Aircraft Engines have no margin for error, while maintaining high standards of performance, efficiency and reliability !

Ashwin Sai M, our next pathbreaker, Team Lead Transient Performance at Infosys, works on engines powering aircrafts, to make them more fuel efficient and safer to fly.

Ashwin talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about graduating with a Dual Degree (5-year integrated programme) from IIT Madras and being introduced to the world of Aircraft engines through his first job at Rolls Royce.

For students, core engineering is not an easy career, but it is an opportunity to be a part of a new future defined by clean energy and other cutting edge propulsion/electrification technologies !

Ashwin, can you tell us about your initial years?

I had the fortune of spending my childhood (from kindergarten until admission into college) in many places, mainly because my father was in a transferable job. I’ve lived in Mumbai, Chennai, Vizag and Pune. For the most part, from 1st standard to 10th standard, my schooling was in ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education) syllabus, as ICSE is known to offer depth and variety of knowledge across all subjects. For my 11th and 12th standard, I took up Intermediate Education in Andhra Pradesh (Board of Intermediate Education Andhra Pradesh – BIEAP), and chose Mathematics-Physics-Chemistry (MPC) stream. I was clear in my mind to pursue a career in Engineering, and this was the reason behind my choice of stream. BIEAP also provides benefits of offering a strong foundation in Mathematics, and is known to be simpler in terms of board examinations as compared to the ISC (Indian School Certificate) or the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) streams, thereby offering time to dedicate for competitive exam preparation.

Coming to my extra-curricular activities, I always enjoyed playing sports – Badminton and Cricket to name the key ones. I attended art classes while in Pune from 6th to 8th standard which was a good break from routine schooling. I must admit I did not have an astronaut-like dream that many children have during their childhood, and only knew I wanted to do something related to engineering after school, largely because many people in my family were engineers! 

My mother is a housewife and my father retired as an Executive Director (ED) from Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL).

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I took the Joint Entrance Examination (IIT JEE) in the year 2011 and obtained a seat in Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras) in the five-year integrated engineering program in Mechanical Engineering – BTech (Bachelor of Technology) + MTech (Master of Technology). I also pursued Honors on my BTech. My MTech was a specialization in the area of Thermal Engineering which is closely linked to the job I do now, and will hopefully be as I progress in my career! 

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

My family – both my father and brother were themselves mechanical engineers. Hence, they were my key influencers.

To be honest, time helped me take actions to arrive at this stage in my life/career. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in core engineering (as opposed to Software/ IT/ Finance/ Data Science etc., a common theme nowadays is to pick a job not directly linked to one’s line of study). This clarity came probably in my fourth or fifth year of engineering. This is not to say I did not appear for non-core job interviews, I did attend them to expand my knowledge of what companies expect behaviorally of candidates, as opposed to technical knowledge needed for the job.

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

The summer after 3rd year is typically when students have to pursue an internship at college, and that’s when I interned at Titan, Hosur (year 2014). I will admit here that this internship was not my first choice, and due to various reasons, I did not have the opportunity to intern where I’d have wanted to. But as they say, everything happens for a reason, and this internship took me to the shop floor where I could see in front of my eyes how exciting it is to make/ manufacture things (in this case, watches). It gave me a great perspective on what impact Mechanical Engineers have on the world, and I ensured I made maximum use of the opportunity I got.

Through college placements, I got a job at Rolls-Royce, and joined the company in July 2016. This was a core engineering job as I had wanted, and was related to design of aircraft engines.

I started off as a Global Engineering Graduate, the premier programme of the company for engineering post graduates. It involved rotations across multiple teams, which could be chosen by the candidate himself/ herself. My first role was as a lifecycle engineer, involving work related to engine safety and maintenance. The second role was as a performance engineer, focusing on making the engine efficient (i.e., to consume as little fuel as it practically can) and making sure the engine is compliant to certain standards. Role number three was as part of a multinational team of four in the United Kingdom, and involved solving a specific problem which led to the team filing a patent. The fourth and final role was the Materials team, and involved the study of reasons leading to engine part degradation (creep) and special manufacturing processes.

I then took up the role of Advanced Performance Engineer to rejoin the Performance team, as it was the most exciting of the four roles I’d picked up as a Global Engineering Graduate. As part of this role, mainly due to the interest I had developed for the job, I went on to author a company wide “how-to” guide, present at forums involving multiple experts, manage projects, pick up increasing responsibilities, create tools useful to people, to finally land the position of  Team Lead Transient Performance that I currently hold at Infosys, a company I joined in January 2021 as part of a strategic partnership between the two companies.

During these years, from 2016 to 2020, I also briefly held roles of Continuous Improvement Focal – a role involving driving the team to improve upon the work they do daily, and as a Co-Chair Diversity & Inclusion – a role involving driving D&I initiatives across the engineering center. These additional roles I picked up/ interviewed for gave a perspective on why people and teamwork are important, a must for any aspiring people leader.

I was also an Associate Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (AMIMechE), starting 2017. It’s on my to-do list to become a Chartered Engineer (CEng), a recognition given to a well-rounded engineer.

How did you get your first break? 

My first break into my line of work was through college placements. It is possible though to obtain a job through direct application/ networking/ referrals as a lateral entry (i.e., not through the Global Engineering Graduate programme).

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

Self-doubt: There were times when I would doubt my own abilities and if I could make it. Fortunately, I have always believed in putting in my 100% and accepting the result as is, with the contentment that I’d given my best – this thinking lets me face this challenge.

Issues learning certain ideas/ concepts: Some concepts are inherently difficult to grasp and implement while others are fairly easy. This varies from individual to individual, and also is dependent on environment/ circumstances. In these cases, it’s best to give the brain some time to gain maturity to absorb the concept, by revisiting the idea from time to time. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I work for Infosys on engines powering aircrafts, under the Infosys /Rolls-Royce strategic partnership, thereby helping move people and goods from one place to another by air. The engines are Gas Turbine Turbofan engines.

Fun Fact: While most might associate RR with luxury cars, the motor car business became a wholly owned subsidiary of BMW around the millennium.

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

The main skills needed for this job is a keen interest in engineering, the curiosity to learn and equip oneself with tools to perform the job. While the first two can be developed by any engineer, the third can be acquired through reading books/ doing online courses. As they say, self-help is the best help.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day for me involves performing technical work improving engine efficiency and ensuring the engine adheres to certain standards to ensure it is safe to fly; assigning, monitoring and reviewing my team’s work as a lead, motivating them to be at their best and in general being there for them. The main element I love about my job is reviewing my team’s work, as this involves both engineering and people skills.

How does your work benefit society? 

My current role helps make aircraft engines more efficient (thus reducing the amount of fuel consumed and thus environmental impact) and ensure they are safe to fly. It thus gives me immense pride to see people and goods flying from point A to point B with no hassles. This in my view, is a great reason to pick up this career. 

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

The most memorable piece of work was ideating and creating a tool to automate a certain standard technical process performed almost on a daily basis. This helped me in solving a key issue in a work package I led. The tool was presented to a forum of experts and well received with appreciation. I’ve also trained my team members in using the tool, and it gives me great pride when it eases people’s lives thereby helping add value to the customer.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • It’s ok if you don’t have it all figured out
  • Always be a curious learner
  • Make best use of opportunities you’ve got, and try to like (if not love) what you do
  • Give yourself time
  • Be kind to yourself and people around you
  • Don’t do yourself injustice by comparing yourself to others. Strive to become a better version of yourself with each passing day. 

Future Plans?

I hope to contribute to making the planet a more clean, green and sustainable one.