From a backbencher with a B.Tech in Computer Science from IIITH to the saddle of a principal engineer at Amazon, Seattle, IIITH alumnus Vikram Gundeti’s journey has been one of opportunities turned into achievements. We sat down with Vikram to deconstruct what fires his synapses.
Early days and influences
When Vikram Gundeti completed his intermediate exams, his entire focus was on cracking EAMCET and joining the Electronics stream. IIITH was nowhere on his radar. A chance observation by his father’s friend about the upcoming institute and its top-notch faculty had the dad and son take off on their Bajaj Chetak scooter to collect an application form for the entrance exam. This was way back in 2000, when there wasn’t a proper road from Mehdipatnam to the college. Says Vikram, “We were about to give up on finding the college, but decided to go a little further. One look at the campus and I was totally mesmerized”.
Growing up in Hyderabad, Vikram led a sheltered life. His father ran a printing press. Being the middle child among three brothers meant that Vikram was pretty much left to his own devices, burying himself in his books. His friend’s father owned an electronics shop that repaired TVs and transistors, and hanging around there stoked his interest in gadgets. Something about building new things enthralled him.
Falling in love with programming
“Joining IIIT was probably the first exposure I had to the real world. Till intermediate, I had limited exposure. When I came to IIITH, I was suddenly surrounded by very smart people who had cracked the IIT exams and had still opted for IIITH. It was a gutsy move that spoke volumes about their confidence in the institution and its high caliber faculty and I was sure I was in the right company”
Vikram enjoyed programming right from when it was introduced in the first semester of the course. He fondly remembers his first program – printing a triangle with stars, taking the number of lines as input. He realized that software engineering was his calling when he built an end-to-end vehicle-tracking prototype using a phone. The project was executed in the days before smart phone technology and location-based services weren’t even a thing.
Speaking about the faculty at IIITH, Vikram cites Ramesh Loganathan as his favourite professor. He recalls being totally immersed in both the courses offered by Pramati Technologies that were useful and practical. “They also were my first foray into ‘distributed systems’, based on which I built a significant part of my career”, Vikram says. The location-tracking project was done under his guidance as part of an internship at Pramati. On a personal front, Vikram notes that Ramesh was a great mentor and inspiration, with his high energy and openness to ideas.
At IIITH Vikram got to explore a broad range of courses in different streams – databases, computer vision, graphics etc. Courses like embedded systems, middleware technologies and applications struck a chord with him. The strong foundation that IIITH provided him coupled with practical experiences garnered at Pramati proved to be invaluable to him in his career.
Fond memories, a brush with A R Rahman
When Vikram joined the 3rd batch of IIITH, it was a close-knit student community that had the run of the vast green campus which was becoming the talk of the town. Vikram has fond memories of late night movies in Lingampally and one special night when he and his friends snuck into the recently inaugurated GMC Bala Yogi stadium to watch the rehearsal for an A R Rahman concert. “We sneaked in through a connecting gate that was located right next to the girls’ hostel”, says Vikram with a laugh. Many of his peers in the US continue to remain in touch; to the extent that their spouses complain that they only hang out with IIITH guys. “In that sense, we earned some friends for life, I guess”, says Vikram.
The Echo experience
With a B. Tech in Computer Science, Vikram worked with Teradata for two years before making the switch to Amazon in 2006.
We quizzed him on how he got on board the Amazon Echo project and the whole Disruptive Technology Train. This is what he had to say. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time for the most part. One of my mentors, who is a Distinguished engineer at Amazon, accepted the first tech IC role within the group and referred me to a position on that team. I took a leap of faith and that paid off well for me. Being involved from the very beginning, I had the rare opportunity to work on several foundational aspects of the Alexa software. I joined as a junior engineer and grew within the organization to a Principal Engineer”.
Speaking about his experience at Amazon, Vikram said, “Amazon has a great engineering culture and I benefitted from great mentors throughout my career. Amazon fosters a culture where even junior engineers can have an impact on the end-product. Individuals are respected for their ideas and contributions regardless of their level in the company. My own career graph within Amazon is a testament to this”.
When Echo first launched in 2014, it was a novelty and very few people even heard about it. “Now, when I tell people that I work in the Alexa group, they often tell me how much they or their family members love the devices and make feature requests. Any time I come across a story around how Alexa helped people with accessibility needs, it makes my day”, said Vikram.
“My favourite feature on Alexa devices is drop-in, which connects the requester instantly to their other Alexa-enabled devices, like an intercom”. Presently, the Drop-in feature is being used in some hospitals in the USA and India to assist medical staff to remotely monitor vitals and check in on quarantined CoVid19 patients.
Life beyond work
“The thing that I enjoyed the most when I first came to Seattle was the feeling of independence that I got from hiking and having that access to nature and more importantly coffee. Seattle has some of the best coffee shops in the world”
Vikram mentions that he was an overweight child, growing up. While in the 4th year at IIITH, the fitness bug got him and he remembers enjoying his daily runs around the lush green campus. Even today he maintains a regular regimen of jogging for at least 20-30 minutes, 5 days a week. His wife Sirisha works as a software engineer in Seattle. The couple has a 16-month old daughter who keeps them on their toes. Being a tech enthusiast and a gadget freak, he loves tinkering and building things in his spare time, or binge watching a series on Amazon Prime or Netflix. “One thing I also want to do is actually go back into research and academics at some point”, he muses.
His Mantra for Success
Vikram has this to say to the current students “The four years of learning should be looked at as a launch pad. IIITH has an abundance of resources, whether it is research, world-class professors or connections with industry. If you are able to leverage that and use it properly, it can set you up for life, in terms of your career, a research path or a start-up”.
“When I graduated, IIITH was a young institute and still undiscovered. It has now become a reputed name and people in the software industry in India and abroad have a lot of respect for it,” remarks Vikram. What he wishes IIITH would also teach is written business communication. “It is a key skill that I acquired while at Amazon. The process of writing a document drives a lot of clarity in your own thinking.”
Vikram’s secret recipe for success was that he has always tried to surround himself with smarter people. ‘All the opportunities I landed were through associations with smarter people who taught me a lot and opened up bigger vistas.’ he says. “When an opportunity shows up, even when you are unsure of yourself, go for it!”