A single decision can make or break a business. With the prevalence of Digital technologies, firms need to be as nimble as ever in making quick decisions to recognize and adapt to new strategies. But decision making is a science.

Mohit Mahajan, our next pathbreaker, creates decision models under different scenarios and helps businesses proactively analyse efficient plans and potential strategies under these different scenarios.

Mohit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being intrigued to know that even simple changes in decision making could bring in large improvements in organizations.

For students, data is the new currency of the digital world. Make a career analysing data and uncovering insights that can help businesses take key decisions.

Mohit, tell us about your background?

I come from a very simple background. I grew up in a small family with ancestral business in money lending and mortgage. I spent my earlier life in the town of Khargone in MP where I studied until 12th std. Ever since my childhood, I had a lot of curiosity about machines, computers and how stuff works. During my school days, I used to dream of becoming a pilot initially, then a singer, then doctor and eventually ended up taking PCM in high school. Outside of school, I learnt music, painting and actively participated in cultural and technical events. In senior standard, I actively started preparing for engineering entrance exams, aiming to get into one of the good engineering colleges.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I qualified for JEE-Advanced in my second attempt and secured a seat in Industrial Engineering at IIT Roorkee. I had completed a 4 year (8 semester) B. Tech. program and graduated in 2017. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and exciting career?

Yeah, so the motivation to venture into operations research grew after some of the experiences that I had during college. To give you a background, in industrial engineering we study that any functional system (factory, transportation, hospitals, supermarkets, airports etc.) can be potentially improved because of the underlying inefficiencies. These improvements are in terms of resources such as time and cost. The key here is the decisions made in the system which forms the base for resource usage and directly impacts efficiency. Few examples of decisions are like how many hours a factory is run, how many counters to open at a supermarket, how many nurses are needed at an hour of the day etc.

When I went for my internship at a manufacturing unit in my sophomore and pre-final year, I was intrigued to know that even simple changes in decision making can bring in large improvements. Though not in a solid way but the planners in the business were using a set of fundamentals that we had studied in curriculum. In one of the courses of mathematical optimization where we had learned techniques to view the systems in the form of a mathematical model and apply a bunch of algorithms on the model to derive the best strategy across a defined set of considerations, i could connect my experience in internships with the subject matter. I felt there was a lot of opportunity but the knowledge gap was a barrier.  

I did some more exploration, took up some foundational courses and found that the application areas and growth opportunities in this subject were quite vast. It forms a constituent of Data Science and AI in the world of enterprise management systems. As a career choice, Operations Research can be looked upon as an intersection between Computer Science, Mathematics and Management science, applicable to a large number of contexts. Supply Chains, Advanced analytics, Health care, Product design are few such contexts. As a practitioner, I could develop my skill sets in multiple domains. Also, I had the relevant background in engineering. Therefore, I decided to pursue Operations Research as the career option.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

As an operations research scientist, an individual would develop algorithms and suggest best-practices for tactical and strategic decision making. You would take up a business problem, derive a mathematical model, program this knowledge in a computer, get the required data and then apply several algorithms to analyze different possible situations and return the best course of actions. 

Now, as I already talked, a work profile like that would require knowledge about different domains. Let’s break this into 2 verticals, Management and Technical.

1. A bigger factor that supported my journey is a program in Industrial Engineering. I had learnt different aspects of industrial production, manufacturing and several management techniques. I took-up several courses and projects to establish strong fundamentals. I also did a month-long training at a production unit as a planner to learn the practical aspects.

2. On the other side, I did not have a solid background in computer science and I also did not have a good direction. In that situation, I got in touch with few experienced OR (Operations Research) professionals (via linkedin) seeking mentorship. A general advice that I received was to learn and practice python programming, as most of the commercial developments were considering python as the future. Additionally, I also audited courses in Data Structures and Algorithms to support my concepts in programming. Along with the mathematical optimization concepts that I had learned in college, I also studied a few online courses to broaden my scope.

In my journey I have majorly focused on applying the learned concepts in the real world. Formally as we call it applied science, I did several internships to learn how Ops Research was applicable in the practical world. I believe someone on your blog also rightly said that “Internships are the investments that pay dividends in the long term”. One of the hot projects that I had pursued back in 2014 was to design a business strategy plan for an industrial 3D Printing service. The plan was to identify strategic locations to setup 3D printing facilities in such a way that the incoming demand from Indian cities can be served with minimum lead time and minimum transportation costs. A few considerations in this model were demand distribution, service priority (like medical and premium demands are to be met first), capacity available at printers, order value etc. This was one of the first companies in India to bring 3D printing to the hands of customers. The cost reduction effort eventually made the otherwise expensive service more affordable.

Another experience that I like to talk about is from Uber. I was assigned to the Quality and Frauds projects in Jaipur. The aim was to identify the root causes behind the low ratings of trips and come up with an action plan to tackle these issues. We had created several internal metrics and models to monitor upcoming infractions and review them on a weekly basis. We basically followed fundamentals from a Lean Management technique, called continuous improvement. Additionally, uber was facing issues of cash solicitation form both driver’s and rider’s end. The objective was to collect intelligence and common behavior from “on the ground” operations and design a systematic way behind the scenes to automatically catch frauds.

Other than internships, I I’ve had significant amount of learning on the job. I’d specifically like to mention a few innovations that I was a part of during the last couple of years. One of them is a digital poultry management platform. Poultry as an industry is highly disorganized and decentralized, and managers in this industry have a hard time trying to balance demand and supply. Imagine this, you’re a poultry farm owner who has around 1000 farms across India. Now, I as a hotel manager would ask you this question : “I need 3000 KG of chicken meat and 6000 leg pieces for the upcoming month, Can you give me 100 KG and 200 leg pieces daily for next 30 days?” Well, in reality this is how an order would arrive and the manager needs to make about 100 calls and probably loads of calculations before replying, or if in case there’s a change in plan 2 days, then you’re really frustrated right? Think about our poultry guy answering almost 20 such calls in a day. Here, we saw that we can definitely help them do a better job. Our company had ample experience in IoT, AI and OR. We brought them all together to create a state of the art technology that would solve the manager’s problem in merely a click. In my current job, I contribute towards designing a wide variety of analytics solutions for enterprise decision makers. As we speak today, I am working on several innovations that would make their life easier and efficient. All these experiences helped me build a solid foundation and overall I have had a lot of fun along the way.

How did you get your first break?

That is a really interesting experience to share! As I was completing engineering, I started looking for a job opportunity. A job profile in the OR profession usually requires a higher qualification like that of a MS or a PhD, and I didn’t have any. My objective was to learn to solve real world problems, and I did not set a financial goal. So while starting my career, I targeted small companies primarily. The reason is that in smaller setups, as an employee, I’d get more ownership and ability to work across domains which was healthy in the long term. Additionally, smaller organizations are lean and fast moving. Therefore, I was selective about the companies and job profiles that I had chosen. I interviewed for almost 4-5 different firms and ultimately decided to join Knex Inc. as OR Consultant. 

At Knex, I was assigned to multiple projects that required me to deliver web applications/products for different planning activities. In my tenure I got exposed to best practices in software development as well as project and product management. It took me a couple of year’s worth of efforts and different experiences to get comfortable ewith applied OR.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Not a lot of online material is available to guide anyone to start learning Operations Research by themselves. I got a starting point from few of my mentors and spent some time reading literature and research papers to comprehend the concepts. Good thing is that a lot of books are available on this subject and there are a few blogs that publish quality work. Opex Analytic’s blog is a popular one. Additionally, most concepts in management science are better understood through work experience. Therefore, lack of exposure is also one of the challenges in our country.

Challenge 2: 

Fact is Operations Research is a niche area. One of the major problems for OR scientists in India is that decision science is not so popular and hence the number of companies offering this profile are quite less. Bigger firms wouldn’t hire specifically for OR because the project scope is usually strategic and short term in nature, hence many of them hire OR Scientists on service contracts or train computer science or analytics professionals to become optimization experts. In a few cases, analytics companies hire OR Scientists under the banner of Data Scientists. Therefore, its difficult to find the right match. I think networking helps a lot in this kind situation to find the right openings or create opportunities for oneself. 

Where do you work now? 

At present I am based in Pune, I work as an Ops Research Scientist at Opex Analytics. Opex is one of the few companies in India offering this profile. We develop applications that help our client businesses to generate and analyze different scenarios and strategies to respond to them. My job is to create appropriate solutions and make it easily accessible to the users. Besides modeling I also create different automations and integrations. On a usual day, you’d find me plugged-in writing code or brainstorming on some solution with my colleagues. In this job, I get to meet and collaborate with highly qualified people with similar mindsets across different countries. It is a great community where I get the opportunity to experiment, fail and learn. We do a lot of pro-bono activities and also hangout outside work. One of the aspects that I love about my job is that I could take complete ownership for my work, as a result I get recognized for the value that I add in this organization. 

How does your work benefit society? 

As OR Scientists we help businesses to make efficient plans and take calculated risks. Efficient planning means efficient usage of limited resources like energy, money, time and material. In the long run it also means reduction in wastage, emissions and carbon footprints. Besides making efficient use of resources an optimal strategy also yields an improved system with greater employee satisfaction. 

One of the projects in the past required me to recommend a number of trucks and routes for a logistics company such that it minimizes total carbon footprint over 5 yrs horizon. That is one of the many examples in Operations Research that relate towards making the world a better place. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I think the very first commercial engagement that I was assigned is very close to me. I was expected to deliver a planning software and help the client on process improvement. The end to end delivery was on a very tight schedule, I had to manage a lot of things and wear multiple hats. Throughout the engagement of 1 year, I traveled a lot and met a lot of new people, made mistakes and learnt numerous technical as well as managerial lessons. The takeaways from this project are still helpful and relevant in my present work and I feel all the struggle was worthy.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

If you’re not clear what you want to do in your life, the best action is to try something. If you don’t like it at least you’ll know what not to do. 

There would always be someone else who would have already solved a problem that you’re facing at a given point in time. Try to find that person, seek her/his advice.

Future Plans?

These days, I am reading actively as I plan to broaden my understanding of my subject matter. I intend to explore more application areas of Operation Research and analyze the opportunities and impacts and further aim to publish my findings. Besides, I also have been working on several utilities/IP’s for Operations Research community for saving time in product development. As planned this stack will also be open sourced in sometime.  ———————————————-

Closing comments : Thanks for inviting me for this interview, It was really a pleasure talking to you and sharing my experience. Our country is capable of supplying the world with high quality professionals, I hope my experience would help someone to get started. Cheers!