The right balance between work and play? Yes, we talk about that all the time. But at Flipkart, Ashish Vikram lives that life.
When Flipsters are having fun, they’ll make the leap from good to great and maintain their composure in a crisis. That’s a core Flipkart belief. Flipsters are aware of this fact too. The level of creativity and communication that we see amongst our Flipsters today is because quite a few of them have taken the initiative to have fun outside of work and create a fun atmosphere at work too.
Like Ashish Vikram, the vice president of engineering for Flipkart’s ads group. He loves to play comic and pursues a host of hobbies — from writing to scuba diving. Creating a feeling of camaraderie amongst all his colleagues and friends, his jokes are a huge hit both at work and outside it, and for Ashish coming up with new witticisms is simply a way of life.
“When people feel closer to one another, it’s a lot easier and more pleasant to work together,” he says.
What makes people laugh along with him aren’t just his snappy one-liners, but the cogent observations that he makes by viewing life through a lens that’s just a little different. Ashish loves to look for absurdity and incongruity in the everyday to develop his sense of humor. Catch him during his spare time at work and you’re sure to see him making light of the obvious absurdities of life through humorous anecdotes from his life or lives of others.
“Most people, including my co-workers at Flipkart, probably know me as a funny man who always tells them stories that make them laugh,” he adds.
Tickling people’s funny bones is not his only forte. As VP-Engineering, Ashish uses his experience of more than two decades to build Flipkart a full advertising technology stack for brand ads and product listing ads from scratch. He has, in the past, successfully set up three new development organizations from scratch for some of India’s defining IT companies and grown them into highly productive software development labs.
Work apart, he’s been having a frolicking good time with his other passions too. Ashish hails from a family of authors, and apart from developing a love for the written word, also inherits a love for writing. He became a published author in 2014 when his humorous yet suspenseful novel, The House with the Green Roof, hit the stands. Ashish also has his own blog, where he pens humorous incidents that catch his fancy, and which, quite often, share a message.
However, as the computer geek in him professes, his first love is programming.
“My passion for programming has continued right through my college years when I was a student at IIT Delhi,” he says. He recalls how he used to source computer games and hack them, or install patches in them, or even write assembly-level programs on his own.
Ashish’s taste for adventure takes him outdoors, too. He is a certified scuba diver, and on diving trips, you’ll find him happily trading code and software for a mask, snorkel, fins and a wetsuit.
Why do we believe that Ashish Vikram is on the crest of a wave both at work and outside of it? It’s because he’s taught himself that work — and everything beyond it — can be fun. Read these excerpts from the Flipkart Stories interview to understand the humor and zest that this Flipster brings to work and life.
How did you get into writing?
I feel that stories define us. When we want someone to know us, we share stories of our lives. Similarly, to know someone well is to know his or her story. Although I didn’t begin writing until much later, I have always been fond of narrating stories to others. Most of them true — of incidents that have occurred in my life and around me over the years. Most people, including my co-workers at Flipkart, probably know me as a funny man who always tells a lot of stories that make them laugh. For quite some time (before The House with the Green Roof happened), my friends had been urging me to compile my stories into a book. They felt that if I write such a book, it will be an interesting (not to mention funny) read. I thought, “Why not?”
Your mother, Mridula Garg, is an acclaimed writer of novels, plays, and collections of short stories and essays. Would you consider her an inspiration?
Definitely. My mother has been writing for more than three decades now, right from the time I was a child, and has 30 books published in Hindi, some of which she has rendered into English. She has been honored with several awards, including the Vyas Sanman for her Hindi novel, Kathgulab, and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2013 for another novel, Miljul Mann. I spent my childhood surrounded by writers and enthusiasts of literature. Many writers used to visit our family home. We would attend a lot of goshtis and other literary events, where the attendees would discuss writings and my mother’s books. Apart from my mother, my elder aunt, the late Manjul Bhagat, had written books too. My younger aunt, Achla Bansal, has published books full of short stories.
Your first published book, The House with the Green Roof, has earned rave reviews. Tell us about it.
My book is about a young man, Veenu, who’s just graduated from IIT Delhi and landed a job at a company in Bengaluru. However, when he arrives in the city, he finds that the company has shut its doors. He then gets drawn into a lot of humorous incidents. A murder also takes place, and there is a thread of suspense running throughout the book. But it is still a light read — you can pay attention to the mystery and intrigue surrounding the murder, or you can take it up as a funny book and laugh right through it!
Are any of the characters inspired by real life?
My book is a reflection and an extension of reality. So definitely a lot of the humorous incidents presented here are those that occurred in my life, though they’ve been woven into a story form in my book. Now, if you ask me whether I am the protagonist of my book, I would say, yes, in some parts of it, while the rest are fantasy!
How long did it take you to complete the book?
My book was published in 2014 and it took me a long time because free time for me was always limited. Plus, there was the high stress of working in the software engineering sector. I began writing slowly and steadily, and once I’d begun, my thoughts started flowing on paper. I had to put in a lot of effort to keep at it constantly, to maintain the overall voice, tonality, writing style, etc. And if I got really busy with work, I wasn’t able to write for a while. When I would return, I would have to pick it up from where I had left it. The entire journey from start to finish took me four years.
How would you take out time to work on your book?
Before joining Flipkart, I had been working as Vice President – Engineering at Yahoo! My work involved a lot of travelling, and every three months, I would be required to go on a work tour to the US. The flights would be nearly a day long, and I would have nothing much to do with my time. But instead of watching movies, reading or sleeping a lot, I would use that ‘me’ time to concentrate on my writing. I would do my research, surf and pen down my book on paper. So you can say that a major chunk of my book was written at an altitude of 36,000 feet! And then it would take me some extra time to decipher my not-so-legible writing and type it onto a laptop. But that was good for me, since in the process, I would get to read it all again, and correct it or make improvements if any.
Are you working on a new book?
I have been mulling over an idea of writing a sequel to The House with the Green Roof. I have my own blog too, which, just like my first novel, features true incidents from my life in story format.
Coming to the work front, tell us about your life before you joined Flipkart.
I have been in the software industry for 27 years now. After completing my B Tech from IIT Delhi, I went on to Purdue University in Indiana, USA, to pursue an MS in computer science. I graduated from there in 1989, and was recruited from campus into Rational Software, a company based out of Silicon Valley that aimed to provide tools to expand the use of modern software engineering practices.
When did you return to India?
I worked with Rational Software for four years, did fairly well, and in 1993, decided to come back to India. I went to my CEO in order to discuss some of my business ideas with him. He was very forthcoming, and even shared some his business plans with me. But a week later, he came to me and asked me to handle a new venture for them. He was suggesting that I be a part of Rational India, a new company that was being set up by one of Rational Software’s customers in Bengaluru. I wouldn’t be required to handle any of the administrative functions, and I could have my small team within the company too. And that is how I came to join Rational India at Bengaluru. We worked to make it into a big software development center, initiated sales, etc. I worked with Rational Software (US & India) for 15 years. I quit in 2004 as the managing director.
And once you left, you started two more companies, right? Tell us about them.
After Rational India, I successfully set up new development organizations from scratch for two other companies, OAT Systems and Kalido, and grew them into highly productive software development labs. I worked with each company for three years each. In 2011, I joined Yahoo! As Vice President – Engineering. In 2014, I quit Yahoo! and joined Flipkart.
What does Ashish Vikram do at Flipkart?
At Flipkart, I’m the vice president leading engineering for ads. The ads group was initiated to help Flipkart monetize its holdings and leverage its e-commerce business. It is Flipkart’s e-commerce business that drives its ad publishing business, for maximum visibility comes from the countless customers who log on to Flipkart to browse and purchase products. This makes it a good medium for advertisers.
How does the future look for Flipkart ads, not just from an engineering perspective but from a holistic one too?
If you look at other successful e-commerce companies out there, you will find that though e-commerce is their main business, they’ve diversified into other businesses to accelerate profitability. Take for instance the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. More than 50 per cent of its revenue comes through advertising. They’ve become the largest player in China’s digital advertising market. I believe that Flipkart has the potential to become the largest player in the digital advertising market in India, and that’s the goal that we’re working towards. Our ads group will be a substantial source of revenue for Flipkart, which will also help us to try and keep product prices attractively low for consumers.
Tell us about your love for programming…
Programming has always been my first love. I was passionate for it even during my college years. I remember how I used to source computer games and hack them, install patches in them, etc. I had written some assembly-level programs on my own (processors, BBC micros and CRTs) while I was a first-year student at IIT Delhi. I used to write MS-DOS games too, before I moved on to Windows games. I love to do programming in my spare time. That’s because the software architects at Flipkart don’t trust my coding skills and don’t allow me to code here! But yes, I participate in some software architectural level discussions.
Apart from writing and programming, what else is your passion outside Flipkart?
I love to travel around. I also play chess. I am a certified scuba diver too.
Any advice for budding writers and for people who want to break into the publishing industry?
First and foremost, write. Sometimes you legitimately don’t have time or you’re not ready to start on a particular project. But you still need to try and stop telling yourself that you’re not ready or you can’t or you will someday. Just start writing. While it took me four years to complete my first book, the start took me long. I feel that once you start writing, the first chapter may become easier to work on. And don’t think that you can’t be a writer because you’re earning your living in some other way. Write “on the side” while working. Write whenever you can — maybe you’ll surprise yourself with how good it may turn out!
Well said, Ashish! We will take your advice to heart.
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