I Am Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX and This Is How I Work

One of the indisputable advantages of the Internet is the availability of free online courses that allow everyone to get an education. edX is one such publication founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and offers free open source courses that enable people around the world to receive education that would otherwise not be available to them.

EdX is led by Anant Agarwal , who is also a professor of electrical engineering at MIT. He’s a longtime proponent of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), which allow thousands of people to take courses at universities from Harvard to Berkeley and even schools overseas. He is also the co-founder of several companies and continues to travel the world at the helm of edX. But, as we have learned, his favorite place of work is not in a glossy office; this is a humble greasy diner. This is how it works.

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts. Current position: CEO of edX, Professor at MIT. One word that best describes the way you work: Obsessively mobile: my most mobile device is a ballpoint pen, but I complement it with an iPhone 7 and a mini iPad. … Current Computer: Samsung 900X Windows Laptop

What apps, software or tools can’t you live without? Why?

I travel quite often (or, dare I say, all the time?). With over 100 global edX partners, I’m often in Miami one week and Mumbai the next, so I rely on my iPhone hotspot to stay connected no matter where I am in the world. I also use my Gmail app, Google Drive and Remote Desktop a lot. But that’s not all when I travel – I can’t live without a flashlight and magnifying glass, as I need both to expand the print on the menu when I dine out! I’m also a fan of the Slingbox app – I use it to watch the Patriots play as I travel.

How is your workplace arranged?

Aside from my office at edX headquarters in Kendall Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts, my most important office is a diner called Frescafe in Natick, just down the road from where my family and I live. On weekends, I spend at least two hours a day here – just me, my laptop, and lots of decaffeinated coffee. Greasy breakfast has become my favorite place for twenty years – I co-wrote a textbook on electronic circuits there in the early 2000s, and since then they have not been able to get rid of me! I am also known to strike up conversations with other patrons and waiters. In many cases, the edX sticker on my laptop was the start of a conversation, and I had the pleasure of hearing stories from edX students who happened to visit or work at the diner. There is no better motivation for really tackling a difficult sentence or revisiting a long deck than listening to inspirational stories from real edX students.

What’s your best time-saver or life hack?

It’s simple! Putting things off for later. As for work, my life hack is: “If it can be postponed, postpone it.” While I know this isn’t the best way to manage my time, it works for me. This probably makes my colleagues angry at me too! Sometimes I find that the work was unnecessary and I can avoid it altogether, but it usually happens that I have too many things to do near the deadline, so I have to prioritize and be super efficient and minimize the time I spend. on things, while maximizing the attention and energy that I put into them. Can I add a caveat to say that if there is something I would like to do better, it would be time management?

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

A piece of paper that I just crumpled up in my pocket. It’s not high-tech, it’s super-portable, never runs out of power, works on airplanes, but trust me, if I add a task to this piece of paper, it’ll get done!

What device, besides a phone and a computer, can you not live without and why?

During conference calls or meetings, I can’t live without an analog desk clock in plain sight. I love to dive deep into rabbit holes while talking and can lose track of time. I don’t wear a watch and prefer not to be distracted by my phone, laptop or any other device during meetings, so my usual time sources are not available. So, the analog clock keeps me informed, as I can keep track of how much time I spent in a conversation without opening my phone or laptop.

What are some of your best everyday activities? What’s your secret?

Making kerala fish curry. Mine is unmatched!

Also, I played stand-up comedy in school, and I think being funny and having a sense of humor in things is critical to being a good leader. You can disarm people with humor, even if they are unhappy with their decision.

What do you listen to while you work? Have a favorite playlist? Maybe we can talk on the radio? Or do you prefer silence?

I listen to talk radio while driving and I don’t talk on the phone. But, having gotten used to the VERY noisy hostel at IIT Madras over the years of my studies, I can work almost anywhere. These days, I can still ignore the noisy background of the world when I work. I even missed an Air Canada flight once when I sat and pounded on my laptop keys in front of the boarding gate, even though they were shouting my name several times. To prevent this from happening, I set an alarm on my mobile phone!

What are you reading now? Or what would you recommend?

Probably something from John Grisham.

How do you replenish? What do you do when you want to forget about work?

I think about training and it tires me out, but I really need to start training. A greasy breakfast in a diner or a pizza in a restaurant is always fun. I also turn to Netflix when I need to escape to the movies.

What is your sleep pattern? Are you a night owl or get up early?

I can sleep very easily at any time. To be honest, I can sleep while standing. I try to sleep six to seven hours a day.

I’m just a night owl and I like to work late into the night. I despise early morning! I would rather stay awake all night to have a meeting at 5 am than face a call to wake up at 5 am.

Fill in the blank: I would like _________ to answer these same questions.

Some of our edX students like Battushig or Amol Bhave. They are truly inspiring and their accomplishments never cease to amaze me! Both took my MIT Circuits edX course as high school students in Mongolia and India, respectively, and passed it! Then they entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and are now in high school. They are young, but their ambition and talent are incredible. I would like to know how they do it all!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I’ve ever received is to always act on your curiosity. Curiosity has served me well throughout my career. Believe it or not, it all started with a visit to a family friend’s chicken farm when I was a teenager. After the visit, I became interested in poultry farming, so I started a small farm. The farm flourished as I expanded its reach, selling eggs to neighbors and wholesale to a local restaurant. You could say I discovered B2C and B2B early on! Curiosity about the beginning and development of this endeavor helped me subsequently create several high-tech startups, and the importance of following your curiosity has stayed with me throughout my professional life.


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