[This post narrates my interview experiences. I am penning these experiences for the interest of young professionals. A little long post, but I hope you will enjoy this narration]
I was about to clear my Master’s degree in Environmental Science and Engineering at IIT Bombay. It was November, 1980.
I decided to start looking for jobs.
My Father was a Public Health Engineer and had built several water and sewage treatment plants across the country. He had a pretty low opinion about IIT Professors. He used to say that all you are getting there is a degree of IIT brand and a great learning from the hostel experience but no understanding related to practice and the “real” technology. He used to have a great laugh when I used to tell him that I will design an Activated Sludge Sewage Treatment Plant with Lawrence-McCarty equations and optimize size of the treatment plant using Dynamic Programming.
So when I asked my Father about his advice for the job, he said, go to S P Unwala of Candy Filters (Patterson Candy) or R Natarajan of Dorr Oliver (Hindustan Dorr Oliver) and talk to them.
S P Unwala was one of the top experts in the field of Water Treatment and a wizard of Declining Rate Filters. I met him in his Mahalaxmi Chambers office. Unwala said “So you are M V Modak’s son and N V Modak’s (NVM) Nephew (N V Modak was my uncle who built the Vaitarana Dam that supplies water to the city of Mumbai – now called the Modak Sagar. NVM also founded CPHERI or NEERI). So, you have the job and I will coach you personally”
I didn’t like his mentioning of the family connection. I had carried a copy of my Masters dissertation “Optimal Design of Wastewater Treatment Plants under Uncertainty” that I was very proud about. I said “Sir, would you like to see my dissertation?”. SP Unwala smiled and said in all politeness “It’s not really relevant. By the way, your salary will be Rs 750 a month, but only as a special case as we generally pay Rs 700. Let me know when can you join?”
The interview ended but I was not very happy with the salary.
I decided to meet R Natarajan at Hindustan Dorr Oliver (HDO). When I spoke to him through his Secretary Wilma for an appointment, he said “So you are M V Modak’ son right? Come on Tuesday next week and we will do all your interviews”.
“Sir, will there be more than one interview?” I got worried and asked Mr. Natarajan.
“Of course, there will be several. At HDO we are very selective” said Mr. Natarajan
I liked this compared to the 5 minutes of chat I had with Mr. S P Unwala. Oh this company is serious about their recruitment – I said to myself.
R Natarajan was busy when I went to see him. In fact he had forgotten that he was to take my interview. He turned few pages of my dissertation.
Well, I don’t want to get into the details – he said this with a friendly grin “I hope you know how to size a surface aerator?” he asked this like a snap question. As I was about to tell him the formulae I would use to size, he interrupted me and showed the HDO catalogue of aerator selection– “Modak, this is how you would size!”
(When I joined HDO, I learnt that Natarajan was an amazing marketing person of those times. He could sell an aerator even without blades and convince the client that blades are moving so fast that you cannot see! I learnt a lot of marketing “tricks” from this warm and friendly person. He is no more today)
(R Natarajan. When I met him he had already lost half of his hair))
“Well Modak, I am kind of busy right now so let me take you to S R Kotwal of the Sugar Division” Natarajan ushered me to another cabin where a handsome, fair and short person was sitting in a grey suit.
“Boss Kotwal, here is the candidate I was telling you about. Will you please deal with him?” With this introduction, Natarajan disappeared.
I was wondering what would the Head of HDO’s Sugar division ask me about wastewater treatment. And why am I facing this interview with a sugar specialist!
I got shocked however when Mr. Kotwal started asking me all the technical questions and in detail. He discussed with me fundamentals of anaerobiosis, impact of wastewater toxicity on methane generation, typical gas yields and the economics of anaerobic digestion etc. At the end of an hour of grilling, he seemed to be satisfied.
“Your next interview is on the second floor with our Marketing Director, K P Mohandas (KPM) Rao. All the best “– Mr. Kotwal asked his Secretary to show me to KPM’s cabin.
KPM Rao was a vibrant personality, a smart and savvy person with an American accent wearing trendy “half spectacles”.
(K P Mohandas Rao – without his half spectacles! He now lives in Santacruz in Mumbai)
When I sat in the chair in front of KPM, he started speaking. He spoke about the environmental pollution control market in India, HDOs market share and how distinct is HDOs equipment and process technology compared to the competitors. This was a long discourse and it went on over 10 minutes
Then he stopped abruptly, stared at me with disappointment, and buzzed Natarajan on the phone “Who is this dumb guy you sent to me? For the last 10 minutes, I have been speaking to him and he never even interrupted me once – how will this guy market HDO? Please don’t show me such raw stuff again”
As he slammed the phone down, he looked at me through his half spectacles treating me like an insect and said “You have a long way to go my friend! Now go and meet TRK”
T R Krishna Rao (TRK) was the Managing Director of HDO. Very smart, intelligent and a terror to everybody. I went to his office and told his Secretary “Mr. K P Mohandas Rao has asked me to see Mr. T R Krishna Rao”. Secretary was eating a sandwich. She said push the door and get in.
I pushed the door and got into TRK’s cabin. It was real cold inside. TRK had his feet on the table with shining black shoes like you see in the Prem Chopra or Ajit movies. He was wearing an expensive tie. He was on an international phone.
(T R Krishna Rao, Last I saw him was 8 years back jogging at the Priyadarshini Park, Napean Sea Road in Mumbai)
“No, I am not selling my clarifloculators to Cairo” He was almost shouting. “And I don’t like the price offered” He growled. This “conversation” on the phone continued for 5 minutes and I was standing in the chill holding copy of my Masters dissertation.
When he finished, TRK slammed the phone and looked down to me and said “Who the hell are you to get into my cabin without an appointment?”
I was flabbergasted. I told him that I was with KPM for interview and on his asking came to his cabin and the Secretary said that I could get in.
TRK was frowning and I saw him boiling with anger “If my Secretary tells you right now to jump from this window, will you jump?” I was speechless and didn’t know what to say.
He then sternly said. “I am the MD of HDO and I don’t interview kids like you. Anyway, I give you 2 minutes – Sell yourself”
I spoke about myself as much I could in those 2 minutes – of course not mentioning that my Masters dissertation was on Optimal Design of Wastewater Treatment Plants under Uncertainty.
TRK was listening. “Have you finished?” He said this sarcastically and in a tone that I did not like.
“Well, its Natarajan’s business whether to hire you or not. But as you stand today in front of me, you value nothing to us. I don’t think HDO should pay you any salary for the first three months. In fact, I would be asking you to pay us as you know nothing and you will be trained here to learn”
“Now, my Secretary will show you the way out”.
I saw that the Secretary was standing behind me all this time. She had a devilish grin.
I was appointed by HDO the very next week on a salary of Rs 800. I was paid 50 Rs more so that I don’t accept S P Unwala’s offer! I thought that 50 Rs made a huge difference. But S P Unwala was extremely unhappy with my short sightedness. “Wearing a tie and selling equipment? – is this what you want to do?” He told me on the phone. (In the following years I worked closely with Unwala at the Indian Water Works Association. He is now no more but his finesse in the articulation and his great sense of (Parsi) humor is never forgotten)
I later learnt that my Father and TRK were close friends. TRK very much knew that I was to meet him for an interview. In fact, he called my Father at night after the “so called interview” saying that he had “bounced” me off to simply break my IIT ego. He promised my Father that HDO will groom me and teach me technology, commercials and the practice! And HDO indeed did.
During my tenure at the HDO, I managed to sell two 50HP High Speed Floating Aerators. This was HDOs first sale in India. Getting this deal was very important to get pre-qualified for the bid on aerated lagoons of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) that required more than 100 such aerators. In this deal, I had to put together all the skills such as aggressive marketing, using “knowledge” or technicalities judiciously, do price negotiations and finally use the “influence”. After the deal was done, I remember TRK called me to his cabin and said how happy he was to see my “transformation”. My salary was doubled to 1600 Rs.
Within 8 months at HDO, I was feeling restless. Marketing as a career did not interest me. I once again spoke to my Father. He asked me to move to consulting (engineering) career and see S V Natu, Retired Chief Engineer of Irrigation at the Government of Maharashtra. Mr. Natu was working as a Consultant with Shah Technical Consultants (STC) post retirement. STC was the design consultant for the water supply and sewerage systems project for the six townships outside Mumbai city and 104 villages. The project had received loan from the World Bank and so all Bank procedures were to be followed, especially on the procurement. Mr. Natu told me to meet the MD of STC, Mahavir Shah (MS).
My colleague Shirish Naik, who was working with Dr Deepak Kantawala’s consulting firm was also looking for a change. So both of us took Mr. Shah’s appointment to get interviewed. Apparently Mr. Natu had spoken good about us and so we were called for the interview right away.
Before the interview, Shirish and I, discussed the salary package we should be asking. Our salaries were around 1600 Rs then. We decided to ask for a minimum of 1800 Rs. and stay absolutely firm.
MS called both of us to his cabin. There were no technical questions asked. There was only a general talk. So we did not get chance to show off our talent, knowledge or experience. Finally, showing his satisfaction to both of us, MS said in his typical soft and calm voice “The last thing left now is fixing your salaries”. He opened drawer of his table and took out two blank chits of paper and passed on to both of us. “Just put here the number you will be happy with”. To us this was a strange move, but we knew what to write. Both of us wrote 1800 and returned the chits to MS.
MS took a look at the numbers. We were holding our breath and were ready to “fight”. He pulled out his pen from his pocket and scratched out the numbers 1800 we wrote. Instead he wrote 2000 and passed the chits to us once again. With a warm smile on his face, he said “First learn to understand your market value. You underrated yourselves. You deserve to get more than what you are asking”
We were simply shocked. By offering additional 200 Rs Mr. Shah had simply “bought us”. I think we gave best of our services to STC during our stay. I never forget this strategic countermove of MS in fixing salaries!
At STC, we were put on multiple and varied tasks. We used to be in the field for two days with the Team of surveyors to lay the L-sections of the sewers and locate sites of the water reservoirs. Two days we worked on tender documents of sewage treatment plants and pumping stations with British Consultants from John Taylors. For the remaining two days we worked on DEC-10 Main Frame computer at TIFR to do computer based simulation of water distribution networks (using A G Fowlers well-known FLOW program), prepare bill of quantities and drawings. This required working closely with the draftsmen. So it was a great learning opportunity and gave us a rich experience.
I remember one day MS called me to his cabin and said that I should start working on the design and tender document for the 310 MLD raw water pumping station at Shahad at the outskirts of Kalyan. While handing over a big stack of documents and roll of ammonia print drawings, he said “Modak, you just have 3 weeks for this work”
I had absolutely no clue on how to design pumping stations of this sort and size. While going home, I went to the bookshop I used to buy technical books and purchased the famous Pump Handbook of Karassik. Next week, I visited Mr. Iyer’s office at Voltas, who looked after Vertical Turbine pumps that I thought was the appropriate choice. I knew Iyer from my HDO days. I also met some seniors of MCGM and visited some of the operating Pumping Stations. Everyone was very helpful. And I worked very hard including the weekends.
I walked into MS’s cabin with all my “outputs” – in exactly 3 weeks. One Mr. Dawyer from Jon Taylors of UK was sitting there. MS introduced me to Mr. Dawyer “Meet Mr. Modak, he is our Mechanical Engineer. He has just completed the first cut design, drawings and draft tender documents for the 310 MLD Shahad Raw Water Pumping Station. Please review”.
I did not know what to say – As soon as Dawyer walked out of MS’s cabin with my “outputs”, I rushed to tell MS “Sir, You know I am not a Mechanical Engineer. I am a Civil Engineer”
There was stone silence in the room. MS stood up from his chair as if he got an electric shock! “But I always thought that I recruited you as a Mechanical Engineer – didn’t get that you are Civil Engineer in the Interview”. He said this not so much in the same calm tone that he would generally do. I could see some panic and discomfort on this face. “Modak, When I asked you to do this job, you should have told me that doing a pumping station is not your cup of tea” (Looking back I feel that MS was absolutely right)
Next week, Dawyer came back to STC’s office. I was called to MS’s cabin. “Good work Modak” Dawyer said. I think we are pretty close to the final version. Looks like you have designed such Pumping stations before…” He winked and patted me on my back. MS smiled.
While going home that day, MS gave me a lift in his car. He was obviously happy. “I like that you love to take challenges Modak – Do keep it up – but cautiously”, he presented me an expensive pen as a token of appreciation. I have still kept this pen with me as a memory.
I faced my third and last interview of my life at IIT Bombay for the position of Lecturer at the Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering. The panel consisted of 8 experts who bombarded me with several questions. I recall most of the questions were not relevant and were more to show off what they knew. In front of these experts I was just like a kid. But I did my best in responding while keeping my cool.
In closing, one of the Professors (TK Ghosh of IIT Delhi) pointed out that I was having only 2 years of experience against the requirement of 3 years.
Director A K De asked me “Dr Modak, do you have anything to say?”
I took few seconds to answer.
I said firmly and calmly measuring every word “Sir, are you looking for Integer number of years of experience or the Real number of years of experience? In my two integer years of experience, I think I have managed four real years of experience. There may be applicants here with six years of integer years of experience for instance but may have only two years of real experience”
Director De smiled. The panelists were quiet including Prof TK Ghosh.
In a weeks’ time, I was appointed at IIT Bombay as a Lecturer. I also received a counter offer of interest from IIT Delhi – courtesy Professor T K Ghosh. He had simply loved my response on integer and real.
Well, after these three interviews, I never got interviewed again as I became an entrepreneur myself and a Corporate Head. Today, each time when I take interviews, especially of the youngsters, I still recall my three interviews. And I get amused as I see some form of “Prasad Modak” in these youngsters – but of course in a different form and style!
(Cover image taken from http://www.pace2race.com/finance-interview-questions/)