Startup Stories: Q&A With Thrive Market Data Services Lead Mihir KelkarJanuary 28th, 2020
Welcome to Startup Stories, a series that takes you behind the scenes to share what working at a startup is really like. Our mission at Thrive Market is simple: to make healthy living easy and affordable for everyone. But fulfilling our big dreams takes a team of dedicated, inspiring, funny, and tenacious people who show up to work every day eager to make a difference.
Today, we’re introducing you to Mihir Kelkar, Data Services Lead for the Data Engineering team. Read on to get to know him and learn about his experience.
Let’s start with the basics! What’s your current role at Thrive Market?
My title is Manager of Data Engineering, but will be taking on the role of Data Services Lead next month when I start working remotely from Toronto, Canada. I’ve also organized our company-wide ping pong tournament for the past two years.
We’ll come back to the ping pong tournament, but first, let’s talk about your promotion.
We’re reorganizing the team to be more focused. Data Engineering moves data from one place to another so that people can use it to make business decisions. Data Services, on the other hand, makes our data more convenient and easier to use—so anything that puts out user data, like search, recommenders, machine-loading automation, and fraud detection. The Data Services team currently consists of two people, who report to me (and who I’m lucky enough to work with).
How long have you been with the company and how has it changed in that time?
I’ve been at Thrive Market for three years, and it’s changed so much. I started as a Senior Data Engineer and had that position for one and a half years. When I started, there were only a few other analysts on the team. I was the first big data engineer on the team, focusing on building infrastructure to make this type of big data available. Any processing that powers reporting was built by me at that time. I was able to build the first versions of recommenders, user data collection, analytics instrumentation, and search. As we onboarded more engineers, I naturally progressed into a team lead and was formally promoted to Manager of Data Engineering.
How has your experience as a new manager been?
Being a manager is harder than I expected—when you’re in front of a computer, it does what you tell it to do, which is obviously not the same as people. Ha! The hardest part is letting people evolve and do it their way. We all have to learn from our mistakes and grow from them. But when I did become manager, I was very aware of the type of manager that I didn’t want to be (based on previous managers at other companies who were not great to work with).
How did Thrive help you transition into your manager role or support you in this transition?
To become a better manager, I took the Dale Carnegie course that Thrive Market offered. The lessons were very intuitive, but not the type of things most people consciously think about, like reading and understanding body language, radical candor, and how to gain respect from others. I think that everyone in a management position should take the course.
A big part of engineering is also re-learning. I asked HR for additional education resources and they provided access to UDemy. I’m either taking hardcore engineering courses focused on backend engineering or software engineering, or I’ll take a philosophy or management course.
So let’s talk about working remotely. How are you feeling about moving to Toronto?
My wife got admitted to law school in Toronto, so we’ll be moving there before she starts her program. It’s very exciting. I grew up in India, and my family moved around a lot, so I’m used to being abroad. I also went to college in India and then came to the U.S. for grad school.
Will your schedule change?
I imagine it will stay very similar. Right now, I start working and prep at home around 5:30 a.m. I get a head start for about two hours by writing some code, reviewing people’s work, and then I get to the office around 9 or 9:30 a.m. Because I’ll be on Eastern Standard Time, I’ll actually have more time to prep, which I’m looking forward to. But that’s really the only thing that will change. I’m planning on coming back to HQ once a month to check in with the team and take in-person meetings.
How do your past experiences help you in your current role?
I started my career in engineering by going to the College of Engineering in Pune in India. I’ve always been interested in building things and putting things together, but at the end of college, I realized I needed to go to grad school to get the real fundamentals of computer engineering. I attended grad school at the University of Maryland. It was really intense. I slept for four-and-a-half hours a day for one-and-a-half years. I was not a great college student so I had a lot of catching up to do, but by the end of grad school, I had a 4.0 GPA and a job lined up.
Good for you! Where did you start your career?
After grad school, I became a software engineer at Epic. Because it was my first job out of college, I didn’t really know what I was doing. And I found that at large companies, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. That was when I realized I wanted to work at a smaller company. After Epic, I worked for Tradesy in Santa Monica. I was at Tradesy for seven months before coming to Thrive Marvet. I was attracted to it because I’d have the opportunity to build something from the bottom-up. I was excited about jumping in head first.
Let’s get into that. What really drew you to Thrive Market?
I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. Eating healthy, zero-waste shipping, carbon neutrality—we’re trying to solve the problems that our generation created. I got the impression that Thrive Market thinks beyond profits to the bigger picture. That was something that really inspired me.
How does Thrive Market’s mission impact the company culture?
There’s a real urgency in doing what we do because there’s so much riding on it. If we fail, it can’t be emulated elsewhere. It brings a cohesiveness to the culture. We’re all here to make positive change.
What do you enjoy most about working on the Data Services team?
The work is fast-paced and everything we do is directly relevant to our members. Collaboration is also really good on the team. We have a solid group of smart, hard-working people, and I’m always inspired by what we do. We take a lot of pride in our work.
Which of the four Thrive Values—Think Big, Member First, Tenacity, and Authenticity—do you gravitate towards the most?
Tenacity aligns really well with my personality. I’ve had to put a lot of effort into figuring things out and making sure that everything I do is up-to-par. Ever since I was a kid, I had a problem with NOT figuring things out, so I’m always working hard on something. I always try my best.
What’s one thing you want others to know about Thrive Market, that they might not learn from ordering, reading the blog, or visiting the website?
In general, we always make decisions based on concrete evidence. We don’t follow the status quo. I was really surprised to see how much data Thrive Market uses to make business decisions, especially because I hadn’t seen that elsewhere.
Last but not least, what’s your favorite Thrive Market product and why?
Clean wine! It has a very earthy flavor. I bought 30 bottles and gifted them to our family, friends, and anyone who came to visit me over the holidays. I even have the guide of what to pair with the wine on my fridge. Toscano Sangiovese is hands-down my favorite. My wife and I actually brought it with us on a vacation to Palm Springs. We met a guy that knew a lot about wine, so we had him try it, and he said it was “top-notch wine”!
Now, let’s talk about ping pong. Why do you love it so much?
I played a little bit of ping pong growing up. The data team started playing ping pong matches while our code was building or processing data. It sort of turned into a daily thing and everyone on the team was super into it and very competitive.