Growing up in India, Narendra only had one thing on his mind - candy! In fact, as a child Narendra’s sweet tooth was so severe that his parent’s had to hide their sweet treats from him - if not, they wouldn’t have had any left over to share with their guests! When he wasn’t hunting around for a candy stash, Narendra was immersed in dinosaurs books, dreaming about becoming a palaeontologist. However, as he jokingly admits“palaeontology” was a difficult word to pronounce as a child, so Narendra moved into the field of computer software and engineering, graphic design, until he found his 'niche' in UX and UI. He lives by the philosophy "be a doer!" which is evident as soon as you met him.
An inspirational, talented, and committed Inicio mentor, we sat down with Narendra to hear about his varied educational background, the small village where he grew up, his period of "rebellion," and his hobbies - spoiler alert: they are also food related ;)
Let’s start at the beginning! Where did you grow up, and what were some of your memorable experiences? I come from India. A small town to the North of India. My parents come a from a small rural area and probably they never imagined what I would be doing now, let alone me. I am grateful to them that despite lacking formal education themselves (we did not even have proper schools in villages a few decades back), they were still able to send me to school and college. It is always fun and mostly a frustrating exercise to explain my parents what I do. I just say it is something related to computers.
What are some of the key things you remember from your childhood? Well, one such thing that I remember is that while I am very conscious of my food habits now, during my childhood, there was never a single day when I would not throw a temper tantrum to eat sweets. If there was no sweet dish at home, it had to be brought from the market as soon as I came back from school. My parents had to hide it sometimes so there were some sweets left for any guests coming to home.
My education choices have been quite a rebellion to what my parents wanted. For my Masters, while my parents wished me to do MBA, I tried it reluctantly and actually got an admitted to IIM, Indore which is one of the premier institutes for management in India. Yet, I could never imagine myself as a MBA guy. I told my parents that I did not get through the selection process and then studied towards getting into a HCI programme. And next year I got into EIT’s double degree programme with UPS, Paris and KTH, Sweden. Totally, risky move if you see, yet it was a calculated risk. I would not recommend anyone to do the same as me unless they are prepared for the consequences. I can tell it happily since it all went well in the end. All’s well that end’s well. Right?
What did you first study at university before your “educational rebellion?” How did you process to your current field of study? I started with Computer Science and Engineering as my Bachelors. It was in India. I would have been a software developer but then circumstances happened that I got into software testing. I did not like it. Then, I gravitated towards design as I figured coding might not be my strong suit. I transitioned to graphic design and worked in a small company. It led me to explore UX and UI and eventually to do a Masters in HCI. Also, during childhood, after seeing my sketchbook, a close friend had said that you will be an artist someday. I am not an artist but design is still a creative field with some room for art. That saying did come true in a sense. I reached this level through a series of trials and errors delving into several fields. Again, they were calculated risks that paid off well.
Why are you now based in Stockholm?
There are definitely several factors. But one factor influenced it from several years down the line. No, Stockholm was never on my mind initially. I just knew that KTH, Stockholm is among the best institutes in Europe and I chose UPS, Paris because Paris. After my Bachelors, I moved for 4 months to a city in South India for on the job training. Then, I moved to Bengaluru for 1 year. For my graphic design job, I moved to Mumbai for 1 and a half years. After that, I lived in Paris for 1 year of my Masters and then 1 year in Stockholm. You can see that there was a lot of moving in the past few years. So, I decided to at least hold on to one place for sometime. Stockholm is lively with good opportunities in design field and I have made some great friends. I do think sometimes that France is calling me. I should visit my beloved France regularly.
What does a day in your life look like? Generally, I do not plan my day very strictly. A lot of things happen as they come. Perhaps, it is just my style and I will brag a little about my great memory. I rarely take notes or make schedule in the calendar. Important things remain in my mind.
I am working full time now. My day starts early around 6.30 am. A cup of tea and light breakfast gives me the head start. Then I sit to work around 8 am. I feel like I do a lot by the time it is afternoon. After about 3 pm, it feels like I have done a lot. The rest of the evening is for personal time and friends. I have a flexible enough job and colleagues who help a lot with this lifestyle. I cannot imagine having insane work hours unless you are Elon Musk or a doctor. I do not believe in disturbing colleagues after work hours and rarely let anyone else do it to me.
If you could study any other area, what would it be?
If I were not studying design, then what? I have always been fascinated by biology. I used to look at dinosaur books during childhood and think about being a palaeontologist. That was a tough word to pronounce as a child. I still read books related to biology and psychology. It might have been a geneticist if not doing design. (evil laugh). I would still have been “designing” clones.
When did you first realise you wanted to mentor others, and why do you think being a mentor is important?
I think it was never a one-time eureka moment for me. We always do mentor people in some form or the other. One incident that acted as a catalyst was that there was question by a person who seemed to be frustrated of their employer and could not vision how to transition to another career field. I had transitioned to another field and I wrote a detailed guide of my experience. The answer was received very well. After that, I started getting messages of people asking help on how to transition into a field totally different from their current field. It made me think that there is value in what I have learned. I can guide ones who are at a stage I was in. Though, it may not always end well with everyone. In my case, my riskier decisions worked well. So, I can give more nuanced support to such people who may otherwise take rash decisions instead of calculated risks.
And Inicio has provided me and other people with a great platform to develop mentoring skills through their various programs.
Have you had anyone mentor you and, if so, how has this impacted on you?
Not directly in my field of design or engineering. This was especially difficult because I am the first person who did a computer science bachelors in my family history. We really did not have any robust helping hand. Yet, there has been a person who is my big brother’s friend and has become like a family friend. He was the first person to help me realise that there is value in making my own decisions in a calculated way. He also helped me with understanding how life would be abroad when coming from a culture totally different to the west. We are still in touch after about a decade and the trust has grown further and further.
What would you say to any high school students who are interested in technology, but are also afraid that they are not “good enough?”
“Not good enough” is a term that comes from pre-conceived notions either from the friends, family or what you have heard from the internet. Unless, we try we do not know. Workshops are one of the great ways to measure interests and skills. We can only try and see where it takes. I will not say that just passion can help you achieve everything. That would be the same boring and useless advice. In technology, there are so many things. Just development has various fields. Some can be harder than other. But one can only know when they get their hands dirty. Once I asked a friend on how he learnt a software so quickly. Did you read the docs? He said, “Docs are all fine and great. But you will not go anywhere unless you open the software. Just open up and start playing with software with the manual as a sidekick.” I think the same applies for learning anything in technology. Be a doer!
Close Relationships – Who is a person close to you that inspired you the most in life?
The friend of my brother, who is now one my closest and trusted friend and mentor. A person who can talk about almost anything after my parents.
If you had to invite three-five people to dinner who the who would they be and why?My list might be biased towards Indians due to me being Indian. There are many people who inspire me every single day. Here are some who I feel inspired by.
- Shri Rama. He is a figure from one of the great epics of India called Ramayana. Revered and worshipped as a deity in Hinduism. His life story teaches about doing one’s Karma with diligence and no matter how hard things get, he takes the right decisions with a calm mind. Something which everyone can aspire to be.
- Dr. Abdul Kalam Azad. He was one of the finest scientists that India has seen. During his scientific career, he was called as the Missile man of India for his efforts in the defense sector. He also became one of the finest Presidents of India. He came from a poor family of fishermen and rose to becoming a great personality by sheer dedication.
- Saalumarada Thimakka. She may not be that famous earlier but got recognition recently with the highest civilian award in India. Her story inspired me for the perseverance and dedication she had shown towards helping the environment. Due to complications, she never conceived children but then found a mission in planting and taking care of Banyan trees. For decades she has nurtured green ecosystems of numerous trees and still take care of them at the age of 107. Life never stops till the end.
If I got a chance to invite people to a dinner, it would definitely be the above three people. I mean one of them, Rama, is a literal deity. Dr. Kalam was one of the finest technical minds of India. The grandma is the beacon of how life should be lived even after a century. There is no “getting tired” if we keep finding passionate things to do. The passionate thing can even be just one thing spanning for decades.
What do you wish you had known before entering the tech field?
A few things.
- I wish I had known that tech is not an easy field. My observation has been that many people move to tech because they perceive it to be an easy field compared to the “outdoor” careers like construction. While one may get to sit in an office chair next to a computer, it is demanding and takes practice with skill similar to any other field.
- Importance of maintaining a network and a quality network. Having 1000 connections on LinkedIn will mean nothing if we do not interact with at least a substantial number of them. Connections from one’s own field and related fields do the trick. The earlier we start to make connections, the stronger the network gets.
What general life advice do you wish you had been given?
The most important thing is to always have a group of at least 2 to 3 people who are your “super” group. Think of the people who you can count on for anything, who would rush to help you from anywhere. They provide valuable insights when we are stuck in a difficult situation. One thing I have learnt that I cannot everything alone. Life is a team sport. We should choose that team wisely.
Any inspirational quotes/mottos you live by?A motto that I live by “Every situation is unique in at least some aspect and we should analyse it of its own merit and qualities”. There may be similarities with another situation but often things are deeper nuances. We use past experiences and pre-defined principles to ease out the cognitive load. While scrutinizing everything all the time can be demanding, it is the only way to stay clear of our biases as much as possible.
Activities you like to do outside of your study?I cook a lot. I keep experimenting with dishes and seeing people’s expressions is always amusing. I also do pencil sketches and started photographing my surroundings and food experiments.
One can check out my photos at https://www.instagram.com/nan__ks/
What excites you the most about the future of technology?
Technology has always eased our life problems and continue to do so. I am very excited for the day when Augmented reality and virtual reality will be a common place. And not just in games but their applications will expand to entertainment, health, education and much more.
Combining my love for design and biology, I wonder what path we may choose in the future. Cybernetic enhancements of human body, biological (genetic) enhancement of human body or people might choose to retain their natural self. It would an interesting to see how these fields develop in the coming decades.