For the past seven years, Dr Vinay Viswanathan has been plugged into India’s engineering education system trying to fill a gap in hands-on learning through his firm JED-I Technologies. It’s far from a promising situation, reckons the co-inventor of the Simputer—the hand-held, multilingual computer which preceded India’s telecom boom and which, even after 15 years, still remains one of the few examples of a novel product that came out of Indian academia. Vinay, a former computer science professsor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), tells Ajay Sukumaran that one of the main problems is that students are typically burnt out by the time they reach an engineering course. Edited excerpts:
You set up your firm JED-I (Joy of Engineering, Design and Innovation) to address a specific gap. Can you take us through that?
Around 2010-11, we (Vinay and co-founder Swami Manohar) had already spent around 10 years as entrepreneurs (both in Strand Lifesciences and PicoPeta). During the process of hiring we had interviewed a lot of people, which in any case, we used to do at IISc as well. What was clear was the quality of engineers in the country was somewhat poor and we were wondering whether we can address that gap. There are about 10 lakh engineering seats available in the country and of that I think about 6-7 lakh graduate. Some seats remain empty and maybe a fourth of them probably don’t make it through. The question is—what are we doing with these 6 lakh people? In a typical good year, the IT industry absorbs around 2 lakh people and the core engineering industry, they pick about 50,000 to 75,000 freshers. This means that about 2.75 lakh, or let’s say generously 3 lakh, get placed in a good year—in a bad year, these numbers come down drastically—which still leaves around 3 to 3.5 lakh outside the employment net. That’s one problem.
The second problem is how many, even among those who get employed, are competent engineers, whatever competency means. In 2012, we undertook a survey to understand this. We went to about 8-9 local colleges and asked basic 20 computer science questions. We also went to one of the IITs to be able to compare the difference. We were surprised that the local kids were not able to answer even the simplest of questions despite being in some of the better colleges in Bangalore.
We thought about how we could intervene and we realised that engineering graduates in India have absolutely no hands-on experience—they haven’t built anything. So, we decided to start in the first year because by the second and third year they already start specialising and do not look outside their topics.
“I don’t want children to go into coaching classes and burn themselves out. My message is ‘uncoach your child.’”
Today, it’s very difficult to build products where you don’t have an appreciation for other areas of engineering. This comes from my own experience with the Simputer project where as chief technologist I had to look at hardware and packaging, something I didn’t know much about. I didn’t even know what sort of plastic should be used...all sorts of little things. And unless you have an appreciation for aspects of mechanical engineering, electronics and so on, just being a software professional is not enough for projects of this sort. We are getting into a world where there is hardware and software interaction, multi-disciplinarity is the core thing. Of course, you don’t have to be an expert in everything, but you must have an appreciation for other things. That is sadly lacking in Indian engineers. So, we thought that we should do two things—one, intervene early enough and so the first year seemed to be ideal because students are fresh and not yet biased. The second aspect was to give them hands-on experience. So far, 10,000 to 12,000 students have gone through the JED-I programme in the last 5 years. They build things.
This was never promoted in the curriculum?
No. In some universities, they may not even get credit for doing this. But at the end of the day, engineers require the confidence that they can build things and that confidence comes about only is they are exposed to these things early. That, I believe, is the core of what we do. We provide confidence to engineers that they can actually engineer solutions.
What are some of the broad insights you have about engineering graduates in India?
I think it is pathetic. And, that’s across the board including the IITs. I can say this because in the last three months I have probably interviewed around 50-60 people, a majority of them from the IITs and IISc, and I have had people who can’t do a simple Fourier Transform which any electronics engineer will know. Obviously, there are very good people in the IITs, but I’m talking about the average.
Is this something that’s been happening lately?
I’m not quite sure of that. About 2-3 years ago, I spoke to about 25-30 of my colleagues in various engineering colleges, mostly IITs and IISc, and the question I asked was “in your opinion, how many competent engineers do we produce in India every year?” Of course, defining competence was up to them. The largest number I heard was 10,000 and the smallest number I heard (from an ex-director of an IIT) was 2,500. In my view, it’s probably around 8,000 to 10,000 which is a very small fraction of the population that gets out every year.
How has this situation come about?
That’s a really difficult question to answer. It’s not for want of trying. Here’s a paradox—while there are about 10 lakh seats available for engineering in India, the number of people who take the IIT exam alone is about 12 lakh or more every year. Where are these extra two and half lakh people from? Why are they taking an IIT exam? It makes no sense. I think the entire examination system has become skewed. We have got into this coaching mode, and there are two or three problems I see with it. One is that even in the IIT exam you have to answer some 60 questions in a certain amount of time—roughly you have about a minute and a half or two to answer every question. And, coaching classes will tell you that if you are not able to look at a question and answer immediately, go onto the next question. So, consequently, students don’t learn the patience to solve problems. If students don’t realise that there are problems that cannot be solved for days together, or at least hours together, we haven’t educated them. They look for something and if they don’t get it in 5 minutes, they just give up. There are times when you have to spend days together trying to make a breakthrough. As an active researcher I probably spent 5-6 hours every day—and that’s true of all researchers—intensely thinking about some problem. But I’d be happy to get two good papers a year which probably means about three to four ideas in a year. That patience has to be developed and our education system has stripped people of patience. That’s one aspect.
The second aspect is that children who do well can never slip below 95 percent and that means they have to hit these levels in every test. So, they are very afraid of making mistakes. And when you are afraid of making mistakes how will you innovate, how will you do anything new? Again, if for 12-14 years, they have been in this mode where they are afraid of making mistakes, it’s not going to change all of a sudden.
Back in 2002, the Simputer was acknowledged globally as a invention coming from a country not known for building products. Since then, how has India fared in terms of a product-building nation?
Poor. There have been a couple of instances; some interesting companies, that came out from IIT-Bombay specifically. There have been some recent attempts at IISc also in the last year. We are still looking at a handful. By this time, we would have expected some 100-150 companies. That has not happened.
As an academician and entrepreneur, how do you see the start-up boom in India?
It’s a good thing that many people want to start-up. The not-so good thing is their ideas tend to be somewhat ordinary. It has not been technology-led. If there are 500 companies doing artificial intelligence or machine learning in India, maybe 10 of them will succeed. But if you have only 10 working, then the chance of success does diminish.
What are your plans for JED-I?
Now, I’ve realised that even engineering is bit too late because my intervention is in the first year, and, while it has been good, the main problem is that students burn out by the 12 grade. So, I started a school programme a year-and-a-half ago trying to catch them in the eighth grade. My message is ‘uncoach your child’. I don’t want children to go into coaching classes and burn themselves out. At least, if they can spend a year or two here and understand or broaden their minds, then I think it’s worthwhile.