An interview with Satshabad Khalsa, a Software Engineer at Culture, about his career journey.
Max: Is it really true that you interviewed for 40 different positions before joining Culture!?
Satshabad: They weren’t all full-fledged formal interviews, but I did talk to and explore opportunities with 40 different companies during my last job search. It was actually a really great learning opportunity: I spoke with companies working in every sector, from fintech to public transit tech to a company building a smart toilet with optical sensors.
Max: What were you looking for in a role that led you to cast such a wide net?
Satshabad: I had been working at Google for a few years, which was a lot of fun, but I was looking for a deeper sense of satisfaction from my work. Don’t get me wrong- working for Google was an amazing experience- but I just felt like something was missing from my life.
I took some time to reflect (a trip to Italy during this time did wonders to clear my head), and eventually came to the realization that I wanted to work somewhere where I could have a bigger influence on a product that could really help people. I know that’s a Silicon Valley cliche, but it’s genuinely how I felt.
Max: What were you working on at Google at the time?
Satshabad: I was working on software for kids: making Google products better and safer for children to use.
Max: That is arguably work that has a positive impact on people’s lives, no?
Satshabad: Ultimately, yes. But the team was so huge and I was working on such a small part of it, so it was hard to feel connected to any actual impact. Instead of feeling like my work was driven by a connection to the users, it just felt like priorities shifted in response to constant meaningless reorgs and team changes. Of course that’s standard at Google, and probably a necessary inefficiency at any large company, but I was unhappy with it.
Think of it this way: I really enjoy cooking, and let’s imagine I went to school to learn to cook so that I could make good food for people and see them enjoy it. In particular, let’s say my passion was making lasagna and I wanted to perfect this craft by testing different recipe variants and using feedback to constantly improve my signature recipe. Working at Google was like working at a plant that mass-produced lasagna for a billion people, and I was on the starch team working to understand how much starch should go into the noodles. Initially, the starch team was under the umbrella of the dry goods team, but then we all got reorged into the pasta team and half of our people were then shifted to a ravioli product launch. All I wanted to do was make lasagna and watch people enjoy it, but I lost the lasagna for the starch, if you know what I mean.
Max: I do! How were you assessing whether prospective roles met your goals for a change of pace? What kinds of metrics were you using to evaluate all of these companies you were exploring?
Satshabad: My overall goal was to be excited about going into work at least four days per week. To help determine whether a job would do that, I focused my evaluation criteria on: (1) a company doing work that directly impacted people in a positive way, where (2) my efforts would make an obvious, major impact on the product, and (3) where the people are very kind. Practically, this meant mostly pursuing opportunities with early-stage startups, because it’s hard to meet criteria number two without that kind of environment.
As part of that search, I signed up for the “work at a startup” program with Y Combinator. Will (our CEO) reached out to me through there, and to be honest, at first I archived the email almost immediately because I had no idea what a bioreactor was and it was probably one of 10 other prospects I was considering that morning. I remember later talking to my roommate about it in passing, and he commented that the synthetic biology and biomanufacturing world was actually really cool and I should check it out. That made me reconsider, and I asked Will if I could come in to meet the team. I had lunch with them and everyone was so friendly and cool, but also really passionate about their work. I decided to move forward with the interview process, and it was how Culture handled that process itself that convinced me to join.
Max: How so?
Satshabad: In my interview with our CTO, Matt, I actually remember thinking, “When will the interview start?” It felt so relaxed and collaborative; we were working together on an example problem and the time flew by because I enjoyed collaborating with him. My interview with Will felt more like I was interviewing him - it was mostly me grilling him with questions about the company. Everyone else seemed like they just wanted to get to know me for me. Fundamentally, it was the people and their energy during my interviews that convinced me that joining Culture was the right move.
Max: Once you started work with Culture, did you feel like you had made the right decision?
Satshabad: I can honestly, genuinely say that my entire life has changed for the better as a result of the move. In retrospect, I didn’t even realize how disengaged I was at Google until I saw how enjoyable work could be.
A common attitude in Silicon Valley is: “I’ll work for a big company for a while and build up a nest egg and then do what I really want.” I think people don’t realize how much time and energy you can waste doing that, and that it can be hard to step away from that mentality once you start.
I actually have more energy at the end of the day even though I’m working much harder than I ever was before. After more than a year at Culture, I’ve never been happier with my work.
Max: It’s that great, huh?
Satshabad: No joke. I feel left out now when I’m hanging with friends and they inevitably start complaining about work and I can’t really join in. I’m “that guy” who doesn’t hate Mondays. No more Sunday night blues either. Obviously there are still ups and downs, but the baseline has shifted entirely.
Max: Why? What have you been working on that is so exciting?
Satshabad: At Google, my project was probably priority #23242. At Culture, every project I work on is priority #1 for the company and our customers. Not only is what I’m doing critically important, but I also have a ton of say over what our #1 priority should be. Most importantly, when I finish a project I can directly see the impact it has on the users and our team.
Take my first project, for example: Matt had been provisioning the reactors (i.e. getting code onto them) with a very manual, error-prone process that took ~30 minutes per reactor. My job was to automate this process. My start date was in early December, and by the time we went on break for the holidays I was already able to see how the software I built for this task positively impacted my team members day-to-day. In just a few weeks I had built something that was saving our team time and energy, which is what I had been wanting so badly - to see the fruits of my efforts.
Max: Has your lack of a biology background been a challenge at all?
Satshabad: Not at all. I believe that software has the ability to help solve problems in many different domains and if, as a software engineer, you are curious and interested in understanding those problems (and more importantly the people who have them), then you can write useful code. I’ve certainly learned a lot more about biology and fermentation since joining, but it was never an obstacle to taking on or ramping up with new project work.
Max: What project(s) have you worked on so far that excited you the most?
Satshabad: My main project over the past year has been working on our customer website. There have been a series of sub-projects under this to launch new features and improvements along the way. What was so cool was seeing how the prioritization of features was directly tied to our customers’ feedback and requests. Shortly before I joined we had surveyed our customers about the features they wanted, and live data monitoring was at the top of the list. So, that’s where I started. We had to build a whole new site with a new API and migrate our entire database - it was a ton of work- but we launched it in only a few months.
The best part was the feedback we received almost immediately: customers were so grateful to be able to see their data live, but they also wanted to be able to graph all of their data dynamically. Software is never really finished, so the launch of the live data monitoring was really just a step towards additional features our customers wanted and needed. It was a huge engineering effort to get to that next step, but we did recently launch our new website where customers can now dynamically view and graph all of their data.
Again, the feedback we received from users was immensely gratifying. People told us that the new design was “beautiful,” or that it was “perfect, and just what I wanted.” It gave me such a warm and fuzzy feeling, and so much satisfaction, to be building tools that were adding value for our customers in their day to day work. Honestly, I blushed.
Max: I appreciate how such positive praise could make your work feel so worthwhile after the fact, but wasn’t your initial goal to be excited about coming to work every day?
Satshabad: I am happy to report that I met my goal for 2019 of being excited about coming in to work at least 4 days a week, not because of the results of my work, but because the work itself is enjoyable. Instead of feeling like a cog in a giant machine, I intimately understood the context for our prioritization efforts through actual conversations with customers about their needs. When you have the knowledge of what your company needs to achieve and what your customers need to succeed, you can’t justify work that isn’t critically important. This knowledge - that what I am doing every day is so vital - is what fuels my excitement and motivates me to work my hardest every day and to enjoy it while doing it.
Another key aspect of having such a positive experience is that Matt has been an amazing manager. His style of management is to empower: he always asks me if there is anything he can take off of my plate to allow me to focus on the work that excites me the most. There is real trust there, and he gives me an incredible amount of autonomy and responsibility- I feel like I’m working at a “role level” that is way higher than anything I could have done while at Google.
I’m also seriously, seriously impressed by the integrity, kindness, and thoughtfulness of both Matt and Will in their approach to running the company.
Max: What is keeping you excited about your work these days? What projects are in the pipeline for you?
Satshabad: We’re already hard at work on the next version of the customer site! While everything we’ve done to date has enabled customers to monitor their process live and to dynamically graph their data, the designing of protocols has occurred outside of our software. Our goal is to make biomanufacturing R&D an entirely digital experience, mediated completely through our website, and so we’re working on building an interface now to enable customers to design their experiments directly through our software.
This is a huge undertaking and requires some really complex engineering and UX/UI work, but it has been a blast so far. I’m enjoying working on breaking down this massive project into smaller parts and thinking about what to build and in what order. We have so much more to go, and I look forward to working on it every day.