A career transition from core research to technical sales is daunting, to say the least, because there doesn’t seem to be anything in common between them !

Parvathy K G, our next pathbreaker, Area Sales Manager for Power Quality Products, Hitachi Energy (Sweden), manages the sales of power capacitors and filter products for HVDC applications.

Parvathy talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about making the hardest decision to venture out of her comfort zone and leveraging the transferrable skills that she acquired during her PhD, in order to adapt to the new role.

For students, we acquire lots of skills throughout our career and life. You never know when those skills might come in handy, never underestimate the power of learning !

Parvathy, can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in a middle-class family in Trivandrum, Kerala. My father was a government employee, and my mother is a homemaker. Looking back at my childhood, the first and foremost thing that comes to my mind is how my parents enthusiastically supported my education despite all their financial hardships. The career I am enjoying today is the mere result of their sacrifices and constant support. Right from my childhood I always enjoyed learning and exploring new things. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I hold a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from Marian Engineering College in Trivandrum. Further, I pursued a master’s programme in Marine Structures at National Institute of Technology Karnataka (NITK) Surathkal where I was exposed to knowledge of wave hydrodynamics, design of coastal/offshore structures, coastal management, oceanography and more. After a short industrial exposure at Danish Hydraulic Institute (DHI, India) as Coastal Engineer, I decided to pursue doctoral studies in the broad area of coastal oceanography at Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT Kharagpur) visualizing a full-fledged research career.

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

My career journey didn’t take a straight path till date. I witnessed several twists and turns. Looking back, I could say it was challenging and a real learning experience. My parents, teachers, colleagues and my friends are the key influencers who provided me with meaningful opportunities and support to expand and grow in my life and career. I wouldn’t have made it so far without their guidance and support. If I mention names, it would be a very long list. 

I am indeed privileged to have had great mentors who believed in me and gave big breaks in my career. Their advice and encouragement gave me comfort when I had to travel through difficult times in my career. They helped me evolve both professionally and personally. I continue to owe Prof. Prasad K Bhaskaran, Dr, K.V. Thomas, Deepak Moothedath, Prof. G.S Dwarakish, Prof. Ramesh H, Ajay Mishra, Dr, Ruchi Kalra, Dr. Flemming Jacobsen, a great debt of gratitude to this moment as their influence on the course of my life cannot be overstated. 

How did you plan the steps to pursue the career you wanted? 

Though engineering was never my first choice, pursuing civil engineering for my undergraduation was completely my choice. My uncle, Suresh Kumar, who is my mother’s cousin, used to help me with my science project exhibitions at school. He has been one of my inspirations during my childhood. I used to see him conducting land surveys, preparing plans and maps for civil engineering projects etc. Even though I didn’t envisage it as a career option, I was fascinated by the activities involved, for example designing buildings and structures, preparing building plans, land surveying etc. This helped me to swiftly decide the branch of studies when I had to choose engineering. But when I joined the programme, I came to know that civil is a core engineering branch and had several subbranches and immense career opportunities. My personal favourites were transportation, water, and environmental engineering.   

In the second year, I realized that though we had campus placement in our college, hardly any civil engineering companies came for the recruitment drive. So, I started to think about my options after my B.Tech course. I came up with two strategies, a main and a backup career goal. Cracking the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) which is mandatory for admission to postgraduate courses offered by MHRD supported institutes and other government colleges like IITs, IISc, NITs, and GFTIs was my primary goal. I cracked the gate examination in my first attempt during my fourth year. It was certainly a challenge for me to prepare for this examination in my final year as I am not good at multitasking. Many people demotivated me since they believed that it is difficult to crack gate in the first attempt and it’s a herculean task to achieve it in the final year. But I would like to highlight that if you believe in yourself and focus on something with the right strategy and a dedicated mind, you will be able to achieve it. 

My GATE rank got me admission into my preferred college, NITK Surathkal, but my rank wasn’t adequate to fetch me my preferred branch of studies. Though I was a bit depressed in the beginning, I felt good when I explored the Marine Structures course under the Department of Applied Mechanics and Hydraulics, which I was offered in my final allotment. The syllabus seemed interesting and I realised that this field of study has good demand and good job opportunities. 

I became more and more excited during my coastal oceanography lectures. Oceans and their related processes are so interesting, and my curiosity grew as time passed. I had been to a seminar organized by the Danish Hydraulic Institute (DHI) on our campus and after the seminar I aspired to work in their team but didn’t know how. My professor at NITK recommended that I try for an internship at National Centre for Earth Science Studies (NCESS) in Trivandrum as they use MIKE software developed by DHI for their research studies. One of my friends and I applied and got the internship at NCESS. It was indeed a turning point in my career. Even today, I carry forward the motivation and the lessons we learned during this period, and I considered them truly invaluable till date. The work we carried out at the institute won the best paper award at conferences and a part of my MTech. thesis work was selected for an international poster competition in Canada where i travelled with full scholarship. But most importantly, it sparked my interest and passion for research. Towards the end of my MTech course, I got my most awaited dream job in DHI. 

Although I really loved working at DHI, I had to leave since I got admission and scholarship for my doctoral studies at Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. It was indeed a tough call for me to choose between my dream job and my ambition to embark on a doctoral programme. However, I decided to pursue doctoral studies to procure a broader and deeper knowledge base to support me in my future endeavours.

How did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Since graduation, I have spent most of my time away from my family and home. I was really obsessed with my career. Though I grew up in a very conservative environment, my parents were quite open and supported me in all my endeavours. I dedicated my PhD thesis to my parents and had this big dream to take my parents for my doctoral convocation as a token of love and gratitude for their tremendous support. But life is sometimes unexpected. I lost my father just 1 month after my PhD defense. 

Earlier in my life, everything felt so invincible. This sudden incident and personal loss felt so unacceptable and was traumatic. I didn’t get much time to grieve as I had to stay strong and support my family. Consequently, it affected me and slowly my ambitions and dreams started to erode, and I wasn’t feeling any passion or interest to climb the career ladder. This personal loss completely changed my perspective about life and career. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus rightly said that nothing is permanent except change. It made me really think about how I was living my life. I decided to take a break from everything. I moved to Sweden since my husband is living in Sweden. Often people scare you by talking about career gap and all. But I took a leap of faith and decided to take things slowly just for my own sake. I decided to focus on something new. So, I invested the major portion of my time and effort in learning Swedish language as it was a necessity for my integration in Sweden. 

I had financial commitments that I took over when my father passed away, so I didn’t feel comfortable taking longer breaks. After some time, I started applying for jobs. Most of my seniors and friends opted for postdoctoral research roles after completion of their doctoral studies. I applied for a few postdoctoral positions, but after a few applications, I discontinued applying for those positions as I realised it is something I was not interested in and it was not my ultimate career goal. Though I like the academic environment, I didn’t really have that impulse to join any postdoctoral programme as I didn’t wish to pursue an academic career.  I needed a transition out of academic settings and wanted to try an industrial position. 

Unfortunately, I found it difficult to find an industrial job in my area of study in Sweden as most of the jobs in my field demanded Swedish language proficiency. I could find several opportunities in my field of expertise outside Sweden, but relocation wasn’t my first choice as I found Sweden to be the ideal place for me due to several reasons.

While I continued my search for industrial jobs and, my friend informed me about an internship opportunity with Hitachi Energy in the broad area of technical sales. I was a bit confused and scared when I got the first thought of deviating to a different career which I knew nothing about. Luckily, one of my mentors contacted me to discuss some work and I shared my dilemma with him. He reminded me that the knowledge we acquire and the tools in which we develop expertise will always be useful at some point of time. He advised me to think thoroughly and make a sensible decision.

I decided to explore this internship opportunity and to go for a trial run to get a feel about this new field. This is how I decided to embark on a new career journey within Technical Sales. During this career transition from engineering to research and then to technical sales and marketing, I realized that many transferable skills I acquired during my PhD such as learning ability, problem solving, project management, teamwork, communication skills which didn’t seem much important at that time turned out useful in my new role. Five years of research experience during my doctoral studies and earlier have helped me to acquire people-oriented, systems-oriented, and self-oriented competencies. Also, the doctoral programme makes one capable of exploring new areas of knowledge with the eagerness and capacity to learn. 

How did you get your first break?

The internship opportunity at NCESS was my first break as it offered me a new dimension to my career and sparked my interest in research. 

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

Reviewing all the challenges I had in my career, the toughest one so far was my career transition from the broad area of civil and coastal engineering into technical sales. 

When I first knew about the internship opportunity in technical sales, I was scared for several reasons. I had limited time to decide. When I am so confused or need to make a difficult decision, there is an exercise I usually follow. I recognize and write down my priorities and then list out and analyze the possible options, their benefits, and drawbacks. This activity helps me to reflect and structure my thoughts, thereby helps in deciding calmly based on my responses. So, I decided to get past my fears and say yes to this opportunity. I thought of it as a gateway to acquire new knowledge and industrial experience. In addition, it could also be an advantage in my job search, but seriously I had no plans of career transition when I first started this internship. 

During my first week of internship, the difficult part wasn’t my new role as sales engineer but my self-doubts about my ability to take on this new role. I have never felt this way throughout my entire career, and it wasn’t as empowering as it was stressful. Being an ambivert, I wasn’t comfortable at first as this field generally requires an extroverted nature to progress and succeed. As I was struggling in the initial days, my partner helped me build my confidence and suggested that I implement the same approach I practiced in research. Moreover, my colleagues and mentor were extremely thoughtful. Their invaluable support and willingness to share knowledge helped me to learn things more quickly than I expected, and my level of confidence improved exponentially. Though I didn’t have direct experience in the field, the transferable skills from my research career came handy in this new role. I read through several articles on the website such as cheekyscientist.com and forbes.com and learned how to put my skills to use in my new role. Eventually, I noticed that my frequency of applying for other jobs reduced significantly. I don’t know exactly when I developed real interest for this new career. I faced several challenges in my new job, but it was exciting and addictive. I felt wonderful to be a part of this company and I experience a sense of job satisfaction. Career transition was really one of the hardest decisions I made in my life, but I consider it as one the best times of my life, for the lessons and experiences it offered. It made me capable to venture out of my comfort zone and indeed made me comfortable to embrace the fear of change. 

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

I am currently working as Area Sales Manager with Power Quality Products (Capacitors and Filters), Hitachi Energy in Sweden, which develops, manufactures, and sells capacitor and filter products on a global market. We address challenges due to poor power quality and offer power quality products, services, and solutions to our customers in the utility industry and infrastructure sectors. A better understanding of power quality and its significance for a reliable and greener grid is discussed in this article. Hitachi Energy develops and manufactures a comprehensive range of capacitors and filters solutions based on the superior and latest technology with a focus on sustainability and efficiency. They help in enhancing the power quality of electrical networks by eliminating disturbances and improving power factor in line with the grid requirements while minimising environmental impacts. 

In the current role, I am mainly responsible for the sales of power capacitor and filter products for HVDC applications. The current role offers opportunity to ensure that the Business Unit (BU) global sales and marketing strategies are implemented to increase the sales, margins, market share and customer satisfaction in the assigned region. 

I started my career in Technical Sales as an intern with ABB. During my internship at ABB Sweden AB, I was assigned the role of Sales Engineer with high voltage products (Capacitors and Filters) and transitioned into my present role after one year. It’s worth mentioning the historical merging of Hitachi and ABB’s Power Grids’ business and that’s how I became a part of Hitachi Energy.

In both the roles, the primary responsibilities include tendering, where we prepare technical/commercial offers by translating customer requirements into appropriate technology solutions & proposals, preparation of full cost model, performing risk reviews as needed by the projects, follow-up on sales opportunities to give best forecasting to the management etc. In the tender process, first step is reviewing and analysing of the customer’s request for quotation (RFQ) and tender specifications. Based on the customer requirements specification, we develop technical solutions and then prepare the techno commercial offer where we take care of commercial and technical aspects of the offers, including product selection, scope of supply, sales price, commercial terms & conditions as well as timely delivery of offer to the customer. Finally, when the project is won, we hand it over  to our project team for successful project execution. 

The career in technical sales is rewarding and has seemingly endless opportunities for professional and personal growth. I would like to reiterate what Anhel Alickovic, Head of Business Development, JustPark once quoted, “when done correctly, it’s a great combination of social interactions, project management, negotiation and analytics. Every day is an exciting challenge…”. If you would like to read more about this career option, I would like to recommend you to see this article.

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

This role generally requires a background in engineering/ business/ finance, computer skills, knowledge in sales and marketing, tender management and soft skills such as proactive nature, good planning and organisational skills, good communications and writing skills, positive attitude, service minded, good interpersonal skills, team spirit etc. This is a role where communications skills will really be useful while working with customers and stake holders. 

One of the main skills we naturally acquire during PhD is ability to learn, and this has helped me in the acquisition of new knowledge related to power quality products and processes involved in this job. Also, the training during the internship period has helped to a great extent to gain experience in sales processes, tender management etc. I also had an extensive support from my colleagues during my initial learning phase and I am still learning every day. 

What’s a typical day like?

A typical working day is 8 hours long. But the work culture in Sweden promotes flexibility and agile working. It is more focused on a positive work life balance ensuring feel good at the workplace. 

How does your work benefit society? 

At Hitachi Energy, our purpose is advancing a sustainable energy future for all and together with customers and partners, we pioneer technologies and enable the digital transformation required to accelerate the energy transition towards a carbon-neutral future. 

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

The research work I carried out under the guidance of Prof. Prasad K Bhaskaran towards my doctoral thesis during my PhD is very memorable and close to me. The mangroves dominated Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) delta in the Sundarbans, encompassing the head Bay of Bengal region is one such complex and dynamic deltaic ecosystem dominated by intermittent silt and muddy bottom layers covering one of the largest contiguous mangrove forests in the world. The present study carried out a set of numerical hindcasting experiments using available inputs to improve the wave modelling skills for mud and vegetated dominated part of this deltaic environment bordering northern Bay of Bengal. In brief, the global interest of my doctoral thesis was to deliver an improved regional modelling system for a data sparse area, the Head Bay of Bengal by comprehending the effect of vegetation (mangroves) and geomorphology (muddy seafloor) on the nearshore wave climate. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I have experienced ups and down, success and hardships, appreciation, and misunderstandings and more in my career. I had both good and difficult times in my career. But the difficult times were my best teachers and furthermore it contributed to my good times and growth. It has indeed pushed me out of my comfort zone. I would simply like to repeat the words of Jack Canfield that it’s only by moving out of your comfort zone into the unknown that you are capable of acquiring the skills and experience you need to reach your highest potential. 

From my personal experience, I feel it’s very important to focus on preparing ourselves for the life’s curveballs. The one thing I follow now is observing and learning from other’s experiences. I read biographies and autobiographies. We often focus on success stories and see only the bigger pictures of success. Recently I started reading stories of failures. Like success stories, they don’t have a pleasant ending, but the journey alone will bring you a lot of learning which might help you in your journey.  

With the journey I have had so far, I believe that sincere and passionate efforts will always be rewarded for sure no matter how messy or hard it gets in the middle. Just be courageous and empathetic.

Future Plans?

First and foremost, my focus is on creating harmony between my career and personal life. Realizing life is short, I choose to live life to the fullest, each day, enjoy every moment I spend with my family, friends, colleagues, and all. More importantly I am focusing on becoming a better human being and finding meaningful ways to contribute to society. 

Thinking in terms of career, I am now trying to learn and build experience in the field of Business Development and strategies.