Finding Your Next Exponential

We, tech workers, have been fortunate. The technology industry has been rapidly expanding for decades with no foreseeable end in sight. The recent macroeconomic environment, I believe, is temporary. It has given us all a chance to pause and reflect on our careers and what we find meaningful. And, we already are starting to see new opportunities appear, especially in areas related to AI.

People often ask me for advice on careers in times like these. What fields of endeavor would be fruitful to pursue? How do you decide which job or role to take? What should you look for and stay away from? When is the right time to leave and take on something new?

While there are many axes to consider and no universal answer, a common theme that repeatedly emerges is one of learning and growth. My advice often boils down to how to look for and identify a place and opportunity where the people and environment will help you learn the most. Learning breeds passion and satisfaction. Money, title, prestige, fame, and other fruits are simply by-products.

People often learn the most when their company or organization is growing. I do not mean steady linear growth, but rather exponential growth. Growth can be measured many ways – in terms of users, customers, revenue, or employees –, and typically all of these go hand in hand.

My advice to look for exponential growth is not new. Eric Schmidt once famously told Sheryl Sandberg, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” Paul Graham also argues in “Startup = Growth” that exponential growth is essential for a business to be considered a startup. Although one can find growth outside of startups, startups are certainly a cauldron for learning.

Some Rules of Growth

So, how can an outsider tell whether there’s growth?  In hindsight, it’s easy – start by talking to people on the inside. Over my career, I’ve accumulated some rules of thumb to help find your next exponential.

  1. Growth is fun. There’s a healthy vibe in the air. People are optimistic. For example, when I interviewed with Google in 2004 and with AWS in 2014, I could tell that people were having fun. There was an atmosphere of chaotic optimism. People were busy and hustling, but they were never too busy to talk and relate the optimism.

  2. Growth is obvious; it does not hide. It is not under the rug or just around the corner. It’s a Mack truck that hits you in the face. The data will tell you.

    Startups will stretch the truth to make it appear as if they’re growing. For example, they’ll highlight the credentials of founders or the initial team. They’ll talk about a recent high-valuation funding round. Let’s be clear. While these are reasons to be optimistic, they are not evidence of growth. Sometimes, companies will exaggerate or decline to divulge data about users, customers, or revenue. It’s hard to know without some verifiable data.

    So, as a proxy, I find it useful to get a sense of headcount growth. Fast growing places, especially startups, must hire behind need. A cute trick is to ask the people that you meet (e.g. interviewers) how long it's been since they started, and compute the average. Unless it’s early, the shorter the average, the faster the growth. For example, when I joined AWS in 2014, they were investing heavily in growing the Palo Alto office. The average tenure of people I met there was less than 4 weeks. In a couple months, I was a veteran. I later learned my division was growing at triple digit rates at that time.

  3. Growth is divined, not engineered. Sometimes companies are early in their journey. They may not have a product or may still be tweaking the product to discover what customers want. So, by definition, they will not show fast growth. Looking for growth is like searching for oil. You have the right tools and know-how, but need to make educated guesses and dig in many places.

    In this case, you should assess how well the company is searching for growth. While it’s important to have a long-term plan, people need to be working with customers, collecting feedback, and using both data and intuition to iterate fast. If customers are not using the product, the company needs to relentlessly try new angles of attack. Be wary of long development cycles with little to no customer interaction or feedback – it’s hard to engineer a product “from whole cloth” that will grow exponentially.

  4. Growth is not forever. Finally, every company or organization eventually slows down or plateaus. Either the market becomes saturated, or they hit some other internal bottleneck. So, if you’re experiencing growth, enjoy it while it lasts. When assessing a new opportunity, remember that reputation lags reality. Refer to the previous rules to search for and assess growth. If your current environment has lost its ability to grow, then that’s a sign to look for your next exponential.

The Thrills of Exponentials

Environments that grow exponentially are rare, and AWS in 2014 was the first place I experienced this kind of growth. At first, I found the environment to be unintuitive, chaotic, and often unsettling. My first manager warned me that “the world in which you operate and assumptions you make will fundamentally change every three months.” She was not wrong. It’s hard to describe a world with customers, revenue, and teams growing nearly 3x a year and the challenges and issues that accompany it. Scaling was an exercise in organizational and system brinkmanship. By the time we deployed a new feature, system, or process, it was time to revisit it. Everything was constantly breaking, and we learned to stay one step ahead of it all collapsing.

I quickly found the pace to be exhilarating and addictive, and the growth necessitated an environment of trust and camaraderie. There’s so much to do that everyone can find real impactful opportunities. And because there’s so much open space, people are not territorial, which means no politics and more fun. If I wanted to work on something, I could simply join an existing effort. Or I could start something new and convince others to join. While people did not always agree with my ideas, no one stopped me from trying. Everyone started with trust, assumed good intentions, and had high expectations. With success, this cycle built on itself. By landing at a place with exponential growth, I learned so much and so quickly, and as a by-product my career also grew quickly.

Growth is for Community

I often remind people that growth’s purpose is to enrich and sustain our community and not collect wealth and power for individuals. Silicon Valley and the technology industry that it spawned is predicated on exponential growth, but not on growth at all costs. I started my career at HP, which was founded by Bill Hewlett and David Packard, two pioneers that set the standard for the valley. (Unfortunately, I joined too late to have met them.) Dave famously said that a company’s responsibility is to its employees, customers, and community first, and then its shareholders. A company is a collaborative effort by a group of people that want to make a contribution, and money is simply fuel to sustain their activities. I concur. Somewhere, Silicon Valley lost its way with the recent growth-at-all-cost behavior of some big tech firms and personalities. I hope the pendulum swings back, in this respect, to the old school ways.

Many wondered why I left AWS last year. Like others, I was amazed by the unprecedented advances in generative AI models. While their abilities to create images, audio, video, and natural language are remarkable, we felt that an essential ingredient was missing and needed exploration. We saw a larger opportunity outside of AWS that many did not agree with. So, I co-founded Aryn to seize that opportunity, find my next exponential, and make a contribution back to our community.

I thank Ben Sowell and Jon Fritz for feedback on drafts of this post.

Farewell to AWS and Amazon

I posted this message on LinkedIn about a week after I left AWS and Amazon (January 12, 2022). It was popular (185 comments, 1565 likes, and 203,755 views). I do not own my posts on LinkedIn, so I'm leaving it here for posterity.

After 7 years and 9 months of adrenaline pumping fun, last week was my final at #Amazon and #AWS. It truly is bittersweet.
When I first arrived at Amazon, it was a magical place. I had never experienced an environment like it. In a few days, I was at the center of industry-defining projects on Redshift like Z-indexing with SDEs, PEs, and VPs. No one cared of my title or level, and neither theirs. Everyone checked their titles and egos at the door, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work. Everyday.
I often describe Amazon as the world’s largest and greatest startup. We worked for customers. But we also had the freedom to do things first and ask for permission later. Oftentimes, we built things previously unimagined to show that it can be done. For me, that was Glue (#awsglue), Lake Formation (#lakeformation), COVID Lake, #OpenSearch, and more. We still work on things that are big, difficult, and risky; otherwise, it’s not worth doing. And after all these years with 10x the scale, Amazon remains magical. Don’t ever lose that.
I am grateful for this experience. I often joke, only Amazon could take an entrenched researcher, reform him into a GM, and trust him to run fast growing and large businesses. I am grateful for the chance. I am grateful to those that took me under their wing to show me how. I am grateful for the world-class people that helped to make it happen.

I'm retiring my badge in classic LinkedIn style, and I'm off to my next adventure.

In memory of my father-in-law, Indra Gupta

This is a eulogy that I gave for my father-in-Law, Indra Gupta, on August 6, 2021 at Alameda Family Funeral and Cremation in Saratoga, CA.

April 15, 1941 - August 3, 2021

Jay Shree Krishna

Friends and family. We gather here to celebrate the life of my father-in-law and my dear friend, Indra Gupta. You've come from far and wide, some from across the globe in these trying and precarious COVID times. Some of you are watching a live stream at an unnatural hour in the middle of the night and others are replaying a video to pay their respects. We are comforted and truly grateful for your support in this time of remembrance.

Forgive me for reading this eulogy. Like many of you, my emotions are also running high, and I oftentimes find it difficult to stay on course. Today, we will be sharing our thoughts and memories of Dad. I will kick it off, and his daughter, grandchildren, and family will follow. Then, we ask that others in the audience share their memories, however brief, to help comfort and heal. 

By way of introduction, I'm Nupur's husband, and Indra's son-in-law. He was both a role model and dear friend of mine. Dad always treated me like a son, since he only had daughters. Today, I'll share my stories of his life, our relationship, and what he has taught me. Dad was an honest man with a never-ending thirst for knowledge. He had courage of his convictions, and unconditional love and support for his family.

Dad was highly educated and had a thirst for exploration and learning. He began his career in India. With a natural gift for mathematics, he scored well on his exams and followed his brother into the Indian Forest Service. As an officer in one branch of India's prestigious civil services, he lived an adventurous, and yet comfortable life. The forest service stationed him for brief stints in beautiful mountainous forests all across northern India. His daughters were born in India, and his family traveled with him wherever he went. I remember, whenever I told him about a long run or treacherous hike that I finished, he always reminded me that during his days in India he often traveled 20-30 miles a day, on foot, at altitudes above 10,000 feet. This is when and how, I think, he and his family developed a deep connection and reverence for nature that eventually led them to the state of Washington in the US.

While Dad rarely spoke in detail about the reasons for leaving India, my understanding is that he could no longer tolerate the corruption. Dad was an honest man, and never veered towards that path. So, he was passed over for opportunities and promotion. Standing by his principles, he looked elsewhere and took a chance at building a life in the US. He started all over again in 1979 -- as a graduate student in the University of Washington school of forestry, in his early 40s.

Imagine that: starting over again in the second half of your life with two young kids and wife, while living in graduate student housing and on a stipend. I'm sure my wife will cover this part of his story in more detail. But, times were tough not only because of the need for frugality but also because their immigration status was temporary and uncertain. Once his student VISA ran out, roughly in 1987, he would have to give up what he built in the US, return to India, and start again. Still he was undeterred. He used whatever savings the family had, about $10,000, to pay a lawyer to navigate the process for permanent residency. It was touch and go for months, but, luckily for us all, he was able to get a greencard for everyone and eventually citizenship.

He earned a PhD in forestry, but never really used it. His curiosity, penchant for technology, and uncanny ability to spot early trends, led him to computers. He ran IT for the finance department of the University of Washington, where he earned a solid wage and was able to put his daughters through college. He was especially proud of this accomplishment. Ashima Didi graduated from U. Washington, and Nupur graduated from MIT. Both of them are now successful executives in technology. Talk about courage of your convictions.

And, after this is when I met him. Nupur and I dated through college, and she told her parents about me. During winter break of my junior year in January 1995, they invited me to spend it with them in Seattle. Now that I have a daughter roughly the same age, I can imagine what he was thinking. Who is this guy? What if it doesn't work out? I was also nervous. Dating was new for both his family and ours, and it's easy to treat it with apprehension. But instead, he welcomed me with open arms. He not only trusted Nupur to make good choices, but he was also willing to give me the benefit of doubt. They toured me all around the local area, showing off the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest -- Snoqualmie Falls, Mt. Rainer, and the one and only time that I've been to Whistler.  By the end of that trip, we all felt like we were part of the same family.

I have spent most of my adult life on the west coast, and, for me, he was a second father. He loved to talk to me about stocks, politics, and my career. And, his ability to stay ahead of what is relevant was uncanny. His curiosity led him to be a self-taught database administrator and data scientist. He was using tools like Oracle and SAS before the word data scientist was even coined. He advised Nupur to join Xilinx after graduation, having done his research when Xilinx was still a small 1000-employee company. His advice was spot-on. It helped put our family on solid financial footing early on, and still continues to pay out everyday. More importantly, he has been a trusted friend and advisor for me. When I started my first company, Amiato, he encouraged me take the plunge, even though he knew we had mortgage and our third child on the way. And, when Amiato was wrapping up, he supported me, though he secretly wanted me to keep it going.

Dad and I always had this back-and-forth -- he'd ask me how much money I made or my net worth. And, I'd find a way to tell him that it was more than enough. Once, I told him that I had a "billion" dollars. He turned to me without flinching and told me that he would not be surprised if that'd be the case one day. Even as recently as a few months ago, I was struggling with a decision at work to take on leadership of a large, complex business (Elasticsearch) versus growing the existing businesses I helped start. We talked about it for hours on a Friday afternoon and couldn't come to a clear decision. The next day he pulled me aside and told me with conviction that I should take it on. I should not fear the unknown, and I should constantly push the limits of my knowledge and capabilities. He also had a hunch, based on his brief reading of the landscape that the new business was going to become even more interesting, really soon, and he was more than right. Also, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, when he was in the hospital, he was advising me against leaving Amazon unless it was for a significantly larger opportunity or to start my own business. Everytime we talked about doing a startup, he'd always seriously ask if he could work for me in his retirement. Dad really believed in me and gave me courage to believe in myself. 

Dad also had a spontaneous and mischievous side to him that was driven by generosity. For example, he loved to watch movies, literally non-stop. There are so many stories of him taking our girls to the opening day of a movie, like Frozen, or buying all of the Disney DVDs known to man. He also liked to spoil the grandchildren with gifts, going to the ends of the earth to find the latest gadgets for birthdays and Christmas. Or, he took them for ice cream and other delicious spoils. I'll stop here to avoid stealing the thunder from others going next. But, I want to share two light-hearted stories from our time in Hyderabad together that show this side.

The first is when we were walking about shopping with Nupur and Mom. Both he and I often indulged our wives in shopping, but found it quite boring. So, he pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted a snack. He found a nearby cart full of hot samosas and chutney that looked liked it was made with the raw tasty waters of India. Now, many of you know, we had no business eating snacks from the side of the street in India. Still, he asked me mischievously -- "I won't tell Nupur if you don't tell Mom?". We indulged.

On that same trip in Hyderabad, I needed a Hindi-speaking companion to help me bargain for an anniversary present for Nupur. I wanted to buy diamond jewelry, and if I went in speaking English, I knew I'd get ripped off. So, I took him with me to the famous Musadillalls jewelry store. Now, Dad is known for his bargaining skills, often making his counterparts writhe in anguish. This time, they refused to budge on price. So, he asked to see more pieces and selected something for Mom as well. Then he went in for the kill -- both or none. The salespeople didn't know how to handle him. Let's just say, we got what we came for. Then, when we returned home -- he just couldn't wait. He showed Mom her present right away and spoiled the surprise that I had for Nupur. There are so many such stories where he was ebullient with his generosity, unconditionally -- with his family, children, and most importantly his grandchildren. So now, I too find myself unable to contain myself on birthdays and anniversaries.

While I could go on with Dad stories all afternoon, I'd like to close with a quote from the Bhagvad Gita (Chapter 4, Verse 40):

But persons who possess neither faith nor knowledge, and who are of a doubting nature, suffer a downfall. For the skeptical souls, there is no happiness either in this world or the next.

Dad, you set the example. You taught me to continually explore and learn, no matter what life has thrown at you. You also taught me to have the courage of my convictions. I will carry these examples for my children, so they can take on the challenges of their lives without living in fear and doubt.

And from the Gita Saar:

Whatever happened, was good, what's happening, it's going well, whatever will happen, will also be good. You need not have any regrets for the past. Do not worry for the future. Live in Present.

Dad, the last year, and especially the last few months have been hard for you. But, you lived every moment of it. You went to every birthday and anniversary celebration. We pulled off a Christmas during COVID. Most importantly, even when you knew you were physically hurting, you joined us in Morrow Bay for your 80th birthday and our final vacation together. You climbed the steps every morning to share breakfast and dinner. You suffered the cold winds at the beaches, just so that you could be out there with your girls. Even in last few days in the hospital, you told Mom that you'd find a way to survive with a bipap machine at home for two more years. Even though you were hurting, you truly lived with unconditional support for your family.

In your final days, you told me that you were suffering and wanted to be free of it. And now that your soul has parted with your body, and ready to move on to the next, you are free of that pain. 

Dad, before we part, I want to thank you. For without your support and sacrifice, and help in raising our children. You are visionary that sees trends and outcomes before others. While fate may not have given you directly the spoils of your vision, you have outwitted fate by persisting and enabling your descendants and me.  I am who I am today in part because of your vision. And, thank you for helping me through my depression when I lost my father 2 years ago. I now know how to get through it. While I will miss you, it hopefully will not be as painful. Thank you for treating me like a son, not just a son-in-law. I say farewell with these words:

Paramatma ae atma ne shanti sacchi aapjo

which means

May the almighty creator bring your soul true and everlasting peace. 

Jay Shree Krishna

In Memory of My Uncle, Suresh N. Shah

I gave this eulogy for my uncle, Suresh N. Shah, over Zoom in May 2021. 

Jay Shree Krishna

My uncle, Suresh N. Shah, passed on Friday, April 30, 2021 to rejoin his best friends — my father, Arun Shah, and his uncle Krishna(kant) Shah. 

I am truly heartbroken that I could not travel during these COVID times to see him in his final days. Since his uncles Krishna Kaka and Jagdish Kaka passed about 18 years ago, Suresh Kaka had been the head of the Laxmichand Chagganlal (my great-grandfather) clan. Suresh Kaka was also a second father to me.

He had a brilliant, outgoing spirit, and his presence would light-up every room that he entered. People that knew him were always delighted to see him. And, for those that didn’t know him, he left a lasting impression on whomever he met. Most of all, Suresh Kaka was a man of deep spiritual faith, and from this faith sprang his energy and actions. His faith gave him the strength to be fearless and drove his sincere generosity that reverberated well beyond his immediate reach. 

I learned so much from him — how to make people feel comfortable and earn their trust, to believe in myself, and to give more than you receive. My own journey with faith and spirituality was shaped by his. Although I could fill pages recounting his stories, I will focus on a few that deeply influenced me.

On every visit to India, Suresh Kaka wanted me to spend all my time with him. As a child, I spent the summers at his home in Vile Parle, Mumbai. Instead of killing time watching TV, he insisted that I accompany him in his office at the Bombay Stock Exchange nearly every day. I would listen to him talk about his business with family and friends in the hours long commute both ways. At his office, I enjoyed tasty “chutney” sandwiches, toasted sandwiches, shots of chai, and other seasonal Indian snacks that he loved to order — nearly every hour. When I got bored, I would climb the stairs up and down in the stock exchange building — and unbeknownst to me — found myself on the trading floor a couple of times, which literally was in the stairwell on the second floor. In those days, many transactions were still done in cash, and I learned to efficiently and accurately count piles of Rupees. I learned the most, however, by watching his every interaction inside and outside of his office.

Although Suresh Kaka did not have more than a humble high school education, it was clear why he was so successful. He had an impeccable reputation in business and as a man with a heart of gold. Beyond the innumerable gutsy trades (he knew the market well) and business calls that he made, he treated every client like family. He would know how they first met, their relatives’ names, where their children were going to school, when they would graduate and need jobs, and who was getting married and when. He would tirelessly attend every function, wedding, or funeral to which he was invited. It wasn’t just his clients, he treated everyone with the same care. For example, in times of recession, he would offer office jobs to recent graduates as well as tenured people that couldn’t find any. Everyone in the community knew him, and everyone knew that they could trust him. With him around, people felt safe. I learned how to build and maintain relationships from him.

I also learned the art of giving from him. Before my wedding in 1998, I wanted to donate extra earnings from my internships. He travelled with me and showed me his way of giving. Gifts were both personal and unconditional. Instead of just donating to charitable organizations, he gave to individuals — people he knew that were in need. 

We went to Karnali, a small religious town near Vadodra, on the banks of the river Narmada where our family had helped to setup an ashram. This was his and my father’s paradise. Kaka took me into modest homes. I remember one family we visited that lived in a mud hut with a single clay oven. He treated them with the same care as his Mumbai clients — asking about children and marriages. Then, we ordered bags of grain, oil, and flour — essentials they could use for the year. Although their modesty brought apprehension for accepting the donation, he would remind them that this is how God helps — not by appearing as a magical apparition from above, but through the work of those more fortunate. Suresh Kaka knew that the wealth he had was ephemeral and that this is how he would do God’s work. I learned effective altruism from him.

Suresh Kaka didn’t have any sons, so he treated me like his own. He not only arranged my wedding, but also took care of all my family’s needs in India beyond that. At my wedding, he was proud to have served over 800 guests, most of whom were his friends and acquaintances that had never met me or my wife. Even well after my marriage, he travelled with me all across India, and was always by my side, as far as his health would allow. In 2009, I spent a few weeks with him traveling all around — from Mumbai to Gujarat — visiting temples and ashrams. Those that knew him knew that he was tireless and often got restless. We did not stay in one place for more than a few hours. We were on a schedule from sunrise to the time we went to bed.

When my father had his first stroke in April 2016, he came to support me in Saratoga, CA. He went to the hospital daily and sat by his side. Although my father could not communicate with him, I believe Kaka’s presence helped my father with the motivation to get better. In November 2019, Kaka was truly saddened by my father’s passing. Nonetheless, Kaka arranged every detail of the final rites and rituals for my father in Karnali, India. There, on a cool and soft November morning under the bodhi tree on the banks of the Narmada, he confided in me what he wanted after his death. He told me his desire to separate his assets into four equal parts, and give each daughter one quarter share as well as donate one quarter to charity. He asked me to perform his final rites and rituals. I’m am heartbroken that I could not travel to fulfill his wish because of COVID.

Even in his retirement years, his energy did not wane. All it took was one phone call, and people moved their schedules for him. He enjoyed his retirement at the same pace as he lived the rest of his life. When he found out about his cancer, he was really unhappy. He did not fear death — rather he dreaded a sedentary lifestyle where he could not move around and live a carefree and energetic life. The last two months of his life did not match his style. Even still, despite COVID, he found a way to visit his two favorite places — his hometown of Sardav and the ashram in Karnali — and fulfill his last desires. I am so glad for that. 

Suresh Kaka helped people far and wide, emptying both his pockets and his soul. The proof of his success is in the success of his extended family, including myself. While I do not wish to see him go, I am so grateful that he lived his life the way he wanted, always active, traveling far and wide, without suffering.

May the almighty give him true and everlasting peace. (1940-2021)

Jay Shree Krishna 

In memory of my father, Dr. Arun N. Shah

Jay Shree Krishna. Thank you for coming to pay your respects to Dr. Arun N. Shah. I am Dr. Shah's son.

My father was, to say the least, a remarkable human being. He was a talented surgeon, a wise teacher, a supportive husband, a loyal friend, and doting father, grandfather, and uncle. Those of you that know him, know that my father was rather understated, and sometimes referred to his life as a "failure". If this is failure, then I hope my failure is as spectacular as his. This humble eulogy can hardly capture in words the true measure of this man and the innumerable lives that he touched. 

Today, I want to share a glimpse of my father, what I learned from him, and what I carry forward. My father led by example, and his life is the quintessential example of the Hindu principle of "dharma" or duty — the duty of a son, the duty of a brother, the duty of a husband, the duty of a father, and the duty of a teacher. I'll share a brief history of his life — perhaps a history that is unfamiliar to you. And, even if it is familiar, I’ll share it from my unique perspective as a son. 

Like more than 80% of Indians of his generation, my father was born into a humble family in a village, the village of Sardav. Sardav is an agricultural community. Growing up in the village, he partook in his share of mischief with his two best friends. They were his older brother, Suresh — I call him “Suresh Kaka", and his close-in-age uncle, Krishnakant — I call him “Krishna Kaka". I've heard many stories of these musketeers. For example, they once slept all night in a cemetery to catch ghosts because someone told them if they caught one, he'd give them a gold car. When they were teenagers, Suresh Kaka and Krishna Kaka convinced my father to cheat by posing as Suresh Kaka and taking his high school matriculation exam. He passed. My grandfather knew that my father was extraordinarily talented and urged him to pursue a career in medicine.

My father went to high school in Mumbai and medical school at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). He earned his bachelors of medicine in 1968 and his masters of surgery in 1973. My father was the first to earn a doctorate in his family and still remains one of few. More importantly, he was a professor of medicine at the Orthopedics Medical College in Gorakphpur, U.P. from 1973-77. In 1977, we moved as a family to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and he held positions such as chief surgeon in hospitals and ran his own medical practice. He was compassionate and charitable with his practice. He often provided services and surgeries pro-bono to those in need. 

He spoke fondly of these years. He was young, accomplished, well-respected, and his career and stature were only accelerating. When my father walked into a room, he didn't say much, but people paid attention when he spoke. He also was well-respected in the family, and we enjoyed an upper middle-class life.

Then, my grandfather asked him to take a step further and move to the U.S, and as a dutiful son, he listened. We moved as family to the U.S. in 1980, and he struggled in the early years. He took odd jobs until Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, MD offered him a position as an assistant surgeon in 1982. Still life was tough, and I remember he continued with multiple jobs and double-shifts at drug stores to make ends meet. While he did not ever show it, these circumstances hurt his pride. For example, I remember that he once applied for a modest car loan and was denied because of his low income. He also refused to let me pay reduced prices for school lunches even though we qualified for them. There are many more stories like this. He eventually gained more credibility, earned more money, and didn’t need to take extra jobs.

Growing up, I remember he was indefatigable and had an unparalleled work ethic. Life moved along fast with two children. My sister and I graduated high school and went to top-tier universities. He needed to pay off college loans and later wanted to pay for our weddings. Again, he worked extra hours, nights, and weekends. And if he wasn't working, he was doing construction: building his deck, remodeling his basement, installing tiles, replacing toilets, and building furniture.

His is not a typical immigrant story. He had a promising career, and mid-career around the age of 40, with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, he started from scratch. I want to pause for a moment and reflect on the courage this took. He respected his father so much to listen and give it a chance without much evidence. Although he still commands respect from his colleagues as one of the smartest surgeons in the area, and young residents and assistants look up to him as a trusted mentor, his career never regained the trajectory that it had in India. 

So why did he sacrifice his career? He did it for his children. He did it for me. We grew up in a cleaner, healthier, and more just environment with more opportunities in every way. 

I still remember how proud he was of both of me and my sister when we got into college. After applying, I remember struggling to choose between Caltech and MIT. I asked him for advice, and as a supportive father, he simply told me that he trusted me to choose. Thanks Dad. In reality, my guess is that he didn't care because inside his head, he was doing "the happy dance" just knowing those were my choices. Once at MIT, he bought a sweatshirt with “MIT DAD” embroidered in huge — let me emphasize huge — letters, and he wore it everywhere and all the time. I was embarrassed then, but now I understand. I wear a "Carnegie Mellon DAD" sweatshirt ... all ... the ... time. He was also proud that my sister went to Wash U. and later earned a masters of public health. And yes, there were sweatshirts involved there as well.

While quiet and understated, my father was also eloquent and wise. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it to comfort you in your most insecure moments. I remember buying my first house in Fremont, California, then the next in Saratoga, California, and then embarking on a complete renovation. I remember founding my startup with no salary, no prior experience, and family to support. Each time, we stretched ourselves, and I was nervous that we'd go bankrupt. To comfort me, he always used to tell me, "Why do you worry, when I am here?". And each time, the outcome was well worth the risk. He'd repeat that phrase, and with him as a backstop, I felt free to take risks that otherwise would seem out of reach.

Duty encompassed sacrifice, compassion, charity, work ethic, respect for elders, and mentorship. These were among the many principles of Hinduism, also shared by other religions and ways of life, that I learned from my father. Beyond that, he was also a scientist. He taught me how diaphragms drive lungs to breathe, how hearts pump blood, and even how car engines work. As both a man of faith and a man of science, and he also taught me to balance and reconcile these two perspectives weaving them together as if they fit together naturally.

In his latter retirement years, if I can call it that since he still continued doing surgeries, he enjoyed his time. He loved his work. He loved traveling to India and embarking on all kinds of pilgrimages. When he was healthy, he would travel to India for months, enjoying time with his brother, sister, and extended family. He would also spend time with us — his family and grandchildren in California and Chicago. Then, he would quickly rotate back to Maryland to do more surgeries. This continued until he suffered his first stroke 3.5 years ago. 

These past 3.5 years have been excruciating for him both physically and mentally. It is fair to say that he lived for us and not for him. He battled back, learning to speak, eat, walk, and care again. He especially lived for his grandchildren, who gave him unbridled joy. But, his spirits were pulled in opposite directions. He was especially frustrated with his new handicap. He sorely missed his family in India, and wanted to visit them and die there. He could not.

Now, I'd like to share a perspective from the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, verse 22):  

As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones, likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one.

Dad, you've done this before in this life, as you shed your life in India for your life in the US. While your sacrifice pulled your spirits apart in this lifetime, this new transition will bring them back into balance, and you will no longer suffer.

I am reminded of a bhajan, a devotional song, with the refrain:

Paramatma ae atma ne shanti sacchi aapjo

which means

May the almighty creator bring your soul true and everlasting peace. 

You will no longer need to worry about where to be, because I believe you are now with us all, everywhere, and part of the supreme being that permeates.

And, although you are no longer here, I am not worried. This is a farewell from your body, but the —sanskar — or principles and values that you taught are instilled in me. I will do my duty as a son, as a brother, as a husband, as a father, and as a teacher. I will uphold and carry these values forward in your name, as you did in the name of your fathers.

Jay Shree Krishna

Remembering Nathan Binkert

Thank you for coming today. For those of you that don't know me, my name is Mehul Shah. I am Nate's friend and colleague from HP and Amazon, and more importantly, his co-founder from Amiato.

Nate, Stavros, and I started Amiato almost exactly 6 years ago. Building a company is an intense and unique experience. In your journey to make the future, the bonds that you form with the early people transcend professional boundaries. People say co-founders are like spouses, where trust must be unconditional, and family, friends, and work all blend into one. Today, I'd like to share with you the three most important things that my friend – my co-founder – my brother – taught me.

Nate taught me to be fearless and take risks. As you all know, Nate was an adventurer, and this leaked into every aspect of his life. Several months before we started Amiato, Nate had an enormous offer from Google. We discussed it endlessly. Eventually, he decided to flip a coin. We went into an abandoned basement at HP – the first flip landed on Google, then the second, then the third. We must have flipped the coin half-a-dozen times or more until he admitted that he was craving a larger adventure. He did not want Google, just yet. Later, even when I got cold feet, he convinced me to take the plunge. Here was this guy, with three kids, one still a baby, willing to abandon a secure job and to go without salary, into a completely unfamiliar area – databases – and trust me to help change the world.  I *had* to take the plunge. Perhaps we were naive, but I was extremely lucky to have found him. It was worth it. In our 2 ½ years at Amiato, I learned more than I had in my previous seven years at HP.

Turns out, more than adventurer, Nate was just plain crazy. One time, in our annual Amiato ski trip to Lake Tahoe (which we did just once), we found ourselves at the shore of the lake in 40-degree weather. Nate dared us all to swim, but then backed out because he didn't have a towel to dry off. Then, a random passer-by who overheard us was willing to lend a towel that he had in this trunk. Nate stripped to his underwear, dove in, swam about 100 meters, and dried off. Nate seized every moment he could. While I didn’t take the plunge this time, I do regret not seizing the moment with him.

Nate taught me to be relentless and never quit. Six months before the end of Amiato, Nate found out that his father was terminally ill with cancer. By that time, the company had stopped growing. Were I in his shoes, I would have capitulated. Nate had an out, but he refused.  Friends, family, or colleagues, he was going to honor his promise and stick it out. Even in our final few days, when he felt Amiato should end, he insisted on sticking it out, if we still wanted to run the company.

Finally, Nate taught me to be generous. For him, generosity was an unconscious act that spread with everlasting effects. When Bennett and Alex had outgrown their bike trailer, he knew that I had bought a bike, and my second daughter, Diya, could use the trailer. Without asking, he brought it to work, left it in my cube, and told me that I would need it. Diya loved riding in that trailer, and today she loves biking because of it.

Nate was a phenomenal technologist, a generous friend, and a loving father. Professionally, Nate was well known, especially for his remarkable breadth. His impact crossed many areas of computer science and touched many people. There are not enough superlatives in the English language to describe the greatness of his personality and the greatness of the person.

I cannot help but reflect on the fact that Nate was taken from us too early and too quickly. Those who knew him, knew that he was both a man of science and a man of faith. So am I. Although I never got a chance to explore this context with him, I want to share with you my perspective.

There's a quote, often attributed to Einstein:

Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous

To me, this says that random things happen, and the universe obeys the laws of probability. You see, there is a universal scorecard, if you will, that has to have a certain balance of miracles and tragedies. Otherwise, our creator would reveal himself, and that cannot happen. Imagine, for example, if there were only miracles, then everyone would know exactly what to do and fall into line. There would be no mystery, or adventure, or the need for faith: the things that Nate thrived on in this world. So, it is within this randomness that the almighty must architect his plan.

Today, we mourn a son taken from his mother, a husband from his wife, a father from his children, a brother from his siblings, and a friend from all of you. There is a dark blemish on the scorecard, and it is tipped heavily in one direction. So, whether you are a person of science or a person of faith – for Him to remain anonymous – it is certain that untold miracles will be performed in the name of Nate.

I dissent

(I posted this on Facebook on 9 Nov 2016. I publish it here to avoid the echo chamber that social media is.)

Many of you might have seen me go through the Kubler-Ross phases on my posts today. Usually, in these situations, I have a more nuanced position. But, as a father of three girls, it's difficult to see a balanced view.

Trump words and actions have definitively shown that he is dangerous to women. From name calling to boasting about molestation, this man drives fear and anguish in women. Its hard for me to believe that his affronts to women will or have stopped there. I would never let him into my home or near my wife or daughters. Some of my female colleagues stayed home from work today, literally due to physical sickness induced from the election result. The next President is exactly the kind of creep that they avoid, flee from, and unfortunately for too many, have been victimized by. A stomach churning sense of helplessness ensues from this realization. While Trump has other deleterious characteristics, these are unfathomable in respected members of our society, let alone our President.

The influence he has as a role model is the most dangerous to our society. Young boys and men will invariably mimic him. Young girls and women will then need to live with the harassment and repercussions. Sadly, this will change what is deemed acceptable by both.

Equally reprehensible are the innumerable well-intentioned people that look the other way. Many rationalize their support for him by decoupling his actions from policies in hopes for a brighter future, as if basic human decency towards half the electorate is not a prerequisite for a better America.

There have been calls for a peaceful transition of power from both a gracious Hillary Clinton and Obama, in the name of stable democracy. Others have said that it's time to stop protesting, start accepting, and look to the future -- to heal the polarizing division among our people. After all, he won fairly. I dissent.

It does not matter if he won by a slim margin or by a landslide. It does not matter that America's electoral college prefers him to Hillary. I can and have lived through the deep xenophobia and racism in this country -- I am an immigrant after all. I, however, tirelessly will protect my daughters and family. Therefore, I refuse to accept him and will relentlessly oppose his Presidency.


Yesterday, 16 April 2016, was the scariest day of my life. I saw my father have a stroke. It was a violent affair. Things moved quickly, it was hard to tell what was happening, and timelines were not linear. 

Our entire family was in South Lake Tahoe on a vacation to celebrate my father-in-law's 75th birthday. My parents were sleeping in the room next to ours on the bottom floor.
At about 7AM, my mother shouted for me while I was in the bathroom. After the third yell, I knew something was wrong, and I jumped out and ran over to my parents room. I found my father on the floor between the two beds, face down, convulsing. His right hand was pinned behind him as he was trying hard to push with his left to flip around. He didn't have the strength or motor control to do so. His head was bruised from the fall with two large burns on his right forehead.

I tugged to turn him around, but he was too heavy. He was trying to say something, but I was focused on flipping him. His words did not register. Somehow, I pulled him up by hugging him from behind and lifting. Someone else may have helped; I cannot remember. I turned him around and layed him down on some pillows.

At first, I thought it was a heart attack. His right side was paralyzed from face down. He was mumbling at best. I yelled to have someone call the paramedics. Nupur, my wife, did. My mother was hysterical. Maya, my daughter, was alert and helpful. All I could remember to do is give aspirin, so I asked for it, and I think Maya gave it to me -- even against the recommendation of the paramedics over the phone. My dad swallowed the pill and barely washed it down with water.

The paramedics arrived around 7:15AM, and I moved out of the way. I gave them the information they needed. They gathered as much as they could from observing my father. They carried him out on a carry cloth and onto the stretcher. They put him in the ambulance and I rode in front. The driver told me that it was a stroke.

Sitting in the ambulance, I was terrified. I was completely unprepared for my father to leave us now. My father is my hero. He is my superman. How could someone so calm, so sure, so strong, and so alive, now be so completely helpless? The week before, he had helped me move furniture. The day before, he enjoyed a full day with his family, grandkids and all. 

I called my sister and told her. I prayed.

We arrived at the hospital around 8AM. The driver had told me that because of the stroke's recent onset, they could provide a medicine to help, tPA. They took my father in, took a CAT scan, and settled him into a bed. The scan showed a clot in the left brain. The ER doctor observed him and asked me many questions. Most importantly, he was trying to assess wether to give him tPA.

It's a dangerous medicine. It could lead to a hemmorage further exacerbating the damage, especially if given too late after onset. If given early, however, it is supposed to improve recovery. I told him that I was almost certain that the stroke had just happened. The ER doctor was unconvinced and warned me of the failure (~ 1/10) and success (~ 1/10) statistics. He did not think the trade-off was worth it.

I did not protest. 

I got a sense that his position was largely to "cover his butt" rather than in the best interest of my father. He was looking for reasons to not administer the tPA. I could have pushed him harder. I could have convinced him to take the risk.

But, I was selfish. 

I thought that it was better for my father to be incapacitated and alive rather than dead. I wanted him around for me, not necessarily considering the life that he wanted to live. This decision may haunt me forever.

My father was airlifted by helicopter to a nearby hospital in Reno. It left South Lake Tahoe around 9:45 AM. The nearest hospital with a stroke center, the ER doctor believed that they might do more for him than he could. I got a call that they had admitted him around 10:30AM.

For some reason, my sense of urgency was suspended for a short time. My mother and I didn't get to the hospital in Reno until around 11:30AM. At that point, the stroke had already set in. The doctors in Reno had opted to not administer the tPA; it is unclear exactly why. Moreover, we found out that the clot was in one of the main arteries in the brain causing extensive damage. There was no possibility of surgery to save any tissue. He probably lost about 40% of his total overall gray matter, all concentrated in the left half of his brain.

My father is no longer the same. The regions that were affected controlled motor skills, speech and language, personality, reasoning, and more. He cannot talk or swallow. He cannot urinate. His motor control on the left side is limited, and nonexistent on the right. He is also not through the woods yet; the days immediately after a stroke are quite precarious with potential swelling, bleeding, and other complications. Nonetheless, he is alive.

Although my father has aged and changed over the years, right now, I know that I have lost the father that I once knew. My extended family has lost their beloved Doctor. We have lost the greatest orthopedic surgeon in DC. I have lost my safety net and original protector. This terrifies me.

It's going to be tough road ahead for all of us. Recovery will be tedious and many times disappointing work. The choices that were made give him the best chances to live. I am certain this is not the way he wanted to live -- he is alive for us, not for him. Still, this same certainty gives me hope that he will not settle for a life without independence. He will fight for it relentlessly. After all, he is my superman.

India 2010 vs. 2014

(I wrote this blog post last year, forgot to post it.)

Ever since we moved to the US from in 1980, my family and I have visited India every few years. The last 15 years I have noticed dramatic growth and changes in India.

Most recently, we went in late July / early August 2014 to meet family and attend my eldest daughter's performance at The Music Academy in Chennai. The last time we went was in July 2010. Since then, some things frustratingly remain the same, and some things show that we are at the cusp of dramatic change.

  1. Mumbai International Airport. The entrance is huge and welcoming. Immigration used to be a smelly, sticky, and poorly air conditioned room. Now, it feels like the lobby of a international 5-star hotel.
  2. Trains. They remain the same. The bathrooms are disgusting at stations, and in the trains themselves. The coaches have not visibly improved in the last 30 years. The conductor asked us for an increase in fare after we had already purchased the ticket. I felt like he was leveraging his authority to extract a few more Rupees from us. I did not have the energy to protest.
  3. Inflation. It costs us Rs. 600 ($10) for the porter. Perhaps we didn't bargain well. Lunches cost us Rs. 800 per person in Chennai, and were ordinary by most standards. These prices are just plain unaffordable by the Indian middle class.
  4. Mobile devices. We used Google Maps on a smart phone to find a local restaurant that the auto rickshaw driver did not know how to locate in Chennai. This is a harbinger.
  5. Corruption. Police in Bangalore do not seem to be taking bribes. Things are computerized, so people pay the fines as expected.
  6. Pollution. Garbage pickup exists, but citizens have terrible aim. The garbage lands somewhere within a 200 yard radius of the bins. This problem was there in 2010, and still there in 2014. Gandhinagar is getting more polluted, although Ahmedabad and Chennai are cleaner. 
  7. Public facilities. There is lack of good public toilets, the same as it was in 2010.
  8. Bureaucracy. Getting a VISA on time was near impossible. Another story for another post at another time. The outsourcing arm of the embassy, Cox and Kings, are imbeciles.

Overall, I am optimistic. Although the public sector is static, a free-er economy combined with technology is helping India inch forward.