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Alum Adventures: Atty Eleti Talks About Learning By Building At OpenAI

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A member of the Brown CS class of 2017, Atty Eleti spent his time at Brown University organizing various hackathons for Hack@Brown, in the Undergraduate Teaching Assistant (UTA) mentorship program for computer science courses discussing topics such as distributed systems and discrete mathematics, and in the International Mentoring Program helping international students become acclimatized to the university’s community. Atty also augmented his CS degree with Brown’s curriculum and took graphic design courses at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Atty says that he knew pretty early on that he wanted to study computer science and design, diving into the construction of side projects like Chrome extensions and web applications and participation in CS events from as early as his first year.

“I really fell in love with a mix of frontend, backend, and full stack engineering, and building new products from scratch,” says Atty. “Building things was the biggest lesson that I learned. The more you apply yourself, build projects that are close to your heart, learn new skills, learn new tech, the more equipped you will be for internships and jobs.”

Atty explains that his career opportunities throughout university were a result of his pure passion for innovation, a desire to advance his skills, and the strong connections he formed with alums and the university network. He first started working his first-year summer at Kayak, a travel website, which he was recruited for by a Brown alum working at the company; his next opportunity came with Facebook through RISD recruiting. His third summer, he started a position at Figma, which was a fifteen-person startup at the time, and he was recruited by alums that were well-acquainted with him and his work.

“The first job you get is your foothold into the industry: it’s how you build your network and also learn your early skills, so it’s really crucial,” says Atty, suggesting that new grads look for work in a high-growth startup that is just entering the explosive growth phase. “The reason I recommend that phase is because you will be given a lot of agency and you will be surrounded by people who are smart and driven and are self-selecting into the startup ecosystem. Conversely, you will learn a lot more than at a bigger company.”

Atty worked at Stripe for four and a half years after graduation and later began working at OpenAI, an AI research lab and famously, the creators of ChatGPT, as a product engineer. Atty comes up with designs and builds new software products, primarily focused on developers, for the company.

“Before this, I was running my own startup, building APIs for authentication. Before that, I was doing API design and fintech product development at Stripe,” Atty explains. “So I’ve been doing a lot of developer product design and development, and the skills that I learned at Brown that really helped me were, first and foremost, combining art and technology.”

Atty says that through the holistic and liberal arts education at Brown and RISD, as well as his involvement in various student organizations, he learned how to work with large teams, collaborating in a streamlined way. His work with the UTA program also taught him a culture of receiving mentorship and paying it forward.

Atty describes his typical workday as “all over the place”, stating that he could be working on a couple projects at once, individually or with a team, where each one is in a different phase; one project could still be in the design phase where he’s still thinking about its new capabilities while one project might have just been launched and he’s busier tracking the feedback and the metrics of how the product is doing. 

“So that is the product development process: you’re either designing or executing or following up from a recent launch and you’re often working in a team with designers, engineers, and in the case of OpenAI, researchers, to ship new things to users,” Atty says.

Atty also has meaningful advice for current computer science students at Brown, encouraging them to take the machine learning and neural network classes to learn how these systems actually operate and to develop the technical intuition necessary to advance in their careers.

“I think for computer science students, especially at Brown, you have both the mindset and the ability to go really deep into these topics, to get to the fundamentals, to learn the facts, and to build these systems yourselves,” Atty says. “You are builders too, so go build your own neural networks, your own machine learning models, go build chatbots, go build a natural language product, just go build, and that’s how you learn.”

Atty also gives some of his own ideas on how the progress of artificial intelligence is looking for the next few years, stating that the last decade could be described as the Mobile Era, where we’ve seen mobility-based products like Uber and DoorDash, and the decade before that as the Internet Era, where we had Google and YouTube.

“I think the reasonable bet is that these ten years, the 2020s, are about AI and how we interact with computers, fundamentally changing with AI,” Atty explains. “It’s really hard to predict the future, and I’m also not an AI researcher, so it’s hard for me to have a deep understanding of where things are going, but reading the tea leaves for me, I think we’ve entered a very promising era of technology.”

When asked about socially responsible computing and how the topic of ethics should be approached in the future, Atty says that he believes technology experts should have a very public discussion on how these technologies can be brought to use on a regular basis while keeping them safe, though he has a hope that the voice of the movement could be spearheaded by current students in the field.

“My view is that Brown is a very unique place and the culture of Brown CS and the university really encourages students to think holistically about technology,” says Atty. “Not just how it works or how it’s possible, but also how to build things ethically and in a socially responsible way and distribute the benefits of these technologies in an equitable manner, and I think Brown students should continue leading the voice there.”

Brown CS regularly publishes news articles about our pioneering and innovative alums. We have no financial involvement in any of the companies mentioned above and have not been compensated in any way for this story.

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