“We make a huge difference in people’s lives, and it’s not to be underestimated.” – Prashanth Chandrasekar
Last week the Stack Overflow podcast crew sat down with our new CEO to chat about his background in computer science and his vision for the company’s future. What follows is a lightly edited selection of that conversation. To hear the full thing, you can listen to the podcast here. Don’t forget to subscribe for future episodes!
Welcome to the Stack Overflow podcast for the week of October 15th I’m here with my co hosts. Say hi everybody.
And we’ve got a very special guest today, our new CEO. Can you introduce yourself?
Thank you so much. I am very, very happy to be here and excited to join the Stack Overflow family. Quick introduction about myself. I grew up in Bangalore, India until I was about 17 years old. Grew up in a very blessed situation with my mom, who was a medical doctor and my dad, who was originally an engineer and then became an academic over time. I’m grateful that they really exposed me to technology very early on, not only through both of them, but also just by virtue of living in Bangalore, which is known as the Silicon Valley of India.
So technology has been part of my DNA for the longest time. When I was about 17, I really felt this yearning to explore my horizons and my perspective and I decided that I wanted to go abroad to continue my learning and my education and just my life in general. Very, very fortunately, I received a scholarship to study in the United States, otherwise I would not have been able to make the move. I ended up at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine, which is a very, very small town and very different from Bangalore to say the least.
I’m going to kick things off here because I know a little bit of this backstory, but let’s talk about that first computer that your dad brought home. He went on a trip to Hong Kong. He brought home a 486.
Actually, it was not even a 486. I think it was a 286. I clarified that with him.
Yeah, so it was a very old computer, but he lugged that thing all the way from Hong Kong on one of his trips and he’s a fairly global traveler and he does a lot of work in national development. Fortunately for my younger brother and myself, he brought that all the way from there, and he brought a bunch of five and a quarter inch floppy disks, which had business software along with obviously, what would get us going, which were video games.
Defender was my first exposure to a computer game and I was completely hooked.
It took a long time to run things of course, but it was really eye opening. The great thing about Indian education is that they expose to kids technical topics really early on, whether that’s calculus in middle school or computer science.
They started teaching Logo and so that was the first programming language that I ever knew. I then quickly moved onto BASIC. My mom was a doctor, she had a private practice and she had lots of patients. So for my 10th grade project, I had the opportunity to build a computer program application in BASIC, and I chose to build sort of a hospital management system-
That’s fun. Just a fun cool kid thing to do. (everyone laughs)
There is something addictive about building something that actually delivers a very specific outcome with the customer that is going to benefit from it.
My big question for you is what kind of product manager was your mom? How was she as a client?
As a client, she is very driven and knows exactly what she wants so is not shy about sharing requirements. Very clear on exactly what the specs are. It’s great having clear direction from customers.
No scope creep in this house.
Yes. Anyway, that was just a great, great introduction to computer programming somewhat early, I suppose, in my life. That obviously continued heavily into college when I studied computer engineering and got into, C, C++, and Perl and all the other languages.
When you were using Logo, what were you using it for?
It was completely for drawing, really. That’s all it was. I think it was just to say how do you actually control movement of the turtle?
Well, it gives kids a reaction. You get to see the computer do something.
This is that addictive part that I mentioned earlier on, because it gives you this sense of control, of creative control to say, I’m actually controlling this thing in a very, very binary zero-one kind of way.
“Hey, move forward by 50 steps.” Okay, here you go. It actually moves forward by 50 steps. “Turn right.” Okay. That, in itself, gets you going, and I see a similar look in my kids’ eyes now, when they are actually learning how to code. My daughter’s nine years old, my son’s six years old, and they’re big code.org fans. She loves to draw and sketch. You can see the reaction in her face when she’s able to do that.
I think it teaches you to be somewhat of a perfectionist and to be detail-oriented, that I think that the kids can also gain from, I think, by being exposed to it very early on, because if you are frustrated by the fact that your command actually didn’t result in the outcome that you hoped for, then you are going to keep pursuing until you actually get to the end zone, until you actually are perfecting the outcome. It’s very easy to get stuff wrong too, in computer programming, as we all know.
Researchers call the phenomenon that you’re talking about with your kids, they call it eu-stress, which is euphoric stress. They call it that when it comes to gaming as well. It’s the idea of stress where you know there’s a solution and you know you can find it, so it’s not distress, which is something where you easily get discouraged. It’s euphoric stress that gets you more excited until you solve that problem, and then you’re like, “Yes!” And you get all this dopamine, this flooding in of, “Yes, I did it!” It’s really neat.
Sara, you’ve taught me something new. That’s amazing.
So we are talking to the Stack audience, they’re going to want to know things. What can we tell them? What can you tell them?
I’ve kind of had the privilege of learning about this company for almost since its inception, because all the teams that I’ve led, especially at my time at Rackspace, have always used Stack Overflow. It’s always the default place for any engineers on our team to go get their answers quickly. So if they want to understand something about Kubernetes, they expect the answer to come from Stack Overflow. So I’ve followed the company very closely by the impact that it has very broadly for a long time and the tremendous impact that it has.
There are probably a handful of companies in the world, in our era, that has such a large impact around the world. We’re really, really blessed to have a phenomenal community of people that are willing to share so much and be open about the knowledge that there is resident in their heads and really to promote truly borderless sharing of information around these topics. That number one that makes me super excited.
So we want to make sure that people actually know about us holistically in a 360 sense, because I think people identify us as a community. I think that always, it is the heartbeat of the company. We are community first. That’s why we exist in many ways, because of our community. However, I don’t know if many people understand that we actually do so much more than provide what we do in our community. There’s so many products that hopefully our customer base and our community can leverage to make their lives better and to accelerate what they want to accomplish.
When my appointment went public thousands of people reached out to me, either commenting on the appointment or direct messaging me or emailing me. A bulk of them were people from the community that were all so grateful for what Stack Overflow has done for them, for their lives. I was blown away. These are folks from all around the world, all around the world. India, Africa, South America, North America.
I remember this chart that made me fall in love with the company when I first saw it, which is the chart about our community across the world. 50 million community members that come every month are literally all around the world. And it’s that chart that is so high impact. I think we make a huge difference in people’s lives, and it’s not to be underestimated.
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