How to excel in college by forming a community
01:58 - How the community started 04:56 - Tips for forming your community 08:25 - Actions for the community founder 11:06 - Rewards of founding a community 13:01 - Virtual Community is an option too
Many students, give up on being a passionate engineer without even trying, after the disappointment of not getting into an IIT.
They do not realize that scoring marks in a competitive exam is not the same as being a good engineer and being valued for solving real problems creatively.
If you're in a tier two college and you want to be at par with an IIT pass out at the end of four years...
if you are in mechanical, because you did not get computer science and you want to be ready for a software engineering job at the end of four years...
You can do so by forming a community of like-minded passionate friends in your college and moving forward as a group. Together, you can do much more.
We have with us Kaushik Balasundar today. He's just finishing his engineering. While studying, Kaushik formed a community around learning ROS (robot operating system). It is a bit tough to get started on. Then they participated in the international conference on intelligent robots and systems and other competitions by building many different robots.
They won awards and it reinforced their confidence. Now Kaushik is headed to Carnegie Mellon university for his masters in robotics.
Above all Kaushik is a great engineer right out of college.
Welcome to this episode, Kaushik.
Kaushik: [01:43] Thank you so much for having me and thank you for the lovely introduction.
Brij: [01:47] Kaushik, I found the story of how you got into robotics, very inspiring. Can you share your journey with us and what set you on this path to create a robotics community?
Kaushik: [01:58] Sure., so when I started engineering, I was quite like most people who, you know, entered engineering college. Um, I chose my major in mechanical engineering,, because it gave me the most diversity and I thought it would,, let me explore as many fields as I could.
Um, and I want to keep my options open. And so, you know, that, that was the reason why I chose mechanical engineering and building a community was not really what I was aiming for when I started. But,, you know, a set of keys, key set of events led me down that path., so the main story that really got me into robotics was, um, when in, during my first year of, um, engineering, and then I started building a wheelchair for quadriplegics.
So, I realized that there wasn’t really a solution available,, which could help quadriplegics. So just by an introduction. You know, quadriplegics are people who can’t move their hands and legs. And so they, you know, most wheelchairs today depend about using a joystick, for example, or, you know, you have to manually move it.
So such people who are usually at a disadvantaged position. So the first project that I worked on was,, you know, to create a wheelchair, which could be actuated with the motion of a person’s head. Um, And honestly, that was a real problem that I saw and something that I wanted to work on. And luckily for me, there was also a group of people that I found along the way.
And when I pitched this idea to my new classmates, when I first started engineering, they were all equally passionate about it. And, you know, despite us not really having any experience, building something of this sort we said, okay, You know what? Let’s go in,, we will get our hands dirty. And We’ll see what we can do about it. And,, that’s, that’s where it all began. And it’s been a ride since then. So,, at the time, during, in my college, there was very, very few people who were actually interested in working on something,, in the realm of robotics.
So one of the things I did in order to get people’s attention or rather to you know tell people that, you know, it might sound something that sounds complicated can be done by person, by person who has no prior knowledge – is that I started documenting everything and not only did I document the successes, but I also documented the failures.
So I started a blog and it didn’t have many people viewing it initially, but it had enough attention and traction within my own college community. And that’s how I started getting a bit of recognition within my own college.
We worked on several other projects after that just to understand and explore the basics of robotics., when curiosity kicked in at that point, and,, there was, there was no mistakes for us because everything we did, we did it with the intention of learning something new., this was not stuff that we were taught in college. So everything we did was – gave us a sense of awe and fascination.
Brij: [04:30] How many of you were there Kaushik?
Kaushik: [04:33] So it initially started off with me discussing this idea with a friend. A couple of other guys who were sitting behind him were equally intrigued by the conversation and they started joining in. And then by the end of lunch, we, we had a basic, you know, sketch in mind. We had this sort of a basic way, very basic idea. We started prototyping and from there, one iteration led to another and then we, we started from there.
Brij: [04:56] This journey has gone through many ups and downs?
Kaushik: [05:00] When there’s no foundation – there’s a lot of things that you have to learn from scratch and no one’s going to teach you these things. And that’s one of the most important things that, um, you know, when you do something with, with a group of like-minded people, that’s one of the things that,, it’ll help you with.
Because when you get demotivated or when you, when you get stuck at doing something, then it’s always good to have a few people who can brainstorm a few ideas with you and always keep you going. And in addition to that, we didn’t really have a Robotics lab set up in college. So if we had to test something, It, it was always, at our own, you know, expenditure. We had to buy everything on our own. We had to split our costs. And one of the great things about being in college and having a bunch of people to work with is that you can split costs. And, you know, that really helps because, um, projects like robotics can be quite expensive. And in one way it really helped us do a lot, a lot more iterations because,, you know, we could share our costs and,, not, not really that, but we also had a lot of,, fun mutual learning was. Was,, quite big.
Brij: [05:58] So what you had was a common goal?
Kaushik: [06:01] For the group of us. it was, Not, you know, it was, um, learning as much as we could. And it was also being able to get into a master’s program after college. Because as and when we started researching more about robotics and, you know, the things that people were doing with robotics, we realized that, you know, there’s a lot for us to learn from,, take getting a master’s education. And so we thought that this could be a great way to set up foundations right. To better, you know, to build a great portfolio for either getting a job after college or to get a good master’s admin. And so from day one, we had one of those as our long-term vision.
, in addition to that a short-term vision, we know, we also, we also have to have a very clear, short term vision because a long-term vision, which is a few years down the line can kind of get blurry in the way.
So, what we did was we knew that we have to learn as much as possible to know build a great portfolio, to get into a good master’s program or get a day job. So we need to set the, we needed to have, you know, set these,, short-term achievable goals. And so a great way to do that is by taking part in lots of competitions, because competitions are designed to give you optimal experiences.
It has a short-term goal, meaning within a few months, you know what the end goal of the competition is. So if it’s robotics competition, do you have to make a robot that does X, Y, Z. Um, or if it’s a software hackathon that you know, what your application is supposed to do. You’re given a problem statement, which means, you know, a huge part of being in a community or thinking of problems is, you know, actually understanding what to work on.
So if you have a competition, then gives you a problem statement, that makes things a lot clearer. So having a problem, having a clear set goal and having feedback.
So,, usually a competition, et cetera, we’ll do a bunch of various stages. Right? So each stage gives you feedback on how you’re doing so you can always reiterate and, you know, keep changing your strategy accordingly.
And it’s a great way to keep your community engaged. Meaning that if there’s a group of people, there’s always a set of goals to meet and there’s deadlines because if you don’t have deadlines, then there’s no way you can get anything done. So competitions are a great way because they set time bound pressure. And they set, time bound, you know, goals and targets for you. It makes things a lot easier.
As we took part in more and more competitions, we had people from you know various backgrounds coming in as well. So we had people, who’ve got,you know, a background in coding, in electronics, in power systems and so on. And so we were able to learn off of each other and feed off of each other’s knowledge. So when you have that transfer of knowledge coming in, then coming and being a part of that community becomes an intrinsic reward in itself.
Brij: [08:24] I guess a community, takes on a life of its own, after a while. But in the beginning, somebody has to nurture it. And the person who has to nurture it has some doable action, somethings that she or he has to take care of., you’ve been stating them, but it would be so nice – if you can recap once again, what would somebody who was wanting to set up a community for learning and doing. What would she need to do?
Kaushik: [08:54] One of the key things for someone to set up a community is finding that core group of people, because that’s the crux using which it’s kind of radiates energy outwards, and the entire community grows from that key nucleus.
So always find the right people that can keep a positive atmosphere within your community. First thing.
Then the second thing is you need to have short-term goals and long-term goals. Short-term goals keep the entire community motivated. And long-term goal key gives you a sense of purpose.
Uh, always it helps to have some sort of external support from people. So this could be through your college management, you could go and approach them for some sort of funding to buy equipment or., you wouldn’t approach external agencies who are willing to,, you know, sponsor projects. What we did was we ensured that we had continuous publicity on what we were doing., so there was always,, you know, the people coming and taking a look at what we were working on and that it turn, um, in short that,, the college,, eventually started funding us.
The next thing is transfer of knowledge and documentation because community is always dynamic, right? People keep coming in, people leave. And so. What the previous batch works on needs to be transferred to the coming incoming batch. So you always need, you need to ensure that you have great documentation, so whatever you work on, make sure that it’s documented properly and always you know that it’s easily accessible for the people that’s coming in.
Brij: [00:10:09] Yeah. I so much agree with you. And,, one of the thoughts that occurred to me was that, you know, um, in the initial take off, it takes a whole lot of energy and it has to be worth it for that reason. But once it has taken off, then it can manage with lesser energy and lesser commitment also. So in fact, if you’re in a college somewhere and looking to start a community – First, also look around if there is a community that you can already become part of, or if there is a community that has flagged. Because,, maybe the founder of the community has also gone off to Carnegie Mellon. Then maybe you can take it upon yourself to revive that community or make sure that it again comes back to its glory.
But all of a sudden done from the leader’s point of view, it is a lot of effort and what makes it worth it? Kaushik.
Kaushik: [00:11:06] Key takeaway for me of why it’s so rewarding to be a part of a community, is that you directly get to impact a lot of people. The second thing is for people who want to get into entrepreneurship. Creating a community is the best way to sort of get a flavor for what the various aspects of entrepreneurship looks like.
But eventually the key principles, that’s the principles that are required to get a company going or a community going is, is attracting a great group of people. Moreover, it’s a lot of fun creating something from scratch because,, something you, you get, you get, you get a sense of identity for yourself because people know that you’ve made an impact and you’ve got limited time in this world to do something with it. So this is a great way to leave, leave your Mark behind.
For people who are in isolated colleges. So maybe you say you’re not in the buzzing middle of say technology centers., COVID showed us a great way to, you know, get virtual communities up.
So you don’t have to be in the same place for you to be a part of a community. So one of the great things about technology today is that it connects people that are at different geographies. And all we did was we put one post on LinkedIn saying, you know, we are conducting this workshop. If you’re interested, come join us.
And within say, two, three days, we got over 60 registrations. And, um,, the, we formed a great virtual community. These people were from all over India. A few of them from the US, from Singapore,, that joined us and, um,
We created this,, virtual platform on a, on a, on a platform called Discord. So if you’ve heard of discord, it’s basically a platform where you can,, have multiple people join in and you have these voice channels and you have a bunch of great tools for the communication.
And so,, after the workshop as well, we, the workshop was so successful that we,, you know, continued engaging with these guys.
After the workshop, we gave them a bunch of projects to work on and to date, we are still all very connected and we continue to share ideas. It’s always possible to get connected with somebody who’s on the other side of world, but shares your passion. So LinkedIn is a great tool to do that.
Brij: [00:13:01] Kaushik. That was very, very valuable because not everybody is in a happening place. And if you are feeling alone and seem to be just standing by the side, you can look at your options through the virtual community also.
And, um, I hope that,, our listeners have had a chance to think about what they could be doing with these ideas.
Uh, it seems to me that,, you can win the game irrespective of the hand of cards dealt to you at any one time. And you only lose when you give up and don’t approach your profession from a position of passion.
What do you say?
Kaushik: [00:13:42] That’s absolutely right. Your college is not your limitation. And I hope that,, after listening to this,, many more people, you know, get the motivation to start something of their own.
Brij: [00:13:52] Hey Kaushik! Thank you very much. It has been a wonderful session, hearing your insights and how you have made a difference to yourself and to your friends around you. We hope that others will take cue from you and do similar things, great things, and shine themselves.
Kaushik: [00:14:11] Thank you so much for the opportunity. I think this is a great initiative and I hope this podcast has a lot more success. Thank you so much.