Interview with Sakunthala Panditharatne

This week at F equals, we were joined by Sakunthala Panditharatne (Saku), computer graphics programmer, Virtual Reality (VR) enthusiast, ex VC analyst at Andreessen Horowitz, former intern at Oculus, and recent creator of a neural network MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

Saku won a Google competition at 16, turned down a Peter Thiel fellowship and interned at Oculus whilst studying Maths and Computer Science at Cambridge. She went on to work at Silicon Valley’s famous venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz before returning to the UK. Here’s her story:

Newnham: What were you like growing up? How would your friends and family have described you?
Pandirharatne: I am happy to answer this question by saying I was actually a lot cooler and more badass than you might think. I ran an “underground newspaper” that interviewed local creatives and used to go to punk rock gigs. But I was also known as the math kid, I got sent off to stuff like math camp.

I also enjoyed debating, I was part of debate club and would always argue in defense of stuff like video games and pirated music. My real love though, was the internet and web culture. Being an immigrant to the UK, people would often ask me where I was from, and I would say “the internet.”

Newnham: When/how did you first get excited about tech? What prompted you to teach yourself to program?
Pandirharatne: Well, when I was a kid, the original “tech bubble” was going on. You would hear a new story every day about some smart kid hitting it big on the internet — and there was so much excitement around it. I remember that a new, better computer or game console would come out every few years and people would go crazy. It seemed like the future.

Since I was the “math kid” in my hometown, I thought that I could maybe one day be like one of those tech founders. When I was around 12, I got into forum culture, and there were a bunch of people on the gaming-related forums I used to visit who were teenage coders. Those people kind of pointed me in the right direction. I started with web and html, moved onto C sharp games, and then onto stuff like shader/GPU programming.

Newnham: You fit a lot in your life and are certainly leaving a mark on the industry already — from Google competitions as a kid to turning down a Thiel Fellowship to interning at Oculus whilst studying at Cambridge to working at Andreessen Horowitz out of uni– what drives you and what advice do you have for other young women starting out on their tech journey?
Pandirharatne: Something I read recently was that the best way to increase motivation is to link work to a greater purpose or cause — as a way to supplement personal ambition. As you might have gathered, I really love the internet, and I’m a big believer in the amazing effect technology has had on human development. Technology is one of the few ways you can affect the world in a positive-sum way — i.e. where the world is different and almost everyone is better off.

Newnham: What are you up to now and can you tell us about the MOOC you just launched?
Pandirharatne: I have spent the last year working on various projects at the intersection of AI (artificial intelligence) and 3D graphics. A year ago — and this is even more true today — it looked like AI was going to become important, and I could see a lot of places where I’d be able to apply my 3D graphics programming skills.

So I went and taught myself a bunch of stuff about neural networks/ ML (machine learning)/ etc. It was not a fun process — I had to read through about 200 academic papers and even more blog posts and it was all so unnecessary. The MOOC I just released was a distillation what I learned into a short, 5 hour class that tells you everything you need to get started with neural nets. It’s the course I’d wish I’d had — and it’s been reasonably successful as a lifestyle business so far.

Right now I am just about to release a bunch of stuff I’ve been working on for the last few months. One is a simulation environment for training reinforcement learning agents. I believe that — for example — a lot of the self-driving car tech is going to need a simulator to generate training data around certain specific fail cases to get the desired accuracy.

The other is a VR short film, which is kind of like a two minute piece of immersive theatre. The very first TV shows were recorded plays — and though people often say that like it’s a bad thing — recorded plays were an important stepping stone in figuring out the medium.

Newnham: You have a strong interest in VR — what are you most excited about its potential?
Pandirharatne: I think VR will be an amazing entertainment medium. I find the entertainment industry fascinating — I love reading books about the early days of Hollywood. It’ll take a few decades, but it’ll be amazing when someone creates the Netflix of VR, and LA becomes overrun with creatives directing their own VR games.

I agree with the rest of the industry that AR will be the more important medium of the two. But that doesn’t change the fact that VR is just really cool. Fun is half the point of civilization!

Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice, if any, would you offer a younger Saku?
Pandirharatne: Advice would probably be — believe in yourself and don’t ever take your eye away from the prize! Though I’m not sure I know enough about the world to be offering advice just yet. Actually — one concrete tip — the best way to improve your social skills is to do deep reading into social sciences-history and culture. That way it’s easier to relate to a broader range of people.

Saku on Twitter / Medium

  • ** This interview first appeared on the F equals blog ***

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