Twenty-seven years of experience in software engineering has taught Karan Khanna the importance of the following: trusting your developers; delegating tasks to speed product development; possessing good communication skills; viewing software development as an art; and asking questions. But the defining lesson Karan learned was “there are not silver bullets…it is about slowly improving over time.” Improvement is a continual process, and Karan Khanna practices what he preaches. He is often found in the trenches fighting alongside his developers to get products to market and continually improve 4C.
Karan started his journey of continuous improvement at Birla Institute of Technology and Science in 1981, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical & Electronic Engineering in 1985. Shortly after earning his Masters of Science in Computer Science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1987, his career started. As Chief Technology Officer of a tech start up, Magic Software, Karan spearheaded the development of “Myscript,” a proprietary software product that could render text from a word processor into handwritten form. Magic Software had an awesome product; it was so accurate that they used “Myscript,” to render a signature on a check that went on to clear the bank. A product this advanced, especially for the early 90s, should have sold itself, but it didn’t. Magic Software went on to sell the “Myscript” copyright. They were unable to sell the product on their own because they lacked the marketing and sales teams needed to do so. Here, Karan “learned [he] had to get more well versed on the business side”; therefore, he decided to pursue an MBA from Dartmouth, which he earned in 1993. With his new business knowledge he went to work at a young software company that specialized in operating systems – Microsoft.
At Microsoft Karan oversaw the production of Microsoft Office Accounting as a Product Unit Manager/Director. While leading development teams he continued to expand his understanding of managing software developers. “A manager who understands [software] engineering, understands technology, can…get the respect of engineers, can guide them correctly, and then make the right decisions,” improving not only the product but also the company. Karan worked with an eccentric developer, Doug Clandor (who was known to walk out on meetings with Bill Gates when they disagreed on a subject). Collaborating with Doug taught Karan to understand the mentality and thought processes of good developers. Individuals who don’t just follow directions but think for himself or, even better, think about creative solutions to the problems at hand. “It was quite influential… Many good developers tend to think differently about code.” The developer is the one closest to the code. Therefore, is better suited to solve the problems that arise. In his current position, Karan makes sure to give all his developers room to speak because “often they have better eggs than you do.” Eventually, he got bored at Microsoft, it had gotten too bureaucratic for his liking, and Karan went looking for something new. He found Amazon.
While very successfully directing Amazon’s Kindle program from 2007 to 2011, Karan learned the importance of process. Process has been recognized as a key area in product development, launch, and manufacturing in various businesses around the world, most notably those in Japanese. Karan, and Amazon, integrated common manufacturing process improvement techniques in their products. It was at Amazon that Karan learned what would the most important lesson in his career: “You need to do things regularly; put goals in place; keep at it; Over time, improve it. There are no silver bullets…it’s all about slowly improving over time.” At Amazon he used Kaizen teams, the rapid response team of continuous improvement, to solve problems during the development and deployment of products. Understanding the processes involved in designing, developing, and deploying a product are crucial to being a successful product director. Karan used his continually expanding knowledge base to contribute to the exponential growth of Amazon’s Kindle program from 2007 onward and growing the Kindle e-catalog from one hundred thousand books to over one million. But his time at Amazon was not without its highs and lows.
Many still remember the 1984 incident in 2009 where Amazon yanked copies of two Orwell novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, from customers’ Kindles. Through a self service function, a scanned copy of books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them. The copyright owner complained and a product support team decided to pull the book from the customers’ accounts. “It was equivalent to buying a book from Barns & Noble and then [they] come in the middle of the night and take the book,” Karan explained that the incident single-handedly broke customer trust. Karan had to find a solution to the problem fast. They could not continue to deliver the book to customers. His team decided they would tell the customer, “‘Hey we messed up. It is copyright protected. It was our mistake. We will give you another book for free.’ But we did not yank it off their devices.” Karan guided Amazon through a solemn event, one that could have ended far worse than it did without his guidance. For two more years he continued to expand the Kindle program before leaving Amazon. Karan went looking for another small technology company with plenty of fires to fight.
Karan ended up working as the Vice President of Engineering at 4C, a data analytics and advertising startup, after a year and a half stint at Salesforce. At 4C Karan uses his 27 years of experience to lead product development. Through trust and delegation Karan delivers again and again. To Lance Neuhauser, CEO of 4C, “Karan has been a rock of stability throughout what is historically the most tumultuous time in a start-up’s journey. He has a gift in his ability to help weave the thin fibers of a vision together into a fully comprehensive and differentiated product. He is respected. He is revered. He is a cornerstone to 4C’s success. I treasure each day I am on a team with Karan Khanna.” He encourages his developers to think openly and freely about product enhancements and client requests. As Karan puts it, “a good developer does not follow orders blindly.” If a developer does not see a feature to being beneficial to the platform, the feature is not added. 4C has many battles left to fight, and Karan will be there in the trenches, constantly moving forward, constantly improving the product and process, not resting until the battles are won.
Reach Karan directly at Karan@4Cinsights.com.