This is the first installment of my new interview series on lazy and entitled millennials. I feature people I find interesting and ask them questions on various topics. The goal is threefold. One, to showcase their opinions on things. Two, to learn from them. Three, to showcase how they are wasting their lives being lazy.
My first interviewee is Anirudh Narayan.
I met Anirudh on Twitter. I don’t remember when exactly he started engaging with my tweets but I am very glad he did. We have had several interactions over the months. He is currently finishing up his undergrad in Computer Science at UCLA and will move to Seattle to start his job at Microsoft on their Teams product over the summer.
The interview covers a wide range of topics. Everything from his career trajectory and trends he is excited about to the apps he uses the most and his thoughts on student debt crisis, LA tech scene and the SF lifestyle.
Here we go :
Sar : You have dabbled in engineering, product and venture capital so far. How did you go about exploring those opportunities and what was your thought process behind those decisions?
Anirudh : In freshman year, I came across the idea of thinking about a career as a portfolio of different skills that make you uniquely better than others. I wanted to get better at coding, user experience design, understanding market dynamics, communication, and empathy.
The most obvious path to becoming a better coder was to take on an software developer role. I worked as an iOS engineer at a local medical startup and took on some other freelance projects. My greatest takeaway from these roles, and 4 years of a CS degree was developing the confidence to back myself to take on any challenge, even if I have no idea how to solve it. They trained me to be resourceful and learn quickly.
I was also doing a lot of the user interface design and customer research for my work and class projects, and I realized I enjoyed doing that. I was trying to find a role that focused more on those aspects of product development, so I talked to my mentor about this. He recommended I try out Product Management — a role I’d never heard of before. These positions were really hard to come by, but I was fortunate to work on the home automation team at Comcast, and the business applications platform at Microsoft. The PM roles were a great way to learn about all parts of the development cycle, understand user needs, and get better at design.
I was always fascinated by the role of VCs — they seemed to have all the answers and knew what was going to happen in technology before anyone else. I decided I wanted to try the role, and started looking for part-time opportunities in LA which is how I heard about Mucker Capital. I worked with the startups in their accelerator, doing UI design, finding leads for sales, jam sessions with founders, building internal tools, general operations and diligence. This experience was helpful in understanding how various markets worked and developing opinions on what the future would look like in spaces I had no domain expertise in. I also realized over time, after speaking to some really smart VCs, that they don’t actually have it all figured out all the time — sometimes they know, and sometimes they’re good at marketing :)
Sar : You spent last four years studying in LA. Do you see any change in the state of tech enthusiasm on college campuses over that time?
Anirudh : Absolutely. I think I came to UCLA at a time when the startup scene in LA was just taking off, and college clubs and groups were forming around entrepreneurship. Over the years, I’ve seen a shift where a lot more people are working on side projects, pitching ideas, and taking summers off to pursue what they’re excited about. Our computer science department is growing incredibly fast — so much so that they recently built us an entire research building!
There’s also a lot of interest in tech from non-engineering majors. A common meme is that medicine, law and finance have become tech medicine, tech law and tech finance.
Sar : Define what education means to you.
Anirudh : Education, for me, is the process of developing skills that would enable me to pursue my interests and career. This can be both hard and soft skills, from learning how to code to improving communication and social skills. Unlike popular opinion, I actually like the university style approach to higher education, since you get to meet so many people with different perspectives, and hone in on what you want to do. College helped me navigate from electrical engineering to computer science, and from software developer to product manager.
However, I’m not a fan of the mandatory classes that we’re forced to take, or the fact that a college education takes 4 years. This just leads to Parkinson’s law which is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Ideally, there should be multiple education paths catered specifically to careers, research interests, and general exploration of various subjects. Industry should work with schools to help define curriculum, so the duration of a degree is only as long as it needs to be, rather than something arbitrary like 4 years. Lastly, I think formal education should also include essential skills like personal finance and public speaking.
The reality however, is that the current system of a college education does little to prepare you for your goals. Most students spend time outside of class learning the skills they need to succeed after college and use very little of they spent 4 years learning.
With regard to whether going to an elite school matters, I think it definitely does for the network they provide and the geographical benefits, but in my experience, the quality of teaching is generally the same everywhere.
Sar : When it comes to exploring careers & learning far and wide, where do you think college students go wrong?
Anirudh : I think the students who have a hunger to learn and succeed always find ways to get better, actively seek out resources and mentors, and build great relationships. The best people work ridiculously hard, read voraciously, and make some sacrifices along the way. They understand the value of compound interest and aim to become a little better every day.
I think there are several things you can do wrong, but a few things done consistently can put you on a great path.
Sar : What about Microsoft generally and your team specifically excites you the most? Why do you think 2018 is a good time to join the giant?
Anirudh : I spent the summer after Junior year interning there and really enjoyed my time. It’s hard to generalize with any large company, but I’m particularly excited about joining Microsoft Teams. It’s an enterprise product with a strong consumer design element, so I’m excited to learn about the challenges in trying to serve both companies and consumers. It’s one of the fastest growing products within the company and already serves over 200,000 organizations. It has strong leadership and excellent mentors as Teams has some of the best PMs, engineers, and designers at the company.
Seattle is a great place for young people. Since all the big tech companies have offices there, it’s very easy to find people with common interests. I’ve also never lived in a city where outdoor sports are such a significant part of the culture (grew up in Dubai and went to college in LA), so I’m looking forward to that.
Microsoft was also really generous and reassuring on helping me get my H-1B work visa. Since I’m an international student, that was a huge concern.
Sar : I believe you probably feel as strongly about LA as I do about NYC as a function of where we have spent time working. You are moving to Seattle and I am moving to LA soon. I am sure you talk to people and read a lot about comparisons of LA to SF in tech. What are your thoughts on that?
Anirudh : The growth of tech in LA has been incredible. Snap, Tinder, Google, Tesla, UCLA, USC, and Caltech, have brought a lot of engineering talent to the region. The weather, cheaper housing, and generally better lifestyle are definitely attractive, but I don’t think the startup capital is moving here (or anywhere else) anytime soon. The network effects in Silicon Valley are quite entrenched and career mobility is much higher. The density of capital formation is much greater, so it’s in the best interest of entrepreneurs to start companies in there. LA also currently lacks experienced business and operations talent to help grow the companies that are started — although this aspect will improve over time as more people exit from Snap and Google LA. Starting a company is hard enough, why would you make it harder for yourself to raise money, hire the best people, and learn from the brightest minds?
Having said that, I’m bullish on the growth of tech here. Established companies are looking to grow, and LA is a great place for a second office especially due to the proximity to the Valley. Google has a sizeable workforce here, and I anticipate the other giants and unicorns will build operations here. It has also been great to see more companies being funded by top VC firms, and talent moving from SF to escape the group-think. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in media and fashion, and I think the next big tech company in those verticals will be from LA.
Both Sam Altman and Ben Horowitz think LA’s tech scene is superior to that of NYC — and I agree ☺
Sar :What are some podcasts, newsletters and blogs you actively follow and would recommend to a student looking to build a career in tech?
Anirudh : Top Podcasts:
1. a16z — It introduces me to the nuances of a wide range of topics in technology.
2. Internet History Podcast — I think it’s really valuable (and fun) to learn about the history of technology companies.
3. The Twenty Minute VC — It’s the best way to learn about the VC/startup space and people
4. Invest Like the Best — Patrick is my portal into the world of hedge funds and private equity.
5. EconTalk — Economics in daily life.
1. CB Insights — I always look forward to Anand Sanwal’s subject lines.
2. The Information — High quality tech news, without the bias.
1. Stratechery — Ben’s strategy insights are a mini-MBA.
2. Farnam Street — How to develop mental models and make decisions.
3. Quillette — Original thought pieces on politics, culture, and science.
4. Julia Galef’s blog — On applied rationality. Julia is so intellectually honest and thoughtful.
Sar : Criticizing Facebook has become a daily thing lately. Do you see people on your campus caring about the issues? What is the general sentiment around privacy, social networks and what should or shouldn’t be done with our data?
Anirudh : I haven’t seen any real change in behavior or conversation about Facebook. The recent scandal, has been amplified because of the political implications, but I haven’t seen any impact in how people here are using social networks. The only FB products I use are Messenger to connect with friends, and WhatsApp to connect with family, so I may have missed any significant trend of decreased Instagram or Core FB use. I see comments online about having a paid tier for Facebook to opt out of ad targeting, but I’m not sure if the general public would be willing to back their emotions with actual dollars — let’s face it, we like free stuff.
With regard to how FB managed the breach of trust, I think there was a lot left to be desired. People rightfully expect companies to take appropriate measures to assess and remedy the situation. However, the misinformation by some publications with narratives that FB ‘sells your data’ when referring to ad targeting is unfortunate.
Sar : What are two or three technologies or trends you are currently exploring or are excited about?
Anirudh : Since blockchain is all the buzz, I’m particularly excited by 2 applications of it.
• Real-estate ownership, especially in developing markets — Take India for example. You could buy a piece of land, but without proper monitoring, people may encroach upon it and claim it to be theirs. They may also have fraudulent documents that suggest the property belongs to them. I think blockchain could help solve these ownership issues.
• Academic and professional credentialing — with more people taking online courses, there needs to be a way to signal those credentials to employers in a trustable manner. People should be able to build their profile of skills online, with endorsements from peers and coworkers, in a system where everyone has an incentive to be truthful. SpringRole (Science funded) and Fathom (ConsenSys funded) are both working on this.
I’m also increasingly interested in the intersection of transport and real estate.
• One trend in this space is the rise of ghost kitchens. Ghost kitchens are essentially restaurants that only operate a kitchen. They serve their customers through home delivery using Uber Eats, Postmates, or any of the various food delivery networks. Since around 75% of restaurant space is currently used for seating, owners can save on those rent costs and pass on some cost benefit to customers. To be bold, I can see a world where going to restaurants in large cities for a sit-in dinner will become somewhat of a luxury experience.
• Another is the sudden flood of e-bikes and e-scooters in cities. There are some operational challenges with regard to charging and rebalancing, but I look forward to seeing how last mile mobility in dense cities is improved and the infrastructure improvements to encourage this mode of transport.
Sar : What are your 2–3 most used apps and make a case for why you probably shouldn’t use them as much.
Anirudh : Breaker — I’m a huge fan of podcasts and Breaker is the social podcasting app I’ve been waiting for for so long. It automatically adds who I follow on Twitter, so my recommendations are filtered really well. Podcasts are a great way to learn passively while walking, driving or doing household chores.
Case for decreased use
• Walks are the best time to think and ponder on what I’ve read, so it has impacted my time for this.
• Listening to too many podcasts (as with reading too many blogs) can provide the illusion of productivity, and a false sense of satisfaction as having “done” something.
• The brain needs some rest from information inflow, to ensure that deep work times are most productive. I’m actively trying to reduce my consumption.
Feedly — Great way to keep track of all the blogs I follow in a single place. It’s helped me declutter my inbox from all the newsletters.
Case for decreased use
• Most blogs/newsletters provide a great way to learn about a breadth of things at a shallow level. A lot of the pieces are about current events, and that information is near worthless a few days later. I’m trying to move towards spending more time reading timeless long form content and books.
Twitter — Excellent way to keep up with what some of the smartest people are discussing. Great way to meet new people (you and I met through Twitter!)
Case for decreased use
• I get anxious if I haven’t checked my feed in a while (as soon as 30 minutes) so it really works against my goals of spending more time doing deep work.
Sar : I am going to pull a Thiel now. What one thing do you disagree the most on with your friends in tech?
Anirudh : Thiel was right in that originality is extremely difficult. But here’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.
One way I think we can fix the student debt crisis (although unlikely this will ever happen):
• The US has over $1 Trillion dollars in student debt.
• Total university endowments in $500 Billion. Use a significant portion of that money to clear part of the debt. Extremely socialist (pains me to even pitch this), but a necessary one time hit. The crisis is only growing, and we need some radical solutions.
For future loans:
• College education should not be out-rightly free. The taxpayers shouldn’t have to fund comparative literature or art history majors, who have little earning power to add to economic productivity.
• Only students pursuing majors that are most in demand by the job market should be subsidized / offered loans.
• This would mostly include STEM and possibly Finance / Economics majors as these students have higher future earning power and greater chances of repaying the debt.
• Students should not have tuition loans that they have no chance of paying back.
• A portion of their paycheck should be automatically deducted toward repayment.
• Other less in-demand majors like Anthropology can be pursued only by students who can afford to pay tuition.
This is controversial for both liberals and conservatives.
Sar : Are there any topics of hot debate in tech that you think are overblown or misguided?
Anirudh : I generally try to avoid the latest outrage cycle, so I don’t have opinions that I’ve carefully thought through.
One thing I’ve noticed though, is the constant claim that the Bay Area is too expensive for tech people to live in. Sure, I completely agree that housing prices are high due to supply shortages, and that having a family here is challenging. But I don’t buy this narrative from young, single people since the lives we lead are quite extravagant. If we’re buying $15 avocado toasts, artisanal coffee, Instacart delivered groceries, and SoulCycle, can we really complain about the high cost of living?
The Bay Area provides an incredible career growth trajectory, meaningful work, high salaries and great opportunity to meet the brightest people. If people can be a little more fiscally responsible, I’m sure they can manage.
(Really hope the housing issue gets solved soon though)
Sar : It is no secret that Twitter is by far my favorite app. Define what Twitter means to you.
Anirudh : I absolutely love Twitter. It democratizes knowledge and opinions, and acts as a personalized learning network. It gives me access to what the most reputed and smartest people in the world are saying and reading. I’ve met so many incredible young people on Twitter so it’s a great tool to make friends! Apart from that, it’s also the best place for real-time news.
Sar : Who are 2–3 interesting, young people in tech I should connect with, follow on Twitter and possibly interview?
Mayur Chaudhari (@mdczone) — Mayur’s currently a product manager at Google and worked on a VR startup before that. He’s been an excellent mentor and friend since freshman year of college. I knew near nothing about tech when I came to college from Dubai, and Mayur helped me get ramped up quickly. I owe him so much.
Louis Cruz (@LouisComments) — I met Louis during my time at Comcast. He’s interned at Google, about to graduate Cornell and join Coursera as a software engineer. He has some interesting thoughts on the cryptocurrency space. Great guy.
Justin Gage (@jGage718) — I don’t know Justin personally, but we follow each other on Twitter (Hey Justin, wanna meet up?). He’s got some really interesting tweets so it’d be great to hear more from him.
Saku (@sknthla) — She is one of the smartest people I follow on Twitter. Great tweets on tech, politics, and social commentary.”
Sar : Top 10 Twitter handles?
Anirudh : In no particular order
• @pmarcalikes (really miss his tweets!)
• @NeerajKA (top quality memes)
I hope you found this interesting. More to come soon! Please send me your feedback. I am @sarthakgh on Twitter. The interviews will get better as I do more and more of these.