Mentors are Life Changing

Chronicles of Planet Analog Talented Authors: Sanjaya Maniktala shared this life-changing and life-saving story with me and I thought our Planet Analog Audience would greatly benefit from his experience. I invite you, our readers, to please also share any mentor stories you may have with our audience as well.

It was a day to remember—the day I met “Doc” in Bombay (now Mumbai) decades ago. I think it changed my life, perhaps saved it too. And I know I was not the only one impacted so dramatically by Doc. There were many, many more.

But my story is a certainly a bit unusual.

The actual chain of events leading up to my first encounter with Doc started almost a year prior. About a thousand miles away, in the town of Chandigarh, capital of Punjab, I had picked up a popular English magazine from a roadside stall to glance at. I was quite interested in its cover story featuring India’s rising technology baron, Mr.Sam Pitroda, who is today often credited as having single-handedly brought both the computer and telecom revolutions to India. The magazine was the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India. Suddenly, the “budding writer” deep within me got the better of me. Once again.

Almost without thinking, I wrote a rather anguished, if not somewhat angry, letter addressed to Mr. Pitroda himself, via the “Weekly” (see picture below). In it I mentioned some of my innovations thus far, such as the first internal-fault sensing AC mains voltage stabilizer” of India which I had nicknamed “Mastercontrol”. It had been featured in the well-known North Indian newspaper, The Tribune. Also my power line communication security monitoring devices. And a programmable rhythm and drum synthesizer using standard TTL/CMOS logic chips only, which had also been featured in The Indian Express, Chandigarh edition. And finally, an intelligent multi-number office “auto-dialer” using India’s first chip from Semiconductor Complex (SCL) in Mohali.

I complained that I was not getting my dues! I think I was trying to make the point that they, the government, need to encourage struggling entrepreneurs like me if they really want India to progress. But was anyone listening?

To my surprise, the letter was published. Of course you expect it to end right there. But a couple of months later, to my complete astonishment, I received a letter from a member of the technical staff at C-DOT in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) asking to see my circuit designs (see picture below). I had managed to attract the attention of some really fine and upright people at C-DOT, a very dynamic organization which had been set up by Pitroda himself. Yet nothing happened for six months after that. I almost forgot about it. Then suddenly a letter arrived from one of the co-founders of C-DOT, Dr. MV Pitke Bangalore (see picture below).

I took the train and met him in Bangalore. In the course of the conversation, it turned out that he was a close friend of a certain “Dr. GT Murthy”. Both had been colleagues and professors at TIFR Bombay (now Mumbai). Dr. Pitke informed me that Dr. Murthy was heading an upcoming electronics R&D center in Bombay, and was looking for talented people. One thing led to another and a few days later I was sitting across Doc in his Bombay office, showing him my circuits. An hour later I walked out of Doc’s office to a neatly typed-out job offer waiting for me just outside.

It was my very first job in electronics. To understand the significance of that, you have to understand that India is usually hung up about paperwork and “official requirements” etc. Something we “think” we inherited from the British during their colonization. But more likely something we are giving them undue credit for. As a result, companies invariably demand not only an EE degree, which I didn’t have, but also several years of experience right off the bat—for even the most junior-level job in electronics.

It is a Catch-22 situation even for EE graduates. And I didn’t even have a “respectable” Ph.D in the arguably unrelated field of physics. So don’t be surprised to learn that most Masters in physics end up driving “tuk tuks” (auto rickshaws) in cities. Which is what I might have been doing today, if at all, had Doc had not conducted a spontaneous interview that strange day. I remember him asking me a few op-amp and logic circuit questions, only half of which I got to be honest. But he finally declared that indeed, I did have some “heuristic knowledge of electronics”. I think he was being a bit kind. Though I’d like to think he saw the spark in me.

He finally revealed that he himself was from a physics background, and was therefore sure “we physicists” could teach the electronics (EE) graduates a thing or two—eventually. I guess he was right after all.

In barely a month I started work excitedly at the well-equipped center under Doc. There were about a hundred hand-picked and extremely smart engineers collected under one roof at the time. We had very smart teams dedicated to computer hardware, software, industrial automation, telecom, consumer electronics etc. They were not only designing award-winning sophisticated motor test systems, but PLCs (programmable logic controllers), axle counters for railways, three button menu-driven TVs, speakerphones, cordless keyboards etc.

My own contributions after five years there included e integral-cycle fan regulators, Class D amplifiers, 65W to 600W switch-mode power supplies, electronic ballasts and so on. It was an awe-inspiring and educational journey. Almost certainly the best-funded privately owned electronics R&D center in the country, then and now. Too bad it floundered eventually, since the company failed to exploit the innovations and “productionize” them. Not a new story by the way, if you hear of what happened at Xerox for example.

But far more important that the creativity that was being fostered there by Doc, was the grooming of the “engineering psyche” which many of us totally abide by today. One of Doc’s famous statements was: “A technical institution is not a king’s court, where the king says it is dark outside, and everyone obediently nods.” He went on to declare that in any technical discussion there is no such thing as a “boss” either. We were encouraged to speak up, but keeping in mind that we are eventually only as good as our facts, data and analyses. Rank does not count, he declared. And so, if you ever came close to proving Doc wrong, he would be very pleased actually. We realized he meant all of it, heart and soul.

Doc was clearly out to destroy all “sacred cows”, especially in the Indian mindset. He wanted to prove Indians could do it better than the western world, if only we had the confidence, and went on to acquire the necessary skills diligently. He would lose all respect for you if you ever tried to “reverse-engineer” from a competitor’s schematics on your table. Or for that matter, if you tried to expense out wines you gleefully savored on business trips! You would never, ever return to a position of trust and respect in his mind after that, as a few people I know discovered to their dismay. No three strikes rule here.

Doc had been a professor in physics at MIT (in USA), and was obviously brilliant. But we learned he was also a close acquaintance of Sam Pitroda, who was at the time, the technology adviser to the Prime Minister of India himself. Yet, Doc was not into dropping names and flaunting his status. We only got to know about his high connections from hushed whispers emanating from his admin seated outside his office. In fact till today I do not know who initiated the sequence of events that changed, no saved, my life, and what part each of the “suspects” or protagonists may have played in the background. No one ever told me, least of all bragged to me how much they did for me.

I remember the admin was always a little piqued about Doc’s open-door policy, since she wanted to be the one regulating traffic into Doc’s office. But Doc was gregarious, chatty and approachable at all times, especially when it came to his most junior engineers. I believe he saw himself during his struggling days, in each one of them, and therefore ended up sometimes harshly scorning their managers, especially if he felt those managers were throwing their weight around unnecessarily (corporate bullies). By such acts of fairness, Doc won the respect and gratitude of almost everyone around him, especially the weakest. He ruled by love and respect, not fear.

It was often said, that if you really and utterly piss Doc off, as I did more than a couple of times too, the worst he would do to you would be to walk past you in the corridor without glancing at you. That was your punishment. And trust me, it could hurt more than getting fired. You felt so guilty if he ever did that to you. Because he was a good and fair man, and you knew it in your heart.

As a VP of one of India’s biggest companies, Crompton Greaves, Doc was entitled to a lot of perks. I remember when they were giving out the latest air-conditioned sedan, the “Contessa,” to all their VPs, Doc had refused, and insisted on retaining his modest Maruti van. He had a chauffeur of course, because no sane man can drive through Bombay traffic for too long. But that’s how Doc came to work every day—lounging in the back seat of the van, avidly scouring dozens of books on the way. Such as those by Demming, his all-time hero I think.

No surprise that Doc ended up being deeply admired by every person who ever met him—largely because of his impeccable integrity. He never wore his honesty on his sleeve of course, but the signs were there for all to see. Like his simple eating habits—even on business trips. In stark contrast to a lot of American executives who start living it up with lobsters and fine wines, almost at hedonistic levels, the moment they think they can expense it all out.

I just had to stop for a minute here, after all these years, to pay tribute to the man who is really behind every single thing I ever did since (the good stuff only!). As chance would have it, I met him barely a few weeks ago in the Bay Area. On August 30 to be precise. That is the picture you see above. It is at a simple South Indian restaurant in Sunnyvale that he picked. It is certainly not Le Papillon. Wild horses couldn’t drag Doc to places like that.

2 comments on “Mentors are Life Changing

  1. etnapowers
    September 23, 2015

    Steve, thank you for this nice story about the importance of the good mentors in the life of a professional. Great story.

  2. andrewthiago
    September 24, 2015

    thanks for the story steve.

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