A career shouldn’t be worn down by the weight of societal expectations; Instead, it should be propelled by the power of our true potential and capabilities.
Prasanna Gadkari, our next pathbreaker, Experience Designer at Amazon, designs intuitive and easy to use connected devices/services so that customers can enjoy better experiences from cutting edge technologies such as AI, Smart TVs and other digital channels.
Prasanna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his journey from the most engineering focused company (L&T) to the most customer obsessed company (Amazon), sparked by the curiosity to learn and driven by the determination to transition from Engineering to Product Design and finally, to Experience Design !
For students, a career is never written in stone. Always look around you and try to assimilate knowledge to put your interest and skills to better use because that is the one thing that will make you happy !
Prasanna, tell us about Your background?
I grew up in Pune. I did all my schooling and graduation in mechanical engineering, from this city. My late father was a government servant. Mother is a housewife. My extra-curricular activities were badminton and reading. I had represented my school in badminton tournaments and had read almost all the classics by 10th grade. I was never too bright at studies, my maths skills were weak and I could not draw a straight line in arts, so I never thought about a career in design when I completed my schooling. When I got my first job, again in Pune, at Force Motors (erstwhile Bajaj Tempo), I felt that this is from where I will retire. I dreamt of a nice settled life in a quiet corner of Pune, working as an engineer in one of the automobile companies. Little did I know at that time that I would work for the world’s biggest eCommerce company 15 years later as a designer!
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2005. I was placed in a company called Force Motors (erstwhile Bajaj Tempo) during the campus placements. Though Force Motors was a job, I learnt so much in this company that I will consider those two-and-half years as education. After leaving Force Motors in 2007, I did a post-graduation in Product Design (which is study of creating physical artefacts to solve problems that people face) from IISc (Indian Institute of Science, a premium research institute which was founded in 1909 by Jamsetji Tata), Bangalore in 2009.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
I chose mechanical engineering because in 2001, the year I took admission for this course, Pune catered mainly to the mechanical industry. Folks from Tata Motors, Cummins, Kirloskar Oil Engines, Bharat Forge, etc. were my neighbors. And, according to me, they lived an ideal life. Since my dad was in a government job, it was not the best paying job and we led an average lifestyle. My neighbors had a good life-style since almost all of them were mechanical engineers working for these huge firms. This is when I decided to give mechanical engineering a shot, with a hope of living the lifestyle of my dreams.
Further, after completing my engineering, I got placed on campus in Force Motors in 2005. This was a dream come true at that time. The best part was, I was in the R&D (Research and Development) dept. I used to design the chassis and its components for the Trax vehicle and it’s variants. I earned Rs.13,500, which was more than my dad earned! However I had an educational loan to pay off, so my in-hand salary was quite less.
While working there, I used to make sketches of various mechanical components to explain my ideas to the team. Over the period of the next one and a half years, my sketching grew better. So much so that my general manager there has few of my sketches still framed in his cabin! One day during an executive meeting I ran into a “designer” who used to design the exteriors of the Trax vehicle. I was pretty impressed with his work and spoke with him. He did his MDes from IIT Delhi and was pretty good at sketching. I shared my sketches with him, and he told me how I might be able to clear CEED (Common Entrance Exam for Design, clearing which allows admission for MDes courses at IITs) and do my Masters in Design from one of the IITs. However, to my great dismay, he quit the company in just a couple of months and I did not get the guidance for CEED which I hoped for. However, tThis was exactly when I decided to appear for CEED in 2007..
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
Kirloskar Oil Engines (Summer intern) In 2004, during my bachelors of mechanical engineering, we had to do our final year project. This is where I started hunting for companies offering a 6-months long project. A distant relative of mine, who worked as a general manager in this company essentially offered me this position. Though the position was completely unpaid, it was my first taste of industrial experience. I did not have much choice on the project. They already had identified that we needed to design and manufacture a tool-holder, which would combine two operations on a lathe machine, into one. One more person, Omkar, was also selected as a summer intern, so we formed a team. We used to visit the company every Saturday and design the project bit-by-bit. We realized that we needed to measure how much time the current operation takes, so we conducted a time-motion analysis, much to the annoyance of the workers there. We also carried out many engineering tasks such as selecting material for the tool-holder, analyzing the power consumption, making a CAD (Computer Aided Design, means using a computer to create a accurate, 3D models of machine parts ) model and doing FEA (Finite Element Analysis which is a method to predict how machines and parts will behave when subjected to forces, temperature variations, vibrations, etc.) analysis. In effect, by the end of 6 months, we could actually tell the cost, time and efforts saved because of the tool-holder we designed and manufactured. Strangely, just within a few days of manufacturing the tool-holder, our report caught the attention of senior management of Kirloskar. They made us present it at one of the conferences at IITB.
In 2004, campus interviews started in our college. The top rankers all settled for IT companies which paid a huge salary. Now I always dreamt of working for a mechanical company, so it suited me that I was not eligible for these big-ticket companies in first place because of my low CGPA. I joined Force Motors which placed me in the R&D dept and, thankfully, not the production dept where some of my classmates were assigned. While working at Force Motors, I taught myself sketching and I ran into a designer who gave me an idea that I might go for my masters in design at one of the IITs.
As I had to pay off my education loan, I could not just quit Force Motors to prepare for CEED, so I decided to wait till it was paid off. And finally somewhere in November 2006, I finally resigned from my job, to prepare for CEED 2007, with just about 40 days remaining for CEED. Those days CEED was held in January, so I had very less time to actually prepare. It was a great shock for my family at home when they heard that I had quit my company! But, for me, there was no turning back now!
For my guidance, I had the CEED brochure which had some sample questions and a few notes for preparing for the exam. I did not know anyone from IIT who did MDes and the colleague from Force Motors was no longer in contact, but I was determined to give it my best shot ! Looking at the tips, it was quite clear that CEED was all about the ability to express your ideas in sketches. This is why the first thing I did was to buy sets of A1 size paper to practice sketching. I already had Faber Castell 0.5 mm and 0.7 mm pencils. Those days I worked on my skills from 6 AM in the morning to about 10 PM in the night. I still use them to this date! I had a rough plan. From day 1 to 10, I sketched about 50 objects everyday. For the next 10 days, I sketched human figures. Since I also needed to generate innovative ideas, I searched the internet and found a technique called “Attribute Method”. I practiced thie method for the next 10 days. And in the last 10 days leading to the exam, I solved the previous year papers again and again in a timely manner.
On the day of my exam, though I ran out of time, I completed all the questions. I was not sure how well the exam went, but somewhere in March, one morning, on the day of results, I found out that I stood 7th in India! And my hard work paid off! I joined IISc in their MDes. program. In 2008, I also decided to help anyone who is preparing for CEED, through my blog TeaCupBlog, as a way to giving back to society and so that others wont face the same problems I faced.
The time at IISc was quite hectic and I was lucky enough to get placed at Eaton Corporation in 2009 during campus placements. I joined them as an aerospace engineer and was responsible for designing the control panels and cockpit components for planes such as Embraer and Airbus A380. However at Eaton, the work was quite engineering oriented and I needed to get into more of a design job.
In 2011, I got another break and joined Larsen & Toubro (L&T) as an engineer in their Defense Division. Though I was a designer here, L&T did not have a designation for designer and they called everyone at my level as ‘Engineer’. I was in-charge of the design of highly confidential military projects. In this company, I put my best design skills to practice and was promoted every year. I rose from Engineer, to Senior Engineer, to Assistant Manager and then in 2014, became a Manager, leading design of a complete project.
Then in 2016, after working for a good 5 years at L&T, I decided to switch to UI-UX (UI is User Interface from which a person can give inputs while UX is User Experience which, in short, is the feeling a person using the system gets. The UI-UX designer aims to solve the problems that the users face by providing them a means to interact with a system) from product design. I made a portfolio in just 45 days, applied for about 300 jobs, landed about 30 interviews, all of which I failed to clear! However, with each failure, I learnt what I lacked. I kept updating my skills and portfolio. For those who are curious, I used Adobe Illustrator for the design and uploaded the portfolio on Behance. Then, in a few months, I landed a job as a UI-UX designer in an oil and natural gas giant, Schlumberger. This was a setback for me from a career standpoint. From a position leading a team of 50, I was working with a bunch of freshers! Though my salary was higher, which helped me stop thinking about my degradation, I was still looking out for a job change
In 2017, I got another break as a lead UX designer for Cisco through Zensar. This is where I created some of my coolest designs and I was back on my career track since I was now leading a technical team of UX and UI designers. I built a tool which enabled the sales team to customize their plans and offers for their customers. This boosted the sales of the company. While Cisco was a great company to work, I wished to settle abroad. To this effect, my wife started look for a job in Canada.
In Jan 2019, we obtained a permanent residency for Canada. We landed in Canada in April of 2019. The Canadian job market is quite small compared to India and and it took me another 4 months to find a job. There I joined a company called Canada Life, which is a 150 year old insurance company. I worked as a UX researcher (A person who collects and analyzes the information from potential users) and a UX designer, building digital tools which make the process of selling insurance policies simpler. I was kind of settled down in the city of London, Ontario in Canada, when, due to personal reasons, I needed to leave my job and return to India in Jan 2020. COVID hit immediately upon our return.
In Jan 2020 itself, just within a week of returning, I joined Thoughtworks as a lead UX designer. Here I worked on several social initiatives such as building an app to solve Mumbaikar’s problems for Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. Though it was great, I aspired for something better. In my mind, i needed to get something better in India in return for leaving Canada.
Then in Aug 2020, right during the lockdown, I was selected at Amazon as a UX designer after one of my colleagues referred me there.
How did you get your first break?
My first break into the industry was in Force Motors through a campus interview after my bachelors in mechanical engineering.
First break into design was when I cleared CEED and obtained admission into IISc, Bangalore for my masters in design.
First break as a product designer was when I was placed in Eaton Corporation through campus interview at IISc, after my masters.
First break into UI-UX was when I switched from my position as a Manager in L&T to UI-UX designer at Schlumberger. I made this transition after making a UI-UX portfolio and applying for several interviews.
First break into a top-tech company (Amazon) was when iI was referred here by my former colleague and had to clear more than 12 rounds of interviews before making it through.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
While working at Force Motors, I did not know how to prepare for the CEED exam and yet, using the brochure for guidance and tons of practice, i managed to stand 7th in the country. I still guide students for cracking CEED and getting admission into IITs and NID.
Transitioning from Product design role to a UI-UX role was especially challenging since these two use a very different approach to design. I learnt from some of the bug portfolios and built my own. After about 300 job applications, landing about 30 interviews, and lots of learning, I managed to secure a job as a UI-UX designer.
Even after 3 months of landing in Canada and with a good portfolio, I was unable to secure a job. I kept applying and asking for referrals and was finally able to join Canada Life as a UX designer.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work for Amazon as a UX designer for their devices business (Lab126 which is responsible for devices such as Kindle, Echo, FireTV, Dash, etc.), which is a cross between product design and UI-UX.
I essentially address problems such as designing new and better connected devices and services, so that the customers can live their life better with support from technologies such as artificial intelligence (Amazon Alexa), eBooks (Kindle), smart televisions (FireTV), etc.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
I need to understand the requirements from internal folks such as from Sales, Marketing, Technology, etc. and from external customers who are going to use the products and services that I design. Therefore, 60% of the time, I use my communication skills, which includes presenting my ideas as sketches and documents. I learnt these skills at IISc during my masters.
For about 30% of my time, I need to validate and understand how customers are using the designs and what problems they are facing. For this, I need to talk to them to understand what are the frustrations they face. I learnt these skills through my previous experiences.
Finally, about 10% of the time, I create the designs that solve the problems of our customers. While this is surprising for a designer, Amazon already has much of the technology in place, so even a simple sketch can be converted by the developers into a fully working product. I learnt these skills after coming to Amazon. Therefore I don’t need to go in-depth with design as such.
What is a typical day like?
Unlike most designers, my typical day begins at about 9 AM, with meetings in which the business folks, such as those from Sales, Marketing and Technology discuss the business problems that they wish to solve. For example, they might tell me that the sales figures have gone down and I need to redesign some screens so that the customers can find what they are looking for easily.
Then, I need to spend some time to figure out the best way to identify what went wrong. Then I might speak with customers over a video conference to understand where they face problems. I might typically analyze and present my ideas to business folks or technology folks (such as developers, quality analysts, operations, etc.) on how to solve this problem. Once I get an approval, I would actually design the solution and test it out, if the customers really like it or not. If they like my design, I hand it over to the development to execute. If not, I come up with another design. My day ends around 7.30 PM these days after finishing the calls.
What is it you love about this job?
I love how millions of people use the designs that I create! There’s a huge base of users for Amazon products, so whatever I create would certainly cause an impact on millions of lives! And the best part is I use cutting edge technologies, such as AI, eInk, smart TV, etc. to shape how people live their lives. Thereby I make the lives of millions of people easy.
How does your work benefit society?
What I build is essentially making advanced technologies available and affordable to folks. For example, Alexa, in it’s Amazon Echo form, costs only about Rs.3000. This is a fairly affordable form of Artificial Intelligence which can automate your life, keep you entertained and secure.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I would rather not speak about the confidential happenings at Amazon. However, I would like to share an incident from Canada Life during my stay in Canada in 2019. As stated before, I used to work as a UX researcher and designer for the insurance products at Canada Life. One of my tasks involved speaking to financial advisors all over Canada. The tools that we built were directly used by them and hence it was necessary to understand what problems they faced. One day, I was speaking with an advisor from Nanaimo in British Columbia province of Canada, and I was asking him what he felt about the tool which I was recently designed by me. And he said that he never felt so excited to sell insurance in all these years, which he felt after using the tool I designed! User experience is all about how user feels when they use your design and when I heard that I felt amazing that I was able to make an impact in life of a person! Moments like this make me feel grateful for choosing to be a designer..
Your advice to students based on your experience?
- Be flexible about the career you choose. If one line does not work out for you, please learn the skills needed to switch. It’s foolishness to stick to a career you are not satisfied with.
- Keep looking at what jobs are in good demand and learn skills so that you are always relevant and in high-paying jobs.
- Aim to work for large companies since you will get both the learning and ability to impact lives of millions!
- Give back to the society. Always think about the times when someone helped you selflessly. Focus on doing the same for the others.
Looking at my career transition, I am fairly flexible about my career and thereby, with my future plans. The only fair point I can make is I will keep learning the skills in demand so that I always make an impact with my design.