When you have the innate desire to understand how things work and how to apply them in real life, that attitude becomes the backbone of everything you do.
Koudilyan Srinivasan, our next pathbreaker, Function Developer at Volvo Cars (Sweden), solves engineering problems which focus on improving the comfort and handling of cars by developing algorithms that control the suspension of a car.
Koudilyan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about never swaying away from following his calling in the world of engineering and automobiles despite following a non-traditional career path !
For students, good things in life don’t come easy. Get ready for a bumpy ride if you want to do interesting work !
Koudilyan, tell us about Your background?
I was born to two brilliant parents who are professional Chartered Accountants. Though my mother held the title of a CA, she took up the role of a home-maker to take care of my brother and me. I was brought up in Chennai and studied in DAV Mogappair.
From a really young age I was very curious about knowing how things worked. I was tearing up and assembling back toy cars from the age of 4. Though I probably didn’t know what I was doing, I had a flair for it. While on my family visits to my native, I was allowed to sit on my uncles’ laps when they were driving cars. They let me hold the steering wheel and gave me a feeling that it was me who was driving the car. My love for automobiles started from back then. From toy cars, I quickly transitioned to tearing apart and assembling my home PC at the age of 10. I also started doing the same things with my bicycles by watching the local mechanics repair broken chains and punctured tires. This also translated in my studies where I was really interested and good in physics and mathematics. I was also very interested in sports and I was in the badminton team and football team in my school and in the cricket team of a local club. Even with sports, I wanted to know why things worked the way they did as I knew that this understanding was key to performing better. To improve my performance in sports I started watching videos on why cricket balls spun and footballs curled.
This innate desire to understand how things worked and how to apply them in real life has been the backbone of everything in my life.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
After school, I studied Instrumentation and Control Engineering in NIT Tiruchirappalli and subsequently studied Systems and Control in my Masters in TU Eindhoven in The Netherlands.
Even if the course I did in my Bachelors was not in my interests, my Masters course was a planned move.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
When I was at the point where I had to choose my subjects in 11th, I had a tough decision to make. I thought I could take commerce subjects which were supposed to be relatively easier (that was the assumption back then, which definitely isn’t true) which would help me focus on the world of sports as I absolutely loved playing football.
But coming from a middle class family who toiled hard to get a good life in the city, my parents fervently opposed it and wanted me to get into engineering as that was the best way of getting a stable life and making it big in the city. Half-heartedly I ended up choosing Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology in my 11th standard. My love for Physics grew even more during this period. So when it came to choosing my stream for my Bachelors, I wanted to do Mechanical Engineering and I got admitted into Amrita University in Coimbatore. The middle class mentality again played in my life when I got the result of AIEEE, where I got a chance to secure admission in NIT Tiruchirappalli. Though I fought at home to let me study Mechanical Engineering in Amrita, I was pushed to study Instrumentation and Control Engineering in NIT Trichy because having an NIT tag would boost my career prospects. After I couldn’t pursue my passion in sports, I saw my dreams of working in the automotive world fade away in front of my eyes.
But having heard the struggles of my father when he was young and having been instilled that hard work is everything in life, I put my head down and started studying. During my Bachelors I tried getting into the Baja team in my college. The team built their own cars and were participating in competitions across India. But since I was not from Mechanical Engineering, I couldn’t really get into the team. On the studies side of things, even though I wasn’t interested in my subjects, I did enough to ensure I had the grades to get a good job in a “Core” company and I landed a job in Foster Wheeler, an engineering consultancy firm who worked with oil and gas refinery projects and one of the first core companies to come for recruitment in our college for Instrumentation and Control Engineering. During that time, I was also preparing for an MBA on the side since that offered the best career opportunities and salaries. But my seniors advised me that it’s better to have some work experience to do an MBA. So I ended up taking the offer from Foster Wheeler.
The desire to work in an Automotive company was still in the back of my head though and I could never let go of it.
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
After the first 4 months in my job at Foster Wheeler, I could do the job with my eyes closed and I started getting bored and frustrated. Entering data from instrumentation diagrams into a database and reviewing the instrumentation schemes became second nature and I was losing interest in almost everything. To vent out my growing frustrations, I was driving my heart out in whatever car or motorcycle I could get my hands on and I realized more and more how much I loved technical stuff and engineering marvels like automobiles.
Meanwhile, two of my best friends in office told me they were going abroad to study their Masters. I could say that this was one of the biggest turning points in my life and I am forever grateful to these two friends. Fearing the day where I would be left alone, I thought about what I should do next. Do an MBA which would lead me to a successful career in India or follow my friends for a Masters abroad and rekindle my passion for automobiles and engineering? My brain said MBA while my heart was still calling out for engineering and automobiles.
The more I talked to my friends (all of whom I could say are my mentors) about this and the more I started observing what is it that made me happy and what I was interested in, I started understanding that an MBA would give me money but not happiness. Whereas, engineering and working with cutting edge technology would put a smile on my face every single second.
I decided to follow my heart and was soon writing GRE and TOEFL and applying to universities. I applied for Automotive Engineering in 2 of the best universities for Automotives in the US (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Clemson University) but got rejected by both because I didn’t have a background in Automotive or Mechanical engineering. Feeling disappointed, I resorted to applying to the Systems and Control course in The Netherlands as I knew that I just needed to get into a good university and then I could somehow navigate my way into the automotive world by doing projects related to automobiles. I finally got into TU Eindhoven in The Netherlands for the Systems and Control course.
How did you get your first break?
My first break into the automotive world came during my Masters. I applied to the Formula student team in TU Eindhoven. This is a student team who worked to build a Formula 1 style electric race car to compete with other Formula student teams across Europe and the world. Even though I did not have automotive knowledge till then, seeing my passion for automobiles, the team manager gave me a chance to work on the car. This was my first and biggest break into the world of automobiles and I absolutely loved it. I was finally starting to live my dream. Initially I did not know how I could contribute efficiently but I was surprised to see how much control engineering was used in modern cars and since I had a background in Systems and Control, I quickly became indispensable for my team.
I was part of this team in addition to my studies. I spent the mornings attending classes and finishing assignments to make sure that I could focus fully on the car in the evening. I was literally living and sleeping in our workshop and the car. Weekends were mostly spent testing the car and fixing all the issues that popped up. As part of my role in the team, I initially worked with designing the suspension for our car. After a lot of analysis, we figured that the suspension didn’t need much changing from the previous year. Looking at my eagerness to learn and to make an impact, I was moved to the vehicle controls team which needed some shaking up as things weren’t moving as fast as needed. My manager brought me in specifically to give the team energy and push the team to improve the vehicle dynamics controls (a fancy term which talks about the physics behind how cars move in different directions). Here, I worked with a concept called torque vectoring. Our car had an electric motor in each wheel. What torque vectoring does is to give the necessary power individually to each wheel to make the car turn without losing speed. Usually you can either go at high speed straight or sacrifice speed to turn in a good way. I was trying to find out the optimal compromise between these to improve on our lap times in the circuits. Torque vectoring gave us the capability to turn the car without turning the steering wheel. By turning the left wheel forward and the right wheel backward, we can make the car turn right without even turning the steering wheel. You just need to press the accelerator pedal and the car would be making automatic donuts without you controlling the steering. How cool is that?
Being so far away from home and having paid a lot of money for the course, the last thing you want to do is to fail and pay even more money to buy time to complete your course. Every extra month you stay after 2 years is an added costs. Considering this, a lot of my friends warned me against working in this team because they thought it was impossible to balance this with the heavy workload that a Masters in The Netherlands entails. The work didn’t pay, it was taking a lot of my time and gave me sleepless nights. I didn’t need to do any of this and it was a big risk doing this. But I knew I had to do this because it was an opportunity of a lifetime and I knew it will give me a good baseline for a career in the automotive industry.
When my friends started seeing the amount of fun I had doing this and performing even better in my studies because I was happier than ever, my friends encouraged me to go even further. They understood that these sleepless nights were because of my passion and because I wanted it to be this way. This was one of the most important learnings for me in life. When you have fun doing what you want, you will never feel that work is hard and success will follow you because you are putting in the hard work. There were so many times where my software didn’t work in the car, so many times the car was undriveable. Yet the amount of fun I was having engineering a car and the fire to succeed and to make our car the best car our college had ever made helped me overcome all these obstacles and build exactly that, the best car our college had ever made !
Half way through my second year of Masters, I started my thesis as a part of my course. To further get into the automotive world, I did a thesis related to engine control. Every engine emits harmful gases to the atmosphere each time fuel explodes inside the engine. This is needed for any vehicle to move. But since our world is suffering more and more from pollution and global warming, I took up the challenge to lessen the amount of emissions coming out of engines. To do this, I first had to model the engine using physics based and chemistry based equations. Having these kinds of models allowed us to simulate and tune the engine without burning a single drop of fuel. In addition to the tuning, it helped us explore new concepts without having to actually test on the engines. If the temperature inside the engine was too high, the simulation would tell us and we could tune it a bit differently. If this too high temperature was inside a real engine, imagine what could have happened. I ended up making a lot of improvements to the model in a span of 6 months which led me to being awarded really high grades and appreciation for my work.
My Formula student experience and thesis gave me a solid background and a firm foot in the automotive world.
Subsequently, these experiences, especially the Formula student experience, helped me land a dream job in Volvo Cars in Sweden. The experience of working in a Formula student team under strict deadlines and solving hundreds of problems everyday in the car was valued a lot by Volvo. The company felt that my automotive knowledge, the know-how of building a car and my leadership skills in revitalizing an unmotivated team were experiences that even people with around 5 years of experience in a company wouldn’t have. This led to being selected for the leadership program in Volvo Cars.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Getting into the automotive world
My biggest challenge was to get my foot in the automotive world and change my career completely after my Bachelors. People thought that I shouldn’t get into the automotive world since I had no background in it. But I was resolute in wanting to follow my passion and planned all my moves based on whatever I had and maneuvered myself to achieve my dream. At each stage I found a way to leverage what I already had to move towards where I wanted to be. Where there is a will, there truly is a way.
Challenge 2: Adapting to a completely new world
Another challenge was during my formula student time where I was one of 3 international students among 60 other Dutch students. My Dutch team-mates thought and worked in such a different way that I thought I would never fit in that setting. But I soon adapted by observing everyone around me and this helped me win their trust and also make myself better integrated into the European society. This adaptation didn’t mean that I changed my character completely. I still put forward my core characteristics and showed my team-mates a different perspective which made all of us much better.
Where do you work now? Tell us what you do
I joined Volvo Cars, Sweden, as part of the global graduate program, which is a two year program focused on developing and fast tracking people with leadership potential to gain an understanding of the overall functioning of the company. During the program, I worked in different parts of the company, from product strategy to engineering to market analysis. After the program, I came back to engineering because I wanted to develop something in the car that I could call my own and I, now, work as a function developer in the Suspension mechatronics team. My interest in Vehicle Dynamics ever since my Formula student days made the choice very clear after the end of the graduate program and my knowledge in the subject was very beneficial to be accepted by this team.
What problems do you solve?
I solve engineering problems which focus on improving the comfort and handling of our cars by developing control algorithms that control the suspension of a car. For example, I decide how a shock absorber in a car should behave when the car hits a bump and I develop software to tell the shock absorber what to do in that situation.
What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills?
To do this, we need to know how to solve problems and have good analytical skills. We also need to know how to use programming tools like MATLAB and C/C++ to implement our solutions. Having knowledge in Vehicle Dynamics is an added bonus.
What is a typical day like?
Based on my knowledge in Vehicle Dynamics, I come up with ideas on how a suspension should behave in different scenarios that can occur while driving. I program this behaviour and test it on the car and collect data from the tests. I analyze the data and see if the car moves how I want it to move and if it doesn’t, I figure out solutions to make it better and repeat the same process
What is it you love about this job?
I absolutely love this job because I work with automobiles and vehicle dynamics, which are my passion, and also because I solve challenging engineering problems. My brain keeps solving new problems and I never end up doing the same thing over and over again. Also, since I love driving, being involved in defining how the car moves is also very satisfying.
Moreover, having been a part of a leadership program, I have acquired knowledge about how the entire company works and I have developed a huge network out of which a few people from different parts of the company are my mentors who guide me through my career. Working in a diverse company like Volvo, I meet people from so many different countries and walks of life and I learn so much from each person. Everyone has a different perspective which helps you grow as a person.
How does your work benefit society?
Suspensions perform two jobs: To keep the car planted to the road to give grip and to enable a comfortable ride for the passengers.
Suspensions are very crucial in determining how the car moves in various scenarios. I work to make sure that the car can be controlled just the way we want to when we do sudden actions, for example turning the steering wheel to avoid an accident. In these scenarios, it’s very easy for the car to lose control if you don’t have a good suspension system. Thus I contribute in making cars safer.
I also develop algorithms to make the car float like a ship. When you drive over a speed breaker or a pothole, the goal of my algorithm is to make sure that you as a driver or passenger feel as little movement as possible. This smooth ride ensures that you don’t feel very tired after travelling.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
One of the most satisfying moments in my life was when my Formula Student team finished 5th in the electric car class in a competition called Formula Student Germany. This is like the world cup for Formula student teams as all the best teams in the world are competing in this. It was even more satisfying that the control algorithms that I developed improved the speed and capabilities of our car quite a lot which was an integral part of us finishing 5th, the best position in the history of our university.
Another really satisfying moment was when I got selected as one of 24 people, in the global graduate program in Volvo, out of a total of 3600 applicants from all around the world. When I was offered the job, I was truly grateful for pursuing my passion and was deeply satisfied that I had finally made it into an automotive career.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Follow your heart and try to find out what you like. When you find out what you like and work with it, you have all the potential to become one of the most successful people in the world. So take your time to find out what you like and be open to experiencing a lot of different things. Your inspiration could come from anywhere.
It is ok to fail. You will come across hurdles when you try to follow what you want to do. Don’t worry if you go off track, you can always come back. Analyze what went wrong and learn from it. There is no success without failure. Be brave but also be smart. If you go off track, plan how you can come back to what you want based on what you already have. Always use what you have and what you have learnt because that’s the best starting point.
Be curious. You can learn so much from everything and everyone around you. Newton discovered gravity by observing an apple fall off a tree and thinking why that happened. Most often than not, we have the answers to almost everything around us. If you don’t have the answer, go in search of it. Remember that we have a brain just to think.
Find people who can guide you to where you want to be. Always have pillars of support around you. If not for my team manager in Formula student and the countless people who supported me to go in search of my dream, I wouldn’t be where I am.
I want to become the CTO of a reputed automotive company and also bring my knowledge back to India and help create more interesting jobs in our country. We have many of the most brilliant minds in the world coming from India and a lot of them get out of the country because they don’t find interesting jobs there.
Imagine what we could do if we kept all that talent in India and gave them interesting things to work on. The sky’s the limit to the innovation we can do in our country.