Riddhiman Das: Childhood passion becomes career
Bachelor of Science with emphasis in Computer Science, 2012 | School of Computing and Engineering
Title: Product Architect, EyeVerify
Hometown: Guwahati, India
Why did you choose UMKC?
I think UMKC has one of the most underrated computer science programs. You cover the same material – if not more – from really knowledgeable professors as you would at any top-five university in computer science. But the class sizes are a lot smaller, so you have more chances to interact with faculty.
The Kansas City community was just blossoming at that point. We weren’t where we are today, but we had just enough to make things interesting.
Being in Kansas City and being at an urban university allowed me to play a part, not just in academic circles, but also in the startup and business world. It helped me develop a network that, upon graduation, served me very well.
How does your UMKC education help you in your day-to-day work?
At UMKC, I studied computer science, mathematics, entrepreneurship and innovation. So that gave me broad exposure to not just the technical work, but also questions like “How do we identify market need? How do we build a product customers love? How do we understand customer needs?”
“I came to school very introverted and very reserved. It was the UMKC experience that helped me get out of that shell.”
Tell us about your current position.
My official title is Product Architect at EyeVerify, but that is kind of a hybrid role. I am a liaison between the product and the technical teams. I’ve been with EyeVerify, creator of EyeprintID, a patented mobile eye verification technology, since the beginning. At first it was just an academic project, but it obviously became a real company – now we’re part of the Alibaba family.
We have, in my opinion, the opportunity of a lifetime ahead of us. Up until the acquisition, we had about 3 million users. Now we have a total user size of a little over a billion, likely going to 2 billion users by 2020.
We are bringing about real change in the lives of people in India, in China, the Philippines, Thailand and a lot of other countries where people do not have secure financial services. They do not have a birth certificate, so they can’t go to a bank and open an account – any financial services they have access to are predatory.
A lot of times – especially lately – globalization has a negative connotation. It does tend to make some people feel like they’re left behind. One of the things that gets me excited about what Alibaba does is what they call “inclusive globalization.” It’s the idea that globalization does not have to leave people behind. Their goal is to allow, say, an artisan in rural India or China to sell her goods to someone working on Wall Street in New York City, with neither party being defrauded in the process. So that’s what I do – building products.
Can you tell us more about how EyeVerify came to be?
It started as a research project for Dr. Reza Derakhshani in the School of Computing and Engineering. He had been fascinated by neural networks and biometrics. So he patented the idea, recruited students to work on it and – when it started to look like a real product that could be commercialized – it went through the UMKC Tech Transfer program, which allowed him to transition the technology to a start-up and license the patents and intellectual property. It allowed us to build a company off of it.
Like any startup, there’s a massive chance you will fail, but we were one of the lucky ones. It is a true Kansas City story, in every way.
What is it about startups that appeals to you?
I have a two-pronged answer to that. A tidbit I heard that I’m going to reuse here is, “If you want 20 years of experience squeezed into five, go work at a startup.” Because you’re wearing so many hats and you’re involved in so many different functional areas of the business – especially for someone straight out of school – you grow a lot faster. You’re not restricted to, “This is what I do and this is what I will continue to do.” You explore different things and get a feel for what it is you like and what it is you don’t.
The other part is, I think a startup allows you to take bold bets. You’re making a bet that a product or a service is going to be valuable to the world. Sometimes it ends up being that and sometimes it doesn’t end up being that, but the experience is great regardless.
What are the challenges of your field?
Computer Science is a fast changing field, so you’re constantly having to work to stay abreast of all the latest developments in your field. That makes it exciting, yet challenging if you’re not keeping up with the latest stuff, because you can really apply the latest and greatest developments into the projects you’re working on at the time.
What are the benefits?
The biggest benefit to doing work in Computer Science is that you really have a great work life balance and can choose to do it from anywhere. I have a friend who remotely works for a company in San Francisco from the rainforests of Indonesia!
How did you choose your field of study?
I’ve been excited about computers since I was a kid and we got our first computer. I was probably around five years old when I first learned that you could program computers and I had decided that that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. UMKC’s Computer Science undergraduate program exceeded my expectations in every way, and I got a lot out of it – it enabled me to pursue my childhood dream!
Do you have any advice for students entering UMKC?
Explore everything UMKC has to offer. In college, it’s very easy to say, “This is my silo. This is my circle where I operate.” If you do that, you miss out on those experiences that make you a better citizen or a well-rounded entrepreneur or whatever you want to be. There’s just so much, as a full–service research university, that UMKC can offer.
What was your favorite thing about UMKC?
What I particularly enjoyed was how the different schools worked together. As a computer science student, I came in thinking I would just do computer science. Then it became apparent that I could easily add on mathematics as a minor, and then I got into the entrepreneurship program. That was my favorite thing – I got a very broad education. I went very deep into the areas I wanted.
Because the computer science department is so small in terms of number of students at the undergraduate level, I was able to do directed readings with professors, which is something you would not be able to do at a bigger school. A directed reading is when you spend one-on-one time over a semester learning something of your interest with the professor of your choice. Obviously the professors are passionate about what they’re researching and what they know best. The directed readings allowed me to do almost an integrated program, where I did a little bit of math, a little bit of computer science, a little bit of entrepreneurship.
The entrepreneurship program gave us spaces to work out of, it was a real company we founded while we were still in college; we hired students and built a product. Those resources were very valuable, and they weren’t restricted to me because I wasn’t in the Bloch school.
What did you learn about yourself at UMKC?
I came to school very introverted and very reserved. It was the UMKC experience that helped me get out of that shell. I was able to capitalize on opportunities – I was an orientation leader, I was a student ambassador, I was an ambassador at the School of Computing and Engineering, I gave tours on campus, I did public speaking and all of those things that really broadened my perspective outside the classroom.
I was also involved in many student organizations and honor societies and things like that, and I think all of those things really helped me get out of my shell and be somewhat of a people-person, which I wasn’t when I came in. Probably part of the advice to incoming students was that, the more you get involved on campus, the more of a well-rounded person you can be.
Who was the most influential faculty or staff member at UMKC, and why?
Dr. Reza Derakhshani – he’s been a mentor and an advisor to me in many ways – academically, professionally and personally. He invented the Eyeprint technology we’re building and commercializing at EyeVerify, and even five years after I’ve graduated, I continue to work with him every day.
Do you have a favorite memory from UMKC?
I was very involved in a lot of student activities at UMKC, including being an Ambassador of the School of Computing and Engineering, which is how I ended up meeting my wife!
What is one word that best describes you and why?
Can I make it two? Humbly resilient.
What are your goals for the future?
I’m still figuring some of that out. I tend to think of life five years at a time. The next five years are an incredible journey for us in what we do at EyeVerify, that I’m really committed to. I think, as I said, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime and being part of the Alibaba family gives us very deep resources, as well as the ability to bring real and measurable change to people’s lives.
At some point, I think I would like to go on and build something from scratch. I think there is a lot of innovation going on right now as it relates to artificial intelligence and cryptography – and the intersection of the two – and quantum computers that I think I could play an interesting role in.
What is your greatest fear?
That robots will do everything I can do someday, and that I will have played a part in building them! 😉