An interview with Dr. S Ramani
You are credited with playing a key role in getting the first internet connection to India. Tell us more about it.
First, let me comment on my role in bringing the Internet to India. The ERNET project was unusually democratic; something that could not have been achieved by a one-man-show. What was done was less significant than the way it was done. Eight institutions, including the relatively new NCST, came together to contribute in any manner they chose to. These made every one work enthusiastically and cooperate; this worked across institutions as well as inside each team. A number of other factors contributed to the enormous success of the project. One was the rapid adoption of the internet by the scientific and engineering community – users who were already good at using technology. I enjoyed playing my role, but numerous others from all the participating institutions also made their contributions.
We did not get some foreign company to implement the network; there were no Indian companies in that area at that time and for the next seven or eight years. We involved young staff members, who were excited to learn and adopt the new technology. These people went on to share and spread their knowledge and use that technology in a manner relevant to the economy and to the society. Let me conclude by saying that when something is done democratically, bringing many people together, the impact is all the more significant.
How do you see the internet impacting India in the years to come? Also, your thoughts on the mobile revolution that India and the rest of the world is currently witnessing?
Let me talk about this from the point of view of my current work. I started with science and math education at school level using technology as a tool; but I soon realized that this was not simple. People do want quality science and math education, but this is difficult as they want to learn English and study in English medium schools. Learning of science and mathematics is usually undermined in such schools, particularly in small towns and in rural areas; most students fail at the first step – learning adequate English. So, I got interested in the use of technology to help students learn English as well. Unless we improve the teaching of English in India, there is little hope of students in English medium schools getting good education in any subject.
Coming to the mobile phone, yes, I do believe that usage of the internet will largely be through mobile devices, including laptops, tablets and cell phones. I think affordability, low power consumption and form factor are the biggest reasons for this. However, reports suggest that the “average Indian cell phone user” spends less than one rupee per month in doing anything useful on the internet. He spends about seven rupees a month on SMS, the bulk of this being spent on receiving jokes, astrological predictions, etc. We need a course correction here to make the use of mobile internet attractive in an educational context.
It may not be difficult to give away laptops, but good education is a lot more difficult to give! I am sure that progress will be made in using the internet more and more to make ours a knowledge-oriented society. However, we should not forget the need for getting the best possible results from the scarce funds we have available to spend on all this.
You started something like an “open university” for software technology and applications at a time when people rarely opted for courses outside of their formal curriculum. Although the trend has caught on, the industry continues to grapple with the challenge of fresh graduates not being truly employable. How can we address this problem and train our students to become industry-ready?
Not an open university – what my colleagues at NCST and I started was a part-time post-graduate course on software technology. Taking inspiration from the concept of the open university, we started by renting classrooms and ran part-time classes after working hours. This made it possible to give education in a new field at an affordable price, years before universities could address the problem. The program was not valued merely for the certificates or diplomas the participants earned, but for knowledge and skills they gained. The fact that leading scientists in the field of software technology spent some of their evenings and weekends teaching made it possible to maintain a high quality; a good reputation for the course was the natural outcome. Most of the students were employed and were paying fees out of their own earnings. We sought no direct government funding for the course.
The world is different today, with nearly 700,000 students entering BE or MCA/BCA courses every year, a majority of them in the field of computers. This is expensive, full-time, education but not always a high quality education.
Part-time education has challenges of its own. Though less expensive than full-time education, it needs a lot more commitment. Participants need to come to learn after a long day at work. Maintaining quality in part-time courses is even more difficult than in full-time courses. There is also the problem of industry acceptance of part-time degrees and certifications.
Your reference to industry’s problems was in the context of full-time education. I believe that the industry has some soul searching to do. After all, a student from a small-town college who did not have the money to join a reputed university might be better than the candidate who barely scraped through some full-time college. Industry should invest money to develop the capability to identify talent irrespective of where it comes from. If industry cannot test for ability, attitude and skills, and depends on paper documents carrying rubber stamps, it deserves what it gets!
You were the first Research Director of HP Labs India. Your advice to our fellow members, particularly students and young members, who have chosen to pursue a career in R&D?
I have a few things to say. One, remember that pure technology is an oddity! Technological developments have to begin with perceived present and future needs of users. Unless it is going to be useful to someone, don’t bother to do it! An R & D professional needs breadth as well depth. So, willingness to address new problems every few years is valuable. At the same time, professionals need to develop competency in one or two fields – this provides the depth.
Finally, worry less about job security and be willing to take risks. When I wanted to choose electronics at college, my principal told me that it could leave me without a job. He asked me to opt for electrical power engineering instead, so that I would at least get a job with the electricity board! He compelled me to do this, and I stuck around, wasting a couple of years of my life learning things that did not interest me, till I could join a post-graduate course in electronics.
My advice is: Depend upon your own knowledge and judgment of where different industries are headed and identify those most likely to progress fast. Don’t stay in a dead-end industry because it offers security.
Finally, I have a comment on switching jobs. Companies are always closing down projects and switching to new projects that you may like or may not. If you feel truly committed to your ideas, don’t hesitate to switch to an organization that shares your vision.
Please tell us about your current passion.
It is technology for education! I have mentioned this earlier. I cooperated with a number of colleagues at different centres of learning to start a series of annual conferences named Technology for Education. I am excited about them. They keep me in touch with colleagues in the field. Now that I am retired, I am able to avoid distractions such as committee meetings. As a result, I am able to put in a significant amount of effort into work based on my favorite ideas. I also give a number of students some help with their learning, using technology.