Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bachelor, of Engineering

Four bloody years. Down the drain. And just when I think it's time to shift lanes, Life throws a surprise, and asks me to reconsider.
Last Friday, 10 P.M.
Y looks at me, a question in his eyes. He's tired. As tired as anyone can be. His normally-on 100-watt smile long gone, now replaced by a grim stare. He's pushed himself all week to get 'the thing' ready. Two days earlier a problem had cropped up, and he, we, all of us, spent a day and a half trying to find a solution. We did find it, but not before Y lost his cool on more than one occasion. Quite unusual for this easygoing Electronics Engineer from Pune. And now this had to happen.
I look back at him. Then I look around the garage. It's filled with fumes, and it's awfully hot, despite the uncharacteristic mist that descends on Chennai at night these days. I look at S, standing at a corner, towering over all of us. S is an Iyer, a terrific Mechanical Engineeer, and as the mechos go, he's a 'robust' giant indeed. He bites his lip and blinks back at me through his glasses. His wife's already called him up a dozen times in the last half an hour. He got 'the thing' ready for Y to work on. He won't take the decision.
I hear SMD muttering something under his breath. I can see he's tired as well. SMD is a software Engineer, and as good as they come. His enthusiasm is overwhelming and I want to keep going for his sake at least. But I know there's no point, at least for today.
I look back at Y, and he's still asking me the question with his eyes.
I breathe deeply. And I decide. The others voice their agreement. We give up on 'the thing'. For tonight. We'll be back on Monday.
Disappointed, we walk out the garage and head home. We'll wait for CB.
I rarely talk about my work on this blog, except for my very second post. But today I have to.
The certificate that I got at the end of a totally useless undergraduate course says I'm an 'Electronics and Communications Engineer' but at the bottom of my neart I know that's a big lie. I was no more an Engineer than Laloo Prasad Yadav when I left college. All I had, and still have, was common sense and rational thinking, with an insatiable curiosity, and a sound mind.
And then I landed a job at a company where I've continued to stay ever since -- much to my surprise, a place I've grown to love, a place where I feel I've grown from strength to strength because of the belief and confidence they have reposed in me and the opportunities that I've been blessed with. I get to do a lot of things that my friends don't, like having a say in business direction, influencing recruitment etc My job is a dream that I stumbled upon. Stumbled, is the word.
Anyway, six months into the job, I was assigned to a team which would build Injection systems for engines in automobiles. We would build and assemble the mechanical and electronic hardware, as well as write the software that would reside inside an Electronic Control Unit which typically runs these Injection Systems. At the time of writing, as far as I know, nobody in India does all of this; some or most of this is imported or outsourced. I was assigned the role of a Control Systems Engineer which involves understanding what goes on in an engine and writing software to make it happen, as well as spending a lot of time on the vehicles, testing them and understanding them. It's an interesting job. And that is an understatement.
Monday. Morning.
CB's here. CB works as a senior Engineer with our collaborators in Australia. I'm a big fan of him. He's really inspiring to work with. The attitude, the commitment and the work ethic that he brings along with him are just a few things that I have been awed by and of course imbibed. Always ready with a joke, always ready to break into a smile. And he's really good at what he does. He's the Project Manager on our collaborators' side, and he's here to supervise the integration of 'the thing' and get it running. This was what we were working on last week. We had wanted to get 'the thing' running before CB got here so as to impress him. We failed. Of course, we're still greenhorns and we were not expected to get it running before CB came over. But then our entire team takes a lot of pride in the work we do. And we wanted to prove ourselves.
CB knows what we've done so far. He's happy we've done so much without him. And he has an idea as to why 'the thing' won't run. CB and Y spend a couple of hours in the lab, setting up a test rig. I hover around them, I see them working patiently, connecting wires, setting up probes, the air thick with the concentration of their efforts. Five minutes into the testing and CB comes up with the solution.
(Please bear with me, I'll be going cryptic now.)
Basically it's this. CB's company taught us the technology with something they had made. Let me call it 6. And taking all that we learnt from 6, we made K. And we tried to run 'the thing' using K but with 6's configuration. CB had suspected that there could be a difference in the way 6 and K implement a fundamental thing. We weren't aware of this since certain things about 6 were shielded from us because of intellectual property issues. CB tests the two of them. And yes, they do differ. And exactly in the way CB had predicted. Boy, this guy is cool! I mean he had sugegsted that this difference could be a problem straight away. That's experience for you. Something no book can teach you.
I often ask myself what I would like to be 5 years from now. I want to be CB. If not better.
This is where it gets personal.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an e-mail to one of my college e-groups. I still remember something I said in that e-mail.
"i'm also beginning to have second thoughts abt. being an engineer for life. i don't think it's my calling"
It was a time when I was going through the 'Quarter-Life' crisis. And I was examining a lot of things about my life and where I was going and also what I was doing. And considering the kind of work I was doing back then, I almost gave up on being an Engineer. A month and a half after that e-mail, I was ready to quit the company, having written a draft application letter to an advertising company in Chennai to take me in as a trainee. I somehow didn't send that e-mail and saved it as a draft. The very next week, three life-altering things happened.
My brother lost his job overnight.
My sister quit hers.
And I got assigned to this project, and my project lead tells me I have to leave for Australia in 3 weeks time.
Boom! I became the sole bread-winner in my family overnight. Life just dropped a bombshell.
That one month before I left for down under was quite traumatic. I didn't have a passport and had to literally run from pillar-to-post to get one. In between I had to decide. To be or not to be an Engineer. Add to that the confusion at home, and I was at my wit's end. I've always been one to give things a try, and so I decided to play along being an Engineer, for more reasons than one. It was not an easy thing to do, especially when you start questioning yourself if this is what you want to do. Like they say, Patience is a virtue. And I was in no hurry to get anywhere.
December 2004, and my first flight to anywhere. I spent the next two months at our collaborator's facility learning everything that I can. And I learnt how responsibility can be a serious motivator.
Monday, afternoon - Wednesday, 1.00 A.M.
The problem solved, we reconfigure K to match 6's configuration and spend the next two and a half days trying to get 'the thing' running. Problems of all sorts crop up -- mechanical, electronic and software related. We fix them patiently one by one. But 'the thing' is stubborn. It won't run.
Late on Tuesday afternoon, N -- the brilliant tyro in the team -- and I return from a late lunch to hear K -- another Mechanical Engineer -- congratulate us. We are confused. He informs us coolly that he saw CB get 'the thing' running in the garage. Dazed, we run over to the garage and peek in. 'The thing' stands there, mocking at us. We look around for CB. We find him looking at the squirrels up a tree. Panting, we ask him incredulously as to what happened. CB breaks into that million-dollar smile of his and confirms what K said. N and I can't believe our ears. We ask CB for visual confirmation. He goes into the garage and gives 'the thing' a strong kick.
And lo! Vrroom! Music! 'The bloody thing' comes alive giving us the most wonderful scare of our lives! SMD joins us to tell us that he was there when 'the thing' ran for the first time. He adds that he was peering into the exhaust when it kicked to life! We burst out laughing.
Over the next two days, we get 'the thing' slowly into shape. It's a finicky thing, wants everything to be exact, and we are in a hurry, 'cause CB's leaving on Thursday.We have a lot of tests to do, and we want 'the thing' running on a reliable basis.
Wednesday night, and it's past 1 at night when N and I retire for the day. We have everything ready for tomorrow, CB's final day here before he flies back home. It would be nice if we could give him the satisfaction of a productive trip.
As the project progressed throughout the whole of last year, I have seen myself grow from being shy and cautious to being assertive and confident. I've learnt to lead and be led. I've learnt to confront the prospects of failure and the shadows of doubt straight in the eye and emerge victorious. I've become more of myself.
My company has made this personal journey of discovery worth my while by revising its organizational hierarchy to put me higher up the ladder than where I should actually have been, And they treated the entire team to a windfall by revising the pay-structure to compare with the best in the business. And all this from a job I happened to stumble across! Luck? Destiny? Choice? Whatever, I don't care!
Y and I are early into the office. We hurry into the garage and try awakening 'the thing'. Another minor hiccup later, 'the thing' coughs, but refuses to start. Y and I are disappointed. CB looks on, immune to emotion. It looks like another long day. But The Boss interrupts the three of us, summoning us for a scheduled meeting where we'll be discussing the direction for the next year.
The meeting -- as is usual -- is a pain in the ass. MM -- our resident consultant -- does her best to throw the meeting into disarray and pretty soon most of us are in the Dreamzone. We can't wait to get out into the sun, and into the garage, and get back to working on 'the thing'. Somehow, CB and The Boss impose order on the meeting and we close, having put down a schedule for the next 14 months.
Y and I have a hurried lunch, haul 'the thing' out into the garden, set up the test rigs. We've done all that we can and if it doesn't run steadily now, then we'll have a long week ahead of us after CB leaves.
I stand beside 'the thing' and give it a series of kicks. It starts but rather reluctantly. I turn it off, turn it on, give it a series of kicks again, and it starts again, this time a bit more steady. Not convinced, I repeat the process twice, and each time 'the thing' starts increasingly well. CB, Y and I look at each other, grinning.
We continue to start it over and over again, just to make sure. And each time 'the thing' responds beautifully. We are over the moon. Pretty soon, the entire team is around us, witnessing the spectacle, all of us overjoyed beyond words, congratulations doing the rounds. All of us were relieved as well!
Well, that was that. CB and Y continued to proceed with all the testing that was to happen, all of which went off well as expected, throughout which 'the thing' behaved immaculately, like a school boy in front of his master.
In the evening, before CB left, we had a small celebration to mark this significant milestone in the project. To me it was more than a milestone. It was rebirth.
That one moment when I heard 'the thing' run for the first time, I knew this is how love must feel. It's too bad that the ephemerality of Life doesn't permit me to freeze myself in that moment forever, and that tomorrow is another day, with greater challenges to face and overcome. But today, tonight, this moment, I stand on top of the world. Base camp established. The summit awaits. And I know it's a long, hard climb.
As I sit in the office today, typing out this post, I can't help but recall what the description to my Blogroll link on a friend's blog says -- "...a budding writer and a reluctant engineer..." I was amused more than anything else when I first read that description. But now, I will definitely say, Engineer first, writer thereafter. I know that Chance had a great role to play in my continuing to be an Engineer, but then that's Life for you.
I realize being an Engineer has changed me as a person for the better and enriched my approach to Life in general. Engineering is not just about clinical thought, cold-blooded precision execution and attention to detail. It is about having faith in man's ability to conquer and mould nature according to his necessities. In a world where a lot of things don't matter anymore, and people are struggling to comprehend their purpose in lives, Engineering as a profession, as an ideal, as a way of life, as a purpose, as an end in itself, stands out like a neon sign, complete with a swoosh beneath it, proclaiming 'Just Do It'.
I'm an Engineer, and proud to be one. The B.E. degree rests easily on my shoulders today.


Anonymous said...

Purpose attained,
Destiny fulfilled,
What more can a man ask for,
In these times of peril

Samudraa said...

we seem to be living parallel lives...

just about 2 months back i realized i can't be a 'writer'.

and then one month back i stopped introducing myself to ppl as "a budding writer"

i dont write in my diary..."may be one day my passion to write will revisit me"

rite now iam enjoying what iam doing.....happy i studied what i did....what i always wanted to do and what iam best suited to do :)

kudos to us :)

Samudraa said...

and yes,this post of urs......very well written.beautiful flow....

but iam wondering where the "gear" part is...or is it called "geer"?

Chandru said...

Hi rajesh...
got the link to your blog from girish's. It felt good to read the blog....

4 years in college....listening to idiots, (except SP) of course...and vomitting in the University Exams...what for??...a piece of share your everyday experiences online...

Anu said...

Brilliant Brilliant post. If you were in an arena, I would be bowing down to you! Am not exaggerating here...

"...being an Engineer has changed me as a person for the better and enriched my approach to Life in general. Engineering is not just about clinical thought, cold-blooded precision execution and attention to detail. It is about having faith in man's ability to conquer and mould nature according to his necessities"
You put down in words what I have felt about engineering for a long time...

The Man Who Wasnt There said...

Brilliant is an understatement...
been quite some time I had been here and can see of all the adjectives one could use for your blogging skills..'prolific' is not one of them...alright alright let us not even bother to talk abt my blogging frequency here..)

you should consideer writing seriously...been following couple of your comemnts in couple of other blogs and I didnt have one single point to cavil believe me that's a rarity! I agree with you hook,line and sinker! gotta run now..more later!

Brood Mode said...

wow! good one!

you've got your clarity at last...

musafir said...

@ anon: Thanks, appreciate it. Like I said, this is not the end ... you learn pretty quickly that purpose is sometimes about pushing the bar higher and higher.

@ samudraa: It does seem like it! But then, there's always a part of me which loves writing, and I guess one day or the other it will find it's place in the sun. But till then I'm content to be Mr.Engineer.

Yeah, the 'gear' - went missing, didn't it?

@ chandru: The first time I saw your comment I was wondering who this was, and then you say 'SP'and I realize... :-) gee, what a way to come in contact again!

Thanks da, appreciate it. Like you said, all for a piece of paper.

Came visiting to your blog, and left laughing ... good to see you're still the same :)

@ anu: Now, now, look who came commenting. And to think I was safe from the other employees, considering what I've written - you won't squeal on me, will you? :P

Thanks for dropping by and commenting, although 'Brilliant' makes me uncomfortable! It's nice to know you look at it the same way too. But then, I kinda knew you were the type, if you get what I mean.

@ girish...!: I knew I shouldn't go around commenting like that ... well anyway, now you know and am flattered to hear you agree :D

Heard about the German trip - good luck, for more reasons than one ;)

And yes, I will consider writing seriously :-)

@ brood_mode: :-) ... it takes time you know!

McQn said...

musafir, great post. I really like your writing style, it's smooth and engaging. You definately have a way with words that makes me want to keep reading!

consumerdemon said...

i'm glad somebody's happy. it seems as if very few people are these days.