An Amazon scientist offers his time in exchange for donations to COVID charities in India
On Sundays, Guru Nayak offers career and education counseling sessions. The only thing he asks in return is donations to organizations providing COVID-19 relief in his home country.
When the number of COVID-19 cases in India started to rapidly rise earlier this year, Guru Nayak, an applied scientist at Amazon, wondered what he could do to help. He worried about his parents back in Mumbai, both over 60 years of age, and wanted to somehow contribute to COVID relief efforts in his home country.
“I thought that maybe I could influence people in my circle to donate to those kinds of charities,” he said.
His idea: offer 30-minute career and education counseling sessions in his free time in exchange for contributions. In April, Nayak posted his offer on LinkedIn and asked his parents and relatives to spread the news on their WhatsApp groups.
To schedule a session, people send him a direct message and share the receipt of a donation to the organization of their choice. Since then, he has been advising around five people every Sunday on topics like career, education, and migration.
“I didn’t want to just sit in my chair and do nothing,” Nayak said.
The pandemic has had a big impact on his family.
“COVID was everywhere in India and the situation was pretty bad. Thankfully my parents got vaccinated and they are doing okay,” he says. “But every time I would call my mom, some neighbor or some relative had been diagnosed with COVID or was hospitalized. There was all kinds of stressful news.”
Some good advice
Nayak decided to offer counseling because in his own experience he has received critical advice that changed the trajectory of his career.
His interest in artificial intelligence began when he was a computer science undergrad at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, in India. There he got involved with research projects in data mining and machine learning.
“I found that would be very impactful in the coming decade or two and that's what got me motivated to invest some more time in it doing a PhD,” he said.
But he only seriously considered this path after advice he received from a master’s student at the same institute.
“He was the one who actually told me that doing a research career was a realistic option,” Nayak explained. “My GPA wasn’t all that good and I thought that if you chose to do a PhD you had to go to Stanford or Berkeley.”
His colleague explained that these weren’t the only schools where he could pursue a PhD, and that going to a top 50 or top 100 university would still result in very good career prospects.
“It must have taken him two minutes to say it but, after that, I seriously started looking into the possibilities,” he said.
After graduating from college, Nayak joined the computer science PhD program at the University of Minnesota, where his work focused on using satellite datasets to track climate change problems. As he was graduating, he knew he wanted to go into industry and work for companies that applied the techniques being developed in academia to real-life problems.
“The scale and pace at which Amazon innovates are just unparalleled,” Nayak said. When he had the opportunity to interview with Amazon, he was excited to join the A9/Amazon Advertising team in February 2020.
Amazon Advertising helps grow businesses and brands of all sizes. The team’s scientists apply machine learning, optimization, causal modeling, and game theory to enhance the shopper experience, and help advertisers reach relevant audiences.
Nayak focuses on advertising inventory forecasting.
“We track different metrics to see how our forecast is doing,” he says. “We want to make sure that we are not forecasting too much or too little.” When customers report challenges, such as a sudden drop in traffic in a particular placement, Nayak and his colleagues investigate why that’s happening and develop solutions.
While Nayak hadn’t worked in advertising previously, he knew his ML and AI background would still be useful.
“That's another beauty of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The same set of techniques can be applied to a wide variety of fields. On the face of it, using satellite images to detect forest fires looks very different from advertising. But when you get to the data level, it’s very similar,” Nayak said. For example, both involve some kind of time series analysis. “A lot of these analyses, and a lot of models that we use on the data level heavily overlap between domains, no matter what you are working on.”
Sharing his experience
By offering the advisory sessions, Nayak hopes to share some of his professional and academic experience, and assist members of the next generation who are interested in following in his footsteps. The most common request from those he’s assisted: how to pursue a data-science career. He also answers questions from undergrads in India about higher education programs in the US and immigration issues.
On a personal level, it satisfies me to know that I contributed at least a little.
The people he counsels contribute whatever amount they can to their preferred charity in India. To that end, he hasn’t been keeping tabs on the amount of money raised. Many of the people he counsels in India can afford to contribute around 500 rupees (less than $10) but he hopes that his project increases the general awareness of the importance of donating to COVID relief initiatives. For people wishing to contribute, he shared the links to a few of these organizations in India in his LinkedIn post.
Over the past couple of months, Nayak discovered he enjoys talking to people and helping problem solve, so he might continue doing this even after the pandemic is over, broadening the scope of charities to which people can donate.
“On a personal level, it satisfies me to know that I contributed at least a little,” he said.