[I gave these talks in June-July 2020. Took sometime to write as a post.]
I got my bachelor’s degree in Information Technology (IT) from PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore, India in 2005 and Master’s degree in Computer Science from Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta in 2010. In my undergrad, I was a ‘nine pointer’- Indian English slang – which means, you score a cumulative GPA > 9.0 out of 10.0 – on all the courses whether you like it or not and a ‘class topper’, another slang, ie, sorted by exam grades you are in top 3 of your class. Scoring good grades helped me to get a software engineering internship at Cisco, Bangalore through the then Head of IT department, Dr S.Selvan. Paid internships were new then at PSG Tech (~2004) and I got paid Rs.6000 (equivalent to 150 USD) per month as stipend. I bought my first mobile phone with Cisco stipend, bought a mobile phone and silk saree for my parents as well. That was the first silk saree my mom got in a decade.
My internship later got converted into a full time job offer. Exposure at Cisco helped me to apply for Masters at Gatech, Atlanta. I paid my first semester fee at Gatech with the three year salary earned at Cisco (around Rs.35,000 (~$875 USD) per month in 2005-2008 which was relatively high then in the Indian market for new grad.) I later found a research assistantship in a lab, which funded my remaining three semesters. I owe my initial career success to PSG Tech & IT department. I always wanted to help my undergrad college as alumni, but did not get the time before. To be honest, I had the time, but it was never a priority. The ongoing pandemic gave me the time needed to reflect on my priorities and as the wise words go, it’s better to start things small, otherwise time will fly by and you will never be able to do it.
Through my friend Anand Ramesh, who was in touch with PSG Tech IT department throughout the 15 years since we graduated, I came to know about the alumni webinar series organized at the college. I initially planned to signup for one webinar, but ended up signing for two topics. First one on ‘Higher Studies’ and the another on ‘Startups’.
I just started to practice my public speaking skills, so, if you have the patience to listen through my gap fillers like “like”, “ah’s”, “umm’s”, stutters and stammers, you can listen to them below:
I will summarize the contents of the talk to save your time.
[The talk’s intended audience was students @ PSG Tech, India. But the content more or less applies to a wider audience.]
I studied in 5 different schools, as my father got transfers every 3-4 years. I did my 10th std at Ramakrishna Vidyaalaya Matriculation HSS (RVM), Villupuram and did my 12th std from MSP Solai Nadar MHSS, Dindigul. RVM is an english medium matriculation school, while MSP is primarily a tamil medium government aided school under private management with few english medium sections. During my 12th std (2001), we had entrance exams for engineering and medical courses in Tamil Nadu. 300 was the total cutoff marks with TNPCEE exams accounting for 100 and 12th board exams accounting for 200 marks. The school fees at RVM is 5X more than MSP and the student quality is more or less same in both the schools and I used to get around 5th or 6th rank in both of them. Dindigul is twice as populous and wealthier than Villupuram. As most of them in Tamil Nadu know that PSG Tech is one of the top Engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, let me ask a question: How many students joined PSG Tech from each of these schools in 2001?
0 out of 200 students from RVM joined PSG Tech.
8 out of 300 students, from MSP including me, joined PSG Tech.
The numbers get even more skewed towards MSP, when you consider all the top engineering colleges & medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. What explains this puzzle ? A more expensive school with similar student quality could not send any student to colleges like PSG Tech. The numbers cuts across caste and class. The answer lies in the single word called ‘Ecosystem’.
The teachers in MSP school knew how to crack TNPCEE. They had the last 10 year question papers of TNPCEE. As soon as our 11th grade exams were over, MSP teachers conducted private tuitions, where they started to coach students for TNPCEE. RVM students prepared for TNPCEE only after their 12th grade public exams. So, MSP students had a head start of 1 year over RVM students’ 1 month prep time. MSP teachers also had a feedback loop of how well their coaching is working, as year after year, more MSP students went to good colleges . While MSP sent students to top engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, no one went to IITs, as there was no exposure or coaching on how to crack IIT JEEs.
A relative asked my “Why do we need to study abroad ? What do we not have in India?”. Many of my PSG batch mates are well settled in their life without doing any higher studies (in India & Abroad). Also, compared to 15 years ago, now a lot of well paying product companies and startups jobs are available in Indian cities – Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune, etc. So, you do not need to do higher studies for better job prospects, go abroad or earn wealth. Then why should one study abroad ? The only reason I would say is the “ecosystem” the top universities provide for research opportunities.
Let us quickly look at the operational expense (Staff salaries, maintenance of hostel, library, cost of conducting Conference, workshops) etc for the year 2018-19:
PSG Tech: ~$11M [One of the top engineering college in Tamil Nadu.]
IIT Madras: ~$110 M [Ranked 1 in all of India]
Georgia Institute of Technology: ~$1.6B
I am just listing these numbers to highlight the difference in scale in terms of money and not on student quality. One of the primary reason for scale of Gatech is the research funding the institute and its faculty receive from the US Government agencies like NSF, etc. In India, research funding is primarily given to CSIR, HAL, DRDO, BARC and other central government research institutions. Few drops trickle down to Indian universities and colleges, which evaporate like morning mist. Another point is in top US universities, a professor will get a permanent job (‘tenure’) only if they attract certain amount of funds to the institutes. Professor’s salary are highly competitive as well – if not the FAANG salary levels, they are on-par with the industry. Well funded professors help top notch talented students to start their own companies. Prof.Steve Dickerson of Gatech gave the initial seed funding to Gatech grad students Aarjav Trivedi & Arun Elangovan, which helped them to found Ridecell, where I currently work for the past eight years. Another company is Pindrop, founded by Vijay Balasubramaniam, PhD graduate student at Gatech (who was my mentor at Gatech) and Prof.Mustaque Ahamad, who funded my graduate studies at Gatech. One can hope that the ‘Center of Eminence’ initiatives, potential “defense corridor” projects change the equation in India and send the research funds towards the colleges.
My personal advice to any one who want to study abroad is to work for few years in India, figure out what you want to do, stay in touch with your classmates, even those who you ‘think’ are not your friends, because you can learn from the success and failures of everyone in your network. Some of my not-so-close friends in college, helped me shortlist my university applications, review statement of purpose, gave good guidance with respect to choosing the best university, helped in placement preps later and eventually became my best friends. From my side, all I have to do is to let go off my ego, acknowledge their smartness and ask for help.
[Talk intended to Information Technology/Computer Science engineering college grads @ India ]
My father is a mechanical engineer and works in a sugar factory as General Manager in Karnataka. For a long time (pre- IT boom), marine engineering jobs were one of the highest paid jobs in India. My father actually wanted to become a marine engineer, but my farmer grandfather overruled him stating that seafaring as a risky job. So, my father made my elder brother a marine engineer. Oh, why else will you have kids, if not for your dreams! My brother is a marine engineer, who works for Bernhard Schulte Ship management company. BSM is one of the largest ship management company in the world. Ship owners lease their ships to BSM. Brother works in contract mode, where he sails for 6-8 months a year, transporting iron ore and other natural resources from all parts of the world (Australia, Brazil, etc) to China.
Sugar, shipping, oil, banking industries are what I call ‘old world Industries’. How much ever my father or brother worked hard in their lifetime, they will be only paid salaries and bonuses, but not stocks or equities. Forget about buying your own ship or building a sugar factory. Also, these industries are heavily regulated by government and entry barrier to start a business is very high. You need license, land, lots of money, etc. I simply call businesses / companies where the owners / founders are willing to share their wealth in terms of equity to their employees, as ‘New world industries’.
I suggest to read Paul Graham’s essay on startups, mainly to highlight that every year thousands of cafes and barber shops are opened across the world, but not all entrepreneurship can considered startups. Once I was tricked by a frenemy to meet an IIT educated ‘entrepreneur’ in sweltering Chennai heat, who turned out to be a multi-marketing amway agent.
Also, I want to put a disclaimer that in contrast to popular opinion, you will be financially better off (most of the time) to work in a well established company (FAANG, Salesforce, Paypal, etc) than to work in a startup. You will have a relatively stable, less stressful job. The common reasons on working in a startup are faster learning and career growth, even if your startup is not successful, your resume and future career prospects will be better. But the most important reason I think to work in a startup is it gives you space to try out your ideas. A friend of mine working in Google, Mountain View complained that his bosses are not listening to his ideas. He exactly knew why Google+ is failing compared to Facebook and how they can make Google+ win. I was telling him, well, Google became Google without your ideas in first place and they hired you not for ‘your ideas’, but to execute ‘their ideas’. If you really want to try your ideas, then quit Google, go find your own company or join a early stage startup, where you add value. He moved to Bangalore from Mountain View few years later and indeed quit Google to start https://crio.do with another friend, who worked in FlipKart.
Working and starting a startup, brings back the concept of ‘Ecosystem’. Vasco Dagama, first European to find a sea route to India, didn’t wake up one day from sleep and sail to India straight away. It took multiple generations of Kings and Sea Farers, it is an ONE HUNDRED YEAR dream project to collectively find the sea route to India. Starting from Prince the Henry the Navigator time, Sailor Alvaro Fernandes reached Siearra Leone in 1446, Diago Cam reached Congo in 1482, Bartolomeu Dias circled the cape of good hope – 1488 and finally Vasco da Gama – reached India in 1498 and future seafarers sailed further east finding routes to South East Asia and Far East(Spice islands then). The successes and failures of each sailor, helped the next one to take a step forward. The present era venture capitalists are similar to those Kings and the entrepreneurs are akin to the sea-farers, with the architects, product managers, et.all to the sailing crew. FlipKart’s successful exit has created the startup ecosystem in Bangalore. Coimbatore has a good manufacturing and entrepreneurial base. Let’s hope that Coimbatore gets its own FlipKart sometime in the future.
For further reading on thoughts of improving Indian Universities, I recommend – ‘Institutions of Sand’ chapter in ‘Imagining India‘ by Nandan Nilekani. One of his ideas was to allow foreign universities to open up in India. Around 2010, Indian government relaxed regulations to allow foreign universities to setup shop in India. Georgia Tech had a plan to open a remote campus in Hyderabad, but postponed the idea when they learnt that they cannot transfer the money earned out of India back to US. I am not sure of the present state and I still think the top tech universities of the world (MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Gatech) should be allowed to setup remote campuses in India, the benefits far outweigh the monetary loss. Opening up of Indian economy in 1990’s did not wipe out Indian Industry as feared by titans of the industry then, but made them resilient and compete with the global corporations, improving the quality of product far better.
As a counterpoint to the above arguments, the future of learning could turn out to be completely outside formal educational systems and become online / skill based learnings – ex: https://www.zohoschools.com/ or https://lambdaschool.com/ or https://byjus.com/us/ (of-course Zohoschools differ from others as the motives are different). ‘Universities are dead’ has been a favorite argument and the pandemic is fundamentally changing many of our assumptions and accelerating new ideas.
I am currently working with quite a few smart folks, who are college dropouts and its been an humbling experience for me to learn from them that college degrees do not matter and changed my value systems forever – I hired 6+ college dropouts for my teams in SF & Pune and some of them turned out to be the best and in-turn are leading teams now in SF and Pune. (I will cover in separate topic).
While, I welcome the new online learning institutes/newer systems with whole heart, many questions remain as how will the new systems scale, how do we find teachers in scale, provide best pedigree to the top students so they invent new things, incentivize faculty to start their own companies while teaching in parallel – provide market based pay, provide enough opportunities to everyone so we as a society are inclusive. My father studied in Tamil medium in school, scored 98 out of 100 in Math from his SSLC (11th grade) but he barely knew english, struggled in college (academically & financially) and literally scrapped through the college degree with minimum marks. Many in my extended family benefited from the reservation (affirmative actions) programs of Tamilnadu government, but me and my brother are well off and didn’t need affirmative actions. I do understand the fear of “commercializing” education, importance of affirmative actions, competitive space for everyone to thrive. My point here is, if the new online education systems scale, then many of the existing problems will resurface in a different way — much like centuries old plague, spanish flu and other epidemics re-surfacing after a hundred years in the new scientifically advanced world. So, I do think its important that we improve the existing formal education sector (universities / colleges) and the old & the new are not mutually exclusive. There are other important benefits like how students learn from one another much faster when they are under one roof, re-use the vast infrastructure we already have, etc.. More personal stories and my other thoughts in a later post.