From Startups to Yelp: How Starting Small Can Help You Make It Big
By Caroline Osterman
Now in its seventh year, the Berkeley MEng program continues to foster a growing and impressive network of alumni. Our Masters graduates have contributed their knowledge and innovations to both growing startups and large corporations across various engineering fields. Among them is Sunil Shah (EECS ’14) who is now an Engineering Manager with Yelp after several years working at startups. I spoke with Sunil about life before Berkeley and his recent experience traversing the technology job sector.
Sunil grew up in Watford, a town just outside of London, England and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge in Computer Science to graduate in 2009. It took him a couple of years to adjust to the rigor of Cambridge — but by his third year he began to really engage with the university and grew a deep interest in CS, taking courses in distributed systems, networking and computer security. During his time he became a supporter in the open-source software movement, growing curious about the egalitarian idea that computer scientists can create social impact and change the world through collaborating on free software.
Upon graduation Sunil was eager to study more CS — but first he wanted some time to travel and work. He began a second internship with Barclays Capital, an investment bank, prototyping software for derivatives traders. It was a strenuous industry to enter following the 2008 credit crunch, but he enjoyed what he was doing. “I absolutely loved the energy of working on the trading floor — and being surrounded by towers of computer monitors!” he recalls. Eventually he was offered a full-time position with Barclays and negotiated a year-long deferral.
Sunil then lived for three months in India volunteering for One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit aiming to provide impoverished children with an education and a brighter future by developing low-cost computers. He also spent four months racing in the Tour D’Afrique, an 8,000 mile bike race stretching from Egypt to South Africa.
Starting full-time at Barclays Sunil struggled to adjust to the corporate atmosphere — which was less fulfilling than his internship as he rotated between teams being downsized that used dated software. The work he was doing wasn’t impactful as he had hoped, and eventually he left Barclays to join Last.fm, a music startup that was acquired by CBS in 2007. This was a fast-growing Web 2.0 (high in user interactivity and collaboration) platform that Sunil found fascinating and rewarding to work with. This was the era of Facebook and Last.fm was using a similar open-source technology stack; it offered the growth and experience in the industry that Sunil wanted. “It was a fantastic experience,” Sunil reflects. “I was allowed to play with hundreds of terabytes of user data while gaining highly marketable skills — I used my 10% time to publish two papers analyzing this data!”
While at Last.fm Sunil decided it was a good time to start applying to graduate school. The first round wasn’t as smooth sailing as he had hoped. He initially applied to three US programs based on pedigree and access to the American technology industry, but was rejected from all three. Fortunately, the following year Sunil widened his pool, and applied to the Berkeley MEng program for the first time.
“Of the offers I received, the MEng program at Berkeley was the most compelling for a few reasons. Berkeley’s Computer Science department is world-renowned and has produced technologies that are used around the world (i.e. their operating system Berkeley Software Distribution, or BSD, which is the basis for macOS). Berkeley’s proximity to the Bay Area job market made it advantageous for my job search, with most startups and major tech companies being at most an hour away.”
Sunil accepted and moved to California to join the MEng Class of 2014 in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) department, specializing in Robotics and Embedded Software. Among his coursework was Machine Learning, Advanced Robotics, Parallel Programming and Computer Vision. “These were all hardcore classes,” Sunil says, “but I particularly enjoyed Parallel Programming because of the access they gave us to the supercomputers at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.” He designed his capstone project with Professor Sengupta to use what he learned from his coursework to look deeper into the commercial application of drones.
“The capstone project was somewhat timely as the popularity of quadcopters took off (no pun intended!) and we were able to implement an existing self landing system using open hardware and open-source software.”
By the time Sunil graduated from the MEng program, he had several years of work experience under his belt and had a good idea of what kind of technology he wanted to work with. He enjoyed his experience at Last.fm and wanted to pursue work with another startup or small company. He was also still interested in open-source distributed systems software. Sunil spent some time interviewing and was offered full-time positions at several large names including Amazon and Uber. In June 2014 he ultimately chose small yet up-and-coming Mesosphere, an infrastructure software startup. When Sunil interviewed, they had just closed their series A funding rounds and there were 11 employees. By the time he joined there were 20.
“Having 27 months to work in the US after graduation without sponsorship was an excellent time to take a risk on an uncertain company.”
Working at a high-growth startup like Mesosphere is fast-paced and hectic, especially in their inaugural years. Sunil described it as an intense work experience — in three years with Mesosphere they gained hundreds of customers and grew to 250 employees with $50M in yearly revenue. Read Sunil’s article detailing his experience with Mesosphere here.
After three years at Mesosphere Sunil decided it was time to get experience operating the same software, but in a production environment. He now works at Yelp, which he described as, if anything, a huge scaling challenge. Yelp uses the open-source software Mesos to serve reviews to a hundred million unique visitors per month. As Engineering Manager he now leads a large team within an engineering operation about five times as large as Mesosphere’s. His team looks after the compute platform on which the website runs, working with individual feature teams to run their production workloads in a robust and cost efficient way.
From experience in nonprofit volunteering and high-growth startups Sunil has found both the technology he works best with and the impact of finding passion in his work. Jumping into corporate environments can be a whirlwind — Sunil has found it beneficial to scale his knowledge from his previous roles at software startups.
Some concluding words of wisdom from Sunil for prospective and current MEng students:
“Consider working at a smaller company upon graduation. You’ll find a wealth of learning opportunities that take you across all aspects of running a business. This can help round out your already robust engineering skills and help put some of that leadership coursework into practice!”