Saturday, August 06, 2005

Engineers: Then & Now

Today when I look back at my professional life and the student life preceeding that, time seems to be flying in a jiffy, putting even the fastest space shuttle to shame. Seven summers ago, I was a final year graduate student, just one year away from getting my degree in Engineering & eagerly waiting for the culmination of four years of professional studies - landing a good job. Those days of anxious waits for corporate interviews, eager anticipation of to-be-announced results and the parties that were thrown by friends who got selected - still linger fresh in my memory. One of the best memories is that of my own interview, of course the one where I got selected.

Seven years later - the table seems to have turned, quite literally. I was again off to some of the reputed Engineering Colleges of south india - this time not to attend, but to coduct interviews on behalf of my employer. A chance to interact with young, entusiastic would-be graduates filled me with anticipation. Four engineering colleges and many dozen interviews later, I am rather disappointed - at the type of engineers we are going to get. In the words of a colleague, who was with me in this whole exercise, the whole experience was "nothing to write home about".

The first thing that an Engineering Course (or for that matter, any professional course), teaches a person is the right attitude. The attitude to explore life - not be a mere bookish creature. In a college in Coimbatore, when asked "What do you do after classes?" - the answers were rather cliched - "one hour of prayer, three hours of studies, five hours of sleep and so on". To be completely honest, I did not get a different answer from the twelve candidates I interviewed over the day. Is that all there is to life in an Engineering College? I think not, at least things were not so bad in my engineering college days. Read on and you will come to know why I am disappointed.

Most of the would be engineers did not have a hobby or interest to talk about. Some of them were interested in reading, but they were ill at ease explaining why a particular author or book happens to be their favourite. One of them tried his best to convince me that reading India Today can be considered as a "reading hobby", his constant banter about it came to an end only when I interrupted him to ask the name of the editor, to which he did not have an answer. One person talked about "Formula 1" as being his area of interest. For a moment I was thrilled, at the chance of talking to a person who shared my interest in something. Just to judge the depth of his interest I asked him what he thought of the fiasco at Indianapolis.The interview was only a week after the most forgetable event in the history of F1 took place. And the reply? "Sir, I just watch it, but don't follow it that closely."

There was this guy with interest in Automobiles. The question answer session with him went like this:
Me - "So, why do you like Automobiles?"

Candidate - "Well, I am an automobile engineering student, thats why."

Me - "Good, so which is ur favourite car?"

C - "Mercedes, Sir"

Me - "Which model?"

C - (After furiously scratching head & chin) - "Hmmmmmmmm, Errrrrr.. Mercedes Sir"

Me - "Yeah, I got that. But any particular mercedes model, that you like most?"

C - "No model sir.. Mercedes in general, Sir .."
Then came a Mechanical Engineering graduate. A guy with a rather arrogant attitude. Not the type of arrogance that comes from a thorough understanding of a topic, but the kind of arrogance which is born off ignorance. Lets call him X.
Me (after the initial pleasantries) - "So X, why did you select Mechanical Engineering?"

X (after 5 minutes of waxing eloquence about Mechanical Engineering) - "Sir, may I give two reasons why Mech is the best?"

Me (getting prematurely optimist, without knowing what was forthcoming) - "Sure."

X (confident as hell) - "Sir, I am sure u have heard of Vinod Khosla, the guy who started Oracle. He was a mechanical engineer by profession.."

Me (Trying desperately to hide my disappointment through gritted teeth) - "I always thought Mr Khosla was a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Anyway, whats your next point?"

X (with a knowing smile) - "You know Tata Consultancy Service has got a contract from Ferrari.. You know how they got it? They recruited a lot many mechanical engineers and showed the list to Ferrari. Ferrari became happy and granted them the contract".
I was just sort of pulling my hair out in frustration. My co-panelist, sensing that the candidate was probably a bluff master, and not exactly the kind of material we were looking for, informed him that the interview was over. The saga of disappointment did not get over there. There was someone (another self proclaimed voracious reader) who thought Sidney Sheldon was the best author in the world, and deserved at least the Booker prize!

When it came to talking about their favourite technical subjects, things only got worse. A person with "Engines" as his topic of interest, could not provide an example of an External Combustion Engine". Someone with "Data Structures" as the core topic of interest has never heard of a Doubly Linked List. Someone who just loved "Power Electronics" had no idea what a Thyristor is. So on and so forth.

The crux of the situation came in the next round of interviews, that succeeded the technical round. The candidates who did moderately well in the first round, had to face two of our HR Managers. My HR manager made it a point of asking everyone one question. The question was pretty simple.

"Who is the vice-president of India ?"
To his utter disappointment, not a single person could answer it. Not only that, the question was asked for the first time at 10 am and for the last time at 6pm. Still nobody could answer it. What surprised us more is the fact that these guys apparently never discussed with their friends what transpired inside the interview room. What happened to the so-called camaraderie among engineering students? Finally, when we did announce the result, there were only the selected candidates present to hear the result and accept the offer letters. No large group of friends, no hooting, no hip-hip-hurrahs, no nothing.

Things were very different, and I must say, way better seven years ago. My batchmates, barring the few toppers, were never exceptional at studies. (Toppers are a different lot and I am not discussing them here. I am talking about the common lot of engineering students.) However, when someone asked them about their hobbies/interests, they had the ability to take the interviewer for a ride. I remember one incident involving a friend, whose interview was mostly an hour-long discussion about which is the better book between "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead". We were never technically so good, but if we had a favourite subject, we made sure we had at least average understanding of it. I can't think of anyone in my whole batch, who would have had "Refrigeration" as his core competency and yet, not know what a coolant did !! And the camaraderie? Well, if an interviewer asked a question (technical or otherwise), he better not repeat it during the course of the day. Because if he did, he would find the next candidate (who had had a thourough discussion with the previous one) rather well prepared for the answer. And the scenes after a company announced the list of candidates? Well, there will be serious celebrations, ass-kicking (those who have been through it, will know what I mean) and parties after each such selection. When the results were announced, assuming ten candidates appeared in the interview, at least another fifty will be accompanying them to hear the result. Yes, thats what my engineering life was all about - cultivating great friends and a good attitude.

I can't blame the young graduates for this debacle. The fault lies with the system. Once upon a time, only those who came through the competition of entrance tests, did get into engineering colleges. Only the brightest could go for the best technical education the country had to offer. But now, we have various management & payment seats (more prevalent in South India, than elsewhere), where a student gets into an engineering college, without even having to appear for an entrance examination and with very poor grades at the intermediate level. As a result, those without the necessary caliber get into professional courses. If someone does not have the basics right, then the best of faculty and infrastructure can do little to hone his/her skills. To make things worse, engineering colleges are being operated only for profit, sometimes by reputed commercial establishments & even by religious trusts, without the necessary infrastructure in place. Anyone, who can cough up a few lakh rupees (often masked as a donation), can get into such a college. Good students and good educational facility, can together create a good talent pool in the country. On the other hand, what will be the outcome from such institutions?

I am not against the privatization of education. But surely the time has come to curb the unscruplous mushrooming of such institutions and restrict the availability of technical education only to the deserving.

14 Comments:

Blogger Ankz said...

Assuming that this debacle is because of management and payment seats, dont agree to that. The reasons for this problem are-

1. Too much of competition now a days. Its more imp that who gets the highest marks and mug max..thats what matters.

2. Too much of arrogance in the new grads, coz of the no. of jobs available..7-8 yrs, getting a job was lot tougher..

3. Exams train us for mugging and not understanding, i remember my pals in engineering who had the formulas for a problem mugged, but when asked Y?? as there is another formula also...the answer was coz the book has that solution..

6:59 PM  
Blogger Ankz said...

hey do u have an RSS feeed to ur blog,,??

7:05 PM  
Blogger Deba said...

Hello Ankur,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comments. Yes, mugging and too much competition is a problem. But what pains me more is the attitude & aptitude of wanna be engineers. The management & payment quota seats bypass the selection process and as a result undeserving people get into professional colleges. The system is trying to produce good engineers from unsuitable raw material (ie students I mentioned above), and so it fails. A good student, who has come thru the selection procedure of JEE, CET or AIEEE may not be technically very good (as you know engineering students are seldon studious) - but at least will be smart enough to be well versed in his areas of interest. Thats one thing I saw earlier and dont see anymore.

The RSS feed to my blog is
http://once-something.blogspot.com/atom.xml

Thanks,
Deba

11:26 PM  
Blogger Suhail said...

Hi Deba,
First time here. You very nicely reciprocate my own thoughts.

Just to add one more anecdote:
I once interviewed two ..errhmm..management graduates(the usual suspects, some pvt mgmnt institute). They both were BE(Comps) frm a decent college in Bglore. They were not able to write a simple iterative function for fibonacci in one hour. To my horror, when I found it, I asked them to write it in a loop. They couldn't do that either. 5 mins and some other basic questions later, it was tata-thankyou time. I could not believe, being courteous and all, I came out to see them off. But hell, those guys were so rude -- both of them didn't even took my hand for a handshake or pout a fake goodbye line. They simply left.

I think our system is just producing certificate holders as if on some production line. The values and cultures imbued through a great education are seriously lacking. Not to mention the social skills and outlook towards life of these engineers.

I, once asked a sort of technically good chap(we were 60% thru to recruit him), what were his ideas on dowry. I sometimes intersperse such sidie questions, amidst the heavy stuff. Believe it or not -- he said, he's in favour of it. Because after all his father has spent on his education, which needs to be recovered. He even went so far as to justify his decision, by saying that we shd appreciate his frank demeanour and the fact that he's not being a hypocrite.

-Suhail

11:58 PM  
Blogger Sivam said...

Inspite of this... these guys still land to cool jobs. Something is wrong somewhere

12:29 AM  
Blogger Deba said...

Suhail:
Thanks for the encouragement and for sharing your personal experience. At the end of my entire experience (4 engineering colleges in total) - I felt that I have just interviewed 2 engineers and a few dozen undeserving certificate-holders. Along with the standard of students, the environment in colleges also plays spoilsport. For example, this particular college in Coimbatore has a fine of Rs 20,000, if you are caught smoking in the campus !! Even if the incoming students were of better quality, how can such a jail-like institution produce good engineers?

Sivam:
U r right, somehow these people land plum jobs - mostly in IT industry. At the moment, everything might seem rosy - but a few years down the line it is bound to cause problems.

4:00 AM  
Blogger GREATBONG said...

Very nice post and it was indeed very disappointing to see how engineering college students have changed---the average student that is.

Competitive, arrogant and yet ignorant----I agree its just become too easy to become an engineer....as an example when i gave my Bengal JEE in 1995 there were 2000 seats...now I think the number is close to 20,000 and more.

7:56 AM  
Blogger Ambar said...

Hi Deba,
Don't you think you're making a faulty generalization? There is a huge variation in the quality of engineering colleges themselves and consequently, the grads from these places. As an engineer who passed out 2 years back, I can definitely say that the current crop of engineers if not better "engineers" than those before them, are more rounded intellectually and in terms of their interests. Of course, engineers probably follow the Normal distribution, and you just happened to be unfortunate enough to meet a lot of outlier engineers from the wrong side of the curve! :-)

Of course, it could just be that you're suffering from what I call "In my day, we had only Doordarshan" syndrome. No offence intended, but 7 years is a long time these days. I should know, the guys passing out these days manage to give me and my batchmates severe inferiority complexes!

9:09 AM  
Blogger Deba said...

Arnab:

Thanks for visiting and commenting. I am a regular reader of your blog and a big fan of your writing. In 1995, when I gave JEE, Orissa had 5 Engineering College and now they have close to 40. Most of them operate out of rented houses, without any infrastructure in place.

Ambar:

I dont think I generalised anything in my post. I admit that there are some fine professional institutions in the country, which contribute immensely to the vast talent pool. My targets were the colleges which have sprung up, sans the facilities and those colleges which allow students admission, without the selection process. Even then, I expected the modern grads to take me for a ride, when it came to talking abt their interests (books, music etc), which sadly did not happen. By the way, I did not have DD alone in my days, when I joined REC back in 1995, MTV and Channel V were already popular :)

Deba

10:50 PM  
Blogger Christopher Trottier said...

I know what that feels like. Time seems to be flying by too fast.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Abhinav Goyal said...

Deba,

Was pointed along this path by the DesiPundits.

Interestingly, I have the opposite view of things but I suppose thats based on the college and students in question. While talking to some college students who are about to graduate this year and the next, I met some young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable kids.

Well, tough luck for the lot that you ran into but dont blame the next generation for it.

Cheers,
Abhinav

3:49 AM  
Blogger Deba said...

Chris:
Thanks for the comment.

Abhinav:
I dont hold anything against the new generation. In fact, next time I have to visit campus, I will go with lot of optimism. Just that, the lot I ran into were not good. Sad, considering the fact they came from DOTE-1 (DOTE - Dept of Tech Education) ranked colleges.

4:37 AM  
Blogger greenbug said...

Hi Deba, Your blog made an interesting read. You sound like you must have belonged in a good group in college where the guys were intelligent and well-rounded in their knowledge. I would have to agree with Ambar though that this sounds like a generalization based on a sad group of guys you met. Those were the majority in most campuses 15 years ago when I was in college and I am sure they are now too. Does your company tend to attract the cream of the crop, not just academically, but the interesting, innovative guys?

8:41 AM  
Blogger Deba said...

Hi Greenbug:

Thanks, but my group in my college (aha, Those days !!) was not at all a studious one. But, yeah we did have varied interest and had our strengths. And majorioty of students were like us. What we call average students, not too interested in studies, not too ignorant either.

My company is an avg one and so we went looking for average guys. But from my experience, u can see that the guys I interviewed (most of them) were far below average. Now, we can accept when a person is not technically very good, but when someone claims a topic to be his favourite and does not know the basics of that topic, can we still accept him?

10:45 PM  

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