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If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is -- infinite. --William Blake

Breakthrough Generation

--by Ilango Meyyappan, Jan 07, 2019

He was tall.

Noticeably tall. He must have been around 6’6”. When he walked in through the sliding glass doors, he had to bend down a little bit to avoid hitting the top beam. He was a well-built African American. He was dressed to kill. His blue full-sleeved shirt still looked prim, proper, neatly pressed with the crease still showing although it was towards the end of a working day. His black slacks looked classy, professional, and rich. His shoes were shining spick-and-span. His head and face were clean shaven. 

He took a seat on the couch that was adjacent to mine. I was sitting at the car dealership waiting for my car to be serviced. I usually don’t mind waiting in this dealership’s waiting area. They keep it clean and I get some of my work done connecting to their Wi-Fi. The free supply of bottled water, coffee, and tea helps. But being a Friday evening, I was in no mood to stare at my laptop screen.

They had the ESPN channel on their TV and they were showing a preview of the Warriors - Knicks game at the Madison Square Garden.

“You like basketball?” His voice was deep.

“They had it already on when I came in. Yes, I do like basketball, but only when Rajon Rondo is playing.”

“You know basketball.”

“How do you say that?”

“Most people jump on the bandwagon when the local team is playing well or they like a superstar like LeBron. If you are a fan of guy like Rondo, it is only because you know and understand what he does on the basketball floor.”

“Do you like him too?”

“I do.” That’s when I noticed his badge on his belt. 

I asked him if he was working for that popular car company.

“Yes. And you?”

I pulled my badge up and showed it to him. 

“Does your company do anything with my company?”

“Yes, they are one of our major customers and use our simulation tools. What do you do for them?”

“Seats. I am a seat engineer.”

“I don’t know much about it. Do you mind sharing with me? I am curious.”

“Absolutely. I am glad you asked me. At a very high level, it involves ergonomics, body posture studies, flexibility mechanisms, seat adjustment mechanisms and support systems. In our field we call it ‘support zones placement’. While placing the support zones, we also decide on the placement of  ‘clear zones’ which determine air circulation that prevents heat build up between the human body and the seat. Then there are seat covers which is a subject area in itself.”

“What would you say is the most complex aspect of seat design?”

“Well, the seat in itself is a very complex design. Where we spend a lot of time is developing test benches that can cover all conditions. The biggest challenge is the materials science involved in seats.”

“So, you must be simulating everything before you build a physical prototype of a seat?”

“We simulate like crazy. We model the heck out of everything.”

“How do you like working for your company?”

“I love it. The work is hard, the culture is not that great, the hours are long, but in the end, I have the satisfaction of doing something new and innovative. I am involved in a breakthrough technology that is changing the way we drive and with a positive impact on the environment. This is not just a change, it is a revolution that I am fortunate to be a part of.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“I joined them when not many people even knew that a company and a car like that existed. I joined as a welder in the seats division. Before that, I was at a shoe company in San Francisco. That was my first job out of high school.”

“High school? So, you didn’t go to college?”

“No.”

They were showing highlights of Steph Curry’s 51 points and his 11 3-pointers. We watched all his 11 3-pointers. 

“Where are you from?”

I told him my story. “What about you?”

“San Leandro. I was born and raised there. By my mother. I never knew my father. He left us when my little sister was born.”

“Tough times?”

“Very. Mother had 4 kids. Worked odd jobs. Very bad neighborhood. Most of my neighbors were in and out of jail. Shooting, violence, death, drugs, you name it. Both my brothers were always getting arrested. They were into petty thefts and crimes. My sister and I were good students. Our schools were very bad, it was a big success just to get through school. I had to work and get some money into the house. So, I went to work right after school. I supported my sister’s education. She is now married and settled in Virginia.”

“How did you go from a shoe company to a car seats?”

He laughed. 

“I got certified in many manufacturing jobs. While I was at the shoe company, I never missed an opportunity to get certified on any manufacturing course they offered or paid for. I used to look out for those. I was there for 8 years and by that time, I already had 17 certificates. That’s when I saw an ad for the car company.”

“How did you leave an established company and take a risk with an unknown company?”

“There was only one reason. In the interview, they told me that they believe in developing people internally. Plus, I could sense even then that they were going to build something magnificent. From being a welder of the seat frame, I now own seat engineering. Every seat that you see in my company's car has my fingerprint on it.”

“That’s remarkable. Congratulations. How are your brothers doing now? How about your mother?”

“Nobody is in San Leandro anymore. One brother passed away. I got my second brother into my company also. My mother lives with him here in Fremont. I live in Walnut Creek with my wife and twin daughters. But, I still go to San Leandro every weekend.”

“For?”

“I volunteer. I teach manufacturing classes at a technical training institute and I also teach a personal development class at my church. My students get inspired by me, they consider me as a role model and an example. I have become the ‘breakthrough generation’ for my family and my community.

“Breakthrough generation?”

“Every family, every society, every community has had a breakthrough generation. There was one generation that broke away from status quo and surged up. Growth in subsequent generations have been exponential in most cases. I encourage my family and community to become that breakthrough generation so that our future generations get an established and strong platform for exponential growth after that.”

“How do you motivate them? What do you tell them?”

“Stop complaining. I ask them to stop complaining. Stop pitying yourself. Stop talking about how unfair the whites have been to us. Enough talking about racial discrimination. Life may not be fair, but life's still good. We talk as though we are entitled to a good life and that only we have been singled out for a bad life. Stop blaming the government for everything. You are the only one that is responsible for your life. Stop going outward and start going inward. What is it that you can do today with what you have?”

“Do they take it well?”

“They see me. I never let poverty, crime, absence of a father, bad school, bad friends, bad brothers, or anything stop me from going to school. I gave no excuse. I showed up every single day to school. I never complained about what my school did not have. I finished my school with a very high GPA. I couldn’t afford a college education, but I never stopped learning on the job. Do you know how many online classes my company has? 20,000 courses. Completely paid for courses. I take one every six weeks. As a welder, I have taken classes in programming, psychology, economics, and finance.”

“You looked for the opportunities?”

“Every time. In every single form. After we rolled out our first batch of cars, my senior VP came down to the floor and congratulated every single worker. He was very impressed with my work and asked me to take my family out for dinner and bring him back the check. I politely refused. He was shocked. I told him with a smile, ‘you pay me enough to pay for my family’s dinner.’ He wanted to do something for me. I said, ‘why not take me out for lunch?’. I went for his time. When there were salesmen, VCs and CEOs waiting for months to get time on his calendar, here I am, a welder and I got into his calendar. He took me to a nice restaurant in Palo Alto.”

“How was he to talk to? I hear both good and bad things about him.”

“He listened most of the time. I was the one that talked. He listened to my life story. He asked me if he could help me in any way. Not just at work, but even personally. I told him, ‘You are making a breakthrough technology. Make me a breakthrough generation for my community. Will you send me to engineering school and pay for all 4 years?’. He took out his phone right there and emailed my manager. I got a mechanical engineering degree, fully paid for by my company.”

“Wow.”

There will always be problems around us that we can complain about. There will also be opportunities around us that can make us better in some way. We often want life to come to us easily with little effort. The breakthrough generation sees an opportunity in every little aspect of their life. They recognize those opportunities, go after them relentlessly and make use of them.

“When my brother and I sit in the parking lot at work and eat our lunch sandwich, he would often look at our senior management folks and say, “We work for this company, but we cannot afford their car.” 

I always tell him, “Every driver of this car that you see is either a breakthrough generation themselves or had a breakthrough generation ahead of them and are continuing to grow from their success. One day we will drive one or we would have at least done enough so that our children can drive one.”

His car was done. He got up, shook my hands and left. I watched him as he walked away.

He walked tall.  




Ilango Meyyappan lives and works in the Silicon Valley for an electrical engineering hardware company. He likes to read and write short stories as a hobby. He is particularly interested in human character building and portrayal that can inspire and motivate readers. 


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