Widening Horizons: Debasis Bal
Adapting with the times and venturing into myriad spaces takes a lot of courage, insight and a constant desire to learn new things. Being one of those who made it large, Debasis Bal, an alumnus of the batch of 1990, Department of Mechanical Engineering, is more than just an engineer who seeks technicality in life. Currently the Director of Data Science at Fidelity Investment, he started his career as an industrial engineer and moved on to lead a worldclass laboratory creating Analytics for the connected world of Industrial Internet, following his heart in every sphere of his life. Team MM caught up with this upbeat personality to find out what it takes to follow your passion.
MM: Please tell us about your pre-college life. How did NIT Rourkela happen to you?
DB: Moving back to the times when we had finished our tenth standard, there were just two career options which seemed to have a stable future, which undoubtedly were medicine and engineering. Owing to the fact that my father was a doctor, it was natural for me to be persuaded to consider taking up medicine. However, I realized that I was more inclined towards engineering, after which I started my preparation religiously for some of the prestigious entrance examinations, most obviously the IITs and NITs. The IIT entrance was a tough nut to crack, however, REC did come in my way. Based on my AIEEE rank, I was first allotted the branch of Metallurgy. Later, with a satisfactory academic performance in the first semester, I managed to slide to the Department of Mechanical Engineering, thanks to the branch-change system back then.
MM: How was your life at NITR as a student? Any experiences and moments you always cherish?
DB: I initially stayed at the hostel. But due to the fact that I was a localite, I changed into a day-scholar. However, at times, I couldn’t keep away from staying in the hostel because of my friends and the lively atmosphere of the halls of residence.
One of my fondest memories was that of the industrial tour we went to with a few professors and all the batch-mates, to places like Bombay, Goa, Madras and Bangalore. The moments when my friends and I used to gather in one of the rooms and sing along Kishore Kumar’s songs during free time are unforgettable and would always be cherished.
Coming to extra-curricular activities, I was interested in cricket and football, but my major interest lay in dramatics. I always used to participate in the competitions for dramatics and acting in our institute fests and win prizes.
MM: How was the REC, Rourkela, back then? Any major changes which were observed by you in your recent visits to the institute?
DB: Our institute was definitely one of the leading institutes in academics and teaching standards, in those times too. The most prominent of all changes which any alumnus can directly relate to is the development of infrastructure in leaps and bounds. Sports facilities have been improved a lot and the halls have been revamped to sophisticated buildings with better facilities, from which the students can be benefitted. Not to forget the societies which emerged for the students, which keep them busy even after class hours. It is great to see a lot of progress happening in the institute, as virtually, one is always a part of the institute, even when one leaves it.
MM: How was the academic and placement scenario of your department during your time of study?
DB: The Department of Mechanical Engineering was graced by many talented and inspiring professors like Prof. T.N. Subramaniam, Prof. S.N. Das and Prof. P.K. Kar, who astonished us with their dedication for teaching and their depth of knowledge. The curriculum of the institute, however, didn’t seem to be very much upfront in catering to the needs of the industry. It was the teaching expertise of these professors which made us glued to our seats in classes.
Coming to the placements back then, the public sector undertakings had the most number of students work for them after graduation. The efforts put up by the Training and Placement Centre and the professor-in charge is truly commendable till date, as they tried their level best to get the best of the companies for recruitment of our students. As a result, there were good companies like L&T and ECC, which used to recruit bright students.
MM: You had a major career switch, considering your qualifications of PGDM-Banking and Financial Services at TAPMI and then Post Graduation in computing at Indian Institute of information technology. How did this transition happen?
DB: Soon after I started working with SAIL after my graduation, I suddenly realized the need for an MBA, to ensure better productivity from an employee’s perspective and to lead a particular group in a company, in the proper direction, fuelling projects with an innovative thought process. This was the time when I took up the course of PGDM at TAPMI, after which I worked with RSP in the business strategy planning area. However, after a certain period, I was convinced by the evolving world moving towards technology, which is when I decided to explore the area of computer science and took up the challenge of completing a Master’s degree in computing.
MM: You are a Financial Risk Manager, certified by the Global Association of Risk Professionals. What led you to this programme?
DB: After the completion of my Master’s in computing, I joined GE Global Research in Bangalore. At that point of time, risk measurement and management was in vogue. I felt that thorough analysis of this aspect would yield good results for me in the coming future, which is when I started taking this online course under GARP, while simultaneously working at GE. It was a challenge for me, unlike previous courses where I had devoted my time completely for a Master’s degree. All one requires for such initiations to succeed is perseverance, with sufficient amount of zeal to learn new things.
MM: What encompasses analytics? How have you overcome the challenges it offers and implemented its benefits?
DB: Analytics is making sense out of data and information surrounding us. Around 10-15 years ago, information systems were coming to life and lot of processes and business systems were getting computerised. All these systems, including the internet and advent of smartphones were going to generate a lot of data. Everything was going to be monitored and measured. The need was to develop algorithms and systems to surf through this voluminous data and give a measure of what we want in a summarised form, else all this data would be useless. Analytics is a combination of various statistical and computational methods implemented through computed algorithms that makes sense of all these data and generates that pattern. It basically aids in taking data driven decisions.
MM: From an Executive Technical Assistant at SAIL to the Director of Data Science at Fidelity Investments, you have reached the echelons of success in your professional life. How would you describe the journey?
DB: I have enjoyed everything I’ve done. Unless I’m really enjoying a job, I’m not a person who would stick around and do the job. Starting as an Industrial Engineer in Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP) to becoming the Executive Assistant to the Managing Director gave me an insight of different flavours of the job. It gave an oversight of how exactly a big unit like the Integrated Steel Plant works, what are the things that can go wrong and where exactly we need to focus to solve the problems. While progressing through my analytics career at GE, I came to know about how to interact with different businesses and different levels of stakeholders and how to approach them to extract what is desired from the data. As director, I came across the way of hiring the right person for any job and the kind of projects that need to be done. But throughout this long journey, I’ve followed one mantra, enjoy whatever you are doing.
MM: Has it ever hampered with your personal life? Do you have any regrets?
DB: Everyone has to compromise a bit to maintain the work life balance in order to achieve something. There are times when I had to take tough decisions too like, splitting my time between my family and work. I do regret my decision of not pursuing higher studies but then this question about work life balance would exist at every point of time. It’s basically up to you on how you take it and manage it.
MM: How important, according to you, is the institute-alumni and student-alumni relations? Are you satisfied with the current state of affairs? What more can be done to enhance the relations?
DB: I think the the Institute alumni relationship should be extremely strong and highly positive. I was an active member of such activities like organising alumni meets during my stint at RSP. After that, I have kept in touch with the various alumni associations but there have been differences in opinion on how these associations should be run. Right now, we have reached a consensus point after a lot of efforts from both the institution and the alumni. I hope that this would help in making our alumni relationships much stronger.
MM: What does the future hold for you both on a professional and personal level?
DB: Honestly, I don’t know. I’m a person who takes things as it comes. I don’t believe in making any plans but I do have an operating principle. Disruptions are more frequent these days than they used to be earlier. We have to be prepared for any kind of disruptions, whether they are in our field of expertise or not. While these disruptions are temporary, what we need to make sure is to be in sync with the rapid changes. So the operating principle I have is,
Always keep yourself prepared and monitor how the situations are developing.
Data science may be the end of things today but tomorrow it won’t have any value. So I need to make sure to learn what it would morph into, by taking a break from my career. Either you will be the disrupter or be disrupted, and it’s better to be the former and bring the change.
MM: Any message that you would like to convey to the NITR fraternity?
DB: The world is changing much more rapidly than at the time we graduated. So it’s both an opportunity and challenge for the present batch of students.
I hope that the students are always on the forefront of change and keen to learn how the changes occur. They need to use the knowledge gained at NIT as a foundation to learn new things and adapt to the change much faster.
Then only can we expect NITians to take leadership and defining roles in this ever changing world.