“The anomaly that we actually see across the spectrum from freshers joining us as software engineers, to our leadership, is that there’s a stark contrast between men and women; the gender contrast is very stark,” said Rahul Chari, Co-founder and CTO (chief technology officer), PhonePe, speaking at YourStory’s Future of Work 2022, a two-day virtual conference on bringing the best of minds in product, technology and design from March 28-29.
Rahul was sharing insights into the vision behind the Indian digital payments unicorn’s umbrella initiative, PhonePe University, and the Tech Scholars Programme, a part of the PhonePe University. Rahul explained why being an organisation invested in a number-driven diversity goal is unfair to women engineers as it doesn’t set them for success given existing inequities.
“We realised the need to make a concerted effort to build a pipeline of women engineers, who can actually have a much better shot at joining PhonePe as they graduate. For the simple reason that ultimately we have say, 100 positions for out-of-college young engineers at PhonePe, and given the skew in terms of the number of men graduating, or the immediate availability of men in the workforce that entire pipeline can get filled immediately. And then we’d be forced to actually move to a quota-based system that we don’t want to,” he explained.
The Tech Scholars Programme is designed to start identifying women engineers earlier in the lifecycle, six months to a year before they graduate, take them to an alternate programme along with the curriculum, which is focused on imparting more practical skills as a software engineer, and then give them an offer as soon as they graduate from the cohort that Crio (the programme is in partnership with Crio) is working along with PhonePe on during the journey. “A bunch of us have constant conversations with the cohort of women engineers; we talk about topics that are tech-related, as well as topics that are work-life balance related,” shared Rahu.
“I think every business is basically becoming a technology business. That’s the clear change that the pandemic has brought about, there is no company who can treat technology as purely an enabler and not as the way of life and therefore every business is transforming itself as a technology business. Therefore, the new buzzword is digital transformation. Every company is going through a digital transformation, including the traditional business houses. And that really means everybody possibly needs to relook at how their organisation is designed, right from the top down,” shared Rahul, adding how if one takes the fintech world, payments has been celebrated as the success story behind fintech in India over the last few years. Moving on from the 100-200-300 million that we’ve already seen come onboard the payments bandwagon, the real challenge is going to be bringing the next 200- 300-400 million, right from building trust, to building products that are more simple and safer for use from the next set.
With the burgeoning space of technology where there is an advent of ‘new’ tech every couple of months, the breakneck pace and demand can only be sustained by a long-term vision of hiring and nurturing the right tech talent. No wonder, leaders are increasingly acknowledging the fact that it’s impossible to hire everyone and hire endlessly. The answer then lies in training and upskilling or reskilling the existing workforce. In fact, upskilling has emerged to be a top agenda for not only an individual’s own job and career growth path, but for the organisational growth map.
Fighting time and the problem of lack of ready talent
As Rahul drew attention to the fact that it’s difficult to keep up with technology, he added that it’s more difficult to kind of keep up with how the work environment has been changing, especially in the last couple of years. In fact, he reiterated how the growing need for ‘reskilling’, a term that he preferred to use as opposed to upskilling, is a response to the need to keep pace with changing technology.
“We are the largest transaction platform in the country, we are inching towards 100-million transactions on a single day. On a monthly basis, our user base is north of 300. There are very few companies of that scale, and therefore ready talent that has experience dealing with the complexity of this kind of scale, where the performance can never be compromised is key,” emphasised Rahul, adding that it doesn’t matter how many million transactions they have when one is at the store trying to make a payment. And if that payment doesn’t go through in a split second, it doesn’t work.
A model that complements on-the-job learning is the need of the hour. However, on-the-job learning takes time. “The one luxury that we don’t have is time. So, the thought process was how do we compress the learning lifecycle of smart engineers, so that they are able to deal with the continuously increasing complexity due to performance and scale at PhonePe? That was the genesis of thinking behind the PhonePe University.
From coders to entrepreneurs
Another innovative offering, PhonePe’s engineering team pods are built with a futuristic vision. “Pods is another thing that has worked really well for us. So, basically, we support engineers to have two identities in the company. You could be part of the Android team; the iOS team; the accounting team. These are the traditional teams. And then there is another identity, which is a pod. A pod is almost like a virtual team that is carved around a set of individuals across functions. So, you could have pods named as engineers, product managers, business operations, business development, marketing, etc, depending on the life stage of the pod. The pod has a very clear charter; so, it’s almost like a startup within the company. They own every aspect of decision-making around it; how to meet the goals that tie back to the overall goals of the company, including new customer acquisition, total number of transactions or categories per day,” explained Rahul.
How does it link back to growth, especially for software engineers? Going against the conventional belief that growth for software engineers is all about learning on the technology side or becoming “craftsmen, coders”, Rahul elucidated that learning about businesses and marketing is equally important.
In fact, this exposure and holistic growth enables one from being a software engineer to an entrepreneur. “It’s a win for the company that we get the agility to actually stay nimble-footed as you’re growing. And it’s great for individuals, not just for software engineers, even for the folks on the non-tech side, for being able to learn, and build a greater understanding of engineering and technology. I think that appreciation of why software engineering is not a science, but an art comes from the non-tech side,” summed up Rahul.
We asked the serial entrepreneur in the consumer internet space, currently having a blast building the fastest growing and one of the largest mobile payments and fintech companies in India, as per his Linkedin bio, about his own process of learning journey and upscaling journey?
“While I’m the CTO of PhonePe, I am humble enough to admit that I know less about many areas compared to some of the really smart engineers at PhonePe. And that’s life as a techie; if you don’t keep investing in learning, you will be left out” shared Rahul.
Until a year and a half ago, the revolutionary techie used to pick up a topic for the month, and block some of his time over the weekend, to invest in weekend reading etc. “What now keeps me up to date, to a certain extent is my team around me, and some of the best engineers around me when they are talking about a decision; when I feel that I don’t know enough, I discuss with them, they teach me, then I go back and read. So, it’s a continuous circle, if everybody in the company is self-aware of the fact that you can actually continuously learn from each other, you’re in a much, much better place. There’s no hierarchy, decision making becomes seamless, things become more data-oriented, I think culturally, it’s a much better place to be,” signed off Rahul.
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