Flying High : Interview with Dr. Bala Bharadvaj


Dr. Bala Bharadvaj (B.Tech/AE/1974) is currently the Managing Director of Boeing Research & Technology-India, based in Bangalore. In this role, he provides leadership to Boeing’s Research, Technology and Engineering activities in India with a focus on building partnerships with Academia, Government  organizations and industry.

Dr. Bharadvaj has been with The Boeing Company since 1987 and worked in Southern California (USA) for many years before moving to India in 2009. He has held various leadership positions in Technology Development, Technology Integration, Engineering, Program Management and Strategic Planning. Prior to joining Boeing, he was on the faculty of the Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering Department at Boston University, Boston, USA.

During his long Aerospace career in the United States, Dr. Bharadvaj has contributed to a variety of projects spanning analysis, design, lab testing and flight testing. He has held key leadership positions in major NASA-Industry initiatives (such as the F-16XL-2 Supersonic Laminar Flow Program and the High Speed Research Program) and led the development of long-range technology plans for Boeing Defense, Space & Security Systems.

Nitin Madasu caught up with Dr. Bala during his recent visit to IITM.

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You did your B. Tech in Aerospace Engineering here at IITM. Could you tell us a bit about your days as a student?

I think most people would describe me as studious!

I was also very active in NCC. I was actually an under-officer in NCC by the time I left. Most people would stay in NCC for two years, I think. I stayed on for four because I was promoted. I used to enjoy going to the camps.

I stayed in Ganga hostel. I wasn’t too involved in the student administration, but in our final year (in ’74), there was a hostel administration strike. We, being seniors, then got together and ran the hostel. The entire staff was on strike, and we didn’t want to go home because our graduation would get delayed. So I was in charge of running the mess at that time. It was an interesting time. It allowed one to show some leadership skills. It was a challenge, but at the same time, something that affected us directly. It wasn’t one of those things that happen somewhere and you read it in the news later; it was happening to us.

How did you decide on pursuing a Masters degree and a PhD? Did you always want to take up a Master’s Degree?

I had pretty much made up my mind by the time I did my B. Tech. I knew I wanted to do research — I wanted to be in Aerospace.

I know how sometimes people, including parents, tell you, “Hey, it’ll be good for you if you study this.” Nobody forced me to be in Aerospace. I joined Aerospace because I was interested in it.

When I came here in ’69, we had to report 4-5 days before our classes began for our orientation. The day our orientation started was the day when the Apollo 11 was launched – July 16th, 1969. And the day our first class began was the day man landed on the moon! These co-incidences during the space-race inspired me further. I was lucky to have been accepted into a good institution, Georgia Tech, for my Master’s.

Can you tell us about how Georgia Tech was different, compared to IIT Madras? Academically as well as otherwise?

There, you are expected to be on your own. Generally in India (not only in IIT Madras), you are cared for much more.

You go to the mess at eight in the morning, your breakfast is prepared. You go at one in the afternoon,your lunch is ready. Whereas, when you go abroad, the situation is different. I am a vegetarian, so the biggest problem was what to eat! We first had to find a place to live — it so happened that one of my friends from IIT Madras was also there, and we became roommates. We went looking for a place to stay, one that was affordable, and we had to find a place to eat. There are a lot of initial problems that one has to face.

From an academic perspective though, it wasn’t much different. The faculty there have expectations just like faculty here have expectations. I think IITs have very good facilities — labs and so forth. So I never had the feelings of “Oh, this is so much better,” or the like. It was almost like a continuation. The bigger problems were like, “How do I eat?” (laughs). I think those kinds of issues might be less troublesome today, but they never go away.

It’s about going to a completely new place, where you don’t have a support structure.

One thing I did, based on this experience, was to start this student program. When students get accepted into Georgia Tech, from India, we used to send them guidelines and help. We talked to the heads of department, and we put together a list of, say, ‘What you need to bring’, ‘What don’t you need to bring?’. For example, ‘if you don’t know anything about cooking, better talk to someone in your family now and learn some recipes.’ It’s a basic thing, there, but here you don’t think about it at all. Nobody will tell you that you need to learn to cook if you’re going to IIT.

Did you ever consider shifting fields away from Aerospace?

No. Never. I liked Aerospace since the beginning.

See, this is a very important thing for a student. Whether it is Aerospace, or Electronics, or Computer Science, you must select the field that you are interested in.

Because, when you study, not every course will be to your liking. Not every professor you will get along with. Some professors you love, and some you really despise listening to. Sometimes the material is bad. Somehow, you don’t connect with the course.

The only thing that can keep you motivated is your interest in the subject.

If the interest in the subject itself is vague, you will say to yourself, “I thought it was going to be this way, but it turned out to be completely diferent! I think I’ll go to that other course, because that sounds like it’ll be better.” You don’t know that it’ll be better!

One of the most important things a student must do is to think about what his/her passion is. Only then will you be able to put your heart into it. Otherwise, it will come across as a burden, even if you succeed. “Bah, why is somebody asking me to do this?” I will come across as someone else is imposing something on you that you don’t want to do. We always perform better when we like what we do. If not, we feel a burden, we try for shortcuts. That didn’t happen in my case. I knew I wanted to be in Aerospace. I didn’t know enough about it, but I knew it was exciting.

Can you tell us about your decision to do an MBA? When did you decide that you wanted to do an MBA after your PhD studies?

I did my MBA between 2001 to 2004, which means that I had already worked in the industry for a long time I decided to do one.

My motivation was not to do an MBA and go look for another job somewhere. There are certain techniques and knowledge that are captured in a management degree program, like financial know-how, human resources, things like that. I primarily did it for that knowledge.

It was also a way of telling my company, the place where I was working, that I was willing to put in extra effort to grow myself. What I understood, is that when people join a company, they assume things, like, “Okay, I’ve been in this company for three years, so I deserve a promotion. After three more years, I will get one more promotion.” This is the old, Indian way of thinking. But, in most Western countries, it depends completely on your performance, your skills and your output.

There is somebody deciding whether an employee is doing his job well, and also observing whether he is showing some extra interest, or initiative. How you show initiative is by telling them, “I went and read this book,” or “I went and learnt this subject.”

That is one way of showing initiative. By showing that you are willing to study. In my case, the MBA was of that nature. I wanted to learn about certain subjects. In many companies, they help you in getting an MBA. That’s what happened in my case.

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