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Varun Shankar

October 10th, 2023

The Humans Behind the AI: Varun Shankar Subramanian

  • portrait of Rasa


At Rasa, our team is building the standard infrastructure for conversational AI. Behind the scenes, the people of Rasa come together from diverse backgrounds to solve today’s most interesting challenges in NLP and dialogue management. We’re pulling back the curtain to highlight a few of the humans behind the AI.

1. Hi, Varun. Tell us about yourself! What was your path to joining Rasa?

It all began back in my 11th grade, where the magical realm of C++ opened up before me. Witnessing the marvels of Pranav Mistry’s SixthSense technology inspired me to delve into the world of creativity, leading to the creation of a basic gesture-based painting app at my school's annual exhibition. My passion for building games like Tic Tac Toe and Dave in C++ drove me to delve deep into the language.

During my undergraduate studies, I explored various facets of computer science, gaining valuable perspectives. I delved into data structures and memory models, focusing on enhancing program efficiency. This knowledge proved beneficial in competitions like ICPC, where I tackled diverse problems, emphasizing algorithmic efficiency in both memory and CPU usage.

The realization dawned upon me: open-source development was the bridge between my classroom knowledge and real-world challenges. Eager to make a difference, I embarked on a transformative journey with the Open Genome Informatics organization through Google Summer of Code. Over four intense months, I collaborated on a project that involved crafting a Python-based runner/process scheduler, seamlessly connecting two systems. Beyond the technical skills, this experience provided me with invaluable community interaction and exposure to real-world projects, shaping my perspective profoundly.

My passion for research was ignited during my experiments with intelligent systems, delving into the realms of Aspect identification, document clustering, and query suggestions. Although my first attempt at publishing a research paper faced failure, it instilled in me the essence of grit and perseverance. This journey led me to the captivating world of conversational AI, where I contributed to building a fitness chatbot using Rasa, a framework that truly fascinated me as it was the only developer-friendly and serious OSS chat framework available in 2018. This intrigue led me to pursue my master’s in intelligent systems, specializing in conversational AI.

2. Take us through a typical day as a Software Engineer. What types of projects do you work on?

In my role as a software engineer at Rasa, I enjoy the flexibility of remote work and adaptable hours. My workdays are dynamic, especially recently as we are in the final stages of the dialogue management 2.0 project. The nature of our work involves continuous experimentation and rapid prototyping to enhance our products. Each day brings the opportunity to absorb valuable insights and knowledge from my peers, further enhancing my skills.

Additionally, I've been involved in developing a prototype that facilitates collaboration among specialized teams to build powerful virtual assistants. These projects reflect Rasa's commitment to innovative solutions and cross-functional teamwork.

3. Which areas of your work are you most passionate about?

One of the areas I am most passionate about in my work is natural language understanding (NLU). The ability to understand and process human language, enabling meaningful interactions between humans and technology, fascinates me deeply. I have a deep enthusiasm for the research and development of conversational AI technologies. It's incredibly fulfilling to explore and implement cutting-edge solutions that improve user experiences and push the boundaries of what's possible in the field.

4. What’s an important problem you’re solving at Rasa?

At Rasa, one of the pivotal problems my team is working on is enhancing the natural language understanding capabilities of our conversational AI systems. We're delving deep and creating new approaches that leverage the power of Large Language models to tackle the intricacies of context-aware conversational agents.

5. How would you describe Rasa in three words?

Continuously evolving, Transparency, Learning.

6. How do you collaborate with other teams at Rasa?

Collaboration among teams at Rasa is a seamlessly integrated process, primarily facilitated through Slack, our central communication channel. We utilize Notion as a platform to document and share our ideas, fostering a culture of transparency and knowledge exchange. In this collaborative environment, team members across diverse functions actively engage with shared ideas. Feedback loops are robust, with anyone having the opportunity to provide valuable input. To enhance understanding and alignment, we frequently organize Zoom calls, enabling teams to delve deep into each other's work.

Furthermore, collaboration isn't confined to a single team. Rasa believes in the strength of cross-functional teams, a principle reflected in our hackathons. These events bring together individuals from various backgrounds and skill sets, enabling us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted aspects involved in building a project.

7. What does a culture of diversity mean for you at Rasa?

A diverse team fosters innovation. When individuals from various backgrounds collaborate, they bring unique ideas and perspectives to problem-solving. This diversity of thought is invaluable in creating AI models that are creative, adaptable, and capable of addressing a wide array of user needs.

At Rasa, It is ensured that biases, whether conscious or unconscious, are identified and rectified, leading to fair and unbiased interactions within the organisation.

8. How has working at Rasa helped your professional development?

Working at Rasa has boosted my confidence in adapting to new challenges swiftly. I've enhanced my skills in conversational AI, enabling me to tackle rapidly evolving projects and prototype effectively.

9. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned lately?

In a never-ending surge of language models and AI techniques, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. However, I've learned the importance of staying calm and maintaining focus within this rapidly evolving landscape.

10. What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

In the wise words of my university professor, 'It’s really not a matter of whether you’re qualified to work, it’s just a matter of getting the learning to make yourself more and more qualified.' This belief has become my guiding principle, reminding me that continuous learning is the key to endless opportunities and growth.

Thanks, Varun! You can find Varun on LinkedIn.