Home >Industry >Infotech >Striving for quality in India’s engineers

Bangalore: The Christ University auditorium was nearly full, with some 150 students and several dozen anxious parents accompanying their sons and daughters on the first day of the four-year engineering course offered by the Bangalore-based institution.

Swami Manohar, 52, a former Indian Institute of Science (IISc) professor and founder of PicoPeta Simputers Pvt. Ltd that built what was arguably India’s first tablet computer, walked up to the stage and greeted the audience.

“Good morning! After all your hard work over the next four years, efforts put in by parents, when you graduate everybody will call you unemployable and it will really hurt," he said.

Until two years ago, when the Indian information technology (IT) industry was still expanding revenue at a double-digit pace by deploying fresh engineering graduates on projects within months of hiring, not many bothered about employability, at least not this intensely.

Now, when software firms are faced with low, single-digit growth and their customers are demanding more for less, there is a push to get talent that is readily employable (read: billable). Companies such as India’s second biggest software services firm Infosys Ltd are seeking to earn one-third of their revenue from high-end consulting, software products and platforms in the next few years.

The nearly three-million-strong IT workforce and a generation of engineers set to graduate this year and the next are trapped in this transition. While engineering colleges are complaining about lack of investment and involvement from the industry, IT companies are blaming academic institutions for this unemployable pool.

Manohar’s straight talk shocked some parents and many students in the audience earlier this month, but he did not stop with just explaining the problem.

“You need to have an intuitive sense of what’s around you; you need a different engineering vision beyond focusing blindly on one stream of engineering after you graduate in four years," he said.

“You don’t expect to hear something like this on Day One, but it’s better to realize it upfront than get a rude shock midway into the course," said R. Suresh, a 23-year-old from Shimoga who was accompanied by his father, a businessman.

The problem, Manohar explained, is that despite producing more engineers than the US and China combined, nearly 80% of the one million Indian engineers graduating every year are not real engineers. The engineers currently employed in the IT sector are writing lines of software code, getting different IT systems to work together, and offering back-office support services to customers in the US and Europe.

Seeking ‘real engineers’

“It’s really frustrating to see those with engineering degrees working in shifts doing these jobs that have nothing to do with real engineering," said Manohar.

Engineering colleges experienced a boom in the years in which demand for workers from India’s $108 billion IT industry seemed insatiable. Graduates from across streams—mechanical, computer science and even civil engineering—were eager to work at Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) and other IT companies. Many were hired before they had acquired the requisite engineering skills.

“The IT industry does not employ real engineers, they are just programmers," said E. Balagurusamy, a former vice-chancellor of Anna University, Chennai. “I am happy that with IT slowing down, it will free mechanical, civil and other engineers to imagine and build things that add value to the nation."

As companies try to earn more business from software products, platforms and high-end consulting projects, they need a different kind of talent. They need engineers who can build those products.

Their top outsourcing customers such as General Electric Co. are increasingly looking for software solutions that are not stand-alone and are instead part of their core products and solutions. To get business from such high-end customers, companies such as Infosys and TCS need engineers who can go beyond just writing software code and systems maintenance.

In 2010, Manohar, along with former IISc colleague and computer scientist V. Vinay, started Jed-I (Joy of Engineering, Design and Innovation) to work closely with engineering students across colleges by offering them weekly learning programmes about “real" engineering. The programme is one of the initiatives launched by LimberLink Technologies Pvt. Ltd, a start-up focused on offering short-term refresher courses to engineering students.

“In many ways, the current challenges of the IT industry are forcing people out of their comfort zones," Vinay said.

With the Indian IT industry now shifting gears to cope with slower demand for services and newer technology models, there is a growing realization that core engineering skills are crucial for companies to differentiate themselves and survive, which fits in with what Jed-I is trying to do.

India’s biggest software firms have been forced to make their business models leaner and are seeking engineers who are more creative than the current crop of employees.

“Engineering is about imagining solutions for real-world problems, building things to solve them," said Manohar.

Going beyond the textbook

To give them a taste of what real engineering is all about, Manohar asked the students in the Christ University auditorium to estimate the size of the hall without using any tools.

Some of the students walked around the auditorium, measuring each footstep to estimate the total size of the auditorium, others chose to make wild guesses.

“The idea is to get them out of textbook thinking," Manohar said.

In another such experiment with a group of students at PES Institute of Technology earlier this year, Manohar threw a challenge that has now become the most famous project in the campus.

The experiment, called the “egg drop project", involves designing a system that can protect an egg from shattering if thrown from a height. Students at the institute applied different techniques, including building cushion covers for the egg and a metal container.

“He brings a very refreshing approach to demonstrating what engineering is really about," said K.N. Balasubramanya Murthy, director and principal of PES Institute of Technology.

To further challenge their thinking, Manohar even asked some students to design their eggshells or containers in a way that they break if dropped from second floor of a building, but stay intact if dropped from the first floor.

“I wanted to give them different scenarios to engineer their solutions," he said.

Irrespective of their specialization, the engineering students had to think through mathematical formulas to calculate the force of impact, the capability of different materials to absorb the shock, and identify the most stable geometric structure.

“The blame game between industry and academia about who is responsible for employability of these students is fruitless. What we need is increased participation from industry and projects like Jed-I," said Murthy.

As an engineer, a former academic and an entrepreneur, Manohar has been watching Indian engineers getting lured away by IT firms much before they could even complete their final-semester projects. The factory model of procuring raw engineering talent ahead of demand has spoilt generations of engineers, he said.

“The past few years have blunted two-three generations of engineers, so we needed to intervene and apply all we had learnt," said Manohar’s colleague Vinay. “It’s become a finishing-school business for many that guaranteed employment, but produced technicians, not engineers," said Vinay, who was actively involved in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) project to develop a search engine called Manjara during the 1990s.

Catching them young

Over the years, India’s growing IT industry built its so-called pyramid model that relied on hiring thousands of fresh engineering graduates every year who were put through rigorous training for three-six months to ensure that they could be billed on projects at the earliest. Engineering students, on their part, aimed to get job offers at least two semesters before graduation.

In past two years, Jed-I has taught some 800 students, most of them during the latter part of their engineering degrees.

“We were realizing that getting these students exposed to real engineering was too late if done during late semesters—we wanted to catch them young," said Manohar.

So in early June this year, Manohar convinced the management of Christ University to allow the latest batch of engineering students to become part of the programme.

Students attending the Jed-I programme seem to show a marked improvement.

“In the crowd, I can easily identify students attending the Jed-I programme; they look more confident, and have a refreshing, non-textbook approach to problem solving," said Murthy of PES Institute.

When Manohar and Vinay graduated in engineering during the mid-1980s, they were evaluated on the basis of their final-year projects. After eight semesters of engineering studies, students worked hard across teams from mechanical, electrical and computer science to come up with final-year projects they could be proud of.

“The final-year project was our visiting card to explore any opportunity in the world," Manohar said.

Now, with eye on an assured IT job much before graduation, students have not been able to muster enough passion for their final-year projects.

‘Building things’

“Final-year projects forced students to combine various engineering streams to come up with an idea that stood out. And that’s what Manohar and his team did by building a numerical controlled drill for punching holes on a printed circuit board (PCB)," said Ing R. Samuel, who was principal of the Government College of Technology in Coimbatore in 1981-82 when Manohar’s batch graduated from the college.

For instance, Manohar and his team of engineering students from various streams worked for eight months starting in August 1981 to build a complete drilling machine for PCBs.

“Except the engine, we did everything—we poured hot metallic liquid in the mould to create a structure that solidified, installed gears. Our principal said, what’s engineering if you’re not building things," recalled Manohar.

Over three decades later, Manohar and Vinay started the Jed-I Product Challenge (JPC) that called on engineering students to demonstrate their project ideas.

“If we can get this ‘final year project’ syndrome right, things will improve," Manohar said.

Jed-I is a commendable effort at helping Indian engineering steer through the current transition, said Shekhar Sanyal, country head of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), a UK-based society that has around 150,000 engineers as members across the world.

“We are trying to create a national platform for over 100 final-year project challenge competitions in India . It will also bring potential investors and companies to evaluate the ideas and hopefully create more entrepreneurs," Sanyal said.

Another problem cited by experts with current engineering education is that students get to choose their specialization right after the first year of the course, limiting their ability to develop a multi-disciplinary approach.

“The first two years of our engineering course involved learning everything from machine drawing to electrical workshops and carpentry, no matter which stream we came from. Now, there are only two semesters of common engineering," said Manohar.

‘Constructive destruction’

As low-end, commoditized IT roles come under threat from automation, there are enough employment opportunities for high-end technology jobs. According to Chetan Dube, the founder of IPsoft Inc., a firm that uses humanoids and intelligence software robots to deliver IT projects, that’s a good thing.

“Is automation going to make us lose jobs? Is it destructive in the impact it will have on society? At best, the answer says it is overwhelmingly constructive, in freeing mankind from shackles of drudgery and allowing them to work in domains which are more rewarding, both fiscally and spiritually, than mundane chores. At worst, the answer is that automation will galvanize a process of constructive destruction," Dube said.

“If we read the writing on the wall and do this proactively, the world would not come to India just for cheaper labour, but would run to India for better automation excellence," he said.

According to research firm Gartner Inc., the job opportunities in automation are going to be twice as many as in traditional IT outsourcing. That $77 billion sector is being cannibalized by a fast-rising AaaS (automation as a service) business, which is going to be worth $140 billion by 2015.

“Indian graduates with their ace analytical brains, if directed from mundane back-end chores to advanced automation practices, can flourish twice as well in this new world," Dube said.

The biggest challenge faced by Jed-I and similar programmes is that they reach only a few thousand students at best. The problem of unemployable engineers involves re-skilling and re-invigorating hundreds of thousands.

“For us to be really impactful we need to reach much bigger scale. Maybe if IT companies can ask the campuses they recruit from make their students undergo programmes like this, things could improve," said Manohar.

Mint, owned by HT Media Ltd, is a strategic partner for the annual Jed-I event that rewards final-year engineering projects annually.

This is the last in a three-part series that examines how various constituents of the Indian IT ecosystem are dealing with the fallout of the global economic crisis.

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