As we grow up, we tend to learn more not only about the world around us, but also about ourselves. In that process, we figure out the intersection of what we are good at and what is valuable in the world.
Niraj shares his story of that journey, detailing a wide variety of experiences that have helped him develop a skill set that is deep on valuable skills.
Hey Niraj! Thanks for taking the time to share on Student Hustle.
Introduce yourself! Tell us about where you go to school, where you have worked, and what you are up to nowadays.
I’m Niraj Pant, currently a rising junior in computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Previously, I have worked at a number of startups, including Lookout and Skycatch, working on backend infrastructure. Currently I’m an intern at Ripple, a financial technology company based in San Francisco, working on the open-source XRP ledger.
What are you studying in school? Have any classes been helpful in the real world? If not, where did you learn what has been most helpful at work?
The best answers you find, no matter what, are almost always your own
I’m currently studying computer science and mathematics in school. Classes have definitely been helpful, especially in the context of software engineering roles, both while interviewing, and on the job. Additionally, lots of prerequisite courses such as upper level math and physics have helped me formulate better problem solving skills and the ability to answer questions and learn on my own. Through this, I learned that the best answers you find, no matter what, are almost always your own. There’s something so satisfying about sitting down and grinding on problem until you find the answer for yourself.
Outside of that, college is a great place to meet like-minded peers that you can surround yourself with, learn from, and grow with. Self-exploration is also underrated. At any point in college, any professor may have a more obscure teaching style that doesn’t necessarily speak to you, and then you’re on your own. Learning in your free time is a great way to improve your self-learning skills. I’m still working on improving mine, but it’s definitely a skill that’s helped tremendously to this point.
How did you get your first internship at Lookout?
I actually just applied through their website – it was super lucky when they got back to me, and I interviewed for the role, and got the position. Since this was before I started college, it was a bit difficult to find an internship, but I’m glad this connected. I learned a ton that summer!
What are the advantages/disadvantages to going to school in the Midwest? Has school helped you get jobs?
A great part about going to school in the Midwest, especially at UIUC, is that there’s a strong alumni network in cities like San Francisco and Seattle. When you’re looking for your next role or for a mentor, having these people in close proximity and with this commonality is a huge plus. UIUC is still a smaller subset of the overall Bay Area population compared to schools like Stanford or Berkeley, so it feels very intimate.
I got my job last summer, at Skycatch, through our career fair, so I’d say school has helped with finding jobs. Additionally, it’s a good touch point at UIUC-founded companies, since they seem to like to hire at their alma maters.
What type of research do you do? How did you get involved with that?
I currently do research in decentralized systems, particularly in decentralized computing (think the technical side of projects like ethereum and filecoin), in a lab focused on said area (decentralize.ece.illinois.edu). I got involved through emailing the professor, simple as that. I’ve been involved in the space since 2014, and after my last research position finished, the space particularly excited me. I joined the group in October of 2016, and have been doing research ever since!
What advice do you have to someone looking to learn more about blockchain and cryptocurrencies?
If you’re looking for more of a beginner’s guide, Linda Xie has a couple of great posts on the Coinbase blog that explains the technology really well. To learn more about the technical underpinnings of the technology, Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies: A Comprehensive Introduction, by Narayanan et al. is really solid. I’ve also heard good things about Mastering Bitcoin by Antonopoulos.
To learn more about what’s happening in the space in real time, various subreddits around these projects, as well as twitter, is really good (I have a public list of good people to follow in the space).
What have you learned about creating a brand for yourself and how did you start that process?
I don’t look at it so much as creating a brand, and more defining what you talk and think about. I enjoy, primarily, talking about startups, venture, Bitcoin, design, and more, and that’s primarily what I tweet about. Really defining what you talk about, and trying to be consistent about it is useful. Writing and contributing content is always a great way to get your name out, as well as @-replying, and generally trying to be helpful.
Tell us about how you use Twitter. Has it been valuable for you?
Very. I first started using Twitter (regularly) in the fall of 2015, and have significantly ramped up my usage. I love it both for gaining useful knowledge and knowing “what’s what” in various topics I’m interested in. Additionally, it’s a great way to connect with people on an intimate level about things you find interesting.
What is it like working on a remote team?
It’s less “difficult” then you’d expect. Our team utilizes messaging tools really heavily to stay in touch, and get info about the team. It’s also great because it forces you to think about problems a bit more, before jumping to your co-workers for help. I feel like solving problems that way is the most satisfying.
Where have you learned more – big or small companies? Where do you recommend starting out for your first internship?
It’s not really about learning more or less, it’s about *what* you’re learning
It’s not really about learning more or less, it’s about *what* you’re learning. You’ll usually learn a lot at most companies if you stay inquisitive. It doesn’t matter where you start out, but it’s good to try companies of all sizes for the experience!
How do you recommend getting involved with venture capital as a student? How have you done it? Has it been valuable?
I’ve worked both in scout and ambassador roles previously. I wrote an article a while back (https://medium.com/the-mission/student-venture-capital-programs-47cf3537b2fe) on the motivations about student venture programs, and some of the programs that exist. The best way to get involved is to stay active on social media, formulate strong opinions on technology, help investors any way you can, and reach out to people that run these programs.
Where can people find you and what opportunities are you looking for? (Twitter, linkedin, personal site, medium, etc).
Do you have any questions for the Student Hustle Community?
I love reading and listening to podcasts, and am interested to hear more about what the community is reading/listening to – please send me suggestions!
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