A critical aspect of design that is often overlooked is the element of sound and its impact on the surrounding environment whether it is a workplace, institution or a residential space !

Roopa Krishnamurthy, our next pathbreaker, Acoustical Engineer & Consultant, addresses soundproofing challenges, building noise problems, speech intelligibility predictions, speech privacy and acoustical quality concerns in architectural spaces.

Roopa talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the excitement of working in an inter-disciplinary field that encapsulates everything from design, materials to engineering, not only to conceal noise but also to get so much detail out of seemingly nothing.

For students, though you might not have all the answers to your concerns early-on in your career, its perfectly fine to trust your instincts and take a leap of faith because you learn a lot from your experiences !

Roopa, Your background?

I’m the older of two siblings. My parents were both working in nationalized banks and retired from there after 40 years of service. We were transferred a couple of times, though we managed to stay long years in most places. I primarily grew up in Bangalore, Delhi and then back to Bangalore. I was in Delhi through KG till 7th, and then in Bangalore from 7th till 2ND P.U.C (eqvt of 12th). I had the privilege of going to fantastic schools that set the tone for our ability to interact with others and to develop ourselves as well-rounded personalities. Our parents encouraged a lot of reading and our home was often the library for the whole colony. My parents also had a keen interest in music and we had a grand music system at an otherwise modest home. Our childhood is filled with memories of music playing early in the morning. We learnt so much by osmosis that later my interest branched off to playing musical instruments as well. Again there my parents invested more than what one would’ve deemed appropriate. I think the one thing that always stood out is that our parents believed in our abilities and were very positive forces. They never pressurized us to stand first in class, but wouldn’t accept anything less than an A+. Later I chose an offbeat place to do my engineering at and they backed that decision as well, much as they didn’t want it. The icing on the cake was their support for a master’s degree on a hefty education loan, when even I had no idea of the jobs in that industry. No one had ever heard of an acoustical engineer for hundreds of miles around me. I had no answers to “where will you typically get a job”. etc. Their support continues to this date where I depend on them to handle my kids occasionally so that I can get some work/travel done. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?  

I did my B.E. in Electronics and Communications from Visvesvaraya Technological University and Masters in Audio Acoustics from The University of Salford. This course has two modules in Transducer design and so people with a background in electronics will find it familiar. An engineering degree places you at an advantage with respect to the math involved, but really, this course attracts people from all kinds of backgrounds and there are no hard and fast requirements for admission beyond having a numerate graduate degree. The university now offers an elective in environmental science as well. Please look up the website for the latest information. We were awed by the depth of most topics, and it’s a completely different approach from the way undergraduate degrees are taught. The assignments force you to think and play with parameters and see what contributions each one makes to the premise. The course contents form a good base for a PhD. There is one week of lab work per semester. The subject offers very wide scope in terms of research interests and one could branch off into fields as varied as microphone and speaker design for mobile companies or speaker OEMs to building acoustics and environmental noise, to say aircraft noise control simulations, or underwater acoustics. You really come out knowing how much you don’t know :-).  The course is highly theoretical and mathematically intense, though at the end of each chapter enough discussion happens on where the topics would apply in real life.

It’s now possible to do a diploma in Acoustics accredited by the Institute of Acoustics, UK. This is a remote learning option. This is a boon for kids who want to study this without bearing costs of living in UK.

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

I studied engineering like all the rest of us. It didn’t spark any joy and I wondered where my love of science had vanished. I came out and did odd stints to try and find what I like, and then a cousin of mine came in and spoke of life outside and told us to go out and do a masters. That clinched it and I dedicated the next year or so prepping for GRE and getting my recos and applications. One of the jobs I was in at that time was that of a technical writer and I quite enjoyed it. It’s always thought of as second tier to that of dev, devops and testing, but that didn’t bother me. It definitely seemed more exciting than other things around me. I also explored jobs of research associates but chose TW (Technical Writing) eventually. I got through at a start-up and loved how we were coming up with the processes as we went along! It was an embryonic environment and demanded long working hours. Just before the visa interview, I literally saw an ad in the paper about a university from the UK coming in to look for students, and the courses they offered made me feel joy in my heart after YEARS. I’d forgotten what that feeling was like. Just for a lark I went for the interview, and got selected and they even offered me a scholarship. This was the Univ. Of Salford, and the course was a master’s degree in Audio Acoustics. I remember taking up obnoxious amounts of time at the interview where it was more about me asking them a thousand questions about the course, which they very kindly answered. While I got my admits – one at U. Cal Riverside for a master’s in DSP, the other at Salford, I had to choose, and choose fast. I couldn’t, because I didn’t have enough information to compare. My heart was clearly walking on the M.S in Acoustics, but I needed to find out what kind of job I’d be in, because I’d be taking a huge loan to do this. The loan in itself wasn’t a problem (having parents in the advances department of nationalized banks is a HUGE unfair advantage :P). But I wasn’t sure of my job options, and it seemed like there were none in India at least. A cousin of mine put me in touch with a construction industry colleague who dealt with acoustical products, and that person was very encouraging about the master’s in Acoustics. It was clear that there’re less than a handful of people doing this in India. I was very clear from the outset that while I might work for a while abroad, I’d never settle down there and that India was my home. So I deferred my admits to both universities for a year so that I had time to mull over this. The universities agreed to hold my documents for a year, and I could reapply next year by paying only the application fees and resume my admission process. I continued to work as a technical writer in that time, and grew to love that field too. I was already 25 years old then, and my parents didn’t take very kindly to the idea of me staying in that field till the age of 30, getting 5 years work – ex , and then doing the masters. :P. They put it in no uncertain terms that if there was any master’s degree I wanted to do, I had to do it now. (Yes, woman, biological clock ticking, all that). 

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 my undergrad in 2002 (post recession), I worked for 5 months as a Technical support engineer, of which 1 month was soft skills training. I quite enjoyed that – it really makes a difference as to how you speak and how you come across in the industry. 

My next job was as Technical Writer at Open Clovis, a startup, high speed environment. I loved cutting my teeth on documentation here. I decided to go to the UK to do my master’s degree after that.

After doing some feasibility analysis and still with no clear answers with respect to job prospects, I went with the knowledge that I’ll come back to India in the worst case, and if jobs still haven’t materialized here, I’ll at least go back to technical writing and be able to pay back my EMI with what I was already making. 

I received a 2000 GBP fee waiver from the University, even though I didn’t really qualify in terms of the marks. That was quite a leap of faith on their part. They said my performance in the interview was decently impressive and they’re willing to extend the scholarship to include me. 

I came back after coursework and worked on my thesis remotely from Bangalore. I Joined Unisys after a year. 

I joined Unisys as a technical writer post the 2008 recession because I needed to pay my EMI.This was a much more organized environment where I learnt about processes and documentation standards etc. After my marriage, I took an interruption on the thesis. I then quit my job in 7 months to complete my thesis. 

How did you get your first break?

I literally googled for acoustical consultants, called up the first one and asked them if I could work for them.This was MMG Acoustical Consultants. I loved the exposure I got there over the next two years. Post delivery of my first child- due to the kid frequently falling sick and due to my mom-in-law’s health issues , I found that I couldn’t keep up meeting schedules. It’s okay to cancel your own meeting but you can’t cancel meetings that someone else has set up for you on their behalf. I slowly tapered off and quit to spend more time at home. Eventually my husband and father in law got me to start out on my own and by the time my first born was 8 months old, I got started with my own firm. I hired a nanny, and started going out once I was comfortable with how she handled my kid. Things picked up decently. I hired a cook after I got my first out of state project. Soon there was a steady flow and I was quite comfortable income-wise. Able to manage my EMI, maids, kids expenses, etc. 

At MMG acoustics, I was exposed to a wide range of projects – from hotels and hospitality to educational institutes to corporate spaces and offices. While the principal , Mr. Mathew took responsibility for the design, my role was primarily to attend meetings on his behalf and keep track of any design issues. I sometimes took measurements, surveyed sites to check for potential acoustical issues, etc. My stint there also laid the ground for good business ethics and I am glad I didn’t go off on other paths that exist. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Household duties, parenting duties  were a constraint for someone just starting out at an age when they should’ve settled. There was limited time in the day, I used to lose sleep in the night, I practically worked 3 shifts on many days. I had to make up for every time the kid fell sick, the babysitter or cook didn’t turn up, and managed to stay functional through the day with less than 4 straight hours of sleep on most days. But that was really abusing my body’s tolerance. I don’t get away with it now. It helped that I really enjoyed my work and I could work from home in days when it wasn’t the norm. That really helped my child to feel more secure. My husband took care of all the household bills, the EMIs, etc, and I only had to manage my maids and the kids. So that was a nice thing, else I would’ve chased a job with a salary. 

Challenge 2: Getting time for exercise. It’s the first thing to go out of the window when everything is on your plate. 

Challenge 3: Doing justice to everything. After a few years, my attention to detail suffered due to sleeplessness. But people trudge on and so did I, with a generous amount of help from my parents for babysitting on days that I had to travel or on weekends when I had to make up for time lost during the week. I have had to handle my kids with a bit of help from the maids, and so I never took up more than 18-19 projects at a time. This has a downside in that your payments are staggered and so the size of those projects should ideally exceed twice of what you want to make in a year. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve? 

I solve soundproofing, building noise, speech intelligibility predictions, speech privacy and acoustical quality concerns in architectural spaces. Speech intelligibility predictions are important in public spaces for clear understanding during broadcast of evacuation messages. Speech quality is important in conference rooms, lecture halls and auditoriums and is one of the most significant factors to keep the audience engaged. 

What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills? 

You need to understand wave propagation and its interaction with various types of materials. It helps to choose the right products and wade through a horde of snake oil sellers unflinchingly.  We’re often called in for retrofit work where people think they can guess what these products do. Every now and then they don’t get away with their experimentation and so we are called to fix that. A keen eye for detail is essential. One needs to know what’s happening on every millimeter of the building. It’s a very interdisciplinary field where we have to look at all other building services too – electrical, plumbing, HVAC system, 

What’s a typical day like? 

That’s changed because of the pandemic. Otherwise also it’s generally unpredictable, depending on the workload and travel. I get to bum out in the middle of the week if I want to, and I have to do late nights and early mornings when things land up together. I cap my projects even now and don’t take up everything indiscriminately. It’s hard to find trained help in this field and it’s more painful to work with people with half-baked ideas. I’ve learnt to pick my battles:-). But there’s a growing crowd of enthusiasts in this field and it’s good to see youngsters showing interest. 

What is it you love about this job? 

The beauty of how so much detail can come out of seemingly nothing, how science is unfailingly accurate, how miraculous the human hearing mechanism is, and what kind of exponential numbers are concealed by seemingly daily noises. The converse is true as well – because it eventually boils down to how much of what material is put where, it is something any carpenter can execute – and so we’re faced with a whole bunch of people who have no understanding of the science and will treat everything as a textbook case. We have the whole spectrum though. 

How does your work benefit society? 

We help apartments get a good night’s sleep by designing good enclosures for nearby noise sources, which are plentiful in cities where zoning isn’t strictly followed. We help corporates and architects get things right at the first go, with the minimum necessary changes, to avoid functionality issues for spaces that are primarily meant for the spoken word. Examples – auditoria, conference rooms, lecture halls, etc. 

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

A home theater I did recently where I really got to do most of what I wanted, and the results were so beautiful! 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Guard your sleep time like your life depended on it. It does. Ladies, don’t fall for the superwoman trap. Make sure any standard you’re living up to are set by you, not anyone else. And if you’re following standards set by others, make sure they’ve walked a mile in your shoe and are not just speaking out of an ivory tower. Only take advice that comes out of experience. Gentlemen, have the integrity to make a fair comparison. And regardless of your gender, choose your role models wisely. Don’t compromise on downtime to decompress from the demands of the day. Time is not just money, time is all you have. Spend it wisely. Invest in yourself, keep sharpening the axe even when there are 100 trees to cut. Learn to clean your own mind of biases first, only then you can see through other people’s. And what you have is what you’re invested in. So make sure you invest yourselves in what you want to have around you. 

Future Plans? 

Very fluid. I have a thousand other things I also want to do, so I’m quite happy finding enough time to do a few wonderful side projects that will hopefully take shape soon.