Asif has over 20 years of engineering experience with a focus on search engines and edtech. He is currently the CTO of Handshake, the largest career platform for college students and recent graduates. Most recently, Asif was the head of Google Image Search and prior to that, he was the Sr. Director of Engineering for Learning Solutions at LinkedIn, leading the Lynda.com online learning technology organization and launching LinkedIn Learning.
Asif was the founding member and engineer of A9.com (a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com), creator and GM of Amazon CloudSearch, and the Head of Search at LinkedIn. Asif is passionate about scaling high performance organizations, developing leaders and coaching early talent.
"When you have the ability to take a step back, you begin to think a little bit more philosophically about your journey. And it's not just incremental thinking. When it's incremental thinking it's about, 'what's next in my career.'
But when you are able to take a step back, it's about... 'What impact do you want to leave behind? When I look back 10 years from now, will I be happy? Will I feel a sense of fulfillment?'
I think that line of questioning really gives you the courage to be able to break away from an incremental way of looking at next steps."
- Asif Makhani
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Patrick Gallagher: Welcome to the Engineering leadership podcast, we're so excited to have you here.
Asif Makhani: I'm so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Patrick Gallagher: So Asif, we're here to talk about the transition between companies and we've planned to talk a little bit about both mechanically and tactically how to transition, but we're also going to explore some of the more cognitive or philosophical elements of making transitions between companies.
And you've made some really big transitions in your career from founding Amazon Cloud Search in A9, to LinkedIn, Google, and now you're six months into having transitioned into your new role as CTO at Handshake.
So maybe we can start with the story of starting A9.com and maybe what that transition was like. And we can break down a couple other ones from your past experiences.
Asif Makhani: Yeah,
Patrick Gallagher: Where do you start? Like, how do you set yourself up for a successful transition? Are there certain mindsets or expectations you would encourage people to adopt? Are there certain strategies or tactics that you found impactful?
Asif Makhani: I think that A9 is an interesting story... essentially A9 was a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com focusing on search. We started around 2004. This is the time where Jeff Bezos had recently hired Udi Manber From Yahoo who was the Chief Scientist there.
And he came in as a Chief Algorithmic Officer, was an interesting title at Amazon. You know, one of the projects that he worked with the search team on was search inside of the book. If you remember, essentially scanned all the books and made them searchable.
And I think in that process there was a realization that Amazon needs to invest a lot more in search. And the best place to do that would be in the Bay Area. So let's actually, you know, build a dedicated company that can actually focus on search.
So essentially it was a group of us that you know, led by Udi as well as Bill Stasior who was of the leader of the search team at that time in Seattle. We moved over to the Bay area to start A9 up and interestingly for me, it was my way Into leadership for the first time
I was a engineer in the search team and essentially everybody more senior to me did not want to leave Seattle. So they found other places at Amazon and they left me with being one of the more senior engineers.
So I was the guy who was running the cables in the new office and trying to hire my manager, but also like make sure that the search index gets partitioned in times for the holidays, because otherwise it doesn't scale. It'll be down for the holidays.
So that was a very interesting time, you know, in terms of just growth. But I think starting something new is also an opportunity for us to define ourselves. What does A9 stand for? What is our culture? And obviously it's going to be about search. But it was also about algorithms and new ideas and novel algorithms.
I remember we invited Alexander Stepanov is the father of C plus plus STL standard template library. to come actually work with us. And he became our coach in so many ways to teach us about first principles thinking. How do you strengthen your foundations? How do you recognize beautiful code? What is a beautiful theorem? Let's look at the work of classic philosophers and mathematicians and trace their work into you know, looking at how do we do machine learning today?
So all of this was to really create a culture where there's a strong focus on foundations and mathematics, some statistics, on sciences, on first principles. That shows up in everything you do, right? in how you hire, how you bring people in.
If I take a step back and I look at these transitions depending on the transition, something like A9 we had that unique opportunity to set a culture from day one and set the foundations from day one.
And I think if I look at that learning and what I can bring with me to my next transition. We're trying to do something like that as we're scaling the team at Handshake today, we're doubling the team that had shaped, it's still early days for us. How do we create a culture where we're actually thinking of the intersection of talent and technology. I think what we're really trying to do internally within Handshake is become a thought leader in that space.
So, taking the seed of that idea that I learned at A9 about setting culture and trying to keep that with me as I go from one transition to another.
Patrick Gallagher: The experience that you talk about, defining what you value is one of those really special parts of an early experience organization.
I'd also love to talk about how that transitioned to Amazon Cloud Search and some of the transition lessons you learned about that experience.
Asif Makhani: Great question. It kind of joggles my memory You know, this is a time where A9 was for the most part, a backend team for Amazon.com.
And here there's an opportunity for us to build a new AWS service where we become the front end of kind of revenue-driving business that defines A9 now. And I think that evolves your culture and your values in some ways, in terms of having that direct connection with customers.
So in some ways I think opportunities really also drive the evolution of culture or are accelerated in some ways, right. Amazon has always been about customer centricity. But A9, I think, you know, with the benefit of cloud search had that ability to be able to, have that direct connection with customers.
And I remember literally the early days going door to door to start ups, to get them to be early beta testers for us.
And I think that's, really, the lesson is like, where do you want to build your strength? You know, as you're thinking about your culture, you're thinking about values in the case of A9 it was about search.
When I pitched this idea of cloud search to Bezos I remember being in a very small room with him and this opportunity and how we can actually optimize costs by building multitenancy within cloud search so that you can have multiple small customers reuse a search instance and Bezos was wise enough to say, "Look, that's not the strength you want to build. You want to build strength around kind of search experience and search relevancy and search scaling. Let the EC2 team handle multitenancy!"
At that time there wasn't really a micro instance. So he encouraged us to work with EC2 and say "Look, demand them to bring down the smallest instance so that they solve the multitenancy issue and you can focus on search."
Now in hindsight, this sounds very simple, but again, it goes back to this idea of like, "what's your strength? What do we want to focus on?" Have that laser focus on what your value is that you're bringing as part of the company. In a large company this becomes harder. Where everybody really wants to do everything themselves. And sometimes the leadership's role is that, "Look, your job is to really focus on this and kind of work across other teams to be able to ensure that you can build your strength.
Jerry Li: A lot of engineering leaders are thinking about transitioning to a earlier stage company.
When people join early stage company some of the culture or strategic decision has been made. What are the ways people can exercise influence there?
Asif Makhani: I would say that at least in my experience, early stage or late stage or some of the biggest companies. I think I have found that there's always a willingness to shape the future.
If you're coming in at a, in a leadership role, that is why you're joining! To be able to help take things to the next step in that vision. You know, even at Google working on image search. Which was already serving over billion people at planet scale there is an opportunity to redefine ourselves.
You know, I remember there was a survey done with Google where a lot of the young people were approached about "if Google is a person, how would you describe them?"
And, you know, some of the people came back saying that look " if Google was a person, it would be a wise old professor that I can't live without. But I'm not sure if I want to hang out with them."
And image search became an opportunity to be able to think visual first, exploratory first. And you know, this is a 10, 15 year old product. And still open to major pivots and evolution.
So I would challenge this point that, you know you're not the founder, so you cannot influence. I think it's, it's a conversation you need to have, you need to build the right credibility. You need to have the right insights. But you should not be afraid to speak with your instincts and challenge some of the assumptions.
Now, I say all this with some level of, you know, submission that at an early stage company, it's all about execution as well. And when certain plans are made there's a timing issue of kind of disrupting that. So I think that is true. That, you know, you have to be able to be a good team player and commit to that direction and vision.
But on an early stage company, I think that happens quite fast as well. So it's not like you have to wait three, four years for that to actualize. I think that wave can happen in months, not years to be able to have the right entry point, to be able to, help the people out of the way, then think about the next step.
Jerry Li: How do you approach that conversation? Who do you talk to?
Asif Makhani: I think you put it in the air. It's not like you have to find that one person that is the decision maker. I think generally in fast-paced innovative cultures that have been able to hire a lot of smart people, I think everybody is shaping. Even if they don't know it because good leaders are always listening to what's in the air.
And I have always been of the opinion that, don't be shy in multiple meetings provoke ideas think non traditionally think radically and you know, spark these debates. Generally they take form of debates initially.
And some people may get frustrated because you're not keeping them focused on task and you have to go build relationships to be able to have allies. And yes, sometimes having backdoor conversations help so that you're not the only one saying this.
But I think in general, my advice has been put these ideas in the air so that other people can pick it up, challenge you, adopt it. And hopefully there are conversations that you're not even part of where these ideas are taking kind of shape.
So make it less about like your idea or your insight, but more about like, how do I bring it out there so that people can build upon it and make it stronger and actually help us.
Jerry Li: And if that's a good idea, hopefully other people resonated and they will push the forward. But I think the approach you mentioned the grassroots... . That's very actionable that people can make that happen, like at least within another person. And they can go from there.
Patrick Gallagher: I love that idea of how change and influence happens in it's almost like an in the order of magnitude of the conversations that you're creating or directly participating in is like, then your level of influence, and ability to shape the vision.
And so if you can do that one-to-one but if you can get other people to talk about your idea and contribution, that's where the impact happens.
That's really cool.
We talked a little bit about thinking about what's the strengths that you bring and how can you impact and take the company to the next level. And then we're also talking about like the mindset of your contributions and how you can change the conversation about the vision.
Were there other strategies or tactics that you found to be impactful in the different transitions that you've made that led to a more successful transition to your next role?
Asif Makhani: I think the benefit of transition is that on one end, you're coming in fresh with a fresh perspective. And on the other end, generally for more experienced leaders, you're bringing a lot with you.
So a lot of people say, you know, you have to prove yourself in the first 30, 60, 90 days... and I would say that, you know, worry less about proving yourself, but more about using that time to learn and build points of views with that fresh perspective. It's really a golden time You lose that freshness so fast.
And I think, you know, you listen and learn and listen in the first 30 days, but write down your instincts, journal them because you will forget them. And don't be afraid to share those instincts regularly and early on with folks, even though they may be a little bit of half-baked because I think that's one of the best contribution.
So I think that's one thing that I've learned about transitions is to be able to have that conviction and confidence in your early perspectives. Of course it has to be informed. And it has to be based on, you know, sufficient about, of listening and learning. But a lot of times I think people discount it because they feel like it's too early and they just haven't learned enough. And by the time that they have learned enough, they have lost that perspective.
Of course you have to, I think also understand the culture that you're entering, is it a culture that is expecting you to prove yourself very quickly where. You know, some cultures would say that, look, what got you here, won't get you ahead. So you need to be one of us then you need to be able to kinda of like, embed ourselves in that culture.
But companies recognize that you're coming with certain networks, your past experiences. And I think part of that is to have that healthy balance to be able to be part of the team, but also not lose track that you are shaping the team based on what you're bringing from your past.
Patrick Gallagher: The journaling your instincts, don't be afraid to share your instincts I think is a really powerful insight because I think there's like that self-conscious experience where you're coming into a a new company and you're like, "Well, I do have to learn everything and I can't contribute yet because I either don't know, or I don't want to be perceived as just jumping in and changing everything and sharing my perspective, where it's not relevant."
And so I think that is a real fear that people face is if I'm oversharing or over dominating changes as a new leader to new company.
Asif Makhani: And I think it gets harder, for leaders in the current world where your onboarding is remote and some of your peer leaders have had kind of deeper relationships because of the benefit of being in person together. And you now need to carve out time to build relationships. To get to know each other beyond the instrumental kind of tactical, or even strategic conversations about work. How do you understand each other's worldview?
I think that's how you build relationships and you have to take time out to actually do that because you can't just stay back in a meeting room or kind of catch people up with lunches or dinners to be able to do that sense of understanding, you know.
Patrick Gallagher: Do you have a favorite relationship building question? Like one more, you are meeting somebody on your team for the first time and you love asking this question because it helps you build a relationship faster?
Asif Makhani: I think, I love to be able to learn about people's histories, you know, how they got here, their first job their most fulfilling job and making that connection to the present.
It feels a little bit cheesy to some people, but like, I think it really allows me to appreciate their past and honor it, but also be able to kinda see why is it that they're here?
You want to be able to see everybody and understand what brought them here. And everybody has a different story to tell.
Jerry Li: So that way you don't look at people as a snapshot where they are today, but there is a , extra dimension of the time, the history anthropology part of the organization, like what happened in the past, why they're here.
Asif Makhani: That's a, great way of looking at this, right? Like when you look at how your peers don't look at it in a point in time. But actually realized that there's so much that they're carrying with them at all times.
Patrick Gallagher: This transition to Handshake has been notably different to you than all of the other ones. So why did you make the transition to Handshake? And what made this transition different than all of the other ones?
Asif Makhani: That's a good question. I think it was more of a calling than a transition. As you know, Handshake is a platform for millions of students and recent grads to build their career with a particular focus on equity. So no matter where they're from, which school they've attended, they have access to the best opportunity. As we say, "no connections experience or luck required."
But I did not leave Google to join Handshake or to transition to a smaller pre IPO company or anything. When COVID hit, I decided to take a break. I decided to take a break, to give back more to my religious community, that I'm part of, and that I serve quite regularly.
And, you know, with the spaces of worship being shut, there was a vacuum in the community, especially in our connection with the elderly and those who are vulnerable.
So we started doing a lot of work in digitizing our programming and moving things online. So we can keep the connectivity with the community.
And during this period, I spent a lot of time thinking about community building with respect to inclusion and equity. Talking to sociologists and anthropologists about what's happening around us.
And I came across a lot of young people who are looking to the faith as a source of inspiration for equity and justice. With George Floyd's death, with the pandemic exacerbating inequities in society, there was a feeling that leaders in the community and the government were failing them and failing those in the margins.
That was quite interesting in terms of me really realizing that I know very little about some of the systemic issues that are happening in society. I ended up taking some time learning about global justice, working with a lot of young people, working with academics, working with the community leaders.
We started building a curriculum really that connects some of these issues surrounding us with the values of our faith and the way to bring the community together.
And in that process, as I was thinking about what's next for me... it became clear that I want to go somewhere where I'm helping people. That I'm going to a mission-oriented company that is small, where I can really think about our mission front and center.
So really got lucky with Handshake, actually. You know, it fits the checklist for me in terms of hard tech problems, helping young people, with a clear mission to be able to provide equity to all everywhere.
Patrick Gallagher: A lot of people's response to the pandemic, you know, it varies across the board and from what you shared, your reaction was almost like fierce investigation and curiosity. And then a commitment to supporting your community.
It seems like there's a very powerful decision there. I was wondering if you'd share, like, what was the moment like where when you were at Google and you decided to make that transition towards service and supporting your religious community... what was that moment like at the beginning of the pandemic?
Asif Makhani: That wasn't that hard of a decision because I had been wanting to actually take some time off to give back more. I'd been doing this part-time for years and I've been wanting to spend more of my dedicated time. So COVID made that decision very clear... That this is the time, this is where I'm needed the most. You know, moving things online. I can bring my technical expertise, but also, you know, being able to take that time to give when it's most needed.
So that moment was like a moment of clarity? And, sometimes when you have clarity, the hardest of decisions become like super easy. So for me it was that type of feeling.
Patrick Gallagher: I also was curious, you know, because you spent a lot of time in conversations with both young people, but also like deeply researched experts, sociologists and PhDs. What were some of the things that you uncovered in those conversations that became applicable to transitioning to more online programming and supporting your community?
What were some of the things that really created that alignment?
Asif Makhani: Honestly it was, mostly inspired by young people caring about a vision for a more equitable society. I'm really inspired by our current generation of kind of college students. When I was in college, I was mostly thinking about myself and how to get ahead in my career, but I just come across some brilliant people who were putting others first.
You're in a bubble sometimes working at these tech companies in the Valley. You know, you want to get ahead. You want to think about your personal growth...
Talking to a lot of young people or a lot of academics that come from environments where they're really deeply thinking about this idea of justice and equity. They're not doing it for themselves. And I think that's something that I lacked, honestly, in my recent growth in tech.
Patrick Gallagher: And so when you are thinking about the jump that you made to Handshake... what was different about that transition than some of the other ones that you made from, you know, Amazon to LinkedIn or LinkedIn to Google? Did you have a, a clearly defined purpose statement that then helped shape the types of opportunities that you were looking for? Did the Handshake one kind of happened at random? What was that process like of discovery and then making the decision?
Asif Makhani: Yeah, I think I got really lucky because I'm a search guy. Most of my career I've helped build search engines be it at Amazon or LinkedIn or at Google. But when I'm not working on search, I do a lot of work around education with young people in my community.
So when LinkedIn actually bought Linda.com I had actually within LinkedIn moved over to help lead engineering for Linda, which later became LinkedIn learning and the learning solutions organization.
So all that to say is that, you know, education and Ed Tech was something of my passion that I wanted to always dabble in. And as I was thinking about, what's next for me... you know, something of the intersection of education and technology was definitely a dimension.
Going to a pre IPO company where I can learn how companies scale is something I've never had that opportunity. So that was another dimension.
And then I think the culture of the company and the mission that this serves, is something that was top of mind in terms of what I wanted to lead with.
So size of the company, mission, education, working with young people. Those were all something that was top of mind for me. And, you know, again, I said, I think I got lucky that I found a role at Handshake, which kind of fits the bill in all of these dimensions for me.
Jerry Li: I think that luck that you mentioned also comes with the clarity you have in terms of what you're looking for. Because have that clarity is not that straightforward sometimes. I think I'm just curious, how do you, you get that clarity?
Asif Makhani: That's a great question. I thought I had that clarity when I was thinking about what's next step... From LinkedIn, where would I go? As a search person you know, you have a dream to work at Google. If you can get an opportunity to work at Google, you should do that. And I got lucky with that opportunity.
Although I don't think it was aligned with this thinking today around like "mission first" and you know, working at a small company. So in some ways you can argue that I got swayed away. Because I did not have that full conviction or clarity. So I think pandemic really helped me think hard about what is it that I really want. Taking that time off really gave me that clarity.
If it weren't for the pandemic, if it weren't for me actually taking a sabbatical, I may not have left Google. Or I may have gone to another big company. Even though I talk about all these things, I don't think I would of done that by myself.
Patrick Gallagher: I think that's a really interesting distinction that you drew about, "everybody's aim in search is to work at Google..."
But in some ways that may have pulled you away from the purpose driven path. If I interpreted that correctly...
Do you have questions that helped you become more clear on that path or purpose that you wanted to be on while you were taking that sabbatical and during the pandemic?
Asif Makhani: That's a great question. I mean, I think... when you have the ability to take a step back, you begin to think a little bit more philosophical about your journey. And it's not just incremental thinking. When it's incremental thinking it's about, you know, "what's next in my career."
It's usually the next step or the next two steps. But when you are able to take a step back, it's about what impact do you want to leave behind? And really, if I think of myself as "look, you know, maybe I can work another decade in this industry... what is the best use of my time?"
So I think if you change the whole equation about how can you add value and what you can leave behind? It's a luxury that I think most people don't have, not just because of time or money, but it's because we are so engrossed to the current way of doing things. Right?
So again, for me, the question was really like, What do I want to do? When I look back 10 years from now? Will I be happy? Will I feel a sense of fulfillment? I think that line of questioning really gives you the courage to be able to break away from an incremental way of looking at next steps.
Patrick Gallagher: I think disrupting that pattern... cause I think a lot of us can get stuck in, you know, we are pursuing this one path or we are involved in this one thing, or we expect this singular relationship with work and it becomes so hard to disrupt that pattern in relationship.
And so I more so just wanted to open up if you had any advice to somebody for how to disrupt sort of their pattern with work... how would you help people disrupt their pattern of work?
Asif Makhani: I only did that after almost 20 years kind of building foundations learning from others. So there is something to be said about putting in your dues and actually working through some of the foundational learnings, right? So I would park that point as well it's about timing in some ways as well.
But I think a lot of times people are afraid to make pivots I think like more and more now, when I talk to young people at Handshake, you know, we have the ability to talk to not only college students, but people who are actually thinking about their second job and that third job. And we're seeing that a lot of people actually are looking at adjacencies and not just looking at what's the next thing I need to do to get promoted.
And I think to me, that's also a shift that I didn't see as much 20 years ago when I was getting started. So I think having access to mentors, advisers people who've a little bit of more perspective. I think that really helps you think non incrementally in many ways. Because gives you a perception of "Okay, if I can project myself five, 10 years from now where will I be?"
And the minute you start doing that, you start tracing your alumni's route,tracing your mentors route. You begin to see that, "Yeah, actually the best learnings have happened by actually making a lot of pivots in their lives.
And I think that to me would be my advice. That look don't be afraid to connect, build relationships, look at mentors and trace their trajectories and learn from that.
Patrick Gallagher: I love that. I think it's so true when you start to look at the pathways to success, because, there's usually well-worn pathways to get to where you want to go and you can sort of reverse engineer that, just by asking those questions and starting to really do the work to think about where do I actually want to be. And those are hard questions to answer.
This is a little bit of a more specific case study in a very specific part of a transition that we've had many members in the community share with us. So this is something that's come up pretty frequently in our peer groups...
For somebody who is transitioning away from a larger company and now finds themself managing a team at a smaller organization. Somebody just transitioned from Google. Now they're leading a team of 20 versus 200. But there's sort of a huge cognitive shift and strategic shift that needs to happen to effectively source and recruit engineers, especially more senior talent.
How do you attract more senior talent at a smaller company? I guess what's the distinction that people need to make when they're going from a larger company where there's a lot of resources and there's usually a more established brand. Now they're responsible for sourcing and recruiting and closing in that talent... but without all of those sorts of assets, so to speak.
What's your approach to that? How do you solve that? Yes,
Jerry Li: On top of the challenges Patrick mentioned about. How do you attract talent, especially the senior talent not having a lot of opportunity for those deep, hardcore, technical problems.
Asif Makhani: I think there's a lot in this question. So, let me take a step back and see if we can break it down.
So first of all, this is a work in progress. I think me along with other tech leaders in in this space it's constantly evolving and learning best practices and sharing with each other. So if you have other ideas, I'm all ears because you know, I'm learning as well.
What I think what seems to be resonating as I'm talking to more senior engineers in the network, I would say is around mission, speed, impact, and influence. I think those would be kind of the four dimensions.
So I think, If you're senior you've had that benefit to be able to take a step back, as I said, and think about what is it that you want to do next?
And they are inspired with a mission oriented kind of company. And I think that's where I think at Handshake at least, to be able to speak about like how we are, helping early talent. And this whole notion of that, if we want to change how workforce will look like in the future, you can do that by focusing on who you hire today. And you can hire a diverse, equitable talent today, and that's going to change society, from years to come.
And I think that's quite inspiring to a lot of people who see a lot of young people, who've struggled without connections, without a network, without experience, without getting lucky, being in the right place at the right time. They don't have the right opportunity!
So, you know, this whole sense that we live every day at Handshake... "Talent is uniformly distributed, but opportunity is not." I think that mission. So find that mission. Uh, you know, if you have the benefit of a strong mission, I think that's an area that that people can connect with.
Related to the mission is the vision, right? So paint the vision about, "Look in the next three to five years, how will we actually get there? And what role you can play? And what are the big problems that we need to tackle over the next one two, three, five years?"
Even at larger companies, I've always believed in creating small teams with big problems and not the other way around with large teams working on small problems...
So I think to be able to showcase that look in a smaller company you know, you are in a team of one of 10, one of 20 people versus one of a hundred people or one of 200 people.
So the impact that you can have is just proportionately much greater in the company and as a result, your kind of growth opportunities.
Outside of mission and vision, would be speed. I think, to be able to showcase that, look, this is an opportunity for us to move fast. We're scrappy. We can actually make decisions fast. We don't have the luxury to go into circles and not bring things of value to our customers... I think that's quite inspiring for people and attractive.
And then finally, I think influence. You have a seat of the table! We want to hear from you! You help us figure out the vision. You can work cross-functionally across product engineering, design business to be able to really help shape how we do what we do.
And I think for our senior engineers who are not just wanting to be an implementing body, but a strategic thinker or a thought partner... this is quite attractive. Honestly, that's one of the reasons I am here. Is because I did not want to be just a Head of Engineering of an organization, but be part of a company where I can actually shape holistically where we're going. Right.
So I think, again, not every of these dimensions work with every senior engineer. Some engineers, at least when I was at at LinkedIn I remember... some engineers are joining LinkedIn because they're joining projects, not companies. And I think that's fine.
That's fine, usually at large companies, I remember we had somebody from Google, somebody at LinkedIn who decided that, look, I'm going to leave LinkedIn. I'm going to go to Google. We're like, "Why are you going to Google? You can stay here."
They said, "Look, I'm not going to Google. I'm actually going to this project at Google. I'm going to work on this for three months and then I'll come back to you for our next project."
And the first time I heard that was mind blowing. It's like, "Wow... like, that's a very interesting way of thinking about mobility..."
Mind you, I'm somebody who stayed at Amazon for 11 years. So I could not really connect the dots about moving from projects, not companies.
I mean, the person left didn't come back after three months, but came back after a couple of years. Because you know... usually we underestimate kind of their involvement and the scope of a project.
But, I think at large companies, that, that way of thinking works. because you can absorb attrition more easily. But I think it's a little bit harder at at smaller companies. So you have to decide like, who are you bringing in and what's their motivation. And sometimes the motivation aligns. Sometimes the motivation doesn't align.
And I think I would also say to Jerry's point about, "the hard tech problems are not here today..."
And I would say two things to that...
One is I think there's a difference between working at scale and getting to scale. I think those are slightly two different things.
Working at scale is a mindset. It's about recognizing the diversity of your users, your queries, your transactions. It's about focusing on like three nines latency and seven nines availability, and keeping that upkeep to make sure that you're able to go from your, you know, billion users to 2 billion users in some ways at that scale.
But getting to scale is all of that, but it's harder because you're also making decisions about what's the next best thing about your evolution? What makes sense to go from, x to 2x or even 5x... Is a different decision than going from 5x to 10x or 15x. And I think the architecture has to take evolution. And you can leap frog in many ways to the next stage of your scale.
So getting to scale is a process as much as the mindset. And senior engineers, who have joined really large companies. And they're still working at scale, but they were not able to be there to help the team go and help the architecture go from zero to 10, zero to a hundred and a hundred in terms of getting to scale. That's a quite unique opportunity that many people don't have to be able witness that, to shape that, to contribute to that.
That's one thing I would say is that you have the opportunity to get to scale.
I think the second thing I would say in terms of like, "Oh, you know, the hard tech problems are not there at the company today."
I think that's where I would challenge a little bit... What is it that one is looking for? What does it mean to have a hard tech problem. And have everybody, you're, new recruits as well as the team recognized what craftsmanship means. What excellence means. And that it's, you know, it's not just about big, shiny projects or filing patents or publishing papers. But it's also taking pride in some of the simplest elegant, most sustainable, most performance solutions that provide leverage. It's about the micro innovations... solving a small problem in a novel way that is as important as a big, hard idea that is publish-worthy.
Of course having said that, I think I would also say that sometimes be opportunistic. If there is a senior engineer who's willing to work on a very big area of space that you were not ready for previously... But now with the benefit of this person, you can actually be more confident and you can actually bring in some of the work that you were planning to do two years from now, or three years from now, even. Because you've got the confidence of somebody with expertise and insight and intuition and the commitment to be able to work on that.
So those are real-time decisions you have to make in being able to you know, hire the right person and both in terms of fit today. But also like, can you accelerate your time horizon in some ways?
Patrick Gallagher: So I had a quick follow up question at the last point that you made, because I think understanding the distinction here and the timing of when should you bring in longer-term horizon projects to retain or engage senior engineering leaders...
Is there a specific thing that you would have people look out for when making that decision?
Asif Makhani: The way you positioned this is you bring it in. That's the right way to think about it. I would never compromise the direction. It's a more of a time horizon question than a direction question. There may be amazing ideas that are not in line with your focus over the next two, three years. They may be adjacent.
So I think there you may have to make the hard calls to say "Look we're not gonna pivot just because somebody wants to work on it. Otherwise they will not join."
I think that's where you have to stay focused on your direction. But I think time horizon is an area that you can maneuver based on what else is going on.
I think that has to do with a lot of factors in terms of your current momentum your size as a team, to be able to absorb a more strategic and venture project. Are you at a point where like, a hundred percent of the team is working on core? Or are you at a point where you can start taking a percentage of your team to work on more strategic and venture bets.
If you believe you're there and you have that opportunity of somebody who can help lead that, then you can jump on it. But if you are currently at a point where the split is going to be a distraction, then I think you have to make the hard call.
Patrick Gallagher: That's an incredible distinction between the time horizon... you can manipulate time horizons, as long as it doesn't compromise direction. Cause I'm thinking thinking a lot of people are in the middle of trying to make that decision of what should we do when should we do it? And how do you keep track and defer those decisions?
So I appreciate that Asif, thank you.
Are you ready for some rapid fire questions?
Asif Makhani: I'll do my best!
Patrick Gallagher: Awesome!
So first question, what are you reading or listening to right now?
Asif Makhani: I rarely finish a book. So I'm always reading multiple books at a time. Today I'm reading two. Unbowed, it's a memoir by a Nobel prize winner. She talks about the green belt movement, but really a lot about colonization and its impact to society. And the second is called Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley where we learn about how honeybees can teach us a lot about collective wisdom and effective decision making.
Patrick Gallagher: That's beautiful! Next question. What tool or methodology has had a big impact on you?
Asif Makhani: I love the "Five Why's" iterative technique to get to the bottom of a root issue. It's really influenced the way I think about a lot of things.
Patrick Gallagher: What is a trend you're seeing or following that's interesting or hasn't hit the mainstream yet?
Asif Makhani: People are now talking about it a little bit more than a year ago because of the pandemic, but I think behavioral data to optimize online learning.
I think we're still only scratching the surface. Like you're recording this conversation right now. There's so much we can learn about how people engage with each other.
AI is at a point with online learning, we have enough data to start really personalized learning. You know, you can imagine really having not just an AI teacher... But an AI student!
Because we know that the best way to learn is by teaching. So I think, can we flip this idea on its head and use AI to actually not give birth to a teacher. But can you give birth to a student? And as you're teaching that student, the student is getting smarter. And as a result you're learning as well.
That's an idea that I've been floating in my head for a while, but at some point in the future of would love to be able to work on it.
Patrick Gallagher: This is an open advertisement to anybody who wants to help build that with Asif. This is a call to action.
Asif Makhani: Well, I think to my earlier point, that would be a distraction to our current direction at Handshake, but maybe at some other time.
Patrick Gallagher: Wonderful. A couple more...
Is there a quote or a mantra that you live by? Or a quote that's really resonating with you right now?
Asif Makhani: It's a great one. Top of mind right now that I go back to is by a East Asian poet and a philosopher named Rumi. He said, " Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor."
Patrick Gallagher: My fiance and I, we've both bought each other Rumi books as gifts. So I really appreciate that one. Live life as if it's rigged in your favor. That's beautiful.
Last question Asif...
What is your favorite or most powerful question that you either like to ask or to be asked?
Asif Makhani: That's a tough one. A couple come to mind. One Jeff Bezos used to ask a lot of his leaders, is "What dog's not barking, do you worry about?"
Really pushes us to be more proactive. And the other would be "What is the hardest thing you've decided not to do?"
Patrick Gallagher: Asif, thank you for answering our rapid fire questions and providing some incredible responses. And thank you for an incredible conversation!
Just in reflection, talking about transitions and your experience, and your pursuit of purpose, and your commitment to serve people just is really inspiring. And so thank you for your time today and for sharing that with our community, we really appreciate it.
Asif Makhani: It was a pleasure! It was fun! And thanks again for the opportunity.