Saturday, June 02, 2012

I Apply Therefore I Am

"An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems." - Wikipedia.

Application. Problem Solving. That is precisely what engineering is about.

In the 4 years that I spent studying engineering however, there were few examinations that actually required solving problems ingenuously by applying knowledge acquired during the course of studying the subject. The only knowledge engineers in India need to possess is the fact that if you spend enough time practicing questions from the last 5 years' papers, you will emerge unscathed into the next semester.

So exams as a medium of testing application is thrown right out of the window. There used to be a saving grace however - the Final Year Project. Your one chance as a future engineer to completely embrace and understand a problem, design and implement it (if you are lucky, with valuable guidance from an able guide), and then proudly present to a jury what you have accomplished in one year.


Over the past few months, conversations and interviews with young software engineers have woken me up to a reality apparently everyone else already knew about - no one does their Final Year Project on their own anymore. Well, almost no one.

Open a candidate's resume, find the Final Year Project title, and a quick Google search will reveal two things -
  1. There is a paper published in an IEEE journal with the exact same title.
  2. The project is available for sale at one of the local software training centers.
Teams of four are still formed to "execute" a project, but their members contribute more in terms of chipping in to the pool of money that will be used to purchase a neatly prepared, gift-wrapped project, complete with printed theses and presentations.

Bring the project up in an interview, and 2-3 basic questions later, it is already clear the candidate has no clue how to solve this problem. An excuse or two about amnesia later, the truth bundles out. This is followed by the familiar adage of "everyone does this".

How the examining jury does not realize this project was bought off the shelf like candy is beyond me. Perhaps they have also bought in to the "everyone does this" routine.

Certified To Be Trained

The monolith that is the Indian IT industry has long ago accepted the fact that engineering degrees count for little, and that every single fresh hire will need to be put through the paces of a training regimen. This has in turn lulled our future engineers into the belief that they do not need to apply or prove anything in their 4 years.

Why bother when you will undergo training in DotNet and Java anyway once you have been selected? Focusing on spoken English, aptitude tests and a decent score-sheet tend to pay off more handsomely in these interviews.

Solution At The Root Of The Problem

While not placing the blame squarely at the door of the Indian IT monolith at large, it is hard to see beyond it to find where the problem begins. Being a services based industry, it requires tens of thousands of employees each year - something that has obviously not gone unnoticed with ambitious parents who wish to bring up engineers, and the mushrooming new engineering colleges across the country. This has led to a side-industry of helping students push through the 4-year hurdle of getting a degree - first came the coaching classes, and then the "project training centers".

Instead of, or perhaps in addition to, running enormous training facilities for new hires, why do the behemoths of the industry not actively encourage final year students to take up projects with them? This has the triple impact of improving the quality of the engineer that passes out, while at the same time selling your organization to them and giving you prime access to the cream of the lot.

There are logistical issues to work out, but who is to say that students who can fund their purchases for off-the-shelf candy cannot instead spend on frequent visits to the closest office of a behemoth? Cash spent on grand recruitment schemes could instead be diverted to attracting more students directly from colleges to work on projects and prove their worth on the job, without having to pay them. This is not even close to being an original idea, but I am surprised it isn't more actively utilised.

No More Free Lunch

I like to repeat this. The day isn't very far when just like work migrated on the outsourcing silk route to India, it will migrate further to cheaper locations. When that happens, we either work on projects demanding a lot more application and problem-solving or build products for our local market, that again demand application and problem-solving experience. Both our behemoths and our engineers need to gear up for this eventuality. It has probably already snuck through the door and is hiding behind the couch.