Large scale rail manufacturing projects need to be time bound in order to meet the delivery commitments to governments, which ultimately benefits society through latest technologies !

Kaustav Sen, our next pathbreaker, Project Planner at Alstom ( previously Bombardier ), analyzes data and coordinates with multiple stakeholders to take decisions proactively, in order to avoid any cost or time overruns in the delivery of trains, and in case they do occur, minimize their impact. 

Kaustav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his transition from his first job in IT to a career in core mechanical engineering, with immensely greater responsibilities.

For students, It is possible that the career you wanted and the one you begin with are not the same, do not lose heart. Strive to be the best at your job and you will always get better opportunities to grow.

Kaustav, can you take us through your background?

Hi !I grew up in Dhanbad, Jharkhand and completed my Class 12 from Delhi Public School, Dhanbad. I opted for the PCMB stream during my +2 years, which kept both medical and engineering options open.

I used to play some table tennis and play the guitar and was generally interested in finding out how machines worked.

My parents are teachers; father was an IIT professor and my mother was a high school teacher, now they lead a peaceful retired life.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I chose Mechanical Engineering for graduation. 

I completed my B.Tech from Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology, Sikkim, followed by a Post Graduate Programme from NICMAR, Pune. Currently I am pursuing M.Tech from BITS Pilani.

For the PGP course, my subject was Project Engineering Management and for the M.Tech course, Manufacturing Management.

Why did you decide to pursue such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I had been introduced to machines and mechanisms at an early age. So, the curiosity about how machines work was already there. After school, I had both the options to become a doctor or an engineer available to me. Mechanical engineering felt like the natural calling and I went ahead with it. This branch being considered a core branch was helpful, since it lets you branch out if you feel so at a later date.

My parents and teachers have been the key influencers and mentors who helped me with my career options. The fact that in my earlier generations, there are multiple engineers in the family, must have subconsciously influenced me to lean towards engineering rather than medical.

I had visited a few mines with my father and was fascinated by the huge machines working there and would be quite interested to know their specs and capabilities. The fact that mechanical engineers can branch on to become automobile engineers later, made the branch even more lucrative for me.  

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

Despite being a mechanical engineer, my first job was as a software engineer (tester) at CapGemini India in 2013. I got placed via campus placements. That year, there were rumors that the job market was unstable and hence, the urge to earn and have my own money had me grabbing the first opportunity that came my way.

Along with other batchmates, we joined the company in Pune and were trained to become software testers. My project took me to Bangalore where I learnt about programming in SQL and UNIX. Though I did not become an expert, I learnt enough to get the job done. 

The happiness of joining “my first company” waned off soon. No complaints to the company or the sector, but I felt that I must obtain a higher degree which would help me make my way back towards my core branch. So, I quit my job near the end of 2014.

I appeared for CAT and was able to secure a place at a few good colleges across the country. But, I wanted to go for a post graduate programme, which would orient me towards managing projects. This took me to NICMAR, Pune to pursue Project Engineering Management from 2015.

It was a 2-year PGP course and by the end of the program, we were supposed to be well equipped to join nearly all available sectors of the industries. We underwent 3 months of mandatory internship. Mine was at L&T Realty, at the Crescent Bay project in Mumbai. During the internship, we learnt to decode the drawings and understand them, the importance of snag identification (minor defects) in projects and their rectification and some amount of client handling as well. This experience was extremely useful as it helped clear the interview with L&T Realty a year later. 

This took me to my second job, at L&T Realty, as a senior engineer, in 2017.

I joined the same project where I had done my internship a few months ago and was absorbed into the role quickly. The job of a senior engineer at L&T Realty had bits of everything. From going over the design drawings and helping in finalizing them, to being on site and supervising the execution of the job, to commissioning the various systems such as the Mechanical (lifts and firefighting), Electrical and Plumbing. Later, the maintenance of bills and analysis into the details of various contracts were also a part of the job’s portfolio. The office timings were long and there was little comfort, but there were a lot of things to learn. My biggest learning was being able to deal with people. We had people from all over the country working in various capacities and we had to know how to talk to each of them to get our job done. Prioritization of resources and time was a skill that I developed during my stint at L&T Realty.

As time elapsed, I felt the need to move to a more office centric job and the search began. It ended a few months later with an appointment letter from Bombardier Transportation asking me to join them as a Project Planner in 2019, at Vadodara, Gujarat.

I joined Bombardier Transportation (now Alstom Transportation) as a project planner in the TCMS division (Train Control & Management System). This division is responsible for the software that runs on the train to ensure that it functions properly. So, technically, I was back at an IT industry setup, but within a huge rail manufacturing company. Now, my job was to coordinate with managers of my projects and come up with data which would allow them to take decisions proactively, to avoid any cost or time overruns; and in case they do occur, minimize their impact. 

I use multiple activity schedules and resource schedules to keep track of the progress and generate the reports. This job requires a certain amount of skill to operate the scheduling tool, Primavera P6 as of now and then the foresight to plan the various activities. By all measures, this job is much more comfortable than the previous ones, though it comes with immensely greater responsibilities.

Alstom, in collaboration with BITS Pilani offers opportunities to pursue M.Tech and hence here I am, along with continuing my regular job as a planner, also an M.Tech scholar of Manufacturing Management.

Due to the varied and somewhat unorthodox career jumps, I have picked up a variety of skills. I can read through pages of business documents to extract the gist while formulating some FMEA scenarios (test cases) and making a plan of what would be possible delays and dependencies. While it does create an appearance of being a jack of multiple trades, I am streamlining my career to be more focused and attain mastery in the core mechanical domain of manufacturing.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was through campus placements. I underwent written tests followed by group discussion and personal interview stages.

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

Challenge 1:  Shifting from a mechanical engineering background, to an IT job. Being in an unfamiliar environment in the first job was the primary challenge.

Solution was to take the job seriously and pour my heart and soul into the training and keep learning. It worked and I got quite good at my job by the time I quit.

Challenge 2: Overcoming the language and cultural barriers was a major challenge I faced in all my jobs. Whether it was Bangalore or Mumbai or Vadodara, the culture and language is different from Dhanbad and Sikkim. So, it takes a little effort to understand the local culture and for me, the best way to break the ice was over local food. Asking the local colleagues about the best places to have local cuisine and their likes and dislikes brings you closer and overcomes the barriers.

Challenge 3: Time management had been an issue in the initial days. I would often struggle to balance my professional and personal life. I managed to form a routine and tried to stick to it, which helped me strike a balance. This is a continuous process as we evolve.

Challenge 4: Money management. My parents never asked me how much I earned, or how much I saved. Since I was accountable only to myself, during the CapGemini days, I had very little savings. Looking back, had I saved more, invested more, I would have been quite richer now. So, start saving early. Find out your best saving instrument based on the risk appetite and start to save.

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

I work for Alstom Transportation (previously Bombardier Transportation) currently. My job profile is that of a project planner.

The single most important problem I solve is to avoid delays by providing actionable data with as much time available as possible for corrections. My job is to predict whether the current way of working shall need to be improved or maintained to ensure that the committed dates of the project do not fail or that the cost does not overshoot the planned costs. In the off chance that an overrun occurs, I should know what caused it, why it impacted us, how much was the impact, in what terms and what we must do to avoid such a situation from arising again.

What are the skills needed in your role and how did you acquire them?

The primary skill needed for my job is the urge to step out of the comfort zone. It is easy to learn the tools such as Microsoft Project or Primavera P6, but what takes more time is to understand and implement the various dependencies. Either we must know the process or we would have to find out and learn. We have to talk to new people every day to coordinate the activities and bring schedules on track. Being an extrovert and being happy to talk to people is a quality. Being able to filter the important data for your use, from the huge data bank available, is necessary to do the job efficiently.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day begins with going over the emails that the rest of the team may have sent overnight. Since we work in different time zones across the world, this is quite common. Once the pending emails are checked, I take about an hour to organize for the day. If there are urgent requests for information and/or action, they get priority. Otherwise, the routine tasks and meetings are taken care of throughout the day. By the evening, as I wrap up, I go over the to-do list for the day. For the pending tasks, I assign them a reason and a date as to when I want them sorted. In case I am expecting some input from others, which have not arrived yet, I send them the reminders, so that when I come to office the next day, I have the inputs available already. 

What do you love about your job?

What I love about my job is that there is a certain level of flexibility available. I have a task, a target output and a target date. As long as I am able to provide the target output by the target date with desired quality, how I do the job is up to me. This allows me to experiment to find more efficient ways to complete the task. People are generally quite punctual and serious about their task here and since we work in multinational and multi-cultural environments, it is quite nice to interact with a multitude of people.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work ensures that the trains we produce hit the market at the time we promised it would. This benefits the society, since they now have a new train to ride on. Also, financially, for every day a train is delayed, the govt. loses money on it. And that loss is ultimately the society’s. There is a bit of pride involved here since it is possible that someday you ride the same train that you planned for and produced.

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

This was during the tests for obtaining the fire fighting NOC in one of the towers I was in charge of during the L&T Realty days. As the tests were being conducted, all parts of the fire fighting system worked flawlessly. This was a feat since there are multiple interdependent systems and often full automation is not achieved at that stage. But, for us, we had achieved the proper synergy in the systems and had successfully automated the system.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My sincere advice to all the students is that whatever jobs you end up doing, do it with full enthusiasm for as long as you do it. It is possible that the career you wanted and the one you begin with are not the same, do not lose heart. Strive to be the best at your job and you shall always get better opportunities to grow. Also, explore your options. In current days, career options can be extremely varied and each one requires specific skill sets. Read about what you want and ask yourself, why you want it and most importantly, what if you do not get what you want. Be honest while answering these questions, only to yourself and then decide on the career options.

Future Plans?

Post completion of the course, I intend to remain in the industry, but shift towards manufacturing centric job roles. Then later, I would want to pursue PhD and quite possibly settle for a relatively peaceful life as a professor to nurture young minds.