A Developer’s Story: Rashmi Mittal

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With over 2 decades of experience in product development, including 15 years in Silicon Valley, Rashmi Mittal has an expansive career at giants like Adobe and L&T Infotech, as well as a slew of startups in India and the US. In this edition of Developer Stories, we explore Rashmi’s breadth of experience — her thoughts on tech, the differences between working in the US and India, advice to young professionals, an underappreciated murder mystery novelist, and so much more. 

During the interview, we were struck by her charm, humility and excellent sense of humour, and appreciate her taking the time to speak with us.

Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you start your journey in tech?

To be very honest, I was one of those kids who didn’t know what they wanted to do but we had the privilege of having somebody come to school to introduce us to Microsoft Visual Basic. I really enjoyed its logical approach which meant I didn’t need to blindly memorize information. 

So, that was my first taste of programming and I took to it immediately. I even remember the teacher thinking I was doing very well and considered me one of the smart kids so she asked me a question in front of the entire class. I was unable to answer and was so disappointed! (laughs

That’s just a tidbit, you guys don’t need to include it. (Sorry, Rashmi!)

Fast forward to the 12th grade and I’m debating between Commerce and Science. I knew that if I went down the Science route I wouldn’t want to pursue a BSc but something to do with Computers instead. I figured out that Computer Engineering was probably my best bet. That started me down the tech path.

I was also someone who always wanted to work and be financially independent. The natural course was to join a company through campus interviews and that’s how I started my first role with L&T Infotech. 

How was your time with L&T Infotech?

It was a really good experience. As is the case with all good first jobs, I learned a lot more there than I did during my 4 years of engineering. Especially the on-the-job coding – it was an invaluable learning experience. I remember an instance where, during a review of my code where I encountered a particularly difficult problem, I expressed to the person who was overlooking the project that “This is impossible.” He replied by saying, “There’s no such thing with code. There are always ways to make it work, we just need to figure out what they are.

It was also my one and only role that included client servicing, where we took on projects mostly from outside India and visited clients on-site as well. This took me to the East Coast of the USA and once to Columbus, Ohio.

Is this what led to your 15-year stint in California with Adobe?

Well, actually, after my two visits to the US I wanted to remain in India but ended up moving there because the person I married worked in California at the time. 

I also worked with a couple of startups before joining Adobe. The first was in the business of automatically creating portals for other companies – for their CRM and such. This was core C++, no Java or anything like that. We were hooking up our web servers to a C++ backend directly. This was back in 2001/02 and the startup didn’t survive the DotCom bust, unfortunately. I remember being one of the last people left to leave and walking out with a box of my things. 

How did the 12-year stint at Adobe begin in 2004?

I was referred by a previous colleague and started working there just four months after delivering my first baby.

Can you speak to your vast experiences in both the US and India? How are the two tech hubs different?

I think it’s changing now but around 2001 when I moved there was this perception that the tech being worked on in the US was more challenging than what was being worked on here in India. Actually, I would exclude some startups from that distinction but by and large, I found that very few companies in India at that time were choosing truly challenging areas to work on. Versus in the US, I found companies that went into a certain aspect of tech and ensured that they ventured into it deeply. 

Another difference I noticed was that in India there seemed to be a lot of value placed on your experience with the breadth of technologies, languages and software that exists but in the US they seemed to be more focused on building a good product. What you used to build the product was secondary. They would hesitate to introduce tech just for the sake of it. 

Again this is certainly a generalization and solely based on my experiences but I have had instances in Indian companies where we’ve wondered about things like this. “Okay, we’ve started using a new tech but was there really a need to use it?

For example, with tools like Jenkins. I remember when I was back in the US, we were trying to build this Dash.js player support for our video publishing solution and needed to coordinate with a part of the team that was in India. We ended up introducing a lot of build pipelines with various different tooling – Zookeeper, etc – and it was very difficult to understand why it needed to be so complicated. The Indian team’s POV was that the right tool for the job was the complicated one but I wondered if we could have achieved the same results via a simpler solution and fewer components. 

Why do you think this difference exists?

I think it stems from a desire to learn new things in India. Even today, I find that we in India focus more on the tech we’re learning than the product we’re building. 

Do you think perhaps that could be down to the differences in industry age between the US and India? That, maybe, because the Indian tech space is younger there is a higher appetite to learn everything whereas in an older and more mature industry like in the US the focus is more on the end result?

I think I would agree, yes. In fact, I think in India I’ve seen product focus increase as the individual becomes more experienced. 

I think the other factor at play here is that India, for the longest time, played a supporting role to US tech. It was very client-services oriented and not product focused at all. It’s only now with the recent startup boom we’re witnessing that we see the focus shift back towards the product. So perhaps there’s still some getting used to the new equation that’s taking place and informing my earlier narrative. 

Another interesting difference I’ve noticed is that people move into management far sooner here in India. During my time in the US, I saw people of all ages and experiences remaining on the tech side and others moving into management only because they felt like it. Here there seems to be a certain pressure to move into management as you become more experienced.  I’m not sure if it’s once again due to the industry’s relative youth or perhaps something cultural but it certainly exists.

So where do you think India is on that maturity curve? How much have we transitioned away from a support role to a front-facing, innovative one?

I think we’ve evolved a lot over the last couple of years – and again I attribute that to our startups. I think we now also have startups that have immersed themselves in very deep tech. I don’t think I could have said that even two years ago. 

That’s fantastic. What then do you see in India’s future? Do you envision a time when India could exist as an independent tech hub, with all aspects of the value chain taking place within its own capacity – including the cutting edge? And if so, how long do you see it taking?

Okay, I’m no visionary (laughs), so don’t take my word as gospel. Realistically, I don’t see us “taking over” or anything. There will be multiple hubs around the world as per each region’s capabilities. 

I do see us evolving much more towards core tech and away from client servicing though. And we will cycle out of each phase. For instance, we’re currently seeing this trend of extreme salary increases and not just for the most senior developers but across the board. This is a clear sign of an industry in flux and evolving towards a new status quo. It is very positive for India. 

How about the differences in hiring in the US versus in India? Since you’ve been on both sides of the hiring spectrum – both as an employee and an employer.

The big difference I’ve noticed between the US and here, and an area where I’ve tried to fight back a lot in India, is with regard to notice periods. In the US it’s just two weeks versus the three months we have here. That negatively impacts both the hiree and the hirer, in my opinion.

From the perspective of the hiree, two weeks to leave your existing company for a better opportunity is beneficial because a lot of new companies aren’t willing to wait for three months to fill their vacancies. It negatively impacts choice. 

The same is true for the hirer, where we often see candidates accept an offer only to cancel 2 months later for some reason or the other. That makes it very difficult for us to fill open positions with suitable candidates. We see a huge pain point with last-minute cancellations and have had to come up with various strategies to keep the person committed during their three-month notice. 

The shorter notice also prevents both companies and employees from becoming overly dependent on each other. The knowledge that you can both fill a position and find a new job in just two weeks, promotes stability and balance as no single employer or employee is unhealthily powerful. 

At Quintype we did try and reduce the notice period to just a month but we found that put us at a significant disadvantage. People could leave us in just a month but when we tried to hire we had to wait three months because the hiree’s old company still had a three-month policy.  

We see that, apart from L&T Infotech and Adobe, you’ve spent much of your career at startups. Was this intentional and strategic?

I don’t know if I gave it too much thought to be honest. I was clear that I didn’t want to do client servicing quite early in my career and preferred working on products. That seemed more challenging and exciting so it drove my decision-making. 

That’s actually why I stayed at Adobe for as long as I did (almost 12 years). Despite being a huge company they have a very startup-y culture where each group within the organization is given a lot of independence to build what they want, the way they want. Even before the product has been given the official go-ahead, you’re afforded time to develop a POC, a product manager who helps you validate, and eventually present your idea to leadership and, if that works out, you get to turn it into a product. So it’s a combination of an exciting startup environment with the protection that only a large company can offer you. During my time there I was also not restricted to one team but encouraged to switch teams as I wanted. This ensured that I kept learning, did challenging work constantly and really enjoyed myself. 

You frequently mention challenges and how you went looking for them throughout your career. Could you speak to why that was so important to you and if you think younger developers should do the same?

I first learned the value of challenging oneself during my early years at Adobe. I had been there for about two years and had been working with the Illustrator team. Illustrator was a vector drawing tool that was 20 years old and required mostly iterative work rather than anything significant or transformative. While I enjoyed working on Illustrator I was given the opportunity to put the product in “maintenance mode” and our team was encouraged to look for initiatives outside of Illustrator that we found interesting. At that time I received an offer from a team that was working on a flash-based animation product and needed a backend architect. At that time they didn’t have too many people who were familiar with databases – it was a mostly desktop tooling kind of environment – and so they offered me the backend architect position. 

To me, that was a huge challenge and I definitely wasn’t confident. I kept thinking that in order to become a backend architect one must have already had the experience to be one! Fortunately, I decided to take the opportunity despite my reservations and also had a hiring manager who was very supportive and believed in my abilities. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career. The work was very fulfilling and I also entered an amazing team that was very agile and efficient in the ways they built stuff. 

So that’s my advice to younger folks – don’t be afraid to take on challenges but instead go looking for them as they’re the opportunities that will push you forward. 

Has being a woman in tech affected you or your career in any way? Do you feel like your gender has played a role in your experiences?

I thankfully have not experienced any significant discrimination during any of my roles in both the US or India. When I started my career I often was the only woman in the team and learned early on the importance of not treating myself differently than anyone else on the team just due to that fact. 

Of course, salary differences do exist and the issue is well-publicized. While I haven’t experienced too much direct discrimination, I did notice that during my time at Adobe I was perhaps not as aggressive as my male counterparts in this area. I tended to be more content with my role and my salary and didn’t raise questions on these subjects as openly or aggressively as some of my male colleagues did. I wanted to know when I’d receive a promotion, of course, but for the most part, was happy where I was. I remember a colleague going up to our manager and asking clearly when they would receive a promotion and what the raise in salary would be – and that working out quite well for him. That’s when I learned to be more vocal and take more initiative in these areas and perhaps that’s one reason why this salary discrimination exists – women tend not to ask and question as much as men do. 

In fact, when I applied that learning and broached the subject with my manager he responded with surprise saying, “Oh, you’re still at this level? No, no, you should be at the next level, I’ll look into it.” It worked and I got promoted to the next level soon after that conversation. 

The real pressure for women in my opinion is social – and far more in India than in the US in this respect. Women in India are expected to give up working or not work long hours because of the expectations from their families. I think this is the key problem that sets women back in the workplace. 

These aside, I don’t think there are any differences for women in code either in the US or here in India. If you’re good you’ll do well in both places.

That’s heartening to hear. Has the ratio of men to women improved these days?

Yes, but there’s still a ways to go. I’m no longer the only woman on the tech side but I’d say it’s still about 70:30 in favour of the men. However, I don’t think that it makes too much of a difference if you’re in a workplace that values you based on your skill alone and not any other aspect.

So what then would your advice be to younger women entering tech today?

It would be for them to put their best foot forward. Don’t expect to be treated as a woman in tech, just be a person in tech. Take on challenges and be nimble. The latter is one of the most important pieces of advice I can give anyone entering the space. Tech changes rapidly and you should be open to keep learning as things come your way. If someone offers you an opportunity in a different tooling language don’t be afraid to take that up. It will keep you nimble and adaptable because it’s just amazing how much tech changes! (laughs)

Is there an end goal or a dream that you aspire to achieve? Or have you already achieved everything you’ve wanted to?

(laughs) No, I haven’t. The dream is always your most far-fetched goal, isn’t it? Mine’s to build a startup that helps the masses and creates large-scale impact. But to be honest I haven’t been struck by that great idea yet. Hopefully, it arrives one day  — preferably before I’m 70! 

How do you like to spend your time away from work?

I like to read. Specifically British murder mysteries. And I’ll throw some non-fiction and historical fiction in there too from time to time when I feel guilty. (laughs)

Is there a book you’d recommend to our readers?

I’ll give you two. In the murder mystery genre, I’d recommend Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers and in non-fiction, I’d suggest Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. 

How have you found hiring through Geektrust?

We’ve actually been hiring primarily through Geektrust recently. We’ve found that we’re getting much better quality candidates by going through you guys. Last year we tried Geektrust along with reaching out to candidates through our own internal HR person as well. We used LinkedIn and had them solve our own coding challenges but we found that the quality from Geektrust was far better than through other means. Our success percentage of other channels was too low compared to Geektrust. Especially for the mid-to-senior level hiring. 

Final question, what advice would you give to your younger self? If you could travel back in time to that fateful day in 8th grade when you were introduced to Visual Basic and could spend an afternoon with 13-year-old Rashmi, what would you say to her?

(laughs) I actually would give her no advice. I have no regrets and wouldn’t do things differently. 

I’ve been extremely fortunate to receive great opportunities and work with incredible people who have kept me on my toes, constantly learning and growing. I also didn’t start with great intuition or instinct but that too, like everything else, improved as time went on. 

I suppose the key is to make mistakes that aren’t too damaging and can be learned from. 

About Geektrust 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.

If you’d like to be featured in our Dev Stories or know someone whose story can inspire others, write to us at hello@geektrust.in.

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