BU Today

In the World

In our series “Jump-start Your Job Search,” BU Today brings you short interviews with BU alums who are leaders in their fields, such as banking, advertising, tech start-ups, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.

They talk about how they got to be where they are and what they’ve learned from their mistakes. They tell us what they look for when hiring and offer advice for those just embarking on a career.

Vikash Mishra (UNI’01) graduated from Boston University with a concentration in music cognition and earned a master’s degree in computer engineering at the University of Chicago two years later. He has been a software engineer at ESPN and MTV Networks, cofounded his own company, Kaptur, a patent-pending social media and mobile technology company that aggregates photos, in 2007, and today is vice president of engineering of Deserve, an analytics-based financial tech start-up that helps people under age 30 obtain fair credit, even when they don’t qualify for traditional lending based on their FICO score. The Menlo Park, Calif., company takes into account factors like education, future employability, and projected earnings. “Until you have a big data footprint, most banks won’t offer you cards at reasonable rates,” Mishra explains. “We look at education, what you’re studying, where you’re going to school, what field you are going into, your current financial health. We’re looking at these attributes to help you qualify for credit. We look at as much information as we can to give you the benefit of the doubt so you can get access to credit.”
Deserve has doubled its workforce twice in the last two years, and the company recently raised $12 million in Series B funding, led by a venture capital firm that previously supported companies like Facebook, Slack, and Dropbox.

  1. BU Today: At BU, you studied music cognition. How did you migrate from that to the start-up world?

    Mishra: It’s a nonlinear path. I was in the University Professors program, and at the time I was interested in music, coding, and algorithms. Once I graduated, it was the dot-com bust, so there weren’t really any opportunities in tech at all. I was trying to get my feet on the ground, so I went to grad school, moved to Chicago, and then New York.

    I started a company with a few friends in New York called Kaptur. One of my cofounders went on to be one of the early cofounders of Deserve, and he pulled me into it on the consulting side, and their messaging really resonated with me.

  2. What advice do you have for someone interested in working for a start-up?

    Start-ups taught me to solve an existing problem by taking a step back and using a different approach. Working at a start-up, you have an idea of where things are going to go and how things are supposed to operate. A lot of it is adapting to how things change and responding, being agile, clarifying your assumptions, trying to solve a problem in a specific way.

    I would say more broadly, for me, I like that the work I’m doing is having a measurable impact. When you work at a big company, there are perks like stability, you meet a lot of people, it’s easy to carve out a career path. At a start-up, it’s about the team of people you are working with. The work you do every day has a meaningful, visceral impact, both on the people you’re working with and on the problem you’re trying to solve. You get good feedback and it energizes you to put more effort in. It’s an engaging environment.

    When you’re in school, you’re trying to completely solve a problem, but in the start-up world, recognize you might get to 80 percent, so put it out there and see how the real world responds to it. The reality is you’ll never get to 100 percent and things change so quickly, so recognize when things are good enough. That will help you get to where you need to go.

  3. What would you tell someone who is thinking about starting their own company and asks you for suggestions?

    I imagine it as jumping off a cliff. People think they have to have a good plan, be able to quit their job, and give it all of their time. I would say you don’t have to do that. The reality is you can make incremental steps to see if the idea that you have has legs immediately. And it’s unpredictable, whether or not you are successful with your original idea or change the problem you try to solve. You will learn a lot of stuff and meet a lot of interesting people.

  4. What kinds of questions do you ask during a job interview?

    For a first-round interview, especially at a start-up, I think the group dynamic is superimportant. We are looking for people who will be a good cultural fit and are looking for more than just a job. For better or for worse, a start-up will take as much time as you have to throw at it.

    It’s basic stuff in the beginning, just to establish that you have looked into our company, you have some questions prepared, and more specifically, if you have had experiences that make you interested in the field we’re in. We want to make sure you are interested in the problem we’re trying to solve and looking at the horizon. Do you have the right background and perspective to help us get there?

    For technical interviews, one thing we do differently than larger companies is we are not as interested in brain-teaser questions. You can be a smart person and not be able to answer those questions well. For us it’s more about sitting down with our developers. We have a candidate peer program, where we have candidates look at a real problem we’re trying to solve at that moment. The idea is to expose a potential candidate to a real problem they would be working on, and then get empirical data about how good they were at understanding what the problem is, getting context, seeing what kinds of questions they’re asking. It’s about trying to figure out how someone thinks.

    When you interview for a job, realize it’s a two-way street. You want the job so badly, but take the time to evaluate if it’s the right team for you. You should be able to get as much from them as they get from you. The people that I work with are such an important part of how much I enjoy my job and how productive I am. Take a deep breath, slow down, and give yourself the opportunity to make that evaluation.

  5. What advice would you give to an employee during the first six months on the job?

    When I got my first job, I was intimidated. I had just graduated, there were people who had been there forever. Realize you bring a fresh set of eyes and ears. We’ve been conditioned to think the way we think because we’ve been here a while.

    When you’re starting out, you want to listen, observe, and get to know your team, get to know how things work. But I would also ask questions and clarify assumptions you have. A lot of the time when you’re moving fast and trying to solve things on a tight timeline, certain things are well-thought-out, but other things are the way they are. There is opportunity for someone to say, “Hey, we could do this better.” As a company, we’re open to change if we can make things better.

    I would also say, get to know your coworkers. They are an amazing network of people. People have great stories, and you never know how someone ended up somewhere.

    Don’t be afraid to take on a challenge that you are intimidated by. People are rooting for you to succeed. In the course of your work, if you run into a problem and you’re thinking about how to resolve it, take a step back and talk it through. It’s about reframing the question. Be mindful that a lot of times there is more than one answer.

    Also, you can get really good at something even if it’s initially hard.

  6. Who has had the greatest influence on your career—teacher, colleague, boss, family member—and what did you learn from that person?

    My brother is a big influence in my life. He has been an entrepreneur since the early 1990s. One of his key pieces of advice when I was thinking of joining the start-up world was to be happy with the present. Try to make choices where you are going to be happy with the value of the experience regardless of the outcome. That’s an amazing way of thinking about things.

    Also my first boss at my first full-time job: I enjoyed working with him because he would ask simple questions. It gives rise to a lot of insight that you don’t expect.

Are you an alum who would like to be interviewed for BU Today’s “Jump-start Your Job Search” series? Email John O’Rourke at orourkej@bu.edu.

Read other stories in our “Jump-start Your Job Search” series here.

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