“Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) produces world-class chief executive officers (CEOs)”.
IITs don’t “produce” CEOs—it processes them, just like a gold mine doesn’t produce gold, it merely processes the ore that contains gold.
Yes, IITs teach engineering, but that is not the main thing. In fact, not many IITians use their engineering knowledge in their working lives.
Take Sunder Pichai.
His B Tech degree was in metallurgical engineering.
What has that to do with what Google does?
Even those who continue in engineering after IIT don’t use the technical skills that IITs taught them.
There are many branches of engineering, and within each is a large range of subjects. Mechanical engineering, which I studied, includes many different areas such as machine design, production, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and so on.
An IITian continuing in engineering after graduation will probably spend an entire lifetime in one tiny niche of one small segment of one branch of engineering, and keep learning all his life.
For example, two of my classmates spent their lifetimes in one specialised segment of production engineering—steel rolling mills. One became an expert in the design and manufacture of the rollers used in a rolling mill. The other became an expert in managing huge rolling mills—with least downtime, maximum output and greatest efficiency.
Many IITians work in engineering areas unrelated to their BTech degrees. My classmate in mechanical engineering became a navy admiral and designed India’s warships.
IIT didn’t teach them this stuff - just a couple of paras on rolling mills, and nothing about ships.
I don’t think colleges that teach other professions, such as medicine/ surgery, law, architecture, etc., send their graduates out with so little knowledge directly relevant to what they will do in their working lives.
The fact is - what is taught in the IIT curriculum has, usually, very little to do with the future careers of IITians.
What, then, makes IITians so successful?
Let’s take a step back and consider the numbers.
8.83 lakh students appeared for JEE in January 2023, and only 17,385 (1.96%) got admission into IIT. If you consider that only the better students even try for JEE, not more than 0.5 % of the eligible school leavers in our vast country qualify to enter IIT.
I put it to you – the top 0.5% of any population, let alone one like India where people pay so much importance to studies, is bound to be superior in terms of sheer intelligence.
You may retort – this is true of any top-ranking college – St Stephens, Harvard, and Oxford. Only the crème de la crème gets admission to these institutes, and some of them become world leaders.
Ah, but IITs are, shall I say, different.
The process of getting into an IIT involves almost herculean labour. Thousands of very intelligent boys and girls spend two, even three years, at Kota, working like machines for up to 16 hours a day, studying for joint entrance exam (JEE). Apart from the syllabus, they learn super-hard work, concentration and competition.
Some of these kids make it into IIT, where they face four more years of the same – enormous pressure, fierce competition and immense workload.
You see, IITs don’t teach engineering—well, not much, anyway. What they teach is how to cope with all these burdens – workload, pressure, competition.
Our head of the department told us something that we didn’t understand at the time: “You are not meant to learn engineering here. That, you will learn when you start working. Here, we try to teach you other things.”
What are these “other things,” you ask? Yes, I will come to that.
You may also be wondering: Does the engineering education contribute nothing?
The engineering bit is a component of the ‘process’; not the process itself, that results in the finished product.
Look, let us face facts.
The student-teacher ratio in the older IITs is around 18-21 students per teacher, far higher than is desirable. IIT Kharagpur, my alma mater, had 1,435 teachers and 815 teacher vacancies in February 2022.
If you are a teacher at IIT, with a huge workload because of the shortage of teachers, how many students can you actually nurture out of a class of 80? The best you can do is to impart information and hope some of it sticks.
What IITs really teach, maybe unwittingly, are some very important things:
1. Problem-solving attitude. Questions in engineering exams don’t begin with ‘describe’, ‘compare’, or ‘analyse’. They state problems and demand a solution. From day one, IITians are trained to find solutions to problems.
2. Thinking and analysis. One cannot get through IIT by memorising formulae or data. A surfeit, often an overload, of information is usually available. You have to sift through it, find the gist, identify the issues, and reach the right conclusions.
3. Tackling systems. IITians face systems at every step—class structures, teaching methods, exam patterns, the hostel’s ecosystem, and so on. They learn to quickly understand how any system works, and how to thrive within it. Later, new environments—new country, new job, new work culture—are easily handled, even conquered. Look at Kejriwal—how he mastered the political system in India and wormed his way to prominence.
4. People skills. IITs are crowded places—two to a room, 80 in a classroom, over 16,000 within a walled campus. Unless you learn to ‘manage’ your interpersonal relationships, you will find it hard to survive in an IIT.
Nah – IITs don’t produce exceptional people.
They take in exceptional students and put them through a process that delivers a dose of formal education in a high-pressure environment. It is this process, and not just the education, that imparts the attitudes, work culture, people skills and savvy that enable IITians to succeed wherever they go.
Some of them become the superstars who make their mark on the world stage.
Most others (yours truly, for example) don’t become superstars, but everyone does reasonably well.
Ah well, all of us can’t be Sundar Pichai. There aren’t enough Googles to go around.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)