“For a young skilled worker, the most important thing is to ask questions”

An Interview with Surya Shekhar Chakraborty | Everyday People #88

Hi, this is Season 3 of Everyday People. I believe everybody has an interesting story to share, even if they don’t know it themselves. I try and bring that out of them, so that you can see that someone else’s life is as complex and large and beautiful as your own. I believe that is inspiring — do you?

This week, Mr. Surya Shekhar Chakraborty. (Interview conducted: 9th — 19th April, 2020).

1. Who are you, what do you do, and what is your current side project?

I am a software developer. The fancy title is Research Scientist, suffixed with a 2 — indicating I’m more responsible now than I was last year.

I work with the data engineering team at Zendrive. Essentially, I crunch humongous amounts of driving data — too large to fit on your computer, so I distribute it to 200 odd computers sitting on a farm somewhere in North America.

My current side project is overcoming impostor syndrome. I am doing it through a bunch of activities like publishing my personal code, studying theories of computer science and mathematics, and helping out others at work.

2. It’s interesting that you are actively working on Impostor Syndrome. Why have you chosen to externalize the struggle and focus on achievements and growth? Are you doing anything to introspect and figure yourself out as well?

Impostor syndrome first set in when I joined Zendrive fresh out of college. I found myself overwhelmed — everyone around me was terribly good at what they did, and here I was writing R code with for-loops. Blasphemy, as our director of data science would go on to teach me.

What I lacked in talent and experience, I tried to make up for with hard work. Nitin, my manager, had a huge role to play in my improvement: whenever he saw me struggle, he helped me out, and whenever I did well, I got a pat on the back. This had two effects — first, I started finding it easy to ask questions, and second, I started feeling positive about my work.

As part of Zendrive’s employee recognition program, Surya won a “Zen Award”, and one of his prizes was this custom drawing of him as a superhero.

I honestly don’t know how to answer your second question. I haven’t tried introspecting yet, as I’m happy to make something of myself externally first. There’s a lot to do, still.

3. You’re working with data engineering. Is that something you were inspired to do or was it a matter of trying out an interesting-sounding career? What do you find most fascinating about it, and would you want to continue in this career path down the line?

The exciting part of being at a fast-paced startup is that you get to try on many hats before you choose one. In my first year of Zendrive, I worked on many different projects: iOS app development, developing testing pipelines, evaluating model performance, even web development.

From all of this, I figured out that I most enjoyed being at the intersection of data science and engineering.

I love the challenging aspects of data engineering. It’s one thing to run your code on your fancy MacBook, quite another to send the code to run on 200 commodity (read: bare-bones) computers on the cloud. You cannot just think about the correctness of code, you also have to think about how to scale it up. A few lines of code changes can reduce the time it takes to run your code from days to hours. …And then it fails because too many of your slaves* have died.

[A/N: slave is a term for the computers in a network that operate under the instruction of another device. They mainly provide resources and processing power. Like real slaves, minus the racism.]

I certainly enjoy the work, and I’ve been super lucky to have colleagues who are equally passionate. Having said that, I’m curious to see how long it’ll take us to automate our own work and move on to the next shiny object.

They both get distracted by shiny objects.

4. Being quite young and starting to get a footing in your career, what are 3 key lessons you’ve learned about staying sane and motivated in a challenging spot? What would you say is the most important thing for a young skilled worker to know?

  1. Ask questions — it could even be as simple as clarifying what you’re supposed to deliver.
  2. Ask for feedback — most of your co-workers will have some opinion of how you’re working, and the only way to find out is to ask them.
  3. Find your tribe — and go out with them for your coffee/sutta breaks.

For a young skilled worker, the most important thing is to ask questions and never take anything for granted. For instance, whatever you’re working to build is likely to have been proposed by a senior. Ask them about why one would choose this design over another.

5. Now that the audience has read your amazing interview, what can you leave them with?

When Vaibhav told me that my interview is the 88th such interview he has done, I was amused. 88 is the number of significance to Neo-Nazis, since H is the 8th letter of the English alphabet, and “Heil Hitler” becomes HH, 88.

[A/N: As Surya and I discussed this morning, strange how this has become relevant again in the USA. #BlackLivesMatter]

History is something I have always enjoyed reading. So, I want to leave you with two of my favorite works of alternate history: “The Seventh Secret” by Irving Wallace — a book based on the conspiracy theory that Hitler had managed to escape to Argentina, and “The Man in the High Castle” — a show imagining a scenario in which the Axis powers actually win.

Hello friendo, you made it to the end. Thank you!

This is Season 3 of my interview series.

Everyday People is season 2 and up of Talkback Tuesday, a project I started in 2016. The previous interview was Episode 87: Aman Shah.

Aman is a software developer who has been playing guitar since a young age. He finds solace in his guitar, and is now starting to experiment with teaching as a way to find ways to give back. We talked about his motivations going forward, and how he feels about his frail health.

Click the image to see the interview.

Surya is one of my colleagues at my workplace, Zendrive. I also interviewed another colleague, Deepanshu Gupta, earlier. At the time of the interview, Deepanshu was only a few months into transitioning from an engineer to a managerial role. He had also recently gotten married, and we spoke about both these major changes in his life and how he’s enjoying the responsibilities of both.

Click the image to see the interview.

Thank you for reading! Give us a follow below, and recommend your friends for future interviews in a response.

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Vaibhav Gupta

Vaibhav Gupta

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Professional technical writer, 2x Distinguished Toastmaster. I write about mental health and self-awareness. Also see https://medium.com/thorough-and-unkempt