A behind-the-scenes look at the people who make us great.
Welcome to the Cogent Crew series, where every month we’re inviting you to get to know a little more about the people at Cogent.
This month, Kath spoke to Navin about being Cogent’s first developer to be based full-time in Sydney, his love of maths, and being a self-professed “guitar tragic”.
Name: Navin Keswani
Time at Cogent: A bit over three months
Thanks for your time today Navin, let’s start by finding out where you work
I’m based in Sydney. I believe that I’m Cogent’s first full-time Sydney-based hire! Since the pandemic, we’ve hired a few interstate (and international) staff members, and I represent NSW in that way.
Exciting! What’s your office setup like?
As with all developers, I have preferences for the tools I use. I have set up my office to make quiet work and collaboration as effective as possible. I have a mechanical keyboard and I use a single 27-inch screen. I’ve invested in a webcam of reasonable quality, which has an extra microphone. And of course the obligatory pair of decent headphones! So yeah, I’m trying to make the remote office work effectively. Oh and also, I have a standing desk.
How long have you had a standing desk?
I’ve had a standing desk off and on now for the last, almost four years, across various jobs. The one I have right now, I actually stole it from my previous office when we disbanded for COVID. And I just bought it off them when I left to join Cogent. It’s just a simple Ikea manual sit-stand desk.
And you stand all day, every day?
Yeah, on average, I stand all day, every day. It keeps me moving around, and it keeps me sane. Moving around is actually of benefit to me.
How has this changed since before COVID?
Before COVID I was working with a different employer. We had an office in the city of Sydney and COVID required us to switch from working in the office to working remotely. That was quite a change. I have had remote-first jobs before, so this isn’t my first one. But COVID certainly has made a big difference.
Do you like working remotely?
I do, actually. I’m an introvert and I like the quiet. I can control my environment a little bit better when I’m home. I really quite like the flexibility of working from home, so that I can take care of other things. I actually work better when I’m allowed to smear work over my day, rather than pack it all into a single chunk. So this suits me better.
Is there anything you don’t like about it?
Starting a new job fully remotely has definitely brought out the bit that I find the hardest, which is not having social contact and casual conversation. Forging relationships first and then working remotely, it’s easier. Forging relationships while working 100% remotely is harder. So far it’s been good at Cogent, as they are working hard to stay remote-first — but it’s a challenge.
I think the main thing I find difficult about remote working is particular types of meetings like large brainstorming sessions that can go for a while. I think that we’ve taken something that we used to do in person with the energy and the dynamics of a room, and moved that to a remote setting. With newer tools like Mural and Figma, that’s certainly getting a lot easier.
Have you been down to the head office in Melbourne?
Yes, I have. I’ve been down once, about seven weeks after I started. Being at the treehouse and being around people was a completely different experience than getting to know people over Hangouts and Slack. I really enjoyed it and it helped me to start forging those relationships and connections.
Okay, so how did you get into what you do? Is this what you’ve always wanted to do?
Well, what I do is write code, I help build systems. I got into doing this from a conscious choice to change careers, to become a developer. I did study computer science as an undergraduate, but I didn’t actually work as a software engineer or a developer for almost 20 years. So this started as an experiment, and 12 years later, here we are.
What did you do for those first 20 years?
After I finished my undergraduate degree, I went to graduate school for mathematics. I finished a PhD in mathematics, and I worked as a research mathematician for a little while directly after that. Then, I left academia to come back to Australia and I worked mostly in the information security industry for the first 10 years. I worked as a consultant at one of the big four and as a security manager for a second-tier bank. So I was a little post-technical at that point, and not very happy about it. That was my motivation for pressing “reset”, and trying out life as a developer again.
And how have you found the return to being technical?
It’s been great. I took it on as an experiment, and I wasn’t sure if that was actually going to work or not, but it really suits my temperament. I get a lot of satisfaction from solving problems, and first-principles thinking. I get to do that a lot more as a hands-on developer, and someone who helps design software systems. So, it’s quite good. It was a really fortunate thing. I’m very lucky that I was able to pull off this career reset.
Yeah! Run me through a typical day for you working at Cogent. What’s it like?
I typically start with a stand-up with my team and then, depending on how things are going, I’ll either pair with another person on my team or I’ll work by myself. There are plenty of internal activities at Cogent that also take up my time. For example, I help out with knowledge sharing work, and also with recruitment. So I get to balance between delivery work and occasional, internally-focused work at Cogent. I quite like that mix.
Great. If you could be one other thing, professionally, what would you be?
A research mathematician. The thing I trained for in the first place! I miss it.
What sort of problems would you solve as a mathematician?
I trained fairly heavily in a particular area of maths, and it takes a while to branch away from the specialisation that you pick up. I mean, it’s a complete pipe dream at this point; after this much of a gap there’s no way that I would actually be able to go back to that area. But I reckon I would have fun trying!
Interesting. And what kind of projects are you working on at the moment?
My team works with a large financial technology client, quite a large company with lots of little teams, lots of very strong developers, and a very complex overall system. We focus on operations and engineering work. So we help their customer service people with the tools that they need to do their work better.
What’s your favourite thing about working at Cogent?
I find Cogent’s approach to values to be incredibly inspiring. Cogent is quite clear about being values-driven, and the way that really pops for me is the psychological safety that I feel working at Cogent. I really appreciate that as a collective, we all work very hard at upholding those values. And I can say, without a doubt, that I’ve never felt safer than working at Cogent. This is by far the healthiest company that I’ve ever worked at.
What do you like to do on the weekend during your time off?
I like to read and I play a bit of music occasionally. I call myself a guitar tragic because I have been trying to learn to play the guitar now for several decades! I like to exercise and get out for a run or a ride. And I have family here, and I enjoy hanging out with them.
Navin on the Routeburn track
What sort of music do you play?
So I’ve actually been quite curious about music theory over the last several years. And I’ve been trying to teach myself some of the jazz standards, but really, that sounds more grandiose than it is. There are still essentially three chords to a song, they’re just not your popular three chords. I enjoy the patterns that I see in music — perhaps that harks back to enjoying seeing patterns in things in general. But I’m quite fascinated by the theoretical side of things there.
Okay. Have you read any good books recently?
Yes. I read The Overstory by Richard Powers, which I quite enjoyed. It’s this incredibly rambling, amazing story about the way we engage with nature. And it has a very strong central thread around the way people interact with trees, with forests, and with the things that live in forests. It’s a bit difficult to describe, but it kind of weaves the lives of a few different people together around the central theme in a very creative way. He’s a good writer, and I quite enjoyed that book.
What have I read recently that’s not fiction? I’m actually reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. He was a neurologist and he’s written an amazing list of things. And connecting back to the music side of things, he’s written about people who’ve had brain injuries that have then resulted in particularly interesting manifestations in the way they then relate to music. It’s fascinating.
Yes, the brain is amazing. Now, where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
That’s a tricky one. I guess I’m going to reach for two. One is the Great Walks of the South Island of New Zealand. I walked the Routeburn Track there. Also, there are some not great but brilliant walks down there called the Greenstone and Caples. I really enjoyed walking there. Not so long ago I walked the Kepler Track, and that was great fun too. I also really enjoyed going to Lake Como in Italy. I had a vacation there several years ago now and it comes up all the time. I want to go back!
The Kepler track
And what’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
Change careers. I’ve done it twice now, and both times it was pretty scary, but I’m also very fortunate that my circumstances have allowed me to do that.
If you had a private chef for a night, what would you get them to make you?
I would probably get them to make me Japanese vegetarian food. Well, maybe in this case I would bend it a bit and enjoy the seafood that they would make as well. I’m not strict about it, but the majority of what I eat is vegetarian.
What’s the best advice anyone’s given you?
One thing that comes to mind is this. I mentioned being an introvert, and sometimes what that means is that I get a bit overstimulated, sometimes a bit stressed in certain situations. And the best advice I think I’ve ever been given on that front is to stay with that moment and just let the energy of it dissipate — and to practise that. Until I received that advice, I didn’t realise that I didn’t have to react to those stressful elements, usually by showing discomfort or running away from them. Thanks to that advice, I’ve been able to stay through an awkward or tense situation and keep things flowing. In actual fact, by being calm through it, I’ve noticed that it actually calms the entire situation, and usually results in a better outcome than everyone reacting to that flare-up of stress.
So true. Lastly, if you could have an in-depth conversation with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
I mean, there are so many, but I think I would pick my PhD advisor. I would love a long chat with Nigel Higson, who taught me a lot and became a friend. I miss talking to him. I’d just want to just connect with him again and let the conversation go wherever it does. Every time I’ve had a conversation with him, it’s been magical.
Awesome! Thank you, Navin. Hope we see you in Melbourne before too long!
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