Cloud Computing & Career Advice

Meet our first Expert – Ram Viswanathan. Ram is a senior technical architect at IBM and has over 20 years of experience in the Software Industry. He started out in a Tamil medium school, went on to Engineering College, went to B-school abroad, and is now the coveted ‘Distinguished Engineer’ at IBM… And the rest, as they say, is history.
Read on to find out more about Ram’s journey, his insights on technology and advice to college students on becoming industry-ready…

Disclaimer: Ram’s views in this interview are his personal views. They do not represent IBM’s policies or views in any way.
Twenty19: You are now a senior technical architect and a ‘Distinguished Engineer’. But, we know that you started out from an ordinary background and you went to a Tamil medium high school. What do you think helped you more? Brain power or will power?
Ram: I don’t know if I have much of brain power. I mostly just kept chugging along. I have made several mistakes, very foolish ones. But, you just get up and start learning again. More than brain power, I think it’s persistence that takes you a long way.
Twenty19: To be constantly persisting, everyone needs inspirations and role models. Who was your role model while at college?
Ram: I think I didn’t have a specific role model when I was in college. But I definitely used to look up to folks who could speak good English. I made a strategic shift, if you will. I switched from reading Tamil newspaper to English newspaper. Initially I didn’t understand what The Hindu was trying to convey. But, I slowly started looking up stuff in English, and if I had a problem, I had a bulky dictionary to refer to. I slowly started understanding what the story was all about.
Twenty19: You must have had a lot of influential teachers also. Who was your best teacher?
Ram: Yes, there were two from my high school days – my Tamil teachers: Mr.C.Suryamoorthy, and Mr.Raghuraman. Both of them were very passionate about what they taught. They made Tamil curious to learn, when kids used to consider Tamil as a boring subject. These two teachers made Thirukkural and Bharathiyar so fascinating! So, my love for Tamil came from these two teachers.
Twenty19: Wow… So, did you actually take your passion for Tamil outside of school or college? Did you attend any cultural meets or any fun events?
Ram: I came to be known as a guy who used to know a lot of Thirukkurals. I participated in a lot of inter school and college competitions for reciting Bharathiyar and Thirukkural, and also Tamil extempore. I did all those things fairly well. Looking back, it’s probably due to the rigorous drilling that my Tamil teachers gave.
Twenty19: You started out as an engineer and went on to become a distinguished engineer. Given the size of the IT workforce today, what do you think it takes for any student who starts out as an engineer to become a distinguished engineer?
Ram:  I think you are referring to the title that is given to me by my organization. Few companies around the world encourage people to stay technical and still attain the same ‘title’ or remuneration that one would expect if they’d become a project manager. I have a flair for what I am doing. I enjoy playing around and learning new technology. So, I kept at it. And that’s what got me to be a distinguished engineer. There are a select few who are nominated. I’m fortunate to be one of them.
Twenty19: You said you like playing with new technology. But, in the current scenario we hear of so many things: cloud computing, Apps, social networks, PaaS…the buzzwords are constantly changing. How do you think today’s students be prepared to face an industry with such volatile components?
Ram: If I had the crystal ball and I knew how the industry is going to shape up 5 years down the line, I would make a lot of money out of that. The thing is, we don’t know. But there are quite a few indicators. We started with dumb terminals and mainframes 25 years back. Then came in personal computers which have evolved to where we are today. Now, computing power sits in your desktop or laptop. There is also lot of software to support these models. Along the way came the concept of the internet and a connected world.  The internet gives you access to the same information whether you are sitting in Boston or in Bangalore or Buffalo. The computing power can sit in a server as long as you have browser based access a la Google apps and docs. Smart devices and apps also have access to info on server.
Students should look more and more at how mobile devices are going to be centre pieces of your lives- not only your personal/social lives, but in also how business is done. You need to learn to be adaptable. The C, C++ that you learn in college might not be the languages of choice when you enter the workforce. You have to be a continuous learner. If you stop learning, you stop growing.
Twenty19: When you say students need to be continuous learners, there are tons of ways to learn outside of class, like doing internships. How do you think students should learn more?
Ram: The way in which learning happens in a classroom setting definitely has its place, but it does not end there. Whether we like or not, there is stuff coming at us 24/7. We learn from friends, entertainment that we seek out, the social circle we move in and of course from the formal education in class. Learning happens in a multitude of ways as long as you keep your eyes and ears open. Your own kids could be teaching as you well. You’ve got to be open to it.
Coming to internships – Well, there were no internships in my college time. Looking around now, there are a lot more opportunities for internships popping up. I think that is a very good way to look at how the business works even before you get out of college and get some valuable learning.
Twenty19: This one is a situation question- You are on the graduate recruitment panel for Company X. Who would you be more willing to recruit- a student with perfect scores, university ranks and awards OR someone who’s run the college symposium, been in the placement committee and probably designed a robot as their pet project?
Ram: I would look into your GPA, but, that’s just a foot-in-the-door thing for me. How does that person come across in the half or one hour that I talk to them?  I’m not going to ask them to code a Java snippet for me. I will ask them about ten different things, in terms of their interests and mine and see how they respond. Are they closed in their thinking or are they open to new ideas? I believe the skills that people would have acquired in a college – though useful, are only a foundation. You need a lot more in your ability to work in a team.  So, I look for learnability and team player qualities in a person. I look for extracurricular activities they might have indulged in, as well.
Twenty19: We know that you blog and tweet frequently. Do you have any favorite bloggers or twitterers who you follow?
Ram: I wish I could spend more time on that front. One word of advice is: Exercise caution. There is a lot of garbage out on the internet. Do not take anything for granted. As a student, be curious but at the same time question what you read.
But I do follow some blogs and tweets. I read what Robert Scoble talks about on Twitter. I also read David Allen’s ‘Getting things done’ website. And then I also catch up on self improvement guru Robin Sharma’s blog and website. I like two magazines- 1. The Economist – My professors in business school used to say –‘If there is only one magazine that you would ever read, let it be the Economist.’  2. The Yoga Journal.
Twenty19: Apart from your work, you have other pastimes. How do these extra activities complement your work life?
Ram: I do two things beyond work. I have taken into running recently. I try to do a few marathons in a year. Running has now become an antidote for stress for me and keeps me fit. Running time is my time and I look forward to it every day.
The other thing I do is work with a bunch of youngsters on helping kids learn computers through an NGO called Deepam, in Chennai. We work with lesser privileged kids to familiarize them to computers, English, general awareness and personality development. This is a weekly activity – a few hours each week. This is awesome because I learn a lot from the kids with whom I interact.
Twenty19: On a closing note, what is your advice to college students who want to take initiatives outside of academics?
Ram: A couple of things that I would encourage students to look at : Be a student, be a continuous learner. Be adaptable. Things will change. You’ve got to be open to new things and new technology.
Also, do not be afraid of failures. There are quite a few quotes that talk about it, whether it is from Michael Jordan who said: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” Or Edison who said: I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Most importantly, have a mentor early in your life – someone who can steer you along. There have been quite a few good Samaritans in my life. But I wish I had known enough myself to go seek out mentors and get feedback and guidance from them. So all youngsters – Go get a mentor if you don’t already have one.
Disclaimer: Ram’s views in this interview are his personal views. They do not represent IBM’s policies or views in any way.

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