Sunday, September 12, 2010

From iPhone manufacturers to iPhone designers…

“Which company manufactures iPhones & iPods? “ – A question which I have asked many of my students. And after some googling, all will come up with Foxconn as answer. But my intention is never to find out who manufactures iPhone, but to allude to ‘outsourcing’ industry which is led by China and India in manufacturing and services sectors respectively.
The ’iPhone manufacturing’ jobs done by the Chinese and the Indians can aptly be called ‘low-fi’ jobs as it doesn’t require innovation or high-fi thinking. Of course, it’s the cheap labor at coastal china which enables Apple to sell iProducts at low costs; but it is the innovative design and features which makes an iPhone, an iPhone, not the docile Chinese workers. Yes, it is true that Indian firms supply parts for Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s, but it is the technology behind their engines which makes them kings of roads, not the Indian made nuts & bolts.
Coming to the big question, why do we have to do these low-fi jobs, instead why don’t Foxcon design an iPhone5? Why don’t HAL design a Boeing 748? Why don’t Infosys & TCS make a new operating system to compete with Microsoft? Simple and most apt answer would be ‘we don’t know’. It’s not that Chinese or Indians lack brains, but the best brains of both countries have one thing in common – they no longer hold home country passports.

The root cause for this issue is nothing but our sub-standard education system. Our engineering students can write tons of pages about almost any topic part of their syllabus, but their real knowledge of the subject is a big fat ZERO. Writing an essay about a topic and having real knowledge about it are entirely different things, as different as true love and infatuation. University exams only test a student’s ability to write down ‘chavar’(crap) about a topic and nobody ever bothers to peruse the answers sheets. And this motivates students just to memorize something and reproduce it at exam sheets. And as long as this trend continues, we will remain ‘iPhone manufacturers’.

Now, what’s the solution? I think teachers and students themselves must be vanguards in this shift from ‘iPhone manufacturers’ to ‘iPhone designers’. If teachers were to play a bigger role in this transformation, then our colleges should hire and retain real talents, people with real passion for teaching and with substantial industrial experience, not the ones who opt for teaching just because they could not find jobs in industry. Also, the teachers should not be tied down to college; constant efforts must be taken to hone their skills by sending them for industry projects/consulting etc. Teachers must encourage students to take up projects which are not merely some automation systems (comparable to iPhone manufacturing). Unless real support is given by teachers, students will be reluctant to take up ‘iPhone Design’ projects as such projects are inherently difficult and there is no guarantee of a perfect final output!

Having good teachers is just half the thing. It is the students whose paradigm must first change. They must be willing to take challenges in life. They must understand that the teacher who sets easy questions for exams is their enemy. Always remember ‘A smooth sea has never made a skillful mariner’. If the sea is not rough, pray for Katrina’s and Rita’s to hit you. For e.g., if India govt. had tried to protect Indian automakers in 1990’s from global players, we would still be driving ambassadors and maruti 800’s. In India, it’s practically impossible for all students to gain an in-depth knowledge in all the subjects, so they must select few subjects which they like (and also welcomed by industry) and deep dive into it. Innovations come only if one truly masters the existing technologies. And that’s what going make the difference between ‘iPhone manufacturers’ and ‘iPhone Designers’.

This paradigm shift is not an easy one for students. They will have to wake up from their comfort zones and start working smarter than ever. The onus of making India a real, global super-power is on our young engineers. They must become uploaders of technology rather than mere downloaders. So, be ‘iPhone Designers’, or innovators of technology.

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