Automotive companies continue to explore the capability of digital technologies to not only enhance vehicle performance but also develop new products and services that benefit society, through improved road safety and reduction of carbon emissions.

Balaji Nagaraj Kumar, our next pathbreaker, Technical Product Manager at Volvo Car’s (Sweden) Developer Portal, works on ensuring that the developer portal meets the needs of external developers who are building applications on top of Volvo Cars’ developer portal platform.

Balaji talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the satisfaction of working on products touching millions of users – from charging to mobility, with an emphasis on next generation automotive technologies.

For students, digital connectivity will play a pivotal role in providing safe, intelligent and immersive riding experiences for customers !

Balaji, Your background?

Hailing from a middle-class South Indian Family is one of the favourite parts of my life! Because this taught me values – values encompassing many integral parts of life that school doesn’t teach, right from interacting with people to perceiving things. Thanks to my village heritage, I’m more than happy to say that my background is as ordinary as almost 80% of the rest of the population.

Growing up inside the staff quarters of an educational institution gave me the passion for traveling as much as I could in my life – you aspire for what you don’t possess! The age when we learn things not by choice, but naturally, is the golden time of one’s life. Everyone must go through that phase, which is situational – but that can stay with us forever. I spent one such golden period of my life – fortunately it lasted for almost 14 years in that remote, but rich in knowledge, college quarters where my father worked! My dad cultivated values in me, values that I am going to cherish forever! And my mom chose to be the best homemaker by sacrificing all her wishes for my growth – selfless blessings!!

Basically, I was born in Ambasamudram – a village with a population of 35000 people, with my roots tied strongly to the countryside. My upbringing was in Chennai – a 11 million-sized city, where I grew up. Life gave me the perfect blend of rural and urban exposure – blessed again!

While I grew up, my dad nurtured me and taught me about how systems function in this world – be good, do good, compete against 100%, not only against the first in the list. What he taught me made me what I am today! This instills the “never give up” attitude with kindness in me. Right from childhood, I competed 100%, which eventually featured me in every year’s topper’s list! I enjoyed being there & grabbing the microphone to speak out loud – because people listened!  

The secret is not one instant, but multiple occasions – you will encounter something that you love, and you keep doing it! For me, it has always been technology and business! I kept doing it in multiple forms. There will be many messengers who come into your life at different points and whisper in your ears what your interests are – the key is to listen to yourself! In that golden period of life, listen – just be empathetic to yourself, and understand what you are crying out loud for! It might be difficult if you sit down and think, but as I mentioned, it is a process! It takes time and effort to get that – but once you get that, there is no looking back! 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Learning in any form is most appreciated – it happened to me in the form of education.

I have studied bachelor’s in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, at one of India’s top engineering schools. It was tough as the jump from my school to college has been massive in terms of standards, because my school was a rural one, impoverished in knowledge while my college is of international standard.

There is always a time in life that tests your basics! My foundation in this case was my perseverance. Had I chosen to give up – I would have lost my identity. I am made of what my values, environment, and world taught me.

Every purposeful or non-purposeful means that teaches you is a teacher! And I was told never to disrespect anyone, teachers especially! So, I chose to compete, but compete as my father taught me – against 100%. Yes, I came top in the following semester’s results just because I had aimed for the moon, by not giving up. Yes, it is difficult but not impossible!

So what about external factors?

The world is uncertain, and life is the most unfair process that ever exists! Hence, there can be gazillions of external factors that make you feel demotivated even amidst your day and night preparation. It happened to me too! Yes, though I topped my bachelor’s, as I mentioned, due to middle-class economic reasons – I ended up working like another aimless engineer for a corporate! But I wanted to study, I wanted to put all my skills into use to create more value using what I had obtained in all these years. At times, nature will push you into that drain by making you not utilize what you are meant for!

While that happens, and if you recognize that it is happening to you – just fight with kindness!

I prepared for applying to the top 30 universities around the world. I got this fully funded European Union’s master’s program in Electrical and Computer Engineering which also covered my living expenses ! That is the best gift a thirsty student can imagine in life! Again, I was blessed for my perseverance. 

That was the turning point in my life – I have work-traveled to almost 20 countries in 24 months and did my coveted internship at CERN, Switzerland. I studied at five different countries’ top universities – got the chance to meet the most talented, reputed individuals and organizations. I also worked in startups, won hackathons, and grabbed top job offers around Europe – just because even if I failed, I stood up! 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Being a Technical Product Manager at a global product company like Volvo Cars– working on shaping what the next generation of developers across the world can potentially build and disrupt is fun and motivating!

How did I choose this career ? – Honestly, the specifics of what I do in my job are not something I was aiming for, though the aim and goal has always been to put people in focus and make use of what I have been equipping myself with over the years. To sum it up, my driving factor for what I am doing at this instant and what I am going to do further in my career is –

To ensure my every contribution in any field, to any end-user should be both quantifiable and qualifiable in terms of the positive impact and influence it creates.

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

Planning your career is one thing, but executing that plan is another vital aspect of that career step.

I have been listening to myself over the years since I got exposed to technology, and one thing for sure that rings me up now and then is something about the external factor!

The fact that phases of technological growth change rapidly, according to Moore’s law – I have set something super straight that I must focus on a T-shaped growth.

Because, equipping myself in one sector will make me obsolete in a few years, which any growth, progress-loving person does not prefer. 

So, whenever there is a new technological breakthrough, I strategize by spending my nights getting acclimatized to that like a pro – extending my vertical leg in the T. But by then, a new technology surpasses that. I try to extend my horizontal leg to prepare for the future. This is difficult, but easy with practice and that made me comfortable in the landscape of my favourite ever-growing industry.

Talking about my experiences:

During Bachelors:

I started with my first Internship during my bachelor’s at the Central Government of India’s research organizations, under the name of National Institute of Ocean Technology, and another one in the Ministry of Medium scale industry innovation.

This was my first exposure to working culture – different yet beneficial in terms of HOW. I learned how to put things in place – from books to industry.

Soon, I finished my bachelor’s thesis with this knowledge – yielding me a lumpsum for my research project from the SSN research center.

After Bachelors:

After submitting two of my Science Citation Indexed journal papers, I started my career at Ford projects at Visteon Global Tech Center – a Ford company subsidiary that got spun off a while ago. They needed engineers to blindly do what is expected – Taught me how not to work! Even though I was a key resource in the most happening project, the learning curve was saturating. One top tip in such instances, use your time effectively! I was using my time and creative efforts after working hours to fuel my application for a master’s. I utilized my office hours to outperform what was expected of me.

During Masters:

This is my so-far-career golden moment –
Yes, I did 7 internships/part-time!

Because all I have seen are opportunities. What motivated me is – just the abundance of opportunities to increase my learning. I strived several nights to complete every internship to the best of my capabilities.

I worked as a Global Student Technical Consultant for a Brazilian Firm with a team of 6 from 6 different time zones. This taught me team-building skills and made me the true team player I am now. The aspect of collaboration at a global scale is not easy to settle into, but if you do it, then you never need to look back.

I took up an Innovation Industrial Project at Ferroamp, Stockholm, Sweden. It was my first exposure to a mid-sized startup. All that I dreamt about startups has been upturned with this experience, it is not easy to cope with the industry expectations of being a startup. Big learning in life! But you can make the biggies turn to your side with your innovation – the most powerful weapon that almost democratized the technology to all!

The thirst just begins, as in when you find eating something difficult but you kind of like it, you would not stop! That happened to me in terms of startups and their exposure!

Then I levelled up my efforts with dual internships – both from Switzerland – one from CERN, Geneva, and another one from LedSafari, Laussane.

CERN has been the greatest engineering marvel I ever witnessed, the complexities of the system, engineers, and engineering, what not – made me realize how big the world is! My engineering realization place is inside the Large Hadron Collider tunnel. I got a chance to meet and interact with top scientists and engineers, whereby the scale of the knowledge-gaining process quadrupled. Mind-boggling time of life!

Immediately, I turned up to my polar end of the curve by associating with one of the most promising solar startups in Europe as their first Machine Learning Intern. Learning by doing is what I gunned upon. Being an amateur ML engineer, I saw the potential once I finished my first version of the model! That felt like the feeling of opening a new portal to a new universe!

Meanwhile, my mind was inclined to study  Entrepreneurship and Business Management at ESADE, Spain. My brain was getting warmed up to the idea of dabbling in both Technology and Business at the same time!

I moved to a new land, a new opportunity, but this time, not with a newbie mindset. But again, at a startup, not as an intern – instead as a part-time engineer along with my thesis at one of the biggest energy companies in the Netherlands. Learnings are abundant. When you get accustomed to something, you can do the tasks at a much higher pace. Utilize that and go to the next level ! That’s how we are wired, running at the same speed is not efficient!

Gathering all this, I received offers from top tech companies across Europe, but I chose to do the homecoming as Sweden became my home after my first brief stint during the 1st year of my master’s!

This time, I aimed at something even more competitive – Global Graduate Program at Volvo Cars, Headquarters. This is a coveted opportunity for top talents across the globe, acting as a springboard for personnel seeking an early career boost , with a 0.9% acceptance rate!

I learned that wherever I end up. Whether it is an internship, or part-time work, we should strive to be useful at every place – whatever we do, think about how and what will be useful.

How did you get your first break?

There is no first break as such, it is a process. The process through which I learned the art of listening to myself, the process of perseverance, the process of not giving up, the process of kindness, the process of multiple failures, but still not shaken – ultimately it is a process of learning called life.

When life tells you something – just listen! Every inner self has a beautiful microphone, just use your speakers to listen!

For example,

From my previous experiences, you could see how I listened to my wishes to excel in technology and business by exposing myself to all possible experiences!

From my perseverance, the art of listening to thyself has been honed enough to trace even a pin drop!

From my thousands of failures, those hundreds of successes got glamoured.

Those are just mine, there are thousands of more successful people who can vouch for the fact that success is not instantaneous, instead it is a process!  

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

My major challenge so far has been more abstract rather than a scenario of something that happened in life. I see that as more of a life trait rather than tagging it to an instance.

First challenge:

Mindset – the mindset of needing resources to achieve success in life was my biggest challenge. There was a time in my life when I thought successful people are those who are resourceful and had money and means.

It was a tough challenge to break! It takes years to understand that all it needs is a mindset and mettle!

My overcoming principle: Probability! When you try your odds, the maximum number of tries determines the best possible probability! Shorter numbers are always tricky! Likewise, if you fail in your first two tries, never stop trusting the process, the process is the key, not the result! The more you get used to the process, the more positive results will come your way, or you will find the way to the result.

Second Challenge:

People – the daily stakeholders of your life. So, you can never get them out of your life. The more you avoid people, the more your inner self makes you a coward. With this high-tech civilization, you could see some of your peers, who can express their concerns, and opinions in a more articulated and expressive way! That is not magic, I used to look at them and learn.

My Overcoming Principle: Certainly, this aspect of dealing with people has been a pain in my initial days, but instead I tried to see the paper plain! Meaning, being bold is not a skill, it is just an accumulation of a series of acts at the right place and at right time. 

At the outset, if you see challenges as gift-wrapped boxes, it is super easy! Try unfolding the wrapper and you will never cease to see a pleasant positive surprise, at the end of the day you gained something, like something on your shelf!! Something is always better than nothing! 

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

Currently, I work for Volvo Cars Corporation, Sweden, as a Technical Product Manager for Global Partner Enablement within Commercial Digital. 

As a technical product manager for the Volvo Cars Developer Portal, my primary responsibility is to ensure that the developer portal meets the needs of external developers who are building applications on top of Volvo Cars’ developer portal products. I am responsible for identifying the problems that developers are facing and finding solutions to those problems. This involves working closely with cross-functional teams such as engineering, design, and business to ensure that the developer portal is user-friendly, reliable, and secure.

What are the skills needed in your role? How did you acquire them?

To be an effective technical product manager for the Volvo Cars Developer Portal, one needs a strong technical background, excellent communication and collaboration skills, and the ability to balance competing priorities. Technical skills in areas such as software development, cloud computing, and API design are essential. These skills can be acquired through formal education, on-the-job training, and self-study. In addition to technical skills, product management skills such as market research, product strategy, and product roadmap development are also necessary.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day for a technical product manager for the Volvo Cars Developer Portal involves working with cross-functional teams to identify and prioritize features and improvements for the developer portal, communicating with external developers to understand their needs and challenges, and analyzing metrics to evaluate the success of the developer portal. There may also be meetings with senior leadership to provide updates on the developer portal’s performance and to discuss long-term strategy.

What do you love about your job?

What I love about this job is the opportunity to work on a cutting-edge technology platform that is shaping the future of the automotive industry. I also enjoy collaborating with a talented and diverse group of individuals across different functions and geographies. Finally, I find it rewarding to see the impact that my work has on external developers and their ability to build innovative applications on top of Volvo Cars’ products.

How does your work benefit society? 

As Volvo Cars continues to explore the capability for digital technologies to increase our performance as a software-defined automotive OEM, and enable potential new growth opportunities through connected services, it is likely we can diversify and accelerate the discovery and return of new value for the business through the development of new products and services with external partners/developers.

We are partnering with third-party solution providers to minimize risk, and to assess demand from developers, we leverage existing business partners and developers, by offering them the opportunity to create services specific to their needs. It also creates an open platform for developers and gives them the tools and support they need, with the aim to create successful and innovative services. 

The developer portal helps external developers to build innovative applications on top of Volvo Cars’ APIs. This can lead to the creation of new products and services that benefit society, such as applications that improve road safety or reduce carbon emissions.

Secondly, the developer portal can help to foster innovation and collaboration within the automotive industry. By providing a platform for developers to build and test new ideas, the developer portal can help to accelerate the pace of innovation and drive progress in areas such as electric and autonomous vehicles.

By making it easier for developers to access and work with Volvo Cars’ APIs, the developer portal can help to democratize access to technology and knowledge, which can benefit individuals and communities who may not have had access to these resources before.

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

One memorable work I did that is very close to me is leading the development of a new feature for the Volvo Cars Developer Portal that enabled developers to easily access data from multiple APIs through a single interface. This feature required significant collaboration across multiple teams within Volvo Cars, including the engineering team responsible for building the APIs and the design team responsible for the user interface.

To develop this feature, I worked closely with external developers to understand their needs and challenges when working with multiple APIs. I also collaborated with cross-functional teams within Volvo Cars to ensure that the feature was aligned with the company’s overall strategy and met the needs of both developers and internal stakeholders.

After several months of development and testing, the new feature was launched, and we received overwhelmingly positive feedback from external developers who found it much easier to work with Volvo Cars’ APIs. In addition, the new feature helped to streamline internal processes within Volvo Cars, which resulted in cost savings and increased efficiency.

This work was particularly meaningful to me because it required collaboration across multiple teams and functions, and resulted in tangible benefits for both external developers and internal stakeholders. It also demonstrated the power of technology to simplify and streamline complex processes, which can ultimately benefit society as a whole.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would like to give tips instead of advices, as it is same as Reinforcement Machine learning – better models (brains) will inspire better results and likewise adapt to improve your life,

  1. Don’t give up on your dreams: There are several who faced obstacles and challenges, but they never gave up on their dream of studying abroad and pursuing their interests. They persevered and worked hard to achieve their goals. Therefore, it is important to believe in yourself and not give up on your dreams.
  2. Listen to your interests: Those who found their interests in technology and business at an early age kept pursuing them. Students must listen to their interests and passions, as they can guide them towards a fulfilling career.
  3. Value education: Learning in any form is essential and valuable. Take education seriously and make the most out of all learning opportunities.
  4. Be empathetic to yourself: It is important to take the time to reflect and identify what truly matters to you.
  5. Compete against 100%: Compete against 100% and not just with the first in the list. This teaches you ways to strive for excellence and not settle for mediocrity.
  6. Perseverance is key: Perseverance helps overcome challenges and achieve your goals. Develop a strong sense of perseverance and never give up in the face of adversity.
  7. Fight with kindness: External factors can demotivate you, but you should never give up. Instead, fight with kindness and positivity, and tackle challenges with kindness and resilience.

Future Plans?

The future can definitely be planned but the execution is the key! Eager to make my execution skills speak here!

To make it more abstract – Think & Do good, make it big, and iterate!