September 4, 2015

Under the Infrastructure: Solving real problems with software engineer Neetu Jain

September 4, 2015

Do you love getting to know us in our Under the Infrastructure series? We certainly hope so, because we’re having a blast lifting the veil on our cloud layer.

Lest you think only male employees work at our fine company, this week we’re introducing you to software engineer Neetu Jain. She’s been with us a little over a year and a half, and she calls our Dallas headquarters home base.

SoftLayer: Why did you choose to become a software engineer?

Neetu Jain: When I was first introduced to programming, I felt it was pretty empowering (like, “You had me at “Hello!”). I could make the computer do whatever I wanted if done properly with a reasonable goal in mind. So that I guess lured me into it, and after that, it was a natural progression. I did my bachelor’s in electronics because I was fascinated by embedded electronics all around me, but computer science was instant gratification. You don’t have to wait at all to see the results of your creation—just run the code!

SL: You can manipulate computers. You’re like the Wizard of Oz.

Jain: In many other fields (such as construction), you must depend on people, resources, and waiting, for things to happen. Due to long turnaround cycles, sometimes it can take years before you see you see the fruits of your work. But if you can just sit down at your computer and make it happen, you have a much shorter turnaround time!

SL: Absolutely.

Jain: So, you know, it was like, “This is pretty cool.”

SL: We agree. So what’s your favorite thing about working at SoftLayer?

Jain: It’s about getting to learn new technologies. There’s a tremendous scope for learning in this domain, and you get opportunities to learn because Softlayer is growing so much.

SL: What advice would you give to someone who’s starting out in software engineering?

Jain: Ask questions. In the first year I joined the cloud domain, I was like, “OK, I’ll learn.” I wasn’t asking around too much. I wasn’t asking for feedback. I realized after a year that I had to make myself more visible. I had to ask more questions. If I had questions, I couldn’t just sit around and wait for the answers to come. I needed to ping people and be more proactive. The first year, I didn’t do that enough.

SL: People are really receptive when you’re asking questions, and they’re willing to help?

Jain: You’ll find some people who are and some people who are not. [Laughs] At least you get that information. Initially, I was working at my desk, doing and learning my stuff and waiting to prove myself. There’s nobody coming to you and asking what you’re doing, and you don’t have any visibility as a result. But if you’re proactive, people know about you, you can tell them what you’re working on, and you can ask questions about what’s going on in their world, and thus, you get to make a connection—which makes the workplace more enjoyable.

SL: We think a lot of people view software engineering as an antisocial profession.

Jain: Yeah, it is, because you can sit on your computer all day, and not talk to anybody.

SL: But you’re saying that asking questions and actually interacting is going to help you.

Jain: It does a lot. In my case, I joined the product innovation team, which was a small team. Then I was moved to another team, and they had absolutely no idea what I was working on. So, if I would’ve been more proactive and connected with them, then I could have eliminated that scenario.

SL: What do you predict or hope for the future of software engineering?

Jain: I’m the oracle now! [Laughs] I want software engineering—or, basically, any engineering—to solve real problems. I went to a hackathon, and most of the ideas were like, “Share your playlist on the road” or an Internet of Things kind of thing, like, “Take periodic pictures with geographically separated friends on the go,” and this and that. What struck me was that we had so many resources, so many amazing brains there—maybe we could have worked on more realistic issues?

There are so many things we can solve. I volunteer at a lot of organizations, especially ones that work in India: Vibha, Association for India’s Development (AID), Systers, etc. Many of the issues they face can probably be better solved through a meaningful use of technology.

For example, Annakshetra basically takes leftover food and provides it to the poor. But there’s one basic problem: how does it test the food to know if it’s fit for consumption? There needs to be a low-cost, easy-to-use solution, because if somebody gets sick, nobody’s ever going to come again. How about a low-cost litmus test where you can test and say, “OK, it’s germ-free”? I thought this should be an easily solvable problem. Why don’t we solve these kinds of problems in a hackathon rather than somebody going on a road trip sharing playlists?

SL: That’s a really good point.

Jain: Even though it was a great experience, I was a tad disappointed with the fact that there were so many of these ideas. I ended up there by accident with a friend, totally unprepared, and it was my first. I started asking questions like, “What can a smart car do? Can a smart car detect if there’s a baby inside?” (There are a lot of babies dying in locked cars due to exposure to extreme temperatures.) So if a smart car can detect whether there’s a baby inside, whether the car is locked, and whether the temperature is rising, it can send push notifications.

That’s the idea I pitched, but [the attendees] were all young grad students; none of them found it interesting—only the handful of parents and pet owners did. But in my view, that’s a real problem.

SL: It makes sense. Why don’t we figure out how to solve real problems for real people?

Jain: You could say that “real” is subjective, but I wish there was somebody who’d say, “We have limited resources; we are going to solve these problems rather than those.”

SL: Now you make us want to be software engineers.

Jain: In any field, we can all solve these problems. It’s about directing someone to think that way—you know, “While you’re thinking about this, think about that, too.”

SL: If you could have one superpower, what would it be? Any superpower at all.

Jain: To read people’s minds. [Laughs] I don’t like when people say one thing and mean something else. I am like, “I want to read your mind. What exactly do you mean?”

SL: That’s a very software engineer stance. “Now let me get behind that to understand why you said that.” That would be ours too.

Saving the world through software? Don’t say SoftLayer never taught you anything.


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