Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Look Back at Team Formation

(Left: Akshay Ravi; Right: Ajaay Ravi)
On a warm Monday evening in August, I and my brother Ajaay were rushing to our TI:GER class. We were hardly a week into the MBA program at Scheller and were just getting to know our classmates. We entered our TI:GER class discussing how we had to network with a new set of classmates all over again. It was a little intimidating at first talking with all the PhD and JD students with the idea of forming teams to potentially start a company.  Slowly and steadily, we got an opportunity to talk to everyone and get to know one another.

One day during a casual hallway conversation at the TI:GER lab, Margi was asking us about the team formation was coming along and told us in a lighter vein – “I hope the brothers don’t end up together on the same team.” Ajaay told her that we had been consciously avoiding doing so from day 1 at Scheller and were confident that it would be the same for TI:GER as well.

Having grown up together and shared a room for 20 years, we knew each other very well to the extent where we could accurately predict what the other is thinking. Hence we thought in order to expand our repertoire we need to team up with a different set of people as that would benefit both of us going forward. Putting aside all other factors, we just started to network with all our classmates in the hope of becoming friends. We felt that there was no point in forming a team and a company if we cannot gel together as friends in the first place. After TI:GER class one Monday we were talking to one of the JD students, Lorrin Stone, who had a similar mindset as ours. We ended up having a long chat outside the GaTech hotel parking garage and felt very comfortable interacting outside class.

As time progressed and we got closer to the deadline to form our teams, one of the teams had already formed in our class and panic struck. We sat down and began to critically evaluate the projects we were interested in and found out that both of us had listed a particular project as our first choice given how well it aligned with our backgrounds. So contrary to what we were trying very hard to avoid, we eventually ended up in the same team. Our PhD teammate Matt had already decided on a JD student Forrest and we needed one more teammate. We recommended Lorrin’s name and our Team Cool was formed. We connected very quickly as a team and almost every conversation we had involved cars, engines, guns, thermal interface materials, assignments, jokes, basketball and food. And a few ideas every now and then about commercializing the technology as well.

For us, it was an amazing experience interacting with Lorrin and Forrest as both of us were Electrical Engineers and now MBA students. We found out that Lorrin had a Finance background and Forrest already had experience running his own company and both of our lawyers understood business better than us. The avenues to learn were plenty and the chances of going wrong very marginal, given the experience in our team. Each of us brought different perspectives to the table and it was interesting to find out how well we complemented each other. All of us understood the nuances of Matt’s technology and started contributing to the brainstorming sessions fairly quickly. Yes, being lawyers Lorrin and Forrest do articulate a lot better. The other wonderful aspect of our team is the openness. Everybody is open to suggestion, bring about ideas to do things differently and debate potential solutions constructively. Matt is also very patient in explaining super scientific concepts that goes way above our heads. He deconstructs concepts into simple language so that it is easy for all of us to understand.

We also set up a regular time to meet every week and make it a point to always meet at different places across the school / city. This way we get to soak in different sights, enjoy different types of cuisines, and have refreshing conversations in new surroundings.

Until now, we have never felt that we are an interdisciplinary or multicultural team. We always think that we are a bunch of awesome people doing something cool. One important thing you learn apart from commercialization in TI:GER is friendship. This is definitely the start of a wonderful relationship for us going forward!

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Engineering Ph.D. That Says: What’s In A Pitch?

Explaining engineering research to a layman is a lot like using Auto-Tune. Yes I said Auto-Tune! The same thing that T-Pain, Kanye West, and secretly every pop band in the world uses to put their voice at the correct pitch. It is a great piece of software that makes anyone a great singer.

Now imagine someone puts headphones on you, and asks you to sing into a microphone Journey’s hit-single “Don’t Stop Believing” at karaoke. In the headphones all that you hear is your beautifully Auto-Tune-corrected voice flowing on top of the music. You are auto-magically singing on key and every single note hits perfectly.

Guess what everyone next to you hears? Pure unadulterated: awfulness.

You see, as Ph.D. students, we have to write a lot of papers. Unknowingly, writing technical papers all the time can condition us to speak like we write. I find this is a major flaw that many of us Ph.D. students make when transitioning to the marketplace. When we speak about our work, our logic and technical expertise is secretly auto-correcting our speech so that our logical understanding is satisfied to be in perfect “technical-pitch.” But the market doesn’t care about technical correctness!

Reflecting over my first year in TI:GER, most of my team’s meetings discussed more about what the technology is, rather than what to do with it.  Working together and getting feedback from my wife (Praise the LORD I live with a GT MBA’15!), helped tremendously to work out what to say and how to say it. After a year, we finally realized how to communicate what it is our technology does, and why it is awesome. It took many iterations of speaking about the technology in a sense that everyone can grasp, and it paid off with a win at the TI:GER Alumni Student Pitch Competition this past Fall 2015 (thank you TI:GERs for your vote!).  

My advice to other engineers exposing themselves to the marketplace is to change the key you sing in. Get out of paper mode, and talk to non-technical professionals about what your research is. Start to develop your ear to communicate effectively to the marketplace, and you too could deliver the perfect pitch.

Billy Kihei, All glory to God for the success you just read about!

You can track Billy’s Thesis Writing process at: