Akshaya Srivatsa: Growing your CS Career

AK Srivatsa, once a PhD student in Rice's Computer Science Department, now Bolt's director of engineering.

 AK Srivatsa, once a PhD student in Rice's Computer Science Department, now Bolt's director of engineering.

Bolt’s Director of Engineering, Akshaya Srivatsa, was first drawn to Rice University’s Ph.D. program in 2010. He was interested in doing more with less --which aligned with Dr. Krishna Palem, Rice’s Ken and Audrey Kennedy Professor of Computer Science, who was working on cutting edge research in inexact computing.

“Inexact computing is where you trade off computational precision for significantly lower energy consumption” said Srivatsa.

“For example, we accept an approximate arrival time when we summon a shared ride – let’s say 4 minutes. We’re satisfied with a whole number approximation if we can get it quickly, rather than waiting 60 seconds to learn our ride will arrive in exactly 3.8975 minutes. You can get massive wins in energy savings if you are willing to give up a little bit of precision.”

Srivatsa relished the research projects and said working with Dr. Palem’s team introduced him to other computer scientists like Dr. Avinash Lingamneni and Dr. Lakshmi Chakrapani. Family reasons pulled him to the West Coast after one year, but his abrupt leap from academia to industry in the post-recession years had a happy ending.

He said, “Marvell is a semiconductor company, specializing in building silicon chips for wireless communications, hard drives, and solid state drives. Although I was hired as a systems engineer for Marvell’s wireless team, I ended up doing a lot of software work. I built the first generation of device characteristics analytics system. We could look at the performance of any chip over different parameters like voltage and temperature and determine where to make adjustments for improved performance. It was exciting work, but I wanted to take my skills to the next level.

“I joined as an early engineer on the Twitter ads team. We built high scale distributed systems around ad serving, prediction, billing, payments, and analytics. I had landed among incredible people doing top-notch work. It was one of the best places I have worked.”

The opportunity to be part of early teams working on exploratory research like inexact computing, data analytics, and social media advertising whet Srivatsa’s appetite for an even riskier opportunity. He hungered for a start-up experience.

“I wanted to join a very early stage company, so small that they were still under the radar. When I met the founders of Bolt and listened to their vision, I was hooked. It was exciting to work closely with two to three engineers and build the first version of Bolt’s checkout, payments and fraud prevention products” said Srivatsa.

“Checkout is highly fragmented today because every online retailer has been building their own version of an unoptimized checkout. At Bolt, our goal is to perfect the checkout and buying experience for all online businesses. We want to streamline the process so that nothing gets in the way of the shopper and the product they want to buy.”

Srivatsa said there is a reason so many people shop at Amazon; the customer’s experience is seamless, consistent, and trusted. Shopping for products available only through other online retailers usually entails a more fragmented experience, including being forced to create an account or not being able to easily navigate through the checkout steps on a mobile device.

“If the checkout process is too cumbersome, customers will walk away. On the flip side, a favorable shopping experience drives additional sales and builds trust in the checkout process,” he said.

“We help online retailers retain and grow their shoppers. No matter how big or small you are, no matter who you are or what you sell online, your shoppers will have the same smooth experience every time with Bolt.”

As the director of engineering at Bolt, Srivatsa leads a team of over 30 engineers and he thoroughly enjoys that role.

“At the end of the day, the director of engineering is still solving problems – just at a higher level. The problems you are solving have a bigger impact; you can change the course of the company and that requires a certain temperament – You need to be able to identify the most important problems and know that it can be solved one way or another no matter how hard it appears to be.”

Srivatsa also believes in the power of networking -- not to build out his LinkedIn connections, but for the give-and-take of shared information across the industry.

“I have met many industry leaders and experts over the course of my career. From time to time, these experts have given me valuable advice on successfully leading and growing an engineering team. I also learn a great deal in meet-ups and conferences. I listen to the people around me and pay attention to the key engineering challenges they are dealing with.

“Think of networking as building a library of resources you’ll probably use in the future. It’s more than passing out or collecting business cards. You’ll have to enter a conversation and be genuinely interested in the problems they have and are solving. You might learn something new or you may collaborate with them in the future, or you might be the one giving advice to someone else. Most importantly, be sure to enjoy the conversation.”

His advice to both CS students and alumni is to build and leverage their network as a way to learn about what’s happening around them and expand their knowledge.

He said, “You never know, you might meet your co-founder or learn something new that completely changes the course of your career.”