Episode #036: Senthil Padmanabhan, Vice President, Fellow at eBay
Before you start a new digital project, are you asking yourself how this new project will directly benefit your customers? Is it addressing an area they’ve asked you to improve? Do you have data showing that an improvement will drive an increase in customer satisfaction? Or, does the project merely implement the newest technology or is an initiative that your internal really want to implement? While it’s possible that both of these could drive an increase in customer satisfaction, doesn’t it make more sense to find out what your customers actually wanted you to improve first? And, once you have a list of enhancements from your customers then you need to focus on the ones that matter the most. No one can implement every change you have to consider the impact of the change with the resources needed. In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk to the Vice President, Fellow at eBay, Senthil Padmanabhan, about how work becomes fun when you have a career you’re passionate about, the importance of learning about Docker containers and web components, and why you need to always ask how a digital project is going to benefit your customers before you get started.
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Stephanie Cox (VP of Sales and Marketing at Lumavate): I'm Stephanie Cox and this is Mobile Matters. Today, I'm joined by Senthil Padmanabhan. Senthil is the Vice President Fellow eBay where he leads the front end and user experience engineering across marketplace. Since joining eBay 8 years ago, Senthil has transformed eBay's technology platform with his outside the box projects and initiatives. His leadership has paved the way for rapid software development and innovation across the entire organization, and he was recognized as one 2018 honorees for the Silicon Valley Business Journal 40 under 40. Currently in his role as a technical fellow he leads the web platform for eBay, specifically focused on efforts to make eBay experiences faster across the web IOS and Android. Before joining, he was a software engineer with the Yahoo Mail Team. In this episode Senthil and I talk a lot about how finding a career you are passionate about makes work not actually feel like work, why there's value in saying no to 99 things and yes to one, and what he really likes about web components and docker containers. And make sure you stick around until the end where I’ll give my recap and top takeaways so that you can not only think about mobile differently, but implement it effectively. Welcome to the show Senthil. I am super excited to talk to you about a ton of tech topics, but one of the things I want to know is, how did you get started in tech and get where you are today at eBay?
Senthil Padmanabhan (Vice President and Fellow at eBay): It all started when my mom enrolled me in a programming class course in sixth grade. It was about basic programming language and that was one of the topics in those days. And it was very fascinating for me that you get one set of instructions and the computer in front of you starts executing them. I think it was the moment that I got hooked up into it, and there was no turning back. So, in school I did various courses about computer science and software engineering and that was always the thing that I wanted to do. Similarly, in my undergrad, out of all the subjects, I always preferred to do computer science and my master's was also in software engineering. So, even if I had not had a job in computer science or software engineering, I'd probably do that as a hobby. And now, I'm getting paid to do my hobby. I think that's how I look at it. And so, when you do things that you really love to do every day and you put 100% into it, it sooner or later starts reflecting into your career itself and that is one of the reasons that I'm here.
Stephanie Cox: I love that you said it's like your hobby turned into your career and how important it is to love what you do. That's one of the things I talk to a lot of people about is when you love what you do, work doesn't feel like work.
Senthil Padmanabhan: Right. That's exactly right. It's like a vacation every day.
Stephanie Cox: It's like a stressful vacation. So, tell me a little bit about your role at eBay and what you're responsible for overall.
Senthil Padmanabhan: I'm a technical fellow at eBay. I lead a lot of initiatives here at the company. So, it's mostly technical initiatives. A couple of things that I did recently was I wrote the whole initiative to migrate eBay.com to HTTPS to Secure Protocol. Before that, I worked in the accelerated mobile pages project, AMP, and I brought that into eBay and lately I've been leading an initiative called Speed, which is to make the whole eBay experience across native and web faster. So, I'm an individual contributor and I have teams from various cross organizations working with me. And that's pretty much what I do.
Stephanie Cox: That goes great into my next question. When you think about strategy for the web and mobile at eBay, how do you figure out what you should be doing or what projects you should tackle next?
Senthil Padmanabhan: So, by mobile, do you mean native or web? Because there is mobile web, too, right?
Stephanie Cox: So, I love to define mobile as anything that is not a desktop computer. So that includes mobile devices, that could be on mobile web or native mobile. It could be wearables, it could be voice, even.
Senthil Padmanabhan: So the way, at eBay, we look at it is we do web and native. We don't think that it competes with each other. We actually think they complement each other and they complement each other very well. So, it comes to the core value of our company, which is to build the best experience for your customers, irrespective of what platform they are. They can be on iOS, they can be on Android, they can be on the web, they can be on mobile web, it doesn't matter. They have to get the best experience and a consistent experience. Because at the end of the day, if you see a customer it’s not just on one platform. They may be on your network platform and then they come to the web platform, later in the day. We just want to have a seamless transition there. So, that is one thing that we clearly love to do at eBay and that's the thing that we focus on a lot. And in general, if you take mobile web–mobile web is one of our biggest user acquisition channels. A lot of new users onboard onto the eBay platform through mobile web. So, we want to make a good first appearance there. And we take extra care in making sure our mobile experiences are well optimized and well delivered for our customers. In fact, a lot of times, we do mobile first. But that is always mobile intuitive, because that is the bigger spectrum of what our customers are. Any product we launch, it's always the mobile angle that comes first.
Stephanie Cox: Earlier you mentioned, accelerated mobile pages (AMP) and how you worked on a project at eBay for that. Can you tell me a little bit about why you gave AMP a try and what you were trying to accomplish with it?
Senthil Padmanabhan: This again goes back to my previous point. Like one of the reasons we thought about AMP was to give a good customer experience. A lot of eBay users come to eBay through search engines and, in this case, Google. And this is particularly true in mobile devices, when a lot of our users are in physical stores. They want to compare products online. So, they want to see a price match. They want to do some comparative analysis and they go on Google about the product there. And eBay, as a shop, and we want to make sure those results are rendered to our customers in the fastest way possible, because they are mostly on an internet connection that is very variable; They are inside a store, they are on the go. And AMP sort of normalizes it through AMP cache and preloading. So, we thought that we should get that benefit to our customers. And that was one of the main reasons we went behind AMP, is to make sure that when they Google, when they come from external search engines, they get the best experience possible.
Stephanie Cox: And I know you're still early on your journey with AMP for eBay, but how is it going so far?
Senthil Padmanabhan: It is going good. I mean, we have increased sessions. The conversion is pretty neutral. We're still working on some of the backing implementations. But the thing to note here is this: That email already has a well-optimized mobile web experience. A lot of the patterns that we see in AMP is already being done at eBay in our mobile experiences. So the speed benefit is something that we already get. With AMP, we get that first initial quick instant rendering and after that, it's our platform which takes control of it. So, this is expected and we are in that journey and we'll see how it goes.
Stephanie Cox: When you were speaking earlier about some of the initiatives that you've led at eBay, one of the things that came to my mind was around innovation. So at eBay overall, how do you think about innovating and trying the latest and greatest in technology and pushing the envelope?
Senthil Padmanabhan: I think the thing that I like about eBay is that we don't get carried away by the new fancy stuff. The new technology that enters the market every other day. I mean, that's the world we live in, right? We are bombarded with all these new things every day. Having said that it doesn't mean that we don't try new things or to innovate. We do that everyday in our work. We try to innovate and come up with new ideas. But we all ask one question for our products to be launched. It's: "What difference does it make to our customers?" It's a very simple question. And this question really helps us keep grounded, keeps us in reality and makes sense that the product we deliver adds value to our customers. And that is one thing I keep telling to our teams. The real skill these days is to say no to 99 things and say yes to one thing that really matters to our customers, and that's how we look at innovation at eBay. It is about what value, at the end of the day, it adds to our customers.
Stephanie Cox: Another topic that I know you've spoken on a lot before is mentorship. And so when you're thinking about that, what role do you think other web development leaders should be playing in mentoring younger talent? And then also, what role have you played yourself in doing that?
Senthil Padmanabhan: One issue that I constantly see young talent struggle with is, again, it’s point that I mentioned earlier, information overload. They get bombarded with so much information every day that they constantly struggle with it. They want to be on top of everything, but it's humanly not possible for us to know everything that's happening in the world. This is one of the things I tell the people that I mentor and that I also tell other leaders that you should tell your teams: Don't worry about all the things that are happening. Nobody can follow them. Focus on the specific things that you are working on that are important to you, and go deep into them. So you will start focusing on them, you'll be good at it, and eventually you'll be great at it if you just focus on that small number of things that you need to do. This is one of the top mentorship suggestions that I give to the people that I mentor. And I also suggest the same to the people that I work with.
Stephanie Cox: I think that's a really great point. There are so many, I call them, shiny objects: new technologies, new ways of doing things. It's almost like how you're bombarded with ads. I feel like tech players and people in tech roles are bombarded with new technologies and the latest and greatest, and how do you figure out what is the right option for your business, and what is literally a flash in the pan that six months from now we're never gonna talk about again?
Senthil Padmanabhan: Right. I think that is the key differentiator here and that's where you have to be very good at saying no. You should just not get carried away with things that come at you every day. You should do some deep analysis and see what's the difference that eventually it’s going to make. And I think that's a good point and that's a question we keep asking.
Stephanie Cox: So thinking about that, one of the other challenges we have is really, how do you figure out what is going to move things forward for your business and is going to be not just a flash in the pan, but really a long term tech strategy? So thinking about the web in general, where do you think the future of the web is headed and what should people be paying attention to right now?
Senthil Padmanabhan: To answer that question, I think we can derive that answer from the past itself. If you've seen the web in the past, the history has shown us that it has had a rollercoaster ride. But at the end, the web always comes out strong. In the desktop days–the old desktop days–you’d see a lot of email clients that used to be desktop apps. And now we all use web-based clients for email. We use web based-clients for documentation, Excel presentations and things like that. And, similarly, the same thing happened when the mobile smartphone thing came up. That NATO was trying to take over everything, the web talks about the web being dead, but that didn't happen. The Web is still relevant, the Web is still closing the gaps with native. And again, it will just be acting along the side with equal power. I think the uniqueness about the web is the openness, the discoverability and the distribution that you get through platform independence. Any device in the world has a browser in it these days and if you have a browser, you have the web. That's how simple it is. Until you have these unique characteristics, I think the web is definitely going to have a bright future. And with every technology wave that we are seeing, the web has a major part of it. That's how I look at the future of the web, is as a combination of that all of these things that are happening. But the Web itself has this fundamental characteristics that is going to take us much farther.
Stephanie Cox: So, thinking about that, what are the biggest opportunities that you see, or other leaders should be seeingt, for where the Web is headed that they should be taking advantage of today?
Senthil Padmanabhan: There's a lot of areas there that the Web is headed. I think the Web is going to be unanimous everywhere. One specific area that I feel very interesting going forward is that every device around–not just the smartphones, but from your locks, to your washing machines, to your refrigerators–they are all becoming smart devices and smart appliances going forward. I think any visual feedback that these devices are going to provide is going to happen to the web platform. I think that's one area that I would start thinking that the Web is headed toward. It is not possible to have a native implementation in all of these devices across that is one standard implementation, and that's the Web I think the Web is going to be present beyond just what you're seeing in your desktop and your phones. I think that is the area that I would start thinking and focusing on going forward when people want to just have interactivity in everything they do. And I think the web has a major role to play in that.
Stephanie Cox: So, if you got to wave a magic wand and control where the Web is headed, what would you like to see happen in the next 3-5 years on the web?
Senthil Padmanabhan: The web is evolving at a very rapid pace. To be honest with you, there are so many innovations that are happening in the platform. They're trying to close the gap with native and things like that. And I think that's good. I think that's the thing that we need with the Web. But I think that should also accelerate. I'm thinking if you asked me for a couple of things, I would say agreement on standards. And, yet, I want diversity among browsers. Because that ensures the checks and balances. So, standards helped web developers a lot, so that they can start thinking about the future and start not worrying about varied implementations. They can do with one implementation and it starts working everywhere. And there's also diversity that helps to keep everything in control, so that just one party doesn't take over things and have it that way. I think that's a good thing about the web too, and these are the two things I would say that I would want. Agreement on standards and diversity among browsers.
Stephanie Cox: One of the hot topics right now and the conversation around the web is the impact of web components and Docker containers, and what that could do for web development. So, what's your position on that? What do you think is possible with it? What do you think are the limitations?
Stephanie Cox: Yeah!
Senthil Padmanabhan: Docker containers have become the go-to destination mechanism for applications right now. I mean, everybody just loves them. I think they are very developer-friendly. And, especially for web development, they guarantee a consistent environment that provides the domestic output. I mean, this is something that we have been struggling to get for a long time and finally Docker containers give it. So I think that's why the Web community, and generally the engineering community, is embracing Docker containers a lot.
Stephanie Cox: One of the things that I've noticed, and I don't know if it's an accurate representation of the community as a whole, is that there is a strong desire to move towards more of a containerization with Docker. But there actually seems to be a little bit of a skills gap with at least some of the engineers I've talked to who have no experience with Docker yet. And their companies are wanting to move forward with it. So, what do you think about someone learning how to create Docker containers and use those?
Senthil Padmanabhan: It is like learning any new technology for that matter. I think Docker comes with some of the basic principles of computer science and some of the things that you would learn with the Unix world. I think those things are part of Docker containers. There will be some learning curve. I would invest my engineering or my company resources to train the engineers on learning it, because it's one-time and that's going to have a lot of usage down the line. It's going to reap a lot of benefits down the line. I will probably put a training plan in place for that and allow engineers to onboard it. But based on my experience, engineers self-learn it very quickly and once they have that, there's no turning back at all.
Stephanie Cox: So, we've talked about web components, Docker, we've talked about AMP. What are the other areas that maybe aren't as hot right now in the development community that leaders really need to start paying attention to? Or other areas, just in general, we think about just development overall?
Senthil Padmanabhan: I mean, one thing that I would say is empathy towards customers. The point of technology is ultimately to solve a customer problem. You can be an enterprise company or a consumer-based company, but you have customers. And I think if you put yourself in the customer's eye, I think that's what will give you the real solution to the problems. And at times engineers, including myself, get carried away by all this technology stuff. But over time, I have learned that the thing is that the technology itself is not important, the value it provides for your customers is what is important. And we start focusing and paying your attention to what stuck. I think things start falling in place and things start working out well.
Stephanie Cox: I completely agree. I think one of the things too that I think of a lot that is really related to development but also not, is the idea of just diversity in tech. So, I'd love to hear your point of view on how we can think about improving diversity in tech.
Senthil Padmanabhan: It is a very important topic. And I believe in the statement that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. And we have to make opportunity also universal. And the way we can make it is through awareness. Currently, I see that as lack of awareness, and a lot of folks not even knowing that this opportunity is present. And sometimes they know the opportunity is present, but they don't know how to approach that opportunity. And sometimes they just feel that they may not be the right candidate for the opportunity, although they are. I mean, if you see this level of lack of awareness across various levels, I think we should start addressing this problem. I think everybody in the world if they know they are skilled in something, they should know where the opportunities are and they should have clarity on how to approach those opportunities. At eBay this is, again, one of our core values, is to be richly diverse, and this is what we tried to do. We tried to make these opportunities available for everyone, at scale. And this is not going to happen overnight. But I think if you keep doing this eventually we will be in a place where this problem gets fixed.
Stephanie Cox: One of the other things I think a lot of people can learn from someone like you, given your experience, is really how to be successful in this type of role. So, if you're talking to someone and they are either getting ready to go into college or fresh out of college and they're in a development career, what's that one piece of advice that you would want to give them so that they can get started on the right foot?
Senthil Padmanabhan: I would say focus on the basics. And even before that, right? I would say when you start when you start your career, you need to know clearly what you want to do. Everybody has been in that pair of shoes where we think that we know this is what we want to do, but we will not get the right thing to do. And so, we just go along, keep going. That is fine for some time, but eventually, you have to make a decision and see, is this the right thing that you're doing? Is this what you really love to do? And then make a decision on that. The problem is a lot of people procrastinate on their decision and they procrastinate for a long time. And by that time, all the peak opportunities are gone. So, I would say that when you start your career, it's fine. You get started on something. But, over time, you've got to clearly see what is it that you really like. Is that what you are doing and what you're supposed to do. And is that making you happy and really productive and then make the decision there?
Stephanie Cox: That is so true. One of the things I talked to a lot of people about, especially when they're early on in their career, regardless of what industry and role they play. One of the best things you can do fresh out of school in your first job or two is learned what you're good at and what you enjoy doing, and what you're not good at but want to get better at it. And then my favorite, which is, I'm good at it, but please don't ever make me do it again. And that to me is so crucial because to your earlier point we first started talking about this idea of if you can find something that you're good at, that you enjoy doing, work isn't really work.
Senthil Padmanbhan: Exactly. Yes.
Stephanie Cox: So, I wish that more people could find that.
Senthil Padmanbhan: I think that that's what we should do. I think that would be the ultimate goal right. And when you actually get to a feeling that your work is not work, I think then it's already you're successful in what you're doing.
Stephanie Cox: Exactly.
Stephanie Cox: I really love hearing Senthil’s take on increasing diversity in tech because he really came out it from a different perspective that I believe is so important for all of us to consider. Diversity in tech isn't possible without people understanding what's possible for them, which means awareness is key. If you don't realize you could have a career in tech because no one ever told you that was a possibility, then how would you know that potential career path you could take and how do you look for the opportunity. As leaders we've got to do a better job of sharing what's possible with a career in tech, how we got started, and making sure younger Generations see this as a potential career path for them. It reminds me of the great work that nonprofit organizations like Project Lead the Way and Code.org are doing. They're exposing children to the potential for career in tech at a young age, which means they're going to be more likely to see that as a potential career opportunity for them later in life. And honestly that's how we really need to start thinking about diversity and how true diversity in tech can happen. Now let's get to my favorite part of the show where we take the education and apply it to your business.
There are so many great insights from my conversation with Senthil that can really help transform how you think about mobile marketing and digital experiences. Let’s dive into my top three takeaways. First, life is too short to not love what you do, and I really mean that. I'm a firm believer that you should love what you do and that means you should enjoy your job. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that every day at work is going to be all puppies and rainbows. But if you're passionate about what you're doing at work, it typically doesn’t feel like work. Getting paid to do what you love is something I wish more people could experience. It makes the hard days at work worth it, and it enables you oftentimes to achieve more than you ever thought possible. I know this because I've experienced it before and I have that right now. I absolutely love what I do which means work is challenging and fun. If you're not feeling challenged while you're also enjoying what you're doing, then it's time to really think about what you're passionate about. I’ll repeat it again, life is too short to not love what you do.
Next, we’ve talked multiple times on previous episodes about the importance of focusing on the customer, but it's worth repeating again. We need to focus on building the best customer experience and that means we need to be constantly asking ourselves what difference will this make to our customers? Are we using new technology just for the sake of using it. And trust me, I get the excitement around shiny objects. We've all been distracted by them. But will it truly provide value to our customers? Will it make their experience better? So they become brand advocates, increase their spend, refer their friends and so forth. And that means you likely have to say no to so many things, or 99 Senthil says so you can say yes to that one. There's a ton of value in saying no. We all need to get better at doing that, myself included. Finally, it's impossible for everyone to know everything, especially in this world of information overload that we all live in, and that's why it's so critical to focus on the basics and I think what Senthil said provides a good reminder of that concept in our conversation. No one can be an expert on everything but you can learn the basics of your career path and then become expert in one area of your career. I think this is super valuable feedback as new graduates enter the workforce. No one really expects you to know everything all the time, but we do want you to have a strong understanding of the fundamentals and the desire to learn.
Now, here's my challenge for the week. If you're not familiar with web components and Docker containers, two of the topics that Senthil and I talked about in our conversation, you really need to start educating yourself on these topics. They're really hot in the development landscape and they're helping people become more efficient than ever before. So spend 15 to 20 minutes diving into each one and you'll start to see quickly the value they can provide.
I’m Stephanie Cox and you've been listening to mobile matters. If you haven't yet be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast until then be sure to visit Lumavate.com and subscribe to get more access to thought leaders, best practices, and all things mobile.