On Being a Tech Entrepreneur


(This interview was first published on Insight, the student media body of IIT Bombay)

Harshwardhan Gupta is a mechanical engineer and a practicing machine designer. He graduated in Mechanical Engineering from the IIT Bombay in 1976. Gupta has been designing complex machines for the last 31 years. Most of these designs are India’s First, and many are World’s First. He has recently been named as a co-inventor in a U.S. Patent for Banknote Counting, Validating and Storage system for use on Gaming Tables in Casinos.


Why did I decide to design machines?

In his career, he has run more than 80 major concept-to-prototype-proving projects, with sustained hands-on experience of assembly and troubleshooting. 26 years ago, after working for five years as an employee, he started Neubauplan Machine Design Studio – one of India’s few, and the oldest Machine Design House in India.

Gupta is also a graphic designer, a connoisseur of modern art, and loves to cook Indian delicacies, especially after a long day of designing.

I was always interested in all kinds of machines. Even my primary school report cards say so. So mechanical engineering was my obvious choice of profession. In the very first year at IIT, I did an internship in a factory (arranged it through my elder brother – also a mechanical engineer) and then I had a clear picture of what I did not know, and set about learning it. The problem of most 1st year students is that they don’t know what they don’t know, and that leads to all sorts of uncertainties and wrong turns. From childhood, I was always good at drawing, and found a new medium to explore in engineering drawing.

Throughout my time at IIT (6 years – 5 year undergrad + 1 year backlog), I would never ever let go of any chance to look at any sort of machinery. If I could, I would open their covers and peer inside, take them apart if I could; and would then go to the Central Library to read up on the related theory and make connections in my growing knowledge-matrix. I would ride all types of locomotives, watch printing presses run, go under and study old British Leyland Tiger BEST buses which had a pneumatic gear shaft and had the engine in the middle of the chassis… basically observe a lot, then connect with theory. Everyone around made fun of me: “Oh he is just an engineer, we are IITians!”

In the 5th year, I got a couple of real design projects from a small industry. Finally, I took up a design and prototyping BTech Project to build a small machine-tool accessory. Machine design career just walked up to me after all this. I have never had to look for work and engineering challenges have kept on walking in from the front door ever since.

What do I do for a living?

I design all sorts of mechanical machines from First Principles. I do not start from concepts. I start from studying the problem deeply, objectively and widely, dig deeper and look behind my clients’ needs – often the problem is not what he is stating. Then I go on to conceptualizing and cook this for some time – at least a week usually. Then I start directly with a to-the-scale design from the known thing outwards. I avoid confusing a schematic diagram with a to-the-scale drawing. I work in 2D and 3D AutoCAD which is non-parametric – though now we are looking at SolidWorks. I pay a lot of attention to detail as “God lies in Detail”, and always design parts which are available / manufacturable from available technologies and vendors: Once the 3D detailing is done, we make manufacturing drawings and Bills of Material, then make parts, assemble the prototype, test, debug, and finally deliver a working and reproducible machine.

Three dictums for budding entrepreneurs

1. Do everything well. A job well done is reward in itself. Over time, you rise professionally (and monetarily too) because you do everything well. Don’t do any kind of Jugaad, and do not contribute even in the smallest way to The Great Omnipresent Indian Squalor.

2. DON’T yield to peer and social pressures to be a “budding” entrepreneur too fast. Be patient, learn, learn and learn more, learn as your employer pays your salary. Slowly develop a “profession plan” and work towards it, learning and refining your plans for a few years. You yourself will know when (and if) you are ready to be an entrepreneur. You can very well be a good practising engineer all your life without being an entrepreneur. That is far more important – that you serve your profession well. And good money always follows good skills.

3. Be honest and ethical, you may lose couple of clients, but you will never lose a client’s respect.

The concept of Jugaad: The weak link

Jugaad is popular among you because you are sitting in a technological vacuum, with no broad-based access to real engineers; real components / building-blocks / elements / tools / materials; real production facilities. You are like a group of intelligent kid left to fend for yourselves in a forest, so obviously you have no other resort but to do jugaad. And then you tend to glorify it because you made something out of that forest detritus. Those who guide you have lived in this forest for decades, and are unaware / afraid of the rich “technological cities” just beyond the trees.

What can be done? Plenty: Break out of this forest. Please realize that you can learn real engineering (and create proper things – not jugadoo stuff) outside the Institute’s perimeter and from people other than the academicians.

On Engineering

All engineering is an art – one practised within the boundaries of science; its manifestation and actualization is a science, not art. Learn this art and learn to separate the art from the science. Concept-generation, innovation, lateral thinking… is all engineers’ art. Building physical and virtual things, debugging, documentation… are all our sciences, not arts. Our professional aim is to amalgamate these arts and sciences. And any art CAN be learned, so don’t give in to the academicians’ argument that if it’s an art, then it’s innate and cannot be taught.

Shaping your future: Making a career choice

Work towards making a career choice from the very time you enter IIT; not wait till 4th year. Keep and nurture your curiosity and focus on identifying what you don’t know, then get to know it. Gather a lot of information about your chosen field, and focus on keen observation and self-learning, rather than “competitive creating”. You can’t create anything of real worth before you have learned a lot. Don’t get tangled into (or lured by) complex words or jargon! Think and reason things through – for example, try and imagine the flow of forces in a machine or in a structure. Be skeptical (not cynical) of everything including yourself. Realize that God lies in Detail – meaning small details can make all the difference between failure and success of the best of concepts. Regularly work with your hands and think as you work. Keep weaving a large interconnected matrix of observation, knowledge, engineering style, reasoning, theory… It will keep you in good stead throughout your professional life.

Your career path will open up right in front of you if you do all of the above. Let the non-engineers among you go down their own career path – don’t succumb to their peer-pressure. And don’t be obsessed by the quantum of your first salary – that’s as stupid as marrying a girl who brings the most dowry!

Final Word: You guys are on the right track! Good luck and God Speed, and May the Future be kind to you!

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