Wayward Wanderer, by accident
Date: Saturday , March 31, 2007
I was on the flight to Edinburgh, to meet an EDA partner, and should have essentially concentrated on preparing for the meeting, but the buzz in my head was too much. No longer able to contain my restlessness, I started scribbling frantically on the backside of my boarding pass,” recalls Mahesh Mehendale. Little idea did he have then that the field-programmable-gate-array diagram, (‘scribble’ in his terminology) would fetch him a patent - one of the six he holds in all. It was an accident, he quips, hastening to add that most of his achievements till date, indeed his very domain of operation has been an accident.
Quite by accident then, he has moved on to become the Chief Technologist, Digital Entertainment Products, India at Texas Instruments. Contrary to his career path, which never had a destination, (we’ll come to that later), he steers his teams to design and develop high-end silicon pieces meant for car infotainment, camera phones, hi-performance audio devices, and surveillance cameras. The learning curve in his twenty-one year long career has been steep, despite significant shifts.
But why shifts? Apparently, it was his restlessness. “I’ve changed jobs every 5 years,” he quips. This is all the more perplexing since his biodata mentions that he’s been working with TI, without a break, since 1986. The ‘shifts’ have been entirely technical, he clarifies. The first few years were devoted to EDA (Electronic design automation), followed by Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), Digital Signal Processors (DSP), System-on-a-chip designs to complete product development including embedded software.
His moves were determined by his interest in the domain, as well as in the interest of the project/organization. Whenever he has felt that he was becoming indispensable to a project, he has moved on, but not before developing a strong leader to follow in his footsteps. It has helped keep the projects on track, and not be marred by the possibility of his absence, as also ensuring him a fair amount of elbow room. Being indispensable works only for a short term and sticking to a domain to the point of becoming sacrosanct with it ties one down, he reckons.
Every shift in his career has been accompanied by an intervening period, during which he has handheld his peers into the art of steering the project in his absence. “I’ve been fortunate to have had good teams, packed with people who had within them the fire and the ability to lead,” he states.
Mehendale’s penchant for developing leads from within his teams has endowed him with a fair share of admirers. He realized this no more when he met with his most cherished ‘accident’ till date in 2003: In July that year, he became the first, and the only one (yet) TI fellow from Asia. What aided in the bestowing of that honor, apart from his technological contribution, was his development of strong leaders over the years and external recognition in terms of papers and patents.
Most significant among his achievements in TI has been his contribution in Ankoor-the first commercial Digital Signal Processor designed in India, in 1997. Mehendale was member of the architecture team and the tech lead for the design team in the Ankoor project, and remembers with fondness, the excitement among the workforce. “Each one of us had a burning desire to prove that something world class could be done from India,” he recalls. For Mehendale, the pressure was double, since Ankoor came up at a time when he had enrolled for a PhD program. How then did he manage the two?
‘Burst mode’ is his quick reprise. He devoted all his faculties and went for the jugular in phases. First, he spent a whole semester in the IIT-Bombay campus, as part of his doctoral degree, identifying the areas he wanted to explore. Next he devoted 8-9 months at a stretch to the Ankoor project, without even thinking about studies. “We were then wrapping up work on Ankoor and the office became like a second home,” he recalls. As if this wasn’t enough, he also taught a ME level course on low power design at IISc. at the same time, and managed to see them all through successfully.
There are a few lessons he wants to talk about though. “When I signed on for the PhD, and later the teaching assignment, I had no idea what I was putting myself in,” he reminisces. Since that period, Mehendale has taken it easy, letting the depth versus breadth playoff guide his career moves. Having spent considerable amount of time in various sub-domains of SoC design, he had the ‘depth’ in each of them, but also realized the importance internalizing ‘breadth’ in terms of a better understanding of the complete product development cycle. He took an extended assignment in the U.S. as a program manager for one of TI’s digital media processor development projects. It gave him the ‘cross-functional exposure’ that he had been missing thus far, along with an understanding of how cost and other business considerations impact technological decisions.
Back in India after a 15 month stay in the States, Mehendale sought to follow the management component in the technological space. It was as much a need of the organization (TI-India was 15 years old now and needed experienced techies to head projects) as his own—he wanted to take on challenging tasks to build on what he had learnt in the U.S., and TI responded by giving him the role of Director, SoC Design.
Mehendale’s ‘accidents’ began when he was in class 11. Just for fun, he sat for the IIT-JEE and got through, and in landed the electrical engineering cell. Then came his masters, and VLSI design took him by storm. “I did not have a specific domain preference and just happened to pick up VLSI design as my research topic during MTech,” he says. Then came the TI offer; it provided him with an ‘opportunity to work with some of the best minds’, as also the prospect of further pursuing his VLSI interest while still being in India. He has stayed with TI since, and the cycle of accidents has come a full circle today, with him constituting one of the ‘best minds’ and causing, possibly accidents similar to his joining the company over two decades ago.