Advise to Incoming BTech Students

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I often ask incoming students “What do you want out of your 4 years in college”. Replies are generally like: become a great programmer, engineering, mathematician,…., get a good job/career, gain deeper understanding of subjects, do exciting project/ research/ innovation; get good overall education, become a better professional, help for entrepreneurship career, make good friends, enjoy life, etc.

 Most of these can be grouped in two basic expectations from college education:

  •  It provides strong platform for good career opportunities
  • It provide environment to grow socially and as a person/individual.

 Let us discuss each of these. While in school, particularly class XI and XII, the main outcome you, your parents, and your school are looking for from school education is admission into good colleges/universities. And for that, performance in exams is what maters the most – whether in board exams or competitive exam. Hence, you, rightfully prepare for mastering the factual and theoretical knowledge that is tested in these exams.

The situation changes dramatically when your desired outcome from college education is good career opportunities. And to achieve this you need to take a fundamentally different approach to education than how you approached it in school. Let us use getting jobs as the primary career goal, though the argument will apply to other types of career opportunities as well.

Companies give you good jobs, and compensate you well, if you have deep knowledge in areas in your discipline, and possess strong skills for applying that knowledge to develop solutions – since it is these skills which generate value for the companies. Any good company, when it comes to a college for recruiting, thoroughly checks how well the student understands his/her subjects, and how well has (s)he developed the skills of applying the knowledge for problem solving. Top companies will do as many as 3 to 4 rounds of interview to assess various facets of this – e.g. in computer science, they will try to understand how deeply you understand programming, data structures, algorithms, operating systems, and how effectively you can use this knowledge for solving problems. Unlike exams, which are conducted on a large set of students and are limited in what they can assess, due to the thorough one-to-one interviews they conduct, companies do figure out how deeply you understand the subjects, and how good are your skills and capability.

So your goal for education in college is not to get marks, but to develop the skills, gain the knowledge and understanding of subjects. Marks are going to be a bye product – any good university will have decent assessment methods to ensure that if your understanding is good, you will get good grades. I have not met any student in my life who has good understanding and skills but has poor grades – may not have the best of grades, but still good grades. And inevitably these students do well in career.

 This is the main shift incoming students need to make in their approach to studies – study with the purpose of understanding and building skills, not for getting marks, as this understanding and skills is what will get you the jobs/career you seek. There are two other direct implications of this in how you approach your studies in college:

  1. Use of unfair means in assignments, exams etc will be counterproductive. When you copy an assignment, say from a friend, then it is the friend who has done the learning from it, not you. A universal truth is that nobody else can learn on your behalf – only you can do your own learning; even the richest of people have to do their learning themselves. So, you must do your work yourself and must not resort to “short cuts” like borrowing from the Internet, your friend, as these short cuts hurt you in achieving your goal, besides also taking you down the slope of moral decline.
  2. You have to work hard and put in sufficient effort. Learning takes effort and time – nobody can learn a new skill or obtain mastery in something without putting in hours and hours of practice, reflection, studying. Anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling him/herself. There is simply no other way to learning, but to learn, and that takes both physical time, and mental and physical effort.

So, to achieve your first goal, these two must be cardinal principles guiding you during college life, and your approach towards education should be to build skills, deepen understanding, etc.

Second overall goal of these 4 years is your social and personal growth. This is the period that will have the maximum impact on your life. Growth here means that you are a much better person, have an improved understanding of things, people, friends, world, … improved social and people skills, a better friends support system….., improved ability to enjoy things like art, music, dance, literature, and other things that bring joy and happiness and satisfaction to a personal’s life, etc.

For this goal, ensure that you are actively engaged with the people around you, with the college you are studying in, various activities like reading, watching films and discussing them, debating with friends about contemporary issues, existentialist issues,…. in learning and playing different sports, instruments, arts,….

These two goals of college life will often conflict. While they do often conflict, you must not pose it as an “either-or problem”. You actually do not have to make a choice between the two – you can and must achieve both. There is sufficient time to do both – assuming that sleeping, eating, commuting,… takes 12 hours each day, you still have about 85 hours per week available to you – this is plenty to achieve both goals. But this requires you to develop two meta-skills, which will serve you not only in these four years, but also in life: Balance, and Discipline.

In college, you have more freedom than ever before – in fact you have more freedom than you will have after college life. And you have two somewhat diverse goals. To use this freedom properly so it helps you achieve both your goals, it is imperative that you develop some discipline and sense of balance. Balance means that you spend your effort and your energy judiciously among the different activities to ensure that not only are your growing professionally/academically but also personally.

Discipline means that if you plan to do something, you are able to do it. So, if you want to study x hours every day or week, or go for a jog in the morning, or play computer game only for one hour per day or only during weekends, you are able to follow it. Most students are smart to make decent plans. Yet, they often end up not following their plans because they have not developed the discipline to execute their own plans.

To end, college life has two basic dimensions: grow professionally through the education a college offers, and grow personally through the variety of outside-the-class opportunities that colleges offer. Go after both – and you can achieve both through discipline and balance.

Note: This is based on the welcome speeches I gave to incoming students at IIIT-Delhi as Director, and to students in DTU as interim Vice Chancellor.

Placement Record/Statistics of IIIT-Delhi, 2014

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A new BTech batch is about to graduate from IIIT-Delhi. For the counseling of incoming BTech students, I compiled the placement data for the graduating batch. I was pleasantly surprised at the result – vast majority of our students got placed in technology companies, which not only offer technically more challenging work, but in general, also offer higher compensation for the better trained people that they try to recruit.

While it is not the case that best companies (work wise) offer the best compensation, compensation has become a yardstick of assessing the quality of placements. So let me put the basic placement statistics. The total no of students up for placement was 76, out of which 90% (69) were placed (till May end.) The placement record is:

  • 21% of the students got International jobs, each of more than Rs 30 Lac per annum
  • Highest overseas offer was Rs 60 Lac ($100K); highest Indian offer was Rs 20 Lac
  • 28% students got offers of 10+ lac
  • 55% students got Rs 5-10L offer
  • 8% students got offers of less than Rs 5 Lac
  • Avg compensation: Rs 12.6 Lac (Average of Indian offers: Rs 7.3L)
  • 10% (8) students got offers for higher studies abroad

What surprised me somewhat was that 10% of the students got admission for higher studies, mostly in North America, and most of them with financial support. With little historical record and few alumni, it was surprising to note that so many had got offers. On careful thought, however, it is understandable – most universities in US give a lot of weight to the quality of projects and research done during the undergraduate program, and to the credibility of the people who write recommendation letters (all applications require three recommendation letters.) Given our faculty’s record in research and their background (about two-thirds have PhD from Europe and US), their letters must have carry weight. And as many of our advanced courses have project/research component, often students have a good experience with them. These two must have considerably strengthened the application of our students. This high percentage can easily compare with that of IITs, where the percentage of students going abroad for higher studies has declined over the years.

The average compensation also needs a mention. In India, 90% or more of IT jobs are in the large services sector we have. While this sector is indeed the pride of the country and is immensely valuable and employs the largest number of engineers in our country, it is well known that their starting compensation is around Rs 3.5 Lac even in the biggest software companies. In this context, the average compensation that our students go is quite remarkable – I believe similar to that of IITs (thought they don’t often share it publicly).

The distribution is also quite important from a student perspective. In an college, if 80% of the students get jobs in the services sector, and 20% in technology/product sector (say with average compensation of Rs 12 Lac), the average compensation will be a respectable Rs 5.2Lac – and many of the top institutions outside of IITs have averages around this. But for a student it means that he/she has 80% chance to getting an offer of appx Rs 3.5Lac! In the case of IIIT-Delhi, 80% of the students have offers of more than Rs 5 Lac!

In this overall context the record very satisfying – most students getting offers in high technology and product companies that can better utilize their fine training and education (and also offer better compensation.) And this record is for our 3rd batch – clearly it is not due to the historical brand value but due to the education and training we have provided to our students. This continues to strengthen my belief that our high quality education is creating high quality opportunities for those who are willing to learn and work hard.

Undue Focus on Marks is Hurting Students

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Success in Indian education, particularly at school level, is measured almost entirely in terms of marks obtained in some tests. A key goal of school education is to facilitate getting good higher education opportunities. And in India the higher education opportunities are almost entirely based on marks in class XII or some admission test like JEE. So, naturally, students, schools, and parents work towards maximizing marks in these exams in order to maximize their expected outcome. It is clear that focus on marks in Class XII and entrance tests is a good strategy for achieving the goal of good higher education opportunity. However, in colleges, particularly professional education institutions, the scenario changes completely – good marks/grades do not necessarily help in achieving the desired goals of college education. And actually, undue focus on marks can actually hurt the chances of achieving the desired goals. One of the desired outcomes for professional education like engineering degree is to get good placement. Almost all companies, when they come for campus placement, conduct rigorous tests and interviews – all focusing around students’ skills, knowledge, and ability. As companies are making substantial investment in the person they recruit, they spend a lot of time evaluating students rigorously, and are indeed able to separate students with better skills and knowledge from others.  Almost all the companies that I have interacted with (and it is quite a few) when pointing out deficiencies in students mention shortcomings in knowledge and understanding which they uncover through their tests and interviews. (E.g. “does not have deep understanding of programming/algorithms/systems…”.) They never talk about grades and are never impressed just by the CGPA (I have yet to find anyone saying, “vow the student has a great CGPA, we will hire him/her”.) So, it is clear that for achieving a main goal of professional education, namely getting good placement, it is the knowledge and skills that matter – marks are at best an initial reflection of that. Students with better understanding, knowledge, and skills are the ones who will get the placements they desire. Now let me come back to the topic of this note – how undue focus on marks hurts.  Students, in an attempt to get better marks, often resort to:

  • Cheating in assignments/projects – assignments and projects are important instruments of learning in professional education..
  • Shallow learning – students learn just to give the test and get marks. Such learning does not improve the understanding/knowledge and never lasts.

As assignments and proejcts are always done in an unsupervised setting, in pursuit of marks, students often cheat (copy from friends, internet,…). Instead of struggling to solve these themselves, a struggle which is essential for developing the understanding as well as the capability of solving problems, students give up easily or take the easy way out. But this “easy way out” can at best get some marks – not for learning. There is NO easy way out for learning – knowledge and skills have to be acquired by the student him/herself – nobody can do the learning for someone else, and there is no royal road to learning. And shallow or passive learning may get marks, but certainly does not help develop deep knowledge or understanding that will last, or that will help in developing problem solving abilities. Any interviewer will be easily able to judge after spending some time with the student, that the understanding is shallow and bookish. To summarize, if a student wants higher education to help them achieve their goals in life, they must get out of the school mindset of focusing on marks and must focus on learning. Only with good learning can objectives/goals of higher education be met. I would like to add, however, that if a student learns well and deeply, good grades will come – I have never seen a student who has good understanding of the different subjects in his program and ends up with poor CGPA.

Role of Alumni in for an Institute

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I gave my first convocation speech at IIIT-Delhi in Nov 2012. Mr. NR Narayana Murthy was the chief guest. My full speech is available at Institute’s site (here). I thought I will share/record some suggestions I gave for the alumni of IIIT-Delhi – those portions of the speech are given here.

“Let me now take this opportunity to put before you, the first set of alumni of IIIT-D, a few suggestions, as trends you and your families set will guide others to come in later years.  But before that, let me mention the important role of alumni for an Institute.

To a large extent what alumni do with their lives define the stature of an Institute.  And we have provided a strong foundation for you to do well in life – good education from a dedicated faculty, and a strong value system of academic honesty, hard work, and professionalism.  Alumni form a special stakeholder for an Institute as their only interest is to see the Institute flourish and grow in stature –  the more the Institute grows in stature the better it is for the alumni. This makes them a unique stakeholder as all other stakeholders like students, faculty, staff, and administration, have other stakes as well. I have two specific suggestions for your consideration to play your role as a responsible and important stakeholder of IIIT-Delhi.

First, stay engaged with the Institute. This is extremely important. Visit the Institute when in Delhi and meet with faculty and students, respond to our emails, ensure that your contact information with us is correct, visit the Institute website regularly to keep abreast of what is happening, give suggestions, etc.

Second, give back to the Institute, financially and otherwise.  For an Institute to be strong and protect itself from interference from outside, financial autonomy is essential. Towards this, as has been shown by great Universities of the world, a strong endowment/corpus is necessary. We have set a goal of Rs 100 crores corpus in 10 years – we have made a good start and have about Rs 2 Crores corpus, with at least six people contributing around Rs 20 Lac each. My suggestion to alumni is to contribute 1% of your income yearly to the Institute, and increase it when you are well-off and can afford to contribute more. If each alumnus does this, this support will enthuse others to contribute, creating a strong support base.

To be with you in this drive of giving back to your Institute, and to walk the talk, I have instructed our finance department to deduct one month on my salary every year as contribution to our Institute. And this has already started – before you graduated one month of my salary was donated as the initial contribution by your batch.

Besides giving yourself, there will be opportunities for you particularly when you are senior, and for your parents now, to have corporations, philanthropists, agencies to establish Chairs, Fellowships, Scholarships, Awards etc at the Institute. Please help bring such opportunities to the Institute.  I can share one personal example of this. When I was spending my Sabbatical from IIT Kanpur at Infosys as Vice President, Mr. and Mrs Murthy wanted to set up a Chair. I quickly worked with them and provided all the help, resulting in the Chair getting established in IIT Kanpur.

Later when you are senior and have more experience and knowledge to share, there will be other possibilities of giving back, particularly if you have remained engaged. E.g. offering some courses,  giving lectures, conducting short programs/workshops, facilitating placement and internships of our students, etc.”

Report on PhD Production in Computer Science highlights the Opportunity for PhDs

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On behalf of ACM India, I conducted the first survey on PhD production in Computer Science in India. The report has been published and can be found, along with the background, here.

As the report clearly shows, while the number is not as low as one thought, it is still about 125. And if you consider PhDs from only the top 20 institutions in the country, the number is in two digits. And the projections are that this number will only double in about 5 years.

This study actually highlights the tremendous opportunity for those who are doing PhD in CS in India. Academics is growing rapidly with so many new IITs, IIITs, and other Institutes coming up. Even if you consider each such Institute will need about 5 faculty members each year, 50 upcoming Institutes can easily consume 250 PhDs. Then there are at least 20 research labs in many software companies, including the large software companies which seem keen to expand their R&D capabilities rapidly, and various other companies that can consume PhDs. Overall, the private sector can also consume about 250 PhDs per year. There are other opportunities in Govt sector also. In a nutshell, the supply is significantly lesser than the demand. And this gap is likely to increase as demand is set to increase.

Due to this mismatch in demand and supply, and the growth of academics, the compensation for fresh PhDs is now very good. Companies will often pay a package starting from Rs 15 Lac to Rs 25 Lac or more for a fresh PhD. Academic packages are also quite good after the sixth pay commission – an Asst Prof can have a yearly compensation of Rs 8 to Rs 12 Lac. Compare this with the starting package for software jobs – except for a few multinationals, the starting package tends to be around Rs 3.5 Lac for the large and medium sized software houses (which is where 90% of the software jobs are), and Rs 4 to 6 for the niche players. Even if one counts for the 4 to 5 years that one has to spend in getting a PhD, compensation wise, a student who does a PhD will clearly come out ahead.

And then there are the really strong benefits of doing a PhD – the main reasons why people preferred this route even when the compensation was not good. And that is, the freedom to explore and chose your own work agenda, the non-repetitive and challenging nature of work, the culture of R&D, lack of hierarchy, being a member of the global community of researchers, etc.

Overall, while the PhD production report does not have too much good news for those who want to recruit PhDs, it is good news for those who are considering doing PhD.

Impact of Grading Schemes on Students’ Grades

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In this post, rather than a personal view or opinion, I am sharing the findings of a small study we did on impact of grading schemes. Grading schemes in universities vary with many systems in existence. To study the impact of grading schemes on student’s performance in terms of SGPA/CGPA, we have performed a small study to study two common grading schemes. Scheme 1 which uses letter grades A, B, C, D, and F with corresponding points as 10, 8, 6, 4, and 2. And scheme 2 which uses grades A, A-, B, B-, C, C-, D, and F, with corresponding points as 10, 9,…, 4, 2. 

Experimental Setup

To analyze the impact of the two grading schemes, we have used the data of students’ marks from three core courses: Computer organization, Data structures, and algorithms and Probability and Statistics, each with enrolment in of about 140. The data of the students from these three courses was first divided into two groups of equal sizes Group 1 with even numbered students and Group 2 contained odd numbered – i.e. both groups had about 70 students in each class with similar performance.

First, Group 1 was given to the six professors from three institutions, and they were requested to grade the students using the Grading scheme 1. They were given the entire spreadsheet of performance over the semester, but without the student names. After 2 weeks, Group 2 was given to the same professors for grading using scheme 2. The purpose of the two week gap is to make two grading exercises independent of each other.  At the end of this experiment, we had the grades provided by six professors using the two different grading schemes for sets of students whose performance was effectively similar. And we had this data for three different courses.

Analysis and Key Observations

  • Average grade point of students (after taking the average grade point of six professors) is approximately the same at around 6.5 (average of scheme 2 was higher by about 0.1, but given the small sample size it was not taken as statistically significant.) This is an useful  insight – it shows that professors do not simply take students falling in A category in Scheme 1 and divide them into A and A- (and similarly for B and C), as that would have resulted in significant reduction in average grade in Scheme 2. But, as is intended, by having finer grades in scheme 2, Professors put some A students (of Scheme 1) in A-, but also put some B students (of scheme 1) in A-. (It is worth pointing that some professors consistently gave higher average grade in one scheme, while others gave higher grade in the other scheme.)
  • Average grade point (after taking the average grade point of six professors) of top students is higher with grading scheme 1 across courses. This is to be expected as in Scheme 2, some students from A grade in Scheme 1 will get moved to A-. However, one Professor gave more As with grading scheme 2 in one course. (To study this, we determined the average grade of top K students, varying K from 1 to 15, i.e. up to about top 20% students.)
  • Average grade point (after taking the average grade point of six professors) of bottom students is higher with grading scheme 2 across courses.  In other words, bottom students would prefer grading scheme 2. This is also as expected – with finer grades; fewer students should end up in D and F.  Here also,  two Professors gave a larger no of Fs with grading scheme 2 for one course each, (For this also, we studied the grade of bottom K students, varying K from 1 to 15).
  • The average number of Fs reduces with grading scheme 2 to about half of those in Scheme 1. Even at individual professor level, number of Fs reduce –  4 out of 6 professors have given more or equal Fs with grading scheme 1 than grading scheme 2 across all the courses; in some courses, the same professor has substantially lower threshold for given F in Scheme 2 than in F.  One can argue that as there is no D- grade, there should be no impact on number of Fs. But data seems to suggest that overall, having a finer grades seems to reduce the need for failing students.
  • The data provided us an opportunity to analyze the consistence in the grading behaviour of professors. For this purpose, we postulated five consistency hypotheses:
    • H1: Equal or more As in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H2: Equal or higher cut-off for grade B in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H3: Equal or higher cut-off for grade C in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H4: Equal or higher cut-off for grade D in grading scheme 1 than in grading scheme 2
    • H5: Equal cut-off for grade F in grading scheme 1 and in grading scheme 2

We then determined how many of these hypotheses were satisfied by different professors.  We found that 5 out of 6 Professors  satisfied 4 or 5 of these (four did not satisfy  H5, as mentioned above). However, one Professor satisfied only 2 of these.  In other words, most Professors are quite consistent in their grading behavior across schemes (except for F grade.)

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Mayank Pundir for his help in analyzing the data and in writing the report, and Vidushi Chaudhary for her help in performing the experiment and initial analysis. I would also like to thank the professors who participated in the study and graded the students using the two grading schemes (not mentioning their names for confidentiality).  Details of the analysis are also available with the author.

Desired Skills/Capabilities in Graduating CSE Students for a High-End Engineering Career

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At IIIT-Delhi, objectives of BTech program are to develop graduates for careers in high-end engineering professions and research. (We want to emphasize on “high-end engineering careers” as the vast majority of software careers in India need moderate expertise in computer sciences – as demonstrated by the fact that many large software companies take engineers from any discipline and make them suitable for their work after a couple of month’s training. As at IIIT-Delhi we have a rigorous program in CSE, we believe that it should be to prepare the students for more cutting-edge work in technology and product companies, research, and innovation and entrepreneurship.)

To develop the skills needed for high-end engineering careers, we need to clearly understand them and then ensure that the BTech program is developing them. During a recent review of our curriculum, for the objective of developing high-end software engineers, we decided to take feedback from senior engineers of some technology companies on what skills they expect in graduating engineers. The companies included most of the top technology players like Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Yahoo, EMC, Siemens, Netapps, and smaller technology players like AirTight Networks. The questionnaire we sent asked what Technical skills they expected, and what Meta/Soft skills they expected in graduates of a CSE program. (It was satisfying to note that our curriculum focused on developing many of these skills. Still some ideas emerged from this exercise for which we have taken suitable actions.)

This note  gives a summary of the feedback obtained. It is worth pointing out, particularly to students, that the feedback almost entirely revolved around understanding and skills – grades and marks were not mentioned even once by anyone. It needs to be emphasized to students that short cuts to getting good marks are of no help in careers in these companies – almost all of these companies conduct multiple rounds of tests and interviews to assess the understanding and skills. I hope this feedback from the very places which often constitute dream jobs for students might strengthen the resolve of those students who want to work hard to learn and build their capabilities (the only way!) to continue on their path.

–In Meta/Soft skills, a few skills/capabilities that were highlighted most in various forms are:
  • Ability to quickly learn new concepts, languages, technologies, best practices. As one might expect, in today’s world, continuous up gradation is essential and it is to be expected that whatever one knows may become obsolete soon and so one must have ability to learn. In a high-end technology career (like most knowledge-based careers), ability and desire to learn is critical, along with desire and motivation to keep improving in whatever one is doing.
  • –Problem solving ability. This has many aspects and were variously expressed as: logical and critical thinking; ability to connect new challenges with old problems and past experience; ability to apply diverse/disparate concepts for solving a problem; ability to think at abstract level, and drill down to details; ability to leveraging existing tools and knowledge for problem solving; ability to formulate a problem, thinking of different ways to approach; ability to work with unknowns/ uncertainty ; ability to identify bottlenecks and articulate them well; ability to search for information to fill these unknowns, reduce uncertainty, remove bottlenecks
  • –Communication skills.  Explaining things to others in a clear and structured manner; ability to speak and write with clarity and succinctly.
  • –Team work. Ability to work in teams, which can need skills like taking leadership when needed, but following when required; skills to negotiate and resolve conflicts, work in time constraints and with responsibility, etc,

While the meta/soft skills may be general for any high-end engineering skills, the feedback for technical skills was far more focused for CSE (as the questionnaire was focused on computer science). The list of desired capabilities and skills here is longer and more detailed. Some of the key skills that were highlighted are:

  • –Solid Data Structures and Algorithms. Deep understanding of these subjects, how to combine them, how to find/design suitable ones for a problem, etc. This is not surprising as indeed these are the most foundational topics on which much of CS rests.
  • –Strong in OOPS.  OO Design and principles, subtle aspects of language, strong understanding of the language capability and limitations, its design and implementation,
  • –Good understanding of OS, DBMS, Networks. These subjects were highlighted whose understanding is extremely important on being a successful software engineer for high-end work.
  • –Ability to write well structured and efficient code.  This view was expressed in various ways.  E.g. ability to evaluate efficiency of the code at different levels – algo, DS, execution level (OS), hardware – to reduce memory as well as time; understanding of different layers of the system, and ability to evaluate/assess the program at these different layers
–Various other skills that were pointed out were: ability to leverage libraries from disparate sources and create abstractions on top; good debugging skills; familiarity with different programming paradigms – what they can do, how they are implemented, where they are useful…; understand different situations in which a system can work or fail or may be used; working knowledge of standard tools and IDEs; ability to read others’ code and analyze it, provide feedback on it, work with it / enhance it efficiently; experience of working on a real project (with real delivery and users/customers).

We found these inputs very useful in fine tuning our courses and the type of projects and assignments we give. I hope others find it useful as well. I sincerely hope that students will get the message loud and clear: build these types of skills and capabilities if you want to have a high-end (and well paying) engineering career – and leverage your Institution’s education program and courses effectively towards strengthening these.

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