“Inquisitiveness To Explore Makes A Big Difference…”

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There are many who aspire to hold prestigious positions at big corporate houses, but very few are willing to work hard enough for it. Such positions can be achieved by only those who love what they do. Dr Aloknath De is one of them. He calls himself a ‘missionpreneur.’ He refuses to box himself and loves to think out of the box. He does not become comfortable in a setting as he likes to do things outside his comfort zone. He has been Samsung India’s first CTO besides many more achievements to his credit. This is Dr Aloknath De’s story, as told to EFY’s Siddha Dhar.

Born in the spiritual town of Nabadwip Dham in West Bengal, Aloknath had the influence of holy men on him from a very young age. Even though his family migrated to Kolkata soon after he turned a year old, Aloknath credits his birthplace for teaching him the lessons of renunciation, finding fulfillment in life, and cherishing it.

Aloknath’s father picked up his LLB degree out of passion while working as a gazetted officer at the Food Corporation of India. Under his tutelage, Aloknath was home-schooled till the age of six. A rigorous man, it was he who built the strong foundation of science and mathematics for Aloknath.

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Aloknath recalls, “He was a very disciplined person, and he influenced my love for science. So, taking up science after 10th standard was a very natural choice.” Aloknath went to a proper school only when he was in the 2nd standard. While home-schooling provided him with the basic skills, he gained ‘interactive intelligence’ only after he went to school.

Aloknath says, “I realised that natural intelligence, or the ability to react in a situation, comes only when you interact and talk with more and more people. The more you converse, the more you grow.”

Aloknath’s mother, a homemaker, has always been soft-natured. She is an epitome of love and affection. This fusion of hard and soft behaviour of parents is what Aloknath tries to maintain in his own life as well, even today. In fact, his leadership mantra is: “Be Hard on Goal, Be Soft on Soul.”

Diligent from childhood, it was quite natural for Aloknath to be a topper in his school. But by the time he was in 6th standard, a sense of restlessness loomed over him. “It gave me a feeling of accomplishment in the beginning, but then it made me feel as if I was not being challenged enough.” This notion of not ever getting too comfortable in something was a lesson that has driven Aloknath all through his life.

Thought Leadership presentation by Dr Aloknath De
Thought Leadership presentation by Dr Aloknath De

On the lookout for more competition to raise his accomplishment bar, Aloknath decided to appear for a Central government merit scholarship programme, which allowed him to study in a residential school of his choice. And he got admission in Ramakrishna Mission (RKM) Residential School in Purulia—a district 250km away from Kolkata.

Though he had the option to choose a school in Kolkata and stay near his family, Aloknath decided not to base his choice on emotions, and rather grab the opportunity to live and operate independently. The pangs of separation from his parents and siblings struck him in the initial phase. But Aloknath knew that he was accountable for the decision that he had taken and that he had to stick to it—a lesson that he would recall again, years later.

A Few Lessons from Dr Aloknath De’s Story

  • ABC of Achievement—Align (your thoughts), Beam (your energy), Collaborate (your ecosystem)
  • Infuse lateral thinking, when needed, before making decisions rationally
  • Keep your mind open to learning new things; continuous learning is of essence
  • Get out of your comfort zone; perturb a bit when too comfortable. Bring stability from comfort zone and growth from outside the comfort zone
  • Building zero-to-one has different challenge than scaling one-to-infinity
  • What is interesting about life is that sometimes taking an apparent step back can help you leap forward by ten steps
  • Your unique way of doing and supporting will always be valued by the community

Although his father was a strong influence in his life, it was his monk headmaster at RKM whom Aloknath regards as his role model. “He was a man of such purity. He had mastery over multiple languages. Once I was writing an essay about the river Ganges. I showed him the first draft and he helped me make it better—his knowledge was profound. I would say it was the best piece in Bengali that I have ever written.”

It is not surprising that science and math were his favourite subjects. But Aloknath was not excellent in academics alone, he also took active part in school debates, elocutions, recitation competitions, and so on. He even appeared on numerous TV debate shows broadcast by Doordarshan.

A rational thinker since childhood, Aloknath quickly figured out that his heart lay in engineering. When he was in the 11th standard, he decided to share this with his father, who was then disappointed with his decision. “My father wanted to be a doctor, but it was not possible due to financial constraints. He was hoping that I would become a physician, but I chose engineering. I remember it was a long-drawn evening discussion with my father and uncle. They tried very hard to change my mind.”

Aloknath did not budge from his goal and readied himself to prepare for the next chapter in his life.

IIT and finding his calling

A large chunk of Aloknath’s future plans began taking shape in his undergraduate years that he spent at IIT Kharagpur. While studying Electronics and Communication Engineering (ECE), he remained a high-achiever here too. Having done his secondary education in a Bengali-medium school, the fluency with which some students at IIT spoke English alarmed him. But he did not let it intimidate him. He remained headstrong and mastered the language pretty soon.

At an institute of IIT’s stature—where the brightest minds of the country came to make their dreams come true—Aloknath found there were many who were just as meritorious as him. But he took it as a blessing in disguise, as he was always looking for a more competitive space where his limits could be tested, and his mind could expand.

Aloknath says, “It’s important to accept that some people are better than you at something and it’s absolutely okay to be not as good as them. But what is important is to bring yourself to a minimum threshold level on attributes that matter in life and excel in a few dimensions.”

As his world-view expanded and he met more people, Aloknath found his calling—telecommunications—at IIT Kharagpur a fascinating field indeed! “I saw the power of communications and how it helped people stay connected remotely. I saw how it could compete with transportation and thought it was revolutionary.”

The realisation didn’t occur overnight, though. He spent months and months reading books and magazines, listening to radio, and talking to people to soak in as much information as possible and then come to this conclusion. “Inquisitiveness to explore makes a big difference. When you keep your queries alive, one fine morning you’ll come across some information that makes you pause. And you take a moment to think about it and ask further questions. It is in this process of asking and answering these questions that you realise what you are drawn to.”

A three-step process Aloknath likes to follow for his goal is ABC of Achievement: Align (your thoughts), Beam (your energy), and Collaborate (your ecosystem). As he began the seeding for his future roles, he realised how telecommunication systems could be built with hardware and then-new software elements. He also started appreciating how engineering deployment could complement technological innovations.

Dream job and memories at IISc

The unpredictability of life is enthralling. It makes you do things you never intended to, and gives you results you never expected. Although Aloknath had planned to pursue his master’s degree after IIT and even got admission to a US university, a financial crisis forced him to start working right after his graduation in 1985. Yet, he did not let this setback derail him from his plans.

Thankfully for Aloknath, he found his way to Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL). In an era when MNCs did not rule the subcontinent, PSUs were the dream job of many, and Aloknath was no different.

But, while joining BEL, he knew what his ultimate goal was—to learn telecommunication systems as much as he could.

At BEL, he was part of a team that built a low-flying target detection radar, which was the first indigenously built radar system: INDRA 1. Till date, INDRA series of radars are deployed on the borders of India.

His role in BEL, Sahibabad needed him to travel a lot to the headquarters in Bangalore (now Bengaluru). He made it a rule to take a different route during each of his trips. This was his way of having fun and exploring the country while working. As he travelled the length and breadth of India, Aloknath’s mantra to always go out of his comfort zone found more strength. “Even today, whenever I see that I’m getting too comfortable, I try to find new things to do that make me uncomfortable for a while.”

But going out of your comfort zone can be scary besides being uncomfortable. How did he tackle that? He says, “The trick is to keep yourself anchored 50% in comfort and unsettle the rest. Going completely out of your comfort zone makes it probably very risky. Bring stability from the comfort zone, and growth from outside the comfort zone.”

Dr Aloknath De with former IT Minister of Karnataka at Innovate Karnataka Launch
Dr Aloknath De with former IT Minister of Karnataka at Innovate Karnataka Launch

After a two-year stint at BEL, Aloknath went on to pursue his master’s degree from another premier institute of India—IISc Bangalore. A fond memory of IISc that he holds close to his heart, beyond studies, is how he would save some money from his scholarship grant to buy cassettes of classical music. An avid lover of classical music since a young age, Aloknath had even tried learning the stringed musical instrument sitar. Although he could not sing well, his affinity for classical music drove him to find solace in it, irrespective of his prevailing mood.

At IISc, Aloknath further broadened his knowledge about telecommunications and realised how every aspect uniquely complemented each other. It was this fascination that took him from India to Canada, where he pursued his PhD and also started another phase of his life.

Flight to Canada and international exposure

Like many middle-class Indians at that time, Aloknath’s flight to Canada was the first one he had ever taken in his life. While he was working hard to revolutionise telecommunications, calling from a foreign country was a luxury that he could not afford then. And that would also make his parents anxious at times.

“When I first landed there, I sent them a telegram but it took ten days to reach. In the meantime, my father would go to the Air India office every now and then to enquire if my flight had landed. The people there assured him that many flights had gone and come back since my flight, so I was probably already well-settled in Canada,” he laughs.

Aloknath did his PhD in ‘communication with signal processing’ from McGill University on a full scholarship. After ‘communication with control’ in IIT and ‘communication with computing’ in IISc, he wanted to fathom this combination as well. Aloknath knew that it would eventually bring him to a more holistic view of telecommunications.

Surviving in Canada was no easy feat. Aloknath had to adjust to the limited food choices and the cold climate. However, he liked the cosmopolitan culture of Montreal and saw himself living there for a long time, and hence took up learning French language.

Aloknath’s PhD thesis was supported by Canadian Institute for Telecommunication Research; he also bagged the Alexander Graham Bell prize in Canada for his doctoral research. His PhD mentor was a wonderful man who made the whole learning process at McGill very enjoyable for Aloknath. “He was an immigrant himself; so he knew what challenges I was facing and he helped me navigate through them.”

It was through this mentor that Aloknath got his first break in Canada. He bagged an opportunity to work in Nortel Networks, which was then called Bell Northern Research. His first assignment had ample scope for innovation. He just needed to find the meaningful business gap. This, he credits to being curious and looking for means to go above and beyond to find a pain point he ought to fix.

But as he kept getting better at making these discoveries, he missed the excitement of implementing them and seeing them in their realised form. He knew it was time to get out of his comfort zone and soak deeply into practical implementations and field issues to grow in industry. “I told my manager that I wanted to do the dirtiest work. The most mundane things that nobody wanted to do.”

In the summer of 1999, Aloknath made a decision that would change the trajectory of his life—leaving Canada after a decade and coming back to India. “It was one of the toughest decisions I had to make in my life,” Aloknath remarks. He was eligible for a Canadian PR. His son was three years old and had access to better education there; and he himself had a thriving career.

In his true spirit to think through and make a call, Aloknath mulled over the situation for an entire year. He thought rationally yet infused elements of lateral thinking before taking decision. After all, he couldn’t look back and regret his decision. “I decided to come back to India. Although it seems unbelievable now, I did envision something along the lines of how India would look like in 2020, and wanted to see if I could be part of that vision coming true.”

His reasoning to come back was based on two things. First, he had built a broad international perspective that expanded his mind and made him understand what makes a country developed. Second, he understood deeply what was needed to be a subject matter expert on communication with controls, computing, and signal processing elements, and build global innovative products.

He recalls, “With all that knowledge in my bag, I felt complete and thought it was the right time to come back. Many around me felt that I was taking a step backwards. But what is interesting about life is that sometimes taking an apparent step back can help you leap forward by ten steps.”

Return to India and re-building from zero

Back in India, Aloknath had uprooted his life in Canada by taking the risk of applying to only two companies. Fortunately, he received offers from both the companies. “The same postman brought the two offer letters on the same day. I found the phrase so true: God helps those who help themselves. The power of hope and ambition beats everything,” he remembers.

He went with one of these companies—Hughes Software Systems in Gurgaon. His interview with the Director of Hughes India had happened while he was still in Canada. Incidentally, the Director had made it a point to highlight how different his life would be once Aloknath was back in India.

In such a case, one might take a moment to reconsider the decision. But Aloknath knew exactly what he wanted. “I told the executive that I am cognizant of all of that, and I was making the decision while being fully aware. I am ready to face challenges as they come.”

This director who also became his manager and is now a good friend, was a source of inspiration for Aloknath as he made his switch so seamless; he never felt like he had left home. At Hughes too, Aloknath’s vision for joining a company did not alter—he wanted to do something that nobody else was doing or was willing to do.

He recalls, “During that time, digital signal processing in the base layer was effectively not there in Hughes communication stack. Many prospective clients said that they could have a service agreement with Hughes if that solution could be included in service delivery. That was truly a defining statement for me.”

He was entrusted with building a team for the same. Here came a moment to take something from zero to one, an opportunity of intrapreneurship. “Taking something from level one and scaling it to infinity is relatively easy because you have done it once. Building something from zero to one is the real challenge.”

Aloknath had to build a team of twenty people with strong DSP expertise and also start securing the DSP business beyond Hughes. It gave him joy that, due to this twenty-member team, Hughes could garner indirectly about eighty other people in higher-level stack areas. And this continued scaling up.

After a four-year stint at Hughes, he had a new itch. Even though the chip was never his core, he realised that semiconductors and VLSI design were a part of telecommunications and had a tremendous potential. So, he decided to join STMicroelectronics, which was looking to start telecom business ab initio in 2003. He joined them as the head of this division.

In 2008, when a joint venture between STMicroelectronics and Ericsson was signed, Aloknath was appointed as the MD of the group in India. He was handling the teams of both Noida and Bengaluru. He built an enviable team by internal transfer, external hiring as well as company acquisitions. By the time he left, he had 1000 team members.

Dr Aloknath De practising for fitness
Dr Aloknath De practising for fitness

To understand the full stack better, he became a ‘student’ of chip design. Even though he was the MD, he would often join the freshers during their training sessions to learn more about frontend and backend chip design, the processes and nuances. “In order to make decisions as an MD and interact as a global leader, I needed to know the subject to a great extent. I thought it was an integral part of decision making and I had to learn it to do my job well.”

After eight good years at ST-Ericsson, a world giant was waiting for Aloknath to knock on their door.

Samsung and a missed opportunity

Aloknath had the good taste of administrative life for a long time at
ST-Ericsson where he was also a Board Director of the company, and he now craved for a more technical role. He wanted to lead with technology. But before that, he wanted to pause and take time to contemplate—much like he used to do in his childhood days.

He took a sabbatical of about six months and decided to experiment with a few things during the period. He taught at IIT Delhi as an Adjunct Professor, served as a consultant to Accenture, and mentored a location-technology based startup during this phase. While mentoring the startup, he got down to interacting with the ground-level customers to understand things from their perspective. “If you can take a month or even a few days to interact with the people on the ground, there is no better learning than this. I would not trade this for anything else.”

But as they say, you cannot hide exceptional talent anywhere. This time, Aloknath’s talent was found by South Korean electronics giant Samsung. Although the folks at Samsung wanted Aloknath to come over to Korea and work with them from their headquarters, Aloknath’s priority was now sorted out; he could not leave his family in India and the family was not in a position to relocate at that juncture.

So, Aloknath was almost ready to decline the offer but his destiny, however, had other plans. The very next day after this interview, he received a call from Samsung HQ. “They were willing to interview me again to create a position especially for me if I only wanted to work in India.”

This is how Aloknath became the first CTO of the Indian unit of the conglomerate with his base in Bangalore. His mantra, again, was simple—he didn’t want to work on something that was going well. He wanted something that was aspirational, but they couldn’t seem to make it work.

At Samsung, he had to create an innovation layer onto the flagship products by building new intellectual properties (IPs) without jeopardising base engineering deliveries. In the first fifteen years of Samsung’s journey in India, it had about 2000 patents, which increased to 7500+ patents under his leadership by their silver jubilee celebrations time.

He became the Corporate VP for Samsung Electronics, Korea and contributed to the internet of things (IoT) on SmartThings platform. Despite these accomplishments, he felt like something was missing. The earlier-missed opportunity to join the team in Korea kept gnawing at him. He asked them if he could join them in HQ and the team in Korea happily agreed. He got an IoT lab to work in Korea where he spent 7-8 days every month for thirty months or so. This made him a very effective global leader.

The data platform that Aloknath built in Korea is now connecting 200 million home appliances and mobility devices globally. With his global role and expertise in AI and Blockchain, he has built an impactful AIoT Centre-of-Excellence in India. Now, with this background and experience behind him, he has set a personal mission of researching and nurturing activities around Cyber-Physical Systems.

Some Unknown Facts about Dr Aloknath De

  • Favourite cuisine: Hyderabadi Biryani
  • Favourite book(s):Isaac Asimov (Robot Dreams, Fantastic Voyage)
  • Favourite leader: Swami Vivekananda
  • Favourite film:Three Idiots
  • Favourite actor: Nasiruddin Shah
  • Favourite actress: Smita Patil
  • Favourite sports: Volleyball
  • Favourite music genre: Classical
  • Car and bike: Black Car

Finding love, fitness goals, and his mission

While the accomplishments of Aloknath are innumerable, his story of finding his love is like a romantic film. Aloknath and his wife knew each other since long, but never knew that they would be cojoined by destiny in an everlasting bond.

They got married towards the end of Aloknath’s PhD, that is, six months before he would graduate. His wife had to stay back in Kolkata for some time. “She had to go to a neighbour’s place to call me and had to request them to go out,” he laughs. She soon joined him in Canada, where she also pursued a postgraduate degree at Concordia University.

Upon returning to India, she has been working as a Math teacher. She is a big fitness junkie.

“She is also my personal trainer. I was never into fitness that much, but since the pandemic, I started taking care of my physique. And would it not be a waste if I didn’t utilise my opportunity despite having a trainer at home!” he says with a smile.

The couple has a son who was born in Canada, studied in India, and went on to pursue Economics and Physics at the University of Chicago. After his stint at an investment bank, he currently works with a global new-gen ride-sharing company.

Aloknath’s love for music is still intact, thanks to his mother who continues to practice music till date. She is the inspiration behind his love for classical music.

In December 2021, Aloknath took superannuation from Samsung formally. However, he is still associated with them as an Executive Consulting Director and wishes to continue as long as it makes sense for both. He calls it his Corporate Home.

Aloknath has increased his efforts to mentor deep-tech startups and has also become an angel investor. He is now an Adjunct Professor with IISc (ECE) and IIT Jodhpur (CS). Aloknath also has a venture of his own in the works.

Talking of his future plans, Aloknath says, “During India’s 75th Independence Day celebration, it is solemn for me to rededicate to the service of the nation. R&D serves as an impetus for business growth. If we can hone India’s talent for R&D and can excite business to spend greater on R&D and innovation, we can do wonders as a country.”

In fact, he revealed that the unveiling of his singular mission could happen soon; but he is in no hurry. Because if there’s anything he has learnt, it is to make ‘the rest of his life, the best of his life!’

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