Vinodh Kumar Ravindranath, CTO @ Belong and Ex-Google News
Bit about Vinodh Kumar Ravindranath, he is one of the top industry leaders when it comes to search, ranking and machine learning. After securing All India Rank #1 in GATE Computer Science 1999 and earning his Masters in Computer Science from Indian Institute of Science, Vinodh went on to lead the Google News team building its core ranking algorithms and the Google Music / Apps Marketplace teams at Google. Subsequently he was the CTO and Managing Director of Bloomreach where he built the e-commerce search engine platforms at Bloomreach. Now he is applying his strong technology and machine learning experience to something he is truly passionate about - helping people find where they belong in their careers.
1. If you had a time machine to go back, what advice would you go give to your younger self?
Not sure if I have grown that old to look at the past as days of my younger self :P
But I am going to tell one thing to all versions of myself - be it past, present or future - Don’t stop learning at any point and keep learning on every aspect. I think there were phases in my life where I had gotten overwhelmed, I failed to utilize what is probably my biggest strength - my ability to learn. Funnily enough I realized this as I was working more and more on machine learning algorithms and I ended up comparing myself against those algorithms that were learning at every step. Am I learning every day if not every moment, at every opportunity?
Having said that, it is also important to not dwell too much into the past, rue about missed opportunities and forget the journey that lies ahead. I wrote an article about hidden markov models, a simple yet powerful model used in bunch of applications from translation to speech recognition - the model takes decisions only based on the current state and not on the journey that took it there. Maybe that could be one way to simplify decision making in life - take it based on where we are and hopefully some of our learnings are encoded in the state and we can figure a way forward. After all life is all about making the rest of our lives as the best of our lives!
2. What is a favourite failure of your career until now? How did it help you set up for success later?
I got this realization only recently - the notion of success and failure is too binary. That makes us get too overwhelmed at times by the situation, sometimes making us dejected and disappointed.
Personally, I think patience and perseverance have kept me in good stead throughout my career so far. I feel that many times we either tend to run out of patience or don’t work that hard. Because of our binary notion of success and failure, we are worried to put in our fullest for fear of failure, since after having given it all, we feel that would be a huge disappointment that could make us depressed - but in reality, you need not worry from a couple of reasons - one biological and another mathematical :)
a) Biologically our brains are designed to appreciate and motivate hard work that we put in (through secretion of dopamine and other morale-boosting hormones!). In fact, it is idleness and lack of action that the brain punishes more than failure from hard work.
b) The laws of probability favor people who keep trying. Even if the odds of us succeeding in something is just 30%, the chances of us succeeding if we are willing to give it 3 attempts double to 65%. That is assuming that you don’t learn from your previous failures :)
As for specific examples from my journey so far, you can read more about it here :)
3. In the past few years, what has made you feel low/overwhelmed about your work? How did you overcome that feeling?
My learning has been to try to stay calm, reiterate the guiding purpose of why I am doing that work in my mind and then objectively work keeping only that purpose in mind. Then I think a concrete plan would emerge - be it a way to fix a working relationship, work on a new idea or project, change your team, manager or even job or hang around till you figure the right plan/time. Also, another idea is to also focus on a few things outside of work with some amount of seriousness - it has helped me gain a lot of perspective on the “real” size of the problem at hand.
“Like the water flowers that stretch their stalks to rise above the rising flood waters,
let the mind stretch in moments of adversity to achieve greatness”.
So when you feel overwhelmed, stretch, stay afloat and keep growing!
4. If you had all the money, and time in the world; what would you be doing that you are not today?
One thing I have realized is that it is hard for me to get away from technology :) That said, I also think that we live in a comfortable cocoon even while we live in India sometimes oblivious of our surroundings and the lives of a majority of people around us. I once followed the trail of the garbage we throw away and ended up in a village called Mandur where I found the entire city’s garbage being dumped on a daily basis, much to the nightmare of the villagers there. Just six months back, I ended up visiting a bunch of slums in the heart of the city with people fighting overpaid toilets which were almost surreal and haunting. If I had time and money, I would work on bringing in social and political change that can break the prevailing pyramidal structure in the society and hopefully I can leverage some of my scientific thinking and technology-oriented mindset in some of these problems as well.
5. Who is that one person (or kind of person) that you would like to hire in your team today? And why?
I generally have a bias towards people who weigh learning over everything else, when it comes to hiring. I love working with both hackers and researchers because building any non-trivial system requires both trying to hack and understand things as well as doing systematic research. And I have had the opportunity to both hire and work with a lot of amazing folks throughout my career.