Architects and structural engineers no longer shy away from ambitious ideas and structures, because there is software that undertakes the mammoth computational tasks required to come up with complex design calculations !

Varada Nambiar, our next pathbreaker, Structural Software Developer at Arup, develops digital tools and software features that help structural engineers to analyze and design simple to complex structures. 

Varada talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about growing up in the Middle East and being awed by the soaring skyscrapers all around her which kindled her desire to pursue structural engineering.

For students, engineering is no longer just about physically building things but also about building digital solutions to help engineers accomplish their goals in an efficient manner !

Varada, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I grew up in the middle east. My dad is a civil engineer who worked his way into project management and mom is a teacher. During my primary years, I remember wanting to be a veterinary doctor when I grow up. But over the years I found myself enjoying Math. Combine that with the stories of work I heard from my dad and the view of soaring skyscrapers I would get every weekend when I went to corniche in Qatar, I slowly decided to pursue Civil Engineering.  

Growing up, I tried my hand at different co-curriculars, from sketching to dancing, classes on abacus to keyboard lessons. This was until I reached 9th grade, after which I focused on academics alone. With the aim to score good grades and get into the top engineering institutes of India, I followed an intense time table for the next 4 years. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued my undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from National Institute of Technology, Calicut. Over there I did my major project on vibration isolation which sparked an interest in dynamics of structures and earthquake engineering. This along with the desire to design skyscrapers led me to pursue Masters in Structural Engineering from BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus. 

What were some of the factors that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

In hindsight, I think a multitude of factors shaped my choices, such as my dad and his stories about work, which definitely laid the foundation for my interest in the construction field, as well as my math teacher who transformed me from someone who couldn’t grasp math concepts to absolutely enjoying solving math sums in school. These factors influenced me in picking a science stream with engineering graphics in my 11th and 12th grade followed by pursuing a Civil Engineering degree. Works of architect Zaha Hadid and structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan were an inspiration. Additionally, the exposure and experience I gathered through my project on vibration isolation paved the way to pursue Masters in Structural Engineering. And most recently my placement at ARUP in the Digital Technology team gradually unfolded the interdisciplinary world of a structural software developer. 

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

Once I figured Civil Engineering was what I wanted to do, I started planning for it. Realizing the intense competition, I devoted long hours after school to academics, from 9th to 12th grade. I spent my summer vacation in coaching institutes and to maximize my chances, gave SAT exams in addition to JEE. Those 4 years of hard work led to a seat in NIT Calicut for Civil Engineering with an SPDC scholarship. My final year major project on vibration isolation sparked an interest into dynamics and earthquake engineering. 

The aim of this project was to maintain a wooden block steady while the model which housed the block would shake, thus isolating the block from vibrations using aluminium strips. The intention was to learn and replicate on a smaller scale, isolating high precision instruments like scanning electron microscopes or laser and optical systems etc, from vibrations induced by factors like a moving train nearby or earthquakes.

Thus in pursuit to upskill myself with the dynamics and concepts of high rise buildings, I gave the GATE exam and joined BITS Pilani, Hyderabad campus to do Masters in Structural Engineering. During my time there, I picked up projects on base isolators to explore the topic and simultaneously prepared for placements. As a turn of events towards the end of my course, I attended the placement process for ARUP which is one of my dream companies. They came for structural software developer roles and so I prepped my programming skills in addition to technical knowledge. Ultimately, I cracked their interview and was offered the role of a structural software developer post a 6 months internship period. This role opened the door to the digital world for me. 

Applying for a software role was unplanned to be honest. My project on vibration isolation had some coding in matlab that we had to do to solve some complex equations, but that was it.  I believe it was the consistent practice I had done to improve coding skills, technical knowledge on structural engineering concepts and my positive can-do attitude towards the challenge of trying an offbeat role that impressed the officials at ARUP.

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was through campus placement. 

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

Challenge 1: Transitioning from a core civil engineering background to that of a software developer was a challenge. Acknowledging this I practiced solving coding challenges and questions, picked up programming concepts and languages from Youtube videos and other internet sources.

Challenge 2: My final year project was on a subject that I considered a challenge. This was because I hadn’t taken that course in my undergraduate year. Hence I put in more effort to understand the basics and self study some of the concepts outside of my course work. There have been times that I would go blank and feel low but I was eventually able to cruise through it with the help of my teammates and my guide.  

Where do you work now? 

Currently I work at ARUP as a structural software developer. 

What problems do you solve?

A structural engineer basically designs buildings, i.e calculates and finds out what the optimum size of beams and columns would be, what capacity of steel bars and concrete is needed etc. The work I do is build software that help structural engineers calculate these figures .

I develop digital tools and software features that help structural engineers to analyze and design simple to complex structures. 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

In my current role, I need structural engineering knowledge to understand and address the problem statement that I am assigned. The structural engineering concepts are then converted into computer codes. Hence programming skills come in handy at this stage. I have so far used languages like C#, C++, JavaScript, VueJs and Python to write codes. Effective communication skills are necessary too as you would have to coordinate and reach out to multiple colleagues and users. 

What’s a typical day like?

Mornings go by addressing and working on the tasks assigned. This involves identifying solutions and the background theory necessary for the functionalities that are next in line to be included into our software product. Once this is sorted the next stage is converting that structural solution into computer code. Hence at this stage I am mostly writing the logic in appropriate programming languages to build the feature or fix any bugs. This is followed by introspection for scope of improvement and review of the code by peers. Evenings are when most of my meetings are scheduled. This generally involves reporting my progress and discussing blockers with the rest of the team. I also attend study clubs organized by the firm to improve my skills. 

What is it you love about this job?

No two tasks have been the same and I am able to learn new concepts as I try to solve each of them. This makes the work exciting and something to look forward to on most days. However, I am most overjoyed when the feature I worked on gets released and structural engineers all over the world get to use it to model and analyse their structures. Knowing that my effort has helped them to accurately and easily conceptualize structures from complex dams, tunnels, bridges, skyscrapers to simple domes, columns, trusses make me happy. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Architects and structural engineers no longer shy away from ambitious ideas and structures. Back in the days, such buildings would require the engineers to do long complex calculations by hand, which is not only tedious but also prone to error. Imagine the disaster when a structural engineer gets it wrong. Today there is software that does this mammoth computational task for them in seconds and helps in making quicker decisions. As a structural software developer, I get to build products that encourage and enable them to dream of pioneering ideas. 

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

This was one of my initial tasks when I joined the firm. My colleague and I were working on a feature that allowed our API product to build an SVG (image) for the sections that were being analysed. This is particularly memorable because, for one, it was my first task, and it was also a work for which I received positive feedback from the users. They appreciated how this feature has been handy as they can now easily incorporate the section’s images into their reports.   

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Identify and seize opportunities. I was someone who set out with a plan. But I was not reluctant to update that along the way and grab opportunities when I saw one. Know that moving with blinders would hinder you from exploring new areas. So explore, identify what works for you and don’t let others’ opinion shake your ways. 

Future Plans?

I would like to dive deeper into digital solutions for engineers, look for ways to improve and produce quality products with my team.