Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Engineering 101

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.


  1. Sujai,

    I have a regular reader of your blog for 2+ years now and never left a comment. But this post made even a lazy person like me to comment!

    What true words. I feel the same especially on your point around communication. I sincerely hope your message goes out to and is imbibed by the upcoming generation of India engineers.

    - Bhushan

  2. Excellent post Sujai..Liked it a lot.. Thank you for reminding us the essence of each subject we learn and the way it can be used ..I think most of us have the same thinking when we were studying our engineering.

  3. Very interesting Sujai. I never thought on those lines about my engineering study. Your article is really mind opening to all engineers.

  4. Sujai,

    My experience is opposite to that of yours. I never cared about exams during my four years of doing mechanical engineering. (Never failed in one though. Was so confident to make it by a few days preparation) I was so interested in technical subjects that I spent most of my time in the library studying at my own pace. I spent time only for subjects of my interest which were physics, mechanics, drawing, thermodynamics, thermal engineering, mechanics of machinery, electronics, electrical machinery etc. (even after a decade from my college days it gives me immense pleasure to go through the books of my interest). I never attended boring lectures and skipped classes whenever attendance was not mandatory.

    I completely ignored making friends, developing my communication skills or even falling in love. I always wanted to be a design engineer to make the best use of my technical skills. But my career was mainly in the product sales rather than product development. Even though my technical skills have always helped me to impress the customers, I guess the skills I never bothered to develop, would have been of better help in selling products.

    Now I am financially independent and I am seriously thinking of starting something of my own to chase my dream of being an inventor or at least a master troubleshooter.

  5. Sujai anna fell in love aaa ?
    (This is my engineering english )

  6. sujai,

    did you have any 'oh shucks,this would have been so simple if we had a knowledge of XYZ which we were taught in college ' episode while building any wireless base station ?

  7. I am a telecom engg. student.Even I think like you used to during your engg. days.Thanks for opening my eyes.Hope I'll be able to rescue myself in the nick of time.

  8. Do you really think what we learn in the first year of engg (like piling up concepts, chemistry equations, phenomena, datas, lathe experiences SINCERELY) would help after 5 or 6 years in our career?

    I think we should never justify what we experience should be useful in the future. We should rather do what we interested in.

  9. Sujai,

    somehow I feel ur story is one among a thousand. i m in my final year now, i have paid more attention to football, organizing cultural fests, participating in quizzes, debates, i write articles for the college paper, and now am also writing for a sports website, got a couple printed in deccan chronicle, fell in love, am part-owner of a startup, designed another startup, and so on. and i m an electrical and electronics engineer (not yet). have never failed a subject yet, but i hav alwez done well in the subjects i liked more than the ones i had to mug or dint really care for. my marks have ranged from topper to borderline pass :D but i ve never regretted it...u may b right in that i might understand ur viewpoint maybe 20 years from now. but u r 20 yrs or so out of engineering, even if u HAD paid attention to those subjects, u wudnt have remembered it for so long...any professional hu works on the same level as u r, will find it difficult initially and will have to learn from the basics again.

  10. hmm..interesting and very true w.r.t Engineering 101.
    The aspirations to become what said in your last paragraph depends on whole lot of other things. social-economic-political situation, which makes the whole ambition thing idealistic than realistic.
    you explained your case and you became electronics engineer.
    but why all those people thought the education we had was not useful? for example, if I take my case, my interest is in computers but and at the same time I have to take responsibility of my family after engineering. so, i opted for a college who has campus placements where I would have lot of options (electronics and computers as well). and I am here in US helping my family economically. anyways, the point i want to bring is its not just Engineering 101, its the whole healthy competitive education environment which is depenedent on social-economical-political-cultural situation of india, which has to change from the ground level. not just in engineering. i didnt know why i studied matrix in 8th class till i came to engineering when i was doing power systems calculations. that is the case of education system in india. we dont know why we are studying, but studying. not everyone is fortunate, hardworking enough to get interest on everything. so being practical is also important...

    i am not contradicting with your thoughts..just sharing my thoughts of education 101..
    it was good read though..

  11. Read the article: "I was programmed to be a genius" at

    The youngest IIT professor at 23 , accepted as a genius, Prof. Tathagat Avatar Tulsi is result of Eugenics and Astrology( determining time of sexual intercourse), says his father Prof Tulsi Narayan Prasad, an advocate at the Supreme Court and a serious practitioner of astro-genetics.

    May be we shouldn't laugh at astrology so easily.

  12. @Bimal Roy:
    Well, yes, astrology has surprised me several times. I definitely don't think that astrology can be used to predict stuff, but I wonder if it has in some way got to do with the kind of characteristics a person is given.

    Let's try to link this with a scientific explanation - If you watched Matrix for instance, if you remember the human farms, how do you think would the computer select a profile for each person? It has got to be a function of time (a randomizer in general is a function of time). Now if you can look at it in the context of real world, well, may be we can't just ignore it!

    Now that's just a thought, I know people talk about how a character of a person depends on the environment around the mother's womb to begin with, and the various things the person goes through in the journey from that point. But, well, in this case at least, we can't fully prove what is right, and what is wrong.

    I completely agree with you on this post. Very nice one!

    Also, if someone has not been able to use what they have learnt, it's most probably got to do with faltering on lining up their interest, education and work. It's not their fault though, it's more to do with the socio-economic conditions. It's also to do with being made to choose your subjects a bit too early, or without a practical introduction! I am sure most people don't really know what they are interested in until they get into their graduation days, until then it's the lure of money and social status that drives an individual (and this is compounded by parental pressure in most cases)

  13. Manu ji ,

    Weekends i am in sarcastic mode....thats why the double shri ...

  14. so you do everything from

    1. designing the hardware
    2. design its shape and paint it it
    3. code the software (both datapath and application level)
    4. Manufacture it
    5. Do sales presentations
    6. Analyze market adjacencies
    7. Do the accounting work also.

    Amazing dude. I too work in Datacom.

    We have a hardware team to design the hardware. Once we design it, we outsource the work to another department which takes care of manufacturing it. They have different units for each and every component. Then the software team designs and codes the software. There are different teams for C programming and microcode in assembly. There is a Sales Department (not a team) and there is a management team who takes busingess decisions based on inputs from Marketing/Engineering/Customers etc.

    Looks like you are a one man company and must be paid millions of dollars a year.

    Very much unbelievable.

  15. Humble advice: It's time you start hiring more people. ;-)

  16. Babu Kalyanam,
    Humble advice: It's time you quit S/W Engg & migrate to Gulf as a daily wage construction labourer.

  17. wow,sir
    i wish i could feel this passionate about my work at some point in my life. i joined engg becoz the idea of applyin knowledge to design and create was a great inspiration..but the course left me i'm on the verge of choosin a career in a field that has little or nothin to do wid wat i learned,as the my engg scores are not good enough and wont guaratee me get me a place in a core electronic company.
    - lekshmi

  18. Cool, this must be one of your best articles! I loved reading it, every word of it, awesome is the word for it! You rock.

    As someone who has drifted far away from her core subject to pursue a different career I'd say that one should be extremely careful in choosing what they want to study and also decide on how they're going to use it in the future.. (Gals and guys, the last thing you should do is listen to your parents). Else they got to waste a lot of time regretting those decisions and pursuing something which they have no interest in.

    Knowing your strengths, weaknesses and aptitude for a particluar line of study is very important. The most important ofcourse is passion for what you do, if you don't have that then life and job becomes a daily misery.
    There is no greater joy than in learning to apply all those knowledge you've accumlated during college years for practical purposes. Thanks for bringing that out so beautifully in this asrticle.

  19. I'm a first year engineering student, will take your words seriously. Thank you very much for the inspiration.

  20. Hi Sujai,
    Following ur blog on and off ... execellent ones...keep up the good work..

    my opinion on Eng 101 is opposite to urs. I think what u did in ur engineering is the right thing to do(ehhh...i mean its not the "RIGHT" thing ...). U said u spent time on painting, art, debating, making friends and falling in love. WHERE ELSE ON EARTH WE CAN FIND A PERFECT PLACE TO DO THIS???.
    1. Debating - teaches u leadership skills and communication
    2. painting, arts etc- u may pick it up as one of ur passions in ur life later...u never know
    3. Frends - man!, this is one thing that no one shud miss in college life. tolerance, companionship, compromise/sacrifice, give and take and wat not..these r all lessons for life...After ur college u may meet and get acquainted with numerous ppl, but its always the college frends those r closer to ur heart.
    4. Falling in love - NO Comments...;)
    I think the technical stuff cud always be learnt from books. Given the plight of our Engg coll Staff - Most colleges except IITs/RECs dont have knowledgable staff to teach, We always get them from books.
    Even if u spent all time in tech subjects in ur college u will never remember them after 10 yrs...will have to start all over again.

    Only if we have a very strong desire to excel in technical stuff we may need to compromise on the points dicussed above..

    - Shankar

  21. I would like to see this in a different prospective.

    What we are learning in engineering is just basic. You will not able to simply work with the knowledge you gained from college.

    We may have to be master of one thing. Being jack of every thing should certainly help you once you reach top of pyramid.

  22. My name is also Sujai. i just want to say in one word " Awesome"

  23. I know it's a rather old post, but I'd like to share my views anyway.

    I sort of agree with you. In your case, you are working in a field that you seem to make use of most of what was taught in your engineering college. But I don't think that's the case with everyone. That doesn't mean that the classes in college have no relevance or significance in professional lives later on. I don't use much of what I learned in college. But I think of it as a learning process. Because of those classes, I know how to approach a problem and how to do the research necessary to solve it, though I may exactly use concepts I learned in college.

    Another point: I really enjoyed the workshop class in college. I had to do three semesters of that. I appreciate the experience I got out of it. But looking back, I think my time could have been better used to by taking other electives (it doesn't have to be lecture-based classes, hands-on is even better). What I regret the most is that I (and many others like me) haven't really got a hang of good cogent writing. I also regret not taking part in debate, drama, activism or other extra-curricular activities.

  24. Excellent post and liked it a lot!!!! basically i am an Electrical Engineer working in a software company. After working 2 years i have realized that it is not the place i want to be so i have started my preparation again on the core subjects and planning to do and gain knowledge and get back to the core field. i happened to see this post and at this point of time it gives me lot of confidence and motivation thanks a lot!!!!

  25. But that is the plight of our educational system. I really feel bad at not having to use the hard earned knowledge.


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