SEAS alum Subir Parulekar—A leader in streaming

Man standing in front of a wall with Disney Logo.

By Elizabeth Egan 

Published May 8, 2024

UB alum Subir Parulekar (MS ’04) works in an industry that touches the lives of billions of people worldwidestreaming. 

“My time at UB gave me a good taste of real-world experience and taught me the value of hard work. The lessons I learned in those two years have remained with me through my career, reminding me that whatever you are doing, you have to put in the hard work and that is what gets you to the next level. ”
Subir Parulekar , Senior Director of Engineering at the Walt Disney Company

Parulekar is the senior director of engineering for the Walt Disney Company, in a part of the company that oversees Disney+, ESPN+, Hulu and Star+.

For more than a decade, he has worked for Netflix and Disney, helping develop platforms that deliver countless hours of entertainment. A career that he prepared for as a student at UB, where he gained the education, experiences and values that continue to guide him to this day.  

Building a solid foundation

After completing his bachelor’s in computer science at the University of Mumbai, Parulekar set out to look for a graduate program in the United States. Between the strong computer science program that the department offered and the affordable tuition costs, the University at Buffalo appeared to be the perfect fit.  

Coming to UB without any financial aid, Parulekar held several part-time jobs outside of classes. He recalled working in the Goodyear Hall cafeteria on South Campus, cleaning tables and loading dishes, and later working as a student research assistant at UB’s Center of Excellence for Document Analysis and Recognition (CEDAR).

It was there that he worked with computer science faculty members Sargur Srihari, CEDAR founder and SUNY Distinguished Professor who passed away in 2022, and SUNY Distinguished Professor Venu Govindaraju, now the vice president for the Office of Research and Economic Development. By his second semester at UB, Srihari offered him a research assistantship through which he was able to receive financial aid.

“My time at UB gave me a good taste of real-world experience and taught me the value of hard work,” said Parulekar. “The lessons I learned in those two years have remained with me through my career, reminding me that whatever you are doing, you have to put in the hard work and that is what gets you to the next level.”

Parulekar recalled an algorithms class taught by Hung Ngo, a former faculty member in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, that he particularly enjoyed, noting that algorithms play a key role in his work in streaming and that he was grateful to have gotten a solid foundation in the subject at UB.

“We use algorithms in code implementations to figure out the most performant approach for the features we build into applications,” said Parulekar. “This helps with scalability because when a platform has millions of users, performance of the applications matters quite a bit.”

Another significant event for Parulekar during his time at UB was meeting his wife, Swapna Kulkarni, who was a student in the School of Architecture and Planning.

After graduating from UB, Parulekar worked as a software developer at Mercury Interactive and Hewlett-Packard. Outside of his full-time work, Parulekar also cofounded a startup called Socially Referred with two friends.

“The vision was to move away from faceless reviews of service providers on sites like Yelp, leveraging the power of your social network (Facebook) to get trusted referrals and reviews,” said Parulekar. “We did a soft launch with friends and family but could not devote the time needed due to our full-time jobs and, hence, could not capitalize on the opportunity. A few years after that, Facebook launched a similar concept that is today known as Facebook Marketplace.”

While his visa restricted his ability to work at a startup full time, he said that the ability to create something and have his vision developed from scratch is an achievement he is most proud of since leaving UB.

In 2013, Parulekar started a job at Netflix, working to help transition the billing and payment engineering systems from the data center to the cloud. Later during his tenure at Netflix, Parulekar became the engineering manager in charge of promotional videos and trailers and adtech engineering. In 2020, he moved to Disney, just two months after the launch of Disney+ in November 2019.

A day at Disney

While Disney+ and Hulu are some of the biggest streaming services in the United States, Parulekar said that the streaming side of Disney still moves at the speed of a startup.

Parulekar’s day is largely made up of strategy meetings, working on where the streaming platforms will be in a month or years from now, as well as one-on-one meetings with his team to help understand what they need from him to stay on track.

His team powers the signup experience for Disney’s four streaming services. Parulekar has also been involved with the Disney+ tiers that launched internationally last year and that continue to launch in additional markets, now reaching more than 150 countries.

When Parulekar first started at Netflix, people were still learning exactly what a streaming platform was supposed to have. Netflix had just come out with its first original series, “House of Cards.”

Today, Parulekar said that one of his jobs is meeting the expectations that customers have developed over the past 10 years as to what a streaming service is supposed to include.

“Streaming services are supposed to have a lot of features and we are fairly new,” said Parulekar. “In my position, the biggest challenge is how we migrate to newer technologies while working on various business initiatives. It is almost like changing the engine of a plane while it is flying and making sure you land without delays in the most cost-effective way possible.”

He added that on top of the challenge of keeping up with existing streaming paradigms, such as letting users continue watching from any device and live streaming, they also have to be forward-thinking to create new features and make sure their technology does not become limiting as the service expands.  

When he is not working in the office, Parulekar still enjoys interacting with the Disney platforms, particularly through streaming live sports on ESPN+, watching new shows on Hulu and watching Marvel content on Disney+ with his wife. 

Back to UB

After a long career in industry, Parulekar said he has been thinking about ways that he can help share his experiences with UB students and alumni, adding that he is particularly excited about UB being named the home of Empire AI, New York State’s new AI consortium. 

“I am working with President Satish Tripathi's team to help with the program overall and also to connect them with various folks in the industry as needed,” said Parulekar. He is also working with Bina Ramamurthy, a professor of teaching in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, to speak to her classes this year.

Parulekar’s advice to students who aspire to become leaders: “I think for leadership, it becomes important to learn how to motivate people and lead by example. You need an army of people to achieve your goal. Second, if you take something on, solve it to completion. That helps to build trust and respect and helps you to understand the entire picture.”

He continued, “Finally, try to get diverse perspectives and experiences. I have worked in the business-to-business side of things as well as the business-to-consumer side and I have worked in different domains, such as consumer billing, digital marketing, etc. All of those come with different challenges and problems that I could come up with different approaches to solve. Today a lot of my decisions are based off of experiences from all of those sides and that gives me an edge over leaders who have not had a lot of diverse experiences. So, I would say never stick to one thing. Get many experiences and broaden your perspective.”