Through the Goggles of a Graduate: Harish Panneer Selvam

In our next piece in the TGG series, we got finessed into publishing a promotional article for Raftaar by Harish Panneer Selvam. And well, he’s a BTech Chem, was Raftar head, ‘clever’ – by his own admission, he turned our request for a TGG into a promotional essay for Raftaar. He’d also like to clarify that Raftar is a Competition Team…not a *gasp* “tech club”.

If you’re looking for a testimonial from a 9-pointer Cult-Sec stud who got placed in Goldman Sachs, this is not the one. If you’re looking for the story of a department opening rank holder who eventually got into MIT through publishing two papers during their bachelor’s, this isn’t that either.

This is the story of an insti graduate who you probably wouldn’t have seen during a Saarang or a Shaastra, a Lit-Soc or a Tech-soc event, a hostel or insti election, or for that matter any of the infi tech and cultural clubs that IIT Madras has to offer.

I’ll try to make this sound less like an SoP or a preachment and give you a story of a person, who entered insti fearing his survival amongst the smartest in the country, to becoming someone so overly confident that it often comes out as arrogance.

The day of the results that practically defines if a person is worthy of a Quora account or not, the IIT-JEE results (God, how many times would I have had to vomit out the full form of this when putting intros!) finally arrived and for once I wasn’t able to disappoint my parents. I made a phone call to my friend, who happened to be the opening rank for Chemical Engineering, while she convinced me to take this field within 10 mins by stating phrases like ‘It will be a peace course da’, ‘You will be earning in crores when you graduate’ and ‘There will be a lot of girls who’ll flirt with you in Chem da’. I joined the class with joy until I realized a couple of weeks into the semester she had started trying for a Branch Change to Elec. Don’t tell her I said this, but I’m glad she had to stay in Chem. 

My first semester was for me to relax, and I have zero regrets to date. I was happy to reward myself with TV shows and movies that I had zero chances to watch during my JEE prep. I went out to movies with multiple groups and attended every possible club session there is to chill out and socialize. I made more friends in my first semester than the rest combined (let’s get to what happened in a moment).

Receiving persuasive words from seniors about how ‘CGPA doesn’t matter’, I ended the semester at a 7.3, something which I’m not ashamed to share here.

I was luckily conscious enough to understand that my one semester of fun had to end. All the hard work and sacrifices that more than a million Indian students make every year to get into an IIT is not to yell to the world that they made it past an exam, but to grab opportunities that are limited to the IITs and to help shape their personal and professional life for years to come. The rest of the story is essentially what I can call my undergraduate education to be.

During the devastating Chennai Floods of 2015, I was forced to stay within the campus since my home in Chennai was inaccessible anyway. In the first few days, we dragged our annoyed selves to the Central workshop sessions, soon after which the sessions had to be canceled due to power cuts and flooded floors. Almost all the residents on the campus had vacated in a couple of days after that.  This is when I came across a group of students in a mostly hidden building near the Central Workshop, who was knee-deep in dirty water trying to save what looked like the parts of a race car. I was surprised at the craziness and selflessness of these people and I thought that maybe I should get into this team as well. We received an email from the Director a couple of months later congratulating Raftar Formula Racing for grabbing a podium finish at the Formula Student India, an edition of the world’s biggest engineering design competitions. I decided that I had to get in no matter what.

I don’t want to bore you with details of the rigorous screening that takes place to get into the team. In my two months of preparation for the interviews and the applications, I fell in love with the pure engineering that goes into building a race car.

By the time I had given my interviews, I would’ve heard more than a dozen seniors advising me about the “Resume strong points” and taking up 10-15 PoRs. A few of my chemical engineering seniors were even worried about me wanting to join a team and build a race car. Honestly speaking, I won’t say these words didn’t affect me, but I just had a feeling that either things would work out, or I’d be able to make things work. I felt I wouldn’t get a bigger opportunity than this to do engineering, which is what I wanted to get into an IIT for. My interviewers had noticed that I was passionate about joining the team (read as ‘enthu’), was capable of working hard and just didn’t seem to give up. The day I had got into the team as the first student from Chemical Engineering, I was not worrying about how I’m going to “connect” my degree to the “PoR” or how I’m going to pitch this at my placement interviews 3.5 years down the line. I was sitting in front of CFI, indulging in the pizzas that the team distributes during the first team meeting, and was just purely excited about what I was going to learn.

All this time, my confidence level was still low and my insecurities had the better of me. To add to this, I didn’t exactly come off as a smart guy in front of the then captain of the team. I was satisfied with working on a part and getting the job done, and really didn’t bother about advertising to the world that I was the one who did it. A downside to this was that I wasn’t entrusted with more important jobs, and I wasn’t included in the managerial aspects that a few of my batch students were involved in. I knew that I can be good at it as well, and at the back of my mind, I always admired the kind of work that the captain and core team members had to do. Fitting into the team, studying Mechanical engineering courses along with my department courses to keep up with my fellow Mechie team members, trying to balance between trying to prove myself and just being satisfied at getting more job done – it was an exciting start to a wonderful journey.

Opportunity opened up when I had to take charge of the Drivetrain subsystem after my senior had left the team. The captain had no choice than to hesitantly hand over the responsibilities to me, and pray to god I don’t break things.

After a few incidents like where I got my naive self tricked by a manufacturer into paying more than twice the amount for a part, I found my rhythm right in time for the competition.

I was still not included in the major decisions- I had to get my job done and practically warm the benches during the competition. There were a couple of batchmates who got the most attention from the seniors and were likely to be groomed to drive the car and lead the team one day. We finished second in Formula Bharat 2017 and were set to compete in Formula SAE Italy 2017 in the summer that year. 

I was now in charge of designing my components for the next car while tuning and maintaining the subsystem for the car that would participate in Italy. I always try to market Raftar to the freshers who have just joined (or are looking to join) using a few points- I would take the list of departments in Saarang’s or Shaastra’s organizing team, and convince their confused faces about how the skill sets of all such departments are essential for each of them to learn to be able to run the team. This phase, the period before the Italy Competition, was when I came up with this thought. It was truly a picturesque scene to watch all the team members working in tandem to produce a car that eventually went on to win the 15th place overall in Italy, the highest position ever by an Indian team at an international competition. We also became the first and only Indian team to date to win a dynamic (‘racing on track’) event at an international competition when we were adjudged the most fuel-efficient car. This was a particularly impressive achievement considering that the teams we competed with operate on a budget almost ten to fifteen times as ours. However, like in most racing related movies, this short-lived celebration gave way to what I’d describe as the darkest age in the team’s history. 

The team witnessed more than half the total members walking out, in search of other opportunities. People who joined the team out of a pure passion for engineering now seemed to demand incentives and returns for the work that they do.

But the team was never about that, it was a group of highly enthusiastic students from different walks of life coming together under a common objective of building India’s best student-built racecar and being the best team.

The displacement of these members ended in a situation where five people had to design an entire racecar from scratch, with help from junior members to fabricate the components and assemble them into a competitive car. Lesser number of members meant that the responsibilities that were previously shared among seventeen people had to now fall on five. 

This was my golden opportunity in disguise during a muddy situation. Since I had designed the Drivetrain components for the previous car, I was able to finish the design for the new one fairly quickly. I started poking my nose into the other subsystems, this time fortunately with no rebuke from my new captain. I tried to grab as many responsibilities as possible while I started learning and designing components for the other subsystems like suspension, brakes, and cooling. I was also able to develop a tool that reduced the time it takes to design components to almost one-fourth, something which kept us running even when we had such a reduced workforce and almost unrealistic deadlines. I had been involved in the finances and logistics management of the team, and I now gained an overall insight into how each subsystem interacts with each other. 

We used to visit our hostel rooms only to get ourselves cleaned (yes, we are good children). We used to attend lectures in the morning, come directly to CFI to spend the next four to six hours on the designs, take a break for dinner, head to the computation labs where we stayed up till 2-3 am only to return to CFI to crash.

We were unbothered about our plummeting CGPAs, mental health was a joke to us, and we had started to feel the financial burden due to the lack of members on the sponsorship team. I remember this particular incident where my emotions got the better of me and I screamed at my captain saying “I am this close to giving up and leaving the team like the others” when I was asked about the status of an assembly that was to go on the car. But something in me told me to keep going, and that there would be light at the end of the tunnel. And the light appeared in all its brilliance when we completed the car just in time to get some testing done, and we ended with a podium finish at the Indian competition in 2018. This was when the organizers, judges and other teams had appreciated us for not just building a great car, but for being a great team as well. Of all the awards that we won that year, I always say that the one for “Most Hospitable Team” was the most special. That day, Raftar Formula Racing and IIT Madras earned respect among the Formula Student Community, something which takes more than just a semester of sleepless nights to achieve.

While the team was excitedly waiting to collect the awards, my captain dragged me to the side and asked me if I’m ready to lead the team next year. This came as a shock to me as I had completely forgotten about the days when I yearned to be included in decision making. All I could think of that year was to somehow build a car capable of competing in a competition. I gladly accepted the offer and thus began the most enlightening year of my life. This experience groomed me from a person who started off an insecure ChemE student who joined the team feeling like an outcast, to being able to confidently lead a team of 45 to the most prestigious Formula Student Competition in Germany in the summer of 2018 as the only team that qualified from India. 

I wouldn’t want to bore you with yet another episode of ‘How Raftar Formula Racing built a new racecar for the upcoming season’. In short, my fellow core team members and I made sure that another ‘dark age’ doesn’t come up on the team. We tried to stabilize the sponsorship inflow, design timelines, competition logistics and other things that required tinkering. In Formula Bharat 2019, we scored an all-time Formula Student record of 311/325 points in Static Events (Engineering Design, Cost and Manufacturing Analysis, and Business Plan Presentation). We were overwhelmed by the love and support from teams competing against us when we were honoured with the Most Hospitable Team Award for the second time in a row. I am content that I handed over the team to the current core team members in a condition better than how it was handed to me. That is what matters in the end right? To make a car faster and more reliable than the last one, to be a team more effective and respectable than before, and to be a person just better than yesterday’s self.

Insti is an ocean of opportunities, and it provides you tools to grab yourself an opportunity even when the tides are high. Four years in IIT Madras initially seemed like something I would have to endure and survive in, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I’m going to miss this place so very much in the near future.

I have come to the United States to get a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, and there hasn’t been a day that goes by without thinking about CFI, my hostel, the coffee at Ramu’s and the oreo milkshake at Gurunath.

I didn’t mean this article to be an Insti Graduate’s sermon on how to succeed in life. But if there’s anything you want to take home from reading this article, it should be that you should always try to grab opportunities that are presented to you or you should make opportunities out of thin air. You know, like how I wrote a 2500-words article just to market Raftar Formula Racing for free on T5E. Old habits die hard, eh?

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