The second floor of Flipkart’s office in Koramangala is cramped with red eyed engineers- mostly in their mid twenties. They’ve been hacking through the night. Amod Malviya, the man who heads engineering at Flipkart, emerged from one of the glass enclosed meeting rooms and took me to another similar looking room where he explained what he’s been doing for the last few hours.
Between meetings he’d been tinkering with a hack of his own with a colleague. It’s a hardware contraption, cobbled up from a broken cell phone and a motion sensor. Malviya was pressed for time, so he quickly talked about the hack and left before I could move on to bigger questions.
It was mid September. Flipkart had just finished raising $200 mn from investors and was preparing to raise another $160 mn to fight what is likely to be a long winding battle with Amazon, world’s largest online retailer which entered the Indian market a few months ago.
Much of Flipkart’s success has been attributed to the strong technology it has built over the years. It is now up to Malviya and his army of engineers to keep the company ahead of the technology curve, even as Amazon brings world class tech to tap India’s growing e-commerce market.
The next time we met, at the ground floor of the same office in a similar glass enclosure, Malviya was prepared for a long chat. Dressed in formals, he was carrying a new iPhone and was in the mood for conversation. Outside, you could see Sachin Bansal, the co-founder of Flipkart pacing up and down, engrossed in what appeared to be a serious discussion.
Bansal, an engineer himself, founded the company in 2007 with Binny Bansal, his colleague at Amazon, which is now a competitor to Flipkart in the Indian market. Flipkart is often mistaken by the geeks for a technology company more than a retailing company.
Between keen founders who are engineers themselves and a company which is rapidly growing, Malviya has his work cut out. He envisions Flipkart as a company which is using technology to create a presence in the retail space.
“Did you actually go around the floor and see all the hacks?,” Malviya, is curious to know. Hackday is one of those days he gets to do what he loves most. “It’s almost like a stress buster for me every time I’m able to take time out and build something,” he said.
“The technology mindset runs deep into Flipkart. It runs in every function including our customer support,” he said. Recently, the engineering team at Flipkart built a product which plugs into the proprietary customer support tool to improve customer experience as days go by. The idea is to get closer to sensing a customer, “like when you go to a Kirana shop.”
Such personalization and contextualisation, helps e-commerce companies improve sales by a great deal. In fact, much of Amazon’s success is attributed to the fact that it has cracked personalization to a great extent.
“We end up investing a lot into such aspects of technology,” he said. When Flipkart announced its big funding round in July, Sachin Bansal outlined a plan to invest in developing a better supply chain and talent pool.
While the company has been largely successful in meeting customer expectations, Amazon’s entry into the Indian retail market is now putting pressure on Flipkart to deliver better service and cheaper goods. The American multinational retailer, is expected to bring processes and technology that powered it to become a retailing powerhouse, to India.
“It’s super exciting,” is what Malviya is ready say. Not much to go by, but I wasn’t ready to give up as yet. Though he admires Amazon’s technology he’s fairly optimistic that his team of engineers are doing things that will keep Flipkart ahead of the game. To be sure, some of them have also worked at Amazon before.
“We just like to work and have a run with what we believe is relevant to us,” he said. The company wants to solve technology problems that are applicable not just to India but also across the world. Much of Flipkart’s engineering team is now working on making the “Flipkart experience” better on mobile. Flipkart recently launched mobile applications for Android, iOS and other mobile operating systems. Saran Chatterjee, a former product guy at Yahoo! heads the company’s mobile initiative. (Read Interview)
“There could be a team focused on security, experience, and many more specialist groups,” said Malviya, who along with Mekin Maheshwari oversees around 90 small engineering teams in the company. Although his feet are firmly grounded on realities of a fast growing company, Malviya has his eyes set on the horizon. Technologies like 3D printing and crypto currencies like Bitcoins could completely change the e-commerce business, he feels.
“What if you could have 3D printers in some logistics hubs and print a few things out,” he wondered.
In 5-10 years, the technology will play a very important role manufacturing and distribution of goods, he said.
Malviya has also been keeping a close tab on Bitcoins. His interest in Bitcoins, the crypto currency making waves across the world, comes from the geek in him. “It has a strong technology base to it. Governments find it very difficult to regulate the currency and it would be interesting to see what happens,” he said. Bitcoins are already accepted by many e-commerce websites across the world, although not always for legal purchases.
Sometime ago the company had bought a couple of mysterious sounding domain names Paykrypt and Paycrypt. We wondered if this was a precursor to some sort of a crypto currency integration. “We keep buying a lot of domains. I don’t even know how many. That’s just a way of hedging against the future,” he said.
Micropayments is another area he is keen on. In the last month or so, many of his friends have been starting companies dealing with micropayments, a tough problem to solve in India. Flyte, the company’s now defunct music service, used to accept micropayments. But it didn’t fly. Users didn’t always want to whip out their credit cards to pay small amounts of money online.
In its early days, Flipkart often faced problems with payment gateways, which allowed users to pay online for goods bought on the site. To fix the problem, the company built its own payment gateway from scratch. Soon, Flipkart launched #payzippy, a payment gateway service which other e-commerce companies could also use. Maheshwari looks after PayZippy.
Malviya, 32, grew up in Shaktinagar, a small town in Uttar Pradesh now known as the power capital of India. His father Vijai Kumar Malviya, an official at the National Thermal Power Corporation, sent him to a nearby school and hoped that he would make a career bureaucrat some day.
“My dad would often encourage me to study for IAS. Didn’t get through..It was a disaster. I realized that if there is one thing that excites me it is computers,” he said.
“Schooling was a roller coaster ride. I would be in the top 10 mostly. I wasn’t really bothered about that but my family was,” he said. Like many others in his class, he grew up dreaming of going to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. “IIT is a dream that a lot of us actually had but very few made it. I qualified immediately after class,” he said. In a class of 40, he usually ranked somewhere in the middle. “I was that bad in studies,” he jokes. Less than 2% of students who appear for the entrance examination to an IIT make it.
In college, Malviya started spending a lot of time in the computer lab. He became the system administrator of the computer lab in his second year. “It was so awesome. It felt like my life’s biggest achievement,” he recalled. At the end of college in 2002, he graduated with a CGPA score of 7.54, just enough to get him through to his first job. He worked at i2 Technologies in Bangalore for two years.
Kharagpur, where he went to college was also a remote village. He recalls his first visit to Bangalore as being intimidating. Malviya was one of the thousands of engineers who moved to Bangalore for work in those days. As the capital of Karnataka, and the epicenter of India’s IT revolution (the flat world, as Tom Friedman described it), Bangalore already had its malls and multiplexes.
His first job offered great things and had its pitfalls. “I decided that if I had to move on, I better move out,” he recalled. Since then, he has worked at startups. “I’ve never been part of the founding team but I’ve always had stake in the company,” he said.
Flipkart is the largest startup he’s been to. Malviya, who joined the e-commerce firm in 2010 and Mekin, who’d joined a year ago, built much of Flipkart’s software backbone with their engineers. This was around the time when venture capitalists were very keen on investing in Indian e-commerce companies. In three years between 2009- 2012, venture capitalists invested more than $700 mn in 52 e-commerce companies. Some of them, including Flipkart, #snapdeal went on to raise very large follow on rounds.
Although Flipkart is no longer a startup, there are traits that come from its startup days that he loves. Like in most startups, there have been intense debates in the company. “But that never got to a point where we would quit,” he said. “We’ve had legendary fights’ but we’ve always managed to find out what’s the right approach. That’s because fundamentally we are on the same plane,” said Malviya.
“If he signs on, he signs on. He is one of those rare bright engineers who take the project to completion and do not leave it at 80% marker,” Azhar Khan, the founder & CEO of Agnitus and a former colleague wrote on Malviya’s Linkedin profile.
Every day, Malviya drives to work from a gated community, some 10 kilometers away. Though a Linux guy, he likes Apple products that are much more refined. At the same time, he dislikes them for their closed (non-hackable) nature. “Hackable gadgets is where my heart truly lies, e.g. Raspberry Pi (still to get one) – immensely hackable, fantastic product that could be just about anything that you want it to be.”
Malviya who worked his way up in the company, spends nearly an hour daily on hiring new people. Unlike larger corporations, where the pedigree of a candidate is clearly given weightage, Flipkart is open to hiring great hackers, with or without a great pedigree. He feels that it isn’t fair to discriminate based on the name of the college. There are people who are doing interesting stuff in other places.
Even though he holds the IIT brand close to his heart, there is a lot of talent outside of IITs, he feels. If you exhibit great programming skills, the CGPA scores matter very little to him.
“If you’you’ve never written code that is publicly visible, I’ll probably look at your marks,” he said. “It’s bit personal for me and its not the best judge of a person,” he said.
Technology problems at Flipkart are getting tougher by the day. “Some of our peak numbers can really throw you,” says Malviya. On a day in June, Flipkart made a record 1.3 lakh shipments. Every day, more than a Terabyte of data is generated by Flipkart customers. These are nuggets of information that are of great value to the company.
“It (data) typically doesn’t grow linearly. Which means with every month we were creating more data per visitor,” says Malviya who is keen to point out that the company is “maniacal” about data security.
The company has nearly 10 million registered users and a million unique visitors every day. It has now entered newer categories such as apparel, footwear, toys, accessories and eBooks with a target of hitting $1 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2015.
If the requirements never change, we can have a perfect system. But if it keeps changing, you have to continuously experiment. The systems being built at Flipkart have to be both scalable and flexible. Engineers use a method called continuous platformization. “It’s not really an English word. It means we have to abstract things out and allow flexibility underneath it.”