First-Hand:My Information Technology Career: Swim or Sink


Chetan S Sankar

Life Senior Member, IEEE and Harbert College of Business Emeritus Professor, Auburn University

Bewildering Experience in India Using QR Codes

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               Lakshmi, my wife, and I were standing in front of the Dhamekh stupa complex, Sarnath, India during Feb. 2023 wanting to visit the excavated ruins. This is the place where Buddha delivered his first sermon two thousand five hundred years ago and was instrumental in the creation of the Buddhist religion. We had taken a day tour from Varanasi, the nearby city we were visiting and this was our last stop. It was around 4 p.m. due to the heavy traffic on the roads; the Stupa complex was closing at 5 p.m. There were no ticket counters, only a large board that listed the details of the attraction and how to get the tickets cashless using a QR code.

               I scanned the QR code on my US phone and it opened a web site. It asked for an Adhar card id number. I did not have one as I was not an Indian citizen. It would not let me move onto the next screen. Lakshmi also used her phone and was unsuccessful in getting past the first screen. Many of the local people were from nearby villages and had no difficulty in figuring out the system. I felt like I was out of loop of the information technology revolution happening in India and felt helpless.

A bystander who was watching us asked us:

               “Sir, what are you trying to do?”

               “We want to visit the ruins and see how the Buddhist monks lived in the past. We can’t get past the first screen and are not able to buy the tickets. We have wasted five minutes.”

               “You are a senior citizen, and I am a registered tour guide. I can help you.”

               “That would be great, would you kindly help us?”

               “Sure, please give me your phone. I would take you to both the archaeological site as well as the museum. My charge is only Rs. 600 (about $10).”

               We agreed and he entered some information on the phone and within a minute got the tickets for us. Then he took us around the park, showed us the excavated site, the stupas (large structure marks the place where Buddha preached his first sermon), and other artifacts. We were there until the site was about to close. Then, he told us to hurry so that we could see the museum that was nearby. It was closed, but he talked to the security person and got us inside the museum. We saw the Ashoka Pillar that is used in the Indian national flag and other artifacts from the excavations. He did a marvelous job of showing us the major attractions in a short time. The day ended well with his assistance.

My difficulty with using information technology did not stop with India; I felt the same dissonance in the USA.

Checkout Experience in the USA

In October 2022, we were in Jersey City, New Jersey eating dinner at a middle eastern restaurant. We had just landed in the hotel and opted to eat out in a local restaurant. It was a small restaurant that seated about 20 people. We enjoyed our dinner with falafels, Baba Ghanoush, and other delicacies. Once we finished our dinner, we wanted to pay and go to the hotel so that we could rest and be prepared for the wedding the next day. The server printed a QR code and told us to pay the bill using that. I was baffled; how do I pay? I offered my credit card and he said, “No Sir, we do not accept cash or credit cards; please pay using the QR code.” I was perplexed and scanned in the QR code using my photo app. Lakshmi used her phone and we were not able to pay. We were bewildered and called the server and asked him, “Is it possible for you to scan our card?”

“No, Sir, I don’t have the ability.”

               We saw many young couples who were paying using the QR code and seemed to have no difficulty with the request. We had no choice but to figure out how to do this. When I scanned the QR code, it opened a website that was linked to Apple Pay and told me to use that for the payment. I had never used the Wallet app to pay earlier and had to figure out how to use it. I had to enter my credit card information in the wallet; it got validated and told me that I could use it. After about ten minutes of fiddling with the phone, I was able to get the App to work and paid the bill. We left the restaurant feeling that the adoption of information technologies by young people around the world is rapid and we were outdated in coping with the change.

These incidents showed me that businesses and governments expect people to be versatile with information technologies and have their smart phone ready to make transactions. These systems are designed by young people and cater to them very well. When I was young, my parents were dependent on me to perform digital transactions such as using ATM cards. I felt superior in my knowledge. Now, I am struggling to adapt to the new technologies, even though I researched and taught in this field for forty years.

Childhood: Nascent Information Technologies

               During my childhood in India during the 1950s, letter writing, or in-person visits were the common means for communication among family, relatives, and friends. The small towns where I grew up had a few bank branches and it took at least twenty minutes to cash a check. Most of the transactions were by cash and the bank ledgers were kept manually. Each clerk used a bound and ruled ledger book to keep track of transactions and the bank managers had to sign off on each transaction.  Old ledger books were kept in a storage room and were needed if an old transaction had to be traced.

               My dad bought a radio, with the proviso that he could only operate it. There were only a few stations that would come on the radio – mostly run by the state. He had to pay a license fee for possessing the radio. He would play classical music in the mornings and listen to the news in the evenings. The radios were bulky and expensive and only a few people in the towns possessed them.  Another medium of communication was the newspapers.

Reading the newspaper was an art and science by itself. The paperboy would deliver the local English paper early in the morning. My dad would spend forty-five minutes going through the paper and drinking his coffee. After he was done, my elder brother would start reading it. Then, we all had a chance to read through the different sections. Occasionally, I got a portion of the newspaper to read such as sports when my brother was reading the political section. The newspapers would have many articles on the movies that were shown in our town.

               Movie making was a big business and the actors and actresses dominated the political scene in Tamilnadu, India, since most people saw them frequently on the screen.  We used to see at least one or two movies a month. Most of them were Tamil films with popular actors, riveting songs, and lots of action.

               When I joined my undergraduate college in 1966, my parents and I communicated by mail only. Phones were not common. My fellow students and I would anxiously wait for the postman to deliver our letters so that we could find out what was happening at home. When my parents sent checks to pay for my expenses, it would take a few days for the bank to process them. Since my college was forty miles away from home, I had to become self-sufficient due to the delay in communicating with my family and the need to make decisions on one’s own.

               For example, to buy a train ticket, I had to stand in a long queue and complete a form providing my personal details, the date and train number, etc. To pass time, I conversed with the others in the line and tried to find out what was the status of the reservation available for the train. After a long wait, I would go to the counter. The clerk would consult a ledger and hand write the reservation down. He may call out, “Sorry, no tickets available.” Then, I had to make an immediate decision and ask him what alternative was available. He might say, “Hmm! Tickets available two days later.” Then, I must quickly grab the form, amend the date, and give it to him. He would enter the information and tell me how much it would cost. I had to give him the correct amount of cash; if I gave more, he might say that he did not have any change. Typically, buying a ticket would take half a day.  If I had to change my plans and cancel a ticket, it would take another half-a-day.  The clerk had to cancel the reservation manually. In addition, it was critical to keep the tickets safe as a loss meant that I did not have the ticket to travel.

As I traveled in a bus to go to my college from the train station, I would hear movie songs being played along the road. The popular movie songs were captured on vinyl records (called gramophone records) and would be played on the streets. The use of vinyl records was an example of using analog technologies to encode the information and play it back. Therefore, if they played the record many times, the quality of the playback would deteriorate, and I would hear garbled music come out from the loudspeakers.

In college, I learned that the reason for the deterioration of the sound quality over distance was due to the use of analog technologies and could be avoided if digital technologies (use of 0s and 1s) were used. Adoption of digital technologies were in their infancy in the 1960s.


Punched Cards and Mainframe Computers: 1970s

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               I took a data processing course in 1970 during my MBA program at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.  The faculty members taught us how to perform basic data manipulation by plugging in wires into panels and interpreting the results by the lights on the screen. We also learned how to write programs, type it and the data in punched cards, run the cards through a reader connected to a mainframe computer to execute the program, and print results. We used languages such as FORTRAN or BASIC to run the programs. This was a new field and a few faculty members who had obtained Ph.D. from U.K. or USA taught these courses. I was excited to take these courses and was delighted to punch cards and go to the mainframe location. The only mainframe computer in the City of Kolkata was in the Meteorological Department and we had to take two buses to go there. If we made a mistake in the program, the computer would point out the errors. Then, we had to rewrite the program, punch the cards again, and run them through the machine. The computer was large and expensive and was kept in air-conditioned rooms. I liked it so much that I was deputed to be the person who would take all the students’ punched cards, get them executed on the mainframe computer, and bring back the printed results.

               My skill in information technologies improved further when I did a summer internship at a local steel processing mill. I worked with the data processing department and wrote a few programs to enhance the quality of the production processes. I had to keep the cards in the proper order since any mismatched card meant the program would not function properly; also, had to be careful to avoid water damage. It was a difficult task given that Kolkata was hot and humid during the summer months.

My interest in information technologies increased further as two faculty members from IIM Calcutta, Ramu Iyer and Bani Sinha, offered me a job as a consultant. My first assignment was to implement an information system for the Director General of Technical Development in New Delhi during 1974.

India was following the Russian model of creating five-year plans and controlled production of industrial products throughout the country through a licensing process. For example, if a company in Tamilnadu wanted to manufacture a certain kind of bolt, they must apply for a license. The Directorate would check who else produced such a product in the country and granted the license only if they noticed that the demand was higher than the supply. Theoretically, this was a great concept in harnessing national production resources, but in practice led to lots of bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and corruption. This was a data intensive project, and the Directorate enlisted our help to computerize the licensing process.

I analyzed the problem, developed requirements, and wrote the code in BASIC language to implement the system. The Directorate had a punch card department where a person would punch the programs on cards; I had to double check that they did not make any errors in punching; then go to another Directorate to run the program on their computers. It took me six months to write the code so that the operations could be automated for a few items and reports could be produced. I handed the software deck to the Director at the end of the project. I had a meeting with the Director and his team of programmers.

Me: Here is the code and sample run of the programs.

Director: Looks good to me. What does it take to scale it up to cover all the items monitored by our directorate?

Me: Scaling up to cover all the items requires punching data about them and running the programs. I do not expect any problem in scaling up.

Programmer: Why did you code it in BASIC? We don’t know that language. We only use COBOL language. How about rewriting it in COBOL?

Me: It would take another three months to rewrite the code. I have written the code, debugged it, and it is ready to use. You did not tell me this at the start of the project.

Programmer: We don’t want to learn a new language. I will report this to my union as harassment by management against the workers.

Director: We are going to accept the code as is since it has been debugged and is working. We will discuss future implementations later. Thank you,

Even though we gave the Directorate the software deck, I do not know whether they were ever implemented throughout the directorate. [i]

My second assignment was to design an information system for a cable manufacturing company situated in Rupnarayanpur, a small town in West Bengal in 1975. This company manufactured coaxial cables that were used in telecommunications. All the managers were Bengalis and most of the workers were from Bihar, a nearby state. I got along well with the managers and senior executives and designed a system so that important operations in the plant could be automated. The faculty members and I delivered a report documenting the system requirements to the management in 1976. These two projects made me feel comfortable with computers and I saw potential for a career path in the information technology field.

               Even though working on nascent information systems and data processing technologies was tedious and difficult, I enjoyed them because the machines were predictable. If my program had no errors, then the computer would print out the appropriate report and it would be correct. This contrasted with the unpredictability in dealing with humans where a person might react differently to the same statement at two different times. I liked the predictability of the computers and wanted to learn more about this technology. This prompted me to join IIM Calcutta as a research fellow. My major tasks were to write papers based on the two projects I had performed[ii] and teach a few data processing classes.

               My mentors at IIM Calcutta told me that I needed to get a Ph.D. to join as a faculty member at the Institute and it would be worthwhile for me to get a Ph.D. from the USA. India was slow to adopt information technologies since the unions felt that jobs would be eliminated. In contrast, the USA was the innovator in information technology. Instead of working with people in India who did not want to change their outdated modes of work, I felt it would be worthwhile going to the US where there was a lot more excitement about this technology. I was also curious as to how companies justified investment in information systems when the outcomes were not clear due to the novelty of the technology. I felt I could perform research in that area.

I applied to a few business schools in the USA who had started information systems departments. I had to get the physical applications by airmail, complete them, attach the needed fees, and mail them back. Then, I had to wait for a month or more to get the mail that would let me know whether I got admission and assistantship or was rejected. The University of Pennsylvania had a Decision Sciences Department and was starting a Ph.D. program. A few faculty members at IIM Calcutta had graduated from this University and had established a track record for success of Indian Ph.D. applicants. They helped me complete the application and wrote excellent recommendation letters. In April 1977, I got a letter from the Decision Sciences department admitting me to their program and providing me with free tuition and a stipend to conduct my Ph.D. degree. I was delighted that I got admitted to a reputable University. I was concerned since I had no friends or relatives who were living in the USA; therefore, I had no idea of how to prepare for life there. I also had a difficult time converting the funds I had saved in India to dollars. Indian Government at that time only allowed fifteen dollars in foreign exchange for students pursuing degrees in other countries.

I had met Lakshmi in 1974 and we were good friends for a few years. We married in March 1977 with the proviso that she would join me a year later when I had stabilized my position in Philadelphia. As a young person, I was willing to take on risks; therefore, I forged ahead with my plans for travel to the USA. My parents were enthusiastic about my travel to the US since they did not perceive many job opportunities and India was struggling economically due to its socialistic policies.

               An American Express travel agent helped me obtain the plane ticket. It was a handwritten ticket with vouchers that the airline staff would tear off as I completed each segment of my travel. I was fortunate to have a good agent who was very helpful in getting me the tickets. He helped me get another four hundred dollars in foreign exchange.  Nowadays, with online booking, I feel the lack of such human touch and service irrespective of the money we spend.

               After I landed in the USA in August 1977, the only way for me to communicate with Lakshmi and my family was by writing letters. It took ten days for letters to reach India and I had to keep writing letters without waiting for replies. I would receive a letter from my family where they would answer questions, I had posted twenty days back; sometimes, it was difficult to figure out their response because I might have forgotten my question. Given this confusion, my dad used to number all his letters so that I could keep track of whether I received all of them. In Philadelphia, I perceived that I lived in an alien land completely cut off from India and its culture. Fortunately, I met a few people of Indian origin who helped me tremendously in making the difficult transition to life in the USA.

Exposure to Mini and Micro Computers: 1980s

               I found that the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania had bought several DEC PDP-11 computers (minicomputers) and connected them to terminals where I could program them. Thereby, there was no need to use punch cards. This was a major change for me since I could now revise the programs quickly instead of waiting to reserve timeslots on the mainframe computers. A mainframe computer was available if I wanted to run complex programs that needed serious data crunching.

               The faculty members were using the APL (A Programming Language) language to perform their research and I learned this language. It was a cryptic, but powerful language where one can instruct the computer to perform complex computations in a line of code. But any error in programming would result in wrong results. Many businesses were using the COBOL language which was a simple language and did not require much training to learn; also, errors were easy to spot since it would take possibly twenty lines of code to perform a function that required a line of code in APL. I taught undergraduate students APL language. Even though my accent was different, and they struggled with it, they were delighted to see my skill in computer programming and respected me. Frequently students would get tired of rewriting programs and give up; I encouraged them to persist so that their programs ran error-free. It was fun to see them succeed in their efforts.

               During my first year of the Ph.D. program, I worked with several faculty members on their research projects. Many of them were busy and had limited time to guide me. I wanted a mentor who would guide me through the dissertation process and have patience to work with me. I chose a faculty member who was well renowned in the field and requested to meet him. He told me to ride with him to the airport so that we could discuss potential projects. I agreed and we had a good discussion. After he dropped me off at the airport and took a flight to a consulting appointment, I had to figure out how to reach home through the bus services. It took me a couple of hours and precious dollars to reach home. I decided that I would not work with him since I could not afford that amount of expenses on a continuing basis.

I identified Dr. Adrian McDonough as my dissertation advisor and started working with him. He was a senior faculty member and had developed a syntax method to remove duplication across data entry forms and had written two books on that subject. He did not have many consulting projects and was available to work with me. I coded his methodology using BASIC language and made it easy for him to perform his research. Impressed with my computer abilities, he challenged me to code his system using the new technology, microcomputers, that were coming into vogue.

               He requested the University to buy a microcomputer for his use. The University refused saying that its budget was limited, and the current information technologies were sufficient for research. One day, he asked me to accompany him on a shopping trip. We went in his car to a mall where there was a Radio Shack store. We entered the store.

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               McDonough: I would like to see the TRS-80 computer.

               Salesperson: Yes, Sir, I would be delighted to show it to you. You are aware that it is a basic model and requires you to use floppy disks for programs and data.

               McDonough: Show me how to use it.

               Salesperson: This uses the DOS (Disk Operating System), and has limited memory

               McDonough: Chetan, what do you think? Could you use this machine to automate the methodology?

               Me: Yes, Dr. McDonough, I would be able to do so.

               He bought the computer and brought it to his office. He provided a space for me to work. It was a learning experience since the operating system was resident in a floppy disk and the computer had limited memory. Therefore, I had to keep changing the floppy disks constantly to write and save programs. The computer would crash constantly, and I had to be careful to save the program and data so that I did not lose my work. There were not many people who used these computers; the school’s computing experts did not know about this technology. It was a challenge and I faced it bravely. It took me many months to master the computer and its operations.


As I became proficient using the microcomputer, a challenge arose since I wanted to transfer the programs and data to the DEC computers for safekeeping. There were no data lines connecting the office to the computer lab; therefore, Dr. McDonough bought a modem so that I could transfer the files using his office phone. That phone was a rotary dial phone with a handset. I had to remove the handset, place it on the modem, dial the number, and wait till the modem at the DEC computer-end connected with this computer. Then the difficulty arose as a program was needed to transfer the data from the microcomputer to the minicomputer. There were no commercial programs available, and I had to write one. I worked with a faculty member in the Computer Science department to write a machine-level program to make it happen and ensure that no data got lost in the transfer.

Without careful checking capabilities in the program, some of the 0s and 1s would drop and that would corrupt the program or the data. I struggled to develop a program without errors. Fortunately, in a few months, commercial software became available to perform such functions. Dr. McDonough bought it for me and solved my dilemma.

My advisor also got a contract with the Office of Management and Budget at Washington DC so that I could conduct my dissertation research on standardizing the data elements on forms that were used by contractors in three different federal agencies. It was common for each agency to have its own data entry form and terminology; the contractors had to employ many people to complete these forms accurately. I performed this research using the TRS-80 microcomputer and wrote the dissertation on that computer. It was tedious work, but I persevered through it.  

I presented the results of the research to the agency officials, and they were impressed with the ability of the program to identify duplicates and simplify the forms. The agency officials were so moved by the elimination of the duplicates that they praised us for our efforts profusely. I was surprised to note the potential impact of research on their operations. I was elated that my dissertation had implications for practice and became enthusiastic about the emphasis on research in academics. Neither my advisor nor I had the funds to pursue this research further and turn it into products; therefore, I was content to publish a few journal articles that detailed the research[iii].

Later in my career, I saw companies such as SAP and Oracle create systems that standardized data elements and business processes in organizations.

I also wrote APL code to simulate the Design-to-Cost systems used by the Department of Defense to ensure that the contractors use government funds efficiently and meet the proposed objectives. The simulations were complex and required me to become proficient in writing computer programs and interpreting the results of the simulations. I had to struggle to get the programs to work correctly and ensure that the simulation produced interesting results. My faculty advisors and I were able to interpret the results of the simulation and published it in a reputable journal[iv]. This further enthused me in performing research on information technologies.

As I finished my dissertation in 1981, IBM and AT&T (two large information technology companies at that time) announced that they would manufacture and sell microcomputers for home and business markets. This gave a major boost to the microcomputer market and suddenly my skill in the use of microcomputers was valuable. IBM gave the job of designing the operating system for the microcomputers to a new company, Microsoft, that came up with the Windows Operating System.  Apple Computers came up with a Mac computer that was preferred by artists, and not businesses.

Teaching at Temple University, Philadelphia

I joined Temple University’s Computer Science Department in 1981 and trained many students to learn programming languages so that they could develop and implement systems in the burgeoning information technology market. Given the paucity of faculty members in this field, the department applied for my green card, and I obtained it within a six-month period. The department had faculty members from around the world and treated me kindly. I learned a lot about teaching methodologies and pedagogies during my tenure there. Unfortunately, the department did not have funds to buy microcomputers and we used mini and mainframe computers in the classrooms.

Most Universities lagged industry in adoption of information technologies due to lack of funds, and I wanted to learn more about the new technologies. This prompted me to look for industry jobs; I wanted to work at one of the big companies since popular press lauded their working conditions.

Project Manager at AT&T Bell Laboratories

I got a job at AT&T Bell Laboratories during 1985. The Bell Labs was an innovative R&D unit of AT&T’s telecommunications business. AT&T had a monopoly on providing local and long-distance services in the USA and had a steady income from its telephone operations and spent substantial amounts of funds to perform R&D. Competition for the long-distance (intra-state) services was starting in 1980s; the federal government was also challenging the monopoly position of the company and wanted it to be split up into regional Bell Operating Companies.

I worked at the Holmdel, NJ, laboratory and was one of the 4,000 engineers and managers. It was an exciting work environment where graduates from major Universities in all different engineering and business fields worked together to create new telecommunications hardware/ software to meet business needs. The office was in a park-like setting with jogging fields and a wide expanse of grass around the six-story building. There was a helipad in the front of the building that transported the top-level executives throughout the day.

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I was provided an AT&T microcomputer that was connected to mini and mainframe computers at the laboratories. In addition, I had access to test many of the new technologies in a lab facility before they were released to the public. I learned a lot about telecommunications technology during my tenure at the Bell Labs.

I worked as a technical project manager, a liaison between the marketing people at AT&T and the programmers at Bell Laboratories. There was constant tension as the marketing people wanted to roll out new hardware/ software to solve problems in a brief time, but the programmers preferred to spend years to create the perfect system. My job was to negotiate deadlines between the two teams, ensure that the project proceeded according to plan, and deliver the products/ software.  Bell Laboratories encouraged me to take several technical and non-technical courses from renowned experts. This job taught me a lot about building relationships, working with customers, communication, and teamwork. As a project manager, I had the opportunity to observe, critique, and lead large software projects. Some of the projects succeeded in coming up with new products.

               AT&T went through a major transition during the late 1980s as the telecommunications industry was opened to competition and the company was split into several regional Bell companies. One day, our manager called us, the eight people in his team, to his office.

               Manager: Good morning, hope you had a good day. I need to let you know that changes are in place as we become more competitive. There is intense competition now compared to earlier times. We are getting broken up into regional Bell Operating Companies. People are going to be laid off. I am aware that all of you are leading great projects with good potential for return.

               Team: Yes, we are delighted with our efforts and potential projects. What? Layoff?

               Manager: We reviewed the projects and have concluded that six of them are going to be terminated immediately. You would be reassigned to other projects. Fortunately, we don’t have to lay off anybody this year. I am sorry, but the executive evaluation was rigorous and did not see much return for these projects. We need to be more careful about what we work on in the future.

               We all gasped in surprise since we had been working hard to get these products into the market and AT&T was well known for life-long tenure for all employees and excellent benefits. It had no history of layoffs. Fortunately, my project was spared, and I was able to take it to its conclusion.  This and other incidents showed me that the research emphasis of Bell Laboratories was getting diluted and that my job might be terminated anytime.

Universities offered tenure that provided me with a surety that I would be employed as far as I did well in my job. Given that we were first-generation immigrants, we had no financial backup, and it was critical to remain employed to support my family. I decided that it was better for me to rejoin a university to continue to pursue research on information technologies and be assured of my job.

               I applied to multiple Universities and received offers from American University at Washington DC and Auburn University at Auburn, Alabama. Lakshmi and I visited both cities with our two children, looked at homes to live in, and computed our commuting times. It was a difficult decision given that they both offered excellent research potential. Auburn was attractive since it was a small town which revolved around the university and had excellent public schools. Lakshmi got a job offer as a special education teacher at the Auburn city schools. Some of our friends in New Jersey warned us about moving to Alabama given its racial discrimination history. We met several Indian American faculty members at Auburn University and were assured that our children would do well in the academically oriented city. They also told us that they did not face any discrimination at the University. Therefore, I accepted the offer from Auburn University in 1989. It was a difficult decision since we had many relatives and formed friendships in the New Jersey/ Pennsylvania area and our children had many cousins and friends. But I preferred the South since it would be be sunny and warmer.

IT Research Career at Auburn University, Alabama

               The management department at Auburn University was starting a new Ph.D. program and recruited many faculty members to cater to the increasing demand by students for the information technology major. When I joined, only the information technology faculty members were provided personal (micro) computers, and each one was priced at about $4,000. The University had an Information Technology department, but the college did not have one. Faculty members in other departments were either getting their research papers typed or were using mini and mainframe computers for their research. Management Information Systems was a popular major in the 1990s and the enrollment was high. I was an enthusiastic faculty member with many ideas on how to improve the education of students.

               For example, my students performed projects with companies during their final semester and got signed off from the sponsors. This provided them with confidence that they could develop new systems. They developed the first web pages for our college, and it went live in 1992. We also experimented with video conferencing, and the students made their presentations virtually. The technologies were not that robust and continued to evolve. The Internet became popular during the 1990s and people started to purchase computers for their home use.

Dell created a direct purchase model where you could order the computer online and would be delivered quickly and inexpensively. This direct marketing model resulted in IBM and AT&T leaving the microcomputer markets. Microsoft dominated the software market and released Word, Excel, and PowerPoint products replacing other innovators who had similar products.

               Many firms located in Georgia and Alabama recruited our students and the demand was high. Even though our department used computers extensively and was teaching them, the penetration of information technologies in the university was slow and tedious. It took years for faculty members in other disciplines to embrace the use of computers for performing their research and teaching functions.

Development of IT Based Case Studies

The alumni of the university were keen to work with us to help educate the students on the new information technologies. Since I had worked in companies earlier, I was able to relate to them well. I collaborated with several alumni to develop case studies that illustrated problems faced by companies and how information technology was used to solve them. These case studies were assigned to student teams to read and debate. They would assume roles of software designers, managers, and clients. Each team would then recommend what needs to be done to solve a problem. The company officials or I would critique the presentations and grade them. This provided opportunities for students to apply the theories they learned in classrooms to solve real-world problems. It also added excitement to the classroom.  I enjoyed the interaction among the students and appreciated their ability to come up with innovative solutions to difficult problems faced by the companies. I had extensive interaction with company executives in writing these case studies and relished this interaction. It also helped me keep up to date with the changing field.

A center was formed in the University to foster cross-disciplinary research between the business and engineering faculty members. I was recruited to be a member of this center. P. K. Raju (PK), another member in the center and a professor in Mechanical Engineering requested my help to develop a case study about a decision made by engineers in preventive maintenance of a turbine at a coal power plant. We worked together to develop the case study in collaboration with a local company.

The engineers and managers working in many of these companies were Auburn graduates. Auburn University is special in the sense that the faculty, staff, and alumni were inspired to work together in teams based on the common experience we had at this University town, and we all rallied for the college football team. This team spirit motivated us to work together to improve the education of our students.

When we implemented the case study in engineering classrooms, the students liked the realism of the problem and their learning improved significantly. This prompted PK and I to write a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for funding to develop other case studies. We received funding and developed several case studies. During my career, I obtained about eighteen grants with a budget of about four million dollars. Unfortunately, most business school faculty members did not pursue funded research.  Performing such out-of-the-box research projects was rewarding but highly stressful.

Use of Multi-media Technologies to Enhance Case Studies

We found that many students were from rural Alabama and had never visited factories. They were not able to visualize the size of large machinery. For example, they saw a schematic of a turbine generator used in a power plant in a textbook and performed computations. But seeing the photo and video of actual equipment provided them with a realistic view of the problem. Therefore, we developed multi-media case studies that included audio, video, and photos in addition to showcasing a problem faced by the company. This was a difficult task since our student team had to write the software needed to integrate these elements into the CD.

I had hired a computer science student and he developed a software template for the case studies. He was brilliant but reserved. He would be working for months with nothing to report; then he would burst into my office and wanted to show something he had done immediately.  It took time to get used to his personality and expect his outbursts.  Once he developed the template, we had an effective methodology for other students to cut and paste their written materials, video, and photos, to develop the individual case studies.  Our students developed more than thirty multimedia case studies working with industry partners and we uploaded them to the web so that students and other faculty members could access them online[v].

Cyber attacks

               It was December 2001 and I had bought a Windows Server and had requested a graduate student to develop a website that showcased our work on the Internet. The University closed during the Christmas holidays.

               I got a call from the Information Technology director for our college, “Hi, your server has been hacked and your website has been changed. Did you look at it?”

               “What do you mean? Nobody has been at the office for days.”

               “Sorry, please check. I must shut down your server and disable the website so that the hacker doesn’t get access to more resources at the University.”

With that, he hung up. I checked and saw that the website had changed and within a few hours, it was shut down. This incident showed me that the Internet was growing rapidly, hackers were accessing sites everywhere, and stealing important information. Since we hosted a website, the hacker was able to get access to our server remotely, obtain the passwords, and change the screens.

My graduate student did not have the expertise to prevent such hacking in the future; I did not have the ability, resources, or the time to investigate the incident thoroughly, identify the hacker, and prevent such incidents happening again. The computer industry had come of age, was sophisticated, and it required a lot of resources to track and prevent hacking. This prompted me to shut down the server and give it to the colleges’ information technology department. It was easier to contract with an outside large-scale domain operator (such as Amazon AWS or GoDaddy) and rent space from them for maintaining the website.

Use of Games in Education

I was in Boston attending a conference in 2010 and participated in the associated trade show. A company was showcasing its games for use in schools. I met the marketing manager, and we talked about the use of games to improve engineering education.

Manager: Hi, we have created games to use in schools. Might be useful for you.

Me: We have developed case studies and have published them extensively. Maybe we could create a game to illustrate the issues engineers face in companies.

Manager: Do you want to see what we have developed?

He showed me the game they had developed for use in high schools. He was an energetic person and had an ability to relate to people well. We bonded well.

Me: Yes, your storyline is good, the game is interesting, and we need to figure out how to illustrate engineering concepts as a game.

Manager: That is the challenge, brother. We will come to your university and explore this further.

Design structure.png

We both got along well and were excited about the prospect, but the issue of investing to develop such a game came up. This led to subsequent meetings at Auburn and an application to NSF to obtain funding to develop a game. We were successful and it took us a year and half to develop an engineering design game (after three attempts) that was liked by the students.

As we finished the project, I had another discussion with the marketing manager.

Me: Hi, we are done with this prototype. Do you think your company would like to work with us?

Manager: Chetan, we are not used to doing rigorous research with control and experimental groups; our company wants to release products quickly from the year-long experience we had with you. I am under pressure to market products. You know, we are a start-up firm; our executives want it to grow quickly and then sell it to another company. They do not have the patience for year-long studies. Sorry.

Thus, this project was completed. Two students completed their doctoral dissertations based on this development experience and the engineering students experimented with games to help their learning.

Geospatial Technology Research

I met the information technology manager of Gulf Shores, Alabama in 2011. This is a major tourist destination in Alabama whose beaches are famous for its white sand and pristine waters.

She: Hi, could you help us with a project documenting the GPS coordinates of all infrastructure elements (such as fire hydrants, gas lines, sewage covers, etc.) in my city?

Me:  Why do you need it?

She: We want to identify them quickly in case of hurricane damage. This city is seven feet above sea level and could be covered in sand if a hurricane landed here. In the past, during recovery efforts, heavy earth moving equipment destroyed these fire hydrants and other infrastructure elements covered in sand. It took us an extra six months to rebuild the city. We want to avoid such a damage in the future by marking these elements and putting flags around them right after a hurricane so that the earth moving equipment won’t destroy them.

Me: Sure, looks like a great project. Please let me know the equipment our students need to use, and the software needed to record the information.

Students finding infrastructure elements.png

Subsequently, our students visited the city, walked for miles, and mapped the buried infrastructure elements using GPS equipment for the city. They were excited since they used their theoretical knowledge to benefit the community and had an opportunity to visit the beaches. They had to learn about how cell phones and satellites work in geolocating a stationery infrastructure element on the earth. They had to record the precise location and upload it to the city’s database.

As I worked on this project, I saw the need for such an effort in other coastal cities. I created a “Geospatial Research and Applications Center,” at our college and directed it between 2011 to 2016. My team performed multiple projects with Riviera Utilities, Berntsen International (which pioneered use of RFID tags to mark elements), City of Opelika and other partners in use of GPS to document digital footprints of infrastructure elements. We received several awards because of our pioneering work. The students got valuable field experience in working with innovative technologies and the graduate students got project management experience.

Having reached the retirement age, I decided to retire in 2017 since I wanted to enjoy the rest of my life spending time with my family in Atlanta and travel to different places in the world. I tried to find other faculty members to run the center but was not successful. The center closed in 2017.

Senior Years

During my information technology career, I had to transition from being a programmer/ systems analyst to a project manager/ director. As I performed these functions, information technologies evolved at a rapid pace making it difficult for me to keep pace with. As I worked, I got away from the mainstream of information technology action to being bewildered by the rapidity of the changes.

My fascination and interest in information technology continues in my senior years although I have given up trying to keep up with the changes. It is amazing to find that these technologies have become utilities and well-accepted around the world. E-mail, Chat, Microsoft Office, YouTube, video conferencing, and other technologies have become commonplace. Use of Alexa, Siri, and Hey Google as home assistants is common. Social media applications such as Facebook, X, WhatsApp, and others have made major changes in the way people communicate and transact business.

               I am part of many WhatsApp groups with friends from my undergraduate and graduate schools and it is unbelievable to note the amount of video messages that are transmitted each day. Many mobile phone companies now offer unlimited voice and data messaging leading to extensive use of video and audio messages. YouTube has changed the ability to share videos with others, since it is so easy for anybody to add a video. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing makes it simple for authors to publish their work instead of waiting for the traditional agent/ publisher route.

Information technologies have become integral to our lives with smart locks and virtual assistants helping us write, perform tasks, call people, and take care of mundane aspects of life. I was in India in Feb. 2023 attending a wedding. A young relative was typing on his phone and asked me:

               Relative: Hi, I am using ChatGPT to develop a story on what my wife prefers for food. Do you want to add something?

               Me: Sure, let me see what it says if I add she likes pizza.

               Relative: See the paragraph the system has written about pizza and how it was integrated with her food preferences.

I was surprised that a person in India who have never traveled out of his country was using this app casually, whereas many of my friends in the USA were yet to download this app.

When I have traveled to other countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Greece, Italy and others, I find that cell phones have replaced wired phones. These cell phones now transmit phone, video, and audio messages and provide communication and entertainment to the users on a continuous basis. We used the phone to pay for many of the services in these countries. The phones have become powerful means to perform business transactions using apps such as Apple Pay or Zelle in the USA, Paytm (Pay through mobile) in India, and others and are replacing use of hard currency.  

We were traveling in India during 2023 and were able to use the Paytm app to pay vendors. Lakshmi and I were shopping in a small vegetable market in Porur, Chennai. It was a dimly lit place in a busy intersection with many small shops adjoining each other. You enter the place using a small gate where you have to bend so as to not hit your head. Shops are there on both sides of the narrow lane and vendors are sitting next to their products selling them. It has not changed much since the 1980s when we bought vegetables here. The one difference was the Paytm sign hanging in every shop. When I finished shopping, all I had to do was to use this app on my phone and authorize the payment. A message appeared on the smart phone held by the shopkeeper that announced that the payment had been made. Most of the vendors have adopted use of these technologies in their business practices. The need for foreign currencies and ATMs has decreased drastically with these improvements in payment systems.

The rapid progression in these technologies also has negative connotations; the gap between the haves and the have-nots increases drastically as the ability to perform transactions varies across people, companies, and countries. Many experienced information technology people might migrate from a country leaving it bereft of experts who could implement new technologies. Rural areas might suffer significantly since the companies might not want to invest there given the low payoff for capital invested.

Addiction to these technologies might also deprive some people from living a fulfilling life. I thought that innovative technologies would bring prosperity and well-being to the citizens of the world. Now, I realize that communities, municipalities, states, and countries will be in a state of strife irrespective of technologies. Technology will help solve some problems and create new ones. It can empower, but it also creates vulnerability.        

Therefore, who leads a country, a company, or an organization and how they deploy the use of information technologies is crucial. A few companies (such as Google, Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, X) control most of the information technology assets. They are a major force in deciding what people can and cannot do. Many apps and streaming technologies are available for free; these could change leading to further digital divide among the population.  The government in many countries are racing to control the use of these technologies or use them to monitor their people’s lives. Rogue countries or people might shut down the Internet leading to chaos at banks, airports, and other businesses.

The lag between adoption of the information technologies among countries has narrowed from years to days. I perceive a complete change from my younger days when the USA had a substantial advantage over other countries in the use of information technologies. I was thrilled and surprised to find the wide adoption of information technologies by common people in many developing countries; many of them don’t have school education but were adept at using their phones to receive and make payments. It is now difficult to discern from which country new information technologies would arise. I am pleased that instead of swimming in the middle of these changes and getting buffeted by the rogue waves, I am now a bystander looking from the shore at the massive disruptions caused by these technologies in how we work, write, play, and think.

[i] The whole concept of licensing was abolished in the 1990s, the directorate dismantled, and possibly all the programs were scrapped at that time.

[ii] Sankar, C.S. and Sinha, B.K. (1976). “Linear Programming and MIS ‑ A Case Study,” Decision, Management Thought, Research and Practice, 3(3):253‑282.

[iii] Sankar, C.S. (1985). “Analysis of Names and Relationships Among Data Elements,” Management Science, 31(7):888‑899.

[iv] Blanning, R.W., Kleindorfer, P.R., and Sankar, C.S. (1982). “A Theory of Multistage Contractual Incentives with Applications to Design‑to‑Cost,” The Naval Logistics Quarterly, 29(1): 1‑18.