Jack of all Trades: Debasish Mohapatra

Jack of all Trades: Debasish Mohapatra

Team MM | Aug 31, 2015

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Not everybody has the courage and determination to pursue and excel in all that life has to offer. Debasish Mohapatra, an alumnus of the batch of 1987, Department of Mechanical Engineering, is one of those rare species who has established himself in every field he has set his foot in. Currently heading the Project Quality and Design Quality division at Shell, India, he has come a long way since his graduation from NIT Rourkela. Team MM caught up with this affable personality for an interview session. Following are the excerpts of the conversation.  

MM: Going back to the early days, tell us something about your life before NIT Rourkela (then REC). Did you ever nurture dreams of being an engineer or did it just happen by chance?
: I was always a scholar since my school days. A gold medallist from Ravenshaw College in ISC, I had electronics as my 4th optional. So, it was natural for me to eye a career in engineering. But I was always fond of those aspects that related to mankind rather than machines. Looking back, I feel that I could have taken a research role to help society or a bureaucrat job to be involved with the lives of the common people.

MM: How was life at REC back then? Is there any enriching experience that you would like to share with us of your time at REC?
: REC career has given me a lot in terms of leadership through extra- curricular activities. Here, I unfolded my talents in many sports. I was the college cricket captain during 1987, and excelled in carom and table tennis. I was also involved in the organising committee of the annual cultural fest. Of course, that affected my academics to some extent but I was happy to maintain an all-rounder image in college. I was very excited when we reached the inter college finals after 4 years, under my captaincy.

MM: How has life at REC changed you?
: REC life was the best time of my life where I enjoyed the most valuable friendships. I remember saving a friend from committing suicide, running him to IGH immediately. Today, he is in a leading position with a happy family. Engineering life brought a lot of courage, collaborative yet competitive spirit in me. It did open up my outlook about what all an engineering student can aspire for globally. Looking back, even the time spent at the check post, back post and Keshto’s had their contributions in shaping my life later.

MM: How was the Department of Mechanical Engineering during your time?
: The Department of Mechanical Engineering of NIT Rourkela was considered very superior among all the NITs, even BITS. I was happy opting to study here with a rank of 10 in the REC-JEE. I even gave up my seat of EEE in BITS Pilani in favour of Mechanical Engineering at NIT Rourkela. The professors during our time were all considered highly proficient in their pedagogy skills. Some of them included Prof T.N.Subramanian (TNS), Prof Nagabhusanaiah, Prof N.S.Das, Prof L.D.Nayak and Prof B.K.Nanda. I might have missed out other names due to my poor memory.

MM: Were you involved in student activities or was it just studies for you?
: I participated in almost all student activities, apart from being among the toppers of my batch. I loved sports, drama, quizzing and was involved in various inter-college competitions. I was also the mess secretary and a close friend of the cultural secretary of our batch, hence, got to organise many events.

MM: Please elucidate your work experience at Hindustan Petroleum.
: My interest towards the end of my engineering changed towards career options in management. Hence, I did not join US universities, even though I was selected for a 50% scholarship through GRE. I joined HPCL in the marketing division, which was one of the leading public sectors during that time. My experience in HPCL was valuable, giving me all-round opportunities and work experience in supply and distribution operations, engineering and projects, commercial and vigilance roles for the company. I enjoyed all my diverse roles, good or bad. The HPCL experience landed me a job with Shell.

MM: What motivated you to transition from engineering to management and pursue a PGDBM from IIM Calcutta?
: At some point of time, I discovered my passion for management, leadership and strategy areas rather than hardcore engineering and design and shop floor manufacturing. Though I am always fascinated by the awesome tasks that engineers can accomplish, I felt I had achieved enough in technical aspects during my initial days at HPCL and considered a management education would help me take up the leadership challenges.

MM: With the majority of engineers vying for an MBA degree, what do you think is the reason behind this trend?
: It is mainly about looking at the greener pastures. MBA from a reputed college undoubtedly gives the edge in terms of career progression at the beginning of any career ladder. However, it is up to the person to prove himself later after winning the first rounds easily. But these days, even highly motivated and innovative minded engineers are taking up CEO roles in many technical companies without a formal MBA education. It is through your leadership, innovation and customer centric approach in your role that can catch the attention of top management.

MM: You served as the secretary of NITRAA (Bangalore chapter) in 2014. What plans do you have to strengthen the alumni relations of the institute and how satisfied are you with the current state of affairs?
: I was the vice-president of NITRAA SZ for 2012-14, and am the secretary of NITRAA, Bangalore chapter, for the past two years. My aim had been to bring the large group of Rengcolians/NITRAANs in Bangalore together. However, it has not been easy, a dream yet to be realised, a task still in hand, a journey yet to accomplish.  

I can be brutally honest by admitting that many of us are too busy to take time out to join the alumni meetings or too stingy to contribute a few hundred rupees for alumni functioning or too selfish to always look for value from alumni functions.

One has to look at it the same way you pay a visit to your village out of your sheer love for it, rather than any other expectation. It is very difficult to run an alumni chapter without whole hearted and proactive support from each alumnus who comes forward and takes initiative. The most recent batches are the least engaging ones and that trend has to change. The younger batches have to step up and carry the baton forward. I am sorry for being a little harsh in my thoughts here.

MM: How has been your experience so far with Projects and Technology at Shell, India? You have risen to the top echelons in management positions after your tenure as an engineering student. How smooth was the transition from engineering life to the management hustles?
:  It has been a great experience working in a MNC like Shell which is usually among the Fortune top 3 global companies every year. The role transition from HPCL was significant for me. When I joined as a regional business development manager for Asia-Pacific, I was in the engineering east leadership team and global small business manager. A new company, new place, new role and a diverse global culture proved to be a challenge for me during the first six months. But being a great employee in a friendly company, things appeared to be fallen in place for me in the next 8 years I was with Shell. Here again I delivered in diverse roles, ranging from commercial roles as business development to ethics and compliance head for P&T India and then heading Project Quality from Shell India for the past 4 years. I was lucky though, to have survived through the Transition 2009 during the global crisis arising out of US Sub-prime lending issues.

MM: A man in your position would definitely look for amusement at the end of a tiring day. Are there any hobbies that you might have taken up during your college days that you pursue even today?
: (chuckles) Though, I did join some seasons of cricket field in the company and won some intra company carom matches, I am more serious about doing something which I could never do in college. In my final year, I had rehearsed an Odia song and mustered enough courage to give my name in the inter college singing competition, however, could not participate as I had to stay back for the cricket finals in Sambalpur. Since the past couple of years, I have tried singing. But my children quickly silence me for singing old Odia and Hindi songs. I try my hand at poetry as well.

MM: When did you last visit your Alma Mater? Have there been any significant changes that have caught your eye and any changes you would like to see in the future?
: I visited the institute a couple of times. I was here to mark the alumni golden jubilee celebrations and very recently, for my daughter's admission in NIT Rourkela. I am extremely impressed to see the infrastructural changes, the buildings, the landscaping, the facilities such as gym, swimming pool and the complete new look of NIT Rourkela. It’s very impressive, indeed. Every improvement should be student-centric and every rule should be a student enabler than a blocker. Of course world class faculty are a key to success of the institute.Though I do not have complete insight, but I feel the hygiene aspects for students in hostel/mess, comprehensive health facility in dispensary, uninterrupted power, wi fi connectivity, global collaboration with some of the corporate and leading institutes through video-conferencing or other smart tools and more research activity in the college could take it to the global top 50 colleges list. I would really be proud to see my college up there.

MM: Our readers would like to know what inspired you to reach the position you are at right now. Please share your words of inspirational wisdom.
: Though I am really proud to be in a leadership position in the Fortune No. 1 Company, I still feel there is a long way to go. I would have loved to achieve much more.

I feel ambition is a key driver to your success, when amply supported with love for your work, honesty and sincerity. But one should have the resilience to sail through the odd rainy day.

As a person, I hate shortcuts to success and my Quality role always keeps me on track to be compliant towards policies and processes. Finally enjoy whatever you do and live a life that you will not regret later!

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