Saturday, October 08, 2011

What is wrong with IIT students?

In a country where something or the other is constantly happening to keep the breaking news ticker of the news channels running, there is a new storm in the tea cup. The co-founder of Infosys, Narayana Murthy, made a statement that the quality of students entering the IITs has deteriorated over the years, courtesy coaching classes. And then, some how channels caught hold of Chetan Bhagat, the 'youth icon' who bid good-bye to an engineering career, took up a investment banking job and  left that one too, to write famous books and be called a literary sensation, countered(?) saying that those who run body shops shouldn't comment on quality of engineers. Bhagat further states that the system should be fixed, no use blaming the students.

So, who is right or wrong? Well, Mr. Murthy's comments need to be looked in their context. And nobody is ready to do that. Yes, coaching classes have spawned all over the country where students are imparted training on how to approach the JEE. Most of the students end  up practising hundreds of problems, of which some similar ones are bound to appear in the exam, thereby increasing the chances of them answering these questions correctly. Nothing wrong in this, as long as the students have some passion to pursue a technical career. Many a times, aspirants are told by their parents- beta/beti, 2 saal man laga kar padho, ek bar IIT mein admission mil gayi, to zindagi ban jayegi. Admissions to the IIT are made to appear like the Holy Grail, on which only the blessed ones may be able to lay their hands on. Now, when bombarded with such advice, students generally slog hard to get to the holy grail. But, no one prepares them for the life in IITs. The coaching classes hardly advise the students on life at IIT, their jobs end once the students clear JEE.

Of course, IITs too haven't been very active in keeping up the students' enthusiasm. Professors and Ph.D. students at IIT should be involved in motivating the students to take interest in a technical career. No one seems to tell them that though you might end up using a certain percentage of the technical knowledge gained, it is necessary to understand the whole picture. This would also help when you rise in your career and would be involved more in managerial decisions rather than technical details. Any problem given to them is to be analysed using the mathematical skills learnt over the past years. But, provide them with challenges. Make them realise that all problems do not have pre-set answers. Let them use their engineering knowledge to build solutions to realistic problems. This will definitely improve their understanding about the problem and how to approach its solutions.

And at some stage, we need to stop glorifying people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many more such persons. We always keep on saying Jobs and Gates were college drop-outs, yet they achieved so much in life. They might have not seen the face of IIT, but have the potential of employing so many IITians. Well, both Jobs and Gates spent hundreds and thousands of hours working on and sharpening their skills of design and coding. Moreover, a very few have the talent of becoming a Jobs or a Gates. In the tech. industry too, how many have risen to the stature of Gates or Jobs? The rest have to live with the fact that there are limits in their talent. It is, therefore up to the existing students to increase focus on giving an exposure to the students on the benefits of a technical career. At IITB, I have seen students calling many alumni to talk about their lives. Most of these people are non-tech people. Those who are entrepreneurs or in the finance sector or have taken a management degree are invited to talk. But the likes of Kota Harinarayana, who led the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project, do not get invited. Same with people from the Chandrayan project or any of the DRDO projects.

Faculty should use their network with the industry and other research laboratories and organise sessions on the benefits of a technical career. There have been many technical successes in India. These need to be marketed to the students, similar to the way Jobs used to market his products. Faculty should see this as a part of their work, so that students realise what they are gaining from the technical knowledge they gain at IIT.

And finally, the industry in India should be able to absorb this technical talent. When Mr. Murthy talks about quality deficit in IITians, people are definitely going to ask, what has Infosys done for this country? Apart from providing jobs to millions of people (directly and indirectly), there is nothing noteworthy to be said of them. Providing localisation of content, or IT services for solving problems faced in India or innovative IT products, where are the companies that would be doing this? Going beyond IT, how are the engineering companies doing? How much are they spending on R&D? And where is this R&D being directed towards? To solve big ticket problems that worry the West or to innovate for the benefit of the Indian society? If we are able to find answers to these questions, then we would definitely be able to bring out more from IIT students and Mr. Murthy wouldn't have to make his comment any more. That would also keep Chetan Bhagat in check.
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