A week ago, when I sent this text message, little did I know that this would be the last text message I would ever send to someone who has been a constant in my life for around two decades. I knew his family was away in India, so he might be flying solo. And would be available. And he was!
We went to San Ramon for dinner. On the way, we talked about everything. He regaled me with the story of a food adventure to the same place with his small, beautiful family. He had some classic dance music tunes mixed with Indian classics and 80s favorites. I told him that his favorite song, Donna Summers’ I Feel Love, was just named #1 on Rolling Stones’ top 200 dance tracks.
“Obviously,” he said. And we cracked up.
Then we got busy eating — the Indo-Chinese food was spicy. I said so.
“You are not really Indian, Om-jee.” And cracked up at his own joke. I joined in.
He was one of the few people I spoke to in Panjabi. As was usually the case, we jumped around topics. We discussed the merits of a new fountain pen paper, the movie called 1983, and networking and cloud technologies. He railed against crypto –even though I argued that skepticism shouldn’t cloud optimism. I didn’t win the argument. I never did — at least when it came to technology.
We were driving back to San Francisco when his wife called from her home in India. Our galavanting ways amused her a lot. There was a lot of laughter and joy. It was clear that he missed his wife and daughter. He dropped me off at home, and we promised to meet for espresso the weekend after he came from his company offsite. I promised him special beans of coffee.
I will never be able to keep that promise.
But in my heart, I will have this memory: of a perfect summer evening of fun and laughter with someone who I admired, respected, and, more importantly, loved as a person. Yes, he was exceptional as a professional, but for me, he was always the person I turned to get no-bullshit answers.
This is about Vijay Gill, a man who wore many hats — a loving husband, an amazing father, a brilliant colleague, a loyal friend, and a true technologist.
Unless you are part of a small group of people who focus on the Internet’s network and infrastructure intricacies, there is a good chance that you don’t know much about Vijay.
Vijay was born into an accomplished family on January 22, 1971, in Patiala, India. A talented student, Vijay developed a love for technology as a young boy. As a high-schooler, he developed into an exceptional programmer. His talents attracted the attention of local computer academies, who urged him to join as a tutor. He asked his family to help him realize his dream — to study computer science in the United States. They acquiesced to his wishes and helped him move to America to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he graduated, specializing in mathematics and computer science.
He started his professional journey as a systems administrator at his alma mater. His logical and analytical approach to problem-solving helped him become a critical member of a small but significant cadre of engineers who would help shape the modern Internet we all use today.
He worked in senior positions at companies like UUnet (now part of Verizon,) Abovenet, AOL (now part of Yahoo), Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Twilio, and Databricks. He was a key member in helping build Google and Microsoft’s network and cloud platforms. Most recently, he was a Senior Vice President at RapidAPI. His impact on technology is evident through his contributions to multiple papers and patents. In 2005, he got married, and in 2010, he became the father of his beloved daughter.
A voracious reader, he spent hours learning new things, tinkering with technology, and solving problems. He walked everywhere with his notebook and ink-filled fountain pens and was fond of well-made espressos. He was addicted to backpacks and technical wear.
Vijay filled the lives of his family and friends with Vijay-isms like “boom,” “clueless,” “done,” and “solid.”
I first met Vijay in the early days of the commercial Internet — he was a young engineer at UUnet, and I was a young reporter writing about the Internet. I had no idea that we would eventually become friends and that our friendship would span over two decades. We stayed in touch and often exchanged notes.
Our friendship wasn’t because of technology; instead, it was driven by our fondness for a few things — fountain pens, notebooks, fine Japanese paper, bags, and food. When he got a gig at Google, he helped open a whole new world of Indian food in South Bay. Of course, during our nerd-outs about pens, pakoras, and paper, we would discuss networks, new technologies, and silicon breakthroughs.
It was around 2006, when I started working full time on GigaOm, I met with Vijay and talked about this weird idea I had — for a conference devoted to cloud computing. It would eventually become Structure. He took out his notebook and fountain pen with his (then) favorite ink, and started making notes. He loved making lists and using bullet points. His writing was so small and tight, and I admired the economy of his scrawls. He loved my cursive writing.
It wasn’t long before we thrashed out what would eventually become the first event, including who are the people who would make for a good, educational line-up. He admonished me: stay away from the vendors. He was the first believer, and when I was ready, he opened his Rolodex to me. And when I first shared the final outline with him, he said: “This doesn’t suck.”
Those who know him know this was as high praise as you could get from him.
Vijay had many great qualities. His best quality was simplifying even the most complicated of problems and turning them into actionable thinking. It was in stark contrast to my convoluted way of connecting the dots to come up with crazy theories. He would let me know in no uncertain terms when I was off base and then go on to help me develop a better framework.
He was my idea “validator.” We would argue, though he would always win every argument. Once in a while, I would. And a couple of days later, I would get a text message that was “solid.” But he always had a better version of my idea. And I was grateful for it.
Of course, he could be infuriating.
That one time, for nearly a year, he forgot to mention that he got married, even though we saw each other almost once a month. I can laugh now, but perhaps it was the only time I lost my temper with him.
We had a long-running debate about the quality of espressos in espressos. He thought it sucked, especially compared to Seattle. I kept saying it was all about the individual barista and had to introduce him to two of my favorite baristas to win that argument. I took him to The Coffee Movement, and the debate paused. It is where we met for a quick shot, walked down to Embarcadero, and then to my house.
And then he would get on the muni and go home.
A few weeks back, we sat on a bench outside Salesforce offices and reminisced about the UUnet days, a little sad about the lost innocence of that time. He talked about Mike O’Dell and others who taught him important lessons about how networks would work at scale, how they would evolve, and how we are still working on those principles.
Vijay said the then chief scientist at UUNet, Michael O’Dell taught him a vital lesson — you can’t build a system that solves all the problems. Instead, thinking about systems that could quickly scale would be best. “I don’t know why Mike liked me,” he said. I recall from memory, so something likely got lost in translation. O’Dell is widely credited to have said, “The only problem is scale; all other problems inherit from that.”
He railed about the growing complexity of the software stacks and the lack of deeper understanding in the new generation of technologists. In his mind, the continuous abstractions and building of layers upon layers in the software stack had created dependencies that were like lurking time bombs. We talked about bad code injected into npm as an example.
And as quickly, we shifted gear and talked about the growing shortage of engineers who could handle our electricity grid as a national-level problem. There wasn’t just one thing — I knew that coffee with him would spark new thoughts, clear my mind, and more likely than not, I would have spent money on either new ink, a new pen, or a new notebook.
Vijay was salty, and he didn’t suffer fools. But he was very kind. He helped everyone who came looking for help. He believed in the power of technology to help build a better tomorrow.
Issac Asimov once said, “Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world.”
Vijay was an embodiment of that — an engineer’s engineer. And like a good engineer, he would have hated that I was talking about him. When he left Google to join Microsoft, The Register wrote a piece about him, and the inaccuracies incensed him. In response, he wrote:
Leaving aside the inaccuracies in the pieces, I feel that such articles are toxic. The simplistic approach sensationalizes a few personalities and while it may make for good copy and get pageviews, the actual folks who did the work get no credit and it is wrong. With such a talented pool of folks at Google, enabled by a culture of excellence that starts from the top, anyone could have done a great job, but no one mentions that. The work is about the team, the culture of data-driven decisions, fair and firm debate, and a refusal to compromise. Credit should go unto those who deserve it: the incredible teams at the company. My own part if any, was managing to get out of the way of the folks doing the work.
That was Vijay in a nutshell.
Goodbye, my friend — I know you are building a new cloud infrastructure up in the skies.
August 8, 2022. San Francisco