Developing the complex software that will control and monitor the SKA telescopes is a years-long effort, involving computing specialists all over the globe. Software Consultant Vivek Mohile has been part of that effort for eight years, based with the SKAO’s industry partners Persistent Systems in Pune, India.
A vastly experienced control systems engineer and product manager, Vivek is also a trained mindfulness facilitator, leading sessions for colleagues to support their wellbeing. Following World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we spoke to him about his career journey, how mindfulness has helped him at work and beyond, and why he volunteered to use his skills to help others.
Let’s begin with your early life, Vivek. Tell us about where you grew up and your family.
My parents were both serving in the Indian Central Government, so we moved around to different cities across the country when they got transferred. I was born in New Delhi, India where I spent my very early childhood, and then Mumbai and Pune are some places where I did my schooling. Being in senior government roles, I remember my parents always being quite busy, often being away travelling, or coming home late from long meetings. I have an older sister, and my grandmother also mostly stayed with us, and I was very fond of her. She always indulged my demands for cooking up something special if I did not like what was there for a meal. I remember she was an important influence in my growing up, telling me stories that were fun, and yet had some didactic value.
What kind of things were you interested in as a child?
Oh, the usual games, comics and fun stuff that children love, of course. After school I always wanted to quickly finish my homework and go out to play with friends. Cricket was what we played most often, either in a ground in the community, or even in the parking lots and other spaces between buildings – unless we were banned temporarily for having broken somebody’s window with a shot and run away! Reading was another passion. My friends and I were members of a lending library and we used to borrow a new book almost daily during the vacations.
I also remember my fascination with how things work, and wanting to open them up and see what’s inside. This was a precursor perhaps to my future interest in engineering. I remember even before I was a teenager, I had managed to take apart quite a few appliances at home using just some screwdrivers and a spanner set. Of course at that age I rarely succeeded in putting them together again, so I did get into some trouble, but not too much so I continued! My grandmother used to joke that I had already earned the degree of D.E. which stood for ‘Destructive Engineer’. As a teenager I managed to get a little better at trying to fix and make stuff, especially putting together simple electronic circuits.
“There is something deeply fascinating about being able to probe the farthest corners of the Universe, to help find answers to the fundamental questions about how it all came to be.”
At what point did you start to get into computing?
My first exposure to programming was in my final school years. We had a couple of BBC Micros at school and I learnt BASIC programming; these machines are considered a milestone in computing history, by the way. I went on to study Electrical Engineering (EE) in college, and was thrilled to be able to join the EE programme at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, one of the most competitive universities in the country. Computing and programming is very closely related to EE, which is often considered the foundation discipline on which computing rests, so I had a lot of exposure to programming during the course and internships. I realised I enjoyed it as much as hardware and electronics.
The majority of my experience is as a control systems engineer, which has been across many industry domains before coming to controls for radio astronomy. My first job after graduation was as a software developer, but then I worked in the area of power systems and control and automation engineering, including process control and embedded systems. There is a lot of software involved in all of these of course, but they are usually considered specialised domains and not tagged as traditional software. I worked in companies including Hewlett Packard, Infosys and also a start-up before I joined Persistent, where I have been for more than 14 years. For the last seven to eight years, I have been primarily on the SKA project. This is through the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in India, which has been the lead organisation for the Telescope Manager / Observation Management and Control area.
What made you want to be part of the SKA project in the first place?
There is something deeply fascinating about being able to probe the farthest corners of the Universe, to help find answers to the fundamental questions about how it all came to be. Even for those of us who are outside of the science teams, there is that sense of awe, of being a part of something far bigger than oneself.
One of my early projects at Persistent was working with NCRA on specifying and designing a new control and monitor system. That was also my first introduction to a radio observatory, because I had to study in detail the operation of the Giant Metre Wavelength Radio Telescope (GMRT), which is the largest radio observatory in the metre wavelengths, and an SKA pathfinder. I was very impressed with the GMRT, seeing some of the science that scientists could produce and the beautiful images it had captured.
Around that time there were initial discussions on NCRA participating in the SKA project, and when I learnt more about the SKA’s goals and its scale, several orders of magnitude larger than current telescopes, there was definitely this feeling of “wow”, and thinking how wonderful it would be to contribute to this massive international collaboration. Naturally, when NCRA was selected to lead the international consortium tasked with producing the Telescope Manager design, I opted to lead the team from Persistent contributing to this effort.
That has involved working within the Scaled Agile framework (SAFe) – a methodology where software is developed and tested in rapid sprints of work – which the SKAO has adopted for its software teams. What has that meant for your work?
Some of the biggest benefits of the Agile methodology I have seen in my past projects are multiple, including the focus on getting to real code over documentation, testing and demonstrating frequently to users as a way to get feedback and improvement. The autonomy and empowerment of team members also makes them productive and enjoy their work. All of these fit naturally into the SKA culture so we are seeing similar benefits. Scaled Agile, which provides a framework for efficiently managing much larger programmes, brings in synergy across multiple Agile teams, fosters collaboration and an alignment to common goals. As the SKA project has a very large number of people developing software, a framework like SAFe adds a lot of value both for management and teams.
More than 150 people are now involved in the quarterly Program Increment (PI) planning meetings which are intrinsic to SAFe. What is it like to be a part of them, in terms of collaboration with different nationalities and skill-sets?
Indeed, there is so much diversity in the people involved in building the SKA telescopes and I think that is one of the best aspects of an international collaboration. It is wonderful to be able to meet and become friends with people from different cultures, as well as technical backgrounds, because that always serves to complement one’s own experiences and knowledge, and I do miss the face-to-face PI planning meetings where there was more informal interaction.
I have always found the culture of the extended SKA project, which is of course something that people build, to be very welcoming and inclusive. I am always struck by the general groundedness of the people, many of whom are such experts in their area and have achieved so much. All of this of course makes collaboration across different teams, geographies and areas of expertise easier to establish.
Something that bridges both your work life and personal life is a strong interest in mindfulness – for our readers who may not be familiar with it, how would you define mindfulness exactly, and what are some of the benefits it holds?
Mindfulness is often described as a practice that develops non-judgemental, moment to moment awareness of experience. While this is certainly an important aspect of mindfulness, to me it is much more than a few techniques. Rather I would describe it as a set of skillful practices centred around meditation that improves concentration, focus and self-awareness, as well as increasing your access to positive emotions like kindness, compassion and gratitude, both towards yourself and others. And while we start with particular techniques and practices to foster these abilities, the ultimate goal is to integrate these as a seamless part of one’s experience of life and improve one’s well-being and happiness.
How did you start practising it, and then sharing it with others?
I have been interested in meditation techniques for a very long time, many of which derive from Eastern spiritual traditions and have been taught over centuries; there is a vast amount of depth and richness in our traditional wisdom in this area. I personally found the practices very beneficial in supporting me when going through ups and downs, and generally in feeling more positive. Having been trained in science and technology though, I was curious about finding studies that applied and validated meditation in a scientific, controlled setting.
There is now a strong movement that seeks to communicate and teach the benefits of meditation and self-awareness in a secular and nondenominational way, and also attempts to validate it more scientifically. That way people globally can access it for their benefit irrespective of their culture and beliefs. All of this you could broadly say comes under the label of “mindfulness”. I see the traditional and the contemporary approaches as very complementary, and I continue to explore both.
A few years ago I undertook training, including a part-time diploma programme at the University in Pune which encompassed traditional wisdom, modern psychology and neuroscience, as well as a more experiential training in mindfulness. After that I felt equipped to explore introducing mindfulness practices to individuals and small groups, something I have continued over the last few years on a voluntary basis.
That has included providing free sessions for SKAO staff, so what prompted you to do that and how was it received?
I did a couple of introductory sessions during a visit to SKAO Global HQ before the pandemic, in conjunction with the yoga classes being run for staff by [former SKAO Systems Engineer] Shagita Gounden. Later, I did a session at our last face-to-face PI planning event in Perth.
When the pandemic hit, such sessions were impossible of course, so when I learnt that the SKAO was organising a series of online programmes for Mental Health Awareness Week in 2020, I thought a virtual mindfulness session would fit in well. There was good participation, and I was happy to repeat it again this year. The feedback from most people immediately after these sessions has been positive, but the real benefit comes with consistent practise; some who took part have told me that they are continuing the practices and finding them helpful.
Let’s end by discussing some of your other interests beyond work – what helps you to switch off after a long day?
A meditation session is a great way for me to unwind. An interest in music is something I discovered a little beyond childhood. I am pretty eclectic in this regard, and enjoy many different genres, from heavy metal to Bollywood to classical. The right music can also be a great aid to meditation and mindfulness so I keep looking for interesting tracks that I can use. I enjoy going on hikes with friends and family, and some of the childhood interests I mentioned also still carry over; that includes reading, and a fascination with gadgets and appliances. I still enjoy making things, and hopefully have gotten a little better at fixing stuff as well, though there is even now the occasional unfinished project.
All images courtesy of Vivek Mohile. All rights reserved.
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