Founder & CTO, Diagon
A Warm Welcome in the Manufacturing Family
Shridharan (Shri) Muthu's parents literally bet the farm to support his pursuit of a master's degree in computer science at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA).
Muthu grew up in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu, where his family farmed 10 acres of land growing sugar cane, coconuts, and turmeric. When he and his parents went to the bank for a loan, they learned the value of their agricultural property was not sufficient to secure the loan; they would need to sell a piece of land, and they did.
“I'm very grateful for having my parents believing in me so much,” Muthu says. “My advice for other immigrants is to be true to what you want, and everything else will work out one way or the other.”
What Muthu wanted to do was find work where he could make a difference. He had obtained an IT degree from Anna University in Chennai, one of the state's leading science and engineering schools (the state universities are affordable). After graduation, he worked as a software developer at two giant tech firms. However, being a cog in a machine wasn't for him.
“I wasn't making an impact, and I became bored. That was the first time I thought about taking a giant leap of faith and applying to graduate schools in America,” Muthu recalls. He leapt, then soared.
Muthu came to America in 2007 as a 24-year-old with “very poor” English, without any connections and enough money for two semesters at UTA. After working his way through IT positions that ultimately lead to a position as director of engineering, he is now CTO and co-founder of Diagon Technologies, a San Francisco start up that is re-imaging manufacturing equipment and service sourcing. (Read story about Diagon.)
Making an Impact
During school, Muthu interned at Bloomberg (the giant financial services, news, and analysis company), which proved to be a productive move. The income helped pay for the second year of school, but more importantly, he found the work meaningful.
“A team of three or four of us could make a huge difference to customers, whether we were working on a problem from end to end or helping them solve a simple efficiency problem,” Muthu says. He worked for Bloomberg as a financial software developer for three years after graduation.
Muthu enjoyed Bloomberg, but he started viewing technology differently. He wanted to work with more open source-oriented technology (software which users can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible). He moved to the Bay Area and took a job with Zoosk, an online dating app with 40 million customers. Over an eight-year career, he worked his way up from software developer to vice president of engineering. After Zoosk was acquired, Muthu stayed on to manage the transition, but at the same time, “I was looking to take another leap of faith,” he says. “This time, I wanted to be part of start-up company.”
Muthu left Zoosk to become head of engineering at Snackpass, an app that allows anyone to order food ahead of time to pick up at local restaurants. Available on college campuses across the U.S., users earn rewards for themselves and to share with friends. The company also offers “front-of-house” solutions such as ordering kiosks and customer pick-up screens and “back-of-house” solutions, such as point-of-sale screens, a kitchen display system and an analytics dashboard.
“It's very quick at Snackpass. You have to work through ideas pretty quickly and test them out,” Muthu says. “If businesses and consumers like it, you keep building. If not, it’s okay to drop it and move on to the next thing. The idea of prototyping and testing, which you commonly see in manufacturing, is prevalently used in software industries.”
Now, as CTO at Diagon, Muthu continues to hone his skills at a being a matchmaker, but instead of helping people find a date or order dinner, he is connecting the manufacturing community and helping improve its supply chain efficiencies.
“Any e-commerce platform is a marketplace where you get buyers and sellers together,” Muthu says. “Everyone has a motive. You look at products, price points, and shipping and logistics. I think Diagon is going to be a perfect place for creating value for our customers because I can bring lessons from B2B and B2C software into manufacturing.”
In addition to the challenges experienced by any graduate student or software developer, Muthu also had to find connections half a world away from home. To any American, this may seem easy. Indian citizens are by far the most active users of the U.S. H-1B program and made up 73% of the nearly 442,000 H-1B workers in fiscal year 2022. From 2003 to 2013, the number of Indian scientists and engineers residing in the U.S. rose from 21.6 million to 29 million (The Hindu Business Line). Despite those numbers, immigrating to America can create a real struggle.
“Growing up in India, we are more community-oriented,” Muthu says. “You always get help. You have plenty of people around, whether it's your family or friends, that are genuinely there for you. Even at work, there's a lot of community built in. Coming here as a first-generation immigrant, that community was missing. I felt empowered to do my own thing, but at the same, I wasn't able to find enough help.”
That sense of isolation causes depression. Many immigrants become homesick and return, even if they are successful in their academic or professional pursuits.
“A lot of my time as an immigrant was spent trying to find community,” Muthu says. “I was naturally drawn to people from the same region who talk the same language. It's a small, tight-knit group. That's how you build community as an immigrant.”
The Biggest Leap
Perhaps his biggest leap of all was becoming a U.S. citizen in 2022. The emotions didn’t hit until a week later when he went into his documents closet (yes, an entire closet) and looked at all the paperwork he collected.
“It took three and a half days for me to shred all of them. That's the moment it hit me. Those documents were not relevant anymore because I have one passport,” he recalls. “Becoming a citizen gave me lot of freedom to take more leaps of faith, to think about something meaningful, something valuable. That is also another huge reason why I'm joined with Will Drewery to create Diagon (see Drewery's story). With my citizenship and financial stability, I can look for creating value where there are a lot of pain points, which is especially the case for small companies sourcing equipment like CNCs.”
The Manufacturing Community
Although Muthu didn't work in manufacturing until joining Diagon in February 2023, he is already learning that manufacturing connections run deep and wide. For example, in April, he attended AMT's MFG 2023 Conference in Phoenix, which connected nearly 400 manufacturing leaders, innovators, and builders.
“When I came to the meeting, I felt like an outsider to start, especially coming from a different background, being a different age, and as an immigrant,” Muthu says. “That didn't last long. I met so many cool people. I really felt there were people genuinely trying to help us get connected and become successful.”
Of all the connections, two immediately stood out. The first one was Christopher Bailey, ex-officio AMT board member and retired president of Hastings Air Energy Control.
“This guy was super high energy. Chris was like, ‘Oh, do you need this? Who else do you want to meet?' He was always asking questions and getting us connected,” Muthu says.
The second was Mark Baxa, president & CEO of CSCMP (the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals), who delivered a presentation on supply chain resiliency and global challenges.
“Mark was able to give us so many insights into the supply chain,” Muthu says. “The thing I noticed throughout the MFG event is that it's not just a one-time meeting with these people. Once you have a relationship, you can fall back on it and reach out to someone.”
IMTS 2024 is going to be Muthu's first IMTS show, and he has two objectives.
“First, I want to learn more about manufacturing,” he says. “Because I have always been a software developer, I know very little. My second objective is to meet great people. The MFG Meeting was huge for me, and I look forward to making many more connections.”
Welcome to the manufacturing family, Muthu.IMTS Rockstars