The potential impact of technological advancements (Machine Learning, IoT, Robotics, etc) in a niche and complex industry such as construction is enormous !

Varun Gupta, our next pathbreaker, Field Engineer at Balfour Beatty US, is part of the construction team responsible for upgrading and retrofitting the existing signal infrastructure system in the Caltrain Electrification Project corridor from San Jose to San Francisco .

Varun talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the significance of data driven technologies in solving challenges on construction sites.

For students, it is an exciting time to be in the construction industry and play a role in the global transformation that is taking place !

Varun, can you take us through your background?

I grew up in a small town of Akhnoor in Jammu and Kashmir. In hindsight, I would explain myself as an inquisitive, curious, restless, and sporty child. When it came to studies, I would not describe myself as studious or scholar, and my grades reflected the same. All that changed when my movement was restricted after a bone injury and the only way to keep myself engaged was by reading a book. This was the time when the internet, mobile phones, or video games were not a thing in our small town. The closest thing we had to technology was a landline and a cable TV with only a few hours of electricity in a day. I discovered a newfound passion and started spending more and more time with books, trying to learn the what, why, and how of my surroundings. With the risk of sounding nerdy, science and mathematics were my favourite subjects. 

My parents decided to move to Jammu, the winter capital of the state for better education opportunities for me and my younger brother. Fast forward a few years, I decided to pursue a non-medical stream after my 10th grade. I think my natural inclination towards quantitative fields and logical aptitude were the biggest factors in making that decision. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my B.Tech in Civil Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, India. After my bachelors, I pursued my Masters in Sustainable Design and Construction Management from Stanford University, USA. 

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I guess I have had an early influence through my family. Few of my family members work in the construction industry, in the public and private sector. As I was deciding my stream after high school, I had the opportunity to explore the construction industry through their eyes and experiences. After a lot of introspection, I realised I was fascinated by buildings. Eventually, through my student years, I realised my passion lay at the intersection of technology and construction. 

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

My first internship during my bachelors was towards the end of my sophomore year at a general contracting firm Shapoorji Pallonji in Mumbai. This was my first exposure to construction on a luxury high rise residential building. As much as I enjoyed the experience, I realised that there was a lot more to construction than what I was learning in college. 

My second internship experience was at TU Delft in the Netherlands in the summer of junior year. I had the opportunity to conduct research on a global project. The aim was to use satellite imagery for better prediction of area-volume relationships of reservoirs globally. The initial approach was to develop a crowdsourced framework to solve complex and unique calculations. This would have been expensive and time-consuming. We were successful in developing an algorithm that would use satellite imagery alone. There were two turning points during this period. I realised how much of an impact technology can have in a niche industry such as construction. If we were able to shift from crowdsourcing the solution to a simple algorithm, I saw significant potential to solve basic problems on construction sites with the use of technology. This inspired me to pursue my Masters. 

I also had the opportunity to build a startup that came out of my research as part of my Masters program. We discovered that changes (such as change orders, think of changes made after a contract is executed, enabling the contractor to be compensated for additional time and money) were a necessary evil on any construction project. Most of the time, such changes were, either tracked improperly, or not comprehended for their fullest impact. We aimed at developing a platform that streamlined this black box of a process, from documenting to providing planning options to project owners for informed execution and minimal impacts. Stanford was instrumental in this journey. Not only I met my co-founder, but I had the privilege to get technical and business advice from the very start. We had the opportunity to participate in regional and national NSF programs, received mentorship, and invaluable advice along the way. Although I was not able to commercialise it to its potential, it was a very rewarding journey to materialise an idea to its tangible form. There were a lot of valuable lessons along the years that I plan to imbibe into my professional life and hopefully one day into my next venture.

Fast forward a few years, I got an opportunity to work on a railway project in California during my Masters. It was an amazing experience into a completely different business environment and an opportunity to work on a mega-project. I ultimately decided to join the project full time after graduation. 

How did you get your first break? 

I would say my first break was the moment when I realised that the research we were doing in my Masters could be transformed into a product, ultimately a company. It was a dream come true as it lay perfectly in the path of technological advancement of construction. Over the next few years, we worked towards identifying the problem, the solution, and our customers, developing the product, doing pilot programs with customers, pitching, expanding the team to develop and launch the product. The gruelling experience shaped me professionally and personally. My goals and aspirations became clearer, and I understood what steps I would need to take to work towards them.

I also had an opportunity to intern at the Caltrain electrification rail project at Balfour Beatty during the summers of 2019. As an intern, I had the opportunity to explore different areas/disciplines within the project, ranging from scheduling, work planning, developing technical solutions, etc. I understood the challenges and opportunities of a typical construction project. I was fortunate to convert that into a full time after graduation. 

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

Hailing from a small town of Akhnoor, I moved to Jammu, then Kota, Roorkee, and finally California. Moving around since the age of fifteen for opportunities and further studies was not very common in my small community. In many ways, I was one of the firsts in my communities to chart such a path. This came with two primary challenges, first being the financial burden, and second, having to do a lot of things for the “first time”. I was fortunate enough to receive a partial scholarship at Stanford, and did part-time jobs to earn and save money. I remember there was a time when I could not see a way to arrange the tuition for the next quarter, and there was a good possibility that I might drop out. Luckily, one of my research projects came through and I got a position as a research assistant and was able to continue. I also had the opportunity to build a very supporting network of people who not only helped me with my decisions but also helped me introspect deeply before deciding to pursue something.

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

Currently I work as a field engineer in a general contractor firm, Balfour Beatty, on a rail electrification project in California, USA. Balfour Beatty (rail division) is a general contracting firm with offices in US, UK, and other countries. It provides rail infrastructure services across the lifecycle of all rail assets ranging from track work, power, electrification, civils, signalling, etc.

Currently, the project I am working on is a $1B+ electrification of an existing 51 mile rail corridor of a commuter/freight system. The project entails various aspects such as power, signalling, electrification, and civils. I am part of the construction team responsible for upgrading and retrofitting the existing signal infrastructure system in the rail corridor. My day-to-day work revolves around solving field problems, interacting with construction crews, designers, and the client. While a lot of my duties remain consistent, no two days are the same. As construction engineers, we are at the heart of all the planning, building, and troubleshooting. Our crews work days and nights, hence late evening or night phone calls are not uncommon. There are days when you receive over 40 phone calls in a day, you are constantly multi-tasking, solving problems on the fly while attending your daily/weekly/monthly duties simultaneously. 

What are the key skills required in your role?

The most relevant skill to work in construction, in my opinion, is effective communication. You are constantly talking to your crews, designers, consultants, and clients. It’s a very fast paced environment, and the ability to project and express your ideas clearly is paramount.

In my mind, construction is this chaotic dance where things start to take shape over time. Setting aside all the challenges, the feeling that there is a part of you in every project you helped build is incomparable. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Construction, as someone once described to me, is a noble pursuit. There are many challenges within the industry but the impact it leaves on communities, states, and even nations is immeasurable. Civil engineers are key not only because they design structures that complement our existence, which is second to none, but also serve as leaders, influential scholars, and visionaries who open new avenues for a better life. 

I believe that the construction industry is going through a massive transformation. Unfortunately, the impacts of latest technological advances such as in machine learning, robotics, etc. has barely made their way to the construction industry. We have been doing construction very similar to how we used to do it 40 years ago. To give an example, believe it or not, in the world of phones and tablets, a lot of project documentation is still done on paper. There is a lot of activity happening through venture capital, in order to change corporate practices to bring those advancements and applications in construction. Markets are realizing the importance and benefits of technological applications and advancements. For a student who might be considering construction as a potential career, I would highly encourage to take that step and be on the forefront of this global transformation.

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

I had the opportunity to start my own company right out of Stanford. It came into fruition as part of a research project I was a part of. It was a massive professional and personal investment. Over the next few years, I was involved in scratch-pad sessions, pitching, developing products, coding, expanding the team, and making business decisions. I developed tremendously, personally and professionally, in a very short period of time.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would advise students to stay inquisitive, curious, open minded, and introspective in whatever endeavours they plan for their lives. Do not shy away from asking for help when you need it and give back to your community. 

Future Plans?

My long-term goal is to make my mark at the intersection of technology and construction, hopefully in the form of my own company. As of now, I am planning to pursue my MBA to gain the necessary skill set that I need, to attain my long-term plan.