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Engineers Should Think Outside the Box

Innovation calls for engineers who have their feet firmly planted in the practical world, and yet stretch far enough to stick their heads in the clouds, says Indian telecom maverick Sam Pitroda, who has nearly a hundred patents under his belt. Pitroda’s passion for invention was kindled following his graduation from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
Sam Pitroda is Founder and CEO of Illinois-headquartered C-SAM, Inc.  

A multi-millionaire by 1980 with nearly a hundred patents under his belt, Indian telecom maverick Sam Pitroda is the embodiment of the American Dream. He is the founder and CEO of Illinois-headquartered C-SAM, Inc.

“Engineers should have a capacity for abstract thinking, yet they should also have a strong grounding in the practical world,” said Sam Pitroda who believes an engineer should rise above the specifics of a problem to “think outside the box.”

Pitroda’s first company, Wescom Switching Inc. developed a revolutionary new system known as the 580 DSS switch, that went on to become one of the most successful systems on the market. Wescom was eventually acquired by Rockwell International for $40 million.

Pitroda is the adviser to the Indian prime minister on public information infrastructure and innovations. His reputation as an inventor and management guru has been built over four decades in the telecom and IT industries. He is credited with having laid the foundation for India's tech revolution in the 1980s as technology advisor to former PM Rajiv Gandhi.

Pitroda talked to Uttara Choudhury about what led to the rich mix of roles in his career and what value he places on studying abroad.

After earning a Masters in Physics from the University in Baroda, you got an Electrical Engineering Masters from the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago. You have achieved great things in your life and been a catalyst for India’s communication revolution. Would you say your stint in the U.S. made you the innovator that you are?

“I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. The ecosystem in the United States is great for innovation.”

I don’t think one little thing like that is the answer to all of it. I think it is a whole journey. I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. The ecosystem in the United States is great for innovation. With the support of my friends and family, it just happened. Did I plan it? No. Did I know? No clue. It just happened. 

What would you say to an aspiring Indian engineer looking to study in the U.S.?

It is good to explore new frontiers. You have lots of energy and at times you are sort of fearless. And, it helps when you are young. I have been saying that ignorance is a great asset. When you are young, you don’t know enough — you can take some risks that you normally shun when you are older and wiser. 

During your four decades as an engineer, you filed nearly a 100 patents in telecommunications technology. How have you trained your brain to consistently think outside of the box?

“Sam Pitroda’s innovation process stands in stark contrast with the structured methodology currently espoused by product design theorists, institutions and practitioners alike. Pitroda’s process is…an almost haphazard quest for new ways of addressing unspecified problems.” — Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology

I probably lucked out because I was a physics graduate who went into electrical engineering. So while most of my colleagues thought like engineers, I thought like a physicist. Looking back, I think that really helped because I was the only odd ball in the group. So while they all looked at engineering problems I looked at the physics part of it. This kind of thinking, out-of-the-box thinking, looking at a problem differently applies heavily to product development.

When I started inventing in the early 60’s, I didn’t even know I had stumbled on an invention till someone pointed it out. They had to show me how to file a patent. I realized I tend to look at things through a different set of glasses. Think outside the box. Don’t follow tradition. Then you begin to see things differently.

Are you suggesting that students should have a multi-discipline approach?

Absolutely, if you are in a vertical silo, you can’t do much. Your life is locked up. You’ve got to be a painter, an actor, an engineer, a musician, a goof ball all at the same time. And, you’ve got to enjoy all of it at the same time.

You believe quite passionately that if India wants wealth to percolate, it needs to focus on technology for the masses. Can you talk about some of your big ideas and recommendations to the government?

“Think outside the box. Don’t follow tradition. Then you will begin to see things differently.”

Technology, unfortunately, especially in India has always been seen as fancy, foreign, elite, urban, expensive and somewhat intimidating. I believe that technology is a great social leveler, second only to death. I believe that technology can solve lots and lots of interesting problems.

Take a look at what technology has done in the last 50 years. It has decreased infant mortality, biotech will advance more drugs, communication will make the world smaller…all that is a given. Every time I fly in an airplane, I wonder how this thing is working! It’s a miracle of technology — flying 500 people at 500 miles per hour for 15 hours and nothing ever goes wrong.

“…if you are in a vertical silo, you can’t do much. Your life is locked up. You’ve got to be a painter, an actor, an engineer, a musician, (and) a goof ball all at the same time.”

Technology has done wonders for the world. The key question is how is India going to turn the corner in addressing the questions of disparity and development? If we want wealth to percolate, we need to focus on technology for the masses. How do you use technology for people at the bottom of the pyramid? How do you solve problems differently? Technology is definitely the answer to health issues, education and quality of life.

You gave up your US citizenship to get your Indian passport back and help the Indian government. Do you consider it very important to give back to India?

“I believe that technology is a great social leveler, second only to death. (And) I believe that technology can solve lots and lots of interesting problems.”

You have to do what you feel is right. It has to be in your heart. You are not giving anything back to anybody! You are doing what you are supposed to do. If you want to have fun, do that. You want to make money, you do that. You want to help the poor, you do that. Who am I to advise anybody? But do what you like to do and do it well. Enjoy it.

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