CTO Niranjan Paranjape discusses GoJek, codifying complexity and what’s next for tech at Jiva
“From a business perspective, the data asset that would result from a 10–15% market share would be unprecedented. No one has that data — not governments, not NGOs, no one. With that data, the possibilities for Jiva are endless. That in and of itself is a very exciting prospect.”
Christine Devlin: Niranjan, thanks for taking the time to chat. Let’s begin with your time at C42, the developer-consulting firm you co-founded. How did that experience shape you?
Niranjan Paranjape: C42 taught me a lot about running a business. The importance of survival has really stuck with me; if you want to see a business succeed — even if you have to bootstrap and hack your way to a product — you cannot ignore the short term tactical wins which keep business afloat. If the business fails to survive, your great long-term strategy won’t matter. This lesson applies to everything from team culture to product architecture.
C: When I spoke to Jiva CPO Aakash Dharmadhikari about his time at C42, he mentioned how easy it was fall down the engineering rabbit hole for months at a time, often without a business strategy. Did your experiences at C42 teach you a similar lesson?
N: Yes definitely. I learned a lot about leading a process and building with business in mind. There was a lot that I had to unlearn when I moved to GoJek, though. For example, at C42 we focused on doing one thing really, really well before broadening scope. At GoJek, demand was so high for our products that the strategy was reversed: the market was hot, so we built as many products as possible to see what would stick. From there, we’d scale. This is not a conventional strategy and really pushed me to be an organised team leader.
C: A Product Market Fit that is too strong? That’s a problem so many of us dream of.
N: It was exciting to see such a high demand for our product, but the problem was scaling our systems to meet that demand. When we introduced surge pricing, for example, we expected it to relieve some of the pressure on the application by reducing traffic. Instead, people just changed their travel patterns. That’s how much they liked the service. We had to build the organisation really quickly to meet the moment, scale and continue to deliver a reliable product.
C: In the case of those early GoJek days, how did you balance building for scale versus building for quality?
N: There are three parameters in every development project: scope, quality and time. If you pull one lever, the others must move. Leading effectively meant that I had to be very clear about that. If, for example, we were running up against a deadline, we would have to adjust scope in order to maintain the level of quality that our users were accustomed to. You have to be comfortable making a judgement call on what you’re willing to compromise.
C: Were there any particular moments when those three pillars were put to the test?
N: Plenty of times. One that is coming to mind was the challenge of re-writing the code that manages the driver’s location. A week or two after we re-launched the service, our driver base jumped from 20,000 to 150,000. If we hadn’t built that service in time, and if we hadn’t done it well, everything would have come to a screeching halt.
Another challenge was the insane speed of the GoCar launch. We wanted to launch it before Uber launched their motorcycle service. We had one month from inception to go-live. One month! It was literally myself and a few other folks on a whiteboard, drawing all the services and prioritising for the MVP one day and beginning build the next. That experience really taught me rapid, disciplined prioritisation.
C: How did you control the chaos during those early days?
N: I had the opportunity to hire my mentors, which helped a lot in controlling quality and consistency of builds. Many of us had worked closely together before and came to the room with very similar build strategies and philosophies. Beyond that, we had to pull ourselves out of the day to day execution when possible and focus on recruitment and expansion. The GoJek team in India grew 700% in 2,5 years.
What sold me on Jiva was the sheer potential for impact — the problem is so critical and the market is so large. In the next 10 years, we need to increase the average yield per hectare that these farmers produce in order to continue to feed the world. There are 525 million smallholder farmers alone. Plus, our product will impact not only the lives of the farmers but on all of us that rely on them, whether we realise it or not.
From a business perspective, the data asset that would result from a 10–15% market share would be unprecedented. No one has that data — not governments, not NGOs, no one. With that data, the possibilities for Jiva are endless. That in and of itself is a very exciting prospect.
C: There are a lot of misconceptions about the space, the problems farmers face and how to solve them. How has your understanding of the technical challenge changed since joining Jiva?
N: I think AgTech scares people because they think you need to have deep agronomic or supply chain knowledge. That’s not true. At the end of the day, this isn’t a deep tech problem or a precision farming problem. At least not yet. For the time being, the challenge is understanding, organising and codifying a complex domain. Once you understand enough to balance the sheer size of the sector with its nuances, you can build and deploy highly impactful and valuable products.
The positive side of the enormity of this domain is that demand is not an issue — we know farmers want and need these services. We need to find simplicity and scalability within the complexity in order to capitalise on that product market fit.
The other technological challenge worth mentioning is the lack of rapid feedback loops. At GoJek, we had near-live feedback for millions of transactions every day. At Jiva, we have to be more creative in sourcing feedback and analysing data, as our users are not digital natives and our digital touchpoints with the end user may be seasonal or more sporadic.
C: What’s next for tech and engineering at Jiva?
N: There are so many directions we’re looking to explore. At a fundamental level, we want to think about the future of Jiva holistically: how can we build the farmer community beyond advisory and supply chain? Top of the list includes mapping of farms to revolutionise the KYC process and increase financial inclusivity, deepen our relationship with farmers through access to weather, prices, e-commerce and leverage IoT sensors to provide information like soil health and predictive yield. For this space, there is no ceiling.
C: Finally, for those who may be interested in joining us, what is it like to work as an engineer in at Jiva?
N: I think candidates need to know that we are very much still a startup. Just like my early days at GoJek — I don’t have an answer to “What is the job?”. At Jiva, you can have whatever responsibility you want, but everyone needs to be present when things are bugging. Our Head of Farmer Services, for example, has spent his entire time at Jiva building our Supply Chain processes instead. We are ultimately working within very real biological cycles with changing conditions on the ground. We are constantly evolving in response. It is thrilling, but it’s not for everyone.