The Engineer, the High-schooler, and the Vending Machine

The only thing in common? None of them have a college degree.

I came to GVC Systems in May 2015 to meet Mr. Vinay Chaddha. Him being an avid communicator, I had followed him on Quora for a long time, but never quite managed to have the time to request him to let me work with him.

He introduced himself as a production engineer and hobbyist, having worked with designing and manufacturing electronics for over 38 years. He also mentioned that he wasn’t formally educated.

To me, it was a dream to work with a man passionate about the same things as I am. Someone who has raised a business with blood, sweat, and tears, and earns a proud living doing what he loves.

I began my internship under his guidance in June 2015, despite sensing my father’s silent apprehension of me working in a small business which wasn’t quite as snazzy as Texas Instruments or Intel, with its office at “just” a private university in Delhi.

I have never learnt so much in so little time in my life.

I say this as a person who has just graduated from the Indian school system and is self-taught in electronics. By electronics, I don’t mean d(phi)/dt, I mean soldering SMD components without killing the IC.

Mind you, this isn’t a training center, it’s a business with deadlines. If you don’t have skills and/or can’t pick them up fast enough, go home. Frankly speaking, it was an absolute treat to be working here.

Next week, we got an order for a voice-controlled game vending machine from a television channel you’ve probably watched at some point or the other. My ‘boss’ designed it as a voice-detection circuit with a mic, connected to a computer on one end, and a vending machine on the other. All communication took place via serial.

Oh, you say, this sounds easy.

Well, designing a reliable sound-detector circuit having no scope for error on TV isn’t particularly easy. Writing code to process serial data and controlling a vending machine, for any platform your client may have, isn’t particularly easy either, especially when Windows support for non-mainstream hardware is patchy at best.

You don’t know what patience means until you’ve set up a client’s computer in Mumbai from Delhi using TeamViewer.

My ‘boss’ was responsible for the hardware and the microcontroller, I was responsible for the software.

And communicating with your client is possibly the toughest of them all.

Yaser and I were sitting in the sweltering 40C Delhi heat with a vending machine in a hall with not even a fan. His number in my phone is still saved as Yaser Vendiman, which is pretty much self-explanatory. He came from Mumbai just for a day to Delhi to get the vending machine ready in time for the TV show (“Yaar, mere boss mujhe hi aise ajeeb-ajeeb cheezon ke liye bhejte hain.”, translating to “My boss sends only me to figure out strange stuff like this.”).

The TV studio in Mumbai was getting panicky about the vending machine, so here was Yaser learning how to attach everything to it, so that he could do the same in Mumbai.

It was kinda hard at that point to ship the entire bloody machine to Mumbai, looming so dangerously close to the deadline.

So as my boss and I sat down to muck around with the malfunctioning code and hardware, Yaser sat near the vending machine and waited. Contrary to our perception that he was just a vending machine maintenance guy, he was actually an IT administrator at the company and understood code.

At some point, my boss had to go back to the office (which was a while away from the vending machine) to get some parts and pieces, so Yaser and I sat in the hall with a dead vending machine.

That day, I discovered that being stuck in a hall with a stranger for 30 minutes in an empty building, results in some deep conversation.

He asked me about how a 12th-pass student ends up as an intern here, so I chattered about my interest in hands-on work and coding. I asked, “Where in Mumbai are you from? It’s a fascinating city I’ve heard.”

He smiled. “Oh, my hometown isn’t Mumbai. You know Ritesh Deshmukh? [He’s a Bollywood actor] I’m from his town. Mumbai’s an exciting place, but I still miss the freedom of freelancing in my hometown.”

“So what did you freelance in?”

He answered, “I used to write code here and there, for different clients. They thought it was easy work, so some offered 5000, 6000 per job. It was ridiculous actually, but the freedom was wonderful. I learnt to be a sysadmin in college, but I studied it just for my parents. Never had any real passion for it. I used to work as one for another company, but they were idiots. Managing multiple databases and servers alone was a giant pain and the pay wasn’t good enough, so I came to the big city. And here I am.”

Mr. Chaddha came back with the parts. The voice-controlled vending machine worked perfectly now.

Yaser then said, “It’s working well and all, but having a Raspberry Pi and a keyboard looks unwieldy. Could you make an Android app for this? I’ll need it by tomorrow, since my train leaving at 3:30 in the afternoon.”

I facepalmed.

Mr. Chaddha said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be ready by 2.”

And it was. Complete with Bluetooth communication with the serial module and the app.

This is what working here is like. Breakneck speed, rapid prototyping, having access to some cool microcontrollers… it’s all there. You’ll be part of a real product used by real people. You’ll meet one of the most inspiring people I know.

The fun thing about working in a small business is the wide variety of people you get to meet and talk to. The stories. The struggles. You’ll only get monotonous homogeneity at most elite MNCs.

Sure, you could spend all your time in college studying, and go to Texas Instruments for your 3rd year internship with a 9.0 GPA, nothing wrong with that. I’d love to do that too someday, but there’s too many people out there who do it just for the brand-value and how good it looks on their resume.

Or, you can come here for a summer, be a part of the hands-on process of commercial product design, and have the time of your life.

The only prerequisites are prior hands-on experience with electronics and/or coding, willingness to push the boundaries of your ‘syllabus’, and a passion for your subject.

You won’t regret it. I promise.