Navigating through a rare career is something like digging a tunnel through a huge mountain that is largely unexplored, and being fully prepared for what you could expect at the other end !

Tushar Bhandari, our next pathbreaker, Tunnel Engineer at SMEC, designs engineering solutions for construction of mountain tunnels and complex underground infrastructure.

Tushar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being exposed to the field of rock engineering and underground structures through an internship that convinced him that the future of infrastructure is underground.

For students, just like a popular field has many opportunities, a niche field provides you an opportunity to be an expert. When you have the patience and the perseverance to excel in the field, success will follow you !

Tushar, tell us about Your background?

I am one of the millions of young people who are doing their small bit for their own good and eventually for the good of their family, country and the world at large. I come from the beautiful city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan where I was born and brought up in a family where most people were into small businesses. My father had a tyre agency and my mother started a jewelry showroom when my younger sister and I could take good care of ourselves. I did my schooling from a CBSE English medium school where I learned a lot of things other than the academic curricula. While for most school going children, that would mean sports but no, I was not at all into sports. I was more involved in organising events, participating in debates, painting and poetry.

Like most students, I was also clueless about my career. Never have I had the answer to the most abused question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Unlike many of my friends, I did not want to be a Doctor or a Pilot or the President of India. I just wanted to be a good human being and a successful man, no matter what field I chose. While this might sound to some like being dis-illusioned, I never felt so. I have always had the confidence that I will somehow make something reasonably good of my life.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that everyone should think like this without a clear goal or aim but what I can certainly suggest is to have trust in yourself and give your best efforts and involvement in the smallest of activities that you do- be it an art assignment in your school or attending a lecture by your math teacher. I believe this helps you in making success with whatever life throws at you and makes you equipped at handling the challenges that will inevitably keep coming in your life.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I was pretty ok in academics (not the topper, but amongst the top five) and got into the science stream for my senior secondary education following the usual trend. I hated mathematics, chemistry, social sciences- you name it. So, believe me, there was no preference for any subject per se. Like most of my friends, I joined coaching classes to prepare for engineering entrance exams. It was only then that I really understood about the various institutions for graduation including IITs.

During my coaching sessions, I had a very different experience of learning mathematics. Our teacher, Mr. RPS Chonkar, was a very different personality. He had a small batch of students and more often than not we used to sit for 3-4 hours solving unique problems in mathematics. Though this could not help me crack the JEE (entrance exam for IITs), it did shape my mind in a very different way and I started enjoying applying analytical thinking to solve problems. I owe this to Chonkar Sir.

Based on my AIEEE score, I then joined Nirma University to pursue civil engineering. The three factors that influenced my decision were, my AIEEE score, Ahmedabad being not too far from my home and that my thinking that my skills in drawing could help me be a good civil engineer. It was only later that I realized, drawing skills and art are more relevant in the architectural field.

After my graduation, I opted to study further and specialize in tunnel engineering through a master’s course in IIT Delhi.

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

I had never really planned on doing post-grad. I think there are three people that contributed to this in my life. Prof. AK Singh who inspired me to attempt the GATE (entrance exam for post-graduation), Prof. Sandeep Trivedi who motivated me to do a voluntary internship from IIT Delhi during my summer vacation and Prof. KS Rao who was my mentor during my internship at IIT Delhi.

During my graduation, I had got a job through campus placement and though i was initially keen on joining, with my father’s support, I decided to pursue further education and joined IIT Delhi. Though I did not study a lot even at IIT, I made sure that I sincerely attended all lectures and respected my professors. After completing two semesters in IIT, I got an opportunity to grab a DAAD scholarship for doing my master’s dissertation work in Germany through the University of Stuttgart. My professor in IIT, Prof. KG Sharma was instrumental in guiding me through this.

Without me realising, I was now building a good CV that would help people believe in my worth. It was these non-compulsory initiatives and time investments that set me apart from the rest.

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

This field is a very rare career choice. This is mostly because of the lack of early planning by our academia and the absolute lack of good institutions that offer specialization in such fields. As I mentioned earlier, I came to know about this career option during my internship at IIT Delhi. It was under Prof. KS Rao who was heading the rock mechanics laboratory in IIT Delhi. He invited students across India to do a free internship during their vacation time. As a part of the internship we also got exposure to the field of rock engineering and underground structures and Prof. Rao explained to us how the future of infrastructure is underground.

I concurred with his thoughts and the sheer uniqueness of the engineering involved in designing underground infrastructure inspired me to pursue this career.

The scholarship is offered every year through a special program open only to IITs where students interested in doing research in Germany are invited. Students need to have a guiding Professor in IIT and apply directly to Professors in Germany with their research proposal. After you get an acceptance of the proposal and an invite from a German University Professor, you can apply for the scholarship. DAAD funds your stay in Germany for the research work. I sent a proposal to Prof. Moorman of University of Stuttgart and since he knew Prof KG Sharma from IIT Delhi, it sort of helped him decide on accepting my proposal.

In Germany, I was a part of the research on development of a special numerical method “Material Point Method” and its application to simulate geotechnical problems. The topic I chose was to simulate and analyse impact of debris flow or landslide. I won’t get into the technical details but the challenge here was to model large movements of slope debris which is not possible using the conventional approaches like Finite Element Method.

How did you get your first break?

While I was studying in Germany, though I could not participate in the campus placements at IIT Delhi, i got my first job at SMEC (Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation) through a reference by Prof. KG Sharma. I was lucky enough to get a job in an MNC and join a team of engineers of different nationalities. My first boss, manager and mentor was Mr. Michael Kastner (a renowned name in the field of tunnel engineering). Michael gave me full freedom, a lot of support and had unwavering faith in me. This motivated me to do more and better in designing tunnels and other underground infrastructure. We ventured into new technologies and built new capabilities for our team and this was a wonderful experience.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

Life is anyway full of dilemmas and if you are in a niche field, there are definitely a lot more. The challenge is to hold your ground. While in some popular fields like IT will have umpteen number of opportunities available for students or engineers to choose from, it is not so when you are a tunnel engineer. So, getting accelerated growth by switching companies is something not on your platter. But my approach was different. I wanted to stay in a company, follow a steep learning curve and prove my worth. While understanding the limited options available for a job in tunnel engineering, I appreciated the value a niche field can carry if you are really good at it. There is by and large no competition and its all about quality advice. At a very young age, I was in a position to give expert advice to people 30-40 years older than me and these were all on multi-million dollar projects. To summarise, the challenge was to keep the patience and perseverance going. And then, as they say it- success follows you.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

I still work at SMEC. I worked as a Tunnel Engineer for about 4 years. During this time, I designed engineering solutions for construction of mountain tunnels. The recently inaugurated Atal Tunnel was also a project that I worked on. Other tunnels included tunnels for hydropower projects like Tehri Pumped storage project, Vishnugarh Pipalkoti hydroelectric project and others.

With the support and inspiration from my manager, I pursued a further specialisation in NATM (New Austrian Tunneling Method) from Austria. This was a part-time professional course which I could do alongside my job. I was required to attend four 3-week long courses over four semesters. This was combinedly offered by Graz University and Montan University of Austria. My work as a tunnel engineer required special skills as tunnel engineering is a niche field and there aren’t many universities offering courses in this field. This in fact is an advantage that many tunnel engineers enjoy. The art of constructing tunnels is a really fascinating and exciting exercise and has many challenges involved due to the uncertainties involved with what you will face while digging a tunnel through a huge mountain that is largely unexplored.

In 2018 I was identified as a young leader in SMEC and posted to Dhaka, Bangladesh to train under top management professionals and leaders in the South Asian business of SMEC. Our COO, Dr. Uma Maheswaran believed in young talent and drove this initiative. Following my posting in Dhaka, I undertook other stints- a business development role in Tokyo, Japan and leading a design team for rail and metro in Bangalore, India. The variety of exposure I got, has helped me develop as a professional and understand different facets of an engineering consultancy ranging from engineering calculations, managing design teams, business development, human resource management and financial management of a business.

How does your work benefit society? 

Being a civil engineer is a very proud and enriching experience as it gives me the satisfaction of seeing your designs being built. Not only do we help people improve their lives by building infrastructure such as tunnels, roads and bridges but also contribute to the growth of the nation’s economy. When you realise that a tunnel built in high mountains will shorten travel time for people, give them all weather connectivity and connect remote parts of India to the cities, it’s a pleasant feeling of pride, satisfaction and contentment.

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

During my initial days at SMEC, I acquired a new skill for myself as well as my company- 3-dimensional numerical modeling of underground excavations. With this, we could simulate a complex underground excavation process that would involve hundreds of small construction steps over many months of construction time. We could visualise the whole excavation process in advance and analyse its impact. This way we could provide innovative engineering solutions to our clients for building complex infrastructure underground. This was and remains a memorable experience for me.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My only advice to students is to sincerely put effort and dedication into whatever you do. Don’t mop the floor half-hearted and don’t spend months in a company to get salary in your account. Success is all about the journey and not about hitting a goal post. If you take every small step with passion and joy, you will make a beautiful journey through your life. Another suggestion will be to reach out for advice to whoever you think will be able to advise you on something. Learning from others’ experience and mistakes will help you avoid some in your journey.

Future Plans?

I am about to move again to Dhaka to support and lead our engineering design centre there. My plan is to build and nourish a team of good engineers and deliver projects that make a meaningful impact on people’s lives.