Dr. Nagabhushana Sindushayana graduated with a BTech degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras in the year 1989. He completed his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University and is presently the Vice President of Technology in Qualcomm Inc. With more than two decades of contributions in the telecommunications sector, he is responsible for the advancement of communication theory and for innovative implementation leading to the commercial realization of Broadband Wireless Technologies such as 3G (EV-DO) and 4G (UMB, LTE, LTE-A, LTE-U).
For his revolutionary work in the area of communication technology, he has been awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award this year. In an interview with Chennai 36, he talks about his days at IITM, about how these shaped his life, about research in general and his advice to the current generation.
How does it feel to be back in your alma mater, at IIT Madras again?
It’s a deeply nostalgic experience. It brings back a flood of memories from some of the best years of my early life. The excitement and thrill of joining and studying in one of the best institutions in the world. The amazing friendships that we form over the years with peers as well as our mentors and teachers and an abiding sense of optimism that is founded on the tremendous opportunities that lie ahead just waiting to be explored. It’s a tremendous feeling.
We all have a lot of fond memories of our days in insti, can you please share some of your fond memories?
Oh certainly. Although I may not be able to quote specific instances, in general terms I can say the following. I still remember as if it were yesterday, how excited I was entering the campus and looking at its vast, lush, greenery and exploring the campus at length over the years. I also remember the strong and interesting friendships that I formed with many of my friends who I still keep in touch with after all these years. I remember the scintillating conversations we would have during mess hall dinners, the weekly pilgrimage to the OAT for our Saturday night movies. It’s also interesting to contrast life back then to live as we know it today. It was such a luxury to just be able to make a long distance call back then with just one phone for the entire hostel! Whereas now each one of you carries a personal phone in your pocket. It’s amazing to think how we survived in a world without the internet or facebook or iPhone or Netflix. Although the last one did not prevent us from binge-watching the one TV channel we had! Especially during the weekends after the exams.
Can you tell us something about your days after IIT? So you had spent a couple of years at Cornell. How is that experience different from the experience you had here in IIT Madras?
So, as an undergraduate at IIT Madras, you are thrown in with a bunch of students who have essentially the same curriculum and who go through their undergraduate programme with similar goals and aspirations. In contrast, in grad school, each one of us has our own individual academic agenda and we formulate our curriculum based on that. Whereas in the undergraduate phase, you are there to master the knowledge that exists and that is laid out to you in a fairly well-defined fashion. Whereas in graduate school, you are identifying areas where you can contribute, generate new knowledge to the field and develop new insights. So in summary, undergraduate education in IIT is more or less like hunting in a pack whereas subsequent graduate study at Cornell was like a lone warrior with your own individual plan to execute over the years.
We all work very hard to get into IIT because of the very quality of the institution and the experience you get here. How have the experiences in IIT helped you ahead in your life?
So, the rigorous training that one receives in IIT as well as the strong friendship that you forge with friends, with the people that you spend all your time with over four years, were some of the essential tools that I found very valuable in my R&D career later on. After all, a strong passion for knowledge and effective teamwork and collaboration skills are what constitute the cornerstones of success in any professional enterprise. So, I feel that IIT education really did lay very strong foundations for my career.
You spoke about the R&D work that you have done. So, you have had the opportunity to publish your research with and work with some very world-renowned faculty from various institutes, so how do you say that experience in academia and research in general is?
So in academic research, each research project has its own specific timeline or time-scale over which the ideas and the work product becomes useful in real life. As you go through a rigorous academic programme with strong emphasis on research, and later you are in the industry trying to apply these ideas, it helps to form a good intuition about when the right time arises for a specific research idea. So working on various projects with different time horizons, I have been able to develop a sense for it and bring in the right theoretical ideas to practice at exactly the right time, when the industry is ready for it. So in that manner, background in research has helped me in the applied career in my life.
In India nowadays there’s a startup bubble. There are a lot of startups that are being established. Even our institute has a research park where it incubates startups and lot of students nowadays instead of going for further studies or joining a well-established company wants to join a startup. So, do you think students should join a startup without any prior experience?
It’s very good to have such an opportunity. And some students after they have come out of their undergraduate programme may be ready to plunge into entrepreneurship without further academic training or experience in the industry in a more traditional role. But, you need to know if you are that kind of a person. You need to make an honest self-evaluation to see if you would benefit from further training or some additional industrial experience or if you are ready to take the plunge right away. So for instance, as you all know, Bill Gates didn’t have to complete his college. He had a very strong vision and a very well laid out plan that he was able to do everything that a college graduate could do and a lot more, without having completed college. Trying to follow in his footsteps there would have been millions of other people who do not complete college but they never do anything close to what Bill Gates achieved. Although the formula may work very well for some people, for a lot of other people a conventional path may be a better option. Especially in the first few years. To gain some real insight into what their strengths and weaknesses are and then exploit that knowledge in their entrepreneurial career. So, each person needs to make his or her own decision based not on emotions but on real well-founded convictions and facts to see whether to take advantage of the option right away or to wait a little bit.
What do you think an institute like IIT Madras can learn from universities abroad? Both in terms of teaching methods and the research and the general academic environment? Do you see a qualitative difference between IITM and institutes abroad?
As far as teaching goes, I do not see a substantial difference. I think IITs do a very good job of preparing undergrads and master’s students very well on the academic front. But with research, you need a critical mass – an ecosystem of a certain size consisting of the most talented people in the field. You need to attract such people and sustain their interest in working in a system such as the IITs. You need to have a good mix of long-term and short-term focused research projects. And also an industrial companionship that is able to realize some of the research ideas in a commercial front. So, you need to ensure that overall ecosystem, that fosters research and also makes the impact of research very well understood. So that’s where I guess IITs can use the American or Western model to achieve better efficiency from their research activities.
You were previously here as a student and then you might have come to visit the campus some other time. But today you are here as a Distinguished Alumnus, how does it feel to come back to the institute as a distinguished alumnus?
I’ve always been over-awed by the distinguished alumni that I had heard about through our teachers. Although they graduated from IIT so many years ago, our teachers spoke of them as if they were here just the previous year. And they were speaking of these amazing people in such glowing terms and I wondered if I would ever get even somewhat close to people of such stature. And to actually be recognized in that same manner which I never thought would happen is a dream or a fantasy come true. It’s an extraordinary feeling to come back here as a DAA.
So what advice would you give to our undergrads now to maybe one day reach the great heights you have and come back here as DAA?
One thing, of course, is to have and sustain a very deep and passionate attitude towards acquiring knowledge. It’s also important to have a diversity of interests on various academic fronts, maybe technical, cultural or even philosophical. I found that being familiar with different disparate fields actually lends itself to very unexpected and effective solutions to long-standing problems that are worth solving. So, diversity of interest has been very instrumental in some of the successes I have had, both as a researcher and as a practitioner. Another aspect I would like to bring up is summarized in a Sanskrit verse:
अजरामरवत्प्राज्ञो विद्यामर्थं च साधयेत्
We should acquire knowledge and pursue our achievements as if we were going to live forever to enjoy its fruits. But at the same time,
गृहीत इव केशेषु मृत्युना धर्ममाचरेत्
Should perform charities and humanitarian activities as if this is the last day of your life; with a sense of urgency that it just cannot wait for tomorrow.
So, I say as you seek your path towards material success, make sure that what you do also benefits the society and you can feel proud of what you have done while you enjoy its material rewards. So that is the advice I can pass on to my junior colleagues here.
Author: Sriram Ragunathan(BT-CH ’21)