Varun Vembar’s dream is to become someone who has the knowledge and experience to know what to do while solving any problem, as seamlessly as possible. After working for 4 years as a software engineer and data analyst, he has just joined Blackhawk Network, a global leader in branded payments, as a Data Scientist. He’s super excited about being a part of the data science team at Blackhawk’s recently-launched Strategic Development Centre in India. Read all about his journey in this Dev Story.
How did you start programming and what about it gives you a kick?
In college I chose B. Tech in Computer Science because for me other engineering streams appeared tougher and math-based. In my first year, there was this very senior professor who taught us C programming. He used to tell us very funny stories about his experience as a programmer back in the day. How he coded on punch card machines in the US and for a program to compile they used to have to wait 8 hours and so on. He’d say when he wrote a program, it compiles and runs without any errors, it was such a big thing that you’re like god to have accomplished something like that. His stories and the kind of assignments he used to give us were very different and caught my imagination. Everyone else would ask us to write text –based assignments. He used to make the assignments challenging and something we would want to do.
So this experience from my first year stayed with me. I am not even using C now. The rest of my Engineering was pretty standard. When I got my first job, I had to learn Python, AWS and SQL. In the first week, I didn’t know anything and it was quite frustrating. But soon, I was learning on the job, writing programs and seeing my code in action. And I got the same feeling that I imagine the professor had. I felt really proud and thought to myself, “the code is actually working, this must be how my professor felt”.
What gives me a kick about programming is Logic. It’s basically like you create a system that handles anything you can throw at it. If you’ve made it properly, and it works, you have probably solved something complex or made something work better. That god thing I mentioned relates again. Haha. So I guess it’s about my love for and faith in logic leading to that god feeling.
How did you get your first job? And how was your experience of transitioning from a student to a full time programmer?
I wrote AMCAT and got interviews based on my performance in it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a job or whether I was doing well or badly in the interviews. I had travelled from Hyderabad to Noida for the interview, Getting the job was a huge deal. I was quite apprehensive about it but then suddenly I got the news and I was ecstatic.
When I started work, I didn’t know the languages and tech I had to use. I decided to take online courses to learn. My work was in Python so learning it was accelerated. In the first experience of learning, doing, finding out mistakes, fixing them was huge. I realised that it’s easy to learn when something needs to be done. Soon I realised that we are totally capable of picking up projects in any tech and working on them while learning on the go. Whatever technology. If you have things you want to do with it, you learn it super fast. I like this top down approach. Whereas if you have the luxury of time you can take a bottom up approach and learn at a more relaxed pace.
For example, in ML, there are 2 schools of thought. One is that you start by learning statistics, algebra, calculus and linear models, make the foundations strong so that you can take on ML projects of any complexity easily. I feel a simpler way (and the other school) is to just start. There are libraries available to get started with. Learn the statistics and algebra required on the go. You will be able to connect the dots easily when you are using it for a purpose. You realise, oh this is what the equation was doing, rather than looking at equations and imagining the applications of it.
An interesting experience or challenge?
One of my first projects was predicting which users would uninstall a particular mobile app for streaming music. I was working with AWS and Python to develop a data pipeline and a machine learning model. It was at my first job and so my first time working on any software project at all, not to mention something so complex. Here I learnt that anyone can take on work of any level of complexity and certainly do it. Of course the software a beginner creates wouldn’t be as perfect what an experienced engineer creates. But you can still do it and get it to work. All you need is Google and a great deal of patience and perseverance. There were several hiccups along the 4+ month journey but it was fun too. The software was able to make the prediction with 70% accuracy which could have been improved but it met the client’s requirement at the time and I moved on to the next project.
What do you like and dislike about technology?
There’s one thing about technology which I both like and dislike at the same time. Technology is always evolving at a rapid pace. So there’s always something new to learn, apply and upgrade to. You won’t ever be bored working in the same way because of the constant change. But you can’t get comfortable working on something and think hey I want to do this for the rest of my life. It’s not possible unless you want to get outdated. On the one hand there is immense scope and on the other, the need to learn to harness that scope.
How and why did you decide to move from software development to data science?
After my early ML and data projects as a junior engineer, I was interested in working in data. I felt that when you build software, it’s not easy to see the impact your work has created. Maybe I worked hard to reduce a transaction processing time from 5 seconds to 2 seconds, and it’s a big deal for me and maybe even the whole company. But it is hardly noticeable on the frontend or for the end user. Whereas with data, the impact is visible. While there is the Cambridge Analytica variety of impact of data, the potential to use data to create the right kind of real world impact and shape good consequences is what gets my interest. Data isn’t inherently good or bad but what we use it for is what makes it so.
I found an opportunity with Dunnhumby India to pursue my data dreams. I worked there for 2 years, and am now going to do more of it at Blackhawk.
Dreams and aspirations
I’ve had the good fortune to work with a few really smart people. My dream is to become someone who has the knowledge and experience to know what to do as seamlessly as possible while solving any problem.
Startups vs. MNCs
My first company wasn’t exactly a startup or an MNC. My second job was at an MNC. Blackhawk Network is my first time working at a startup. Though it’s an established company, the Development Centre in India is like a startup. I’m hoping the culture will allow me to do many more things and take on more responsibility as I want. So looking forward to that.
Advice to my younger self
Learn everything you have a chance to learn on the job without any judgement of this is good or this is bad. Nothing is bad or lame or useless or anything like that. Everything is useful. My advice is don’t shy away from anything.
About the Indian tech Industry
There’s massive scope to grow as a technologist in India right now. Innovative startups seeing success, Unicorns being made. It’s a good place to be.
Experience on Geektrust
I heard about Geektrust through an ad on Reddit 3 years ago. I had solved a coding challenge soon after signing up and improved my score later when I decided to look for a job. I had a really good job-search experience. Great interactions with my points of contact from Geektrust who guided me through the interview process and clarified my questions about different companies. There’s no chance of getting ghosted. Someone was in touch with me every step of the way. I am glad this platform exists.
Varun will be hosting a session to share his coding and job search tips at the 4th edition of our job event, OneCode Weekends. Register and tune in to meet and interact with developers, learn from them, attend a session on Writing Clean Code and share your own experiences too.
About Dev Stories
Geektrust is a platform for technologists to find interesting opportunities and shape the future of tech. In our work, we meet developers from diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives with inspiring stories. So we started the Developer Stories series, to bring stories of different developers to the world.
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