Technologies of the near and distant future will enable ubiquitous connectivity and communication across devices in the real world at a scale that we have never seen before !
Vinod Narayan, our next pathbreaker, Electrical Engineering Lead at Meta (Seattle), is part of the Metaverse Electrical/ Electronics team focusing on building the next generation AR platform.
Vinod talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his career in Electronics & Computing spanning diverse industries such as semiconductors, medical devices (Johnson & Johnson) and retail (Starbucks).
For students, there will always be obstacles in your career, but instead of getting unnerved by them, look at them as stepping stones to bigger opportunities !
Vinod, can you talk a little about your growing up years?
I come from a humble middle class background where I grew up in the city of Mumbai. My Father worked in the banking and insurance sector and my mother was a part-time teacher and a homemaker. While growing up, I always had a lot of interest in various sports and was always curious in general about things. I liked solving different puzzles, playing with electronics and games. This led to my early interest in the field of science and research. As I was learning Math and Science in school, it continued to build my interest and led me to solve problems in those areas, which helped me not only to excel in those areas but also motivated me to achieve academic excellence during all my school years. I also got exposed to coding later in my early high school years. This combination of trying to understand how things work, and being able to build things with coding, and computers in general led me to pursue science along with IT and then Bachelors in Instrumentation and Controls Engineering. One of the other things that interested me while growing up was teaching and mentoring. I used to help and train students in the area of Math, Science and various other courses while helping out my mother with her tuition in the process. Along with Math, Science and teaching interests, I was also into music, got trained in the field of Carnatic percussion and pursued fine arts percussion actively during my school and college years part time.
What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Instrumentation and Controls Engineering from University of Mumbai. After spending 4 years of my life educating myself with different courses and training myself in the area of Engineering, I was more interested to further advance in some of the specific technical areas and also train myself in research. This led me to make a choice of doing something different, innovative and as a result I worked for a start-up in the field of Nuclear Electronics and Instrumentation briefly for less than a year and then decided to pursue Masters in the area of Electronics and Computing. I graduated with master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering specializing in Microelectronics and Digital Computing from one of the top 5 reputed universities in Canada (McMaster University).
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
I think some of the key influences that led me to choose this career were, trying to do something different, something unique, the passion and motivation to build something with technology. Some of the key influencers who helped me shape my path in this direction were industry technical leaders, engineers, scientists, and researchers within and outside my network.
If I think about people and mentors in my life and career, I have to start with some of the family members and relatives who pursued professional careers in engineering and excelled at the highest level, then some of the teachers and professors with whom I got an opportunity to train with, and then during my initial years, I had an opportunity to work with some of the finest senior engineers and technical leaders who helped me to not only attain all the important skills but also inspired me to strive for perfection and excellence across all the areas of work.
There have been some key events that shaped my life and career. During my final year of Bachelor’s, I decided not to pursue career placements and instead focused on getting an opportunity to do something different which was related to building core products and technologies. The other key event was relocating to Canada to pursue my Master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering and then relocating to the USA for suitable work opportunities.
In every individual’s life there are turning points that shape up one’s life, career and story which makes everyone’s journey unique. There have been turning points in my life too and some of those were: Pursuing Science, joining Engineering, realizing the specific area of interest in Engineering and then the passion and motivation to keep advancing in the specific field and interest and being able to grab suitable opportunities that came along my way throughout my career.
Tell us about your career path
My career path started from working as an engineer for a start-up based in Mumbai, India. My approach or thought process from my final year of engineering was always about how can I do something different, something unique, how can I associate myself with the team or the company that is working on cutting edge technologies and building highly impactful core products. This thought process led me to explore different opportunities and I ended up getting an opportunity with a start-up firm in Mumbai after my graduation in engineering. In that company, I worked as an Electronics Engineer and my primary duties were focused around building circuits, testing, troubleshooting, installation and deployment of the product on the customer sites. I was also exposed to some of the sales and marketing as well. While I was working there, I started to have a continued interest in the area of computing and electronics, and I wanted to advance my skills in the areas of theory, practice and research. This motivated me to pursue Masters in the field of Electrical and Computer Engineering from one of the finest universities in Canada.
Towards the end of my Masters, I decided to join the Industry instead of pursuing research through PhD. My first break after my masters was working as an “Analog Integrated Circuit Design Engineer” for Semtech which was a mid-size semiconductor company. I enjoyed my stint there for roughly 1 and a half years, I worked on designing circuits at the silicon chipset level, exposed myself through the different stages of silicon chip development. The job at Semtech was a “Contract” which means it was of fixed duration.
After my stint at Semtech, I got an opportunity to work as a “Radio Frequency Integrated Circuit Design Engineer” at a start-up. It was an excellent opportunity to further develop my technical skills and perform at the highest level.
How did you transition from a “hardware” only role to a system based (hardware and software) role?
Unfortunately, after 6 months the company failed to perform and everyone was laid off. After that, I continued to explore, and I got another opportunity in a start-up where I was told that I would be designing circuits but also developing automation tools, platforms, and solutions for validating the hardware. Thus, this paved the way for my transition from previous core hardware roles to more of software, hardware and a system based technical role. I exposed myself to coding, automation, building circuit boards along with some silicon chipsets and thereby started gathering expertise related to both hardware and software.
After roughly working for 3 years, the start-up ended up facing a lot of financial difficulties and yet again, unfortunately, I was part of the layoff process. When I was working in Canada, I had always thought of working and living in the USA if given a great opportunity, though at the same time, I was content with my life and career in Canada. Hence, did not make a conscious effort to move down south. When working for the start-up, I ended up giving couple of interviews for some of the companies in USA and the timing was such that the opportunity came at the right time and with the motivation and support of my family, I decided to move with my family to USA and pursue the opportunity of a “Senior Test Engineer” at a company called ASIC north (spinoff from IBM) located in north east coast of USA. I continued to learn a lot of best practices in Testing, Validation, Software and Hardware engineering. But there were some issues with the company management team and roughly after 2 and a half years the values and principles were not matching and therefore, I decided to switch at that point.
After that, I worked for Johnson & Johnson as a “Staff Software Engineer” for one of their cutting-edge medical devices.
Then, I worked for a very short stint as a consultant for ASML (big semiconductor MnC) as an Electronics Engineer. After working for J&J and while working at ASML, I came across a very interesting opportunity at Starbucks, where the role was of a technical leader within R&D who is responsible to lead the design and development of various complex Electromechanical machines (retail appliances) and devices, connect them via IoT (internet of things) that will be deployed and used at various Starbucks retail cafe stores in the country. I thought of this role as an opportunity to not only build and lead the team but also, use my EE hardware, software and systems experience to be able to build these various next generation of devices and machines to be used across various stores within the country. This prompted me to join Starbucks as an R&D Engineering Manager (Electronics & Embedded systems) and move to the city of Seattle in the west coast of USA. This role was unique and helped me to create an impact across the organization and retail industry.
After my stint at Starbucks, I got an opportunity at Meta, and I am currently pursuing that opportunity which utilizes all my skills around hardware, software, and management. Throughout my journey, I was able to build contacts and network, which proved to be useful during the challenging times. I think one of the approaches that I used is to be a bit flexible around the profile requirements, and that allowed me to learn both hardware and software and become a subject matter expert in different areas of digital computing. I also think that throughout my career I was always open to trying out different things and took calculated risks that paid dividends in the long term.
How did you get your first break?
I would actually consider 2 major first breaks in my career that shaped my journey in this field, the first major initial break was immediately after my bachelors where I got an opportunity to work for a start-up that was focused on building technology in the area of Nuclear instrumentation and engineering.
When I was in my third year and final year of engineering, I realized that most of the campus placements were focused on IT jobs. While I used to like coding, I wanted to join a company where I could get experience on building core products & technology utilizing different technology stacks. Therefore, with this goal or objective in mind, I started my search through different job portals, networking etc and ended up getting this break at the start-up. This break set the stage for me to understand more about the lifecycle of building products and technologies, and helped me understand my interests and passion in general.
The second first break would be after I graduated with a Master’s and joined a semiconductor based mid-size company named Semtech Corporation that was located in Ontario, Canada. That break was very interesting as it paved the way for my journey in the field of R&D, silicon chipsets and custom computing. I got that breakthrough via one of the networking events through my university campus.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
There were a lot of challenges throughout my journey, but I was determined to keep going. One of the major challenges for me was to navigate the multiple layoffs I had in my career. I always maintained a lot of optimism and positivity and believed that whatever happens, happens for good and for a reason. With each layoff, I realized the importance of attitude and even though it was painful, it paved the way for something even better than the previous opportunity. I had to navigate through job searches and interviews within a given duration. Being able to crack multiple job offers gave me a lot of confidence in myself, my abilities, and my skills.
One of the other challenges having worked with so many different companies (Big MNCs, small, start-ups) was to navigate through different processes at different companies, some processes seem to make sense, some did not but the challenge was to understand the processes in general, ask questions if necessary and being flexible enough to embrace them as needed.
During my role as a R&D Engineering Manager at Starbucks, I developed infrastructure for software processes, the hardware EE lab. But, there were multiple challenges across different fronts in terms of managing resources, bandwidth, deadlines and direct reports. At first it was difficult, but as time went by, I got used to everything. I got better with efficiency, I used project management tools to track different work streams, budgets, resources, timing etc. I established best practices for communication with my direct reports and that helped a lot to manage them as well.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role
I work for Meta as an Electrical Engineering lead. I am currently part of the Metaverse Electrical/ Electronics team focusing on building the next generation AR platform. Meta (previously known as Facebook) has different business divisions:
- Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)
I am currently part of the AR team where we solve problems daily that range from very simple to some of the most complex problems. The specific problems are generally around finding potential solutions for technological challenges around EE hardware and software, scalable solutions and manufacturing tools and processes.
What are the skills needed? How did you acquire them?
The skills that are needed for this job are as follows: (in no particular order)
- Core technical skills such as EE fundamentals, building circuit designs using tools such as Cadence, Altium etc.
- Coding and programming skills around Python, LabVIEW, C, C++
- Excellent problem solving, troubleshooting skills along with interpersonal and communication skills.
- Ability to manage deliverables, manage deadlines and communication with different stakeholders as it is extremely cross-functional.
I acquired all the skills mentioned above through various ways and approaches: work-experience acquired via Industry projects, my own hobby projects, university level projects, online resources and so on.
What’s a typical day like?
My typical day revolves around having status meetings in the mornings followed by any project related meetings and then getting through the day with the planned goals or tasks that I have set to accomplish. It often happens that as I am working on a set of requirements or tasks to be implemented, some of my time during the day goes around my planning, execution and as I am implementing set of solutions, most of the time goes around debugging and testing to make sure the required solution works as intended and that it meets the requirements. Some of the technical tasks can include designing a circuit board, thinking about architecture, doing testing in the lab and/or doing coding, creating/writing software for various different use cases.
What do you love about your job?
What I love about my job is I have an opportunity to build new tools, platforms, products and see them working and getting used by different teams or by different people/consumers in the field. I also like interacting with my team and people which is extremely very important for any job/work.
How does your work benefit society?
My work, in general, over the years, has always been instrumental in creating impact and value to society.
My current work at Meta (previously known as Facebook) involves the vision of creating the world’s first Augmented Reality glass that can help people and communities at a global level, with the eventual aim of creating “Metaverse” that will enable connectivity and communication across devices and the real world at the scale that no one has ever seen so far. A few high impact use cases for the highly complex AR type device that I am currently working are
- Helping surgeons navigate complex surgeries by augmenting his/her vision.
- Displaying real time climatic conditions on the heads-up display glass.
- Using augmented reality for location services.
- Smart shopping
- Work-out path tracking and fitness related.
- Educational training
- Complex manufacturing
- Clinical research
This technological innovation is predicted to disrupt all the different areas and is touted to be the next “big-thing” after the internet in the years to come.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Fortunately, there have been lot of memorable projects/inventions and or discoveries that I have been part of that are very close to me, it is quite hard for me to pick only one, so I am going to briefly describe 3 examples that have been extremely close to me:
- Medical and Healthcare: Sentio MMG, Medical Device (Johnson & Johnson Product) —- I had been a major contributor to the development of this medical device, leading the research and development related to electrical and software aspects of the device. This current device is one of its kind, the world’s first ever device intended for use in surgical procedures to assist in locating and mapping motor nerves using mechanomyography (MMG) signals and electrical stimulus of nerves. This device is currently being used in hospitals and clinics specifically aiding surgeons in their orthopedic spine surgical procedures.
- Environment Sustainability and Retail: Innovative automated Coffee brewers, automated dispensers (milk, water, sauce/syrup etc), cup return machine, espresso machines (Starbucks Products) —– I was one of the most important technical leaders driving the development related to next generation of innovative machines to be used across different Starbucks retail stores. Deploying all these different complex machines at various sites within the country enabled very high efficiency, less cost, less waste thereby making a huge impact to environmental sustainability and helping company, country, people, and environment at a large scale.
- Wireless Telecommunication (Start-up Product): I had worked on a unique complex frequency synthesizer product that was aimed at being used across different phones and cellular base stations. The product has helped greatly in cellular telecommunication, thereby helping in the areas of communication and connection.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My advice to all students based on my experience and learning is that don’t be afraid to try out new things in life. Explore as much as possible and always try to understand what your interests are. There will always be challenges, but if you end up doing what you like the most, then navigating through challenges will become easy and you will keep going no matter what. It is important to keep working hard and keep hustling. Try to be curious, if you are able to narrow down a specific area of interest and would like to pursue a career related to the same, try to find mentors and people who have excelled in that area and start drawing a pattern by observing their career pattern. I think the most important thing in life and career in general, that I like to follow is, to achieve excellence in whatever you are doing. Always be humble and be prepared to keep learning and gaining knowledge throughout your career.
Life is full of surprises, not exactly sure what is in store as a next step for me. Currently, I like what I am doing. I like to think of myself as someone who likes to build cool stuff whether they are new tools, platforms, prototypes, or actual products, so I would imagine that my career and life will continue to revolve around that. I would like to continue to do high impact meaningful work, be a subject matter expert in the area of Electrical Hardware, Computing and Software and along with that be a technical leader, possibly inspire many young engineers and mentor them as needed. I am always intrigued with the idea of start-ups and entrepreneurship. So, that is something I might explore in the future or start an independent consultancy firm in the specific field of my interest, expertise, knowledge, and skills.