Interview: Kapil Ganesh Aiyer – Production Engineering (2011-2015)

Please state your current profile and explain your profile. If possible, help us understand any previous profiles you’ve worked for.

I’m a Management Trainee at Reliance Industries Limited. It’s a flagship program called the Reliance Emerging Leaders Program, where they hire the best from Tier-1 B-schools to put in a rotational leadership role. This is a career accelerator type of program, which is amazing in your early steps. I’ve done my B.Tech degree in Production Engineering (Class of 2015) from NIT Trichy, after which I worked for two years – one year at TVS, and another year for a smaller firm called Apex. In my third and fourth year of college, I already knew that I was going to get into ISB, as I had my YLP admit. (THE ISB-YLP or Young Leaders Programme is a foundation programme that ultimately leads to the FT ranked, Post Graduate Programme in Management at the Indian School of Business. It is a deferred admission option for high potential college students pursuing their Bachelor’s or Master’s education) Back in our time, we used to apply for this in the third year and you’d know your result in the fourth year. So, my two years were hinged on the fact that I was already going to get into ISB. I just experimented and did two different profiles at the same time, knowing that I had a safety net..

What skills should one develop to follow the path you’ve chosen? Do include courses, internships etc.

The basic difference between a student fresh out of undergraduate studies and a student coming out of a B-school is the ability to think in a structured manner. No B-school inherently makes you worth five times or six times as much as you were valued at before. You don’t need to learn a secret chant nor do you need to have a special talent to do whatever it is you’d be doing. The two things you need to focus on however, are:

  1. You need to be able to talk to people.

Whether they’re people below, above or at your cadre, you should be very good at handling them. Be it talking to them, becoming friends with them, leveraging your network. That’s basically the one skill you have to learn to get anywhere in life.

     2. The knowledge that getting a degree doesn’t change anything.

It’s not a skill, it’s not a talent, but one needs to know this. Going up on stage and taking a picture with the Director doesn’t change much on your resume – it just adds a bullet point on it. All you need to understand is that learning doesn’t stop – this automatically makes you humble and will in turn, bring you right back to the first point: you will be better at talking to people when you’re not a prick.

What are the soft skills to be acquired to adapt to work culture? Has college equipped you with any of them?

No. College doesn’t do this for you. And for good reason. First off, you should be able to talk. You should be able to give presentations. At the end of the day, no one wants to know where you got the numbers from, just the numbers are enough. It’s basically understanding how to present your work in a nice way so it’s clearly put across to other people. You may have the best work in the world, but if you present it lousily, they aren’t gonna be very appreciative of it. Knowing how, when and why to present your work is pretty important, but it’s not the only thing that matters.

I think the most important thing that we all need to know is that it’s okay to ask for help. You may be from a Tier-1 college, you might be in the best B-school, you may even be the best person on earth (if you are this person, mail me – I’d like some pointers); but everyone needs help at some point or the other. Knowing how to ask for help is a skill in itself. Say for example, someone from an IIT who has joined an IIM (insert important letters wherever you see fit); hands down that somebody is going to be very assertive of themselves (Admit it, you’d be the same), but even such a person will ask for help. Therefore, knowing how and when to ask for help is a very important arrow in your quiver. Remember that asking for help does not make you small, that’s something you need to learn.

Thirdly, just treat people with respect. Not necessarily your bosses or your peers, even the chaiwala who hands you the tea, it may be a very cliche’d thing to say, but you may be surprised by how very few people do that.

If you pick up these three skills, you’d be fun to work with. While I can’t say that you’ll have a smooth sailing life – you’ll be able to work upto what you’re able to be.

What should students know before taking up management studies?

Your management studies degree is not a ticket to six/seven-figure salary land. People who make a post grad decision fixated purely on the adjectives such as “plateaued in career” or “stagnated at my current position” – Stop lying to yourself.

A management studies degree changes the structure of your internal thought. While undergrad teaches you the tools to speed up thought, an MBA puts it all in the right boxes so there’s no hold-up. Management teaches you to how to make your short-term ideas sustainable, while also planning long-term growth.

Speaking from what I’ve seen, there were many people who are drawing similar salaries to what they got before they joined ISB. You don’t grow a tail or a set of wings when you graduate. There’s a line added to your resume. You are the only one that can change what else that does.

How to decide between an Indian MBA and one from abroad? Do we need to have a fixed perspective on this during B.Tech?

Let’s look at the list of options you (as an NIT Trichy graduate would) have. In India, you have your Tier 1 colleges – your SP Jains, FMS, XLRIs, IIMs, ISBs, etc. Abroad, you have similar colleges but in 3 tiers – Tier 3, Tier 2 and Tier 1. Being from NIT Trichy, anybody will get into a Tier 3 college for sure. If your GMAT score is not too poor, you’ll make it in. (Around 630+ will get you through easily). Tier 1 colleges are extremely ambitious in general, to be honest. Unless you’re a straight 10 pointer and an exceptionally gifted student, the chances are slim. Only about a dozen or so Indians make it into Stanford, Harvard, or Sloan immediately after their undergrad. Thinking that you’ll make it into an Ivy League school immediately after college is a little far-fetched. But, you can always work towards it. If you’re willing to put in two-three years of work experience, that can help your case. Put Tier 1 colleges aside unless you really think you have the credentials for the same. Tier 2 colleges offer you deferred admissions, similar to the YLP programme at ISB.

Now, if you ask me where the colleges for MBA in India stand, I would say, all the Tier 1 colleges in India are almost equivalent to the Tier 2 colleges globally. If not for anything else, but their peer network. Rule of thumb though? The type of people you’ll be interacting with are definitely going to be better abroad. There’s way too much diversity. You must understand that this diversity is going to teach you something. That’s what will differentiate your PG degree from your UG degree.

If you want a foreign college name on your resume, you should ideally look for Tier 2 colleges. If you decide, after a few years of experience, that you want to jump into a foreign college, there are various paths. People who work for a year or two will definitely be eligible for all tiers of these colleges. Focus on moolah, though. Only if you can afford to go for a foreign postgrad, go for it. And if you can’t, stay in India. Keep in mind that it is not a good idea to sell off your house just so you can get a foreign education.

How useful is having work experience before applying for higher education? Is one year time for work experience enough?

If you’re going without work experience to any college, you’re essentially a sponge. You’ll only be soaking knowledge, you’ll not be sharing it. The biggest learning in a management college comes from your peers. You can’t just be learning from them, you also have to be able to teach them at some point. You won’t really learn unless you’re reciprocating.

Work experience is quite an important factor. Every single college, here and abroad, has something called Class Participation (CP) which factors as a huge part of your grade (about 25-30% of your total score). Now, while some people participate by volume, others participate with quality. Usually, a lot of the en-masse participation is done by people who do not have enough experience. It might seem belittling to say this, but when you don’t have experience in your life, you can’t relate to a particular case or situation; you can only speculate. And nine times out of ten, speculations are wrong. The difference usually boils down to experience.

A person who has about 3-4 years of experience will know that participating only when required and asking sensible questions is enough. They’re not doing it for the grades, they’re doing it for the learning. Devil’s advocate: It’s not that those without experience/with less experience simply ask questions for the sake of it. There’s a reason behind them participating by the kilo. When you sit down for your job interview, the interviewers look at three factors – the interview itself, your work experience and your grades. Assuming that everyone does the interview reasonably well, only two things are left. Now, a person without any work experience would obviously tend to compensate by trying to keep their grades up, and class participation constitutes a major part of it. Therefore, under the very real and present danger of an interviewer’s axe, such students constantly interact with the class. In B-schools, we commonly call this DCP (Desperate Class Participation).

In your opinion, how permanent is any choice of career? Do you think one should stick to a particular field or keep changing and experimenting as they grow in the industry?

I shifted three jobs before I took the one I presently am in. They were all in the same field, but different operations. One was in sales and marketing, the other in supply chain, one was in operations. When you’re just starting off, it’s okay to have different career choices; it’s okay to experiment. You’re trying to just find your groove. While gradual shifts and growths can be understandable, sudden jumps draw attention. Say you’re working supply chain for two years, you can’t suddenly jump ship and start working as someone in the finance team.

There is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none, is still better than master of one.”

While you’re at work, they expect you to have a “master of one” skill-set. You don’t need to be good at 10 different things – unless you’re the CEO (which is a long way down the road).

Long-sightedness can sometimes come in the way of ensuring you don’t trip on the stone that’s right under your nose.

In the beginning, it’s okay to experiment; it’s okay to switch tracks. Later on, you’d need a very fat wallet to have this same luxury. You’d have to do multiple MBAs, and it isn’t generally advisable.

How can one be sure that a career path is right for them? What is a good way to make the decision?

The weirdest part about this is – you never will really know for sure. You could be 10 years old in a career and still find some uneasiness, and on the other end, you might have just launched yourself into your career and think it’s perfect for you.

Goals lose specificity when the time they’ve to be achieved in grows longer. And it’s okay. Uncertainty is your friend.

When I started work, I thought I’d love working wherever I was. And I did. But after a certain amount of time, monotony sets in. It can set in after six months, a week, or even six years. And once it does, you can’t really do anything. You will wanna switch your operation, your role, or something in your career.

It’s a very clichéd thing to say, “If you do what you love, you’ll love what you do.” And I scoff at all the people who believe the story they’re trying to sell. That’s simply not true. You can’t expect every single day of work to be amazing. Most days at work are going to be really boring.

But you’ll have few days in between where you feel challenged. Those few days, you completely power through the entire day. You seem to complete every task, you enjoy the work put forth, and you’re doing everything with a reinvigorated energy. Those are the days you’d look forward to; those are the days you’d live for. I’d say, the only time you know that you’re not in the right career or not on the right path is when you’ve gone almost a month without having such a day. In my opinion, If you’re having at least one or two days that you power through in the week, you’re doing good.

In your opinion, what is the extent one should go to find a balance between work satisfaction and monetary satisfaction?

Work until money doesn’t matter. Money is very important in the beginning – the starting of your career, where you need that financial independence. In the first two years of your career, it’s okay to take a job because the pay is more. No one is going to judge you; given they were in the same situation, they’d do the same.

Once you have your rainy day fund, Gokarna trek fund or whatever you’re calling it – take the plunge. Go for jobs and a career that satisfies you.

What are some things about your job you wish you knew in college, in retrospect?

Let me tell you about my first job. No one ever tells you that work’s going to be monotonous, that work’s going to be menial things repeated over and over again.

A lot of us think we’re a one-of-a-kind engineer – having done very well in college, gotten placed in the first few days itself – truth is, none of that matters when you’re in the real world.

Because when you’re out there, you’re going to get the same work as everybody else. It’s going to be very monotonous, very data-heavy, excel-heavy work. College never prepares you for that. They make us all think we’re special snowflakes; we’re not. That’s the one thing I’d wish I’d known before going to work.

Is there any advice you’d give to engineering students? Is there anything students can take away from college genuinely on a qualitative basis?

Again, networking. A bunch of friends who stick with you in college or the bunch of friends who’ll stick with you while you’re at work, are also the bunch of friends who’ll stick with you afterwards in life. The quality of your college education wouldn’t matter, as long as your team and your network can plug in the gaps you’d have individually.

So, if it’s about managing people that you have and creating networks, would you suggest students involving themselves  more in club activities which give them good networking and managerial skills? Probably like Festember, Pragyan, etc.?

Yes. But a word of caution. Don’t do this to add a point to your resume. Don’t take something organic and make it artificial just to get a speaking point. If you’re with a bunch of friends (and you’re in undergrad. If you don’t have friends – maybe take a bath and see if things change) who do stuff together, you’ll do good stuff whether you’re doing it for Pragyan, Festember, or anything else. You shouldn’t be a part of a club just because you want to tell the interviewer that you were a part of a club – just to add it as a point on your resume.

Is there something more that the T & P Cell should be doing for students?

T&P in an undergraduate school should be less about getting the student placed and more about getting the student placement ready. These are two different things all said and done, because at the end of the day, you should be able to get a job on your merit, not just as an extension from college.

Ideally, some of these activities could include:

  1. Alumni organised interview preparations for dream companies
  2. Mapping students who indicate dream companies to alumni who are in said companies to start networking and developing soft skills
  3. CPCs to be on a scalable basis: Two students have different takeaways from the same CPC. It’s unfair to keep testing the entire group on the same scale and metric and expect different results

If one plans to pursue management, is it worth learning to code?  If yes, then considering the current scenario, which languages or tools should one begin to work with?

I’ll be really honest here – I have no idea. I do have a lot of friends who code and have made it into product management roles. I also have friends who come from non-coding backgrounds and have made it to the same positions, albeit with some extra effort. It couldn’t possibly hurt to learn to code.

Is there anything you would like to address other than the questions asked?

I was really unfit in college (I’m not kidding – I’d often take up 1/8th of the picture in a group shot). This is something I did work on. While you don’t have to be the fittest person in the group, you shouldn’t intentionally be unhealthy (because that’s just plain stupid). It interferes with your ability to work efficiently.

Second. Don’t miss out on or skip extra-curricular activities. They matter a LOT. After college, you’re rarely going to get opportunities with extra-curriculars at this scale.

For example, while at ISB, I was part of a band. We opened for Vishal-Shekhar, performed at Hard Rock Cafe, at the Indus Entrepreneurs Summit and more. All of that happened only because I was willing to take a risk. I didn’t mind singing, dancing, jumping and doing stupid stuff on stage – right while I was also sitting for placements.

Right now, when you look at it, you have only three chances to do that. You can do that during Festember when there’s Music Night, or only during NITTFEST, and the Farewell event where MT and DT perform (Bounce and Crescendo). A lot of companies pick up people who perform. It didn’t happen in our year, but the year before mine at ISB, it did.

Interviewers rarely ever look for a role/profile fit. Almost every single student would be capable of taking up the role on offer. They care more about a culture fit with the company. Most people would rather pick up someone who’s good to work with than someone who’s just good at work.

You can’t be one-dimensional today. You have to work on developing charisma, your personality, and things you’d normally leave for last. Anything that gives you that originality, be it your passion, or pursuing an artform, work on it. It’s not enough to be better, it’s important to be different.

You shouldn’t just be better, because if you’re better today, someone can be better than you tomorrow. But if you’re different, nobody can beat you at your game.

  • Morgan Freeman (not really, but it helps if you think he said it)

Cheers and Best of luck!

Kaps.

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