Aamir Virani ‘01, Will Rice College
Aamir Virani is a graduate of Rice University Electrical & Computer Engineering, and is Co-Founder, COO, and SVP Product of Dropcam. Aamir shares his advice for students, the path his career has taken, and his memories of Rice. Aamir will be on campus on April 8 as the Keynote Speaker for ECE Corporate Affiliates Day 2015.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a born and raised Houstonian. My parents were married and immigrated to Houston in 1976. I am their oldest child of three – I have a younger sister and brother. We all love the Houston Rockets!
I grew up in Clear Lake, where my father ran a few gas stations while I was growing up. I’ve been interested in computers and software since my dad bought a computer to manage the books when I was 10. I remember dreaming that one day I would start my own computer company in California. My interest in computers led me to Rice Electrical Engineering. Over the years I’ve become more interested in data analysis. This interest started during my signal processing courses at Rice and became more of a focus after I started my career.
I started running while I was at Rice, running around the Outer Loop with one of my best friends and roommates. I try to run a half marathon a few times a year. I ran the Austin Motorola Marathon, my first and last, back in 2004. More recently I ran the Monterey Bay Half Marathon, which was probably my fastest time.
I worked for National Instruments in Austin after graduating from Rice, and after three years applied to grad school at Stanford. Finally, I was moving to California I received a master’s degree in electrical engineering and then worked at a few startups before I co-founded Dropcam. In the midst of all of this I met my wife and got married in 2013.
Tell us about your company (Dropcam).
Dropcam is a video camera that connects to your Wi-Fi network. You can watch the stream anywhere in the world on your smartphone or computer. People use it as a home monitor, baby monitor or pet monitor. Dropcam is a way to keep an eye on what you love when you’re away. As far as hardware – we made a really easy to use device. We also created a cloud service that will record, analyze and notify you in real-time on things you might want to check up on.
At a basic level, Dropcam tracks things like movement and loud noises. The reason why the service is important is because we can do more powerful things using servers in the cloud. We can do object recognition, and when something moves in an anomalous way we can send you a more appropriate notification. We also provide activity zones – users can draw a shape in an area of video and set up notifications for any motion in that area. We use computer vision and signal processing to make this more intelligent than basic motion detection.
What was the spark that led to the launch of this company/your involvement in it?
My co-founder Greg (Duffy) and I worked together at a prior company and decided to work on something new together back in 2009. We met at a Starbucks and he mentioned that his dad was trying to catch his neighbor’s dog in the yard, so he bought an IP camera from Best Buy. He couldn’t get it working, though, so he had called Greg for help. That was the first big signal for us – this was a consumer device that was too difficult to set up. Then, his dad called again to ask for help watching the video remotely – that was the real spark, video that you can connect to no matter where you are.
The most unique thing your customers have wanted to keep an eye on?
The main use is for home, baby, pet or business monitoring. But there’s a long list of folks that use it for special cases – surf cams on the beaches out here in California would be one example. A pet shop in Michigan put a Dropcam on top of a tortoise and now you can see the live feed during business hours. There is a pizzeria in San Francisco called Delfina using it as a wait-list monitor. There are lots of different reasons people use Dropcam and many revolve around really great views or marketing for small businesses.
What has been most rewarding about your career?
I think there’s been enough variety in my career that I’ve learned a lot and am still learning today. On the macro-level, building a company that went from two of us to 100 is really amazing. I got the business gene from my dad, who owned gas stations in Houston when I was growing up. He would always comment on how proud he was when he had employees go on and run their own stores, using the skills they learned working for him. I feel the same way. We had 100 employees with very little turnover, and whether they were right out of school or 10-30 years out, they became leaders and built a great product and company.
What is an example of a tough decision you’ve had to make?
Moving away from Texas was really tough. Working in Silicon Valley was something I’d been talking about for awhile, but I was too cautious about it. It took going from Houston to Austin, and then Austin to Stanford, to finally make that happen. Obviously my family and friends were back home, so that was tough.
Can you tell us a little bit about Dropcam becoming a part of Nest and through Nest, Google?
We’re only three months into it now. We saw good strategic alignment with Nest to build out the vision of a connected home. A few months prior to partnering, Nest was acquired by Google as well, so with this bigger company behind us, we think that we can get things done faster. We think the home is the next big platform, to make tech in the home smarter and naturally respond to you. Going from two to 10 to 30 to 50 then to 100 employees was really interesting over the course of five years for Dropcam - but then to suddenly spike to a 700-person company, which is where we are now, has been interesting.
What memories from Rice really stand out?
It’s weird how it suddenly feels like it was a long time ago. I remember O-Week clearly and met a few of my closest friends there. Today, I keep in touch with five to six people consistently – some are near us in California, and a few are back in Texas. Class wise – the intuitions you gain regarding processes and math really end up coming into play into your career. What I do now is less engineering and more business and product development. The engineering background helps me determine what is viable and possible in the time frames we are dealing with.
There are definitely professors who left a mark. I still remember many of Dr. Johnson’s lessons from ELEC 241, and I remember Dr. Cavallaro’s VLSI class because that was a long team-centered course – I learned a lot about project management and teams while working with two friends over a year to make a chip.
There was an entrepreneurial organization on campus led by Dr. Ahmad Durrani called Ideas to Action – I think it’s now Owl Spark and RCEL (Rice Center for Engineering Leadership). I appreciated that idea of an entrepreneurial organization on campus that actively tried to get students to think of ideas and build companies. I was also involved in RTV (Rice Student Television) for a year and wish I had more time to spend on that interest today.
What advice would you give to Rice students based on your experiences?
Worry more about interesting, useful experiences than anything else. One thing I realize now is that the emphasis on grades and taking the right courses in the right order doesn’t matter. You should look for the things that make you passionate that you will want to learn about. Really believing in that came to me during my time at Stanford.
Try to find jobs that are in areas you really enjoy. I know that the first year after undergrad, people feel like they have this responsibility to pay off loans, do the responsible thing and find stability. But don’t be afraid to take risks and find something interesting now.
I never thought to reach out to startups during my senior year. The safe choice was a company coming to campus to see me instead of going out to find the things that interest me. If you want something interesting you have to go find it. It’s up to you - no one is going to go hand you the perfect job. I think the mentality is, “This company likes me, I should choose them,” when in reality there are tons of things out there that will make you more happy, if you just take time to go search.