In India, the formula for success is drilled into children from a very young age: get good grades, go to an elite Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), move to America, and never come back.
And yet, there are plenty of Indians who go on to do great things by taking a completely different route. Viral Shah, CEO of Julia Computing and co-creator of the Julia programming language, is one of them.
Julia is a free, open-source computer programming language that is gradually becoming a popular alternative to more established languages such as MATLAB and Python. Envisioned as a way to avoid the difficulties of using slower, older languages for today’s more advanced analytical applications, without compromising on ease of use, Julia has found fans around the world, drawing a sizable community of users since its launch in 2012.
And its success comes in part from Shah’s efforts not in Silicon Valley but right here in Bengaluru.
The 37-year-old grew up in Mumbai and went to the lesser-known Padmabhushan Vasantdada Patil Pratishthan College of Engineering in one of the suburbs of the city, where he studied computer engineering. As a student, Shah remembers neglecting his coursework and focusing on his own research instead. When it came to higher studies, his poor grades meant that only one school accepted him: the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), where he went on to get a PhD in computer science.
Years later, along with fellow UCSB student Stefan Karpinski and Jeff Bezanson and Alan Edelman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Shah began working on the language that would become Julia.
“I usually find it disappointing when people say that everything is done in the US,” he told Quartz, and Julia’s growing success proves that innovation can come from India, too.
Best of both worlds
Julia’s story begins in 2009 when Shah and its other co-creators were looking to simplify the coding process. For long, computer programmers, applied mathematicians, and data scientists could either use higher-level languages like MATLAB or Python, or brave the C or Java languages that are better suited for advanced applications but a lot harder to use, especially for those who aren’t programmers by training.
“So what ends up happening is…the two-language problem, which basically says that you write your algorithm first in a high-level language and then rewrite it in a low-level language for performance, or taking it live. And so you end up writing everything twice,” Shah explained. “If we had one language that was simultaneously easy to use and fast, you could just unleash innovation across the world.”
And that’s what the team set out to create, largely over email because 2009 was also the year Shah moved to Bengaluru to work on India’s Aadhaar project with Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani.
By 2012, the language was ready to be revealed, and on Valentine’s Day the team celebrated…