July 15, 2018
Mary,
The night is darker and lonelier than ever. I find a weird grave quietness in the air, the kind when the storm settles down silencing everything around. In this time of the hour, I wonder if you’ve gradually become my muse, for everything I write these days revolves around you. I am unsure if it’s your lingering charm or your stupendous attitude that I’ve started loving the darkness of silos and the only sound my mind entertains is of scribbling on my decade old rusty diary.

When did I fall so deeply under your spell, Mary? I’m probably at loss of words. There is a fundamental reason on why we fall for someone so easily, for the same reason we fall in love with stars and billion years old objects at first sight. There are forces in this world that can’t be reasoned with. And we mortals are weak in matters of heart.

Copyright © 2019, Aashish Barnwal,  All rights reserved.

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July 26, 2018
Mary,
You have destroyed me in the most beautiful way possible. My nights are restless. The days are better neither. Meeting you, I now know what’s it like to be in love. These days, my mind doesn’t entertain the thought of anything but you. I long for you as drought longs for rain.

Many years have passed. I still remember every small detail of our first meeting — the leaves falling in silence, the gentle breeze caressing your sun kissed brown hair, your blue dress embroidered with round golden pearls and your angelic face lighted up in joy. That morning, the nature had chosen the finest brush from her collection, dipped it in my favorite color of the year and painted the whole scenery cinnamon brown. It was as if she was preparing the perfect backdrop since a very long time for me to meet you. Everything was so perfect. If I have to choose one day from my life to go back to over and over again, it’s this.

And how can I forget that magical evening over coffee. Deeply lost in conversation, we were barely touching our cups. Time flew and before we realized, it was already an hour. You asked, “Shall we leave?”, and then looked me into the eyes. You instantly knew I wanted to spend more time with you. Open shade in the blue hour took place of the coffee table. We spent hours sitting there, completing each other’s sentences and contemplating on what the future might look like. If only some astronomical event had stopped the earth from spinning around its axis, I would have spent countless days, weeks, months talking to you. Because with you, it’s never enough.

Copyright © 2019, Aashish Barnwal,  All rights reserved.

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Of all the blockers of dynamism, I have known comfort zone to be the deadliest. For it gives us a false hope that the place and position we are in, is perfect. A poison for growth mindset I would say.
Once we stay somewhere for 5+ years, it becomes a home for us. Home is hard to leave. For it renders us with a feeling of fulfillment.

Being a creature of habit, my behavior lately exhibits every sign of a person in comfort zone. I have never been quite fond of change. I am staying in the same flat for the last five years, driving the same car to work through the same route. Every person at the restaurant I visit knows my taste buds and all I have to say is, “The same cuisine I order always, please”. Microsoft has been my home for close to six years now.

This has greatly distanced me from the real world. Silent contemplation in lonely nights on these aspects renders me anxious. The Tech world is changing and so are the requirements. Not having slightest of clue on how the water tastes outside and where I stand, I said yes when an opportunity knocked my door tenth time since my college days.

When it all started?

It was a lazy friday noon. Winds blew hot, burning skin of people it touched. Sitting idle, my eyes alighted on a mail from a recruiter at the company. As usual, I responded that I was content with my work and things were going well for me. She asked me to just have a phone conversation and if things looked fascinating, we could move forward.
I said, “Yes”. After all, what harm could one phone call have done. Must I say, she was very convincing.

1 Informational (35 minutes) + 1 Screening (20 minutes) + 2 Skype (45 minutes each) + 5 F2F onsite rounds

Informational

This was supposed to be just a phone call until it became really interesting. Things like fantastic opportunities, work culture, smart engineers and location preferences were presented. In exchange, I talked about the work I have been doing at Microsoft.

Screening

Being no different from screening rounds of other companies, the focus was mainly to judge if my skills are worth time of their great engineers. Call it a first level of check.
Basic questions to test Algorithmic + Coding + Mathematical skills — Quick sort, Merge sort, Hashing, Powers of 2, Tree traversals etc.
I got a call next day that they can move to the interview process.

Video call – Round #1

The first DP problem on the face gave me sweats I find myself unable to pen in words even today. A simple problem, anyone with decent practice could have solved in 5 minutes.

Count number of ways to divide an array of n balls in k non-empty subsets.

After few failed attempts, I came up with a working recurrence relation:
Number of ways would be:
Put (k – 1) balls in n sunsets and remaining one in any of n sunsets +
Put (k – 1) balls in (n – 1) subsets and remaining one in the empty subset
f(n, k) = f(n, k – 1) * kC1 + f(n – 1, k – 1)

I didn’t do very well in this round as my first few formulae didn’t work and I took few hints to come up with the right solution. However, I was able to write the working code very fast, which turned to my advantage.
The feedback was shared in 2 hours that I exhibited good potential. My coding was fast. But I needed to practice more. Since it was an onsite opportunity, they asked for another round.

Video call – Round #2

A fairly simple problem to find a missing character in two words. They kept on tweaking the problem, adding more constraints and complexity along the way.
I wrote code for three approaches.

Onsite (Finally), phew…

Emirates

I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to make to onsite. I was disappointed of my performance and I needed a break to get over frustration. A visit to hometown seemed to be the most logical decision, which I later regretted after wasting thousands of bucks on flight tickets.
One lazy Friday evening in office, when I was doing some code review, my recruiter informed me over call that they can move ahead with the onsite process. I was wildly surprised. She mentioned that she didn’t want me to spend the weekend in worry and hence, shared the happy news as soon as she could.

They booked my flight and hotel tickets. We talked for several days about my travel arrangements, preparation and any queries I had in mind.

The D day

Time flies. The D day arrived sooner than I had anticipated. I landed in the evening, checked in to the hotel, had a lavish dinner and slept like a baby to prep myself for the next big day.

Round #1

In order to avoid last minute rush, especially in a place I had never been before, I arrived an hour early. The lobby was decor’ed with statues of slim geeks in skinny jeans holding mobile phones in their hands, emphasizing the direction the current generation is going and the core focus of the company. Beside me was a digital display with an array of tiles which flipped every couple of seconds showcasing that the company cares about Diversity and Inclusion.
There wasn’t a slightest of fear on what’s gonna happen next. Instead my mind was puzzled with how the tiles were working. Ah! So they have multiple threads delivering the content to the tiles sitting in UI. The threads may never be sitting idle as the text appearing the those tiles as keyboard inputs. Or may be this is an illusion of parallelism as the context switch is so fast.

A guy in his early 30s, wearing a broad smile and a pony hanging on his back broke my reverie.
“Are you Aashish?”, his voice was as fresh as morning dew.
Having done some research about him on LinkedIn, “Yes”, I knew who I was talking to.
“Hi! I am sorry I’m late by 30 seconds. I took a wrong turn. Hope you didn’t have to wait long.”, he smiled, “Let us walk to the interview room, shall we?”. There was a passion in his tone of voice. A passion that I have seen in very few people I have interacted with in my life so far.

We walked in a small meeting room. A white board was walled on the left, a table for 4 positioned in the center and a laptop connected to a projector on the right.
We spent the first few minutes knowing about his background, his work and his team.
“You’ve been given two words A and B. How many minimum concatenations of word A is needed to form subsequence B?”, he explained the problem with one example.
Despite solving few problems on subsequences in the past, I had never heard of this pattern of problem before. It wasn’t a surprise. The company was wildly famous for asking new problems. And if not, they would tweak it to the extent it becomes new.

I started with asking questions to understand the scope of the problem.
“Will the words contain only ASCII characters How long can be the words? Can they fit in one machine? What do we return if no concatenation can make a desired subsequence? etc”
The first approach that popped up my mind was to put all characters of word A in a set and check if it contains every character from word B. Once it’s certain that a solution exists, I played with two pointers pointing to words A and B and wrapping around pointer to word A to the beginning when we fall short of characters. The minimum concatenation is the count of wrapping done.
The time complexity of this solution is O(lenA x lenB).

While the above approach worked fine, the time complexity wasn’t great. I proposed another solution to create a map of characters to their indices (unordered_map<char, list<int>>) in word A. Now instead of linearly looking for a character from word B in A, a binary search in the map would reduce the time complexity to logA. One key point to take care was to make sure we are picking the next index from where we left of and increment the count of minimum concatenation at right time. upper_bound method worked like a charm. The time complexity reduced to O(log(lenA) x lenB).

“Sounds great. Do you want to code it?”, he seemed fine with the approach.
The code was pretty straight forward to write. He took a look at the implementation, went through various corner cases and finally said, “Great, we have 5 more minutes. If you have any question about the company, the team or anything else, fire at me.”
The company being a leader in Scalability, I was curious to know how they dealt with various challenges they faced and learning from it. Work-life balance, company culture, healthy environment, quality of work were other topics we discussed. He wished me good luck for the next round and left.

Round #2

Ralf isn’t a Computer Scientist. But his quote holds true for every aspect of engineering I know of. The beauty of the world lies in design. But we are not here to talk about how Lamborghini design is better than its rivals or why Tesla is winning over the world. Well, not today.

System Design has been a hype for quite long and for all the right reasons. It’s the core of every business & technical strategy and the success behind every company.

I only got time to gulp some water before a guy with notebook in his hand walked in. Bald, mature & experienced look, he seemed like the kind of person people would want to go for seeking expert opinions.
“So how did your first round go?”, he broke the ice.
“It was great”, I said cheerfully.
“Well, that’s rare here. I usually hear responses like, it was okay or I don’t know.”, he said, “Hope it went as good as you said”, he further added.
“Are you aware of what a System Design is.”, he asked, “Have you ever used FaceBook or Yelp checkin system? I want you to design that.”, he continued without waiting for my answer. Guess it was a rhetorical question.
“Before we start, let me tell you that I would most probably not ask you to write any code. So feel free to fire all complex and advanced data Structures that pop in your mind. “

As all design discussions start, I began with understanding the scope of the system. Users would tap on the Add location and it would show the list of 10 nearest location to choose from. The check in status would then be saved on the server. Delivering the status to user’s friends was out of scope. It’s good to have high availability and low latency for good user experience in a system like this. Availability can have an edge over Consistency. If a user doesn’t see a newly added location for sometime, it should be okay.
He wanted me to come up with numbers. It was important, especially when you design something of FB scale. How many people, how many daily active users, how many locations, the size of database, number of machines, network bandwidth etc.
So, there are 2.2 billion users. Let’s say we have 70% (1.5 billion) DAU and 30% of them checkin at least once a day. There can be hot users as well. Let’s worry about them later.
The locations can be anything from coffee shops to hospitals to parks to big shopping complexes. All locations can be stored in a database.
“How many locations do you think there can be?”, he chimed in.
Umm, there are around ‘X’ places in the world and each place can have an average of ‘Y’ locations…
“Don’t you think that it would make more sense to calculate the number of locations based on the world population rather than geographical area?”
Ah, yes! The world population is 7 billion and there can be one location on an average per hundred people. We agreed upon 700 millions locations.
“Which type of database will you use to store the locations? How many machines do you need?”
I calculated the size of data to deal with and explained sharding can be done over LocationId in NoSQL. Calculation of network bandwidth with that data and machine config I was given (128 Gig, Octa core) gave an idea on the number of machines needed. Performance numbers talked by Jeff Dean was of great help.
When the user taps on the search location, latitude and longitude will be send to the server…
“Okay! How would you fetch the 10 nearest locations of a user?”
Well, locations can be added to a Graph in memory and…
“What if there is no node in Graph corresponding to user location? What if a user is standing in the middle of a street?”
Umm… The whole structure can be seen as a 2D plane with four quadrants. Locations can be read from DB and organized in memory in Quad tree. Nodes at each level would be connected through a Linked List. Looking for nearest location would boil down to Quad-nary search based on user location where we discard three children at each level as we narrow down the search. If a node doesn’t have enough locations, we would check its siblings/cousins, maintain a max heap of size 10 and return the result.
“Can you improve it further?”
I think we can use K Dimensional tree as well. Unlike Quad tree, we don’t need to fork exactly in the middle.
“So how does the whole flow look like?”
I drew a high level design on the white board where the user location is sent from client to an Application server. The App server then passes the location to a NearestLocationFinder engine. Result is passed back to user. User checks in. The checkin data is sent to another Application server. Since the checkin data can contain huge bits like images and videos, the App server would put the checkin data in a Message Queue. We would spin off few workers to pick entries from Message Queue and write to a Database. We would need two Load Balancers. One for each Application server.

We further discussed on dealing with SPOF (Single Point of Failure) through replica, pros & cons of Master – Master and Master – Slave models. A caching mechanism in place (something like Memcached) for low latency to display user checkin history.

Forty minutes just flew. As usual, the interview ended up with me asking few questions around Scalability.
Having realized many things that can go wrong in a design of humongous scale, “How often do you calculate these numbers? Are they very accurate?”, I asked in wonder.
“We do work with numbers. But they aren’t always correct. It takes a lot of experience”, he replied, “Good luck with your next interview”, and he left.

Round #3

The interviews so far had been a breeze. Discussing interesting problems is always fascinating and mind boggling.
In no time, the third interviewer walked in, introduced himself, the team he was working on and other cool stuffs.
A simple problem on expression evaluation, except it had a twist on how Compilers work. State Automata quickly struck my mind like a bolt of lightning. I drew few states to parse and switch between the states based on input. He mostly emphasized on why I used Data Structure ‘X’ over ‘Y’. Coding was simple and I had to use map and Stack. That’s the beauty of state machine. Once there is a working diagram, coding doesn’t take much efforts.

“Let’s try to break the code”, he smiled while going through the code.
I looked for every possible corner case that crossed my mind and each one of them seemed to be covered.
“What if one of the numbers is 0?”, he looked at me.
“Damn!”
In the heat of discussing big things, I missed to handle critical divide by zero error. Albeit I fixed it quickly, I think the harm was done.

Lunch break

A person with no expression on his face was waiting outside to take me to lunch. He looked very well acquainted with the environment and the work place, probably because of spending many years there. We quickly rushed to the cafeteria. An array of delicious cuisines, varying from Indian to Italian to Mediterranean to every other I could think of, accompanied with drinks and deserts. I wish it weren’t an interview day and I were there with an empty belly & mind void of any thought.
While taking a stroll in the beautiful campus post lunch, we crossed meditation room, music hall decor’ed with Grand Piano & other instruments, very strange shaped offices fostering creativity. Filled with awe, we entered a room that looked like forest. Trees peeking from the left, tiny waterfall gliding softly in the corner, birds chirping over the branches. In the center was lying a young girl doing something on her laptop. I was amazed and blown away.

Round #4

A glimpse of the amazing campus pushed me to give my best. I met another cool guy who asked a problem on finding nearest favorite city of a user.
“I am not, in particular, looking for a solution. I am looking for ideas”, he added.

I asked few questions to understand the scale at play — How many cities can there be? Can we fit all of them in one machine?
I threw some Algorithm (which I don’t remember) in the beginning. While I was explaining on the board, a variation of Dijkshtra’s popped up my mind which seemed to work well. He was fine with it. I also added some preprocessing to optimize the Algorithm as the cities don’t change very frequently. Writing code took another 5 minutes.
“How often would you preprocess the data?”,he asked.
In the times when there is less load on the server, like once every 24 hours.
“Don’t you think it will hamper accuracy?”.
Yes, it’ll. But not very far. It will help users get data in reasonable time window. User experience matters. The error in system exists even today. Maps wasn’t able to detect the new U turn for weeks.

I was happy and content until he added the twist.
“How would you improve it?”, he smiled.
This was the most optimal solution that crossed my mind there. Luckily while skimming through my FB newsfeed few months back, I watched a video on comparison of Djikshtra’s and heuristics based A* Algorithm.
“We can use some heuristics to scope the search instead of going haywire. I remember reading about A* Algorithm in my graduation days.”, I felt relaxed.
I could see him smiling. It looked like this was what he was looking for.
So if the direction of favorite city of the user lies South, we can bail out the Algo and not explore the North. There can be a possibility that we have a rocky road in the direction we are looking and there is a faster way if we take the opposite direction and use a newly constructed flyover.
“This is a good practical solution. Not everytime we want the perfect accurate result. There is a careful balance between accuracy and latency”, he smiled.
We discussed few other practical approaches, few things on and collection of data and ML.

The best interview of the day, I could feel it from the conversation with him. He was widely impressed.
“So tell me about the things you do at Microsoft. I went through your resume and it was pretty impressive”, he said.
“Microsoft is a great company. Smart people, awesome culture. To be honest, I don’t find anything bad there. If I had, I won’t have stayed 5 years there”, I responded. We discussed some of the work I was doing without violating any NDA.

Round #5 — The final battle

There is a saying, “All is well that ends well”.
No matter what I do, I can’t seem to annihilate those 45 minutes of my life. Rooted deep inside the neurons of my brain, it hurts even today and makes me wonder how I could have done it any better.

DP has always been my nightmare. No matter how many problems I solve, a new one still surprises me.
I was greeted by an Indian guy in the last round. Unlike other interviewers, he, without any talk, rushed to a problem which had some made up story on Cargo, men and packages.
I recognized it in an instant. It was a complex version of famous Painter Partition problem. A fairly difficult problem for people who haven’t practiced DP well. I gave a brute force exponential solution and explained on the white board followed by for-for-for DP solution. I, then with some example, pictured on the board how the table would be filled. He seemed fine with the approach and asked to code.
That’s where things went south. A recursive solution was easier and straight forward. I could have just written the brute force solution I had explained in the beginning and stored the result in a table to optimize. It was a win-win situation. But No! I had to cripple myself to death.

Beaming with confidence, I started writing for-for-for iterative solution and explaining what each line of code was supposed to do along the way. I made critical off-by-one error and another error in calculation where a column was being added the way I didn’t want to. I also felt irritated that even after explaining Algo twice — Once on the white board, later while writing code, he was wasting time in asking things I had already explained. This didn’t happen in any other round and I would never expect it from someone working at a company of that stature.
I, however was able to correct one of the errors and was close to fixing second when he asked me to write the recursion solution. Something I could have done in the first place without suffering any agony.
“Let bygones be bygones”, I sighed, took a deep breath and wrote the perfect working solution in single attempt, all within 3 minutes. I just needed another minute to store the result in a table. But the time was over. If only he had cooperated more, I had performed better.
And as I had guessed, he, without any talk, took me out of the building.

If I do an assessment of my performance, I did good in first, not sure about second, okay in third, great in fourth and not good in fifth. Interview process was a breeze and as smooth as butter. I was pretty impressed with how well organized everything was.

Please feel free to ask any question, except the name of the company 🙂

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Copyright © 2019, Aashish Barnwal,  All rights reserved.

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Prologue

Not long back, popularity of Yahoo Messenger was at its peak. Google mail was in diapers, to be subscribed only through invitation. A time when TheFaceBook was to see light of the day and WhatsApp was never heard.
Late in night, when I have nothing much to do, often I contemplate on the Tech advancement I have witnessed ever since I knew what software was. Please don’t take off your seat just yet, I am not gonna take you back to medieval age when computers sat only on the desks of rich people.

It was 2006 when I got my first PC. 256 MB DDR1 RAM, 20 GB HDD, single core processor. It’s fascinating to see users and how they use devices & services have come a long way. SaaS (Software as a Service) is on the top of mind. The world is going paperless and companies which are scared of moving to cloud may fray. With overwhelming 24 billions devices connected to internet today, the emphasis on Scalability has become more than it ever was. The amount of data we produce is enthralling and mind-boggling – that’s 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. 90% of all the data till date was generated over the last two years. It is everywhere – AI, Machine Learning, self driving cars, home automation system. It’s the future.

Data never sleeps

If we talk about numbers, we have 1.5 billion monthly WhatsApp users sending 65 billion messages and making 2 billion minutes of call every day, 73k Google searches & 78k Youtube video views per second, 175 billion Pinterest pins. Every 60 seconds on Facebook: 510,000 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated, and 136,000 photos are uploaded. Imagine the storage and computational power sitting on the servers to process and store the humongous amount of data.
Compare it with what we had 10 years ago. With advancement in technology, IoT, cheaper network bandwidth and cloud storage, more people connecting to the internet, the data is bound to grow exponentially.

Growing data - Scalability
Data growth

Consumers, today, don’t care which Operating System they use, which device they hold in their hands and how much power those devices are packed with. They just want Software and services to work like a charm.

Every company, if they are to take the world with the storm (read Google Search, WhatsApp or MS Office) they are building, has to tackle two things eventually – Scalability and Cross Platform strategy.
I would scope this blog to Scalability and leave the latter for some other day.

So what’s Scalability?

You are the founder of a finance company, often dealing with clients (read it people). Clients come to you for your hassle free, time bounded services. They are happy because you promise them to get the work done in 3 working days. That’s how you make money.
For one year, you are pretty much happy. Happy clients, happy you. No big deal. More people hear about your services through word of mouth. And soon enough, you are flooded with clients from all over the world. You compromise sleeps and start working overtime. This works well for another five months before you realize that you can’t work alone. You hire more people, as beefy and efficient as you. Because businesses run on trust. You can’t just say that you don’t have time. People stop coming when you no longer provide what you promise.
Scalability is when you can serve the requests in the reasonable time window by hiring more resources. Bigger hard drives, more RAM, powerful processor (more cores). That’s vertical scaling. But there is a limit on how much resources you can add to a machine. Costs go up and there comes a point when buying a new machine is cheaper and more feasible. That’s horizontal scaling.

In the next part, I would touch upon Databases, Caching, Message Queue, Sharding and few other topics before delving into System Design problem space. Stay tuned!

Resources

Copyright © 2019, Aashish Barnwal,  All rights reserved.

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Microtales - S.T.A.R.S.

The universe has always been a mystery to mankind. Scientists compromise sleeps in the pursuit to discover the next earth. While few people like me, look forward to see their wishes come true upon seeing a falling star. But no matter who we are, there is something mysterious in the stars that astound us in one way or the other.

Copyright © 2018, Aashish Barnwal,  All rights reserved.


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July 12, 2018
Mary,
Very few people in this world have the charisma to touch the lives of others. It’s irresistible to wait for the next morning just to hear your voice one more time. Albeit I haven’t known you for long, which I would love to, there are things ’bout you I know for sure, like the colors of your mood are hard to be painted even by the finest artists.

Mary, irrespective of whether anything happens between us in times to come, I would like you to wear a smile when you think of me, for that’s what I always do when I think of you. You are and will always, for me, be a person with immeasurable zeal, passion and compassion. In our time together, you’ve frustrated me, irritated me, confused me. But most importantly, you’ve made me feel again.

You know what’s so peculiar ’bout you? You are like music, an addiction. I can listen to you for hours and hours and hours and yet it won’t be enough to quench the thirst of the soul. You’re like a bright star twinkling in the darkest sky. I can gaze at you whole night and yet my eyes won’t tire.

I’ve read many love folklore, of Cinderella and Prince Charming, of Adam and Eve, of Romeo and Juliet. But ours will always be my favorite.

Copyright © 2018, Aashish Barnwal,  All rights reserved.
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July 9, 2018
Mary,
I don’t know what love is. All I have come to the terms after pondering on excerpts from books is that it changes you. You wake up one fine morning and feel something different in the air around you. You start liking things that you didn’t the night before. You feel extreme restlessness in everything you do and the only comfort is talking to the one you love. Mary, if I can be brutally honest, YOUR love has become my maze. There is no escape from this.
What is coincidence, Mary? Is it a sign from the universe or merely an inevitable happening? Was our meeting a fate written eons ago? Neither did I believe in stars nor understood the language of the universe until I met you and it changed everything. If I hadn’t met you, the universe would have made me realize that my life was incomplete and I would have looked for the missing puzzle my whole life until I would have found you.
If I get a chance to fall for you all over again, I would still choose the same month — When the glow on your face perfectly blended with the color of autumn, as if a fine artist made a painting and you came alive from it to meet me.

Copyright © 2018, Aashish Barnwal,  All rights reserved.
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Few years ago, a personality test revealed that I am an INFJ, the rarest of 16 personality types that exist in this world. Most of the time I was in senses, I used to ponder on why my brain is wired differently from the people I hang out with. Words that describe me are conscientious, determined, organized, planful, creative, thoughtful, introspective, value-driven, private and altruistic.

  1. I don’t quit. I work on my growth relentlessly until I achieve the goal I have in mind. I am my biggest critic. I always have a burning desire to achieve more. For me, it’s never enough. I have a purpose in life — To become better in my abilities and sharpen my skills with each passing day and I strive to make it happen no matter how long it takes.
  2. I choose friends carefully. I have few friends whom I trust. I don’t regret it. Less people I sit with, less bullshit I would have to deal with. And this gives room to pursue my hobbies and expand my horizon in personal development.
  3. More than people, I find solace in solitude and art. Be it writing or playing piano or do photography. But I also find it torturous to spend long time alone.
  4. I don’t share my knowledge in person unless asked. Instead my curious mind often comes up with zillion of questions for the problem the other person discusses. And sometimes, it helps them out. My contribution to the Tech community (GeeksforGeeks) is pure altruism.
  5. I give time to people who are worth my time and energy. Selfish, self absorbed, judgemental and negative people turn me off. I prefer to spend time on my hobbies instead.
  6. I am an easy going person because of good listen quotient and great understanding nature. I have been seen from many people at work as a great team player. Rarely have I met someone who didn’t enjoy a face to face conversation with me. From English literature to urdu poems, from politics to fantasy, from finance to technology. I can talk it all except sports. I don’t very much like talking about politics with serious people. I have seen it turning relationships sour.
  7. I choose who to travel with. Good companions make amazing trips.
  8. I walk out of an argument when it’s getting worse and not going anywhere. I cut off people when they sound judgemental and make comments unless they know me personally. It makes people think of me as a rude and arrogant person.
  9. I take constructive criticism very seriously and use it in my benefit. It has helped me in every aspect of personal and professional development in life so far.
  10. I am on open book if you know how to read well. Otherwise I might be the greatest mystery.
  11. Precaution is better than cure. I try my best preparing for a situation before it disturbs my calm mind and sleep. I like plans and value punctuality. I tend to be more of a meticulous person than a spontaneous one. My brain works like a decision tree and it likes to ponder on the various possible outcomes of a decision and decisions of that decision.
  12. I appreciate talent. You might not be the greatest pianist in the world. But if you play good, I feel fortunate to know you in person.
  13. I care for people I am close with. I usually put thoughts and conscience before saying something.
  14. I am fascinated by high quality things — Good food, nice cloths, great ambiance. I appreciate beauty and craftsmanship. I might disagree that looks don’t matter to me. But that would be a lie. I like beauty around me. Minimalistic by nature, I prefer to dine at finer restaurants twice a week than chilling out in below average eateries every alternate day.
  15. I am quite social and often come out as charming. I make friends instantly when they share some mutual interest.

What is your personality type? Have you tried rewiring your brain to improve it?

I am working on #8 and hope to come out of it soon.

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The hobby I stuck longest to in life is writing. The very first piece I penned was in 2002. A story narrated in the form of poem, of a goat and fox in a Zootopia type environment where animals lived in harmony. That was so much liked by my teacher that I was asked to read it in front of whole school in the morning assembly.
Writing is a craft that requires years of patience and honing. Even after one and a half decade of efforts into it, I feel lacking many aspects and there are times when my words are inadequate to best describe the intensity of situation I find myself in. One of the biggest mysteries I’m yet to unravel is, how do I not write myself into one of my characters. My mind keeps pondering on never ending questions. The more I dig deep, the more questions I am left with. How do I know my writing is good enough? What I am so profound of one night, I throw away the next morning. Even my mind is so shaky.
I write a lot and delete a lot. Many nights I have spent, lost in thoughts of an intriguing plot. Surroundings inspire me. I keep my eyes and ears open to pick slightest of hint. I often try to walk in shoes of others to understand their situation, to feel what they feel in the hope that the character I am working on would be more developed and mature this way.

I need to master the art of blowing words to silence. I need to be excellent at walking into the imaginary scene and painting its perfect picture through my writing. In my pursuit of answers, I have been following work of great writers. What is it about their writings that made them great? What is the secret ingredient to keep a reader hooked till the end? How much detail should I capture with my words to bring a character into life?

In this journey of blowing words to my imaginations, thoughts and emotions, I’ve slowly blended into a character I never intended to. My self has transformed into a more compassionate, empathetic and patient soul. I understand things better than ever. And I’ve not walked very far from where I started. There is a long way to go. I wonder what this path holds for me. When an average human bleeds, all you see is red. When a writer bleeds, an astouding piece of work sees the light of the day. I’m ready to bleed as long as I can, as much as I can. I don’t know if I would succeed. I am unsure if it would work. What I know for sure is that not every stone thrown fetches a fruit. But don’t you throw a second stone if the first fails?

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Vampires, we’re. Bright screens are our sun. In broad daylight, we love to stare at the geeky characters under shiny roofs. Caffeine is our rescue in times of exhaustion.

Before I begin with my journey at Microsoft, let me tell you that the views and opinions expressed are completely mine. Please bear with me as I speak, for my style is pretty inconsistent. Drowned in the pool of experiences, I am reinventing myself while writing all this. This post is bit long even for me. After all, squeezing 5 years of experience is difficult to fit in one blog. Go and grab a cup of coffee. I will wait.

Where do I start? Sticking to one place is no joke and I don’t expect anyone to stay this long, unless they are really happy. My chase for money faded away long ago and work contentment, for me, has been the driving force ever since holding the utmost importance in this agile Tech world.

When you reach the stage where you can afford all the food you want, all the travel, the cars and the entertainment, you want, what else is remaining? It becomes a never ending battle to reach to the top. A rat race, I would say. A wise man once said, “Save nothing but experiences”. If not, you would end up having all the materialistic pleasures, but your life would be wrapped up in emptiness. It would lack the sense of fulfilment you seek. While slogging away in the name of money, a day will come when you’re gonna ask yourself, “Was this all worth it?”

It doesn’t seem long back when I set foot in the Microsoft campus. But when I look back over the years I spent here, I oftentimes, get overwhelmed. Microsoft, as a company, what has always seemed to me is a great place to work at, while leaving my imprints across the globe as billions of users get to use its products.

My fascination for Microsoft products goes back to as early as 2002. In those Windows 98 days, we used to have sixty minutes of computer class once a week with one PC being shared between a class of ten students. I used to wait passionately for just 5 minutes of my hands on the PC.

May 2009 – When it all started

Memories of the tough time and the difficult decision while joining Graduation college are as fresh as morning dew. 2008 recession had plagued the software industry and associated opportunities adversely. The sheer fear of decreasing market demand of software engineers had panicked young blood to not pursue engineering in Computer Science. Despite the risk involved in those times and an admission in not so famous university, my passion & optimistic mind entwined their wings and somehow worked together, and here I am, penning half decade of my experience at Microsoft, in astonishment and all flabbergasted.

July 15, 2013

Fresh blood joins. All the vampires rejoice.

5 years it’s been and it feels like it were only yesterday when I wandered the corridors of the humongous campus for the first time. Days bled off into years. I have seen people come. I have seen people leave. Life moves on. Everyone is replaceable. The higher, one is at the management hierarchy, lesser is the tolerance for mistakes.

The time I joined Microsoft, peers around me were celebrating 5 years of completion and I had one naive question. How come they never thought of a switch? Spending long time at one place is quite a thing and more than the place, it tells a lot about the person – Happiness, Patience and sometimes they just let life go with the flow. Well, for me, it never really occurred to me that there is a world outside Microsoft that also builds awesome products and has huge user base. Having worked on world class products like Microsoft Excel and its underlying complex architecture, I feel my existence in this universe is making a mark upon people changing their lives through technology.

In this short span of time, I got to work on 6 version-1 projects each having different complexity and its own problem space. The journey has culminated in a great experience, adding a check to my learning curve at every stage.

The world of flow-charts and diagrams – Office Visio

My career started as SDET in Visio team, a part of Microsoft Office division. It was embarrassing that I was going to work on something I never heard of. Visio is an enterprise software not so famous among students. It captures a huge market for clients looking forward to create flow charts and diagrams. In a nutshell, it is something that simplifies tens of millions of human life. As a test engineer, I designed test suites and wrote automation for various features to make sure the regressions are caught early and help stabilise the product.

January, 2014

K2 phase: It’s Android baby

When I had a feeling that I have learnt enough that would help fasten my deliverable, a reorg happened and devalued most of the things that I worked upon. As they say, only skills acquired through the process matters in the long run, skills to understand and solve a problem. New team and new manager, it was a tabula rasa. Satya’s vision to focus on mobile and services landed me in Android team. Familiar environment and some prior experience, starting was as smooth as butter. Nightmares begun when I was assigned a problem to apply effects on an image. The office codebase is huge, medieval and it’s an ocean if you don’t know where to start. I still remember those hard moments when I was just looking through the code to pick hints, searching keywords like pImage, IImage in the hope that at least the naming convention would lead me somewhere. It was one of the fastest paced project and I was (un)lucky to be a part of it. Learning was great and sleeps were compromised. My team owned low level Graphics rendering stuffs, everything that you see on screen.

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It was an exhilarating roller coaster ride as I had never worked on a project of that urgency before. K2 is the second most dangerous mountain to climb and so was this project. Satya’s leadership and his vision for the company was as clear as a bell. We didn’t want to box ourselves in the Windows world. This was a big leap from our past rusted thinking and it was the beginning of reinventing the company. In Satya’s words, we needed to Hit Refresh. Even if we lost the war in Mobile Operating System, Microsoft could make a mark by releasing products on other platforms. SaaS (Software as a Service) was on the top of mind and Microsoft wasn’t behind. But to truly unlock its potential, we needed to annihilate the platform barrier. The world was transitioning at steep pace and the way users used the computing devices was reshaping. Desktop PCs and laptops were no more in trend and to succeed as a company, users needed to feel connected wherever they go. What is the benefit of all those technologies when users can’t edit a document on mobile while going to office and resume on laptop? Delaying this project could have been catastrophic. Decisions are good as long as they are taken at right time.

The idea of Shared code had always fascinated me and I got a chance to see how it works. The biggest challenge of developing apps on Android was device fragmentation. Apps you build might work like a charm on one device, while it might be completely screwed up on others. This project literally boosted my confidence as I was really quick when it came to building something on Android. It was an honor to be recognized as Subject Matter Expert. When I got empty hours, I contributed to Android community on StackOverflow and earned many medals. As of now, I hold 12 gold, 48 silver and 89 bronze medals.

July, 2015

Apple, A costly affair

Satya’s vision for efficient engineering annihilated the concept of tester & developer and rendered everyone a Software Engineer. I moved to Graphics team for iOS where I made core design changes and wrote code to be shared across various apps cross platform. The biggest challenge was to think of design that could sail well across multiple platforms and apps. Making changes at such a lower level was risky, heart throbbing and required solid understanding. Tolerance for mistakes was minuscule and the impact was so huge that making even a small mistake had big ripple effects breaking many features across the apps. Some of the nasty bugs gave me nightmares. It becomes worse when you have to fix the bug overnight and when you do it, you get response on the top of your fix mentioning that your change would be impacting twenty millions customers. Even 1 millisecond of performance regression raised eyebrows asking critical questions related to the design and the solution. I have learnt that this is part of life and as long as the learning curve is steep, things would just work fine. It has taught me the skill to never give up. Perseverance and grit are great virtues to survive in this industry.

Before the release of K2, shared code was a myth. As much fantastic as it may sound when discussed, it was practically not possible given the platform differences, language barrier at different end points and the engineering cost involved to bring the complex humongous codebase together. With the release of WXP on Android, we proved it to be doable and sealed it after moving iOS codebase to the same shared codebase.

Having got familiarized with both Android and iOS, I must say that I would choose Android over iOS any time of the day both as a developer and a user. Apple’s developer tool XCode hangs and crashes every now and then and sucks. Things that can be achieved in a straight forward way in Android can be pain when it comes to iOS.

October, 2016

Recalc or Die – Excel

About 30 years ago in a place far, far away, when C++ was still in diapers, Microsoft Excel was born. We even shipped Excel on floppy. We didn’t have much of C++ that time. So we wrote our own wrappers.

Shared rendering was over and I moved to Excel iOS team where I worked on Excel rendering component. Excel is one of the most complex projects and there are dozens of layers of architecture. Few of the bugs literally drove me crazy. I remember frying neurons of my brain for days without a clue on where in the code the problem might be. Some bugs were in the Apple library itself.

March, 2017

Excel on Mac

Another year, another project. Some familiarity with how Excel works, at least a part of it, landed me into another Excel endpoint. This time, it was Mac. It was way more complex than iOS. The quality was super important, for most of the people with big names use Mac, all of them being paid customers. A simple screw up could motivate one of the journalists to write and given how powerful social media are these days, it could have gone viral in no time. We did get good detailed feedback from a NASA scientist which reemphasized the impact we had been making.

February, 2018

SharePoint

While working on Excel and rendering technologies was fascinating because of the huge mass reach, lack of opportunities to add much design and code in Excel troubled me. The Data Structures and design used were fascinating. But they were written in 90s. Another good thing was that I never had to explain Excel to anyone. I remember meeting a college friend in Seattle who was widely surprised when I mentioned that we are fixing bugs in Excel. She always thought Excel to be super stable.

My restless mind, always looking forward to swim out of comfort zone to try and learn new things, found its medicine when a new SharePoint team in IDC was formed. I never realised the sheer potential of SharePoint until I started working on it. New technologies & tools, two decades old product, unknown territory, ownership of core components and never ending challenges, I couldn’t have asked for more.

As I reminisce my time here, I worked with 6 managers in 6 different projects. Lots of learning, challenges, obsession to achieve the best and never ending work. The journey has been no less than a roller coaster. I have sailed unfamiliar ships to unknown territories. I wrote and debugged code in more than ten languages (C, C++, Java, C#, Objecttive C/C++, Javascript, Typescript, Python etc).

Normal days at Microsoft

If you wonder how normal days as a Software Engineer at Microsoft look like, well it can be summarized something like:

  • You get a feature and are asked to come up with a design and various approaches to develop this.
  • You discuss various pros and cons and why one approach should be preferred over others.
  • You write code to develop the functionality. If the code is not shared, Bingo! your life just got easier. If it is shared across apps and platforms , you have to make sure it doesn’t regress anything. There are tons of test cases your code must pass.
  • If you get a bug due to your code and it is hi-pri, a hot mail thread starts overnight stating it impacted ‘X’ millions of customers.
  • If you get a bug not related to your code, well happy debugging. There are tens of millions of lines of code and you don’t have slightest of clue in what layer of architecture, the issue might be. I remember debugging a bug for 8 continuous days and at the end, I found that it was a race condition issue. The bug reproduced every once in 30-40 attempts.
  • Your code performance is super critical. I remember being part of a burning mail thread once because my code regressed the performance by 1 millisecond. I couldn’t see the difference manually as 1 millisecond is something your eyes can’t perceive.
  • You think you’re smart. Well think again. There are smarter people talking to whom is so much fun. You are stuck debugging an issue for 2 days. You don’t see anything working. You are pissed off. You send a mail to the people asking for help. They read your issue on phone, respond with a fix and it works.

In a nutshell, the emphasis is more on reading and understanding code than writing a new one. If you can’t understand well what is written, how are you going to modify it? This varies from team to team. Since office was released in medieval time when C++ was still in diapers, making changes in the code becomes a bit difficult, especially when you are making changes to an existing feature.
Microsoft is full of smart people. You can learn something from almost everyone.

Why I chose to stay at Microsoft?

There were many times I thought of a switch. The thing that always seemed to hold me was the thought that I would be doing the same kind of work that I am doing here. Besides, I am happy here, living life as I always wanted, trying out different things, exploring the world around me and pursuing my hobbies one after the other.

While we’re busy in earning money, life is busy in deducting time

If you ask me if I’m happy with the salary I get here. I would probably say, Yes. And I will shortly explain why. Pay is decent, but it is lesser than what competitive companies offer. Many of my friends have switched to other companies for higher pay. There was hardly a day in my 60 months of career at Microsoft that forced me to think of a switch, because of following reasons:

Work-life balance

The best thing I like about Microsoft is the work-life balance. The timings are flexible. If you get a good manager who knows how to handle pressure well, you won’t have to work overnight unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Company culture and vision

At Microsoft, we strive to build products that amaze customers within thirty seconds of usage. If we fail to wow them, we lose them for life. That’s the underlying principle behind every Office product. Productivity and efficiency are taken very seriously. Effort is important, but knowing where to make an effort makes all the difference.

Pursue hobbies

I chose to stay at Microsoft because while working here, I can pursue my hobbies. You get plenty of time for things you want to do. I travel, do fashion and landscape photoshoot, play piano and write blogs, all while writing code in week days.

Money is a good servant but a bad master

The money I earn here is enough to survive and buy things of interest. If I would earn more money, I would buy bigger car or dine in more luxurious restaurants. The standard of living will improve. But the question is, how far are you willing to go for the sake of money. Run for money never ends. Having lived my fair share of life, I realized that life should be made up of moments. As long as you are happy with what you have, you are living a good life. With more money, comes more responsibility. Yes, there are times when I regret not being able to afford a Grand Piano, but I can settle with a smaller version of it.

Brand value

Although Microsoft pays lesser than few startups, I love it. My granddad proudly says that his grandson works at Microsoft. Microsoft is one of few companies that has survived four decades while staying relevant. People are still crazy about it.

Impact

Products that I work on are used by billions of people. I can say that the part of picture manipulation code in Word/Excel/PowerPoint has been written by me. This kind of huge impact can only be felt by working at some of the biggies like Google and Facebook.

Hit Refresh

When Satya Nadella took over, the change was visible sooner than we had anticipated. The company was at the cusp of transformation and is going through a significant transition phase as we speak. It’s not just a Windows company anymore. The focus has gradually shifted to its mobile first, cloud first business. The reason is simple. With so many technological advancements and automated home & car systems generating a lot of data, the humongous data has to be stored somewhere. 90% of the world’s data has been generated over last two years. Microsoft is pushing hard to make a dent through providing cloud services and thereby, stay relevant.

Microsoft is in right hands. Its stocks are soaring all time high. Investors have confidence and they’re betting in its bright future. It’s far from pinnacle of success and there is a long way to go. But I believe in the company’s vision. And as an employee, it’s a great feeling and amazing place to be at, while being part of the major transformation. I can either watch it happen or be a part of it. Well, the former doesn’t excite me enough.

You might like my other posts along the same line:

Journey of a boy from small town to Microsoft – An untold story Part 1

Copyright © 2018, Aashish Barnwal, All rights reserved.
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