Another exciting week at the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series brought a panel of all-Cal-alumni speakers to Berkeley. These speakers—Jeff Huang (Facebook), Sanjay Jeyakumar (Twitter), and Padmini Pyapali (Uber)—shared their unique insights into entrepreneurship and technology. Moderated by Amit Kumar (Accel Partners), a familiar face for the series, the panelists spoke of their studies at UC Berkeley, their experiences in the working world, and the importance of networking.
Jeff Huang graduated in 2005 with a degree in Computer Science, now one of the most popular programs at Berkeley. He remarked that at the time, only 50 other students graduated alongside him, and he’s happy to see so many prospective students entering into this growing industry.
Huang began his work in tech at Microsoft, where he began as a software design engineer and eventually progressed to senior development lead manager. During this time, he worked heavily with webpages, as mobile applications had not become a staple yet. Huang told the students that his job at Microsoft was comfortable and he could have stayed there until retirement, but he ultimately wanted to feel more challenged. This led to his decision to join Facebook in 2011.
Huang admitted that he made the leap to Facebook at a time when others thought it was too late to join. The company had about 600 engineers, and Huang had forgotten most of the coding he’d learned at Berkeley, but he felt encouraged by the drive and passion he saw at Facebook. Additionally, Facebook encourages its employees to work on what they’re best at and most interested in; people have free reign and there’s no red tape. As a manager again now, Huang makes sure that his team, and the products they work on, are healthy. Every so often, Huang said he misses the coding aspects of being an engineer, but he tries to fulfill that by building projects on the side—something he considers not only fun but essential for learning.
The engineering manager advised the student audience to make friends, connect, and diversify, as networking is a big part of careers in entrepreneurship.
Sanjay Jeyakumar still remembers playing “the snake game” on his Nokia phone when he was at Berkeley. The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science major graduated in 2003 and acquired a Masters in Computer Science at Stanford. Jeyakumar worked as part of the technical staff at Oracle and as a senior software engineer for Google before taking a career-altering pivot into the startup arena.
Jeyakumar shared that while this transition was terrifying at the time, it’s one of the things he’s gladdest about looking back. “We all have inflection points,” he shared. “Cal is a point. This startup was another.” Jeyakumar joined TellApart, a startup which was helping companies track customer preferences online, in 2009. After years of hard work, the company was acquired by Twitter in 2015. He considers this a stamp of approval, having worked as one of the first engineers and created a lot of value with a small company. Working with Twitter now is a much larger scale, but Jeyakumar said he’s excited to be part of a platform that’s being used now to give a voice to everyone.
He shared some advice to the students, including expanding horizons and being less focused on grades. The software engineer further advised to work with people who are energizing and insightful. “You are the average of the people you work closest with,” Jeyakumar said. “See if these people are actually who you want to emulate.”
Padmini Pyapali, like Jeyakumar graduated from Berkeley with a degree in EECS in 2010. As the most recent Cal grad on the panel, she remembers fondly how Berkeley students are proactive, diverse, and passionate about the goings-on of the world happening outside of classrooms.
After briefly serving as part of NetApp’s technical staff, Pyapali joined Zynga and worked as a senior software engineer for the gaming company. In addition to seeing the company’s products everywhere (she admits spending too much time and money on Farmville), Pyapali liked that Zynga’s products were systematically built and data driven, made with extensive knowledge about the user.
Following her time at Zynga, Pyapali took another position, again as a senior software engineer, but this time at Uber. Pyapali explained that she could see the impact this company was having on convenience and the way people moved through the city. Additionally, it was one of the few applications she used. Uber promised reliability and had a culture of friendly familiarity, both qualities she found attractive. The company is now working on Uber Eats and Uber Freight to expand not only the services it offers, but the audiences it can cater to.
Pyapali spoke of the importance of having a mentor you trust and keep in touch with, as this can turn into a potential project or job offer. She further advised taking risks when it comes to job hunting. “Everyone who is interviewing you has probably failed an interview in the past,” she advised. “There is no downside to experience.”
Hosting this wide array of personalities and experiences was a testament to the opportunities that UC Berkeley garners for its students, as well as the diversity of prospects that exist for those seeking careers in entrepreneurship, engineering, and business.