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Being more than a five-point someone

04 May 2016

Dr. Sumit D Chowdhury is a global thought leader and CEO in the field of Smart Cities, telecom and information analytics. He is a business leader, entrepreneur and best-selling management author, having led large, hyper-growth, multinational telecom and consulting companies in the US, Australia and India. He has worked on technology-based corporate transformation and is now focused on Internet of Things and sustainable solutions for Smart Cities, for which he also provides mentoring and start-up funding. He is also the program director of Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Initiative) with the ministry of urban development.

A graduate of IIT Kanpur with  MS and Ph.D from Carnegie Mellon University, Chowdhury is the author of the bestselling career management book, Rules of the Game, published by Bloomsbury India, that teaches how to enhance productivity and fast-track careers.

A TEDx speaker, his motivational speaker series has been hugely popular with students and professionals. 

An avid painter, having had international exhibitions of his paintings, he is also a trained musician, an active marathoner and cyclist, having run several full marathons and long-distance cycling trips across the world.

Amrita Chowdhury is the author of Faking It, an art crime thriller, and Breach, a cyber thriller. She holds engineering degrees from IIT Kanpur, UC Berkeley, where she was a Jane Lewis Fellow, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University Tepper Business School. She frequently writes on lifestyle, strategy and marketing in mainstream media and is a regular contributor to HuffPost.

Amrita is a multi-faceted leader, who has been an engineer, innovator, and business strategist. She holds 7 US patents for semiconductor manufacturing. She has done Strategy consulting and Board Advisory work in US and Australia, for Fortune 100 and ASX and FTSE listed clients across a broad span of industry segments. She has led growth stage businesses in India in higher education and publishing, putting together ideas and people. She currently leads a brand strategy and design firm.

In this interview with Swetha Amit, they talk about their experience inside an IIT campus, which they penned down in the book 'Chicken Soup for the IITian's soul' and how it shaped them as individuals going forward in life.

Chicken Soup for the IITian's Soul  is an interesting compilation of stories and experiences by former IIT students during their college days. So how does life in IIT differ from other engineering institutions?
Sumit: Actually in many ways, it doesn't differ so much as both are contained environments consisting of people who are trying to achieve success in their lives.

However in IIT, you have people with a particular mind-set who have gone through this massive filtering of clearing a tough exam.  So it's sort of a niche and eclectic group put together in a competitive environment. I would say it's like the Boston marathon where you have only people who have achieved a sub 4-hour timing for a 42 km race, taking part. There are several marathon events but what makes Boston stand out is this niche segment of people. So I would say that IIT is the Boston marathon of engineering colleges.

Amrita: Well, what IIT gives you now might be slightly different from what it was earlier. Speaking from the positive side, it teaches you logical reasoning, problem solving, being resilient and multitasking. These are more from the behavioural perspective, which go beyond the normal curriculum. So in a way life at IIT shapes your personality and enables you to handle different scenarios in life in an effective manner.

You were IIT students during an era when it was considered the most prestigious institution with limited number of institutes in the country. Considering how there are about 22 of them today, how do you see the impact on its brand value?
Sumit: Hiring professionals consider only the Top 5 IITs even today. While others are also ranked well and have their brand value, the Big 5 remain distinct.  For instance if you look at any hotel chain like the Taj Group, you have the Taj Palace and then the Vivanta. There is a difference between these two brands.

Now what's happening in the case of IITs is that the Vivantas are called palaces, that is the new branches are being equalled to the original Big 5. If you take the Taj brand, the chefs of the palaces are being asked to mentor those in the other chains. A similar case of mentoring is taking place with the new branches of IITs. Now all the 22 branches do not have campuses. Only when they acquire a campus with an environment for grooming high-potential students, would they get the character of an IIT and not necessarily because they are called an IIT.

Amrita: If you look at the original five, they still retain a certain amount of brand value because of who they were and their originality. Earlier Kanpur used to be perceived as the best of the five but now with the entrepreneurship factor coming in, Delhi and Mumbai are perceived better due to the interface factor. So the benchmark has changed a bit.  As for the number of IITs you see today could be attributed to the fact that there is a deficit of good engineering colleges and good education. An attempt is made to bridge this gap. You also need to consider whether the approach and quality of education has evolved with time. Looking at 10 years from now, the brand value will hold only if the quality and approach changes with time.

From the stories in the book, it is seen how several parents of prospective IITian had a mind-set that once their child secured an admission in any IIT, their life is made. Considering the fierce competition today and the job market scenario, does it take more than just being an IITian to taste success in life?
Sumit: Yes it does take more than being an IITian to taste success. What an IIT does for you initially is to help you get a head start with your job prospects and career. However what happens afterwards solely depends on what your mindset is and how you take it forward. I know enough examples of IIT graduates who have attained only mediocre success while non-IITians are enjoying a higher level of success. Therefore I would say that being an IITian guarantees you a seat at the table during selections. However after that you need to take the steering wheel of life in your hands and go forward.

Amrita: Like Sumit said, IITians are assured of the initial good placement. However this doesn't necessarily guarantee life-long success. Your career life is a time span of another 40 years from the time you graduate.  Now if you consider a survey on Silicon Valley CEOs, 50  per cent are from IITs whereas the remaining 50 per cent are not IITians. Hence, it's not just the degree but how you build yourself after that.

There is an interesting episode mentioned in the book, where an IIT professor questions a prospective student's career choice of  an MBA from IIM after an engineering degree from IIT. Considering this rising trend  among many students in India, what according to you propels engineers to pursue management studies post their BE or BTech?
Sumit: Engineering is like a basic degree which teaches you common sense and certain principles with which you can approach life. It is similar to any form of graduation except that this one is focused on a particular type of study. Unfortunately people who pursue a management degree immediately after their engineering course are plainly trying to fast track their careers. You need to first understand the ground realities before you start applying the principles of management and start managing people.

Amrita: You see it's a very well-trodden path and not just in India but in other places as well.  Now anybody who is graduating from IIT has a lot of aspiration and ambition. If management is a pathway to fulfil that ambition, then they gravitate towards that. If there was a path to grow and develop through the technical side of things, then there would be a different trend that's being followed.  Also, while an IIT shapes your personality to a certain extent, you aren't juggling as many disparities you would in management.

Management is all about growing a business, managing people, revenue and profits - things that are not taught in IIT. It's not the academic part of IIT, which prepares you for this but the non-academic part spanning the extracurricular activities and not everyone at IIT is involved in extracurricular activities. .

Caption: Published by Westland Publishers  

As a follow up to the previous question, IITians would earlier migrate to the US to pursue their masters. However with the aggressive 'Make in India' campaign, many IIT graduates are seen venturing into the entrepreneuring and some even drop out midway. What do you think has brought about a shift in the mind-set today?
Sumit: This entrepreneurship bug is there not just in the IITs but across all colleges in the country. This is partly because of the lack of job opportunities in the lower levels, which prompt some students to try their hand at entrepreneurship. The other reason is probably due to the fact that students are seeing a lot of opportunities added to which there are venture capitalists who are willing to nurture and fund these bright minds.

With regards to drop outs, some of the IITs have implemented a policy where they allow some students to take a semester or two off and come back. By dropping out, students try their hand at entrepreneurship and in case it fails to work out, they come back to finish their graduation.

Amrita: Well India's growth rate is at 7 per cent showcasing the fact that there is a lot more opportunity here. From where we are, steps can be taken towards what we want the desired state of the country to be in. One sees success in that added to which there exists a lot of opportunity to make a difference here.

The book reveals that life in IIT is far from the 'geeky' impression that people usually have, and offers its element of fun as well. In fact one of the stories talks about how a student's Grade point average (GPA) and personality improved when he got involved in extracurricular activities besides his books. So how does one attain this fine balance in the real world between his/her profession and passion?
Sumit: It all boils down to the art of time management, which is the key factor here.  Once you know how to manage your time, you also learn the art of compressing or expanding it. Eventually, you will find time for things that you love. For instance I love running so whenever I travel, I ensure I carry my running attire with me. If I find time then I manage to squeeze a short run in between my schedule. Otherwise I know that I am prepared for an opportunity to run.  So, it's all about being mentally prepared to make use of opportunities when you travel. 

Amrita: If you look at people who would get a ten point GPA in IIT and consider how many of them have become CEOs, you will find only a fraction of them belonging to this category. It is mostly the 7-8 pointers who enjoy the CEO status since they learnt the art of balancing their academics with extracurricular activities. 

This enhanced their personality development as compared to the ten-pointers who were only focusing on academics.  Ultimately you have to learn to find the balance and as Sumit mentioned, make use of the available opportunities. Today it's not only about work and family as there are different things you want out of life. Sometimes you may end up focusing on something more than the other as you may have different priorities at different points in time. This multi-dimensional approach is what adds richness to our lives.

The book quotes some interesting lessons learned by students, which went beyond their engineering curriculum. What did you take back with you during those four years in IIT?
Sumit: Well I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities right from music, art and I even used to teach some kids at the campus. Education eventually became a by-product in the process. I was the only one who had a girlfriend - Amrita,  now my wife  whom I met in the campus. I gradually learnt the art of multitasking, which was there right from my school days. I would say IIT helped me sharpen this particular skill.  In the quest to achieve something, you also have to give up something. In the process of this 'multitasking', I gave up hanging out with the 'gang', late nights and I would be off to bed by 10:00 pm and wake up by 3:00 or 4:00 am to study.

Amrita: The things that you learn in general are the ones which I have mentioned earlier such as learning to be persevering, independent and  multitasking. Also the ratio of boys to girls is skewed so you learn to bond with other girls in a better manner. Sometimes, you might end up being the only girl in your department, which eventually teaches you to become self-reliant as compared to the boys who have 40 other guys to rely upon.  At times you need to prove yourself harder in academics as the general perception is against you. In the quest to prove this perception wrong, you eventually learn to create that desired impact in the long run even if you end up faltering midway.

Considering both of you are authors, what books do you have in the pipeline that readers can look forward to?
Sumit: Yes in fact I am working on my upcoming book along with a collaborator from Portugal. We will be talking about how management theories have to be relooked today as we are no longer in the hierarchical workplace but in a more networked one. There are people who go beyond your workplace to help you achieve what you want to achieve. It will be something different. The book will be coming out sometime next year.

Amrita: I have lots of ideas. In fact I am working on a book which will be another fiction-thriller. It will be based on the cusp between technology and life.

(See: Book excerpt: Sumit's story: The Fortune teller )

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