Students in the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series attended a fireside chat last week with Cal alumni and Kenneth Priestly Leadership Award recipient Ryan Panchadsaram. Since graduating ten years ago, Panchadsaram’s career has taken him many different places, from working at Microsoft to launching his own healthcare startup to advising the president of the United States. During his talk, Panchadsaram spoke about his time at Cal and early career as well as the lessons he picked up along the way.
Often when freshmen start school as one of 40,000 students at UC Berkeley, they are easily overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of classes and activities at their disposable. But when Ryan Panchadsaram walked onto campus in 2003, he looked at the thousands of options available to him with excitement — a sampler platter of opportunities.
During his four years at Cal, Panchadsaram would go on to found CalTV, work for Berkeley Consulting, and receive the prestigious Kenneth Priestly Leadership award, which is awarded every year to a student who has significantly impacted campus in a positive way. Similarly, though Panchadsaram was an industrial engineering major, he challenged himself to take a variety of classes, such as a theatre class and a civil engineering class on traffic.
“I think college is really specific about having just one vertical line — being really good at one thing,” Panchadsaram said during the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series. “Now, in order to survive in the real world, you actually have to be really good at one thing and know a lot about a lot of things.”
But Panchadsaram’s passion for learning has done more than just help him survive in the real world. It has helped him flourish. After graduating from Cal, Panchadsaram worked at Microsoft for several years before venturing out on his own and co-founding a healthcare startup called Pipette. Panchadsaram said that Pipette strove to gather massive amounts of patients’ data in order to help them monitor their health remotely on a smartphone or computer. And though Pipette would eventually go on to be acquired by Ginger.io, a health-centric startup from the MIT Media Lab, it gained a substantial following in the healthcare sector.
Following the acquisition, Panchadsaram was named a Presidential Innovation Fellow under President Obama. What was initially supposed to be a six-month stint in government turned into a four-year venture resulting in Panchadsaram being named Deputy Chief Technology Officer to the White House. In fact, during his time working for the government, Panchadsaram was a part of the crisis team that remedied Obamacare’s HealthCare.gov site after its faulty launch in October 2013.
Panchadsaram moved back to the Bay in April 2016 to be an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. By that November, he had joined as a partner and continues to work there today.
Throughout his talk, Panchadsaram emphasized how his curious nature was what really drove his career forward. He credits his willingness to learn, ask questions, and go the extra mile as the key factors in the successful pivots he has made throughout his career.
“You know, you don’t always have to be the expert in the room,” Panchadsaram said. “It’s actually far better to be the good partner in the room.”
Panchadsaram said that when he started Pipette, he partnered with physicians to further develop his product and deferred to their years of experience to inform the right next steps for the company. Likewise, while working on HealthCare.gov, Panchadsaram was given the nickname “Chief Curiosity Officer” because he would find problems days or even weeks ahead of schedule as he was not afraid of reaching out to users and learning about their experiences with HealthCare.gov.
And though Panchadsaram no longer works in government, he still maintains a huge interest in the public sector and plans on working more in the public policy field. Throughout his talk, he emphasized how important it is for technologists to seriously consider spending a portion of their careers working in the public sector because of the huge positive impact it would have on the country.
“Being in government, one thing you realize is that policymakers are some of the most impressive, aspirational people you’ll meet…they care about pretty much every part of this country and they want to make it better,” Panchadsaram said. “I’ve learned a boatload of things from them, and I would say they have a boatload to learn from the collective “us” — the engineers, math majors, and technologists in the room.”