IIT alumni discuss disruption and innovation

They describe their own work, new technologies and the shifting market at a Santa Clara conference


Ritu Jha


“We cannot change the world but be a part of the world and come together.”

That was the benign message from Parag Agarwal[above photo left], chief technology officer, Twitter, at the 2018 Indian Institute of Technology Bay Area Leadership Conference, held at the Santa Clara Convention Center on June 9, attended by over hundreds of IIT alumnus.

Dinesh Katiyar of Accel Partners, 3rd from left, speaker at the panel “Disruption Opportunities: Looking into the Crystal Ball,” while Parag Agarwal, CTO Twitter and Sanjay Srivastava, CDO, Genpact look on.

The theme for the event was “Creative Disruption.”

Agarwal, an IIT Mumbai alumni joined Twitter in 2011, leads a technical strategy for the company and overseeing machine learning and AI across consumer, revenue, and science teams.

He was one of the panelists at a panel titled “Disruption Opportunities: Looking into the Crystal Ball.”

Speaking of his own firm, he said, Twitter doesn’t do the disruption; our user does in a disruptive way. We give them the canvas and they [users] paint.”

He said that for Twitter it’s all about the individual user.

“The power is in millions and billions [of people]. That is our goal – to empower people to see the truth and be informed,” said Agarwal.

He told indica on the sidelines of the conference that he was not concerned about the new challenges Twitter faced these days. And these are many, among them a variety of competitors and the issues of misuse for political or other reasons.

“We think of our job as serving the public conversation. Or, how we think about our users,” he said.

According to Agarwal, the 280 characters people tap into their messages is not the core selling point; that would be having users interact on the platform and the interactions. Last year, Twitter increased its character limit from 140 to 280 characters.

“No one wakes up saying, I want to go Twitter because of its 280 characters. People go there because they want to interact in the context of something,” Agarwal said. “So, we are not focused on our competition but on customers,” Agarwal stressed, adding that Twitter’s recent work has involved promoting better discussions.

“We are engaging with academics all over on what people think of as a healthy public conversation. We’re kind of working on understanding what drives a healthy conversation,” said Agarwal and explained what he meant: “Things like a diversity of perspectives and people being receptive and wanting to learn from each other in contributing knowledge – and how can we evolve the product to facilitate that.” The aim was to push forward a healthy and constructive conversation instead of a destructive one.

Asked if this reflection was a result of the fallout of reports of Twitter being among the social media used to influence political opinion, Agarwal said it was not the company that changed, but the users’ mindset.

“We started having that kind of focus many years back; you gradually have started seeing the outcome of that after a very long time,” Agarwal said.

Umang Gupta, a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was a keynote speaker.

About fears of privacy on Twitter, he said “We are doing what we can to be good custodians so that users trust us. Users are aware that data is being generated from their actions. We also have the privilege of hosting the public conversation, and users have decided to share information with the world through our product.”

Umang Gupta, a keynote speaker at the conference and a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur when asked, is social media an “epidemic” he told indica, it is, in fact, generally a positive thing with some negatives that have to be resolved. He said similar arguments were also raised during the emergence of earlier technologies, such as the car and the phone. But society has a way to figure out how to use them effectively.

Hosted by the IIT Bay Area Alumni association, the daylong conference also featured panels on Blockchain, AI, health, robotics, and engineer turned Venture capitalists sharing their experience and ideas.

Dinesh Katiyar, partner, Accel Partners, an IIT Kanpur alumnus, believes the next disruption would be in healthcare.

Katiyar, who came to the US in 1998, sharing his view on the growing entrepreneur culture among IITians, said the new generation of IITians wants to be entrepreneurs unlike their predecessors, including himself.

“They are getting exposed to successful entrepreneurs around them,” Katiyar said, adding, “When I came to the US, I never thought I would start a company. I was an ordinary person. It was a different time and what we were exposed to before we came here was very different,” said Katiyar, who has invested in a medical devices company in India.

The conference also addressed Blockchain technologies.

Shivani Govil, a vice president at SAP Ariba, used the example of jewelry, asking about ways to track diamonds from the mine all the way to the jewelry store.

“Those are areas are where we think blockchain can have a lot of applications,” Govil said, “And so when I first looked into this [investment] space I was a little bit skeptical…. But now I am cautiously optimistic.”

This year the conference had 35 startups the maximum since 2016, participating in the “startup mela”, of which a few startups were working for the underserved for both in the US and in India.

Murali Vullaganti, an IIT Kharagpur alumni and founder of RuralShores and PeopleShores, keynote speaker at the conference.

Murali Vullaganti, an IIT Kharagpur alumni and founder of RuralShores and PeopleShores, both of which provides employment and a technology career path to people from underserved communities in both the countries, was one of the keynote speakers at the Conference and described why he started PeopleShores in Silicon Valley, California.

PeopleShores is a San Jose, California-based public benefit corporation based on RuralShores, a non-profit established in India nine years ago.

Vullaganti told indica that RuralShores has employed over 4,000 rural youth through its 18 centers in India.

The organization trains young employees who have had to deal with poverty or who lack a family support structure, and have had problems with education and finding a job. The training is for sophisticated and human-intensive tech jobs, including image processing, data collection and analysis, software testing, web services and artificial intelligence management.

Vullaganti described how took the idea for the India-based RuralShores, which is aimed at youth outside the big cities there, and modified it for underserved communities in the Bay Area.

“The atmosphere is different, but when it comes to those people it [might as well be] the same because both sides have people with no family income,” he told indica. “Here they are homeless and some of them are coming out of foster care.”

PeopleShore has hired 25 youth and plans to raise the number to 50 by the end of the year. Given that it is already profitable, it plans to expand soon to underserved communities across the US. Plans are underway to open a second center in the Mississippi Delta region by this fall.

Vullaganti said that the biggest challenge in India involved dealing with issues of infrastructure, connectivity, power and people lacking basic skills. Here, he said, infrastructures is not an issue but people still deal with issues of stability.


[Photo courtesy: Ritu Jha, indica]

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