Prasad Setty is the Vice President of the People Analytics & Compensation in Google. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School where he graduated as a Palmer Scholar. He also has an MS in Chemical Engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University and a B.Tech. in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras.
You did your B.Tech here at IIT Madras, in Chemical Engineering. What were your most memorable moments?
(chuckles) These would have to include spending time at Tarams, late into the night, drinking tea…almost every night. One of my most memorable ones was in Physics II. There was this multiple choice test, and I got all four wrong (laughs). Even if I’d guessed, I think I would have got half right. I think I got an F on that course. It was a humbling moment.
What I took away from IIT most is humility. I have never since been with a smarter group of people, and I’ve never let that faze me either.
How was the academic situation at IIT helpful in your career, among all the degrees you have earned at other institutes?
The exact topics I studied (things like transport phenomena in chemical engineering, chemical reactions and so on) are not applicable in my day-to-day work. However, the basic fundamentals of problem-solving are something I picked up here. Here, you’re constantly thinking of how a problem can best be solved, and that sort of analytical approach has been the foundation of everything I’ve done since. Applying this to even soft science, like thinking of people decisions, is a testament to the all-round kind of education I received here.
When did you decide to do your Masters in Chemical Engineering and how did you shift to Management after that?
In my third year, like most, I gave the GRE and applied to universities. I was following conventional wisdom, and doing what my classmates were doing. It was seen as the preferred path upon graduating. A few, of course, were going in for jobs, like at Infosys, the most active recruiter – a young company then. But 29 of us in my class of 32 went to grad school in the US.
I’d always been interested in Management, however, coming from a business-oriented family. Having some kind of enterprise where I was not doing just technical work was important for me. I first thought of doing my MBA in India, gave the CAT and had an opportunity of studying at an IIM, but I decided to pursue the US graduate degree instead.
A lot of us are skeptical about being a consultant at our first jobs as we don’t have much experience. You were a consultant at McKinsey and Co., but have earlier advised an industry job as one’s first. How was your experience and what would you suggest with respect to a first job?
Consulting firms have very few people at the undergrad level. What they offer is this incredibly rich learning experience. Your learning curve is very steep. They want you there for two or three years to achieve a BA position (Business Analyst), beyond which they want you to go to Business School and then come back with a more diverse experience.
In many cases, however, people use the consulting + B-School experience to move on to hedge funds, venture capitals, private equity, things like that. It is an interesting path, and there is a lot to take away from it, but the kind of companies that hire a consulting firm are not top-of-the-line. So in the interactions you have after a point of time- you are not leading, you are trying to get a lagger to come to the middle.
As a result, it became a little empty for me in terms of innovation. I was left talking with middle-tier people, and it was not satisfying. Having said that, I cherish my time in the field, and it was a significant value addition to me, over-all. As a first job, however, it isn’t too significant. I would advise these jobs post Business School.
Now you’re working at Google. Most people achieve that after an education in Computer Science. How did it happen for you?
I had my team pull the numbers. The IIT’s are the single most represented educational institutions outside the US for Google. We have 500 IITians at Google. Stanford and Berkeley are, of course, better represented, but only as they are closer.
Though CS has the highest representation here, there are quite a few from the Electronics/Electrical background as well. 90% of the people at Google from IIT are in technical jobs (software engineering, etc.), but 10%, like me, are from other disciplines – Chemical, Civil, Mechanical, etc. They are either one of two things – like me, they have a diverse set of experiences, apt for the variety of non-technical jobs here, or they were in another discipline, shifted to Computer Science, and are now doing technical jobs.
Has not being someone with a CS background been a boon for you, in terms of greater freedom to explore?
Yes and no. An engineering degree helps in establishing credibility, helping HR function. It also helps me build better relationships with the guys from Computer Science. That said, a person from CS will always have better credibility. But we fear being too close to our clients, feeling just like them. It compromises on diversity of perspective.
How different is working in the US than here? Do you feel you should continue there or come back to India?
Borders have become more open, and economies depend more on each other. I am a global citizen, and have a responsibility to Googlers across the globe, whether it’s Singapore, Japan, India or US. In this situation, it becomes imperative for me to adopt a global perspective. Not being someone born and raised in the US has definitely helped me achieve that perspective.
Times have changed significantly in India, since the time I graduated. Many of us went to the US for grad school. Over the past few years, many of my peers have returned here, and have been able to find opportunities, spend time with their families and provide their children an education that wasn’t available at that time. India makes for an amazing living, and the sort of growth we see here is unmatched. And there is something compelling about growth, whether in India, China, or Brazil. And that is something that would tempt me to come back to India.
Do you feel it’s more challenging here?
It is, it is. Growth is exciting, growth is what you want. That’s why I mentioned how choosing a specific developing industry is better. Different industries have very different growth profiles. You want to get into an industry that has an amazing growth profile. Even though the entire US economy is growing at 2% a year, Google is growing at a magnitude higher, and that makes it a good place to go. Not just Google, that sort of growth is seen in the entire Internet industry.
How is it that you rarely chose industry yourself?
It’s true I chose brands over industry. But the three I chose – Management Consulting with McKinsey, Financial Services with Capital One, and Internet/Technology with Google all have a strong underlying industry, which have high growth, high margins that lead to a different set of economics, which results not just in things like compensation. The fact that these organizations have more money to invest in R&D and the people is what makes them a great place. If you’re in retail and have 1-person projects, you’re not going to think about investing in new ideas or energy, etc, because there isn’t enough capital. I chose brands with a desire to be in certain profitable industries.
In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently, regarding your degrees? Which degree do you feel contributes most to your life now?
This is going to get me into trouble with someone (laughs). My B. Tech., IIT, definitely. No doubts there. Regardless of discipline, there’s this brilliant atmosphere, and with the people that surround you – it’s a formative stage of your life. Some use the opportunity well, and a small fraction are defeated at the end of it. But for the vast majority it’s an unparalleled experience.
If I’d known better what fundamental research entailed I’d have tried to avoid that. If I had to miss out on one degree in my career, it would have to be my Masters in Chemical Engineering. It is not something I would want to do if I could go back, though I really loved Carnegie-Mellon, and the people I worked with there. At that time, if one wanted to go to the US, grad school was the prime path. Of course, things changed completely 10 years later – the atmosphere changed.
The most conscious educational decision I made was when I went to business school. I had to plan for it, save money because it was expensive, decide when the time was right in my career to do it. All that planning paid off, because it was a very good learning experience. I wouldn’t have changed a thing there.
Is it true that one simply has to work a couple years before doing an MBA?
I was in a hurry to get my MBA, I thought it was just like any other degree. I thought all these degrees were something one did serially, and once done, one started working. I felt there was a clean divide between work and studying. But in reality, with an MBA, the timing is very important, unlike in an under-grad degree. It is a professional degree that must help your career as much as possible. If it was purely about academic learning, about how to study financial statements, etc, one could do that at any university, anytime one wanted to. However, in the business world, I’ve noticed how the problems are more complex than technical ones – not because of their depth, but their breadth, and the methods to solve them are very different. And that’s where experience comes into play. It’s good to have some pattern recognition before one gets out of business school.
So I would say, don’t be in a hurry. You get the most out of business school if you go there after you’ve managed people. It might work otherwise for some people, but this is what I would advise.
Lastly, what is the final piece of advice you would like to give to the students at IIT currently?
I’d like to say only that IIT is a great place, and they’d have to work really, really hard to mess up their careers (laughs). I’d advise them to think for themselves, take some risks, do something they would have otherwise shied away from, because they have nothing to lose!