AnswerU Interview

Anil Dharni and Brad are the brains behind AnswerU. AnswerU is a solution for fast and accurate answers for university students’ toughest questions. I’ve invited Anil to share some of his experiences in this interview.


Could you tell us something about yourself – your background, where you are based…?

Thanks for the invitation. I started coding on J2EE platform with Ariba, Inc. We were building an online reverse auction (imagine reverse eBay) for Fortune 500 companies. I was involved with the UI design and later worked on the globalization of the product for deployment in EMEA, Latin America and Asian countries. After Ariba, I completed my MBA at MIT Sloan School of Management and did a short stint at Yahoo Inc., I decided to launch after graduating from MIT. My background is in building large scale enterprise and consumer applications, and product management.

Could you tell us a little more about is a college community where students can connect with other students to seek advice, opinions and information. We want to enable this knowledge sharing through a question and answer platform. We are different than any other question and answer site like Yahoo Answers as our technology platform can match a question to select users within AnswerU based on our proprietary algorithms. For example, if you ask a question on cycling, our technology can identify users within AnswerU community who can best answer the question based on the data we can harness about the user. This not only helps to reduce the spam that one sees in regular message boards but also helps connect students along similar interests.

Given that you have a J2EE background why did you choose Ruby on Rails (RoR)?

There were many reasons. First, the agility and flexibility in development that Rails provides is unprecedented. Our release times are really tight (1-2 weeks) which is in stark contrast to what I experienced while working with Java. Second, Ruby is a language that can be taught pretty easily to a newbie. Some of the new members on the team have been able to write and architect clean code within a month of learning the platform. Third, we can attract talent because a lot of programmers have now become tired of PHP, Java, .NET, etc. They want to learn something new. Ruby on Rails gives them the opportunity to stretch their skills.

Were there any surprises in working with RoR?

One aspect is that the platform is evolving rapidly. We have been quite pleased with the open source libraries that are available for young startups like ours to take advantage of. Our RoR platform is also integrated with sophisticated Java AI code that our team from MIT and Berkeley has developed. Again, I am amazed by the robustness of our system and we have not had any issues with cross-platform data mapping.

You recently made a trip to India to look for offshore RoR development partners. What was your impression about the RoR scene in India?

It was quite a trip as we evaluated multiple companies big and small that are doing cutting edge work in RoR platform. Currently, there are a handful of companies but the real hub for most of the RoR action seems to be Pune. I have written a short profile of some of the companies that we visited on my blog. I was really amazed by the energy, resourcefulness and dedication of the founders of some of these small companies like Vinsol, BetterLabs. It is clear that these firms will do well if they continue to build a solid team and focus on RoR projects.

The bottom line for us was that India is a challenging place because even though the talent exists, people are still not ready to take the risk and work for some of these smaller companies. So retention is a key issue and it takes a stellar management team with a wide network within the development community to make sure that they can hire the best.

What advice would you give startups about platform choices?

It is critical to choose the right platform especially if your service takes off. I have seen startups choose the platform based on what the founders of the company are familiar with. This is a good strategy to get your demo or proof of concept built but it becomes really painful when you realize that the platform you picked has inherent weaknesses that might not allow the product to scale. Also, companies tend to run into problems when they hire a CTO who might not be familiar with the chosen platform. This usually leads the company to port the system to the platform of the CTO’s choice.

Getting back to AnswerU, what are your future plans?

We are focused on the college market and ran a successful pilot at MIT. We are in the process of launching the application in a dozen schools. I will keep you posted on our launch.

I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk about our experience with RoR and Thanks and Good Luck!

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