Vinay Pai applied to Rice University early decision in the fall of 1983, but his application was deferred to interim decision. Then he was deferred to regular decision. Six months after applying to Rice, he was admitted by Cornell University.
“I grew up in Houston,” said Pai. “Rice was my first choice and I was joking that Cornell was my backup plan, but I was concerned. When I received a thick packet in the mail from Rice, I thought they’d returned my entire application with a rejection notice.” Rather than rejection, Pai was invited to attend Rice and earned dual degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering in 1988, followed by his M.S.E.E. in 1991.
After a year of writing code and developing software for an industry leader, Pai founded a game company with his brother. “Our software was sold online and at Babbages, but our company still failed after two years. I found I liked the non-engineering aspects of running a business as much as I enjoyed the engineering, so I began looking for other management opportunities.
“You don’t have to get an MBA to be a business leader, but you do have to pay attention to the way business works. Find a mentor, someone who works a level above you and whom you respect and admire. What makes them tick? Emulate their good habits and ask yourself how you could improve on others. And read business publications.”
His increasing leadership and engineering experience plus his willingness to move led Pai across Texas and Oklahoma to Paris, France. Along the way, Pai discovered he had a knack for presenting demos of his company’s products and projects to executives. What began as an ad hoc presentation request opened opportunities for further advancement, but even Pai was surprised at his first VP offer.
“When you jump from leading a team of 120-420 to Vice President, no one gives you a book for that,” said Pai. “At one point, there were 700 engineers on my team and they were scattered across Mountain View, Sao Paulo, Canada, and London –it was a great group and company. Then I discovered even more satisfaction leading a team of 100 engineers in a role that required me to provide more input into our business strategy and how our developer platform impacts the business.”
Despite his success, Pai said imposter syndrome hits everyone who steps into a new role. Rather than succumb to self-doubt, he advocates faking it until the role feels more natural. His own advancement revealed a pattern: a steep learning curve in the first month, increasing confidence in the second month, and realizing “this is fun!” around the sixth month. He recommends staying in a role for about three years.
“Your first year in any new position will be spent learning the role. You’ll make at least one mistake. Look back at the mistake, learn from it, and don’t make it again. Try to not make a catastrophic mistake. In your second year, you get things figured out and the work begins steeping into your consciousness, so you can begin honing the specific skills you need in that area. By the third year, you’ve hit your stride, the role is second nature, and you’ve accreted to the business.
“Don’t rush the process or jump too fast to the next thing. If you are changing companies every year, you are not staying long enough in the cycle to grow your leadership skills. You also need the chance to develop your skills through teaching. Teaching what you know to the next generation of team leaders forces you to examine how you operate, why you take a particular path, what you were thinking when you were making a decision. Explaining your thought process reinforces your leadership style.”
Pai has given a lot of thought to his leadership style and said he tries to focus his energy on the three things he can control: strategy, resources, and people. Strategy means working on the right things, while resources and priorities determine if the most important things are staffed to win. He said ensuring he has the right people, the right leaders reporting to him, and the performance bar set high enough is critical for success.
“Organization always follows Strategy,” he said. “When your offense is in the red zone, your people are what will make the difference between a touchdown and a field goal. And settling for field goals sucks.”
His coaching analogy is apt because Pai has served as vice president for engineering in five different organizations over 16 years, turning out winning teams and products each time. Currently, he is the senior vice president for Engineering at Bill.com, a company that helps small businesses deal with the paperwork and processes associated with payments and accounting.
“At Bill.com, we automate your back office. Small businesses today are drowning in paperwork: purchase orders, mailing checks, entering data in accounting systems. Accountants need access to all of that, but have their own work to do. Our AI-enabled platforms automates payables and receivables and syncs to the customer’s accounting software making it easier for millions to pay and get paid in our network. We digitize all payments along the way.”
In an unexpected career twist, Bill.com led Pai back to Rice. After 13 years of continued growth, the company was ready to expand into a second location. Houston was one of three cities on their short list. The Bill.com executives with responsibilities for human resources, engineering, and customer support toured the proposed locations together. They explored areas like diversity, transportation, affordable housing options, and existing or emerging depth of tech talent. The team also looked for community involvement between K-12 and universities that would continue growing the tech talent pool.
“Rice played a pivotal role in our selection of Houston as our second office,” said Pai. “Rice convinced us we could have a high-touch connection with local education, industry and the community.”
Within months of opening the office, Bill.com engineers were involved with HackRice, the annual hackathon hosted by Rice’s CS Club. As Pai watched the Rice students present their new projects to a crowd of over 200 people in the closing ceremony, he was struck by their confidence. He recalled being a student at Rice, where he had a student ID number but never needed to write it on his homework or an exam.
He said, “Rice is small enough for professors and students to actually know each other, and it’s a well-rounded university experience that produces well-rounded engineers. At HackRice, I was seeing capable engineers who were also great communicators, two things that will help them further their careers.
“Whatever is in the water at Rice, you can see it. There is a noticeable difference when compared to other schools’ software engineers. You can see the shape of future leaders when Rice students present or interview, and our CTO has also observed that trend.
“So take the opportunities provided by the distribution requirements to study history, art, and economics. Rice is also a great foundation for leadership and you will have lots of opportunities to take on leadership roles beyond engineering if you choose that path. And of course, take the opportunity to apply with Bill.com; we’re right here.”