Motorbikes have captured the imagination of millions of riders around the world; some ride them for fun, some ride them to work, and a few others end up working on them !

Akshay Koushik, our next pathbreaker, Powertrain Design Engineer at Triumph Motorcycles (Hinckley, England), is responsible for the design and analysis of powertrain components of the premium motorcycle brand.

Akshay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about developing a natural inclination towards science, and making the decision quite early on that he wanted to work on vehicles.

For students, follow your gut! More often than not, your gut instinct is right! Consult others, take their suggestions and use them to make your own decisions !

Akshay, tell us about your growing up years?

I am from Bangalore where I did all my schooling, up to my undergraduate degree. My father is a Civil Engineer and my mother is a school teacher. Since we were a middle-class family, there was a lot of emphasis on academics from an early age. Science and Mathematics were always my strongest subjects. Physics in particular was my favourite subject. My parents also gave me plenty of encouragement to develop interests outside of studies. I had several extracurricular interests from a very young age. I am a fully trained Carnatic classical violinist. I also represented the state of Karnataka in the under-13 Basketball national level tournament. I was also in the NCC during my high school years. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued Mechanical Engineering for my bachelor’s degree, at BMS College of Engineering, Bangalore, and then chose Automotive Engineering for my master’s degree at Cranfield University, UK.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Even as a kid, I was fascinated by cars, motorbikes and airplanes. So, an interest in vehicles was there from the very beginning. My natural inclination towards sciences got me more interested in learning about how they worked. I found the subjects pertaining to them very interesting. Hence, I decided quite early on that I wanted to work on vehicles when I grew up. I was 16 when I made that choice. 

In terms of people who helped me along the way, I would definitely have to thank my parents for always letting me make my own choices and supporting me in my decisions. Some of the teachers/lecturers I had right from school till my master’s studies helped in their own way by making the subjects interesting to learn. This definitely helped my interest to grow.

I was a part of the formula student team at my college and we took part in BAJA SAE India. This was a very profound experience for me. Going through the process of designing a car that meets the regulations, fabricating it, testing it and then taking it to the event itself to compete against teams from all over the country taught me a great deal. It also reinforced my interest and made me realize how much I enjoyed working as part of a team on such an exciting project. This was one of the key events that led me to take up a career in Automotive Engineering.

It is quite difficult to choose a turning point since all my choices were always directed towards what I ultimately wanted to do. But if I had to choose one, I would choose the moment I selected my university for master’s. I am an avid follower of Formula 1. I was watching one of the technical videos on the F1 YouTube channel. That is where I first heard the name of my university. It made me look up the name Cranfield and I discovered the amazing facilities they have and a curriculum that suited me very well. If it wasn’t for that YouTube video, I probably would not have chosen Cranfield for my master’s studies.

Tell us about your career path after college

Since I decided pretty early on that I wanted to get into the field of vehicles, I wanted to orient myself in that direction right from my 11th and 12th. I chose PCME (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Electronics) as my combination. 

After taking the Karnataka CET exam, I was able to select the college of my liking to do my bachelors in Mechanical Engineering. This was also a government aided seat and hence my yearly fees were 50% of what it would have been otherwise. Apart from this, I did not receive any other scholarships.

During my bachelor’s, all the electives that I chose, all the projects I did were all in the field of automotive engineering, so that my profile had that automotive flavor. This, and my participation in the formula student activities put me in a good position to take it forward in that direction.So the thought process was to always make conscious choices to orient myself in the direction of an eventual career in automotive engineering.

I did a 1 month internship at Volvo Construction Equipment, Bangalore during my bachelors. Here I was in the factory where the assembly lines functioned. It was a very good experience to observe the process of manufacturing massive construction equipment such as excavators and pavers. My role was to prepare a reference chart of all the lifting operations carried out during assembly. 

After my bachelors, I took up a job as QA Engineer in a CAE (Computer Aided Engineering) firm called ESI Group where I worked for 3 years, in order to gain professional experience. ESI is a Paris-based company with a subsidiary in Bangalore. They make virtual prototyping and simulation software for the Automotive and Aerospace industries. I was in the sheet metal forming team, working on the Die Face Design software. My job was to make sure that the software behaved as expected and report issues to the development team. It also involved running simulations on customer parts and assessing the accuracy of the results. This job gave me an insight into the role of CAE software in the field of Automotive Engineering. 

After 3 years of working, I chose to pursue my masters to make the switch to Automotive Engineering. I was mainly interested in Design and R&D based roles. The master’s degree helped me in a big way to achieve that goal by giving me the tools required to land a job in the field of my liking.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career?

Since I have always been in the Mechanical Engineering stream, my career was always headed in this direction. But one could say that it was a transition from a CAE Software industry to Automotive Design. I saw a master’s degree as the only way to make this transition. I did my research online to find the most suitable courses for me in universities across the world. I also put a lot of time into finding out the potential job opportunities in those countries before choosing my university. Types of jobs available, companies in the field of interest, opportunities for fresh graduates, visa restrictions etc. are all to be considered. Once I chose a university, I did all my research myself online. I really didn’t use any external contacts as such. There were some useful contacts at the university within the career services team who were very helpful in preparing for interviews.

Another approach that one could take is to take the help of a counselor or consultancy. They provide career guidance and help students narrow down their field of choice and progress in the chosen field. Many people find this approach easier since a lot of the groundwork is done for them by the agency. For people who are already sure of what they want to do and prefer doing their own research, it may feel a bit unnecessary.

How did you get your first break?

For my first job after bachelors, I got placed through campus placement. It was a pool campus selection between several colleges. It had 4 rounds in total- 1 online assessment and 3 rounds of interviews. Since this was through campus selection, I only had to perform on the day of the assessment and in the interviews. My current job after masters was a lot harder to land. I had to continuously keep an eye on job postings on various websites and on company web pages. I used LinkedIn a lot. I then spotted a posting for the job and I just applied online through the company’s careers page. I then had an online assessment and upon clearing that, I was called for a technical interview. Following that, I was called again for the final interview which I was able to clear. The website Glassdoor, where people post about their interview experience and common interview questions were quite helpful in preparing for the interviews. So, I can say that in the end, it was up to me to find the job openings, applying for them, preparing for interviews and delivering on the day. It was quite a challenging time, but it was worth every bit of effort!

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

Here, I am going to focus on the challenges I faced after coming to the UK for my masters since I feel that the challenges that I faced here were a lot bigger than the ones I faced previously. Being an international student with no income in the UK is a really tough challenge. Firstly, on the academic side, the system of education and grading is quite different from what we are used to in India. The competition we face is a lot tougher since you will be competing with some of the best and brightest from various parts of the world. The exposure we have towards technical aspects and the skills we have gained previously count for a lot. If there is anything lacking in any of these, it makes what is already a very steep learning curve even steeper. While it was very valuable to have gained professional experience before pursuing my masters, it did have a slight disadvantage. It meant that I was not a student for those 3 years and had slightly lost touch with studying. It took me a month or two to get back into the groove and up to speed. When you are competing with very competent European students, this itself becomes a very big challenge. Once you are up to speed, there is no room for any slack. It is a challenge to maintain that level throughout the course. Apart from this, if you have to take up a part time job to manage your expenses and to pay bills, it adds another dimension to everything. I was working as a student ambassador for the university. I used to spend my free time, of which there was very little, in doing ambassador work. On top of all this, if you add the challenge of finding a job in such a competitive environment, it makes for a really difficult task indeed. After completing my master’s course, prior to landing the job, I was working at an Amazon warehouse as a Sortation Associate to manage my expenses, pay rent, and basically just survive here. That phase of doing that job and simultaneously applying and preparing for jobs in my field was definitely the most challenging phase of my life. But when I finally cracked it, it was the most satisfying thing ever!

Where do you work now? 

I work at Triumph Motorcycles in Hinckley, United Kingdom, as a Powertrain Design Engineer. I am responsible for the design and analysis of powertrain components such as Engine components, gearbox, intake, exhaust, cooling systems etc. 

Tell us about your current role

I currently work on a project where I am responsible for the design of the exhaust system for an upcoming model. I need to make sure that my design allows the engine to have the desired performance, by minimizing back pressure while adhering to emissions and noise standards. A lot of consideration has to also go into packaging, manufacturability, cost of materials and cost of manufacturing. I need to find the ideal balance between performance, noise, and cost. 

What are the skills required for you to fulfill your job requirements

To do this job, one has to have fundamental knowledge about the functioning of internal combustion engines, strong engineering fundamentals, strong aptitude, and logical reasoning skills. An understanding of the design process in engineering is quite critical. Hands-on experience working on formula student projects is the best way to prepare for jobs of this nature. 

What’s a typical day like?

At my job, it is hard to generalize what a typical day would be like. The nature of my role is quite varied and I have multiple responsibilities. It’s quite rare to have similar days throughout the week. My activities depend on what stage the project is at. In one phase, I might be doing a lot of calculations to assess the dimensions of my designs, another day I might be doing CAD (Computer Aided Design) designs. Another day I might be doing FEA (Finite Element Analysis) for these designs and then making changes based on results. At the next phase, I would be interacting with suppliers to get the parts manufactured for testing. I would then be assisting in the testing, gathering data, analyzing performance and making improvements to my designs based on them. So, throughout the project, my role varies. I am responsible for my component from the concept phase till mass production. This is also what I absolutely love about my job. There is never a day where I am bored. The varied responsibilities give me a wonderful opportunity to learn and enhance my understanding. It also gives me a sense of ownership of the part that I am designing. The prospect of seeing my designs come to life and physically being able to point at it on a bike and say that that was mine is extremely satisfying.

How does your work benefit society? 

Since I am in the research and development headquarters of Triumph Motorcycles, I am in the perfect place to contribute towards the future of the automotive sector. There is a lot of research going on in the field of electric motorcycles, and alternative fuels to make transportation more sustainable and to save the internal combustion engine. This way, I am in a position where I can say I am a part of the solution to one of the biggest challenges the industry has ever faced. As a premium motorcycle brand, Triumph is at the forefront of innovation. Moreover, the products that we produce capture the imagination of thousands of customers all over the world. It gives me great pride to say that I work for such a well known brand. I am very thankful to myself for all those years of hard work. What I decided when I was 16 years old and worked towards it ever since, has paid off after 11 long years, and I must say it was worth every single one of those days of struggle.

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

For this, I must go back to my bachelor’s days when I was working on the Formula Student project. We were participating in the BAJA SAE INDIA competition and we were quite a new team. The scale of the challenge for an understaffed and inexperienced team was really big. We were hard pressed for time to get the car completed in time for the event. The way the entire team came together, working day and night, sometimes for 2-3 days with no sleep at a stretch, is something that will stay with me forever. The experience of working on that project, as a part of that team, irrespective of the results, taught me so much that it set me on my path to what I am doing today. I even recounted stories from those days during my interviews with Triumph. I am sure that I will work on many exciting projects in my career, but this one will always remain special because it was the first, and the most important one. Without this, I may not have ended up where I am today.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Throughout my student life, my parents kept telling me one thing repeatedly: There is no shortcut to success. I am sure that most parents would tell their children the same thing. So, I would like to say something that has helped me at every step of my career. Follow your gut! More often than not, your gut instinct is right! Consult others, take their suggestions and use them to make your own decisions. There may be a lot of doubts surrounding every decision you make, but at the center of it all, there will always be a voice that keeps saying what you really want. Follow it, and give it your all. And always be self reliant. Being self-sufficient helps us in more ways than we can count. When it comes to the most crucial situations, it’s only yourself that can get you through the challenge. The less we rely upon others, the more control we have over our own lives. Following this philosophy has helped me greatly throughout my career.

Future Plans?

In the short term, my goal is to gain experience and skills from my job. There is so much to learn! My job also has the potential of opening up a number of exciting opportunities in the future. I have always had an inclination to also get involved in the management/business side of things. That is one path. Or, I might go ahead in the technical line and hopefully forge my own path towards a job in Formula 1. But ultimately, longer term, my desire is to return to Bangalore and have my own company and pursue music more seriously and do a lot of charity work helping the underprivileged and the needy.