tenCube, the company that Varun Chatterji co-founded with his mates after graduating from SoC in 2005, and their breakthrough product WaveSecure, was acquired by McAfee in 2010. Now, Varun is the Co-Founder of Sent.ly. With the confessions we elicited in this interview and his varied interests, Varun is certainly aiding us in our quest to shatter the unjust ‘goody-two-shoesy-nerdy-one-dimensional-computer-geek’ stereotype.
Bachelor of Computing (Hons) Computer Science. Even though I did only a Bachelor’s degree, I think I completely agree with NUS' mantra of "Lifelong Learning". Though I am not formally trained, I have tried to learn what I can about subjects that interest me - Physics, Economics, Poetry, Art, Music and Law.
Having started two companies, I can safely say that each day in a start-up is a research and learning experience. Every day in a start-up, you are researching on how to improve a product. Every day, you are researching on whether there is a market and how to reach them. And, just as research experiments can fail, so can start-ups.
Working in a start-up is like going to school. In the end, even if you do not receive a degree, you will have received knowledge. And knowledge is what anyone who is true to him/her-self should seek in life and throughout life.
I am now co-founder of Sent.ly, a company focussed on providing Businesses with SMS send/receive capabilities in emerging markets. I like my position to be called "Member of the Team". I pitch in wherever I can but primarily, as a technologist, I like to write code when I can. My artistic temperament, though, kicks in at times and I can be a big pain in the a** arguing over something as mundane (though artistically relevant to me) as the size of an image or font or the choice of words in some text.
Describe your SoC student experience.
SoC was a great time for me. I am the sort who does really well when a subject gets a hold of me and I can just flow with it and enjoy it immensely. Unfortunately, this has a downside for if a subject does not get a hold of me, I do very badly in it. SoC was a roller coaster ride for me for this reason. My first semester grades were A+, A, A-, C+, F.
I think failing in a subject is an important lesson in life. Failure can teach you more about life than an A+ can. Once you realise it is OK to fail and that it is not the end of the world, you can pick yourself up from every situation because you have the knowledge of "so what? I will do better next time". Even if people make fun of you as a poor student, failure teaches you to rise above all that and persevere.
I enjoyed programming modules the most. I also enjoyed Cross Faculty Modules like American Films (in which I made an atrocious film and got a C+), Writing Home (a University Scholars Program module in which I got an A though, I was later thrown out of the USP as my faculty thought I would not make it to honours though I eventually did) and Introduction to Indian Thought (a module in which I got an A and found that philosophy is exactly like programming in the application of logic).
The point that I am trying to make is that you don't have to get good grades to enjoy a module and to learn from it. As students, many of us are just in it for the grades. That is a very shallow objective in my opinion. Learning has to be the thing and not grades. Perhaps, this is a lesson that even our educational system needs to learn.
I would say that my stint in NUS Overseas Colleges (NoC) in Silicon Valley was both the most challenging and useful. The programme brought students from many different faculties from NUS together. The free flowing exchange of ideas and the camaraderie we developed, created a heady mixture especially in the intellectually charged environment of Silicon Valley. I met one of the co-founders of my first start up in Silicon Valley even though we were both from NUS. He was my housemate and course-mate in many courses.This collective experience of having a common root (NUS) and being in a new environment in which we were all on equal footing towards the new and unknown was a really useful experience.
Prof. Y. C. Tay is the faculty member who made the biggest impression on me. I failed in one of his modules once and nearly failed in it again in the subsequent semester, but I learnt one thing from him. He used to occasionally slip in a completely unsolved problem in his tutorials. He said he hoped one day one of his students would solve the unsolvable. Though at that time we were quite flustered to find these problems in our tutorials, I think, looking back, that at least this experience made us try to solve an insurmountable problem. Who knows, maybe someday some student might actually solve some of them and make a breakthrough in Computer Science!
A start-up company is like one of these insurmountable problems. Every day you have to solve a sub problem of the insurmountable. Every day, you have to discover how to break it down just a little bit more. If you are lucky, your breaking down of the problem into several solvable bits will give you success. If you are unlucky, it won’t. But that’s just life. Learn from the experience and move on.
Different people have different interests at different points in life. When I entered university, I was 19. At 19, I had already been programming for 5 years since the age of 14 and had even started a company www.thewebartists.com with my friend Umang. This made me a little cocky and disinterested in the first year modules in programming (I did quite well in them even though I never studied). Now that I look back, I currently have a much more developed sense of interest in knowledge. I think if I was to do SoC again now, I would probably do a lot better and perhaps develop an interest in some modules that just went by because they didn't catch my interest. I often wonder if our education system is right in its imposing of learning at a particular age as a social norm.
What mischief did you get up to while you were a student here?
Please don't arrest me for these confessions!
I once spoofed an email from a professor and sent an email from his email address to my friend expressing "disappointment over his FYP efforts" and calling him to "my office". My friend got really flustered and went to the Professors office the next day. The Professor got really angry that someone had spoofed his email. I also spoofed the ‘From’ field in SMS and sent my friends messages which when opened appeared to come from "God". The text of the message read "I am watching you".
I also built a switch that could be turned on and off through SMS. So you could send an SMS to my system with the word "on" and the light in my room would switch on. And you could turn it off the same way. I once left one of my friends in my room after telling him that I thought the room was haunted and the lights seemed to be controlled by ghosts. After switching the lights on and off through SMS several times, I just walked into the room as though nothing had happened. My friend was as pale as a ghost!
What do you count as your most significant achievements since graduating from SoC?
I would say co-founding tenCube and then selling it to McAfee would be my most significant achievement since graduating. It happened because I lost my phone and also because I was part of the NoC programme. I was still in school when I lost my Nokia 6600 which was a pretty darn new and expensive phone back then. It got me thinking if I could write a program to lock down a phone by sending SMS (I already had a reasonably good knowledge of SMS through my pranks and electronics experiments involving SMS). I posed the idea to my SoC mate Rishi and my NoC mate Darius and we agreed this would be a good problem to solve. So that’s how we got going.
Perseverance through all the doubt that surrounds a start-up is the key to making things happen. There were times when even my faith wavered as I went through a tough personal situation where I lost both my grandparents one by one. There were even times when things were not so good between my team mates and me. Looking back I can only attribute the success to who we were as a team and how we supported each other. Through any ugly situation, we were still a team and remained a team. That's what made it happen. The Team.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
I enjoy reading. I enjoy writing poetry. I enjoy western and Indian classical music. I enjoy Rock, Jazz, Blues and Country music. I enjoy photography. I also enjoy making an occasional Charcoal sketch. I enjoy any kind of research activity.
Quick-fire time! Most Interesting development in technology/science this year?
Smart watches! I think we are getting closer to a "Beam me up Scottie!" scenario.
Worst movie you’ve seen this year?
Three ultimate dinner party guests?
Mahatma Gandhi - I would like to ask him what he thinks of our modern day world and what he would do to resolve the rampant mindless violence in the name of religion, ethnicity and politics.
Elon Musk - Because I would like to hear his vision for what technology can do towards creating a better world.
Stephen Fry - Because I would probably be tongue-tied with the first two guests and I trust Stephen Fry's creative genius would never let an awkward silence arise at the dinner table! As an interesting aside, if anyone is even remotely interested in English poetry, I highly recommend Stephen Fry's book - "The Ode Less Travelled".
Which faculty members should we interview and what should we ask them? Here's your opportunity! Email firstname.lastname@example.org