Dr. Chandramouli Visweswariah graduated with a B.Tech. degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1985 before going on to complete an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering in Carnegie Mellon University in 1986. Following this, he completed his Ph.D. from the same University in 1989. Currently working as the Director of the Smarter Energy Research Institute (SERI), and as an IBM Fellow in Smarter Energy and Environmental Science, he is one of only 95 active IBM Fellows (out of 400,000 employees) and one of only 267 employees in the history of the company to be awarded the Fellowship. Selected for the IBM Executive Service Corps in 2010, he volunteered to provide consulting to the City of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) on the needs of urban sustainability. He has received several awards, and was recognized as ‘Innovator of the Year’ by EDN magazine in 2006.
We were fortunate enough to interview him when he came to the institute to receive his award.
Describe your time at the institute. Any fond memories that you would like to share?
The Institute taught me everything I know. I grew up in Bengaluru and my parents were very protective. So, when I came to IIT I was 17 years old, a very scrawny person and for the first time I was my own person. I had the freedom to decide what to do with my time, how to use my money, what I’m interested in doing, how I should do it, etc. So this really changed me from a boy to a man, a very profound transition which happens to thousands of students on this campus every year which is what makes this a very very special place. It is not special because of the monkeys and deer present here but the special thing is to take young girls and boys and transform them into adults. You come out as a totally different person from what you were before. When I graduated, I was the last of the five year batches to pass out and we had one full year of a huge range of workshops, and in 2009 when I and my wife built a house it came in very handy.
[The institute] ….changed me from a boy to a man, a very profound transition…. which is what makes this a very very special place….. the special thing is to take young girls and boys and transform them into adults. You come out as a totally different person from what you were before.
First aspect of my memories was that it gave me some lifelong friends, people you would live with day and night, went through every joy and sorrow with them in the hostel wings, I can never forget that. Here, you are immersed unlike other colleges where you have the option to stay in the hostel or not.
The campus gave me an opportunity to involve myself in many, many activities. In my days we had a campus publication called “Campastimes” and for good reasons we felt it wasn’t up to the mark. So a friend of mine named D. Shivakumar (Shiva) and I started a campus magazine called “Spectator,” me and him being the founding editors. Rajesh Gupta did the production, Rafiq drew cartoons, and Bucket (Balakrishnan) helped with sports coverage. We worked very, very hard; writing, drawing, producing. We used to type it on a typewriter and we used to go to the Ad Block, cyclostyle and distribute copies to all the hostels. It was very intense but I learned a lot in the process.
I was also involved in organising Mardi Gras. I was involved in Just A Minute, What’s The Good Word, Debate, etc. What I enjoyed the most is people from a lot of other colleges used to come and it was a chance to interact with them. The energy on the campus with all these people in the Institute was just off the charts. So the second aspect of my memory of those 5 years is that it had so many activities to fill the day.
The third part would have to be the brilliant and extraordinary professors and mentors I had during my time. Prof. Indiresan was the director, he had soaring visions and ideas about what technology could do for the world. Prof. Mahabala and Prof. Bhatt were my co-advisors, one from computer science and one from electrical engineering. Prof. Anthony Reddy who taught me Electronic circuits was a very strict professor. He would make us build tricky circuits in the lab and measure them and he wouldn’t let us go until they were perfect. He would sit in the front of the class and his hobby was to paint fish for hours upon hours until you got your project right. If there was anything wrong with the circuit you built he would literally throw it out of the window and would ask you start over again. If you asked Prof. Reddy a question he would quote Shakespeare and would say somewhere in the sentences lies your answer. Prof. V. G. K. Murthy was another extraordinary teacher. It was amazing, the level of intellectual atmosphere that was present. In short, it was a remarkable journey.
How does it feel to be a DAA?
It is a huge honour that has been conferred upon me and I’m really gratified. I couldn’t believe when I heard about it and I wanted to make sure that I was able to come and be a part of Institute Day celebrations. When I first got into IIT my aunt visited us from our village and she asked me where IIT was. I said Chennai and she said, “What’s wrong with you, why didn’t you get a seat in Bengaluru?” I answered in return saying, “No aunty, this is supposed to be a special place, which is really tough to get into.” To which she replied “What kind of degree do they give?” and when I said B.Tech. she in return said, “Oh! Textiles, I have heard of that.” She asked me about the name of the college and when I said IIT she mistook it with ITI training. For my family it was very strange for someone to go somewhere else to study. Honestly, when I first came to Chennai my parents were very scared about letting me go and I came here not knowing what to expect and all these years later to be given this award is mind-blowing.
Tell us about your collaboration with the City of Rio.
I work for IBM and IBM has a program called Service Corps in which they choose a set of IBMers and they ask you to do some volunteer work. They have two parts of this program: Corporate Service Corps and Executive Service Corps. I was in the Executive Service Corps and what they do is to find a problem in some part of the world and they talk to a non-profit organisation or mayor of the city offering our services free of cost so that they could benefit from our expertise. So after the city agrees to our offer, IBM forms a team of Executives from all over the world and 4 months prior to the assignment we talk on the phone 3 times a week discussing the problem that we are trying to solve ahead of time. Then we show up at the location and we spend 30 days and try to make a difference by solving their problems or give them ideas on how to go about things.
In my particular case, the issue was to prepare Rio for the 2016 Olympics and there were sub-topics under these, with mine being making Rio a more sustainable city. The job was to make a report for the mayor of Rio on how to prepare for the Olympics but to do so in such a manner that the residents of the city would get benefits far over and above the Olympics. Everything from ethanol buses to recycling to making the city greener to reducing pollution to renewable energy were considered. We made a whole framework and study for how the city of Rio should approach the Olympics with the dimension of sustainability built into all of that. My colleagues had other aspects, we clubbed all our reports and submitted it to the mayor.
First of all, it was a great bonding experience with my fellow executives. Second, I learnt a lot about Brazilian culture and its history and its problems. Third, I had full access to all the facilities and top level clearance to get anything I needed. Fourth, it proved to me that I could be successful not just as a specialist in my area of training, but also as a generalist. Plus, I had never worked for that many hours in a day in my life, we were dropping from exhaustion by the end. It was the kind of experience I would recommend to anyone.
I’m happy to say that the city of Rio accepted most of our recommendations we made.
To those who want to pursue research I would say “Trust but verify.” ….. Just because some big shot Professor says something doesn’t mean it’s true and it doesn’t mean it’s the best way.
Having 94 patents and over 100 research papers under your name, what do you think it takes to be successful in research?
Good luck and having a good team around you helps a lot. If you are lucky and open up a new field or come up with a new way to solve a problem, suddenly you have many avenues and sub-problems to solve. In that manner things like research papers and patents pile up.
To those who want to pursue research I would say “Trust but verify.” “Trust but verify” is very important in research. Just because some big shot Professor says something doesn’t mean it’s true and it doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Doesn’t mean anything unless you internalise and actually check if it is the best way. You have to feel it in your bones that this is the right thing, and if you don’t feel that way be very persistent in pushing your idea. But also be prepared at some point to say now that I have studied the subject completely and now that I have scrutinised all options, I surrender.
A lot of curiosity, a good team around you and not taking anything for granted are good approaches for research. Apart from these you also need to have a good instinct. I can generate a thousand ideas and they might still mean nothing. It’s similar to playing soccer. If you try to score from mid-field, it doesn’t make any sense. You have to know which shots to take and when to take them. It takes a lot of hard work, but I feel it’s the most rewarding thing you can ever do. To invent something that nobody has ever done, that’s a very thrilling thing.
Trust but verify. Could you give us some instances where this has helped you?
I was in my 3rd year of my B.Tech. We had a circuit class where we were taught about capacitance and resonance. In one of the examinations, there was this question where we were asked to find the capacitance such that power is maximum. I didn’t know the resonance formula, so I differentiated and substituted and did the algebraic operations and found the capacitance. I got a zero while everybody else got 4 points. To verify, I calculated the power using both the values, and the value I had calculated gave higher power. Apparently, having resonance and maximum power are not the same thing, but everyone was assuming this. In the later days, at IBM, I was involved in designing microprocessors. In microprocessors chips, we have these custom circuits which are designed by hand. In 1998 I realised that the designing can be done by computer. People having an experience of about 10-20 years told me that it can’t be done. But I started the project. After 3 years, we were doing all the circuits automatically, no more hand design. We were achieving higher speeds. It was hard at first, due to various constraints. So never take no for an answer.
While designing a digital chip, making sure that the chip is operated at a certain frequency is called timing. The smaller the transistor, the better. But you cannot control the dimensions on the chip. Because it becomes such fine lines, there are inevitable manufacturing variations which come into the picture. All these variations were threatening to stop the progress of the chips. I proposed statistical timing, that is, the use of statistics to time the circuit, which was a completely new way of designing circuits. It took me 8-9 years to build it all up, to implement the statistics. Now we use statistics to time all the chips designed or manufactured at IBM.
What I want to say is when somebody says it will never work, doesn’t mean it will never work. You have to trust, but verify.
However, be careful what you commit to, it may be harder than you think. If you commit to something and don’t deliver, you lose your credibility. So be persistent, have a good team, don’t take anything for granted, and have very high ambitions.
….be careful what you commit to, it may be harder than you think. If you commit to something and don’t deliver, you lose your credibility. So be persistent, have a good team, don’t take anything for granted, and have very high ambitions.
Sir, can you share with us your journey after IITM?
I graduated from IIT in 1985. I went to Carnegie Mellon University. I had a wonderful Professor there. Prof. Ron Rohrer was my life teacher. He taught me more than just research. In 1986, I finished my Masters. I went to Bell Labs in New Jersey for a summer internship. I finished my PhD in 1989, after which I joined IBM Research. At first, I was a part of many projects, moving from one to the other. But then I started research in design automation of custom circuits and that created a real impact. Following that, I started my research in variations in chip manufacturing. Around that time I realised I won’t be able do this as an individual. So I was assigned a team of researchers. After my research in variations I was asked if I could leave the Research division and join the server division, which makes the actual system, to bring the idea into production. I took a risk and left Research. I always wanted to make a real difference. In this division, I had a team of about 80 people and we truly delivered the entire methodology. We showed everybody that this could be done and it was yielding much better results. I worked there for 5 years.
After working with various chips and chip designs for 20 years, I realised I needed a new chapter in my career. I was just appointed an IBM fellow, which is the highest technical recognition for an IBM employee. And I got very interested in energy systems. So I went back to Research. I have a team now and we focus on energy and environmental science, which I consider two faces of the same coin.
Could you please brief us about your research in energy systems?
Energy is the heart of everything we do. Whether it’s economic development or quality of life or education, we need energy. In the last 200 years our progress has been based on energy. But the problem is we are very dependent on burning fossil fuels for energy. This creates a lot of pollution. We are effectively treating the sky as an open sewer. As a result the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is increasing. According to the United Nations, 350 ppm of CO2 is the safe limit. Today, we have over 400 ppm of CO2. As a result, the temperature is also going up; due to which not only does the ice melt but water covering 2/3 of the earth expands. In this way, the oceans rise and extreme environmental events occur. So basically, global warming is caused by humans and we are getting into a regime where even climate scientists cannot predict what is going to happen. This is going to affect future generations. So we really have a crisis on our hands. We have to replace the energy we are using now with clean and safe energy. This is a grand challenge that humanity is facing right now. And this is achievable, something we are already working towards. Solar panels, for example, are getting cheaper. We have more solar farms and wind farms now. As we rely on intermittent, weather-dependent sources of energy, we need to plan and orchestrate our grids differently. We are building a suite of energy analytics tools that will comprise the “Operating System” of future grids. We work on weather prediction, renewable energy forecasting, demand forecasting, grid modeling, grid orchestration, as well as water quality, air quality, anything to do with the environment and energy.
How did you find IITM after all these years?
I have noticed more buildings, more hostels and more stadiums. It seems a bit more crowded. Also, the new generation of students is so much more savvy and smarter. They have so much more knowledge about how the world works. It’s wrong of people to say that this generation doesn’t know anything. Perhaps they can’t do arithmetic in their head or use log tables like my generation, but students are actually smarter and better than ever before. And it’s good, because we have huge problems to solve. Otherwise, I see the monkeys and the spotted deer and the greenery is still intact and all the good things about this campus haven’t changed.
…to be successful, you need three skills….if you truly have this trifecta of skills, you can achieve anything
Any message that you would like to share with the students of IIT?
First of all, consider yourself lucky as you are at a very special place with a very special history.
Don’t study all the time. There are so many other things that are out there to do. Make use of all the facilities.
Thirdly, I would say find something that kindles your passion, something that you find extremely interesting and satisfying because if you can make something like that your profession, you will spend any number of hours doing it and getting better at it.
Finally, people from IIT have a very strong technical background but is that enough to be successful.
To be successful you need 3 sets of skills:
The first is your technical set of skills, your skills in your chosen profession which is undoubtedly strong in IIT students.
The second set of skills is to have a business sense, to have an idea about how the world works, how to sell your idea.
The third is people skills. One person can only achieve so much but if you want to change the world, you need to be able to collaborate with people and to do that you should be able to sell your ideas to others so that they would be able to collaborate and build something. We should make sure any latent IIT “elitism” doesn’t stop us from being excellent team players.
So if you truly have this trifecta of skills mentioned you can achieve anything.