Online shopping creates an unparalelled experience for customers through the sheer variety of products and ease of use. But the same technology also provides an opportunity for fraud through inappropriate usage.

Chhavi Yadav, our next pathbreaker, is part of the Data Science team at Walmart Labs, tasked with building smart Machine Learning models for a better customer experience.

Chhavi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about pursuing a career in Machine Learning after being exposed to the impact of smart algorithms in a simulated autonomous car scenario at Mercedes Benz.

For students, if you love technology , look at the challenges and obstacles in implementing technology and try to build a career addressing them!


Chhavi, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Pune. Having lived there for two decades, I completed my education, from nursery to undergraduate in Pune. I was interested in a lot of things growing up, so every year I tried to learn something new – one year I did bharatanatyam, the other I tried guitar, then harmonium, karate and so on. Once 10th standard started, studies took priority. However, I was always a good student, I didn’t hate studying, so I was fine with it. I remember being very interested in Hindi and Chemistry, we had some amazing teachers for these subjects. (Although I ended up with Engineering.) My parents are not from STEM, nor do they have any degrees. Even though they could not guide me, they provided a sound study environment at home.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied Electronics and Telecommunications (E&Tc) Engineering at the University of Pune. It was a nice mix of physics, maths, hardware, signals and computer science. My master’s is in Computer Science from New York University.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Neither my parents nor I had any idea about where I should head to after high school. There was no career plan whatsoever. I had chosen physics, chemistry, math and computer science as high school electives because of my scientific inclination. I thank the younger me for making this decision. 

After that, it was a roller coaster ride. Exams after exams barely left me any time to think deeply about what I wanted to do. Also I did not have much guidance. I blindly took the engineering tests that everyone was taking, and filled admission forms. A relative told me that Computer Science or Electronics & Telecommunication were good streams. So I went ahead with whichever course I was eligible for at a highly ranked college. It turned out to be E&Tc at the University of Pune.

(By the way, E&Tc is a great stream of engineering, it opened up my mind to a lot of topics due to its interdisciplinary nature.)

During my undergrad, and also after working at a leading company for a couple of months, I realized the world of today is run by innovations in CS (Computer Science) and software products. Coding was something I enjoyed a lot. I also missed college while at work.This led to the decision of pursuing a Master’s degree in CS. I wanted to dive right in and be at the best place for CS innovation and opportunities, (and also study somewhere other than Pune) so I ended up choosing the US for further studies.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Looking back, I think I did not have a ‘plan’ for furthering my career before pursuing my master’s. Until then, I enjoyed reading my books a little too much. Also, I wanted to travel during vacations instead of interning, so I did not do a single internship during my undergrad. Luckily, since my foundations were strong, I did not have much problem finding a job. I had participated in a couple of Robotics & Renewable Energy design related competitions and also did some interesting projects for my coursework which helped my case. We have a very good campus recruitment cell at college, so a lot of amazing companies visit us. Fortunately, I was hired by one of the leading auto companies on the planet, Mercedes-Benz, through campus placement. At Benz, our group of new joinees was given a 6-month training about everything from the physics of how a car runs, to the mechanical aspects to the electronics that goes into it. The most exciting part to me however was the toy group project where we delved deep into autonomous cars. We simulated an autonomous car scenario with smart algorithms. This gave me a sense of the enormous power of algorithms, they exponentially increased the capability of a hardware. That’s when I decided to further my studies in CS. (Although things worked out for me without an internship, I highly recommend everyone to do internships. It does make a lot of difference if you intern at the right places.

However, the decision was made pretty late. I had 3 months in hand to complete a lot of formalities. I still had to take GRE & TOEFL. I could easily book a spot for TOEFL, but booking a seat for GRE was a challenge. The centers in Bangalore or my hometown did not have a single seat left. I booked one at a relative’s place in another city and flew there to take the exam. I was doing all this while attending the training program in office, which was very demanding in itself, because I had to take tests there as well. So I had almost no time or mental energy left after coming home from office. TOEFL is by nature easy so I did not prepare much other than looking at the pattern. For GRE, even though more preparation is necessary in most cases, I prepared little to none. Fortunately, I did better than average. Even though my GRE scores weren’t the best, I thought they were okay and I could make up for them via my profile. I applied to 6 schools that impressed me with their research, out of which I got into one. Looking back, I should have started earlier and applied to more schools.

I will forever be grateful to NYU for taking a chance on me and exposing me to the amazing world of research out there. If you ask me why they selected me, I think it was because I had done well academically all throughout my life, with very little guidance at home and school.

Entering my master’s, I quickly came to the conclusion that my laid back approach was not going to work here and I should have a plan. I talked to a couple of seniors to get a sense of how stuff worked in the US. Only now did I begin to realize the importance of networking and internships. Even though I had some plans for a PhD, I wasn’t sure and wanted to have a safety backup in the form of a job. Internships and work experience make it easier to find one.

Things are already tough when one comes to an entirely new place for the first time ever, add to that the transition from E&Tc to CS. Even though I knew programming, I knew nothing about Algorithms. Plus I was trying to do some research on the side. This led to a very hectic first semester in college. I finally started to look for an internship during my second semester. This was already too late for the big companies. (If you want an internship, start looking 2 semesters earlier) I applied almost everywhere and finally got two of them! I chose to intern at an online education company, Udacity. I remember watching lectures on Udacity during my undergrad. I was mesmerized by them. I wondered if I could ever be an instructor then and now here I was, at Udacity studios, recording lectures for their Deep Reinforcement Nanodegree. After an amazing summer, I came back to university. During the remaining time at university, my major priorities were : Research and finding a job. I dedicated the entire winter break to improving my coding skills and applying to jobs simultaneously. This paid off in the form of multiple interview requests in the new year. A zillion applications and interviews later, I was able to score 2 good offers. Meanwhile my research was also going as planned. I decided to apply for a PhD in the upcoming season.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was getting into NYU. Previously I had never really thought about what I wanted to do in life. This forced me to take control of my life in my hands and think deeply about my career. Getting out of my comfort zone taught me a lot not only in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of worldly skills that a lot of times we happen to overlook.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: Not having any plan. Being an international master’s student brings with it a lot of visa related restrictions. It is very easy to lose track of where you are going without goals. So it is good to have a high level plan to meet those goals. I talked to seniors who had been through the drill. Having a group of peers in a similar situation as me, also helped a lot.
  • Challenge 2: Finding a job/internship during master’s. It is a particularly difficult situation if the only job hunt experience you have is that of campus placements. Networking and applying to a lot of companies is the key, given you keep improving your technical skills on the way. I did some research and focused on enhancing my skills in the areas commonly touched upon during interviews.
  • Challenge 3: Career Transition. Even though I knew programming, switching from E&Tc to CS, while trying to find a job and do some research, took a toll. I wish I had anticipated this and done some preparation in advance before starting my master’s. I worked harder than other students but after 1-2 semesters, I was as good as others. Since I switched from E&Tc to CS, it was essential that I improve my skills on the go while giving interviews.

Where do you work now? 

Currently I work at Walmart Labs, which is the Machine Learning powerhouse of Walmart’s eCommerce business. I am a part of the Data Science team. I acquired a major part of the skills needed for this job during my master’s and with some online courses. I love that my work along with providing serious technical challenges.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work is crucial in ensuring that buyers/customers get quality products on Walmart.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

During my undergrad I did a couple of projects that I am very proud of. One of them was about designing a water filtration system without using electricity for a rural school. We used a combination of non-traditional energy generation systems and different types of filtration mechanisms to do so. We researched quite a lot about it. The fun part was the realization that almost all of the technology needed to build such a system already existed, it was just a matter of ingenious amalgamation of what already existed in order to scale.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students would be to have a rough plan about what you want to do and how to achieve it. This will help you to direct your efforts. Also be aware of what is happening in and outside your field to be able to make wise career choices. Be thorough and well-versed with the topics in your field, and have strong fundamentals.

Future Plans?

I am heading for a PhD soon. Very excited for what lies ahead!