I feel good about moving here with a full-time job without the cushion of having an American Masters degree or the luxury of being an IITian. But, the sudden rise in my value in the groom-market is indicative of the prejudice that the typical parent has. If the girls think this way too, then God save them.

5. Computer literate family :  After my decision to ditch the civils path, my Dad took the technology angle pretty seriously and began using it fairly aggressively. Hope it catches on well with the rest of the village folks. I wish to see a village full of technology consumers changing the whole landscape of the region. If that happens, the next gen might as well start companies by the time they are 20. Right now Mom and Dad use computers well despite the fact that neither of them went beyond Intermediate. My niece is already using it. She stood ‘First in Class’ this month. It makes me feel proud that she actually flashes her badge with pride. It pretty much looks like the one I used to wear when I was at the same school. Boy, am I proud of her :).

There are many other  things .. too many to count : A few good friends got married or engaged, some had adorable kids, I made a ton of new friends, joined an awesome group at fb, came to terms with the American life pretty soon (sooner than I got used to the urban life in India). So here go the thanks for all those blessings. I hope I will be blessed with the ability to make the world a better place this year as well and hopefully I will be able to go home next year and see those children and the little community again. My new church is the The Church Of The Nativity at Menlo Park. Innocence of children and celebratory spirit are universal. So I hope to have a good time tomorrow. Happy Christmas Everyone !!

Learning new stuff ..

December 19, 2011

I cant think of a better title for now, so please make do with it.

After my last post and a recent argument surrounding one of my random cribs on facebook, I realized that I have lost the luxury of neutrality in making statements about companies (particularly if they are my current/past employers or their competitors ever since I joined Microsoft last year). To save myself  from any accusations of bias and such bullshit, here is a disclaimer : I don’t love/like any company  above my own judgement. I am not brand ambassador of my employer and of course the usual jargon which effectively means I am too small a fish to be taken seriously. So if you feel agitated/hurt that I am running a campaign against your dearest firm please take a chill pill and let me be.

So basically, nearly 2 months have passed since I joined fb. I am done with the initial crash course that goes by the name bootcamp. I picked something to work on. Its new area for me and I am pretty enthusiastic about it. The office also moved to a new place Menlo Park from Palo Alto. It gives me  mixed feelings because I grew up thinking Palo Alto is the place of elite intellectuals where all the major computer stuff gets done. Looks like the industry is out-growing the place.

My other learnings mostly on tech. are going on quite well. I wont write a thesis on the new stuff that I am learning. That is all in the textbooks. The changing views are what I intend to write about before it changes to something else. In my last post I noted how the social fabric (or the lack of it) here drove the innovation in products/automation. But of late, I am taking note of the role of marketing and PR in creating artificial demand for things. For instance, I have struggled to put the tablet I bought for any good use. Every task that I do on it seems better done on a computer or can also be done on a mobile. Reading is supposedly the major use case, but then I did not find it very exciting and in sunlight or bright conditions its a goner (its not kindle). Now, after the creating the market for this new stuff like docking stations etc. have come up to convert them to ape laptops at will. So if I stretch it too far, it is effectively this : a cool thing called iphone succeeded, they stitched some copies of it to make another device and told people that its awesome. People think it is, even if it did not seem to do anything more. Before people realize it, incremental stuff is added to make it sound like it is really indispensable. May be I will find good use of the tablet soon, but so far it seems a unnecessary device pushed by clever marketing.

Next, at least in the valley, I am surprised how people get emotional about tech. companies almost to the point of getting into fights. I had to take pains to explain to a colleague why I think Apple’s UX sucks. People cant take a statement as a matter of taste. Usually the extent of usage/adoption is used  as ‘objective evidence’. This is the same as saying Windows is most kick-ass OS ever built. For services like search where we have no benchmarking this is worse. That reminds that my post on fb was  about Google. While I will always love G$’s love of algorithms and geekiness, its been an awakening of late to see G+ promotion creeping into my mailbox, my search results getting messed up (for instance although some of my friends are less active on G+ their profile shows up as first result), my mail area getting more and more cluttered with ads and the umpteen number of accounts that are linked to the email address. I have never cared about this earlier because it does not cost me a penny. No company has ever provided so much cool stuff for free ever. But alas, a recent discussion with a researcher made me realize that attention(and time) is the new currency and I should protect it with all my life. So for what its worth, I decided to guard myself against any catastrophic changes in G$’s intentions / priorities. So I am making a few changes like reaching out to wikipedia directly for most searches (which is what I end up reading most of the time anyway .. apparently bing is getting a better but I doubt if I am going to make it an alternative anytime soon. ), using the ad-free zoho mail more and slowly rebasing my web accounts to another email account. Again I don’t think G$ is any worse or better than any modern corporate nor do I believe that they should do social-service instead of seeking profits. It just gives me a kick to delude myself that I am running away from the greedy companies. I know they will get me anyway, but the running part is enough fun to give it a shot.

Btw, if you have benefited from wikipedia please donate some of the spare money to them. The same goes for wikileaks who have come up with an awesome campaign here.


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