“The ownership on a project is like what you’d see in a startup” — An Associate Director talks opportunities, flexibility, and work culture at CACTUS Tech
Mayank Raj is the Associate Director, Engineering, at Cactus Labs. He has extensive experience in building high-performance products powered by AI/ML & Big Data. He has designed cloud native architecture that can scale and yet remain cost-effective. He has also worked on more experimental applications like AR/VR.
You joined CACTUS when you were still in university. How did that work out?
That’s right. I joined CACTUS right after my second year of engineering. I had a brief stint with an established name in tech in my second-year summer vacations; I was on contract with their HR team and working on a few apps. I started looking for other contractual opportunities.
During my third and fourth year of university, I started working with CACTUS. I joined the two-member UI team where I formed the other half. I used to come into the office right after college every day; I’d spend a couple of hours at the office, some from home, and some from the last bench of my university class. You can say that this was my introduction to “work from anywhere.”
You mentioned that you had not even heard of CACTUS. So what drew you to the organization?
CACTUS gave me a lot of flexibility with work hours, and I needed this since I was still in university. They were ok with me visiting the office for 12–14 hours a week and then doing the rest of the work from anywhere.
Also, the projects that were discussed during the interview seemed interesting; these were things I would have wanted to work on.
And most importantly, I was not being treated as an intern.
This was one of the most off-putting things I had to face at other places. I was able to work on fairly complex things, but because I was in university, I was being offered a measly stipend and the promise of “exposure.” I didn’t get the concept. CACTUS didn’t treat me like an intern. I was made a good contractual offer that had good projects and strong ownership from the get-go.
Finally, the fact that I would have a real job even before graduating seemed like a big bragging right. In retrospect, I don’t think I bragged enough about it. :)
Can you describe your role at CACTUS? What is your typical day like?
As Associate Director, Engineering, I serve as a conduit between the business and technology sides of the organization. I take the business requirements and translate them for the tech team. I interface with heads of departments, product managers, and vendors.
I also make sure that our tech roadmap aligns with our business needs and I manage expectations on both sides. My hands-on programming has reduced over the last year, but I do a lot of Proof-Of-Concepts (POCs) and product bootstrapping.
I am involved at the very early stages of all products. I work on the first couple of POCs as well as the initial MVP. After that, I help set up a team and move on to the next project.
I also work on the more experimental stuff. I like to work with new technologies and tools and I get to experiment with something completely new. Almost a year ago, I worked on a VR application. Today I work with a team of BigData Engineers.
What is the most exciting aspect of your role?
This is something that we joke about internally — everyone within the team has equal access to almost everything.
What that means is that I have the flexibility of working in the capacity that I would want to. I don’t have to wait for approvals. I don’t have to wait for someone to give me a green light to start working on something.
If I pick up a problem to work on, I have the freedom to innovate. This has been the case for all the projects I have worked on. This applies to everyone on the team. This essentially means that all of us are constantly looking for ways to improve and at times geek out on the new offerings.
You make CACTUS sound like a startup.
It’s the best of both worlds. The ownership on a project is like what you’d see in a startup. This is especially true in the tech team. But I don’t have the restrictions that a startup would generally have. It’s not that we are directionless or that we don’t have the in-house capabilities to do most of the things.
One of the things that startups struggle with is that they don’t know whom to reach out to. In our case, if I have, say, a problem with the language automation solutions we are working on, I can leverage the expertise of the massive team of editors and the close to 20 years of experience we have. All of that is one chat away. I can simply drop in a message and get the conversation going.
The same goes for budgets. If I can justify the usage, I can have a server farm running to meet my needs.
When UNSILO joined us, they were surprised with the fact that they no longer had to worry about access to subject-matter experts; we have access to Ph.D. holders that we can collaborate with anytime.
What has been the one coolest, biggest, most interesting, or most challenging problem that you’ve worked on?
It’s difficult to choose. The first major feature launch I was involved in end-to-end was a big success within the tech team and the entire organization. It was very well received by the stakeholders.
There was also the time when we were migrating to a new workflow management system, and I was put in charge of revamping the client-facing forms that were the revenue funnels. When I was gearing up for my final year exam in university, I was put in charge of revamping some of the most business critical modules. During that whole process, I took a two-week break for the final university exam and came back to work once the exam was over. So while my batchmates were getting ready for 2–3 months of vacation time, I had kickstarted my professional life!
Then there’s the time we were working on data generation for a tool. We had to process data, which would have taken close to 6 years if done sequentially, and whittle it down to a couple of hours. Around this time, I along with a team member and the CTO were preparing for a trip to the US for that external collaboration. If we didn’t have the data in time, we would essentially not have anything to do while we were in the US. A waste of everyone’s time, money, and effort! That was the most exciting couple of weeks where I was introduced to the problem statement just a month before the plan date. We were actually able to complete the task just a day before our flight.
What would you say to people with your background who probably find working with a startup or the Big Tech companies more exciting? What’s the big draw about CACTUS’s work culture?
For me, the most important consideration is the independence that the organization offers. At CACTUS, I am given a problem and the room to ideate and figure things out on my own. I am given access to leaders with experience whom we can consult, but I am responsible for execution. That has led to a lot of learning opportunities and I can proudly claim to have built something.
CACTUS is at that sweet spot where it’s not too small and facing a funding crunch or too big and saddled with bureaucratic processes. If I think that I can spend some funds on running a pipeline, I don’t have to wait for approvals as long as I can justify it.
In my free time, I consult with some startups on technical aspects and the conversations are always around saving a few hundred dollars here and there. You are putting in more effort into saving something that doesn’t really make sense. It’s not the kind of environment I would like to be in.
Many of my friends working with some big names talk about how restrictive the environment is. Too many hoops to jump through before anything can get started. They are told that they are just starting out and hence cannot call the shots. But it’s the opposite for me and my friends at CACTUS.
A couple of months ago — this is after some 5 years at CACTUS — I had the opportunity of joining a major cloud computing platform. I spoke to a few people who work there to understand the work culture and it didn’t appeal to me.
Some of my friends have stuck around with some big names even though they don’t enjoy the work. I’d rather work at a place where I can do interesting work.
A university batchmate who joined CACTUS recently and who has about two years of work experience is the lead engineer of one of our key tech offerings — a product that generates a couple of hundred thousand dollars in revenue. Those are the kinds of opportunities that people can look forward to here.
CACTUS Tech is looking for passionate innovators, ideators, and problem solvers to join its team and build exciting products and solutions. Learn more: https://tech.cactusglobal.io/careers/