Friday, February 01, 2013

Poverty Alleviation Through Goal Setting
Fire or food in the belly?

Base of the pyramid”, Prahalad said, “Fours” Chetan Bhagat characterized, we understand 90% of Indians form the bottom rung of our economy. Why has this continued for 60 years after independence? Many attempts have been made to reduce poverty but success has been elusive.

Our solution to the problem is removal of poverty in an organic way – use the large number to advantage. Instead of a minority of population trying to help a larger fraction of population, we would try to address the majority. We try to seed them with very high aspiration. Biggest problem in the poorer neighborhoods is a lack of role models. Solution we are depending on is to take some poor boys and girls to achieve the most desired career in today's India and provide a local model to their community. This would set a goal that others in the neighborhood to achieve.

One interesting sense of charity that the Tatas have is instead of helping the needy, they would help the capable in the hope of that person bringing in massive change. Our approach is similar but addresses the lack of dreams in poor neighborhoods. If we changed that, many people would benefit. Incidentally, the same disease affects the well off as well.
The Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime captures another essential point, that of providing a long term solution in relation to instantaneous gratification. An aspect of the idea is captured in our program.

Also charity implies superior inferior relation: we prefer long term equality based on not asking for money when the student has none, but insisting on getting paid when they are earning.

Present : NStar Engineers

Karnataka Microelectronic Training and Research Centre Pvt Ltd (KTRC) has since 2008 been recruiting rural poor SSLC pass out students through three “guru”s in Belgaum, Bagalkot, Bijapur, Dharwad and Haveri districts. Definition of poverty is defined by inability to continue PUC education due to lack of tuition fees. The goal was to teach these students to be equivalent of any engineer graduate in the country after three years of training. The learning has to be deep and the graduates enabled to continue learn new topics on their own and as a team.

The Future: Shri Siddarameshwar Microelectronic Composite School

Starting from July 2013 KTRC will join hands with a rural school in Mallapur, a suburb of Nesargi, a TIER-?? town itself, 35 km from Belgaum to start State's (May be the world's) first high school that during the period of 9th standard to 12th standard (PUC) simultaneously teach integrated circuit design and embedded software. These are usually topics at the B Tech/M Tech level. The graduates will be 18 years of age.
They will also learn how to learn in a team.

What we hope will happen is
  • Push the limit of what is possible to learn at any given age
  • Raise the “dream” level in poorer locales in villages
  • Have India be able to compete as a semiconductor IP source irrespective of new nations entering the market.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Forever Young

Future Vision

Most companies operate by massively increasing the number of people when there is work and firing the engineers when the work reduces. Loyalty from the engineers to the company is equally matched, not surprisingly. In such environment, investing in the engineers does not make any sense.

An alternate solution is to build a group for the long haul. Investment in the engineer pays dividends over time. Having vision in such a case is impossible; 'the visionary' can set directions, but we can not depend on him/her to plan for the unknown future, especially with the rate of change in our industry. We can however build an institution that incorporates visionaries in each generation that can modify the goals consistent with the surroundings.while meeting the guidelines. They should on accasion be able to modify the guidelines as well. We need to train visionaries and let them exercise their capabilities without being hampered. We should also hope that they are better than you. This would keep the company/concept for ever, young.

Peer Review

During a lifetime, all of us would go through ups and downs. Commitment to an engineer has to be from the people that have to live with its consequence. AT the culmination of KarMic Training period, engineers go through a 'peer review' while transitioning to their design centre. During the process, the engineers have to assess each other and come to the conclusion is each engineer on the average will carry their own weight and the group will support each engineers during good times and bad. Words from a marriage vows are showing up.

The actual process is that engineers from an earlier class organizes this over a couple of evenings for a batch that has completed close to a year. One of the engineers is sent out and remaining engineers evaluate the person on a set of qualities. This is carried on till all the engineers are evaluated.

When I organized it, the number of qualities was about five. Present list, built by engineers over the intervening years is longer;

KarMic Peer Review Points
1 Knowledge and Technical Know-how
2 Creativity
3 Productivity
4 Team Spirit and Co-operation
5 Knowledge Sharing
6 Organizing Capability(execution)
7 Primemovership
8 Professionalism(ownership, presentation and followup) towards work
9 Punctuality
10 Convincing Ability
11 Communication Skills
12 Body Language
13 Integrity ( Calmness and Composition)
14 Positive approach to life (positive attitude)
15 Humility and Ethics
16 Giving Criticism
17 Taking Criticism
18 Eagerness to get involved in company affairs
19 Balancing Family and Work
20 Listening Ability

When an engineer votes his/her points, the senior will ask for justification if it is too far out either way. Comments are also collected.

After all the data is collected, everyone is confronted with their classmate's views of them. I get to hear about it a day or two later.

After living at close quarters, engineers would have had a good time to get comfortable with each other and they now accept that there may be some bad times along with hopefully a lot of good ones.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Tradition Building

Macaulay's Minute

Education in India has not departed much from Macaulay's views of 1835. The document related to his view on how the British Government of those days needs to spend Rs 1 lakh on education in India is rather long and is mixed.

Excerpts of his minutes that were accepted in toto by Bentick are shown below. The decision set in motion teaching 'natives' in English rather than Arabic (Delhi) and Sanscrit (Benaras). Full text: Also

"Thomas B. Macaulay's "Minute on Indian Education


Thomas B. Macaulay asserts his viewpoints about a British colony, India, in an early nineteenth century speech. Macaulay insists that he has "never found one among them [Orientalists, an opposing political group] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". He continues stating, "It is, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England".....

....... We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.."

Much like all of colonialism, this too was from our repugnant past. Churchill let only 20 million Indians die of starvation in Bengal, Macaulay's sting was and is larger and much longer lasting.

Time to Rethink

It is high time to jettison this baggage and think like we ought to. We need to find a solution that matches our needs. Any solution we come up has to respect our culture and take into account present reality.

Kashinath Prabhu was an engineer from the first batch and had joined KarMic against his grandfather's wish. The old man, respected the rebellion and wanted to understand more about the company, more the dreams associated with it. He was not in a position to travel. So all of us including Dr S J Bhat decided that we will all head out to Honnavar to meet Kashi's grandfather.
Memory is sketchy but we had landed in Honnavar on a Friday. We had good discussion with him and he wanted to donate the company five gunthas of his land for a building - he was not a highly educated man but a learned one and had achieved a lot for the region socially. It was an honour to have made such a good impact.

At the 9;00 am Saturday, a working day for KarMic Training Centre, we used their living room to hold a class. At 10:30 AM just like in Manipal, the family provided tea for everyone and the class was completed by lunch time. Two major sights on the Udupi - Hubli road are the Maravanthe beach and the grand Sharavati near Honnavar. We all had a grand time after the class including a boat ride on the Sharavati and a trip to beach. This was the first of many cases of moving the classes to where we all were.

We held weekly seminars as an outlet for engineers to organize their thoughts and present it to their colleagues. Our friend, Dr Niranjana UC was head of Biomedical Department in MIT, the local engineering college. He officiated and lived in an old Lingayat Muth built by Keladi Channamma, right in front of Udupi bus station. At our request, he allowed us to use the Muth premises to hold the seminar. After lunch all of us pile into a bus, reach the place and hold the seminar. The blend of a four hundred year Muth and VLSI was a good contrast to say the least.

On one occasion, we found out after reaching the Muth, that it was being used for another function. After a bit of thinking, we got into another bus and got to Kaup Beach and held the seminar. We had discussions of masks, layers and pseudo layers on the beach, the sand providing a place to draw the figures. I can still remember the curious chameleon watching us, who took its time to decamp after much shooing.

On other occasions, we have had classes in Sringeri Muth on semiconductor memory with a midnight revision class back in Manipal. This time, the lights went out but the class continued with engineers envisioning the diagrams in the air in the darkness.

Celebrating Small Victories

Manipal is a college town mostly populated by students who have travelled far. The richness of their parents is apparent. In fact, the town is very westernized. In KarMic though atmosphere was anything but.

Most Indian universities had gotten into the habit of holding convocation for just the rank holders because of the large numbers graduating.

In KarMic, after completion of the training, we held functions to celebrate our partial victory over silicon. We would routinely invite all the parents of graduating engineers and to make these functions memorable to the engineers, we would come up with something different.

In the first occasion, unhappy with only a limited number of people lighting the lamp, we decided to have large number of earthen lamps to be lit by parents, engineers and guests. This function itself has not graduated to include a video capture of the event. On another occasion, we cleaned up a lakeside slope, set up a pendal. There are laterite rocks in the area, we flattened the tops, applied a bit of cement to make a seat. Besides the lamp lighting, the function included aarti to the engineers, a Deepavali tradition where the aarti is done to the breadwinners in the family. Aarti plate and lamps were earthen. After the function, Vaibhav commented that the shoulders felt heavier. We had Merrill Wortheimer, his wife and I think Mark from US who participated with gusto. I had talked to Barjees, a muslim, if this was alright before the function, she was happy to participate.

Elephant in the Tent

Kameshwar Rao, a friend of mine and I were discussing how to make the events more memorable. We hit upon the idea of bringing in the temple elephant during the ceremony so that engineers would be tickled. We discussed with others and the general feeling was it was a stupid idea. Kameshwar is stubborn and said stupid or not, we were going to do it. With the help of Udupi Muth, we got the female elephant up the mountain, the mahout said that she enjoyed the trip. As planned she came while the ceremony was going on. However, instead of engineers going out to be surprised, Kashi brought the elephant into the tent to bless the engineers and it was a great fun for everybody.

'Lagaan' came out a couple of years later. It had aarti for the cricket team and elephant that the king rode on. At least in our circle, we contended it was our idea first.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Where the Mind is without Fear (Rabindranath Tagore)

Human Size Abodes

World renowned Applied Mathematics department in Brown University was housed in an old house with a spiral staircase. It had a single bathroom for men and women. World authorities on Control system would write manuscripts on an old thick circular table, that seemed like it had served as a dining table in a previous avatar.

A souvenir from any college in India, on the other hand is a glossy affair. Cover of the magazine is usually a building with all students and faculty standing in front totally overwhelmed by the building's size. If one feels helpless to modify situations around him/her in India, it is because of such straight jackets, be it an imposing building, an inflexible system or the weight of any elder's advice. Advice becomes an edict from an authority and not a direction.

Manipal has several colleges and banking institutes. Staff of these institutions built homes for their use during retirement. Since students from Malaysia used to come to Manipal for part of their studies, a tradition of renting these houses to them had become established. Usually, but not always, these were two bed room houses, with an European style bathroom attached to main bedroom and another Indian style used by guests and children in the other bedroom. In addition, there were government built MIG houses, as opposed to LIG and HIG houses. The Medium Income Group houses were two small bedroom and a single bathroom houses.

KarMic Training centres consisted of finding a two bedroom two bathroom place and walking in with the whole gang to determine which room would be a good classroom, where we should have the library, remaining a bedroom and a kitchen usually serving as laboratories. Using Vivek Pawar's suggestion, we purposely had only three computers for four engineers, so the engineers were forced to talk to each other. In addition, we emphasized that you did not always have to be in front of the computer feeding it information.

In the classroom eight chairs would be organized in a horseshoe manner in a single row and classes would be held with only a blackboard. The other eight engineers would be in the two labs in groups of four. The engineers who would be students had a major say in the decisions. They could modify the arrangement anytime they felt necessary.

Initially, two engineers were placed in one of the MIG houses. First three months, the company took care of paying the rent, electricity and other bills. Later the responsibility was transferred to the engineers though the amount continued to be paid by the company. Last quarter, the engineers got trained in driving, applying for telephones and gas cylinders, big issues those years. During the initial phases, when the engineer understood the loan from the eventual design group, in a manner similar to what a bank usually does, an insurance was taken on him/her. In case the engineer died, the loan would be recovered from the insurance coverage. However, we enhanced this concept and paid half the premium for insurance that would pay the engineer in case of a mishap and also paid half the premium for payment to the engineer's parents. Slowly we ensured the engineer was now responsible for more than himself/herself. In initial years, the 11 weeks of class followed by two weeks of time off were followed strictly. Classes were held Wednesday till Sunday to allow outsiders to come and teach during the weekend. So no holidays were allowed during the eleven weeks - None. Classes were to start daily at 9:00 AM and at 2:00 p.m. First few days, engineers came late, we started making a histogram on how many joined at 8:57, 58, 59, 9:00, 9:01 etc and the classed started on time after that.

Food and living expenses were covered in the fess. We also covered all laundry to ensure engineers learnt to spend the day in clean laundered clothes. Monthly, Rs 250 was paid so that engineers could call home. Connection with home was important.

Engineers were paid Rs. 1500 per month for working for the company for one hour per day. Usually it is typical to pay a stipend. That decouples the idea of work and money. Each evening, we would all troop to the western edge of Manipal from where the Arabian Sea is visible and discuss this work. The work could be recruitment, accounts, computer set up or local administration or library maintenance.

Quite a few of our engineers came from poor families. There were engineers that sent money orders home from this monthly income. I think the number of engineers that were poor, or had lost family members etc makes up a good 70% of the population. We requested our engineers to use local small shops for phone calls even though the training centre had STD, we wanted to make sure the shops thrived.

We had our own electrician, plumber, gardeners and people to clean the houses. All houses would be swept daily and mopped every other day. Home owners were happy to entrust their houses. Sathish, who owned a STD booth joined us to organize all the help, he still works with us. He still operates the STD booth.


One of our engineers moved his household items. With rains being torrential in Manipal, it took the moving company a few days extra to deliver the items. Though our engineer was extremely upset and would not tip the people who delivered, feeling sorry I was trying to pay a small amount to the people who delivered. I got caught and one engineer asked 'if I was being naive'. I mumbled something that day.

A year later the answer was much clearer. We were trying to be naive. Our society has become so polluted that we have become extremely cynical. We expect everyone is trying to cheat, we also take this mode of operation to be natural. In US, the case is different. Strangers will greet you and normal assumption between two people is that each is honest. In our closed environment, we have become such people. It removes layers of distrust and allows us to live a fuller life. Friendships are deeper. When men and women work together late in the night, men will accompany women and see them safe to their homes. Library door is open and I do not expect our engineers to cheat. The trust has been returned. When new women engineers join the company, parents come to check how the environment. Once the morning is over, they are ready to return home, satisfied with the environment.

We had a case when some of our engineers were working in Bangalore. We had only one house, so one room occupied by women and others by men. One parent was concerned, came to Bangalore to make sure everything was OK, stayed in the house and on the way out said the daughter is safer there than in any other arrangement.

Our engineers go out and sometime lose things having gotten to this level of freedom. Question is why is it not like this in other organizations and places. Even big organizations are worried about theft of cellphones, laptops leave alone purses.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dum Poyee

Original plan called for overlapping one year courses for eight candidates with a July batch for bachelors and January batch for eight Master's candidates. Ground reality turned out that there were very few suitable master's candidates available. Our engineers came up names of their friends and we filled up the second batch with six of their classmates. This time, it was a candidate from MIT, two from Bagalkot, one from Nitte, and two from BVB, Hubli. Training for the second batch started in Jan . One more confusion existed, candidates would come from Mangalore University and Karnataka University and they would graduate at different times.

By July, first batch would complete training, second batch would be in the middle of training. Taking stock of the master's candidate situation, we decided the system needed to be changed. We choose all 16 candidates to start in July, with class for eight in the morning and eight and the afternoon and somehow squeeze a third class for the second batch. We had to juggle the labs. We ended up with 9 hours of teaching five days a week, a punishing teaching schedule. This would last for six months and then onwards it would a leisurely six hours a day, .
five days a week

Now, we started more detailed plans for hiring for the third and fourth batches. This time there was more time on hand and we had KarMic engineers to conduct the interviews. We made preparations for interviewing from the three colleges. We had friends in Nitte, BVB Hubli and now in Bagalkot. Sharmila from first batch was in charge of hiring. This made it easy to convince women to join KarMic as well. We had application forms and presentation foils. We organized trips to the colleges for pre-placement talks. We collected the application forms with all marks cards and analysed them and shortlisted candidates for interview.

Interview Process

When my father's party came to select my mother - an old man accompanied them. Those days there were no hotels in Sirsi so the party stayed in my mother's house. Early the next morning, the old man was trying hard to open an almond. Automatically, my mother offered to help open the almond, running around to get a kitchen pestle. Almonds were extremely rare those days, I remember a few placed for a Pooja and when the Pooja was over, each of the kids would get one. Almonds were much tastier then compared to now, you can now buy a pound of almond seeds for $5, no need to open them and no need to go after the last bit of almond meat in the broken shell. I am told the help in almond opening ensured the marriage.

KarMic interview process consisted of selecting the students and bringing them to Manipal for a full weekend. They would reach early morning and stay with our engineers. They would stay for Saturday and Sunday and undergo three to four interviews of three hours each, play volleyball with our engineers, have an entertainment session on Saturday evening and provide feedback. Two to three of our engineers would interview three or four of the candidates. We would have looked at all there marks cards and gotten the professor's references. After each session, we would do a triage and concentrate more on intermediate candidates. Each triage was independent of others, this gave a chance to student to show their best side.

Usually we would have one of our engineers to go to the place students were from and accompanied the interview candidates in a bus or car arranged by us for the interview. After the conclusion of the interviews, the bus would take them back to their home and drop each of them to their homes, individually. Interviewees were treated with care. Results would be announced in due time. Hiring for long term is different from hiring in bulk.

Dum Poyee

A very large number of engineers graduate in India every year. Even then we knew that it would be an uphill battle to get the type of engineers that we wanted. We recognized it early. We built a thank you program. We did not have a lot of money on hand either.

In Udupi area, besides Kannada, two other languages are spoken. Both are dialects and do not have their own script. Konkani is spoken almost the length of western coast, from Mangalore to Goa. Tulu is more localized.

Konkan region was difficult to travel earlier, with wide mouths of rivers breaking roads. Only recourse was to either go inland where rivers were narrower and easier to cross or cross the wide river mouth with a boat. Synchronization of buses became inevitable, so the region enjoys very good private transportation. Travel situation is now much improved. The conductors of the buses in order to fill them to capacity urge the passengers to enter the bus and tell earlier to passengers "Dum Poyee" : move forward.

Tongue in cheek, we used "Dum Poyee" to work with the colleges that we were working with. If the big colleges did not want to work with us, we will make the colleges that work with us big. We invited professors from the colleges to spend a few months and learn along with the students. We got junior students to spend time in KarMic doing projects and on occasion included their projects along with ours on silicon. One mistake we did was not charging any money for it. Professors did not pay any thing. Students paid only their room and board. Unfortunately since there was no fee, some participants spent their time looking for hidden strings. Some students were sent to look for hidden charges in the room and board. Why do we do it to ourselves!

After all these years, the idea has taken root only in Bagalkot with Prof.Kambalimath. He routinely has students in earlier years do a more thorough project compared to any other institution in the state, may be the country in my estimation. In other colleges, the trained professors stopped imparting their knowledge and moved on to other things. The state of VLSI training is still dismal, now you can get a master's degree for the same amount of ignorance, compared to bachelor's earlier. Expensive tools have been installed, however very little training occurs.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Proof of the Pudding

All the lofty ideas had to be translated to ground realities. After much discussion, we planned to follow silicon valley model and interact with a university, they would do higher risk research and we would follow product path. Previous interaction with IITs indicated that they were flush with money and really did not have much reason to interact. A news item had placed KREC Surathkal eighth all India and reputation of students from the region as being extremely capable. I had read up on STEP, Udyog Mitra and other programs in limited internet information that was available. After reaching Bangalore I took a night bus to Surathkal. This was the first trip to Mangalore vicinity, the Indira bus was to Surathkal. After reaching Mangalore, when I talked about KREC, the bus people obliged by making the additional couple of kilometers to drop me right in front of the guest house. All good omens so far.

So armed with a resume and introduction from Dr Ghate, I came to visit KREC. I was in for a shock, in the first meeting itself I was told that I was too late for any KREC students and STEP was usually reserved for students from the institute. Stanford style interaction was far from any one's mind and my resume had limited impact, I found this over and over. Having come all the way, I went through the motion of looking at STEP just in case I would be granted access. After finding out rents for the sheds and rent of computers etc., I slept for a couple of hours and then asked about housing for engineers working for us and where their spouses would stay. There was no answer for such a stupid question. So I posed another question to the officials, is there any reason I should set up a chip design centre next to KREC. No answer this time either. I decided the plan to set up the design centre in India was a mistake.

Some of the faculty made reference to Dr Narasimh Bhat in Manipal, 60 km away having started a software centre called Zeta Infotech to conduct research for Synopsys. Having made the first trip to Mangalore vicinity, I thought it proper to visit him. So after calling him and changing plans a couple of times, especially since the guest house needed the room for alumni to attend a sports meet, I took an express bus that reached Manipal. Though I thought the plan was for me to stow my luggage in Dr Bhat's office and walk around Manipal till afternoon, he had arranged for a car to meet principal of local engineering college and Mr. Kudva had keys to a house that the landlord had provided to possible employees of the Zeta. He said the house would fit our purpose well. D115 in Ananthnagar turned out to be great house to start KarMic.

Dr Bhat's reception is more typical of a Chamber of Commerce in US, where a community wants a clean industry to come to town. Again, Dr Bhat represented the town's interest unlike in KREC, there was no one who really felt empowered to talk about Surathkal. Dr Bhat who had studied in US and written a patent looked at my resume and thought it meant something. So I changed my mind and decided to set up the centre in Manipal. This was December of 1998.

Staying in the house, I started planning selection of the candidates for training. Dr Bhat mentioned that the next door neighbor, Dr S J Bhat, was the former head of Electronics and Communication department of MIT, the local engineering college. He had just retired. It became a duty to convince him to help me, which he did and more, he became a confidant and a Guru to bounce philosophical and practical issues.

There was a VLSI conference in Goa in January and Dr Bhat and some of his Zeta engineers headed to attend the conference. I tagged along, sharing their Idlis and Dosas. There is a morning Konkan railway passenger to Madgaon from Mangalore passing through Udupi. Fare was Rs 42. I had to explain that to my colleagues in Texas in terms of dollars. Anyways, Goa costs started being more in dollars than in rupees. There was a reasonable crowd there and many volunteers doing M Sc in electronics. So we sat under some trees and discussed what we were going to do and I was extremely happy that I had already talked to 20 possible candidates. None of them eventually applied.

I went to local colleges, NMAMIT, MIT etc., describing what we planned. On one of these trips I met Mrs Shalini Sharma, I was getting a free ride in their bus from Nitte. I talked to her on the return trip and described what we planned. I had said we were looking for Electrical engineers (I did not know all the branches then) and since we also wanted good representation from women. It got translated to our wanting women from EE branch, in any case, she pursued and got four candidates for interview. Three MIT students while visiting KREC had seen the presentation and on their own applied. Finally, Prof Desai saw something in my discussion to push a couple of students from BVB, Hubli. We set up an interview date and seven of the nine students joined. Suman Pai, one of the Nitte women decided to try out for IAS and eventually joined a year later. One of the MIT students did not join. Against a target of eight, we had seven students in the first batch. Phew!! Only recently, I came to know one of the candidates had come to reject the offer and changed the mind at the last minute.

To them, we described the entrepreneurial plan. We talked about the one year training, four periods of 11 weeks each and 2 weeks off in between. We talked about one hour per day company related work for which they would receive Rs 1500 per month. Initially, Sridhar's provided food, but eventually we had to organize a cook. For a bit of time, our engineers were making toasts and tea. Houses were in MIG houses, close to D115. Every evening we would go to see sunset. Every day 9 to 12 we would have classes one topic per day. Afternoon would be labs. Dr S J Bhat, our neighbour taught RF and philosophy on the side. We bought discarded steel shelves for the numerous books in the library. Sharmila, our only lady engineer became in chanrge of hiring for the next batch. Others got to look after library, look at expenses, set up computer system with Linux, new at that time. More responsibility was given to the engineers than ever in their life, no one failed. D115 housed all the activities, a bedroom as a classroom, b.another bedroom and kitchen as labs and upstairs one bedroom for me and another laboratory.

We figured out Linux, MAGIC and SPICE, designed a couple of circuits and when sent to MOSIS did not if the chips would work. Any one of 100s of things could go wrong. They did not, excitement of something wiggling out of the chip was wonderful. It turned out no one in India was doing anything with silicon that time, and few in Manipal knew what was happening- situation now is not much different.

At the end of the training period, a peer review was conducted. One engineer would be sent out and the remaining engineers would evaluate him/her on several qualities. After competing this for all engineers, the criticisms were discussed openly. Each candidate would come to accept the criticism and how to improve. This practice still continues and is the basis of transferring an engineer from Training Centre to the Design Centre. We will cover the design centre in the next issue.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Lassoing the moon

Technorati Profile

.. continuing from Bricks for a Fool's Paradise

"It's a wonderful life" is a favourite Christmas movie. It is mine too, it brings optimism, a staple of entrepreneurs. "He asks her if she wants the moon, and he offers to "throw a lasso around it and pull it down."" When ethereal ideas convert to day to day realities, do they survive their own weight?

What to teach?

It is essential to bridge the gap between available engineers and what is needed in the future. This forms the goal of the training. Since we know the engineers need to be on par with any engineer in the world, we need to define the characteristics carefully, at least at their current age. What is apparent is that an engineer from just about any other country is usually more responsible both in terms of handling themselves and professionalism towards work. In terms of teamwork though, if channelled right, an Indian engineer is inherently more team oriented than elsewhere. In most companies, an effort is made to collect engineers and then form a team. As teamwork is important and the plan is to train, it makes send to pick engineers that are good team workers to begin with, encourage this behaviour and train in technical area. Also since emphasis is on channeling a behavour, it makes sense to get people who are open to forming such behaviour.

> Hire only fresh engineers.

> Teamwork and other work culture classes form essential part of training. Occupy 20% of syllabus.

> Heavy on practical project

> Teach how to learn on their own - wean away from a teacher. How to discuss a new topic and come to conclusions.

> Learn in depth rather than breadth.

Suddenly training turns out to be very different from normal college training. Emphasis is on learning and not on grades - in fact remove examinations altogether since if the group is small, you know the status of each engineer any day. Rather than promoting fierce competition for marks, you emphasize collective learning. Method used in KarMic is Socratic method, ask a question and pull the answers from someone, anyone in the group, discuss the answers till EVERYONE understands. There are no examinations, assignments are given, to be done in groups or individually. If this is followed by a practical project, all knowledge is integrated correctly. Indian idea of quality, "product for your own family" comes in handy. Producing large numbers is not fashionable anymore.

Teach Whom?

It may be easy to teach someone a technical topic especially if he/she is intelligent but the teamwork issue and long term employment have added a new dimension. Training becomes more a career teaching, than a topic teaching. "You treat a human being and not a disease", my father, a doctor usually says. In our training as well, apprenticeship and creating a decent human who can deal with technical issues becomes critical since you want long term association . Just instantaneous brilliance has limited value in such a proposition. Further, changing basic behaviour is much more difficult compared to changing level of understanding of a topic, that right choice of candidates is critical.

One needs therefore a close association with candidates for a long time prior to hiring. The selection is sounding more like choosing a right marriage partner. The problem of choosing candidates was solved by finding professors in colleges who understood the KarMic model and recommended candidates they would consider as right marriage partners for their own children. If any reader outside India does not understand this, it is understandable but the task of finding the right qualities has been adapted to a well understood parental role in an Indian marriage.

Social Obligations

Long term perspective puts even a fledgling company on notice. Women do not usually have a free choice after marriage in India. The investment on a woman engineer may therefore not be recovered. In India, we could easily have avoided hiring women without adverse reaction, it is allowed to make such discrimination. We made a conscious choice to hire women on an equal basis; argument was basically that if you were in her shoes, you would feel really bad if turned down based on sex. Turns out putting someone else's shoes to check for equality gets used for many situations. Fully one third of engineers in KarMic are female.

Poor form another large class. Starting with stunted dreams, money adds many thresholds to them, sometimes insurmountable. Wanting a significant portion of world's analog engineers in the company, means one can not possibly keep aside any pool of talent. Rural engineers tend to be bad at English communication. Usually they do not make it through normal filters. However, I had attended many international conferences where Japanese scholars were lousy at English, their technical content was unblemished though. Later though, even if their English was poor, they had rehearsed their presentation prepared by someone with better English. We can suddenly start looking at people from North Karnataka as though they were from Japan. While ability to communicate is always an advantage, sometime one can mistake it for capability. It is alright to teach difficult chip design in Gurukul style in Kannada if necessary. Somewhere McCaulay got forgotten. Much talked about English advantage is not what we should compete with; we should do it solid results. One way to equalize the playing field in selection of the poor candidates is to make everything free. This is popular subsidy mechanism used all the time in our country.

With requirement of hands on learning, the course expected a group of engineers to design a chip, get it fabricated and tested, a year long process. The course was designed around this concept since the final silicon teaches a tougher lesson than many hours of class, especially if it does not work.


We needed to calculate costs in setting up a training centre. We did it by assuming money for initial costs such as deposits was borrowed from banks to be repaid in 10 years. Adding a monthly mortgage of this amount to a reasonable monthly cost of facilities got an expense number irrespective of number of students. Then add per person cost to arrive at a yearly budget. Reasonable analysis for a novice at those sort of thing. These calculations are shown to prospective candidates. The cost of training came to about Rs 2 lakhs (~$4600) while training about 16 engineers per year even with ridiculously low teacher's salary. We decided that we should charge this to the candidates since entrepreneurship means paying real cost of things. SUBSIDIES kill entrepreneurship, that is why so many small scale industries are sick.

However to solve a poor student's problem, this is a loan provided by the design centre the engineer will belong in the future. You have trusted an engineer with a loan that a normal bank would not touch. A twist is that the company reduces the loan amount to zero in four yearly instalments - an initial engineer's advantage slowly converts to a company's advantage. In essence the engineer has not paid anything over a long term.

Our assumptions is that the lost earnings of a year are more than made up by the more rapid capability of a well trained engineer. In typical American style, the value of the training is emphasized by noting that the 2 lakh rupees corresponds approximately Rs 200 per hour per student to the teacher, much higher than amount required to buy a good meal or a movie. So they were there to learn, I was not there to teach.

Proof of the pudding?

In the first year of existence, 8 engineers designed two projects, which were fabricated and found functional. They won awards at India's VLSI conferences. That year as far as we know, no other institution in India had silicon.

Welcomed with Open Arms?

Since the institute was named a Training Centre, it attracted a bunch of derision, these being in the shudra class, compared to the so called class A category. KarMic Training Centre is not accredited, is not affiliated to any university but carries on creating good engineers.

"Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether the Nobel committee can do without Gandhi, is the question." What do you say when the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Geir Lundestad, says, "The greatest omission in our 106 year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize."