How to Produce Better Engineering Graduates

The Indian technology industry is feeling the heat because there seems to be a worldwide trend of reversing of globalization and trade. This has directly impacted the recruitment of fresh graduates from engineering colleges. Companies in India recruit for raw cognitive and analytic talent and not particular skills and this has been a known problem for a long time. Since the demand for these graduates was so good, companies did not mind spending to bring these graduates up to speed. But supply has now clearly outstripped demand and colleges are facing the heat.

Last week I was invited as a part of a panel to a local engineering college, Don Bosco Institute of Technology (DBIT) to discuss with the faculty of the Computer Engineering and Information Technology Department on what needs to be done to make graduates more employable. Along with me there were senior IT managers from L&T Infotech (a large outsourcing firm), Netmagic (IT infrastructure) and iBrahma (midsized service company). Representing the college, were a dozen faculty members and the head of the department.

Industry meetup with the faculty at DBIT

The discussion soon moved from the skills required in the market (trends) to disappointing quality of most graduate engineers. This was something everyone who has interviewed fresh engineering graduates had identified. Graduates are unable explain their final year projects, have little or no coding skills or passion for technology, and are extremely poor at basic communication skills. In spite of investing a reasonable amount of money, students do not seem to learn everything at colleges. It is indeed a very sorry state of affairs.

Importance of Failing

Over the years, I have recruited a lot of fresh graduates who I thought had a lot of potential. Out of hundreds of interviews, I found some spark in a few of them and gave them an opportunity at our company. Unfortunately, many of them turned out to be huge disappointments. Despite of having talent, they had poor work ethic or were unable to adapt to a culture where they needed to apply their skills. Ultimately, we had to let them go. Getting fired usually comes as a huge shock and can be crushing and disorienting. But I also observed that the rejection made them better. All of them found other jobs and are doing quite well now. They have clearly understood the value of doing good and serious work.

My question to the group was, if students get better with failure and rejection, why can’t this be replicated in college? Why can’t the college fail students who are unable to code or unable to talk about their project. The reality is Indian colleges very rarely fail students, even if they know nothing about a particular subject. If a student is caught cheating, most professors turn a blind eye, or at best ask the student to re-submit the assignment or give them a lower grade. Failing someone for cheating is unheard of. Failing for incompetence is also rare. Professors are told to give at least a passing grade or show leniency to a student who already is struggling.

I know this first hand because my wife is also a professor at an architectural college. She laments at the lack of interest in the students and the poor quality of assignments and tests. Every couple of weeks we have this passionate discussion where I insist she needs to talk to the college management about what is the goal of their institution. She tells me that colleges are also caught in a hard place. If a student is failed, they come up with excuses, claiming a calamity or the parents of the students come to beg on their behalf. In some cases, even the local political leader lends weight and there have been instances of students gone to court asking for reasons why they failed.

As a society, Indians are not forgiving of failure either. Cheating is more acceptable than failure (unless you get caught). What people don’t realize that you cannot cheat forever. Sometime or other your lie will be caught and you only end up delaying the inevitable. Failing a test, might save you from getting fired on the job. If you keep failing your tests, you might realize that you are not really interested in what you are studying, and might actually change your field, when you still have your life in front of you. Failure teaches us so many things, but unfortunately is not taught in college.

Ultimately if you sign up as a faculty, you have to play the villain. That is the hard reality of the job, and this was so beautifully portrayed by J K Simmons in the movie Whiplash. If you wish to give a better life to your students, then you need to give them pain, because growth is always accompanied by pain. You have to be willing to be unpopular and feared in the short run, even if it means taking the scorn.

Scene from Whiplash. Tormenting the student to produce a genius.

On the other side, you must also learn to earn the respect of the students. This can be done by always staying one step ahead of them. Doing MOOC courses or watching YouTube videos by industry experts is one way. Experimenting with innovative methods and adapting the medium of instruction by flipping the classroom is another example.

Looking back on my years as an engineering student, I remember that the most feared professor was also the most respected. Of the two professors I most remember, Prof Iyer, was someone everyone used to respect, because he was a great teacher and Prof Mohandas was the one everyone used to fear. But in the end, we realized that the one who made us afraid, was also right. Both shaped our experiences in way that left a lasting impact.

DBIT does not get the cream of the engineering students, unlike the IITs, but it aspires to be a better college. The faculty is afraid that if they become strict, they will be branded as a strict college and having too many student dropping out creates imbalances in the financing model. But I think it is a short term pain and they must be ready to steel up. If they truly want to be a great college, their graduates must have a reputation of being tough, honest and smart, and that is something that takes time. I am not sure there is any shortcut.