One of the biggest challenges for an engineer is deciding a core engineering career over a software job. However, in such situations, some of the projects you did at school come to your rescue in making a decision !
Neethi Mohan, our next pathbreaker, Embedded Systems Engineer, works with TATA ELXSI on various audio processing projects, executing audio algorithms on different hardware/processors which will eventually run on our mobile devices and audio systems.
Neethi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her first hands-on experience with Electronics, in making a a circuit of a diode rectifier which led her on the path of a core engineering career.
For students, choose your engineering specialization carefully and follow it up with a career in that stream ! Dont let your science education go a waste.
Neethi, tell us about your background?
Hi! I am Neethi Mohan and I am an Embedded Systems developer. I was born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala.
Both my parents were professionals in the Electronics field, which might have acted as a catalyst for my inclination towards the technical field.
In school, I was very much fond of Mathematics. I remember back in high school, Mathematics was the only subject I didn’t have to study, you just have to understand it. Also I was fond of Physics, as it answered many questions of my curious mind.
So naturally after class 10, I wanted to study Science and Mathematics and opted for Class XII. It was during my Class XII, I participated in a Science Exhibition for which I made a circuit of a diode rectifier with the help of my mother. This was my first hands-on experience with Electronics. I remember being very proud of explaining its working to my fellow students.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I pursued my graduation in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from TKM college of Engineering, Kerala. I did my post graduation in Electrical Drives from NIT Bhopal, a few years later, after accruing experience in the field as a professional. This has helped me have a wider perspective in my post graduation subjects in terms of theory and applications.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
During my final year of graduation, irrespective of their specialization, every student was being offered jobs by software firms. I also had an offer from a software firm through my campus placement, but I wanted to pursue a career in my core field. Incidentally at the time, the central government R&D organization CDAC had vacancies for Electronics Engineers for which I had applied and got hired on clearing the selection process.
Tell us about your career path
I was hired as Staff Scientist/Engineer in CDAC Trivandrum office. This was my first job, where I was assigned to a project in the Embedded Systems domain. Prior to my job, my only familiarity with Embedded Systems was the vague idea of a microprocessor and few assembly instructions that I learned during my graduation days as part of our curriculum. Soon after my joining, my project head assigned me a task to make a presentation for my team on a particular communication standard. I was entirely new to protocols and standards, and had little understanding of how to start, but he ensured to check on me every now and then and guide me whenever I made a mistake. By the time I had completed the presentation, I had mastered standards and the best approach to learning new things, thanks to my project head.
My first task in my project was to program a data encoder-decoder on a FPGA (a programmable device). I was new to FPGA, the programming tool and the programming language and it took me a great deal of research and trial and errors to get the desired output. But it was exhilarating to see the device executing your program and doing the task you asked it to do. Probably that is what interests me most about this field.
It was through my first job that I gained understanding about Embedded systems and my project head and peers had a significant role in mentoring me and developing my interest towards this field.
In my professional life of more than 10 years, I have taken up varied professions (mostly due to personal circumstances) and twice had to take a break from my career.
In CDAC, my first project was to develop a control unit for Indian Railways and this has enabled me to learn a great deal about microcontrollers, processors and communication protocols. Moreover this gave me an opportunity to learn, experiment and research more about Embedded systems.
During my tenure in CDAC (my first job), I was able to associate through the entire lifecycle of an Embedded Systems project. This helped me build my foundation and gain a holistic understanding of Embedded Systems development. Being a research organization, CDAC encouraged self-training by directly allocating the employees to the project. In hindsight, this practice helped me hone my research skills and ability to self- train.
About 4 years into my first job, due to certain personal reasons, I had to relocate to Bhopal. Due to the relocation, I had to resign my job and then decided to use the time to pursue my masters. Though I always wanted to do my masters in Embedded systems from a university abroad, I settled for NIT Bhopal and chose to do my specialization in Electrical Drives. This specialization mostly involved study of different types of motor drives used in industries and their control techniques, but the topics that interested me the most were how the controlling was done through Embedded systems. This made me realize the immense applications of the Embedded systems domain and how it spans across almost all domains where automation of control is required.
After completing my post-graduation, I could not immediately get back to my career in Embedded systems and was managing operations of my family run business for two years. After that I shifted to UAE along with my family. I was actually in for a surprise to learn the UAE economy was mainly based on deployment of technology but not its development. Hence the opportunities in the development field, specifically in Embedded Systems, were meagre. Here due to lack of opportunity, I opted to work with an automation services company in the Marine and Oil & Gas industry, where I was handling the company’s sales. But it wasn’t as fulfilling and challenging as Embedded systems development and eventually made me look for opportunities in Embedded system Development back in India.
A break in your career often makes you realize the work you enjoy doing. So I was determined to work in the Embedded system domain again. I made a list of companies I aimed to work for and applied for positions in those organizations and also requested peers in my network to help. It was through employee referral I landed up in my current job role.
Presently, I am working as Senior Engineer in Embedded Systems domain in TATA ELXSI.
How did you get your first break?
As I mentioned earlier, though I was offered a job in a software firm through campus placement, I continued looking for opportunities in my core area. I had applied for core jobs in government sectors like CDAC, BHEL, HAL etc. At that time these organisations used to recruit fresh engineers, selected through company’s selection process. I was able to clear the written test and face to face interviews of CDAC and got selected. Thus I secured my first job as Staff Scientist in CDAC, soon after my graduation.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: The first main challenge was working in the Sales domain, during my tenure in UAE. The job role demanded a different set of skills from my qualification and experience. Also the job required good understanding of the various automation devices and equipment used in the Marine and Oil & Gas industry, in addition to understanding of the Middle Eastern market. My technical background and self-learning ability proved to be a boon. My peers at work were of significant assistance in widening my understanding of the Middle East market. Also, my communication skills helped me a great deal.
Challenge 2: The long break from the Embedded systems career path was the second major obstacle I had to overcome in my professional life. Although this is a general issue faced by the majority of women in every domain, a good number of organizations like TATA ELXSI have policies encouraging women to resume their career after a break. Another factor that I relied on was my peer network for employee referral.
Where do you work now?
Currently I am working with TATA ELXSI which caters to a multitude of OEM’s in the Automotive, Broadcasting, Healthcare etc, domains in Embedded System design and development.
I am working in audio processing projects, which basically involve executing audio algorithms on different hardware/processors which will be eventually running on your mobile phones, car audio, home systems and theatre environments.
What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?
An in-depth understanding of digital signal processing is required for audio processing. Though Digital Signal Processing is a subject which is part of the Electronics Engineering curriculum, I have gained deeper knowledge through my work experience. In my experience the actual hands-on work you do and the peers in your team teach you more than any book/course does.
The additional skills required are analytical skills, programming skills and ability to adapt to newer hardware platforms.
What is a typical day like? what is it you love about this job?
A typical day is spent programming or writing code or testing on the hardware and analyzing the audio outputs. Most of the time, the different projects we work on involve different hardware products and newer technologies, so there is a continuous learning/research process. The most fulfilling aspect is learning a new hardware in order to make it do the intended task.
How does your work benefit society?
Embedded systems make automation possible across almost all industries like Automotive, Healthcare, Communication, Broadcast and so on. The embedded hardware and related software applications can be found in our everyday devices like mobile phones, household electronics devices, home automation systems, automobiles to control the complex machinery in industries. Embedded systems are the way to make machines work for us and automate things to make our lives easier and better.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
The project that is closest to my mind is my first project through which I learned the basics of Embedded systems. It was an indigenous development project, done by CDAC, targeted at replacing the then existing proprietary technology used in Indian Railways which was being used since the mid-80’s. It was basically to develop a Vehicle Control Unit which was the centralized unit for controlling all devices onboard the locomotive and enables data transmission between the devices. Also the new technology was to be developed with conformance to IEC Train communication network standards and specifications. By replacing the old technology with the indigenously developed control unit, an average saving of Rs.50 crore annually was achieved.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
It is never too late to start afresh and pursue the job that you find fulfilling. Networking and connecting with the right people can have a major role and impact in your professional life that is usually overlooked by young professionals.
I would suggest pursuing one’s masters/post graduation after gaining some experience on the field as it helps gain a wider understanding and industrial perspective in your subjects. Also try not to compromise your plans because of circumstances.
My immediate future plans is to continue learning newer technologies and developing my skills to actively contribute to the projects I am associated with. I also plan to develop in-depth understanding in AI & ML technologies as more automation projects are focusing on these.