Snehal Kundalkar, Senior Director of Engineering and Pilot

How planes fly was always a sense of wonderment, ever since I was a kid. To know how to take a metal bird and fly it in the air has been exhilarating for me. But more importantly, flying is my meditative escape. I get to be truly present in the moment. I love it.

My name is Snehal Kundalkar. I am the Senior Director of Engineering at Reddit. I have been involved in leading Silicon Valley firms for more than a decade, including work at Apple as well as my own fashion tech startup.

I have always been a true engineer at heart. My father used to encourage me and my brother to build computer games. I remember writing my first program when I was 11 years old. I did my Bachelors in Computer Engineering and Masters in Artificial intelligence and Data mining. So, I have been associated with the digital world of bits and bytes for a long time now. My professional career has followed a similar digital trajectory. Growing up, I always wanted to work for an operating system company. That dream came true when I worked for Apple.

The reason to join Reddit was that I truly believe Reddit is the last vestige of the open internet. I wanted to be part of the mission and to build products that improve the quality of social interactions. The dark side of social media is very cruel, and I loved the challenge to study the social science and psychology of social media.

I grew up in India. I was 21 years old when I immigrated to the USA for my studies, leaving behind my country, my culture, my family, and friends. There was a sense of adventure to go to the country where I had no family, but it was scary at the same time, especially as a girl. After I finished my studies and started working in the USA, I knew this was going to be my home.

Outside of my job, I love to fly planes. I first became interested in flying when I was 8 years old when I discovered one of my father’s secrets – he had taken a few glider lessons after he landed his first job. My father grew up as a farmer in India. He was 14 when he lost his father; as the eldest of four kids, he had to support his family. Years of drought made life difficult in the village, so he turned towards the nearest city to study and get a job. He dreamed of becoming a pilot, but he could not complete his training because money was tight. Ever since I discovered his unfulfilled dream, the idea of flying a metal bird through the air amazed me. There was a mystery and thrill surrounding the experience of piloting an aircraft.

I am certified to fly ASEL – Airplane Single Engine Land, under VFR conditions (VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules). This means that a VFR-rated pilot must follow specific guidelines when flying using visual reference. Every aspect of flying is impacted by these ratings, such as flight planning, taking off, navigation, weather minimums, cruising altitude and flight level, weather tracking, flight following, fuel requirements, radar, and landing. The plane I typically fly is the best selling aircraft of all times: the Cessna.

One thing I have learned from learning to fly is that fear is a good thing. Fear is a natural motivator, it moves you ahead into taking action, and encourages creativity. It is not a good thing to get rid of fear. Instead, one must learn to manage fear. It is a very good skill to develop and a good indicator that you might be exceeding your personal limitations. I always have a healthy amount of nervousness when I go flying – it keeps me honest and on my feet.

Most people think that flying is all about gaining the technical knowledge and skills required to operate an airplane. But in reality, flying is much more about understanding human engineering. During flight training, 60-80% of the training is about growing as a person and developing your personal leadership. The 2 main challenges when it comes to flying are building self-awareness and decision-making under stress.

In order to fly within safety limits, one must know the aircraft limits as well as one’s personal limits – be they mental, physical, or physiological. As humans, we were not designed for high altitude, high-speed flight in three-dimensional environments. Our human systems have significant limitations. Additionally, think about oxygen requirements when flying at altitudes about 10,000 feet. Throw in fatigue, dehydration, motion sickness, spatial disorientation, stress factors, etc. All pilots are required to educate themselves about these human conditions, learn to recognize, diagnose, and manage them.

During flight, the environment around you is constantly changing – be it flight conditions, flight operations, weather systems, airspace restrictions, terrain, etc. Sometimes, you are required to anticipate future events. Inadequate awareness can lead to loss of control, airspace infringement, or encountering unexpected hazardous weather conditions.

A pilot is required to make lots of decisions very quickly. He or she is required to think creatively, act under pressure, and adopt a mentality fitting for a role of such great responsibility. Pilots are trained to remain calm and to deal with abnormalities or emergencies in accordance with their training. Flight training is intense and intended to stress-out student pilots. This makes sure he or she is confident enough to make sound decisions and execute tasks/checklists under pressure.

My car number plate says “I would rather be flying”. It’s as though every part of my life reminds me of the wonders that lie around. Any time I am in the plane, it is my favourite place, even if I am flying in the pattern, which means I am performing basic take-off and landing practice at my home airport. No day is the same. But my most memorable cross country trip to date has been when I flew with a bunch of friends for 5 days – from California to Sedona, Arizona then to New Mexico, and to the Colorado Rockies. We landed on the highest elevation paved airport in Leadville, flew over the Grand Canyon, landed in Las Vegas, and flew back over Sierras back to northern California. These are some of the most scenic terrains to fly in the world.

My favourite experience as a pilot was when I took my parents flying for the first time. I will never forget the fact that my dad could not afford $25 to finish his flight training. That amount of money was equivalent to a few thousand dollars in today’s times. He had to make the tough decision of choosing between supporting his family or his dream. I can’t imagine how painful that choice must have been for my dad.

So it was a dream come true when I took my parents flying. I was piloting the plane, and we flew over the picturesque bay area landscape: San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and then landed at Half-moon Bay airport for lunch before flying back home. That day, my parents were literally and figuratively on cloud 9. I felt like Daddy’s dream was brought to reality by his little daughter.

Regarding future goals, I want to acquire my Instrument rating at some point. This allows pilots to fly through the clouds. I want to do it mainly for skill-building and awareness, but I don’t plan to use that skill during bad weather. I do not enjoy flying through the clouds, since you don’t really see anything other than clouds.  The initial few seconds are exciting, but it gets monotonous very quickly.

The ability to fly is one of the greatest levels of human achievement, in my opinion. I would encourage everyone to learn aerodynamics, even if you don’t end up becoming a pilot. These skills will help you become a well rounded human being. Learning about aeronautical decision making and aero-medical factors are crucial life skills that are essential in becoming a successful leader and team builder in anything you do.

There are many similarities between being a pilot and my current occupation. The best captains are measured by observed performance during flight. As a pilot, you are certain to learn essential skills of leadership, teamwork, and communication. The best skills I learned from becoming a pilot that helped me to be an effective leader in my day-to-day job is:

  • Be committed to your goals
  • Take responsibility for your decisions and actions
  • Keep things simple

There is always more than tech. Technology powers everything we do these days. It is a means to get you what you want effectively. But it’s the human behind the technology that makes technology interesting. Humans are the ones who dream up the solutions to tough problems, and then use technology to make ends meet. By sharing passions and interests and finding like-minded people, we make it possible for other people to gain the perspective that they may not naturally have.

This, to me, is the real evolution of thoughts, shared beliefs and behaviors. This is how we build virtual cultures that are not limited by borders, walls, or visas.

To connect with Snehal on LinkedIn, be sure to check the following link:

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  • Arun

    Brave God bless you

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