Big tech company vs. a startup?

Interview with Shruthi Murthy, ex-Director of Engineering at WhatsApp
July 27, 2021
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Shruthi Murthy is the Head of Engineering at Modern Treasury. Previously, she was an early engineer at WhatsApp and worked on many of the initial messaging features including end-to-end encryption and calling. These features literally connect billions of people around the world today. Most recently, as the Engineering Director, she built and ran the Payments teams at WhatsApp to enable sending a payment over WhatsApp just as easily as sending a message. The payments feature is currently live in India and Brazil. Shruthi has an MS in Computer Science and has previously held various engineering roles at HP, AMD, Google, and Zynga.

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What makes you excited about working in tech?

Building products that provide valuable experiences to billions of users around the world.

Solving problems at scale and building delightful experiences has always excited me. Whether it be building infrastructure for search or gaming, messaging, or payments -- I’m touched that the products we built have provided meaningful value to billions of users, in some cases in under supported technologies around the world. Even as late as 2016, I worked on building WhatsApp for the Nokia feature phones which were extremely low-end phones but were still being used by millions of loyal fans around the world. It was a lot of fun and hard work optimizing to run the entire app under very low processor, memory (250 KB heap) and platform (J2ME, no database, basic network stack) constraints and yet have all the same features as WhatsApp on an expensive iPhone.

It was all worth it as our users absolutely loved us for being the only app that worked reliably on their small, bandwidth-constrained phones in poor network conditions. They wrote to us unprompted about how WhatsApp on these phones was their lifeline, about how they were able to stay connected with their friends and families while they were on a research trip in remote Antarctica or during an earthquake or unrest in their country. It was extremely fulfilling to see the impact of the product when we heard these incredible stories from our users time and time again.

I’m sure the future will be even more exciting and perhaps humbling as the tech industry builds products that improve the areas of finance, health, education, and climate on a global scale.

What's your favorite quote?

Many intelligent people have said many things. Wouldn’t it be great if we could remember and live by all of them! :) I have listed a few here --

Be honest. Be kind. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Well-behaved women seldom make history. -- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Do not negotiate for positions. Focus on interests. -- paraphrasing from the book ‘Negotiating to Yes’

Any sufficiently advanced technology is equivalent to magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a leader?

Dealing with uncertainty is the biggest challenge any leader faces.

Uncertainties in product building come in various forms -- managing budget, hiring, product roadmaps and goals, x-functional relationships, external and internal dependencies, team health to name a few.

Of these, managing external dependencies such as regulatory or partner requirements is critical as the product’s success becomes tied to an external entity. A leader in such a situation must bring along the external team with as much care and thoughtfulness as their own, while possibly dealing with very different engineering and business methodologies and culture.

What’s your advice for choosing between a big tech company and a startup?

There are advantages to both.

Big companies provide a lot of stability and solid compensation. Many of these companies are working on very interesting, cutting-edge areas of tech as well. Big companies by their very nature have communication and other operational overheads that one must be aware of.

Early stage startups that are well run have small teams with high throughput that are hyper focused on the product and execution. This typically results in employees having higher ownership of the product (user/revenue to employee ratio is huge) and employees feeling a deeper attachment to the product (“it’s my baby!”). A startup experience may also provide higher visibility into the entire lifecycle of the product from the vision to decision making, execution, customer happiness, and business success. Working directly with co-workers and founders who think from first principles about unsolved problems may also result in deeply enriching experiences personally and professionally. Successful startups of course have the added benefit of equity growth in orders of magnitude.  

What is the best advice someone ever told you?

There is a saying about duty and righteousness in the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. It goes something like --

“Do your righteous duty. Be deeply attached to your work but not to the fruits of it. Nor have attachment to inaction”.

Many times the treadmill that we are all on socially and professionally, makes us aspire for the fruits of our work a little too soon, a little too much. Taking a step back, taking a long-term view, and having a learner’s mindset have helped me be detached from wanting quick victories at work.

It has helped me focus more on working for the joy of building something with people I like. It’s a good philosophical mindset and in practice, once you do good work, all else will follow more often than not.

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