An interview with Mr. Dhanushkodi Mariappan (BT/ME/2001):
An inspirational figure, Mr. Mariappan started a company called ‘TechPassion’ after completing his MS from MIT. A brief chat with him enlightened us on how, about a decade ago, our institute has thrived in ways we would deem impossible. He also shares with us interesting facts from his life.
Could you tell us about yourself, with a little emphasis on your base at IIT?
I did my B.Tech in mechanical engineering from IITM. My journey as a mechanical engineer started here. After IIT (finished it in 2001) I went to MIT for my masters. Right now, I run a company called TechPassion.
Honestly, in the first semester, I was totally lost. It was very different from the school environment and I am sure it (was/) is the same for everyone. We all could do really well with relatively less effort in school but here, everybody’s good. With very few exceptions, everyone’s going through an identity crisis. Seniors might go out of the way to help us but it took me some time- about a year and a half- to figure out that one has to come up with his or her own way of getting through the IIT system. At that time, it was clear for most students that they wanted to go to the United States for MS. Some wanted to write CAT. These two were the most preferred choices. Following these, was the choice of placements. When I finished, I had done well academically. I was also active in athletics. I had tried a lot of things and athletics worked, so I stayed with it. I contested for mess sec twice, lost once and got elected the second time. In my 4th year, I was the HAS. I was awarded the MIT presidential fellowship and the Institute Blues from IIT. I had a very good peer group on campus. For me, these four years were very defining. I learnt a lot here; those were the best years of my life (smiles).
How different was the institute in those days from what it is now?
It is difficult to compare. But I shall do it on an absolute scale.
We used to have 3 quizzes and an end-semester exam, and quiz weeks were very painful (laughs). I specially remember the abnormally large number of cycles on the roads in those weeks as early as 7:30 AM! In general, a large number of students took academics seriously. Atleast, in our year, a lot of people did very well. Sports was big – but, yeah, it could be the hostel factor for us, in Ganga. If you belonged there you had to play something and we had a great schroeter legacy. We had inspiring seniors and we all wanted to give it a shot. In fact, Schroeter was bigger than the inter-IIT meet.
The transition of the technical festival too happened during our time. We used to have a two-day festival called Pragma. And then, we had this inspirational figure, Anand Ranganathan, who stood for the post of Academic Affairs Secretary. The key point in his extremely structured manifesto was the introduction of a 4-day technical festival. Shaastra was born and we witnessed it. When I saw Shaastra in 2004, it was mind boggling. The way it has grown over the years is unimaginable.
Also, we had no internet those days and hence common room had a big role in our hostel lives. We used to watch the cricket matches in the common room! (How did you manage without the internet?) Some departments had the DCF but the general practice was to go to the internet cafes in Velachery or Adyar. Anyway, I think the only time we actually needed it was when we were applying for universities abroad, in the last 6 months. We used to work on unix machines. Mail programmes were standard and readily available and the process was easy. This kind of life is hard to imagine right now, but that is how it was(smiles).
We had bikes back then, which were banned towards the end of our final year. The class strength was also much smaller. A handful of students had mobile phones. It was very expensive and we did not really need it. Our only mode of communication was the phone in the hostel and we used to be called out for through the PA system. Or, you could go to the Gurunath phone booth.
There is one more thing that I tell everybody. It is probably a boring statistic but all the same I am going to reiterate it. In the 4 years we were here, there was not a single class that got cancelled and every professor came on time. In terms of work ethic, I think it is a significant piece of data. Even in the last two semesters, when most people were taking it easy, a few classes were so good that everyone would turn up. That sort of culture was there and I hope it is still intact.
Also, we had very good camaraderie and healthy competition. We had heard dirty stories about competition from seniors but in our class, everyone was cooperative and would communicate useful information. We probably were also lucky. In our class (mechanical), 3 got into MIT, 4 into Berkeley and 3 into Stanford.. Almost 70% went abroad. As I already said, about 20-40 people went to the IIMs. And, some, who seemed born managers, went in for general management jobs.
I have to add that the curriculum here gave a very good grounding in analytical and computational aspects and the various elements of hands-on work. But when you leave this place, especially if you are in branches like mechanical engineering, you want to leave having built something and I think that aspect was totally missing. I do see that there is a lot of that kind of activity now. When I went to MIT, I had to spend two whole months in the machine shop. But there were a lot of MIT undergrads with much more hands-on exposure. I would not like to compare as this kind of hands-on work takes a lot of investment and infrastructure and is difficult to put together. But I still state that our grounding in analytical aspects was one of the best in the world and it showed in our work after graduation from here. I have met quite a few people out of IIT thence and they have all been equal if not better. I am not saying this to make you guys feel good. It is a fact (smiles).
You were the HAS in your final year. How different were the elections back then?
I heard that now, it is being conducted in the hostels, with you guys enjoying the facility of LAN. Back then, it used to be in the computer centre. Honestly, the big battles were fought out for the posts of the General Secretary and the Cultural Secretary. I cannot say that HAS was a super thing to do but for me it was a logical progression, having been the mess sec. One annoying practice during our times was to free-ride people to the election centre to get votes polled. Though the SAC speaker was in charge of fair elections, they could not really do anything to prevent it. There was also some politics based on regionalism. It may be a naïve thing to say but I won fair (smiles).
Despite all this, there was no instance of the secretaries not performing their jobs. The team was good. Now, I guess the team has expanded and the scale of programmes is much bigger. It was a much smaller affair back then.
During your tenure as HAS, can you name any particular incidents you recall?
For the gen sec and HAS, the primary role was to be the liaison between students and the administration. Occasionally, there were crises but the key was to learn how the system works and to be able to communicate effectively. As for specific incidents, well, there was a delay in gas supply once. It was not an IIT issue, in fact, the problem was pretty bad in other parts of Chennai. When such things happened, it is important to reassure the students that things will be in control. The main nodal points for communication were gen secs and mess secs of the hostel. Health and hygiene was also another major responsibility. There was a typhoid breakout in a hostel once and we had to fix some water contamination issues then. Vaccination for hepatitis B was being done and the HAS was responsible for working with the hospital in getting it done smoothly.
We also used to have monthly meetings to discuss issues related to various hostels, for vendor selections for Quark (now, Zaitoon), Gurunath etc. It was unfortunate that two major accidents happened during that time. In one, a deer was killed by a speeding bike (therefore, the ban on bikes). The other left one person injured badly. We also setup an internet facility in the hostel zone called ‘Moonlab’ with Sun Solaris machines. It was housed in the complex that has the Gurunath gifts shop. The initiative was led by a student named Satyam Shivam Sundaram and it was inaugurated by Mr. Kris Gopalakrishnan.