Often we end up following the herd to such an extent that we lose focus on our dreams, which is when we make mistakes that are tough to correct. Industry veteran Srinivasa Moorthy, who currently wears three hats, one of which is advisor – R&D, Blaer Motors Pvt Ltd, has explored all the sectors of the industry – the government, the private sector and the startup ecosystem – over the past three decades and more. He talks to Ankita K.S. about this exciting and fruitful journey, and offers future engineers some advice and tips to excel.
EB: Can you briefly tell us about your journey in the industry?
I started my career after my Masters (M. Tech) in 1985 at the Centre for Development Of Telematics (C-DOT) as a hardware engineer. I still remember that 90 per cent of the staff was engineers fresh out of college. I recall that we were asked about the feasibility of designing a 16,000-line digital telephone exchange. We were given a tough deadline of 36 months, a budget of Rs 360 million, and we were all fresh engineers! The management encouraged us by pointing out two important factors!
- The team, being fresh, didn’t carry any baggage so we would learn the right things.
- The seniors in the organisation had all failed in building digital telephone exchanges over their careers, and hence knew all that should be avoided.
I still believe those factors are relevant today. If seniors can teach junior engineers to avoid costly mistakes, you learn quickly. Over the course of my three-decade-long career, I have seen the technology I worked on change rapidly. When I started my career as a designer, I used Bishop’s blue and red tape to design PCBs manually, and today I use sophisticated CAD to do the auto routing of PCBs. The same is true with components from LEDs to SMT. Above all, we never had high speed design issues but today that is a big challenge in board design. Only constant learning and adapting to newer technologies helped me to survive in this industry.
I have designed products for all types of applications (from medical devices to avionics systems), which enabled my skills to be broad based. Globally, usable products need to meet multiple standards and I have gone through the grind to design products for those needs.
My sincere advice to every fresh engineer is that your first job will decide what you eventually become. If you compromise on the choice of your job for the sake of money, then your career is doomed. Most engineers don’t understand this. They keep jumping jobs and never build vertical skills, which makes them useless after ten years!
EB: In hindsight, are there any mistakes you made that you think you should have avoided?
The biggest disadvantage I had was my inability to communicate clearly and precisely. Good communication needs lots of effort. I did my schooling in my mother tongue (Tamil) and to get a good command over English took a lot of time and effort. I see most engineers have issues in this area even today. The key to success is to build the skill of thinking and writing in English. Most of us think in our mother tongue and write in English, which can result in disaster!
EB: Over your 30-year career, what are the common mistakes that you’ve noticed engineers make when choosing their jobs? What would your advice be to them?
Like I mentioned earlier, the common handicaps are non-technical and can be corrected over time. Bad or wrong communication, both written and spoken, stalls one’s career beyond the engineer level. An essential skill for a manager is clear, crisp communication. But one can work on overcoming this disadvantage. However, the mistake of choosing a high-paying, low-skilled job right at the beginning of one’s career is something that will be difficult to correct later on.
- One must also develop the ability to solve problems. Most designers don’t understand the environment in which their design works. They just focus on their portion of the task, which leads to misunderstandings and reworking, as well as cost and time overruns.
EB: How do you motivate your team? What is your leadership style? Any mantras?
I prefer to guide the engineers, giving them the freedom to design and implement their solutions rather than dictating what they ought to do. This helps them feel empowered and own the work they do. My job is to ensure no mistakes are committed, and that the design meets the performance and price criteria. This has helped me to build very good teams, and mentor good engineers and managers.
I spend a lot of time in teaching, which I have noticed that many of my peers in the industry think is below their dignity! Teaching has a two-way effect. One, you enhance the skills of your engineers, and second, you understand what you teach much better.
One of the key things I do is to write white papers on emerging technologies. This helps me to understand the technology better, and also becomes the basic material for designers in my organisation as well as for customers, helping them update their knowledge.
EB: Can you describe your current role? What are the things that excite you about this role?
Currently I wear three hats—I am the technology advisor for an electric mobility product company that is into the pioneering design of hybrid vehicles. Second, I mentor at a software company in the IoT domain, for solutions development. In my third role, I am an investor and director at a startup that is developing robot based training solutions for children with autism. This technology is based on five years of research and has shown remarkable results in developing the psychomotor skills of autistic children.
Interestingly, all the three companies have been started by young and energetic engineers in their 20s and I want them to succeed.
EB: How do you balance time between your work and personal life?
The key is to have a good hobby in addition to your job, which will ensure the right balance. I am a drummer and can play many percussion instruments. So, when I have the free time or when I am stressed, I play these instruments. Meditation is another must, along with a good exercise regimen. I have come across so many youngsters who have severe ailments because of a sedentary lifestyle and bad food habits. Unless they get their health in order, life can be difficult. I ensure my health is in order. I have seen that stress leads to many ailments so one should know how to manage it.
EB: Having worked in both the government and private sectors, which do you prefer?
This is a tricky question. When I started my career in C-DOT, despite it being a government agency, we had tremendous freedom to do what we wanted. (I left when it became a typical government agency!)
Private industries are more mercenary. You get paid for what you do and, immaterial of whether you are in an Indian company or an MNC, the dynamics of the company is always changing and politics is unavoidable. Unless you can manage these shifting dynamics, you will face challenges. In any case, you earn good money only in the private sector.
But if you want to do something that has a long lasting impact on society, the public sector is the only option. I have personally experienced the power of what you can do in the government when you have the right support. Keeping yourself motivated in a government job is a challenge as the sector has lots of inertia and is risk-averse. My personal experience is that if you are clean in your dealings, you can make a mark; but even that can be a challenge as the ecosystem doesn’t allow you to.
What type of job engineers choose entirely depends on their personal needs and what they want to achieve in life.
EB: What would be your advice to youngsters dreaming of filling your shoes? What aspects should they work on to reach here?
Actually, the key to excel entirely depends on what one wants to do; my focus has been on being a good designer and giving back to society, when and where possible. For 33 years I have stayed in the hardware design domain because I knew, as time passed, this skill was going to be in short supply. A country flourishes only when its citizens have jobs, and jobs are created only when there is manufacturing. Manufacturing can flourish only when the products are designed within the country.
A good example is the difference between the Indian IT industry and its electronics manufacturing industry. While the IT industry can only employ engineers, the manufacturing industry needs all kinds of skills. In a society that has more non-engineers and semi-skilled people, manufacturing is a must and that can happen only when things are designed and prototyped in India. Youngsters should keep this in mind when they work. If your work leads to employing 10-20 people, you are making a big change.