Interview: Anantha Natarajan Selvaganapathy (MME – 2016)
Please state and explain your current profile. If possible, help us understand any previous profiles you’ve worked for.
I’m currently a software engineer on Facebook’s Charitable Giving team, where I develop features that empower Facebook users to fundraise and donate to the causes they care about.
I graduated from NIT Trichy in 2016 with a degree in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering. After that, I went to New York University for a Master’s in Computer Science. I worked as a Research Associate in grad school, where I built fire safety and education tools for the Fire Department of New York.
I interned at Google (2015), where I worked on Tools and Infra, Microsoft (2016), where I worked on Bing, and at Facebook (2017), where I worked on Recruiting Products.
What made you realise that you wanted to switch disciplines during college? Was this decision an easy one?
I wouldn’t really say I switched disciplines. I started programming in middle school and spent a lot of time playing with C++ graphics libraries in high school with some friends. I knew I wanted to write code for a living when I was preparing for entrance exams. I ended up with a seat in Metallurgy at NIT Trichy, and I wanted to join for the environment it would provide me and decided to learn to code in my spare time.
I also heard about Delta prior to joining NITT. Knowing there were clubs and resources that provided a platform for anyone interested in learning to code was one of the biggest reasons I joined NITT. It was a difficult decision to pick an unrelated major to what I wanted to do, but I bet on the people I would be surrounded with.
When do you think is the right time to make a switch? What would you think are the risks involved in such a switch?
As clichéd as it may sound, the right time to make a switch is the time you discover something that makes you feel inspired and curious. For me, this was sometime during my 12th grade – programming to me felt like it was a superpower; to be able to type a few characters and process insane amounts of data and design experiences for millions of people.
There is certainly a risk of not finding a job/internship immediately when you are switching fields, but as long as you are passionate about it, it will work out in the long run. You have to remember the end goal is to do something you love sustainably and create a positive impact, and not just ‘placements’.
What skills should one develop to follow the career path you’ve chosen? Do include courses, software, internships etc.
I dedicated most of my time towards working on side projects, contributing to open source and competitive programming. I took a lot of MOOCs to learn computer science fundamentals (MIT OpenCourseWare, Coursera). Just depending on NIT’s coursework is a bad idea. The internet is your best friend! You can find high-quality materials online to learn anything you want. Being in an academic system that is restrictive, your success depends on how well you use resources online.
Expose yourself to different concepts. If you want to pursue a career in CS, try creating a mobile app, build a few websites, play with the kernel, learn ML. Then figure out what you would be happy doing day-in and day-out and get really good at it.
Internships are critical as they are a window to the real world and will give you a taste of life as a full-time software engineer. Do things to stand out from the millions of other applicants. Attend hackathons, contribute to open source, collaborate with friends to build something together and work on your algorithms to do well in interviews. Don’t limit yourself to companies visiting on campus, apply online and ask your friends for referrals.
What would your advice be to students who wish to move to another domain for their higher studies? How should they explain the transition in their SOPs, application letters, and so on?
Ideally, you want to transition to a different domain way before your grad school applications. Be honest in your SOPs. Tell your story. I wouldn’t recommend engineering your profile (although it works sometimes). Show examples of how motivated you are to change your field: this includes projects/internships in that area, research papers/journals, etc.
Describe your time in college in terms of how you made the shift from your department to your field of interest. Did you join any tech clubs that helped you with this switch?
I would credit most of my growth in college to Delta. I met some of the brightest and most motivated people I’ve known there; they helped me grow exponentially as a developer. I learnt a lot from my peers and seniors at Delta, hacking on projects together and by working on Festember and Pragyan. There was healthy competition on different axes and there was so much knowledge transfer every single day. I am very grateful to have been a part of the club.
For anyone interested in finding a community to learn to code and hack on cool things, check out Delta!
Apart from that, I spent a lot of time participating in programming competitions. I loved (and still do love!) solving problems with code. It turns out most interviews involve algorithmic problem solving, and this experience helped me do well in interviews even though I had almost no CS background.
I also worked on a lot of side projects, some of which you can find here. Building open source tools for real-world users taught me how to write readable, maintainable code.
Is a minor in CSE useful from recruiters’ point of view? How helpful will it be to make a switch to a different field?
We had no minors when I was in college, so I can’t say. It will definitely help in applications as it’s a good sign of interest, and from a student’s perspective, the academic exposure on the topic would certainly help.
Would you rather have had more time to experiment with various fields before you were forced to pick one course in college?
Yes. The Indian educational system needs very significant reform!
How was your transition like, in your Masters, concerning academics as well as living abroad?
Academically, the transition was pretty smooth. I made good use of MOOCs in college, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. Courses were definitely more intense than anything I took in NITT and it took a while to get accustomed to the deadlines and expectations. I didn’t have a great math background, so a couple of advanced ML courses I took required me to catch up on Statistics. I think the 1st year math courses in NITT are broad enough to give you a reasonable foundation to take most grad level CS courses without too much difficulty.
What’s your take on interdisciplinary fields, such as computational materials science, do they combine the best of both worlds? Would you recommend such areas to someone who is looking to make a switch, or would that be restrictive?
I think they are the future. There is so much scope for innovation in interdisciplinary fields, and with the current infrastructure, it is easier than ever to make it happen. I would recommend it if you are passionate about both the fields involved, especially if you want to pursue research/Masters.
What do you think are the inadequacies in research in India, specifically in NIT Trichy?
Not enough funding, and there is almost no incentive for students to work on high-quality research projects with professors.
How useful is having work experience before applying for highers? Is one year time for work experience enough? Also, how did you go about shortlisting schools for your higher education, and how did you arrive at NYU?
Work experience is useful but not necessary.
Work for a couple of years in the field you want to switch to is particularly useful if you do not have any projects, internships or research during your undergrad. In this case, I would highly recommend working so you get an idea of how the field you are switching to is and will give you a lot of content for your SOPs/LORs.
I shortlisted based on the courses offered, schools that didn’t have CS courses as a prerequisite and scholarships. I decided to go to NYU for the flexible coursework and the opportunity to live in New York.
Having interned at both Google and Facebook, what do you think are the differences and similarities between the work culture in each place?
Facebook and Google are very similar in all aspects; the difference is only in the size of the companies. What I value the most in these companies is the impact of your work and the number of users that end up interacting with what you built. It’s very satisfying to see hundreds of millions of users using products you work on every day.
Other than coding, what are you passionate about?
I enjoy teaching and coaching new grads for tech interviews. I periodically volunteer at a nonprofit to teach programming to kids from low-income communities. I have also been playing lead guitar for a couple of years now and am working towards forming a classic-rock cover band. I’ve recently started learning to play the bongos.
Apart from that, I like trail running, I’m a gym rat, and I love going to concerts and music festivals.
Any queries may be addressed directly to Anantha via email or through Linkedin.