There are some moments when things just feel right, like you were born for this kind of work. And thats the tipping point, when your career starts coming together and begins taking shape.
Sindhuja Balaji, our next pathbreaker, Senior Content Writer for INDIAai at NASSCOM, profiles startups, tech leaders and government officials about the growing AI (Artificial Intelligence) landscape in India.
Sindhuja talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about starting her career as a TV journalist with NDTV Metronation, moving to covering global markets and economies, travelling to many countries in the Middle East and Asia while working on global events and finally writing stories on India’s AI ecosystem.
For students, writing is a powerful tool and media is a powerful platform to shape and influence perceptions. Be ready to weave your magic through compelling narratives.
Sindhuja, tell us about your background?
I was born in the district of Raichur in North Karnataka where my grandfather owned and ran a transport business. I grew up in Bangalore in a large family – my father built his career in pharmaceutical multinationals as a finance and admin executive, while my mother worked as a math tutor. I was a talkative and friendly child, and never hesitated engaging in conversations with anyone – guess I had it in me to build a career on these lines! I was a good student and known to be an all-rounder – I enjoyed sports and extracurricular activities like debate, singing, painting and dancing. I participated in several school debates and essay writing competitions, and particularly remember how much I enjoyed public speaking and meeting new people. By the age of 15, I knew I wanted to be a journalist.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I have a Bachelors of Arts degree in Journalism, Psychology and English Literature from Christ College; a Post Graduate Diploma in Television Journalism and Creative Writing from the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media. In addition, I have done a certificate course from Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad in Digital Marketing and currently pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Technology and Public Policy from The Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank for public policy in India.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I was always keen on writing, reading and finding ways to express myself as a youngster. But a turning point for me was representing my school at the Model United Nations programme in the Press Corps section. It felt right – I truly felt I was born for this kind of work. From that point on, I started paying closer attention to journalists in India like Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and Sreenivasan Jain; and several foreign journalists like Christiane Amanpour of CNN and Rizwan Khan of Al Jazeera – mostly to understand how they spoke, reported on issues, and their personalities on camera at least. I used to keep a diary as well – initially, I would write about my own views of life, but that gradually moved towards what I later understood to be very rudimentary analysis of news.
Tell us about your career path
I was quite clear by the time I was finishing Std 10 that I wanted to pursue a career in the media. So the natural step ahead was to study the Arts. I studied History, Sociology, Psychology, Economics, then specialized in Journalism, English Literature and Psychology for undergraduate studies. At the time, the college I was studying in encouraged media students to pursue internships in newspapers and TV channels. I interned with the Deccan Herald, The Deccan Chronicle and CNN IBN in the first two years of pursuing undergraduate. These experiences were truly an education outside the four walls of a classroom. I spent time shadowing experienced journalists and editors, understanding how they approached the job and the overall media landscape. I even managed to do several independent stories in newspapers and TV that went on to get published and broadcast, with the guidance of editors I reported into. It was all coming together for me – whatever I learnt in class was playing out in front me, and these internships were actually very clarifying for me. So by the time I completed my undergraduate studies, I had already shortlisted to apply to four colleges in India to study television journalism. I had a fairly good idea about newspapers by then but wanted to study the television medium better. I spent a year doing the PG Diploma, which was one of the best years for me academically – if my internships were clarifying, my PG Diploma was a glimpse into how the real world of news worked. I learnt how to use a digital camera to shoot and record interviews and footage; I learnt how to report stories and research; and learnt how to travel smart! What made the experience so authentic was all my professors were professional journalists and media executives, with decades of experience working for news channels, news websites, newspapers and magazines. The wealth of real world knowledge they brought to the classroom was unparalleled; and some of them went on to become mentors.
I have carried these learnings through the course of my career. I started my career as a TV journalist with NDTV Metronation in Chennai, and have gone on to work in two national newspapers The Deccan Chronicle and the Timesgroup’s Bangalore Mirror. I wanted to try something different in the same space, and landed jobs with two international business publishing companies – Alain Charles Publishing and International Finance Magazine. In these two stints, I expanded my knowledge of global markets and economies, travelled to many countries in the Middle East and Asia where I worked on global events and interviewed several top level executives and decision makers. I also spent some time writing for Forbes Asia, as a technology journalist, where I covered Indian tech startups and business features. And finally, landed at NASSCOM where I write stories on India’s AI ecosystem.
How did you get your first break?
I got my first break through a classmate. Working in the media is really about networking! A classmate suggested that I meet a producer in a news channel in Chennai. I made a few calls, booked a train to Chennai and gave my interview to the producer of the channel. We did have campus interviews as well, but opportunities with TV channels were harder to come by compared to newspapers.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
My first job was actually a technical one. I was employed in the production unit of the news channel – called the Production Control Room (PCR). You may recall it as the fuzzy room that can occasionally be seen behind news anchors? My first job was to “fire supers” or the tickers you see on TV. I had to check these supers before every news telecast and “fire” them onto the screen at the right time. There were several other roles within the PCR like bulletin producer, sound engineer, vision mixer and programme director. The entire environment is electric. There are so many screens, and feeds coming in from multiple sources. It’s critical to keep a cool head and run a show smoothly because any mistake you make can be seen directly on air! And there are no retakes. I struggled at first to keep up with the pace. I was better at storytelling and writing, so working in a PCR was not easy. Eventually, I was spotted by the channel editor, who thought I should try my hand at news anchoring. My first live show was an afternoon bulletin, which had a breaking news item and a live interview, and I remember feeling incredibly nervous! But there was no turning back, so I just tuned everything out and went with the flow. As time passed, I got more comfortable anchoring but the challenge with this job is always to keep abreast of news everywhere. News never stops, you have to read, and learn everyday. Names of important ministers, key city officials, major areas in the city, relevant political updates to larger national and international issues.. I couldn’t miss out on anything. This job really made me think on my feet, and work fast under pressure. A decade later and I still have all these qualities, although the pace of my current job is nothing like my first.
Where do you work now? Tell us what you do?
Currently, I work at NASSCOM – the National Association of Software and Service Companies – a not-for-profit industry body that represents the interests of India’s software and services companies, product companies and startups. Specifically, I work as a Senior Content Writer for INDIAai – the national AI portal where my team and I work on making India AI-ready. I profile startups, tech leaders and government officials on developing AI (Artificial Intelligence) for India.
How does your work benefit society?
It’s incredibly humbling to be a storyteller. No matter what you write about, you get an insight into something that’s shaping people, societies, communities and development; and you get to write about that in the most honest and compelling way you know.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Honestly, there are quite a few stories that I’m quite proud of. One project that I can recall is the Holistic Wellness Project for NASSCOM, where I spoke to CHROs of 35 companies to understand how they are building mental wellness initiatives for their employees. Mental health is a subject that I keenly follow. It’s also a key focus area now because of COVID and the effects of the ‘new normal’ – so I really wanted to explore how organisations are viewing this piece. It was immensely satisfying to curate responses from so many diverse companies on their goals to make mental wellness a top priority. Another fond memory I recall is interviewing the author Shashi Tharoor for the launch of his book, and he shared my article on Twitter!
Your advice to students based on your experience?
The world is constantly changing. It’s supposed to be that way, so don’t get too comfortable with what you do. Your passion towards work will evolve and hopefully mature along the way, as it will be shaped by other realities of your life – nothing happens in isolation. Don’t let it restrict you or limit you in anyway. You need to constantly adapt to your profession to stay ahead and stay happy too. Learn new skills, read and absorb knowledge every way you can. We are becoming a knowledge-first economy, and if you want to be relevant across domains, you need to be like a sponge and absorb everything you can. And always keep an open mind.
I am fascinated with public policy and technology, as these two areas will govern many aspects of life, and I’m currently pursuing a Graduate Certificate course in Tech and Policy to understand this better. It also has a strong bearing on my current line of work. I also want to pursue an executive MBA in a couple of years, specializing in marketing.