October 13, 2017

What’s it like to work at India’s coolest drone startup?

The Skylark Drones Family

Dropbox, Uber, Ola, Airbnb, Pinterest — Startups from around the world have transitioned from being the buzzwords of the tech industry to constantly redefining our lives. Startups have begun to mature and internalize themselves into our day to day lives, in the ways we commute, the way we eat, even the way we build our roads and cities. But have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes? What’s it like to build something that will potentially change the way we live? More importantly, what’s it like to be able do that sitting out of an atypical Indian city with young engineers from all walks of life?

Before I begin, let me briefly introduce myself. I am Nekhelesh Ramananthan, UAS Integration Engineer at Skylark Drones, a startup that provides end-to-end enterprise drone solutions for mining, infrastructure and utility sectors. I joined roughly 15 months ago and decided to blog about my journey in the hope that it helps aspiring graduates choose their career path in times where finding a job, let alone the right job, has become an ordeal that will likely define their lines.

One Person — Multiple Roles

This one is my favourite — enacting different roles. You get to be the developer, designer, tester, product manager, recruiter. That in itself is a very liberating thought. There are no limits to what you can do other than your creativity and determination. In my 15 months at Skylark Drones, I have worked on inventory management, data storage, developing field operation application, tuning drones and been on several field operations.

This makes the job that much more challenging and interesting. Startups create a dynamic environment where you grow constantly at your job. Things can get complicated really fast due to the need to fill multiple shoes but that is only a bad thing if you like monotony, on the other hand if you want to acquire different skills and grow a multifaceted personality then complications can only be a good thing.

When one screen is not enough…

The one thing that I have come to realise over time is that to thrive in this kind of an environment you have to truly enjoy it. Every bit of it. At times, I feel like I am pursuing my hobby and as such the job never feels like a chore and so I look forward to getting back to it every morning. I strongly believe that it is this quality that will enable you to endeavour the roadblocks that you will face.

During our recruitment process, this is one of the aspects we look for in a prospective candidate. One who has created stuff because he was curious and excited about building it rather than because it was part of his course work.

Work Family

The team size is usually small at a startup and you will get to know pretty much everyone. You will start to realise quickly that it is a closely knit family where everyone is aware of each other’s strength and weakness. This quintessential family is necessary to achieve the herculean task that it has set out to do.

This also means no unnecessary bullshit. Everything is straight forward. Need to procure things? Raise a Trello card and track it’s progress! Have a great social media idea? Call for an impromptu session, ideate, iterate, and publish on the same day! Everything gets done faster simply because everyone (wants to) contribute/s.

Conventions? What’s that?

Air Hockey session with the team

Startups innovate not only in what they set out to conquer but also in the ways they go about doing it. Want to change the conventional meeting place of the team? Why not meet at the roof top? Or Starbucks? At the end of the day what matters is whether you got the job done.

One of the best things about being at a startup is you can come up with your own rules, see how they work, react to them, and keep going.
 — Sahil Lavingia, CEO of Gumroad

As a team, we felt it was necessary that everybody learns something new every month. So the concept of learning sessions were introduced where people could give talks/presentations about just about anything. We also invited renowned personalities like Balaji Vishwanathan, Vasudevan Gnana Gandhi from outside to come share their wisdom.

Flexible work timings, team outings, the casual evening discussions and gaming sessions (Catan being our current muse) are all part of the package. The weirdest, most crazy bit I have had the pleasure of experiencing is pyjama day. Chai time talks invariably tend towards discussion about blockchain, AI, Elon Musk and improving Bangalore traffic with all of the above.

Everyone makes mistakes

Mistakes can happen at all levels ranging from the CEO, COO to the regular employee. Everyone working at a startup has a steep learning curve. You cannot expect someone to be a pro at being a developer and a designer.

To err is human, to forgive is divine, to learn and grow is startup mantra 101.

The important thing is to admit it and learn from those mistakes. Don’t lose your cool.

I vividly remember my first time experience when I had to interview a potential candidate. I totally misjudged the candidate’s skills, unable to read tell tale signs of the person’s character and just nodded my head to whatever the candidate said. I was way out of my comfort zone like a fish out of water. Nonetheless I was encouraged by my colleagues to do more interviews, advised on how to approach it and get better at it.

Time is finite, productivity can be infinite

A typical Skylark employee’s desktop

This one is rather obvious. Time is never enough. Period. This simply attributes to the fact that you are racing to build something innovative with limited resources while shouldering additional responsibility. Accepting that fact will allow you to move on to working around that constraint.

Tools like Trello and Inbox by Google come handy and can help you get organised and scales well. It is never nice to admit that you missed out on deadlines due to lack of organisation.

Although do be careful about burning out! Sometimes it might be essential and even okay to say no.

Where this leaves us

In my personal opinion it is extremely rewarding to work at a startup. You get to see the macro picture that I often hear people miss out on when working at large companies. You are not just a cog in their machinery.

Succeeding in startups is entirely dependent on your motivation, creativity and skill. Be respectful to others, open about what you feel and you will get along just fine.

At the end of the day, whether you are working at a startup or a billion dollar company, just enjoy the work you do, because that’s what matters!

Nekhelesh Ramananthan