Engineer to Entrepreneur
Date: Wednesday , September 30, 2009
It is a great sense of satisfaction when I look back into my IIT days at Chennai. Being an IITian, I must admit that IIT education through the environment and education had an everlasting impact in my personal and professional life.
I did my M.Tech in Electrical at IIT – Chennai (IITM) during 1978-80. At that time I saw that as just another two years of education to land at a good job, and more of a visa to better future. But when I look back now, it was the tipping point in my career.
Nowadays we have many autonomous institutes in education, but IITs led the way few decades back. When universities struggled to keep pace with industry in changing the curriculum (more due to the red tape), IITs had the best professors who could decide the need of the hour for the industry and students and keep the syllabus current. I remember learning Integrated Circuits and Microprocessors at IITM while I had just learnt Vacuum Tubes in Undergraduate. It took some effort to learn transistors on my own so that I can keep pace with the then latest technologies that IITM was teaching.
Each of the IITs were/ are supported by one of the friendly developed countries and IITM was funded by Germany. It had one of the best TV labs in those days and it was a fun to learn how the technology works (in addition to having a sneak view of brilliant and colorful movies that were rare to see those days!). We were gifted with learning through great teachers like Prof Raina and Prof Reddy who had the global as well as industry exposure to feed us well with their knowledge and wisdom. The learning at IIT had been practical and hands-on.
But it is not the curriculum or infrastructure or the teachers that alone makes the difference in the IIT education. It is the competitive spirit created by attracting best in class students from all over India, creating a multi cultural environment and cross learning from each other that pulled us up together. IIT Alumni's are strong and in important positions in the industry. That helps later to build easy credibility and connections to be successful in the profession.
When someone thinks of IITs, they think of students who are likely to be book worms! But in reality it is not true at all (though some do become that – but at their own choice). We ended up learning so many beyond studies that we wouldn’t have if we had remained a day scholar in any another engineering college.
My schooling days were spent at Kumbakonam in Tamilnadu wherein river Cauvery flowed in front of my house. In my childhood, I was never given a chance to take a dip at Cauvery independently due to fear of being drowned. Even now it is vivid in my memory of a 2 year kid with proper gear swimming in the pool at IITM with her mother (of German origin). That gave me the confidence to jump into the pool and learn to swim. Those small acts did create a ‘can do’ attitude.
During second year of MTech I became Mess Secretary through elections for the student reps. It was quite a challenge to manage the expectations of serving good food meeting the unique appetites of students from all over India as well as to be within the budget (of less than Rs.150 mess bill). Being a pure vegetarian till then, I had to manage the expectations of non vegetarians who were fighting if the chicken should have coconut based gravy or a tomato-onion based gravy. I decided to temporarily become non-vegetarian (which I continued for 10 more years later) so that I have domain knowledge to appreciate and manage conflicts!
When it comes to campus interviews, IITs had (and have) the best Tag Value (Brand Image!). In the last semester of MTech, I landed at three job offers (of SAIL – Ranchi, DEAL – Dehradun and Wipro – Bangalore). Wipro was just entering into Information Technology business and in 1980 they came to IITM for campus selection. Mr. Premji himself travelled to Chennai to interview and select and I was the only one to get selected from IITM. The attraction for me was the location being Bangalore and it was like joining a startup. I walked into Wipro as Assistant Engineer of R&D without knowing what is in store for me. Then on every year we selected some of the best in class people from IITs and NITs and Wipro was considered to have the best private R&D in the country.
The technical knowledge I gained through the curriculum/ teachers/ peer pressure as well as the confidence I gained to decide and act independently at IITM took me to the level of becoming the Chief Executive of Global R&D unit at Wipro (of near 2000 engineers by 1999). If it had not been graduating from IIT, I wouldn’t have taken the risk of joining a private company in early stages of business and would have landed in a safe job in an established company that wouldn't have taken me where I have reached.
It was after near two decades of servant leadership, looking at the success of some of the IITians, the entrepreneur bug bit me in 1999. Along with 9 other cofounders and under the leadership of Mr. Ashok Soota we launched MindTree. In August 2009 we completed one decade of growing MindTree from a start-up to a public company of $250M+ revenue and 8000 Minds. As a leading mid-size IT services company we aspire to grow into a $1.0B company by 2014.
Someone said that 'Luck is when an opportunity meets preparation'. How true, it was the Preparation at IIT that enabled me to leverage the Opportunity of boom in the IT industry. When I look back, it is not just the satisfaction of my own success as a professional, but being part of the journey in co-creating 'Hi-Tech R&D as a Service' which gives me even more satisfaction. We have created an $8.0B industry of Product Engineering Services in India employing 1000’s of engineers, and putting India high on the technology map. I am sure there are many IITians behind that achievement be it Engineers or Entrepreneurs.
IITs are the crown jewels of India. IITians can continue to be the catalyst to make India a Developed and Leading Nation in this millennium. Let us dream big and reach there!
The author is President & Group CEO - Product Engineering Services, MindTree