Letter to Young Engineers – Build Real Things

[Guest article by Sujai Karampuri, founder of Sloka Telecom]

When I joined B.Tech in Electronics and Communications nearly two decades ago, I was told that whatever I learn in the college will be of little use to me in my life because we will not be using any of the stuff taught in the program.  I took that advice quite seriously.  Instantly I convinced myself that it didn’t really matter if I did not pay any attention to the classes.  I just had to pass and somehow make it through the 4 years.  The campus itself had enough reputation that it will carry me through in my life, so why waste time in studying something which is of no use to me in the long run?

The graduating seniors who had passed out came back a year later to visit us and reaffirmed the same opinion, that not much of what I learn in my B.Tech will be of any use in ‘real’ life.  Because the ‘real’ life is so different that I would end up doing something quite different.  It was true.  Most of my seniors who graduated from the college ended up in MS programs in USA but had already switched to Computer Science, while few others got into IIMs thereby leaving nearly 95% of our subjects behind, and some others got into jobs at Hindustan Lever, Infosys, HCL, etc, securing jobs in marketing or software for health, insurance, banking, never having to bother with B. Tech subjects ever again.

I guess I was always a ‘big’ picture person even as a student.  My ‘big’ thinking suggested that the scores and marks in the B.Tech subjects will not affect my life at all.  I decided not to study more than what was required to pass the exams.  Why unnecessarily waste time on something that is irrelevant in ‘real’ life?  Instead, I spent time on other things which seemed to make sense- like painting, art, debating, and of course, making friends and falling in love.  Since I believed these other things will remain with me for the rest of my life, it made sense to invest in them.

An engineer uncle told his graduating engineer nephew that he will not use more than 5% of what he studied.   That’s what we have been told and that’s what we believed.  After nearly 16 years since my graduation, I have a completely different story to tell.  I hope this reaches out to some of the passionate engineers in the colleges of India.   I am a part of a technology product company in wireless space and this is our story.

During my first year in engineering, we had a course in English.  I skipped most of the classes, and for the exams I spent only 2 hours of studying, enough to pass.  We all reasoned, ‘we are engineers, so why do we need to learn this language?’  Today, I write many articles, prepare brochures, and write letters and reports to customers and investors. I write business plans and analysis on various topics in the industry.  And I need to be correct, concise and lucid.  I speak in public on a regular basis.  There is so much importance to language in my daily work that nearly 50% of my job is communication.   If I had known this I would have paid more attention to those English classes 20 years ago.

Then we had Chemistry.  Since I wasn’t a chemical engineer I told myself this is another subject of waste.  Today, we paint our wireless units with the right kind of paint taking into account the temperatures it has to withstand.  We deal with various kinds of materials and choose the best ones that withstand rains and overcome the problems of rust.  We experiment with materials that have right amount of conductivity, electrical resistance and other chemical properties. 

Then we had a course in Physics.  I was passionate about physics so I learnt a lot.  But I always bemoaned that an engineer may not actually use it ever.  Fortunately for me, now we deal with convection, conduction, radiation, and other shock and vibration characteristics while designing our wireless units which work in extreme weathers as outdoor units.   We spent nearly 24 months on engineering a product that could cool itself and during this exercise we went back again and again to our basics in physics.

Then we had Mathematics.  Today we use Fourier Transforms, Arithmetic and Geometric Series, and many other mathematical tools in our development of algorithms.  Few days ago we used techniques to convert Cartesian to Polar Coordinates to use them in our algorithms.  To do this we had to open the Engineering Mathematics text book taught in our first and second year.

One of the most neglected subjects was Accounting, called Economics.  We hated it, ridiculed it, and completely dismissed it.  ‘We are engineers, not accountants’, we told ourselves.  I wish I paid little more attention – because now I continuously fail to grapple with balance sheets and profit & loss accounts though it is my mandate to understand them to take decisions.   We also had Engineering Drawing.  Thankfully I liked it, and now it comes again and again to aid us in making designs of our products, making CAD/CAM drawings for manufacturing them, and making 3D drawings for visualizing the product before fabricating them.

Then we had Workshop in our first/second year.  There we worked with lathe machines, cutting mechanical tools, and also casting and molding where we actually dirtied our hands.  For most of us, it didn’t make sense back then.  We complained, ‘why should electronics engineers go through workshop?’ Today, we spend time and money in making casts for our enclosures and have to take a decision on sand cast, gravity cast or pressure die cast, and conduct great deal of research to mill, grind, and cut the exact design for our heat sinks that dissipate heat for many days and nights. Hopefully in a year we will have our own workshop. I look forward to that day with excitement.

We program our software using linked lists that we learnt in the courses on programming language and data structures.  Our embedded software uses microprocessor programs in Assembly and C.  We design electronic circuits, both Analog and Digital.  We have a soldering iron and oscilloscopes that we use daily.  Our baseband software uses Digital Signal Processing, and we continuously work on the internals of Data Networks.   We use all topics of Digital Communications.  We use antennas and its technologies to decide on the antenna propagation techniques and antenna patterns.  

I realize that I am currently using more than 90% of what I learnt in my B. Tech, on a regular basis.  I didn’t know this would happen.  If I had known, I would have treated by B. Tech little differently.  There is beauty in building things and seeing them work.  There is satisfaction in engineering products and solutions that find a place in this ‘real’ world.  There is no other joy for an engineer than being able to use the length and breadth of entire gamut of engineering. while trying to build a working product   I wouldn’t trade this job for any other.  May be we are not as rich, maybe we are not as successful, but we are all proud engineers.  While most other engineers may say that they don’t use 90% of what they learnt, we can actually claim that we use more than 90% of what we learnt.

I want the young engineers in India to know that what they learn can be used in their lives.  Instead of looking for the highest paying non-engineering job, they have a choice to look for a real engineering job.   Hope we have more technology companies in India, and hope we create a generation of engineers who can actually claim they make use of what they learnt in their B.Tech.  Hope they build airplanes and design ships.  Hope they make cell phones and electronic gadgets.  Hope they make computer games and robots.   Hope they go through fun of what it means to be an engineer.   Hope they will not be satisfied with just the title, but become real engineers building things.

[Reproduced from Sujai’s blog]

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