From the social impact-driven, spiritual ideology of Ramakrishna Mission, since his schooldays, to becoming a legend in the Indian technology education landscape, Professor S. Sadagopan, an educator and thought leader, has embarked on an insightful journey. In a conversation with Sudeshna Das, consulting editor at EFY, he candidly shares the story of his life.
Hailing from Mylapore, a neighbourhood exuding old-world charm in the heart of Chennai, India, Professor S. Sadagopan was born in 1951 into an educated, middle-class family. Despite losing his father at a young age, he spent his formative years amidst the quaint surroundings of Mylapore. His resilient mother, now aged 96, single-handedly raised him, instilling a strong foundation for his future endeavours.
“I lost my father when I was seventeen. Just on the day of the death, he said that he was dying as a happy father as he had instilled a better value system in me. He used to say that, for us, God is like a traffic cop and God is not confused. So obviously, there are only green and red and no amber in his signal. This lesson made me very intuition-driven. Before making any decision, intuitively, I see if it’s green or red. I do not question it; I consider it the Lord’s wish. My mother raised me almost single-handedly. It was quite tough, but she has done it extremely well. She is a big, big motivator and an influencer on my life.”
Traveling down the early years
“Mylapore used to be called a place for intellectuals. It was a nice neighbourhood with an old sandstone church and a beautiful sea beach. The church traces its origin back to St. Thomas!” Prof. Sadagopan describes. He started his schooling in a 100-year-old institute, named P S High School, in the same locality. Later, he was associated with the Ramakrishna Mission School in Chennai.
The association with Ramakrishna Mission made a deep impact on Prof. Sadagopan. The ideologies of Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda remain the guiding factor in Prof. Sadagopan’s journey of life. He got interested in meditation and began volunteering for social causes during his school days under different initiatives by Ramakrishna Mission. “As a school student, I got into the habit of volunteering. I volunteered in the free medical centre cum dispensary run by the Ramakrishna Mission. I used to distribute medicines as per the prescriptions.”
Prof. Sadagopan is to date quite fascinated by the libraries at his school and Ramakrishna Mission. He still remembers the amazing teachers that mentored him and encouraged him on a lifelong spiritual journey. Prof. Sadagopan opines, “My experiences at school and Ramakrishna Mission shaped my personality.”
“I have learned a lot while volunteering with Ramakrishna Mission for a charitable dispensary project. The patients had to pay five paise for availing of the consultation. Even in those days, five paise was a nominal amount, but collecting the same involved lots of work. So, I asked Swamiji the reason behind making the service chargeable with a nominal amount. He explained that those ‘5 paisa’ contributions from each patient were hardly making any difference in our overall cost. However, that contribution would ensure the sincerity and regularity of the patients for that service. Actually, after paying that nominal fee they valued the service more and stopped wasting medicines. It was a touching lesson for me.”
Pursuing the engineering dream
Prof. Sadagopan completed his schooling in 1967 and joined the College of Engineering, Guindy, University of Madras, India, to pursue BE (Hons) (1973). He narrates “It is one of the oldest engineering colleges in the country. I was a day scholar there. My house was about five kilometres away and I used to commute by bicycle.”
The college gave him a much wider canvas to paint. While remembering his learning days, Prof. Sadagopan says, “In those days, there was no separate computer science department. However, we started with analogue computers, and later, a very modest IBM 1620 computer in a government department. There was a professor in charge who used to allow us extra practice time, after office hours. However, there was not enough money to pay for IBM training; so we all used to dig up the manuals and learn to program by doing it ourselves.”
During his engineering days, Prof. Sadagopan got opportunities to participate in various interesting projects and to do an internship at a reputed company. However, the huge library at Guindy was the most important attraction. “I still remember there was a famous textbook called ‘The Dynamics and Thermodynamics of Compressible Fluid Flow’ by Professor AH Shapiro of MIT.” The librarian was struggling to find the right place—was she to put it under dynamics, thermodynamics, or fluids? I guided her to resolve this matter and we became good friends. As a result, I was allowed to borrow more books. I think books have been an integral part of my life.”
Then, the Indian higher education system was in an experimental phase concerning the engineering syllabus. It allowed Prof. Sadagopan to study more elective courses and interesting projects even outside the department. He focused more on mathematics and electronics and also did some unusual experiments.
Sdagopan defines himself as a ‘365 day holiday’ person as he has been enjoying his study and work just like his leisure. “When people talk about work-life balance, I get amused, because I think that it seamlessly flows into each other,” he explains. His zeal for learning manifested even in leisure pursuits, exemplified by his grasp of Hindi and translation of Prabhudutt Brahmachari’s lectures during his college days.
Shaping up the professional life
“I wanted to go for academics and higher studies after completing my engineering degree,” Prof. Sadagopan informs. However, destiny led him to Engineers India, a Delhi-based consulting firm. A talent search culminated in his recruitment, offering a novel perspective on his potential. He remembers, “They had a very unusual policy as they invited only the top two rank holders of twenty premiere Universities for an interview. So as a young person of about 20 years, I found that suddenly a company took the trouble of discovering me, even giving me a first-class train ticket to go to Delhi, and finally appointed me in a job for which I never applied. And of course, the job was also paying well, a four-figure salary of 1,040 rupees. It was a good salary in 1973. So, I joined the company as a computer engineer in the System Engineering and Computer Services Department.” As a part of that team, Prof. Sadagopan was actively involved in the computerisation of materials management for IPCL!
That job gave Prof. Sadagopan exposure to the advanced applications of computer engineering. He got an opportunity to take special computer training from a team of German experts and some interesting projects like planning the road network and the bus network for Hyderabad and Delhi, and planning for the slurry pipeline of Kudremukh Iron Ore.
Awards and Accolades
Prof. Sadagopan narrates, “I was having fun at my job; however, I wanted more fun and more opportunities to learn. Thus, I started looking for higher studies. Those days, there was no email facility, but I remembered Professor Ravindran who came from Purdue University to teach in IIT Madras. He had also given lectures in my engineering college at Guindy. So, I contacted him and he guided me to my higher studies. I cleared TOEFL and GRE and landed myself at Purdue University.” Purdue University is one of the largest engineering institutions in the United States. “The Purdue University President used to use a very nice marketing statement – The first man on the moon happens to be a Purdue alumnus; as of now, the last man on the moon also happens to be a Purdue alumnus!” says Prof. Sadagopan remembering his alma mater.
The Purdue University days were quite memorable for Prof. Sadagopan. That was a time when computer science was getting mainstream and the computer centre at Purdue was managed very well. In Prof. Sadagopan’s words, “Purdue was quite ahead of the computer revolution to solve diverse problems of humanity.” He enjoyed dabbling in large computing, large computational problem-solving, and decision support. He also got involved in an optimisation library that was used by several departments—agriculture, engineering, science, and business—to use resources optimally. “We used to work on computer programs that were open, much before the word open source was invented. It was a set of Fortran programs for linear and integer optimisation used by the whole university.” Prof. Sadagopan explains. Later he applied that experience to share scientific and engineering program libraries at IIT Kanpur.
While discussing the influence of faculty members at Purdue University, Prof. Sadagopan mentions, “Professor Ravindran at Purdue University influenced me a lot. His way of assessing students was different from the traditional methods. He used to say that students do not haggle for more marks if they know what they deserve and why they deserve it. His explanation helped me to develop the habit of giving copious notes for all the quizzes, homework, and examinations that I corrected as a teaching assistant. I always find that students take exams seriously not only for obtaining marks but also for learning perspective; it is for the teachers to provide that learning environment”
Purdue University is located near Chicago, the place where Swami Vivekananda represented India at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893. “Because of my connection with Ramakrishna Math, I was very curious to know about Swami Vivekananda’s coverage and journey in Chicago, as I was inspired by the way Swami Vivekananda presented India there. I found something amazing about it in Purdue library—I could access the newspaper of 1893 in 1976 and I was able to find Swami Vivekananda’s coverage in the local newspapers of the United States. I was amazed to see Swami Vivekananda’s picture on the front page of the Chicago Tribune though his name was depicted in the typical American style—Swami as his first name and Ananda as his last name!”
Facilitating India’s technological progress
While Prof. S. Sadagopan’s voyage has been a tapestry of intriguing experiences, his impact on India’s technological landscape remains unparalleled. From his decision to return to India immediately after pursuing his PhD abroad to his instrumental role in pivotal IT initiatives, his journey has been an embodiment of dedication and strategic vision. Though he does not consider it as a strategic decision, he prefers to let life go as it is.
After returning to India, he applied for jobs in three places—IIT Kanpur, IIT Madras, and IIT Bombay. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur became his abode for the next 16-17 transformative years. Prof. Sadagopan says, “I had a great time at IIT Kanpur. Because then, the city did not have much to offer, so, all of our activities were confined within the institute. All faculty members used to stay at the campus.” He used to return home for a cup of evening tea with a newspaper in hand. There was no television in those days so newspapers were the main source of information. Prof. Sadagopan mentions the excellent student-academic relationship at IIT Kanpur. During this period, he got involved in some nation-building projects. The ERNET (Education & Research Network of India) project in 1985-86 stands as a testament to his contributions, reflecting his commitment to advancing the nation’s technological infrastructure.
In an era when the Internet was in its infancy, Prof. Sadagopan’s involvement in the ERNET project was transformative. It was not an easy task to share data and programs. Prof. Sadagopan says, “In the process of building ERNET, the country developed and internalised the technology of the internet. In 1995, when VSNL launched internet across the country, many of the engineers were trained by ERNET project.”
At IIT Kanpur, Prof. Sadagopan got a liberal work environment that allowed him to experiment with education technology. Therefore, he along with other team members continued experimentation with office automation and multimedia teaching content development among other things. During this period the country was also going through several changes, mainly for computer policy and technology adoption. Prof. Sadagopan remembers, “It was the time between 1979 and 1995. The Ministry (at that time it was a department) of Electronics became centre stage and computer policy was introduced. I had been quite involved with all of them. I also started working with the Ministry of Electronics.” During that tenure, he took an active part in the growth of IT company CMC Limited and also got involved in the large-scale project for the computerisation of the railway reservation system.
In 1995, Prof. Sadagopan joined IIM Bangalore as a professor in the QMIS (quantitative methods and information systems) area. The growing emphasis on industry-academia interactions prompted Prof. Sadagopan to establish the ERP Centre with help from SAP and Ramco. He also established the supply chain centre with help from Siemens.
In 1999, Prof. Sadagopan joined IIIT Bangalore as the first director of the institute and spent the next 22 years there. IIITs represent a set of new-generation universities started in India in the late 90s with a special focus on IT. IIIT Bangalore is one of the first such institutes. As the first director of IIIT Bangalore, he was involved in the visioning, planning, and executing the growth of this institute, which is counted as one of the premier institutes in India.
“Before joining IIIT Bangalore as director, I never thought that I would do an administrative job. I am a hardcore nut-bolt kind of engineer. However, I am an intuition-driven person. I decided to join the IIIT intuitively after receiving an invitation from the Chief Secretary of the State mentioning that the government wanted me to do that.”
- Prof. Sadagopan was involved with several large-scale IT initiatives in India, including:
- RTGS from the Reserve Bank of India
- Algo Trading from the National Stock Exchange
- UPI from NPCI
- Core banking in several public sector banks, including the Bank of India, Canara Bank, and the Indian Overseas Bank
- Post Office Bank
- SAP implementation at leading public sector companies, including Indian Oil, BHEL, NTPC, and private sector companies, including Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland, and Maruti Udyog
Large-scale projects that have a global impact include:
- Chairing MOSIP (Modular Open Source Identity Platform) that built an open source version of the Citizen Identity project (like AADHAAR), during 2017-2021; MOSIP is currently being implemented in about a dozen countries
- As the Mentor Director involved in setting up the Myanmar International Institute of Information Technology (MIIT), Mandalay; during 2016-2021, this institute was sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs of the Indian government and the government of Myanmar
- Conceptualising and executing the hugely successful IITB – upGrad Data Science program, the largest online education program in India during 2016-2021
- MINRO (Machine Intelligence and Robotics) Centre funded by the government of Karnataka during 2014-2021
The professor has been serving on the boards of several higher educational institutes, including IIITs at Gwalior, Delhi, Bhubaneshwar, Dharwad, Kottayam, Chennai (IITDM – Kancheepuram) as well as MAHE, Jain University, Sai University, Dayanand Sahar and RV University. He was a member of the Karnataka Knowledge Commission and Chief Minister’s Vision Groups on High Education and IT.
He has served on the boards of several corporations, including Bharat Electronics, BEML, Bank of India, National Mineral Development Corporation, NLC, National Stock Exchange, Indian Overseas Bank , NESL, Tata Elxsi, VisualSoft, Coempt, and Informatics.
The professor is also a fellow of the UK’s IET (formerly IEE), Computer Society of India, and Institution of Engineers (India). Apart from that, he is a senior member of the IEEE and ACM. Prof. Sadagopan’s research work has appeared in several international journals, including IEEE Transactions, the European Journal of Operational Research, the Journal of Optimization Theory and Applications, Naval Research Logistics Simulation and Decision Support Systems. Moreover, he served as a visiting faculty at the Rutgers University, USA, and the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok.
He was actively involved with the startup ecosystem in India. “We started teaching about entrepreneurship long back in the 70s when the word ‘startup’ was not so popular. In the late 80s and the early 90s, the startup ecosystem gradually started growing. I have been mentoring dozens of startup companies, many founded by my former students, in the past two decades. I have also been involved with VCs and venture funds as a part of their startup investment committee. I helped many startups through that engagement.”
Being a people person
Prof. Sadagopan describes himself as a ‘people person’ as most of his activities are people-centric. He further explains, “I travel a lot because I visit my friends often and, in the process, I ended up going to 40 countries and hundreds of towns. But I never travel only to visit a place.”
“I do not pursue any activity that normally people associate with hobbies. I hardly play any games. However, I read lots of books, but honestly speaking, I never read a single novel or any popular magazine. I have not watched any movie in the last 50 to 60 years, except a biopic of Mahatma Gandhi. I have completely zero knowledge about movies. In that sense, I am a very serious kind of person.”
In terms of passion, he would love to be able to positively influence human beings. As he reflects on his journey, Prof. Sadagopan’s people-centric approach radiates. He says, “When people ask me what is the one thing about which I am proud, I mention my contribution to an unusual employability enhancement project. It was initiated in IIIT Bangalore by Smt Meira Kumar, the former Speaker of the Lok Sabha. We took some 100 students who happened to be unemployed engineers belonging to SC/ST communities. They were facing difficulties in getting jobs, even though some reservations were available to them. We felt that if we give them world-class courses, curriculum, and facilities, they would be able to get jobs in world-class companies. We ran a competition to select students for special training. We designed and conducted a one-year training program for them. I used to be involved with each of them intensely. We also got funding from Infosys for providing laptops to each trainee. At the end of the training, all of them got jobs in big companies, including IBM, HP, etc.” Later, the same model was replicated more than once and Prof. Sadagopan’s closeness with his students continues to grow as he narrates, “I get very close to my students. I have known them and their families for the last 30 to 40 years.”
Few of Prof. Sadagopan’s favourite things
Prof. Sadgopan was also involved with an e-governance project fundamentally. He mentions, “I interacted with senior level bureaucrats, political leaders including chief ministers, ministers, prime ministers, etc. As a teacher, I always feel touched to see the respect given to the teachers in our country. I keep telling my American friends that a professor at Harvard University is respected firstly because of his association with Harvard, and secondly because he is also a reasonably rich guy. However, in our country, teachers are respected irrespective of their economic condition.”
Prof. Sadagopan follows an interesting mentoring style which he partly learned from his professor. He remembers, “My professor told me that there are two ways in which he can guide me. In the first option, he had multiple projects with predefined scopes. Therefore, I could join any one of those and complete my PhD in a reasonably fast time. But in this method, I would miss the fun of defining my problem. In the second option, I would be allowed to define my problem and solve the same under the guidance of my PhD supervisor. The second option required more time, but it was more interesting. Therefore, I opted for the second option.” Prof. Sadagopan also follows the same style while mentoring his students. Rather than defining their problems, he encourages them to identify some interesting problems and solve them.
“The mentor should be like a life coach. The life coach should always be around. He should allow you to jump into the water and play as long as you can. Only when you are likely to be risking your life, the life coach should come into play; otherwise he should just be observing. That is my mentorship model.”
His wife is a constant support and a part of his extended academic life. Prof. Sadagopan says, “My wife is a simple person. She has been a great support for me in lots of things that I would not have been able to do. Just like me, her life centres around our students. She also travels with me to most places and most of the students know her. Lots of times they come to visit her at home even if I am not there and love to taste South Indian coffee and food made by her.” She is also a good typist and used to help his students in typing their projects, especially those who were not able to arrange a laptop or personal computer for typing. Due to her support, many students mention her name in the acknowledgment section of their MTech and PhD theses. These students include many celebrity technocrats, for example, the current CEO of TCS K Krithivasan, and the current IT Minister Ashwini Kumar Vaishnaw
Prof. Sadagopan is closely associated with IIIT Bangalore (IIITB) even after his formal retirement. Recently, he and his wife attended the Convocation 2023, where Integrated MTech students of the year 2018 graduated. “Many parents remembered his request way back in 2018 at the time of admissions, to visit IIITB only after 5 years to see their wards graduate, with the assurance that the wards will be safe in IIITB! I forgot the same, but my students and their parents remembered and asked me if I would keep my pledge. I had no option but to be there!
Prof. Sadagopan would like to remain active with his work and students until the last moment of his life. “I would like to keep working until the last minute and disappear just like that. That’s what I want. Whether it is one year from now or 10 years from now or 30 years from now.”
Sudeshna Das consulting editor at EFY