Visual content such as images and videos can reveal several insights that businesses can leverage to gain competitive advantage !
Sai Kamat, our next pathbreaker, works as Solutions Engineer at Mobius Labs (Berlin, Germany), a computer vision based start-up that deeply analyzes visual assets of an organization for strategic insights.
Sai talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the multiple transitions and varied experiences in his career that led him to his current role in technical sales.
For students, don’t worry about what you studied in the past. It is absolutely cool to have an interdisciplinary experience, because it is this experience that gives you an edge over others !
Sai, can you tell us about yourself, your initial years?
I grew up in many places because my father had a job which involved regular transfers. But my birth and the most formative years of growth were in Mumbai. Hence I call myself a true-blue Mumbaikar, even though I don’t and probably won’t live there again.
My father’s from Mumbai (SoBo to be specific), while mum’s from a district called Sindhudurg along the Maharashtra-Goa border. I believe however she loves Mumbai more than either me or my father.
My father recently retired, but was a civil servant. He was a Chartered Accountant working in Indian Oil Corp. My mother, though a certified chemist by education, chose to be a home-maker.
I’ve had many hobbies growing up, starting with just painting, reading books to playing sports. Over the years, I’ve added reading comic books, solving riddles, cycling to the mix. However two have stayed consistent through the years, and are things I can do at the drop of a hat -> play football, and watch football.
I was always interested in extracurriculars which involved something about brains. So I was part of quiz teams, elocution competitions, hackathons etc. There was one weird situation where someone put my name in a Christmas Choir competition. I don’t have the best voice in a 100 km radius, but that’s one extra-curricular activity I joined, but I still have no clue why.
I took science after my 10th grade, because, at the time, I was interested in biology, and airplanes. I thought back then in school that I’d be either an aeronautical engineer or a veterinary doctor.
Then in 12th grade (or PUC), I chose to switch to biomedical engineering, because I realised that I didn’t have the guts to gut an animal (pun intended).
Next I moved to Europe to pursue my master’s degree in Embedded Systems. I aspired to work as software engineer designing exquisite systems on chips and microprocessors in companies like Samsung, Apple etc.
The master’s degree is usually a two year course. My university (Stockholm, Sweden) allowed me to pursue some courses which had nothing to do with embedded systems, but more so to do with a very different discipline called Artificial Intelligence. I gradually became more and more interested in this domain, and halfway through my master’s course, made the switch to Artificial Intelligence.
I hope I still have your attention. You’d have realised by now that between 10th until my bachelor’s and even after that, my aspirations and career decisions have changed like the colors of a chameleon.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I graduated in Biomedical Engineering from DJ Sanghvi College of Engineering in Mumbai. This field of engineering is a four year long and an interdisciplinary course. It combines principles of electronics and medicine.
Many devices, large and small, that you see in hospitals (e.g. CT scan, MRI machines), hospices, nursing homes (ultrasonic scanners) and even at your own homes (even a pulse oximeter which checks your blood oxygen level) are designed by a biomedical engineer.
I pursued my master’s in Europe. There’s a relatively unknown programme conducted by EIT which stands for European Institute for Technology. This course is partially funded and managed by the European Union. In this course, students can choose to specialise in various subjects such as Embedded Systems, Data Science, Cloud Architecture, Autonomous Driving etc. I chose to pursue my masters in Embedded Systems.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
After my post-graduation, I was looking for more technical jobs, which had titles such as Machine Learning Engineer, Data Scientist, Data Analyst etc. However due to my varied career experience and education, my “would be” boss approached me directly on LinkedIn and offered me an opportunity in technical sales. I consulted my then girlfriend, my university friend and picked this career.
To be honest, there weren’t any key-drivers that set me on the path to become a solutions engineer. This role was offered to me because I had an interdisciplinary experience in sales, software development and artificial intelligence.
My then girlfriend (now wife) had worked in a similar field. She got the opportunities to travel around a lot, which was the first thing that got me interested. Next would be a university friend (one of the friends I made while pursuing my master’s degree) of mine who did the exact same job but for a different company. And last but not the least, would be my boss who convinced me that this is a pretty good opportunity that I should not miss out on.
My mentors would be a neighbor who worked in direct sales. He inspired me to take my first job.
My next mentor would be my boss who taught me how to douse fires and be good at thinking strategically and solving problems.
At a student-mentor event in 2019, I met a university friend who worked in a similar job. He explained a little bit about what he does, how he gets to talk to many people, travel around etc. This job description at the event got me hooked.
The turning point would be merely stumbling upon this career when I was hunting for a job after finishing my master’s degree.
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
I graduated from college just around the time when the world economy was recovering from the 2008 recession. Suffice to say, despite having pretty good grades throughout the bachelor’s course, I couldn’t find a job that suited a biomedical engineer’s profile for a while.
First Job: Direct Sales of Medical Equipment, in Mumbai
Hence I started my first paid job selling medical equipment – a career which isn’t very technical, but involved talking to a lot of people and making good contacts all over the town.
Transition -1: As a biomedical engineer, I already had a campus placement at L&T. However, due to the recession, the job offer got delayed quite a bit, and hence my first job was in sales instead of software development.
Second Job: Embedded Software Developer in Mysuru
In my second job at L&T, I ended up being a software engineer in the embedded systems domain. Basically I was the engineer who wrote programs that drove the tiny microchips that drive your smartphones, printers etc. FYI embedded systems engineering is an interdisciplinary domain of electronics and computer programming. I wanted do my masters in Embedded Systems.
I was motivated to study in Germany because it’s a lot cheaper than studying in the US, UK, Australia etc. While searching for universities back in 2016, I joined a Facebook group called MS in Germany. I randomly dropped the question there, without much of a thought – What best universities to study Embedded Systems?
It is here that someone mentioned this programme i.e. EIT. I did some research, looked it up online, spoke to a few students and graduates of EIT to understand it more. When I was reasonably satisfied with the answers, in addition to a few other universities in Germany such as RWTH Aachen, TU-Munich, etc, I also sent my application for this particular programme.
There are very few universities which provide the facility of mobility which EIT provides. This means that a student gets to choose two different universities to complete his/her master’s programme.
EIT is an affiliation of multiple universities all across Europe.
Some of the universities affiliated to this programme are:-
KTH Royal Inst. of Technology, Stockholm,
Technical University of Eindhoven,
Technical University of Madrid and many others.
Secondly, the programme has a roughly 80-20 combination of technical and business courses. Essentially, EIT teaches its students not only about developing technology (through technical courses), but also about the whys and whens of developing technology (through business courses).
I found these two aspects of the programme exciting and these were the primary motivators behind me choosing to apply for this programme.
I chose TUB (Technical University of Berlin) and KTH (Royal Institute of Technology) because there were the first and second year university combinations that provided Embedded Systems course back in 2016. I always wanted to study in Germany, so choosing TUB was easy. KTH is one of the most renowned universities in the world, with many Nobel laureates amongst its esteemed alumni. So I primarily chose these universities because they taught Embedded Systems. However half way through my course, KTH allowed me to study computer vision and data science courses because I expressed my desire in studying them.
Transition -2 : When you move abroad for studies, you take up pretty much any job just to get an experience of working in a new environment.
Third Job: Marketing Intern at a Startup
I chose this because I wanted to learn how it is to work at a startup and also because it was part of my master’s degree curriculum.
Transition 3 – Part of my course was focused on entrepreneurship. This motivated me to find something of my own while being still at university.
Fourth Job: Founding my own Startup
Next, myself and a university classmate, founded our own startup which dealt with sharing vehicles with other people. It didn’t last long and dissolved after the founders disbanded.
Transition 4 – During university abroad it’s necessary to have a relevant internship experience. This led me to my fifth job.
Fifth Job: Research Assistant in Machine Learning
After graduation, I interned at a research institute, FZI Forschungszentrum Informatik (in German), and translates to the Center for Information & Research. It was here that I could write programs that worked for artificial intelligence. I gained my practical experience in Artificial Intelligence at this organisation.
My job was to develop machine learning workflows and feature engineering.
In simpler terms, when your car drives automatically on the road, there’s a sequence of applications that run. These applications need to be run in a certain fashion. E.g. the camera on the car records the street view. This video is encoded and fed to a powerful processor. The processor then ingests this encoded video into its AI model. It is here, where the computer on board distinguishes the road, from the road signs, from the pedestrians, from other cars etc.
Once the distinguishing action is finished the results need to be fed to some form of user interface to visualise everything. This entire sequence of events need to be run in tandem, because any glitch can inadvertently cause an accident. My job here was to write code that makes this workflow efficient.
Transition 5 – I literally stumbled upon this job. I never planned to work here until my boss came to me with this opportunity. If not for him, I would probably have been a software developer in the artificial intelligence domain, or a machine learning engineer.
Sixth Job: Solutions Engineer at Mobius Labs GmbH
This was pretty much the turning point of my career. It was as if I was destined to get into this role, given the varied paths and disciplines I took in before getting here.
How did you get your first break?
My first break was after I finished my graduation in Biomedical engineering. Due to the recession I could not find any suitable job for a long time. It was then, a college classmate who was working in a medical equipment dealership company (Summit Healthcare) contacted me about a vacancy and asked if I would be interested. This classmate gave me probably my first break.
I had uploaded my CV on a portal months before. My current boss came across my profile on this portal and reached out to me on LinkedIn. It’s crucial to engage in the LinkedIn game if you want to be recruited.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Not knowing anything about a new field
I just lay low, and learnt by asking others who were/are more knowledgeable than me. It’s a slow and arduous process, but there’s no shortcut to this.
Working with inconsiderate superiors
Try to talk directly with the superior and try to understand his/her point of view. Also try to find if there is something you can improve upon. However if the superior is being inconsiderate on unreasonable grounds, then it is a good time to either move to a different department within the same company or move to a different career opportunity.
However, a good thumb rule is to work at every employer, provided it’s a permanent and full-time job, for 2-3 years.
Not getting appreciated enough
First, try to find the reasons why you’re not being appreciated enough. If your employer cannot adequately justify it, then it is time to move to a different career opportunity.
Where do you work now? Can you tell us about your current role?
Since Feb 2020, I have been working as a Solutions Engineer at a computer vision start-up called Mobius Labs in Berlin, Germany.
What problems do you solve?
As a Solutions Engineer, my job is to understand the pain-points of a customer, who would use the product developed by my company. In industry terms, this is called presales, or technical sales.
A typical example could be that the customer does not know whether their assets have a certain value hidden within them. My job is to
- understand this customer’s problems clearly,
- judge whether the problem that this customer has, can be solved by our product
- Act as a bridge between the sales team and the rest of the organisation to build a customised solution that can solve the client’s pain-points.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
- Critical Thinking
- Strategic Planning
- Team work
Hard skills totally depend on the nature of the product. Since my product is related to artificial intelligence, I need to have hard skills such as:-
- Python programming
- Bash scripting
- Machine Learning
- Familiarity with cloud technologies such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform etc.
What’s a typical day like?
A typical day starts with a sync meeting with the sales department, where each sales representative and solution engineer talks about their work plans for that day, highlights any key opportunities, and asks for help from another person
Next it moves to another sync meeting, but this one is with the product engineering team, where the same activities happen. At this meeting, the solution engineer plans tasks with the engineering team to develop customised solutions, extracting timelines etc.
Next it could move to a meeting with a client for a sales demo, or meeting with the upper management for a strategy discussion. Usually there are 2-3 client calls a day.
In between meetings, I work on building demos for a call which could be scheduled within the next few days.
Sometimes I also assist with hiring of other solution engineers, product engineers etc.
What is it you love about this job?
The fact that no two days are the same. I get to metaphorically wear different hats throughout the day. In the morning, I am a consultant, in the next half I could be a strategist. Sometimes I also get to be a coder. The best thing I love about the job is when I explain complex technical concepts in simpler terms to a client, and see their eyes light up when they understand the solution.
How does your work benefit society?
I sell good products to clients, which makes their job of using their assets a little less tiring. The client gets to use cutting edge technology at competitive pricing which solves their real-world problems.
For example, a news agency in the Netherlands uses our product to scan through their millions of images and videos. With the product that we helped them buy, they can find very interesting things in their assets. Therefore tomorrow if they wanted to search when their Prime Minister shook hands with the Indian Prime Minister, they simply type the word, and our product gives them the best photos and videos. They then use these results to run their news, and print newspapers.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I worked with a large Japanese photo company. They had typical problems that our product solves. However with my experience I asked some deep questions, which led us to a better understanding of their problem. With this understanding we developed a very powerful customized solution for them, that solves their problem way better than it usually would have.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Don’t worry about what you studied in the past. It is absolutely cool to have an interdisciplinary experience, because it is this experience in different domains that gives you a unique combination of skills. This combination is rather rare and will give you an edge over your peers.
I wish to either become some form of AI-Strategist, or a Chief Strategy Officer.