Interview: Ashwin CV (Chem – 2014)

Please state your current major and explain the area of research you are currently involved in. Do state your past work/research experience.

After graduating from NIT Trichy with an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering, I finished my Master’s in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Currently, I work at Bridgewater Associates, a macroeconomic investment management firm as a Software Engineer, where I design the platforms and algorithms that Bridgewater uses to trade in the financial markets. My research experience is limited to two summers of research at IIT Madras relating to the computational aspects of Chemical Engineering.

When do you think is the right time to make a switch to a different career option? When did you decide to make a switch from chemical engineering to computer science engineering?

You start thinking about making a switch the instant you know what you are doing isn’t what you want. Multiple things have to fall in place for you to actually make the switch but that should not stop you from constantly moving in that direction. I knew well before I started at NIT Trichy that Chemical Engineering was not what I wanted to do. I chose to go anyway because I thought I would learn more about life in that setting which was true. Once I was in, I thought I could make the switch only after graduating, so I took small steps in that direction, for example, utilising my summer for research in the intersection of Computational Science and Chemical Engineering.

It goes without saying that there are a lot more things I could’ve done and I made many mistakes. It wasn’t a perfectly choreographed sequence of events and I got lucky multiple times. However, the one thing I would want people to take away is that it is never too late to move to a different career.

Is minor in CSE or Computer Applications useful if one aims to have a career in that field? How important is it if one wants to pursue a Masters in computer science?

A minor in a CS-related field definitely helps from a resume standpoint, but there are enough resources on the internet and books that would give you a similar level of education/knowledge.

Initially, I joined Georgia Tech for a Master’s in Computational Science and Engineering concentrating on Modeling and Simulation –  because my credentials and research lined up well for that degree. Once I was there though, I enrolled in a lot of Computer Science courses and petitioned to change majors, I was allowed to and ended up graduating with a degree in Computer Science.

For someone looking to make the switch by doing a Master’s in Computer Science, I would ask them to do research/work in CS related areas during the summer. One small thing I would add is that Letter of Recommendations are valuable – so try to reach out to people, join mailing lists, get involved in projects that span contributors from multiple countries – even if it’s an open source software project or a computational science project.

Is the syllabus in colleges in India (specifically NIT Trichy) up-to-date to meet the current requirements of the industry? What can students do to bridge the gap?

I don’t think I’m the right person to answer this question since I did neither Computer Science in NIT Trichy nor do I know the changes that have occurred since I graduated.

There is the usual list of options – Read, MOOCs, Research etc. If you want to get a taste of what the software engineering industry is like – get involved in the open source community. It doesn’t have to be a big project or even famous, you don’t even have to start by contributing code – join mailing lists, look at the issues, make edits to FAQs and Help pages. It needs patience and the payoff is not immediate but it goes a long way in shaping your perspective. It is real-world training and there are multiple second and third order benefits.

I say this as I have noticed that the needs of the industry and academic curriculum are divergent, even in the US – both of them are extremely important and you can choose to get exposed to both at any point in your career.

Hackathons are another great resource since it doesn’t matter what you are studying to be able to attend them.

Why are research internships important? How do students hone their skills through these internships?

Each person has a different experience with research projects but the consensus is that they are wholly beneficial to your growth. I will talk about how they affected me and hopefully, it will resonate with some of your readers.

For me, they were important in multiple ways. They helped me realize if research was something I was good at and whether it was what I wanted to do. They showed me the things I was terrible at and the things I was reasonably competent at. They taught me about patience and perseverance and that most good things come with work and time.

What other skills, do you think students need to learn before/while pursuing masters?

I’ll skip the popular answers of soft skills, presentation, people management etc and talk about some other things that I had to learn.

Critical Thinking – This is something that I can’t stress enough on. The ability to critically think about an idea or problem is immensely helpful and sets you apart. Get exposed to diverse schools of thought, read as much as possible, talk to people who are very different from you,  try to understand their perspectives, try to argue against your most strongly held beliefs, debate against friends, but most importantly train yourself to accept the best ideas – even if your opinion was wrong, be willing to see it’s flawed when someone points them out to you and change your views.

Courage – Moving to a different city/country, being able to approach complete strangers and asking them for help, being able to help strangers and overall just being comfortable enough with yourself and not being shy to get things done.

Work – Collaborating with your peers, and putting in the effort to produce independent work by yourself. Moving to a more organized, continuous work schedule versus starting preparation one week before the examinations. Taking care of yourself while constantly racing towards deadlines means being more methodical and systematic in how you plan your day – including small things like cooking, cleaning etc.

Fun – Not getting caught up in the race and ensuring you take time to have some fun given you are in a new country and one grows more when exposed to new environments, cultures and ideas, but most importantly your mental well-being and happiness is of paramount importance.

What do you think are the inadequacies in research in India, and specifically in NIT Trichy?

Since my exposure to research at NIT Trichy is limited, I’m not qualified to give an opinion. My general feeling is that not enough funding reaches the ground level of research and hence there isn’t an incentive and means to pursue fundamental research.

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

The popular opinion is that if you wake up in the morning and are excited to begin the day, then you’ve chosen the right career. That is a great rule of thumb, though personally, I find it more beneficial to constantly ask myself if my current choice of career is the one that best enables me to achieve my goals.

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?

It obviously becomes harder to switch careers the longer you have been in one. Professional degrees are a great way to change fields if one does want to after several years in a particular area. So it is definitely possible to do it at any stage, but it is hard and takes time.

People are different and depending on whether you want stability or not, you can choose to stick to one thing or keep experimenting. The thing to be said there is I believe you can be successful taking either route.

What is the extent one should go to find a balance between work satisfaction and monetary satisfaction? What are your life goals? Are you going to get there easier/faster by taking up a job that doesn’t pay well but is a great experience? Or will you be taking up a boring job that pays a lot and gets you there quicker?

Maybe the job that is moderately interesting and pays reasonably will get you there easier? I’d suggest making a judgement on which is better for your long-term goals and stick with that decision even if it’s not easy. Of course, like all other answers, this is the thing that has worked for me till now and you should think about whether this resonates with your values and principles.

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

The thing I would tell my college self is that switching career paths takes time and effort, and needs patience – not to be disheartened if things don’t work out immediately. On a more technical note, I would’ve liked to be exposed to the open source community and initiatives like the Google Summer of Code earlier.

Is there something more than the T&P cell can do for the students?

I’d like to acknowledge that the mandate that they have been handed is hard especially given the job market and volume of students. I would love to see efforts from the T&P cell to shape the interviewing and assessment processes that companies use. T&P has intimate knowledge of the NITT landscape, the students, the curriculum and the skill set that they have inculcated with the help of the extracurricular activities. If they worked with companies on the hiring process, both to help students find their right fit and the companies to find the right candidates, I believe that everyone would benefit in that case.

In your opinion, how should one utilise their time in the final year after getting placed?

I’d encourage students to meet as many new people as they can; be exposed to the diverse perspectives and backgrounds available in NITT. I cannot stress enough on the importance of spending more time with friends, having new experiences and creating new memories – these are the things that remain with you the longest after college.

The same would go for books – read books you would never have before, books whose arguments and premises you disagree with, and books from regions/worlds you’ve never heard about.

Have fun – this is a considerable period of time that you have to yourself before you enter the workforce, so make the best use of it. Your career won’t be affected by this.

Explore – If you’ve ever wanted to try something but have not had the time, now is the time to do it. Discovering something that is enjoyable and serves a purpose is priceless.

With the little time you have left after classes, self-studying and all the above, there is obviously no harm in reaching out to people from the industry/university you are going to and getting a headstart on some things that will set you up for success when you start.

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

This is basically the same answer as above. NITT is a uniquely diverse place, and for some of you, it even may be far from home.

I routinely describe those four years as a boot camp in life.

Some of the experiences, conversations and people in NITT have shaped a lot of the person I am today. Make full use of the opportunities the place has to offer – you’re around some of the brightest, smartest people – not only academically, but also on the basis of their outlooks and perspectives which will prove to be valuable in forming your own views. Push yourself to do things you would have not done before, don’t be afraid of making mistakes and have fun.

Specifically for engineering students, I would remind them that just because they chose to come here for a specific type of engineering doesn’t mean you have to do it for life. There are countless non-engineering disciplines you might be good at and use the time you have here to try and discover those. I understand one might not have the luxury to make it your vocation after graduation, but having a skill/ability/talent that you are both good at and love doing is invaluable.


Connect with him on LinkedIn at here.


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