Meet Rajesh Tilwani, on a mission to help companies automate DevOps in less than 30 minutes using Humalect.
A BITSian from a Sindhi family (business runs in their blood 😉), Rajesh is led by sharp business acumen and adaptability.
In 2021, he co-founded Humalect, a low-code platform that accelerates how you build and deploy applications. Recently, the start-up raised $750k in a seed round. Once a DevOps engineer who struggled to manage a behemoth process, he is now assisting fellow developers save their precious engineering hours.
In this interview, Rajesh joins us to discuss Humalect, his startup journey, current trends, and competition, along with words of advice for aspiring founders.
YC – Rajesh, Welcome to Yellow Chapter. This is a casual conversation about your learnings so far. Can we start from the beginning, where you were born, something about your parents, siblings, dinner table conversations and childhood memories?
Rajesh – Sure, I was born in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in a Sindhi family. Sindhi is a business community. Everyone around me was doing business. My father is into selling the raw materials used for making furniture.
My mother has always helped him in running the business. She is quite entrepreneurial. Dinner table conversations were mostly around businesses and money.
In Sindhi families, since childhood, the focus has always been on getting into business. No one cares about degrees. Even when I was eight years old, I used to go to the shop, talk to customers and negotiate. I was an active participant in money discussions at business and at home. Sindhis understand money really well.
I have a younger brother, Deepak. He did an MBA and now takes care of the family business. He has completely transformed it. His journey is quite similar to mine
My father said, “If life comes easy to you initially, later it will become quite difficult. Then, you might regret not putting in much effort or giving your 100% when you were young and energetic.”
Life comes easy to you in the beginning, but later on, you’ll regret it when it becomes very hard. So it’s good to have a hard, hard life where you’re working really hard figuring things out in the beginning, and then eventually everything is kind of a cakewalk for you because you have been through a lot.
I was good at studies + I enjoyed studying. I had an inclination toward Physics + Maths. So, I chose engineering.
Like many others, I prepared for IIT but unfortunately could not get through. I got through - Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, Goa @ Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.), Electronics.
With friends from BITS Pilani – Rajesh-Sunandan-Ashwin-Rushikesh-L-to-R
2012 – 2016 – First two semesters were easy; we studied the same subjects as in twelfth grade. I made a lot of friends. In the second year, when electronics started, I did not like it. I knew I would be able to pass, but I was not enjoying it. Something was missing.
I was fascinated by solar energy, wind energy, and the technologies behind these. So I started working on a lot of side projects. Most of them were in the field of sustainability and green energy.
Some of the projects were :
1. CSIO, Chennai – Conducted energy audit of a government bank and helped improve energy efficiency
2. Smart Grid at BITS Pilani, Goa campus – Audited the energy consumption of the campus and helped improve utilization of energy
I also published a research paper – Energy savings potentials in buildings through energy audit – a case study in an Indian building. During the six months of industrial training, I convinced my HOD (head of the department) to let me stay on campus and work on sustainability projects.
During this period, I started exploring data science and algorithms. I used to code for a couple of hours. I liked it. I enjoyed it.
Suggestions for engineering students –
1. Try out a lot of things. Initially, I did a lot of things here and there. And eventually, I ran into something I liked.
2. Learn a lot of skills and then see if you like them. So that, going forward, you can actually carry them.
3. At this age, people are not very opinionated. It is a good thing. Try to interact with a lot of folks. It is a good time to get into camaraderie with people who, later on, may become your co-founders or great friends for life.
4. I started earning in college. The money that I earned during college was more than what I got paid in my first job. See if you can figure out a side hustle. It adds to your confidence.
I think the first job does not decide your career trajectory. A first job, regardless of the domain, allows you to gain experience and determine whether you enjoy your work or are only doing it for the money.
From there on, the real journey starts. Whatever your first job is, give it 100%. Try it with your heart and soul. And if that does not work out, it’s completely fine.
Placement Time – Unfortunately, there were no job offers in the sustainability space back then. Obviously, now things are different. I was very clear that I did not want to apply to the companies hiring for an electronics role.
I applied for three MNCs hiring for software engineering roles and became a software engineer @ UnitedHealth Group – Insurance company.
YC – What three things should engineering students keep in mind while applying for their first job? Your suggestions?
YC – Sure, three suggestions would be:
- Optimize for learning.
- Optimize for learning.
- Optimize for learning.
The other important things to look out for are 👀 👀:
1. The team – Try and find out who are the key people leading the teams. Your learnings will be from the people you will be closely working with.
2. Role – Try and find out more about the work.
3. Get in touch with future colleagues – Talk to present and ex-employees and learn what an ordinary day looks like. Figure out day-to-day activities you might be involved in.
4. If your long-term plans are in place, like doing an MBA, pick roles accordingly. Get into the business side rather than development.
I don’t think the first college job is the place for you to optimise for money. I am biased towards young teams. Personally, I grow better in young teams. So think about the immediate future and the long-term future, and optimise for learning in those years.
YC – Can we please talk about your professional roadmap and learnings on the way?
Rajesh – 2016 – Software Engineer @ UnitedHealth Group. It is a corporate setup with 200,000 employees. It’s the biggest insurance provider in the US.
I had seven different managers in two years. I kept moving from one team to another. I worked as a full-stack engineer for the first three months. Then I went into Analytics and DevOps. That’s why I became a DevOps engineer. It was not a planned one. But I kept working on everything, starting from servers to coding.
Eventually, I became a tech lead. I was running a team of four people and was directly involved in business. I was interacting with stakeholders and getting things done.
So far, I’ve learned:
1. I’m an engineer.
2. I can lead a team.
3. I have seen how things operate at scale. We were running thousands of servers + processing terabytes of data every minute.
Next, I wanted to learn how things are made from scratch. Basically, how do you build everything when nothing exists?
I started interviewing with a lot of startups.
2019 – DevOps Engineer @Bizongo – B2B Platform for Made-to-Order Goods.
Bizongo was in its early days from an infrastructural maturity perspective. There was just one other DevOps engineer to support 40-45 engineers. I knew it would be tough and challenging, but at the same time, there would be a lot of learning. So I joined.
The first 2-3 months were very tough. There were no SOPs, compared to my previous job, where things were quite streamlined.
Learnings from Bizongo:
- Dealing with ambiguity.
- Say yes to challenges: Don’t shy away if a challenge is being thrown at you. Say yes to it and start working on it. It might take some time to ease into it, but eventually, you will be capable enough to solve the issue.
- Communication is crucial: In a role like mine, I talk to over 40 stakeholders daily. These can be anyone-VP, engineering managers, developers, founders, finance and business teams. In remote set-ups, try and over-communicate. Bizongo had gone remote due to COVID.
- Always look on the bright side: If you are in a situation with constraints, the natural tendency is to crib about it. But always try to look on the bright side. For me, a company came out of it. You never know how things will turn out. So, instead of looking at the negative aspects, try to optimise for positivity. Then things might look different for you, even in the same situation.
- If you put yourself in a situation where you are forced to go out of your comfort zone, you will grow very, very fast.
- Find a silver lining – I was given the responsibility of running the whole infrastructure of the company single-handedly. Again, it was very tough and challenging, but at the same time, I learned a lot.
YC- How did Humalect happen?
Rajesh- Gaps I saw 🧐🧐 :
1.DevOps is iterative, it takes time and people to build systems one after the other. And interestingly, everyone is building the same system using the same DevOps tool and cloud providers like AWS and Google Cloud.
2. Everyone was hiring their team to solve the same problem differently.
Ideation – I wondered why no one was solving it for them; it’s a simple plug-and-play solution. Someone could build one, and every firm could use it as a service.
I started talking to a lot of people across the globe. I asked them two questions:
1. How were they dealing with DevOps. To my surprise, I got very similar responses.
2. If they would pay for a DevOps Automation Platform?
1.Standing up infrastructure using AWS console.
2. Developers managing infrastructure.
3. Devs debugging outages on weekends.
4. Vertical scaling of servers.
5. Days spent setting up and maintaining open source software.
I think the roots of Humalect, came from that situation.
So, I told the CTO, VP, and all the EMs at Bizongo that I wanted to build something of my own. Everyone was very supportive of the idea. It was a tough decision for them because I was the one managing things. But my exit was very smooth. It was nice of them. I’m still in touch with everyone.
2021- Humalect was born 📢 📢!
YC – Based on your experience so far, suggestions for fellow founders?
Rajesh – Suggestions:
1. Mom Test – They say you shouldn’t ask your mom whether your business is a good idea, because she loves you and will lie to you. This is technically true. Everyone who cares about you would always say that your idea is good. The goal is to talk to people who are not related to you.
Talk to your potential customers about the problems they are facing at work. That is when you can figure out the problem, which you can try and solve. Doing this is the easiest (and biggest) improvement you can make to your customer conversations.
I left my job in February 2021. I spent the first 2-3 months talking to engineers. I had just two simple questions to ask:
1. Are you a DevOps engineer? Walk me through your daily tasks.
2. What issues are you currently dealing facing in your work?
2. Build a very, very lean Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – You shouldn’t spend more than three weeks on MVP. It should have a very lean set of features that can solve a portion of the problem, not the whole issue. It should deliver value to the user in a very tangible way.
For example, when PharmEasy – An e-pharmacy company that sells medicines, diagnostics and telehealth online was started their MVP was very lean. Take a photo of the prescription → upload on WhatsApp → their executive will collect the medicine → deliver at your doorstep. Now, PharmEasy is a full-blown medical app. It should be that simple. Build an MVP as soon as possible and launch.
3. Focus on Feedback – You should evaluate the feedback you receive after the launch. Based on this, take a call on whether to continue with the project. You’ll get to know if the product is something the world needs or if it came out of your ego.
4. Don’t quit your job – Try to manage your job + initial days of startup simultaneously. That is the most important thing I have to say in this conversation. Many people are trying to make the founder’s journey very cool these days— you have a small idea, you quit your job, become a founder and earn a lot. The reality is very different.
Times are difficult. You might think that everything would be in place and you would raise funds. But it’s better to be prepared. Make sure you have enough money to pay your rent, travel, and food. Even if your MVP works and you are up to something big, have at least a year or two of personal burn. In that case, quit your job.
5. Don’t be a solo founder – Get a co-founder on board. If you can get someone who compliments your skills, that is the best-case scenario. If you write tech, get someone who can sell it. If you sell stuff, get someone who can build. The journey is going to be very, very difficult. And it’s a lonely one. It helps to have a great team behind you. And the team starts with your co-founders.
I am glad to have my Co-Founder – Vishal on my side to take care of the tech and product. It gives me the freedom to focus on the business side at Humalect. Building a business is difficult, you have to divide and conquer.
YC- What is your take on marketing and sales; getting beta customers on board? What worked for you?
Rajesh- Sales – When you are having early conversations look out for two things:
2. Willingness to use
If the need is established, get some sort of commitment from these people to use the product. We did not begin building Humalect until we were sure that people wanted it. Sales is about reaching out to people. You have to sell first and then build. It’s not like you will build a product and people will come.
ICP – Humalect is a dev-tool company. We build for developers. We were clear about our Ideal Customer Profiles (ICP). We knew who would be buying the tool and who would use it. If you have that clarity, then marketing is just reaching out to that particular profile.
Sales approach – Executive Vs Developer
For executives, a sales-led approach works. You would meet with them, show them a demo, and convince them to buy your product over 6-7 meetings.
Developers are a different breed; they like exploring a lot. They want the tool in their hand and see if some value is delivered. If it delivers, they buy it.
If you have figured out your target customer, marketing becomes easy. Then it’s just about how you use customised messaging to reach out to those users.
Marketing – I will be talking about two approaches that worked for us –
First – Social Media – Marketing is different from what it was five years ago. Currently, marketing is more about who you are as a person. I’m not saying you can market a shitty product based on who you are. Obviously, you have to have a good product.
However, a lot of things these days are driven by social media. People consume a lot of content. Everyone hangs out all day on Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Quora, and many groups on Discord and Slack. People are consuming so much. If you are building a tool for engineers, these are the places where they hang out. Now, this is what you can do:
- Define your ICP
- Find where your ideal customers hang out.
- Be regular on those platforms. If your users are on Twitter, it becomes your formal communication tool for marketing. So it’s not a social media platform for you; it’s a place to sell. Also, these are not direct sales.
- To get the right messaging for your marketing, ensure active communication with your current and potential customers. Keep talking to them through your posts, tweets, latest updates, views etc for the domain you are in.
All of the above = The customer may buy from you because they have seen you more often.
Second – Organic. Writing long-form blogs (talking about the problem or solution) and optimizing them for SEO. This is time-consuming. Experts say SEO takes a minimum of six months to give good results.
Unlike sales, marketing is a long-term activity. Marketing takes months. You have to set up the funnel and see how much of it is actually getting converted. As of now, we do not run any kinds of ads. In our case, people can relate to us, to the product, and to the problem. They make the purchase decision based on that.
YC- When it comes to sales, what is your approach?
Rajesh – The times have changed. Developers have a lot of say in what is being used in a company. So, don’t get anxious about what a founder thinks about your product. If you know your user is a developer and if your product adds value to their work, it will be bought.
As a founder, I’m not interested in creating unnecessary resistance. If my team wants something that adds value to their work, I’ll buy it for them. The work of a founder or leader is to enable their teams to do the best they can. Why would I oppose a tool that is going to help them?
There is a classic example. Initially, Slack was given free to teams; they used it, and the companies bought it. If there is value being delivered to your teams, I don’t think any company would stall it.
YC – Good-To-Have Vs Must-Have. Is DevOps a must-have or a good-to-have problem?
Rajesh – It’s about choosing your battles. When choosing what you will build, you decide whether a product is a must-have or good-to-have. It’s not about the solution but the problem you chose to solve.
DevOps is a must-have problem. Basically, people get started as a small company with a small number of servers. There are full-stack developers who initially solve for infrastructure. But then reaches a point at which things go haywire. Haywire = many customers or team grows exponentially.
This leads to:
1. Productivity problems from the team’s perspective.
2. Compromised customer experience.
3. Security issues.
4. App downtime.
5. Blown up cloud costs.
Solution = Hire a DevOps engineer.
No one plans for DevOps on day one. It’s very reactive. People start thinking about it when something goes wrong. Once the hiring is done, DevOps becomes an iterative process. He will solve problems one at a time.
A typical scenario – First, he would look at CI/CD (combined practices of continuous integration), then at scaling the applications, followed by logging, monitoring, and alerting other pushdowns. It becomes a problem which takes six to eight months to solve.
The company has hired this person to build DevOps, but he is getting support tickets from his team. He will have to look at this and that and won’t be able to focus on DevOps. It is the usual journey that every company is going through right now.
Proposed solution – Humalect – From day one, we give you the best possible solutions for most common DevOps scenarios. Starting from your infrastructure to how your application gets deployed to monitoring it and letting you know if something goes down. All of this is secure and scalable + We deliver this in less than 30 minutes in most cases.
All you need to do is to bring your code repositories and your cloud account. Everything stays in your cloud; we don’t lock you out.
Problems like these, where your company’s growth relies on solving them, are not good-to-have anymore, they are must-haves. You have to have it!
YC- Can we talk about some numbers, ideal customers + competition?
Rajesh- I won’t be able to reveal the numbers because we have just started. I’ll tell you whatever I can. It’s a big market. The amount spent on infrastructure alone would be around $60 billion. Every year, Facebook spends more than $15-20 billion on infrastructure and data centers alone. This is just for infrastructure, and won’t include the DevOps tools. Leaving the infrastructure aside, the DevOps market is more than $8 billion. It is growing at a rate of around 27% each year 📈📈.
The mindset of companies is slowly seeing a shift. No one wants to build in-house. People want speed and are open to using SaaS solutions. They want to delegate as much as possible if the solutions are secure.
So, the market is growing, and it’s a great time to build in the DevOps tool space. Developers are becoming more open-minded about open-source solutions. They want to try things out and then buy them.
Ideal Customers – For us, the ideal customers are developers. An engineer can use our platform to become a better engineer. That’s what we are trying to deliver right now.
Competition – There are a few players in the market right now. Basically, it’s a big problem. It includes everything from writing code to deploying it and dealing with issues. There are a lot of problems in this whole spectrum.
Hence, some people are solving parts of these problems. Say one is focusing on observability as a critical interest. Others might be interested in a cloud provider perspective, like AWS or Google Cloud, where they develop many fun components for their ecosystem. And then they try to upscale it.
So, there are various players who are taking different approaches. At Humalect, we take an end-to-end approach. Automate your infrastructure creation, integrations and applications, all in one go. We want to cover everything and solve every problem in this spectrum.
Growth plan 💹 💹-
We are building in a closed way right now. But eventually, we’ll be launching a platform where everyone can start using the product.
YC- Let’s get a little philosophical. What keeps you going? What drives you?
Rajesh– Right now I want to give the best DevOps tool to the world. With my experience at Bizongo + talking to so many people around I know there is a dire need for what we are building at Humalect. Through Humalect, I want to save people’s time and give them the opportunity to work on more valuable things than the usual repetitive stuff. Feedback plays a very important role in giving direction + motivation. Seeing people using your product and benefiting from it, is a great great feeling. I know that what we are trying to solve is a big problem. We might take a couple of years to solve. But we are in this for the long run 🏃🏃.
1.The Surrender Experiment by Michael A. Singer
Right now, I’m reading The Surrender Experiment. We have this tendency to become “lords” of our world. We try to control things a lot. We get distressed even if more minor things are not going our way. This book gives you perspective on the whole picture and how the entire universe is at play. And even when things are not working out, they might be for your good.
2. Deep Work by Cal Newport
People believe in working for an extended number of hours. For the same work, someone might take 4 hours while another might take 8. In my view, all that matters is what you were supposed to deliver and if you could deliver it. Productivity is a different game for each one of us. Deep Work helps you understand how not to be distracted and deliver what you have to, not at the expense of all other things in your life.
Rajesh, it was a great conversation. Thank you for your time. Yellow Chapter wishes you every success in your future endeavours.