Where can maths take you? To Google and beyond

How does this career checklist sound to you?

  • Work at Google.
  • Successfully pitch your business idea at the same startup incubator which backed Airbnb, reddit and Dropbox.
  • Turn your apartment into your startup HQ.
  • Call Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft employees your clients.
  • Start a scholarship in your own name.

This is the rock-star career of Vijay Boyapati, alumnus of the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute, and it all started at ANU.

“One of my honours thesis advisers joined a startup company called Whizbang Labs in the US, and he invited me to join him after I finished honours,” he says.

“It was probably the best decision I've made in my life as it eventually led to me joining Google while it was still in its infancy.”

Vijay says his time at Google “was like having a front row seat on history” as the company—and he himself—revolutionised the way the world accesses information.

“I spent most of my time working on Google News, which was a direct application of my honours thesis topic: automatically classifying large numbers of news articles into topics, such as sports, business or entertainment, using machine learning.”

After five years at Google, Vijay launched his own startup, Dealupa, which was funded by Y Combinator, which he describes as “a startup incubator that's harder to get into than Stanford University”.

“My cofounder (a former colleague at Google) and I started working out of a small apartment which we also lived in. Our office was the living room. I remember working 12-hour days every day of the week, but it was something we were passionate about so it didn't seem like a burden. We would code all day and go eat In-N-Out Burger at night.

“One of the exciting things about founding a startup is that you literally have to do everything. From coding to marketing to sales and accounting. You get a wide breadth of different experiences, which is a great learning experience.”

Now Vijay is working his algorithm magic at another startup, Peach, based in Seattle.

“We do lunch delivery from restaurants to companies in Seattle such as Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook,” he says. “We use complex algorithms to do scheduling and matching of user tastes to meals from restaurants around the city.”

Vijay’s career in the heady world of startups seems far removed from the cliched image of the isolated mathematician dedicated only to brainwork.

“Certainly mathematics is often a quiet intellectual pursuit, but the mental skills used in the study of mathematics can be applied to many endeavours,” he says.

“Focus, patience, creativity, critical and abstract thinking are all important skills that are honed by studying mathematics, and these are skills I've used throughout my career, even if I'm not directly doing anything mathematical.”

And for someone who has established a university scholarship, Vijay has a surprising message for students who want to follow in his footsteps:

“You will not use the majority of what you learn in university when you leave.”

Instead, he says, the most important thing you’ll learn is “how to think critically, and how to find and assimilate information pertinent to the job you will eventually be doing”.

And the best place for that?

“The ANU is a great place to hone these skills,” he says. “It's a naturally stimulating environment.”

Better get to work writing up your career checklist.

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