Published On: Fri, May 15th, 2015

Tribute: Venkat Panchapakesan, YouTube’s engineering chief

WASHINGTON: The next time you are on an internet-enabled flight or at some remote outpost where bandwidth is scarce but you still manage coax a YouTube video without too much buffering and suffering, say a silent word of thanks to Venkat Panchapakesan. Sadly, make that, the late Venkat Panchapakesan.

YouTube’s engineering chief, who enabled a lot of the free flowing content, lost a months-long battle to cancer earlier this week and passed away in Silicon Valley, where he was a much-loved and highly-respected engineer who had worked his way through Yahoo and Google, among other storied firms. He was only 49, and leaves behind his wife Sandy, two children, and a host of devastated friends and admirers.

Venky, as he was popularly known, hailed from Coimbatore, where he received a BE in Electronics from the Coimbatore Institute of Technology (CIT) before coming to the US in the 1990s to earn an MS in Computer Engineering from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo. After short stints in Amdahl Corporation and HP, he joined Yahoo! in 1998, one of the first 200 employees. He worked his way up to Vice President of Engineering, tweaking out many popular products like wallet, classifieds and maps.

In 2003, he was made Group vice-president and the CEO of Yahoo! India R&D, moving to Bangalore to crank up Yahoo! operations in Bangalore, before another promotion in 2007, when he was made head of all the consumer products at Yahoo! saw him working on products as varied as Mail, News and Flickr.

By 2010, when he moved to Google as vice-president of engineering after a year as entrepreneur-in-residence at Greylock Partners, he had built a formidable reputation as a code wizard with several patents to his credit. In June last year, shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer, Google named him engineering head for YouTube, reporting directly to CEO Susan Wojcicki.

“Venkat was a deeply admired leader of our engineering team and we are extremely saddened by his passing. He was loved by the people who worked with him and will be missed by everyone who knew him,” Wojcicki said in a statement.

Indeed, it was his personal warmth as much as his professional excellence that his friends and family remember him for — what his cousin Chandar Pattabhiram calls the “right mix of ability and humility.”

“He accomplished a lot without amplifying his success, always with a clear sense of direction on where he wanted to go and the grit and determination to get there,” Pattabhiram recalled in a conversation with ToI. “He was a go-getter, but he was an even bigger go-giver, always generous with his time and money for helping people.”

Another cousin, Bharti Airtel senior executive Anand Chandrasekharan, recalled how Venkat picked him up when he landed in San Francisco to go to grad school and immediately made him feel at home.

“A huge fan of AR Rahman, he played his favorite music while giving me my first tour of Stanford Campus. Any homesickness I had went away immediately. Later that day, we went shopping for my dorm at Wal-Mart. As I was fumbling around with traveler’s cheques, he had already paid and moved things into his car. Anyone who knows Venkat knows how hard it is to pay for anything with him. I still owe him $260 from that trip, as well as for any dinner we’ve had with him since,” Chandrasekharan recounted wistfully.

Several professional colleagues and those he had mentored also recalled his genius as well as his personal touch. “I practically worshipped him. He was the best engineer I’d ever worked with and an amazing manager,” Jacob Rosenberg, now the CTO and cofounder of LendUp wrote in a tribute, recounting how when he worked with Venkat, he came into work one Monday “to find that this guy, who was simultaneously running a significantly sized engineering team, had built and launched a new Yahoo! product over the weekend, by himself.”

Rosenberg also recounted the circumstances of his hiring, about how Venkat told him over the phone that he was FedEx-ing his employment agreement, and that he should sign it, overnight it back, and have it back on his desk by Wednesday. “I didn’t ask questions, I just did what he told me to do. I figured he had his reasons. On Thursday, Yahoo! announced major layoffs and a hiring freeze,” he recalled. “(Venkat) basically saved my career. He saw potential in me, and he went out of his way to make sure that potential was realized.”

“Aside from everything he taught me about building software in the years to come, I learned a valuable lesson from him that day about how to think about my career and my life, and what kind of leader I wanted to be,” Rosenberg wrote.

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