TL;DR at the end of the post for the lazy fellows

Email overload! Don’t we all hate it? But, every once in a while, an email comes along, which proves us wrong. A little more than a year ago, one such mail landed in my office mail box. It was about an online lecture detailing how HANA works (to be specific, the prototype, SansoucciDB), by none other than Hasso Plattner, one of the co-founders of the company. Being the enthusiastic kid who laps up every oppurtunity to learn, I signed up for it. No one knew that this would be the beginning of a very interesting journey.

My college, BITS Pilani, has been conducting online courses for a few years. I had also heard of similar attempts by the IITs, and had even downloaded the (very popular) MIT-OCW content for a course. But, I had never actually attended a complete course, so I was a little skeptical as to whether I would complete it. A few of my close friends from office also signed up for the course, so there was some hope. The course started, and we were excited to hear Hasso Plattner speak.

Having intern-ed at a place where SAP’s ERP was the primary transaction software, and the primary analysis software was provided by a different company, I had some idea of the amount of byte-pushing that happens in most corporate networks today. Also, the place had a lot of custom development on top of SAP as it was a forging industry. Hence, when Hasso Plattner spoke about the unification of OLTP and OLAP as well as the simplification of application development, I was hooked.

As a Finance student, I had been introduced to SQL, and the basics of a database. My experience with phpMyAdmin, and web development in general, also meant that I had used databases (MySQL to be specific). However, I had never learnt the internal workings of a database. The course was thus a revelation. I learnt how data is stored on the disk level, queries are planned, executed and how they could be optimised.

The first 2 weeks were pretty easy to understand, as the basic concepts were being outlined. Most of us friends did the weekly assignments and started enjoying the course. However, as the course progressed, the regular office work load increased. Also, the course content was starting to get tougher. We employed one of the oldest tricks of hostel life, and split up the weekly course content among ourselves. We would watch the videos, read the slides and the reading material over the weekend, and then meet up on Monday afternoons to explain our parts to everyone else. Thankfully, the course content was well organized and we did not have any hitches while doing this. After this quick session, we would sit and solve the weekly assignment.

The course completed, and me and 2 of my close friends had almost the same scores. We were all pretty happy that we completed the course and learned something new. And then, one fine day, I received a mail from one of the professors at the Hasso Plattner Institute. The mail was sent to the top 10 percentile (in scores) students, and asked whether we would be interested in pursuing further opportunities at the institute. With some trepidation, I replied that I would be interested in an internship. By then, I had just completed a year at the company, and I was starting to learn beyond the basics at my job. I had a career plan, and going for this opportunity would throw a spanner in the works. I was also sad about this, as my friends had just missed out on the top 10 percentile and were not included in this group.

Things took their own sweet time, but at the end of it all, I was offered a fellowship at the SAP Innovation Center, Potsdam. The main task of the center is to collaborate with the Hasso Plattner Institute on behalf of the company. This offer was extended to a few other people too. I was ecstatic, but also a little worried. I knew that it would not be easy to get approvals from management as I was slowly starting to become a core member of the team. However, things worked out, and my manager was extremely supportive about the whole thing.

Last week, I handed over my tasks with the current team, spent a couple of days at my home, and travelled to Potsdam. Co-incidentally, I travelled exactly a year later, on the day I received the first email. I now look forward to an exciting 6 months here, where I will hopefully produce something of value.

This experience has reiterated some advice I received (and later observed) when I was trying to choose between continuing work at a startup, and working for my current company:

  • You get better, more structured opportunities to learn at a larger company. Learning at startups has an amazing pace, and a very steep curve. However, the focus is very intense, and we just learn enough to get the job at hand done. When it comes to understanding the concepts, playing around with code and not being penalized too much for spending your own time, large companies are closer to college/university.
  • The leverage you get for work and it’s impact is a lot more. This is a game of sheer numbers. Most of the startups have products that are used by a fairly limited number of people. Also, most of the problems today’s cutting edge startups solve, are what the internet calls First World problems (which movie to watch, what are my friends doing, how do I spend my weekend?). On the other hand, my current company has software that is used across the globe, and affects a majority of the industry. Take a look at your daily life, I can guarantee that more than half the products have passed through our software as bits at some point of time or the other in their life cycle.
  • (Generic) A LOT matters on being at the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. If I had missed or ignored the mail announcing the course, none of this would have ever happened. Who knows, I might have missed another interesting oppurtunity while I was busy running around completing the formalities for this travel. But then, life is never fair ;).
  • (Generic) Building relationships, whether professional or personal, matters. I still suck at this, and am trying my best to improve on it.

If you’re interested in attending the course, and learning what I did, head over to the OpenHPI site and sign up for this year’s edition of the course. It starts in the last week of August.

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TL;DR: Attended the OpenHPI course on In-Memory Database Management. Performed well in the assignments. Attending a fellowship at the SAP Innovation Center, Potsdam. Course starts again end of August.