The home team chats with Devraj Varadhan, SVP of Engineering at Ripple, about crypto companies bracing for economic uncertainty, how Ripple’s solutions might help to expand financial inclusion in underserved markets, and why companies should take the long view rather than getting distracted by hype.
Devraj Varadhan is the SVP of Engineering at Ripple, which provides crypto and blockchain solutions for businesses. Ripple’s mission is to provide practical access to investment tools that can deliver economic freedom for unbanked and underbanked people around the world. Plenty of companies have pressed pause on recruitment efforts, but Ripple is hiring.
Before working at Ripple, Dev spent 15 years at Amazon, building customer experiences and products across a wide swath of categories, including as VP of Delivery Experience. Connect with Dev on LinkedIn and read his blog post about how Ripple is working to accelerate financial inclusion through technology with partnerships with STASIS, the Republic of Palau, and Bhutan.
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Devraj Varadhan Today, for example, as a software developer, it's so hard to imagine a world without all these cloud services that are out there, which is AWS, Google, Azure, and whatnot, because they have taken on the heavy lifting to build really hard, complex solutions so that the rest of the world can focus on innovating on behalf of their customers rather than keep reinventing the not-so-differentiated needs between two companies. There's a lot of work like that that is happening in crypto and blockchain. It's very, very early days where it makes it easier for various builders throughout the world to innovate incrementally on behalf of their customers rather than having to reinvent. You could say in many things it's day one, and when it comes to that, it's really hour one on day one when it comes to crypto.
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BP Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my wonderful co-hosts Matt and Cassidy. Hey, y'all.
Matt Kiernander Hello!
Cassidy Williams Hello!
BP Today we are going to have a great guest talk a little bit about crypto, and we're going to talk a little bit about Amazon and we're going to talk about delivery. We're going to go virtual, we're going to go physical. We're going to run the whole gamut. It should be a good episode. Dev, you are the SVP I believe of engineering at Ripple. Did I get that right?
DV That's correct.
BP Dev, welcome to the program.
DV Thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to the conversation.
BP So we always start out by asking folks to date themselves a little. Can you tell us what was your introduction to computer programming? What got you into this world, what got you hooked or interested, and how did you proceed from there through your education and career to where you are now?
DV Absolutely. I welcome every opportunity to date myself as well. So I started my career, my first real job, I think in 1997. I started my career at building shrink wrap products, on-prem, you install it in your machine and that kind of evolved. It was building technology to organize offline information in a digital format and then be able to query and derive meaningful insights to improve the experiences that you want to improve, be it healthcare, or be it insurance, any particular line. It used to be in C++ and a bit of heuristics, before it was called machine learning we did a bunch of heuristics to derive insights from large data. And some of the common things are a low-latency high-throughput type of products is where I started. And I'm really thankful and I really like that introduction that I had to solve real world customer problems having real impact on people's lives on a daily basis. As part of that, I learned early on that the biggest leverage we have is our time, and being intentional about how we use it to maximize value and impact for others was a lesson that I still hold onto from that day beginning. However, I think the world has really evolved. I was very impatient with the long cycles to innovate and make continuous improvements. As a builder, there were many non-controllable inputs at that time. In contrast now, it's really an amazing time to invent and continuously improve customer experiences. It really changed my view of what launch means, where launch is now just a starting line, not a finish line anymore. Because in my experience, no single launch has ever hit a homerun for customers at any scale, especially when you're solving problems at a global scale. And at Ripple we disproportionately focus on hiring such builders. We think of builders as people who love to invent, who look at customer experiences very, very differently and critically about what's flawed about them and seek to continuously improve. So you need to have that kind of a thinker mindset. So that's been my career progression from 1997.
BP It's interesting because I feel like the value proposition that you put out, as you mentioned, I see a lot of that now still, “Let our AI system into your business, we’ll take a peek at your data, maybe we'll move it to the cloud for you, we'll lift and shift. And then pretty soon you're going to notice all kinds of improvements and efficiencies in your business that you didn't even know were there before.” So people are still operating I think with that model though, yes, their machine learning has been tuned up a few degrees since 1998, maybe.
DV I’m with you on it. And it's fascinating to see, it's a very important topic where for me, both in my past life and here, I think machine learning is great. It solves a lot of non-deterministic problems with very little variance if you will, like stochastic problems, that's one of the applications. But it's important how you make it transparent in a way where there's no bias in these models, how do we ensure that we continuously look for those and evolve, so it's amazing to see the kind of advances that are happening today in machine learning from where it started to where it is today.
MK Do you see much of that in your work currently at Ripple, or is the kind of technology that you're working with there fundamentally quite different?
DV No, we do apply machine learning today at Ripple. One of the big needs, especially in our cross-border payments business, is to ensure we have sufficient liquidity throughout the globe. And when you operate businesses at that scale, you need to really understand what the customer demand is and be able to ensure we have sufficient liquidity. So how we plan our liquidity today and how much liquidity we should have, where should we have it, when, what type of liquidity we should have, all of that is a stochastic problem today, and we have started using machine learning to address those unmet customer needs we have today.
BP I have to jump in here and ask sort of the elephant in the room question. We are at a moment in the economic cycle where some companies are being stress-tested. There are margin calls coming in, people are asking, “Do you have the liquidity that you told us you did, are you going to be able to make the payments or continue to provide the interest you said you would?” And in some cases recently the answer has been no, or at least not yet, or, give us a minute and we'll get back to you. So can you just say what you think is happening right now? Do you feel like Ripple is well placed to weather the storm and for people who may be going through sort of their first economic boom and bust, some advice on how to weather this storm, how to understand what's happening, and how to make sure you come out the other side.
DV Yeah, such a good question. Very relevant and thoughtful too given everything that's going on. I would say you never hope to see times like this, especially in an industry like crypto with so much incredible talent and a lot of visionary ideas on changing the world. Crypto has been around for about a decade, so these market changes, layoffs, et cetera, can feel even pretty jarring to a growing industry, leave alone in an established industry. But this isn't unlike what we saw in the dotcom bust or 2008 recession and more. One thing that I'm seeing today, not only in the crypto though your question was specific to that, I do see what's happening today. We are seeing a lot of impact on the market at large today. It's not necessarily a reflection of crypto and the technology. You know, early in the dotcom era, we saw a lot of companies that failed, like I don't know how many of you remember pets.com. Then there are businesses like eBay and Amazon. They continue to be huge contributors not only to the internet and tech, but the economy itself. But even within those businesses, people know them for how successful they are, but there were a lot of failures or losses within those businesses at those times too and even some of those I was a part of where I needed some strong pain medication to go through all of those and to describe that it's very painful even describing what those losses are. But regardless of the technology or industry, for me it's always important to take a long term view, which companies are solving real problems and are thinking about where they will be years out, three years, five years out, not just three months, and not be swayed by the hype is very important. And it's another reason why the approach of even the successful businesses like Amazon and eBay and whatnot I was saying, even though they've had lots of misses, they were very rigid on their vision. They were flexible on the details on how they got there. So especially when you're solving big problems, having that long term view is very, very important. And your question about Ripple, Ripple is really well placed. We are definitely aware of what's happening out there, but at the same time we are very thankful for our customers. Our business is growing, in fact, the Q2 goals that we have, we have met them a couple weeks prior to that, it's grown 8x in volume and we are continuing to hire. We have a couple hundred positions open throughout the globe and we have hired successfully in the first six months as well. So we aren't skipping a beat with that long term view because some of the things that I just said as successes were seeds that we planted many years ago. It takes that type of longitudinal view to thrive in any market, leave alone in this type of market I would think.
MK For those of our viewers who are unaware, would you be able to give us a quick rundown around what Ripple is and what they hope to achieve by working within the crypto space?
DV The way I describe to my family and friends who are not in tech, in a nutshell, we work on solutions that move value, let's say money, instantly, inexpensively, transparently, and reliably around the world, 24 by 7. It's not just the nine to five when some banks are open. How do you do it all the time? And many of them resonate with that as they've had those not so great experiences as end users, so they understand what we do. I also add we are investing in a way that allows access and is affordable to all, including the unbanked, underserved, practical access to having that kind of economic freedom is super, super important. And nearly 10 years ago the founders of Ripple had this idea to create the internet of value where the money, as they called it value, moves as easily as information does today. If I want to send you an email or text, it's so instant today. Gone are those days where, “Did you get my email?” Or, “Did you get my text?” It's so highly reliable and it's almost free today. So that's how we think about our vision longitudinally. And at Ripple we build crypto solutions to transform the way we move value and how we manage that and tokenize those values. We are best known for our flagship product which is RippleNet that makes it possible for enterprises to deliver real time cross-border payments utilizing crypto instant, fast, secure, transparent with no prefunding or tie up to the capital. Since then we have expanded to introduce new solutions for enterprises that support crypto liquidity needs. In addition, we also propose and contribute tools, services, protocol development, and programs to developers that makes it easier to get started so that who I want to build on we contribute that in the XRP ledger, because we genuinely believe the vision that was set 10 years ago is way bigger than any one of us or all of us combined. We need more such Ripple-like companies to help address those unmet customer needs and so we contribute many of the things that we build towards the XRP ledger as well.
CW I think that's something that is so important, to be able to make it easy access to developers and stuff if you do want it to grow. And that's something that, I know myself as a developer, I've tried to experiment with the crypto space and then it cost me a lot of money just trying to experiment with it. And that's not great and I'm sure I'm not the only one in it. And so having that kind of easy access to play with it without risking your own funds as you play with it I think is really important to make it accessible for everyone.
DV Yeah, such a good point. For example, today as a software developer, it's so hard to imagine a world without all these cloud services that are out there, which is AWS, Google, Azure, and whatnot, because they have taken on the heavy lifting to build really hard, complex solutions so that rest of the world can focus on innovating on behalf of their customers rather than keep reinventing the not-so-differentiated needs between two companies. There's a lot of work like that that is happening in crypto and blockchain. It's very, very early days where it makes it easier for various builders throughout the world to innovate incrementally on behalf of their customers rather than having to reinvent. You could say in many things it's day one, and when it comes to that, it's really hour one on day one when it comes to crypto and blockchain. There's lots to be done there. There's a lot of interesting work that's going on around the many chains, including the XRP ledger that I was just mentioning.
BP So you have a background, as you mentioned, working in software, starting on-prem, and then you were Director of Software Development at Amazon and at Microsoft, you worked in delivery experience. I'd love to touch on those, but just one more question on the Ripple front first. When you look at performing a utility for a customer, like I know you mentioned cross-border transactions and I saw on the website something about remittance, which always seemed to me like an interesting use case for crypto. If you have to send money home to somebody or you want to cross borders and you want to avoid, as you mentioned, the time it might take through a traditional financial institution or you're unbanked or the fees are too high, perhaps some of these blockchains start to offer you interesting alternatives. So I'd be curious to hear what Ripple does for remittance. I guess the challenge it seems like, and I'd be curious to know how you, as someone with experience in software deal with this, is the issues of international law, financial security, regulatory compliance. You want to be able to innovate and move past those things, at the same time, I think what we're seeing now is some of the dangers of a largely unregulated securities market that maybe had boomed for a while unchecked and a lot of people were unaware of some of the downside risk when you're dealing with largely unregulated entities. So if you could just weigh in a little bit on that, like from the software engineer's perspective, how do you work in that space, how do you do it safely, and how do you actually provide utility to a customer?
DV Yeah, that's a great question. I'll touch on a couple of things. If you look at Ripple, the cross-border payments product that I mentioned which allows enterprise customers to move money with instant settlement, we've solved this by using cryptocurrency XRP as a bridge asset between two fiat currency pairs. In turn, our customers don't have to lock up capital in a prefund destination, thus freeing up working capital for them. Additionally, we also give access to optional credit lines to our customers as part of our RippleNet payments product which helps solve their liquidity challenges, not just in the payments, but throughout their organizations, such as internal treasury management and so forth. When you think about payment cross-border, you're mostly looking at international wire as an alternative or an aggregator that's using a service like parking capital. All of those add cost to your business. We provide a modern application built with technology that was literally created for this value movement which lets you settle funds and pay out right away all while saving our customers a lot of working capital kind of a thing. When it comes to the regulatory aspect of it, all the companies that we work with are regulated entities as well. We do those KYC sanction screenings, all of those are part of these processes. So when we think about solutions, we think about how do you ensure that what the respective regulatory needs are from a technology perspective, we are able to partner or address in a way where we are able to meet not only the sending country’s regulatory needs, but also who's on the receiving side. We have corresponding software and services that we connect with to do all of those compliance checks that you're just mentioning about.
BP Can you tell us a little bit about your time at Amazon? It seems like you had a couple different roles there, but I'm curious, what did you learn when it came to software engineering or managing developers there, and when it says delivery experience, what does that mean? Did you end up having to learn a lot about physical processes and logistics and shipping, or were you in the world of the app and the notifications and things like that?
DV So you're correct, in the last job before I took at Ripple I led delivery experience at Amazon. I spent 15 years there. I'll start maybe with your last question on what delivery experience means. My department, we wake up in the morning and think about what are the ways to improve delivery experience for the customers in a way where it improves our customers’ lives. For example, in the US my team was responsible for launching Prime two-day delivery into one day. We come up with product ideas such as that. We launched a program where we delivered four times a day, like loosely breakfast, lunch, dinner, and just before you go to bed. One of the things as a builder that I learned was there are a few things about having that customer-obsessed culture where you start from the customer and work backwards where there is no one swing that hits the home run. You have to have many swings with the bat, especially when you're solving problems at a global scale and really continuously iterating on it and having that tinker’s mindset are all very, very important from a longitudinal perspective. Those are some key lessons and takeaways for me from Amazon.
CW Do you find that you use those kinds of leadership principles that are very prevalent –I'm an ex-Amazon person too– those leadership principles at Ripple? Do you have some similar ones? I can tell from the way you talk that you have that customer obsession that is very, very key at Amazon, but are there other ones that you try to bring in day to day that have stuck with you?
DV Yeah. One that has stuck with me and that I see very consistently here at Ripple, we call it LEGGOS. For example, ownership, it's a big, big part to it, having that kind of insurgent founder's mentality of going and addressing all the unmet customer needs. We believe that problems don't age well, so we are very transparent in how we communicate, we insist on the highest standards on behalf of the customers here, and acting boldly, those are characteristics that you see here. Similar to many companies, as you can imagine, there's no roadmap to where we are going and there's going to be a lot of missed attempts or I would call it losses along the way. But at the end of it, when you succeed, the reward for the customers is very, very high. So we are totally okay with that process being a bit messy, but keep that eye on the final vision and how close we are to realizing that vision. Those are traits that you see consistently across Ripple. I'm thankful that when I joined from day one, those are things that I didn't skip a beat with. I was able to ramp up very quickly, because I joined during the virtual work from home period. Especially joining a new company has its own challenges, and these aspects of it I didn't skip a beat with in terms of that founder's mentality within the company.
MK I'm very curious, because throughout your career you did 11 years at Amazon, another 2.5 years at Microsoft, then another 3 years back at Amazon. You’re working in very established household names in industries that haven't quite matured but they've been around and they will continue to be around for a very long time. So I'm very curious as to going from working within industries like that and jumping to something as volatile and forward-thinking as your work with Ripple, what was the main motivation to leave those behind?
DV Yeah, I'll say two things. Maybe I'll just slightly change the premise of the question if that's okay with you. The interesting thing, these household names that you're talking about, I’ll speak for Amazon for example, there are thousands of startups within Amazon. So from the outside-in it looks like one big company, all the volatility, all the unproven ideas, competing for resources, all of that exists there as well. But going back to the spirit of your question, I've always been attracted to the idea of helping drive innovations to get people the fundamental necessities to how they live. And I genuinely believe to achieve that at a global scale it is essential to make fundamental breakthroughs and waking up every morning to work on such an opportunity is exciting. We all work from home, but even if it's in a physical place, I'm happy to jog to work every day to work on such an opportunity. It's such a cool thing to go work on. Crypto and blockchain present that same opportunity for builders to tackle a difficult problem, and when scaled and built well, it can have a very profound impact on the world. And secondly, I am genuinely inspired by people who have this long term view. I'm inspired by Ripple's vision, it's bold, it enables the world to move value the way information moves today. It’s pretty inspiring, and when I spoke with the leadership team first, and subsequently with various employees on the frontline as part of the interview process, I sensed the passion to raise the standards on behalf of underserved customers. And lastly, I genuinely believe the customer need is very durable in nature, the areas that we are focused on, and has the potential to be multiple large businesses. I believe we can intelligently expand the boundaries of what we offer as core to continue to improve customer experience. And you need to have such a kind of longitudinal focus because these are opportunities where there's no ceiling to what we can pursue.
BP All right, everyone. Thank you so much for listening. We really appreciate it. As always, we are going to shout out the winner of a badge. We're out of lifeboat badges, so folks need to get on that. So I will shout out someone who's been given a curious badge. They've asked a well received question on five separate days and maintained a positive question record. So thank you to Ram for coming on and helping spread some knowledge as well as asking a few questions and hopefully learning a few things. We appreciate it. I am Ben Popper, I'm the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. It really helps.
CW I'm Cassidy Williams. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things. I do developer experience and jokes and stuff.
MK And I'm Matt Kiernander. I'm a Developer Advocate here at Stack Overflow. My jokes aren't as good as Cassidy's, but you can find me on Twitter and YouTube @MattKander.
DV I'm Devraj Varadhan, I go by Dev. Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation. You can find out more about what Ripple does at ripple.com at our website.
BP Terrific. All right, everybody. Thanks for listening, and we will talk to you soon.
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