Beyond The Semesters: E05

Welcome back to Episode 5 of Beyond The Semesters, an initiative by Coding Club, IITG in collaboration with Student Alumni Interaction Linkage(SAIL), IITG where we interview and try to get a peek into the life and work of IIT Guwahati graduates currently working in different domains of computer science.

This time we have with us Revanth Bhattaram from the class of 2014. He is a Computer Science Engineering graduate and currently works as a Tech Lead in WhatsApp. He has obtained his Masters in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). He also interned at Amazon during his B.Tech at IITG. He shared with us many insights into the industry and gave valuable pieces of advice for all the students who wish to excel in the software industry.

The following is what beholds beyond the semesters !!

Revanth Bhattaram

1) How did you initially get into Facebook?
Ans: I got into the Facebook pipeline during a CMU jobs conference where I met an engineer at their booth and had a great conversation about reinforcement learning. He “starred” my resume and recommended me for an internship interview. I had one interview at Pittsburgh before Facebook flew me to California where they conducted a second interview, showed me around campus and then extended an offer!

2) Can you tell us more about your work at WhatsApp as a software engineer?

Ans: I lead the engineering team on WhatsApp that focuses on the problem of Business Quality. We focus on making sure users have controls to manage conversations, enforce against businesses that aren’t creating high-quality experiences, and create a platform where they’re incentivised to do so. An (exaggerated) example of a low quality business would be one that sends you irrelevant gift coupons 50 times a day.

In my role, I lead the team’s technical direction, support hiring efforts and work with a cross-functional team (Data, Product, Marketing, Ops, Research) to build multi-year strategies. Because of the foundational nature of the space, you have to constantly be aware of changing dynamics, adapt accordingly and make tangible progress towards a northstar!

3) You worked at Facebook for more than four years, and then switched to WhatsApp. What was the process of switching roles like?

Ans: Facebook has a very supportive culture with regards to switching teams. After four years of working in Facebook Integrity I wanted to pursue a new challenge. I discovered WhatsApp, was excited by the work that they were doing and was hooked from the get go!

In my career, all of which has been spent in Integrity, I’ve had three teams:

4) In the six years of your career, which project would you say was the best?

Ans: I think it would have to be my work with Site Integrity (my first team) because of how it shaped my career trajectory and changed my view on software development.

Working on SI and seeing the amount of real-world value our work had helped me gain perspective on how I wanted to use my technical talents. While I still appreciate the technical beauty of computer systems, I’m a lot more passionate about using it to solve real world problems.

5) You got promoted merely after three months of joining Facebook, which is one of the fastest in Facebook history. How did you manage to do so?

Ans: I think there are three important aspects to career progression:

While you’re able to have some control on the first two, you sometimes have to just hope for a lucky break. With my first team, I was lucky to join a space that had a lot of work to be done but only had two engineers working on it. Despite being a junior software engineer, I was given a lot of responsibility. In my first year, I worked on Group Spam and was able to support an 85% reduction in spam! This was an incredible amount of impact for someone in their first year.

I picked up traits (initiative, independence, direction) along the way that helped me get promoted twice in a row!

6) Were there any times when things didn’t go your way?

Ans: Yes! There’s a follow-up story that immediately after my second promotion, I got a “Meets Most Expectations” rating that is given when you fulfill 85% of your job responsibilities (think getting a 6–7 out of 10 CPI).

It definitely created a lot of self doubt and made me wonder if I was maybe not actually good enough to have been promoted. In retrospect, I realized that I had been unconsciously weighed down by my role of a “Senior Engineer” and pushed myself to work tirelessly in a bid to repeat past impact. This eventually led to me getting burnt out, losing a lot of energy and hating my job.

In retrospect, I realize that my initial prioritization call of pursuing multiple projects instead of focusing on one important project is what led to me burning out. Doubling down instead of taking a break made it much worse and made me lose all productivity. Since then, I’ve learnt to prioritize effectively and observe signs of burnout early on so I can take a step back instead.

[Facebook] Team Ski Trip!

7) You interned at Amazon and Facebook during your Bachelors and Masters respectively. Can you share the experience which you learnt at the beginning like what the internship taught you?

Ans: The Amazon internship in Hyderabad was the first time I got to work in the industry and was pretty enlightening. Prior to that my only exposure to programming was at IIT where you didn’t need to pick up as many technologies and essentially worked on well-scoped projects that led to a grade at the end of the semester.

I ended up having to learn so much in my first few weeks at Amazon — something that I didn’t quite anticipate ahead of time. It was a bit frustrating to spend my weeks learning technologies, asking my mentor loads of questions and being unproductive while the full-timers carried out some awesome work. I did eventually realize that this is part of ramping up with any company and that it is okay to not hit the ground running from the get-go.

Facebook had a similar ramp-up process but I was more experienced and knew that it was only a matter of time before productivity followed. Culturally, it was a lot more diverse and had me work in a space that housed so many different countries, languages and cultures.

Working in such an environment broadened my horizons and made me a global citizen.

8) Why did you choose higher studies rather than directly taking a job after B.Tech?

Ans: To be honest, I have to give a lot of credit to my Dad who urged me to do the GRE, apply for universities and put myself in a position where pursuing higher studies was even an option. Looking back now, deciding to go to Carnegie Mellon was probably one of the most pivotal decisions in my life.

In terms of thought process, I compared the experiences that lay ahead with both of my choices — working at Amazon Hyderabad or studying at CMU. Despite not being the most “financially optimized” decision, I felt like the latter would push me outside of my comfort zone, force me to be independent and ultimately result in a lot of personal growth. It was scary but also incredibly exciting and turned out to be a great decision in hindsight.

9) Also, many students get confused between should we take placement or should we go to pursue higher studies? So what, you would like to advise them about this?

Ans: Good question! My first piece of advice would be to not overthink it too much. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole and try to definitely establish one choice better than the other by charting out the series of events that would follow. Thoughts like:

were prevalent when I was contemplating my own choices.

I had to remind myself that it’s not possible to boil down such complex life decisions to a simple “bottom line” number and instead just went with my gut. Knowing that I had a desire to get experience education in a different continent helped me make that decision accordingly.

It’s helpful to remember that both of these choices are really really good and any short term differences will be insignificant in the grand scheme of life. It’s just a question of getting life experiences that you desire and making the most of it!

There is so much to do in life, and you don’t have to worry about optimizing every single step. Just put yourself out there and let the universe do its thing!

10) How was your experience at CMU? What are the similarities and differences between CMU and IITG?

Ans: In terms of curriculum, IIT had a well structured curriculum albeit a bit rigid where you knew exactly what you’d be studying each semester. CMU, on the other hand, has students actively work on crafting their plans for each semester and provides a freedom of choice that I found really appealing.

In terms of personnel, CMU had a pretty distinguished teaching staff that would populate the “who’s who” list of Computer Scientists. It was pretty surreal to learn from and collaborate with them. As an example, I got to TA an algorithms course with Prof. Sleator, a pioneer in amortized analysis and splay trees!

Lastly, I think the “placement” system is significantly different at Carnegie Mellon and is (in my opinion) a much better setup. Compared to the stressful IIT placement drives where you’d have several critical interviews in a day, CMU is a lot more laid back and provides an opportunity to instead connect with people working in the industry for further contact.

11) Were you interested in competitive programming during your college and how much is CP used in your work at Facebook and WhatsApp?

Ans: I did a little bit of competitive programming although I don’t think I was super good at it to be honest. The forcing function that made us take part in CP was how it would help you get interviews for companies. It’s really nice in that it helps you build the skill of solving problems with ingenious solutions. You also get instantaneous results and are able to measure an improvement in skill.

Although I don’t engage in competitive programming these days, I do find myself using those “thinking on your feet” skills when debugging a tricky issue in production or understanding the root cause behind why one of my systems failed to work as expected.

12) What are your future plans in the software industry?

Ans: Through recent volunteering opportunities (giving talks, judging competitions, giving interviews) I’ve had the chance to interact with the wider developer community and that’s been incredibly insightful. It was a reminder of the large community of people outside of Silicon Valley that are trying to gain access to these skills, trying to make it to the industry and trying to learn more about programming that has an impact on the world.

There’s a lot of potential in how I can give back to the community and support individuals at the grassroots level. It’s something I want to focus on a little bit more in 2022 as something on the side!

13) We know that you love traveling, particularly solo travel. So, could you share some of your experiences?

Ans: I think my most memorable trip would have to be my visit to Peru! It was my first solo trip, was magical and molded me into the person I am today. The country is incredibly beautiful, full of history and the multi-day hike to Machu Picchu is one of the best experiences you can have on our planet.

Solo travel was incredibly fulfilling and offered a life experience unlike any other. Going to a new continent, speaking an unfamiliar language and meeting people from such different cultures just made me realize just how much of the world was out there that I needed to explore!

I highly recommend one to travel solo, put themselves completely outside of their comfort zone and be open to being influenced by the vast world out there. You may get to discover parts of your personality that you never knew existed!

Machu Pichu

14) Is there something you wished you did more of during your time at IIT?

Ans: I think I spent far too much time at IIT trying to perform cost-benefit analysis of various activities and as a result didn’t engage much in activities where an immediate benefit wasn’t as visible to me.

As an example, I’d think twice about joining a club because I couldn’t see any immediate benefits and only think of how it could take away from course-work. I realize now, with the benefit of hindsight, that the true benefit is the journey itself and the bonds you form along the way.

There is so much to do in life, and you don’t have to worry about optimizing every single step. Just put yourself out there and let the universe do its thing!

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A series of short informative blogs where the best programmers have your back with all the new technologies you need help exploring. So dive in!

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Coding Club, IIT Guwahati

A series of short informative blogs where the best programmers have your back with all the new technologies you need help exploring. So dive in!