The Code King of India's Startup Scene - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Code King of India's Startup Scene

By Sanjena Sathian


Because this is the future of technology: rural … and hip.

Pull through the gates of the organic farm— down a path lined with mango trees, past spinach, papaya and bananas growing in the even sunlight — and arrive at a rudimentary hut with a steel roof. A couple of messy, content white guys are hanging out. They point the way to Freeman Murray, who’s sitting on the middle level of a scaffolded structure you might miss, thinking it’s a pile of scrap metal or a forlorn construction site. It is in fact a home, school, boot camp and co-working space, and Murray is the guru in residence. He’s helping a couple of Indian twentysomethings through their morning lesson: Javascript.

Here, on the outskirts of India’s tech hub, Bangalore, 43-year-old Murray, a bearded, sun-tanned, mild-mannered programmer, teaches middle-class young people — some with imperfect English, some college dropouts, many seeking a career switch — the ways of the Web. This co-founder of a local art-and-tech co-working community is a minor celebrity in India’s startup scene. (A lively Quora thread asks, “How does one meet Mr. Freeman Murray?”) He branched out to create this program, Jaaga Study, a couple of years ago, and it’s part of his larger presence in the country as an advocate of accessible computer science education. He’s also helped set up the Center for Innovation, Incubation & Entrepreneurship and is chapter president of Code for India in Bangalore, which tries to distribute programming skills widely. 

[He’s] a delicious anthropological case study in the perpetual intersection between Silicon Valley and the Far East.

India is well known for its scientific achievements; graduates of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology powered much of the tech explosion of the ’90s and 2000s. By the end of this year, India is expected to overtake the U.S. in numbers of Internet users, hitting 400 million, which according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India isn’t even one-third of the country. Coding boot camps are popping up everywhere, from online MOOCs to in-person six or 12-week affairs that promise six-figure salaries. Some, like Hyderabad-based the Hacking School, run around $1,000 and, says its founder Meraj Faheem, target people who already have a computer programming background.

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Murray is the chapter president of Code for India in Bangalore — but the title belies his thoroughly fan-girled status.

Source Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for OZY

Yet much of India lives far from these heady times, explains Karl Mehta, Code for India’s founder. “There’s a huge class divide,” Mehta says. Faheem finds Murray’s approach interesting but wonders about how convenient or practical it really is. After all, only around 5 percent of graduates of technical colleges find work at IT product companies and less than 20 percent at IT service companies, according to the employability research company Aspiring Minds.

Here at Jaaga Study, though, things seem idyllic. The dozen or so students are attending for free — Murray is self-funding the initiative — in a place that’s all jaunty, with mishmashed floors, and is outfitted with tents, where everyone sleeps. In the morning, there’s yoga and study; at various points during the day students farm or teach tech skills at nearby schools. And everyone rides Murray’s electric unicycle. Dolly Goyal and Rajesh Mule, both 23, spent 18 months living plain, programmy lives under Murray’s guidance and are now trying to bring tablets into classrooms. Nearby sits lanky Italian Matteo Bianchini, 27, who’s building a peer-to-peer marketplace. Jaaga, he says — computer screen propped open in front of him, white iPod headphones draped around his neck — is “a perfect place to unplug.” 

A high school dropout and eventual entrepreneur, Murray is a delicious anthropological case study in the perpetual intersection between Silicon Valley and the Far East. A relic of the ’90s computing revolution, the son of a programmer and a former coder at storied Sun Microsystems, Murray is a Bay Area native who came of age when life in the Valley was peaking. As an undergrad (he made it after junior college), he helped build the Internet Underground Music Archive, a well-known music startup, and made his way to Sun soon after. From there, he and his boss quit their jobs, eventually building a company that was soon acquired by the then-prestigious Excite@Home. Then, the bubble burst. 

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Students meditate in the mornings before coding — and later ride an electric unicycle.

Source Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for OZY

Now comes the tale of an entrepreneur turned Zen after a successful exit and a tempered market. “I was super ambitious then,” he says, reflecting that those monied days caused his peer group to “lose touch with the value of money.” So he learned to live with less, bumming on a Hawaiian beach — “the best days ever.” And then the choice: “I could either come back to the Bay and get a real job and be normal … or I could go to India.”

It says something about the tech world that the guy with a Dude-meets-Bryan-Cranston look wearing flowy orange pants and a tiger T-shirt can, with minimal money and a 4G router, run a coding boot camp in the developing world. He’s a sign of the tolerance and even adoration countercultural technologists hold for the unconventional. Today, you can find some of the sharpest developers around working out of geodesic domes on rural plots of land or even on buses as they travel the country. But as much as life has changed around here, Murray still goes back to California annually for a couple of months. In part for Burning Man, the counterculture fete favored by SF’s mindful-techie crowd. He says he’s not off the map from his old world … but “I’m definitely that guy  who went to India.”

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Matteo Bianchini. 


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