Karan Thakker: Keep Going

Rice alumnus Karan Thakker on perseverance in the CS program

Karan Thakker, Rice CS alumnus, is a software engineer at ExtraHop.

ExtraHop software engineer and Rice University Computer Science alumnus Karan Thakker (B.A. '16) remembers getting his first C ever, and although it killed his GPA, he realized he’d found his passion.

“Of all my classes, COMP 182 was fantastic, and I did absolutely terrible in it,” he said. “I got a C- and I was a straight-A student throughout high school, so that was difficult to swallow."

His first year at Rice was something of a shock in other ways as well—namely, the culture shock of moving from overseas to Houston, Texas. The international student was born in India, but his family moved to Ghana when he was 11. “I’m an Indian who grew up in Ghana, and even though I have cousins in Houston, not a lot of people from Ghana end up here.”

He had a high aptitude for math but preferred applied math over theoretical. However, when he arrived at Rice, he was overwhelmed with choices. “Psychology, philosophy – I knew I would have the option to take such classes, but the sheer number of major choices were overwhelming. I wanted to study all of it!”

Although he was leaning toward a degree in an engineering field, he had not determined his major, so he took a variety of introductory courses, including COMP 160—Intro to Computer Gaming.

“Comp 160 sounded interesting,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was a core course until I was signing up for my second semester and the next class – COMP 182 - listed it as a pre-req.”

As much as he loved the discrete math and algorithmic challenges in CS, he wanted to pursue more subjects. “I did the BA in CS and the BA in Math so I could take other courses. I took three ECON classes, two law courses, three music courses, and a film class – that changed how I view movies, plus I got an A!”

Although his academic path may have seemed random, he used his summers to explore research and industry.

“COMP 182 had led me to COMP 382-- advanced algorithms-- and my Cs turned into As. But, aside from that, I have to say 382 is one of the most important classes you can take to help you successfully apply for industry jobs.

“Once you understand algorithm correctness and efficiency really well, you perform well at job interviews. Because I did well in that course my junior year, I got a really good internship offer. I’d also done independent study with Chris Jermaine to learn about the research aspect of CS.”

Thakker’s journey led him to a summer internship in Madison, Wisconsin where he worked at Epic Systems. This experience helped him identify the kind of work-culture and location he wanted after graduation. He enjoyed the work and projects in the large company, and it helped make up his mind between industry and research.

“We had a good environment, a good work-life balance, and I enjoyed the money, so I knew I wanted to go into industry rather than research right out of college. But I did not want to go back to Wisconsin.

“When a friend who had graduated a year before me came back to work the Career Expo, he messaged me to drop by the ExtraHop table. I knew nothing about them at the time but as soon as I got there, he introduced me to Jesse --the CEO at the time and also a CS alum, and that was cool.”

Thakker said he enjoyed the urban feel of Seattle and the flexibility of ExtraHop’s culture. He went on to explain that his immediate team lead works from 6:30 am until 3:30 pm before going home to do woodwork, while one of their principal engineers he works in close collaboration with comes in after lunchtime and works until 9 pm or later.

“Good engineering entails creative problem solving. By allowing us to pick our own schedule, we are empowered to show up to work during our most productive hours, which varies for each person. It also allows us to set aside time for personal errands, which makes for happier employees.”

“ExtraHop is a network wire data and network performance monitoring company,” said Thakker, “but I never studied networks at Rice. They told me that that was not a problem, I’d have plenty of opportunities to acquire the necessary skills on the job.”

His interest in world-class software engineering and his math background make him something of a utility player at ExtraHop. “They started me off on small tasks and ramped me up to bigger problems and challenges. It’s been fantastic, learning how software works on an industrial scale,” he said.

“I was and am still excited about the opportunity to continue learning new things on the job, and to contribute to projects in a company that allows engineers to write production code from their first day on the job.”

During his three years at ExtraHop, Thakker has worked on multiple teams. He initially began his work with the backend team working on the appliances ExtraHop ships to data centers. His areas of ownership were distributed licensing and building and maintaining a RESTful API.

“As the business focus switched to security, I moved to the data science team to help them scale up the product to keep up with the demand,” he said. “I wrote many ML detectors, built the investigation steps workflow, and brought an emphasis to infrastructure and scaling.”

He also discovered a new hobby. “Ping pong games are how ExtraHoppers take a break to clear their minds, learn more about their company, and get to know each other,” he said. “I’ve improved my own game a lot by seeking out competitive players to practice with.”

ExtraHop uses the ping pong table for informal communication and it also fosters a sense of camaraderie. Thakker said he’s noticed sales people talking to developers and developers talking to lawyers.

“You just stick your head in someone’s office and say, ‘Hey, do you want to take a ping pong break?’ and while you play, you learn more about how the different departments in our company operate,” he said.

“The ping pong group is very competitive here. When I started, I was not very good, so I made it one of my weekly goals to play 30 minutes a day, practice my serves, spinning, and smashing every few days. Like anything, the more you practice the better you get.”

And all of these seemingly disparate experiences, whether seemingly random academic course-work or ping-pong sessions around the office, they bring him back full circle to his experience in CS at Rice. He recalled being struck by something professor Scott Rixner said about the general CS student struggling to finish assignments and keep their grades up.

“What really stood out for me was when Rixner said, ‘You just have to persevere. There is so much more to a well-rounded education than your grades. The struggle is an integral part of what makes you grow as a student. Just keep at it.’ And I’d say the same thing to prospective CS students. The opportunity to study CS at Rice is a privilege, but it’s going to be hard.”

“It’s going to knock you down. It’s a difficult program to be in, but the rigor is what makes it top tier and produces desirable results. You’ll have to work hard, and now and then you’ll get a bad grade. Get over it and keep going.”