Meet STS Prasad, the unassuming engineer who’s seen it all

Back in the 80s, a young boy’s eyes would light up at the smallest mention of computers. His parents, though, had other plans for him. 

“My father was an engineer himself but felt that doctors added more value to society. He wanted me to become one.” Luckily for him, his father’s plans didn’t materialize and Chinna, as Taraka Subramanya Prasad Siripurapu was fondly known at home, found himself treading the path that would lead to him becoming Senior Vice President of Engineering at Freshworks. 

When I walk into STS Prasad’s spacious office, I expect to meet someone who is brimming with code,  jargon I would never be able to pronounce, and engineering concepts sure to fly over my head I am fully prepared to feel the kind of nervousness that comes with being around intelligence and excellence.

STS Prasad proves every single one of my assumptions wrong with his affable manner. 

At 55, STS, as he is addressed by everyone at Freshworks, exudes warmth, has a subtle joke waiting around the corner of his sentences, is deep, deliberate, and thoughtful in his ruminations and his work, and is wholeheartedly welcoming of me and my blundering knowledge of engineering. 

The scales were tipped in favor of Madras

Before we talk about the mammoth responsibilities and challenges he carries on his shoulders, we travel back in time to the little boy who nurtured a curiosity for mathematics and the then emerging field of computer science from Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district, where he studied from the fifth grade onward. “I was young and away from my parents for the first time but after I got over the initial homesickness, I thoroughly enjoyed it,’” recounts STS, thinking back to the best moments of his residential school adventure. My favorite anecdote, and his too, is the beautiful sixth grade friendship between him and the girl who would later become his wife.

STS Prasad
Sharanya had a very crucial part to play in STS arriving at the premier Indian Institute of Technology in Madras (now Chennai). “My father wanted me to get into a good engineering college. When I got a good rank in IIT-JEE, he was super happy and said I could go to Kanpur, Bombay, or Delhi… But I pushed the case for IIT-Madras so I could be closer to Sharanya,” grins STS with a twinkle in his eyes, and I am thoroughly convinced this is a love story for the ages.

Luckily for him, 1982 was the year IIT-Madras launched the computer science program at the B.Tech. level. “I was very lucky. I would have been in a difficult situation if they didn’t have a computer science program in IIT-Madras!” 

While almost everyone was thronging to get a degree in any of the engineering or medical branches, STS was very interested in computers. “It might sound nerdy or geeky now, but I was fascinated by the fact that you could control a machine by telling it exactly what to do.” 

He did not consider himself a social person and while that is hard to imagine today, STS was rather shy when he was younger. “I was not very good in terms of interacting with people,” he admits. “If I can’t interact with human beings to ask them to do what I want them to do, here’s a chance to at least tell a machine to do what I want it to do.”. 

With a B.Tech. in computer science from IIT-Madras and a Master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, STS stepped into the world of computer science engineering. 

The world was ripe with opportunities

“I had a very deep interest in database engineering and the first part of my career was in developing database engines,” says STS, who began his career back in India with HCL in 1988, working closely on building a database engine called Genesis on a System V Unix—the operating system that was just becoming popular at the time and still lives to this day. Over the next eight years, STS dabbled in tasks including database storage and query optimization systems, while also nurturing his leadership chops.

In 1996, STS found himself back in the US to work for Sybase, where he began to sharpen his expertise in SQL, a database language, before finding himself smack-dab in the middle of the dotcom boom.  

Riding the internet boom

What better place to experience the full blast of the possibilities the internet presented than to be in the thick of things in the San Francisco Bay Area? In 1997, STS joined forces with Junglee, which was his first encounter with the wonders of the internet. “We were looking at aggregating data from the web and providing a structured search across web data,” he says. Taking a pause, he adds, “And I’m talking pre-Google days,” giving me a layman’s context into the complexity and magnitude of what they were trying to build. They built a structured job search engine where a person looking for a job would answer relevant questions by filling out a form, and the search engine would crawl the web for various job listings and structure them for the candidate to consider.

STS Prasad
“So it was at Junglee where I had my first orientation to how the web works, and it was a completely different way of working,” he says. 

In 1998, Junglee was acquired by Amazon, where STS continued his work for the next three years as an architect and technical lead for Amazon Marketplace. “We were essentially building on what we were doing at Junglee but instead of a job search, Amazon was more interested in product search,” he explains. At Amazon, STS and his team asked themselves the question—if someone external is selling something, can we help our customers find it on our site if they need it?—and worked backward from there. By improving on Junglee’s web data aggregation technology, they developed Amazon Marketplace, which enables third parties to list their products on the site. “So Junglee became a sort of precursor to the marketplace on Amazon.”

As we continue chatting, I notice a perceptible shift in STS’s tone and energy as his eyes brighten further. “Then I was bitten by the startup bug,” he says modestly. 

The startup bug 

After three years at Amazon, STS co-founded Aventeon, a global enterprise software company, and helmed it from 2001 to 2005.

“It was very ambitious for its time,” STS admits. Once again, it was one simple question that the company worked on: “How do we use mobile devices to enable employees to access enterprise data outside the office?” Remember, there were no smartphones yet—which made the proposition all the more interesting. Upto the late 90s and early 2000s, cellular services were just voice, and not data. When Aventeon was founded, cellular data was just becoming available. “And we wanted to use data connectivity between people working from outside the office, and those at the home office,” he says.  

With Europe as their main customer base, Aventeon allowed porting data from enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications to mobile phones. Shuttling between the US, India, and parts of Europe, STS built the product and scaled the company with his team. 

In 2005, it was once again time to move ahead. Armed with his varied experience across database engineering, data clustering, and mobile applications, STS joined Kosmix, another thriving startup in the US that was founded by the same people who helmed Junglee. This team was once again building a search-oriented application, but this time the focus was on verticalized search. 

“At some point through the journey with Kosmix, the social media storm hit us,” says STS. Twitter, Facebook and many other social media platforms came to life. It was only natural that engineering technology embraced the social media explosion and merged with it. STS and team realized that instead of building search engines, they could use their categorization technology to apply to tweets, Facebook posts and the like, and provide current and relevant information to the end users.

STS Prasad

That’s how Kosmix morphed into more of a social media engine, and this paved the way for Walmart to acquire Kosmix in 2011—which, in turn, gave rise to Walmart Labs. As Vice President of Engineering, STS was a part of the founding team from 2011-2016, essentially scaling the company from 100 people in 2011 to about 2,500 in 2016—and this included setting up an office in Bangalore in 2012. (The Bangalore office had its own rapid growth and scaled to over 500 people in 2016.) 

By now, STS had seen a rollercoaster of a career that took him through a lot of exciting engineering hoops. But little did he imagine that the next defining moment would land him back in Chennai—his hometown. 

A fresh opportunity knocks 

In a blustery May of 2016, STS was in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India, trying to find the right fit for the next leg of his career. That’s when he caught wind of an up and coming SaaS startup in Chennai, Freshworks. 

Soon enough, when he found himself face-to-face with Girish Mathrubootham, he was impressed with the vision that G, as the founder and CEO of Freshworks is fondly known, had for the company. He knew, almost instinctively, that he wanted to be a part of the journey that would bring that vision to fruition. 

Freshworks was already six years old and had already expanded into a multi-product entity, with plans for more to be added in the kitty already in motion. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to bring my experience of growing a company to the Indian context. I wanted to be able to do that,” STS says. 

At Freshworks, STS has played a crucial role in scaling the engineering teams and helping them work at their best potential with out-of-the-box thinking. Be it giving engineers firsthand interactions with customers, the Freshwave model—a method of working as a startup within a startup by forming separate squads for individual functions—the birth of Freddy, the Freshworks omnibot, or expanding the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), STS is only looking to spread his wings further with the potential that he finds Freshworks to be brimming with. 

Yes, Freshworks and Chennai do seem to suit STS and he is looking forward to new opportunities and challenges that await him.  Of course, there was the added advantage of moving back to his hometown, along with Sharanya. “I have great connections to Madras,” says STS, chuckling fondly in reminiscence. And of course,  coming back after 20 years means that Madras was no longer the city he once knew—there were no more quiet and empty beaches or roads, the city had grown—but his love for his hometown remains.