“Our industry does not respect tradition - it only respects innovation” - Satya Nadella.
In the fast-paced world of digitization and automation, it holds completely true. Tushar Saxena, Senior Engineering Manager at Moonfrog Labs, strongly agrees. Moonfrog Labs is a leading game development startup based out of Bangalore, known for the game “Teen Patti Gold” and also the recently launched “Alia Bhatt: Star Life” life simulation game.
Being a hardcore technologist right from the beginning of his career and an Engineering Manager now, Tushar greatly emphasizes on the importance of learning and growth - he says “For me, one of the key difference between an average hire and good hire is their capability to learn and adapt.”
In a freewheeling chat with Aircto, he talks about his foray into management, his hacks to conduct an ideal tech interview and above all, the mantra to build a successful team.
The early days
Even as a child, Tushar always had an affinity towards computers. His excitement was evident in his words as he went on explaining how it all started, “I got my first computer (an Atari ST) when I was in 6th standard, at that time it was primarily used for playing games. I stumbled upon an obscure piece of software called Omikron BASIC which was bundled along with the operating system."
"I found some tutorials buried away in the documentation, started experimenting with it and was blown away! It fascinated me that I could actually instruct a computer what to do, instead of the other way around.”
“A couple of years later, when I was in 9th standard, I created my first game as a part of a school project. The basic premise was simple - you had to shoot a moving ball with a gun, and as you moved through the levels, the target became progressively harder to hit. Simple as it was, this game became extremely popular and everyone in my class aspired to be on the top of the leaderboard! That was my very first real foray into programming, and right then I knew what I wanted to do in my career.”
Foray into management
Tushar has worked with some industry giants in his career like Yahoo, America Online, Flipkart, and Amazon. While he’s always been a coder at heart, he quickly realized where his interest lay.
“My main motivation of transitioning into the management was an early realization that I possessed a knack for a long term vision. Even as a developer, while coding up a feature, I would not only think about executing the current set of requirements but would build the software in such a way that it would satisfy more future use cases than actually it was designed for - extensibility was key. This was corroborated by several of my managers early on in my career, and they also encouraged me to take this step.”
He adds, “In addition, I enjoy working with people in a team environment, solving their problems and helping them meet their individual ambitions and grow in their career - even as a developer, I enjoyed the mentorship process, often with people more experienced than me! Moving into management allowed me to influence both of these streams, so it was a natural step to take.”
His initial foray into management was in Flipkart as a Program Manager which was an interesting proposition for him - at that time, the overall size of the organization was approximately 100 employees. On the job, Tushar says, “I worked on the entire lifecycle of the product and interacted with a lot of different teams (starting from marketing to last mile logistics) to make sure that everyone was aligned towards a common goal. I worked there for more than 3 years and loved every minute of it.”
Key parameters to select the right candidates?
It is said, the success of an emerging startup depends a lot on its engineering team. Under such circumstances, hiring great engineers becomes a necessity as well as a challenge.
When asked on this, Tushar readily started explaining the hacks which he has been following all these years to identify the best talent, “Some parameters which we look at are core competencies, ability to write a high quality code quickly and efficiently, knowledge of common algorithmic patterns, and more importantly on how to adapt the algorithms to solve your problem, rather than shoehorning fancy design patterns into a solution that it is sub-optimal for.”
“In an interview, we are not necessarily looking for the right answer, what’s usually more important is the thought process behind the candidate’s approach to solve the problem. If the thought process is correct, my confidence in the candidate is much higher."
"I tend to ask open-ended technical questions, with multiple possible approaches. More often than not, inexperienced interviewers miss out on the fact that interviews are a high-pressure environment for the candidate, and there is a very real possibility that they might blank out. But if the candidate has a clear and structured thought process, they are more likely to be able to arrive at the correct solution."
Tushar strongly believes that follow-up questions are a must. “I encourage the candidate to come up with a solution and then try to improve upon it. Let’s say I ask a design related question and the candidate gives me a very brute force solution - I then start picking out specific parts of this solution which can be improved upon, guide the candidate towards identifying the problem and ask them to alter their approach to solve it. In essence, it’s not very different from a design discussion that happens every day at work!”
Post-interview questions from the candidate
An often neglected part of the interview process is the time allocated at the end of the interview for the candidate to ask questions of the interviewer.
Tushar says, “I try to spend as much time at the end of an interview to chat with the candidate. This serves two purposes - first, it allows me the gauge the candidate's thought process through the type of questions he or she asks me. The best hire calls I have made have been with candidates who have asked the most intelligent questions - be it a technical level, or just from a pure business point of view.”
“Secondly, this Q&A session also allows me to ‘sell’ the company and role to the candidate - I take the cue from the questions asked by the candidate and talk about the cool things we are doing that align with the interests of the candidate."
"For example, a lot of candidates are interested in working on ‘scale’, although not everyone truly understands what scale means. I usually explain that scale doesn’t just imply working with a large set of users or requests, but it is equally about optimizing your codebase to save on app size, network usage, data payload size, etc. Couple this with some real world metrics of the scale that the company is currently working with, and the projected volumes in the next 12 months, and it becomes an easy conversation.”
A typical interview process
Talking about a typical tech interview, Tushar says, “We have multiple rounds of interviews and have defined a certain set of competencies for every job family and role within the company. We conduct multiple rounds where we expect every interviewer to cover two competencies - let’s say the first interviewer talks about 1 and 2, second will talk abt 2 and 3 and so on. In that way we get an evaluation for every competency by at least two different interviewers.”
He adds, “As an hiring manager, I tend to evaluate the candidate on their prior work experience, their role within the team, overall technical competency and decision making process within their current scope of work. I also evaluate the candidate on culture fitment - having worked both in startups and large corporations, I have seen first hand how a bad culture fit can impact an otherwise smart candidate’s performance and motivation level - we have a very startup-ish environment at Moonfrog, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea! ”
Streamlining the interview process
When it comes to rejection ratios, the industry standards are scarily high - approximately 65%. This number is even higher at Moonfrog, so there’s a very heavy focus on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the interview process.
Tushar explains the steps which his team takes to achieve this, “We maintain a high technical bar during the initial phone screen, and have our top interviewers do this round. Even if a senior candidate who is good in soft skills falters in basic or problem solving, we reject the candidate straightaway. We focus on getting the right evaluation as early as possible - we do not want to waste the interviewer’s or the candidate’s time.”
"In addition, we try to maintain a very low turnaround time for completing the interview loop. There have been cases where the process of someone’s profile being shortlisted to making the final offer has been completed in one and half days.”
“We have also done a lot of work towards training the interview panel - we conducted several calibration sessions, the purpose of which is to make sure that all the interviewers are aligned on the exact quality that we are looking for. We also focussed on a lot of behavioral traits - the interview process is not only us evaluating the candidate but also the candidate evaluating us. We try to put our best foot forward so that not only we make a fair evaluation, but also leave a good impression, irrespective of whether the candidate is selected or not.”
Experience vs talent vs cultural fit?
This is one of the most dilemmatic situations for any tech interviewer. One always gets resumes where a person has less experience but has achieved more as compared to a relatively senior guy.
Tushar’s thoughts are straightforward on this, ”Interviews are a good indicator of a candidate’s personality and technical ability but an 1 hour session is not always enough to get a deep understanding of the candidate’s aptitude."
"I remember one instance where the candidate was very strong technically but his personality wasn’t aligned to that of the company. He was very capable of doing the work but he did not gel well with the team and because of that his work suffered. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith and take a chance on a candidate, the tricky part is to know when and whom to take a gamble on.”
He further explains, “Experience is important, as the longer you spend in the technology, you gain exposure to a larger set of problems. Over time, you can see patterns forming, even across domains, and each of these are learning opportunities which can aid you in future decision making. Speaking for myself, I have spent 13 years in engineering. A lot of times when I see a problem, I can often relate it to a specific pattern which I have observed earlier, and know how to solve at a macro level.”
“On the flip side, raw talent should not be ignored - I look for people who can think and learn, and that ability is the key indicator of talent."
"If you ask me to make a call between talent and experience, I would choose talent 9 times out of 10 - experience will come with time, but talent is not something that can be taught.”
Definition of a great team
“A great team is defined by people with a great amount of ownership and passion for the project. Everything else is secondary. If the team is passionate about the work that they are doing, they will succeed in meeting their goals. No amount of technical expertise or rockstar engineering can replace ownership and passion.”
Tushar loves games, which was very evident from the passionate way that he talks about it, “I have been a gamer since I was 6 years old, starting with Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo, but so was my mother! I often had to fight with her for the controller (smiles). Currently, my favorite game is World of Warcraft. Apart from gaming, I like playing sports such as football and squash. I also like going out for dinner with friends, catching up and discussing lives outside of office.”
Takeaway for new managers
“Invest in your team. The secret for building a successful team is to trust and invest in the people who are an integral part of it. By enabling your team to grow and develop, not only are you setting up your team for success, you are also building future leaders for your team and your company. As a manager, your success is measured by the success of your team, so it’s an investment that will pay back dividends.”