Alumni Voices: SoftBank planner Sourabh Maiti

SoftBank planner Sourabh Maiti kindly sat down for an interview with MEXT Scholars Association, conducted by Nattanon Tharachai, on June 24th, 2019 at a cafe in Tokyo. Sourabh came to Japan in 2007 after growing up in India. He studied at the intensive Japanese language program at the Center for Japanese Language and Culture (CJLC), Osaka University for one year. Then, he entered the Electronic and Information Engineering Division, Osaka University as an undergraduate, earned his Bachelor’s degree in 2012 and a Master’s degree from the same division in 2014. He joined SoftBank and worked at the research division for three years, then moved to the planning division. He has been involved in wireless, 5G and IoT technologies.

*This article has been edited from the original interview for brevity and clarity.

How was your experience before coming to Japan?

I went to high school in Delhi. Before that, I was in Chennai. My father has a transferable job so we used to move a lot. I used to change schools every two or three years. That is why I can speak a lot of Indian regional languages.

What was your inspiration to come to Japan?

My father inspired me to study abroad. Additionally, I was getting a scholarship from MEXT (Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).

How was your experience as a MEXT scholar in Japan?

When I first came here, I used to cry in bed every night for the first three months {laughed}. I missed my mother. Then I started to make friends and got used to the new life. In the beginning, food was a big problem. Everything was stinky; the miso soup, the rice. Before coming to Japan, I was used to eating chicken and lamb. Then I started to eat pork after coming here.

In the first year, I was studying Japanese at Osaka University, Minoh campus, which was rather remote from the city. In the beginning, the professors gave us big Japanese textbooks for mathematics, physics and chemistry, which we could not read at all. In the beginning, it took hours just to read a few sentences. It was tough at the beginning, but then I got used to it. Also, I learned to play good table tennis at the Minoh campus’ dormitory while spending time with Mongolian and Vietnamese friends in the same program. It paid out in the way that years later, after I joined a research laboratory, our lab team went to the finals of our department’s table tennis competition.

I managed to make very good friends at around the sixth month. I was quite shy back then so it took some time. Most of my friends were in the same program. Even today, most of the friends that I meet regularly are my friends that I met in Minoh. They are Indian, Brazilian, Peruvian, Mongolian, Vietnamese. Most of them are in Tokyo, so we can meet from time to time.

How was studying Japanese?

It was hard at first, then I got better. At first, when I was at the Japanese language school, reading one sentence took one hour. Then, reading one page took one hour. After entering the university as an undergraduate, I could somewhat understand what the lecturers were saying, but couldn’t fully understand in real-time. From the second year as an undergraduate, I started to understand the professors in real-time. From the third year, everything flowed. I could turn the pages of the textbook and find words in a second. My Japanese became fluent since then. When I was in my Master’s, I passed the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level N1.

In the first year at CJLC, we had three exams that would decide our next university, which happened every four months. In the first exam, I didn’t do so well. I was a little shocked, so I worked really hard for the December exam. In the four months before December, I was stressed out. I was sleeping for four hours everyday. I would go to sleep at 1 AM and set my alarm at 5 AM. I was always exhausted and sleeping so tight that I didn’t hear the alarm. There was a Bulgarian guy living in the room next to mine who used to come to knock on my door and say “get up!” My alarm went on and on for two or three hours. The Bulgarian guy would just give up on knocking on my door.

How did you choose your undergraduate university?

My first preference was Todai (short for Tokyo Daigaku or the University of Tokyo), but one of my Mongolian friends was really brilliant, so everyone agreed to let him go there. Finally, I chose to go to Handai (short for Osaka Daigaku or Osaka University).

Besides Tokyo University, there were a lot of good universities like Tokyo Institute of Technology. Do you have specific reasons to choose Osaka University?

At that time, Osaka University had a much better reputation than Tokodai (short for Tokyo Kougyou Daigaku or Tokyo Institute of Technology). Now, it is the opposite though. Besides that, I heard that it was difficult to find girls in Tokodai {laugh}.

How was your luck with girls at Osaka University?

I had some luck during my Bachelors {laugh}. I have always been interested in girls, so I was always proactive in attending meetups, events and school festivals. Also while back India I seldom exercised and thus did not have a great physique. To improve my physique and look attractive I joined the karate club when I was in my first year. Being a member of a club was again a once in a lifetime experience in itself. In the club, other than a Hungarian guy, one of my senpai [senior/先輩], who used to come sometimes, everyone was Japanese. The training was way more vigorous and exhausting than I had expected. The guys were strong but even the girls were stronger than me {laugh}. The karate club I was in practiced three times a week, for three hours each time. Also, they have gasshuku [training trip/ 合宿] training for five days in spring and summer. I endured for two years, but in my third year I stopped because it was getting a bit too crazy for me and so I joined the dance club, doing B-boy dance for six months. In my fourth year I stopped, because I became busy with my lab life. Besides that, since my first year, I had always been involved in Osaka University International Students Association (OUISA). OUISA organizes activities with Japanese students and foreigners, for example, hanami [picnic under cherry blossom/ 花見],  hanabi [firework/ 花火], Christmas parties at the university, sports festivals, events focusing on the cultural exchange between Japanese and foreigners etc. I was involved in OUISA for six years. We still have meetups in Tokyo. 

How was your research at Osaka University?

I joined my research laboratory in my fourth year. In the beginning, I started my research without a clear direction, so pressure was building up. I felt a huge gap between the third and fourth year. In the fourth year, the professor expected me to know everything, for example, the basics of wireless communication. At that lab, everyone was very good at coding and it was the main job, but I was bad at it. From November, I started working very hard, sleeping overnight at the lab, eating 100 yen soba [Japanese thin noodles/ そば] everyday. When we did a practice presentation of my project, the stress was too much for me, so I blacked out in front of my sensei [professor/ 先生] and was carried back to my seat {laugh}. This was the first time I blacked out in my life because I was sleep-deprived. This experience during my Bachelor thesis helped me to understand the importance of planning in advance and helped me when I was writing my Master thesis. 

How was your experience studying for a master’s degree?

I continued in the lab for my Master’s course. Actually, I wanted to apply for the University of Tokyo, but the test date was the same as Osaka University, so I chose Osaka University. To prepare for the Master’s entrance exam, I used to study at the library until evening and then after having dinner, I moved to the free space facility of my university from late at night to early morning. This overnight study life continued for two or three months. The place had good air conditioning. During the winter, it was cold in the house and warmer in the free space. The room also had a jihanki [automatic vending machine/ 自販機] and hot water, so we could eat. 

I was doing research on wireless communications in the fourth year of my Bachelor’s, during my Master’s and the first three years at SoftBank. Then I changed my division to the planning section, which I am in at the moment.

When you were finishing your master’s degree, what was your future career plan?

After three years of research, I was a bit tired of wireless communications and wanted to change fields. I tried looking into investment banking and consulting. However, I was usually told by the companies that I should have at least done an internship if I wanted to go to work in a new field. I didn’t have the experience so it was difficult. The easier options were mostly technology companies and one of them was SoftBank and because I was doing research in wireless communications it was easy to sell myself. I started doing shukatsu [job hunting/ 就活] in November when I was in the first year of my Master’s, and I got my naitei [job offer/ 内定] from SoftBank in April.

When I was in the fourth year of my Bachelor’s, I didn’t do job hunting because I wanted to spend more time as a student (too naive thinking about it now) and I was getting an extension for the scholarship also. 

I joined SoftBank in the year 2014, did wireless research for three years, moved to the strategy division and then to the planning division.

Could you share your work experience at SoftBank?

My topic was rather niche, it was about estimating car speed. Traditionally, speedometer or GPS are used, but in some places, such as inside tunnels or on streets between high rise buildings, GPS doesn’t work well. In those cases, other methods are required, so we had the idea to use the Doppler effect (change in frequency and wavelength of a wave in relation to an observer, who is moving relative to the wave source, for example, hearing an approaching ambulance sound at a higher pitch than a leaving ambulance) with signals emitted and received by smartphones. I developed an algorithm to estimate the speed of smartphones by measuring the change in frequency of the emitted and received signal. We also made a prototype with the vendor. Field experiments showed that the accuracy of the calculated speed had a margin of error at five percent. We also filed two or three patents for that project, wrote a full academic paper, presented it at the international conference VTC (IEEE Vehicular Technology Conference) and other national conferences in Japan. We went to the international conference in our third year of research as the final conference for our project. Along the way, we attended national conferences in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Nagoya, Tokushima, Kyushu and Okinawa. SoftBank paid for all transportations and the stay.

After doing research, how was your experience in strategy and planning division?

Planning was completely different. In research, I only needed to focus on one topic at a time, but in planning, I had to look at the bigger picture. Before planning, I was in the strategy division. Even in the strategy division, we had to do research on new technologies while trying to combine the ideas with SoftBank’s business to make new services. We researched AI, blockchain and cloud gaming. Usually, the strategy division thinks about ideas and the planning division takes care of the demo of those ideas. 

There was an AI technology to detect people, which was used in bosai [disaster prevention/ 防災]. This technology uses sensors to detect when a person has fallen on the floor and makes emergency calls to third parties. We made that system with a vendor and used 5G for all communications. We also made an app that showed the number of people that had fallen down and the number of people that were safe. We showed this complete demo to the customers as a case for the usage of 5G. This project can be found by googling “5G x IoT studio” along with other projects, such as VR demos, 8K using 5G. 

We also made an experiment outside in the field. We had two cars, put a 360-degree camera on one car and had a head mount VR display in the other car. The video was streamed in real-time from one car to the other via 5G, because transferring 360-degree videos in real-time requires very fast data transfer. 5G can be used to upload and download high-quality videos from anywhere in real-time. The big idea seemed simple. While planning, we would think about what camera should be used, how much data transfer had to happen, that we should call the media to announce our project, etc.

What is your career plan for the future?

I want to start my own company. My motivation is to offer a product or service that will be helpful to everyone. I still haven’t decided what company I want to start, though. I have been traveling a lot in these past five-six years. I used to get days off during Golden Week (Japanese long holiday) and New Year. I have been to Chile, Egypt, Mongolia, Russia, Norway, etc. I used up all of my bonuses for traveling {laugh}. From the places I have been to, I especially liked Chile and Egypt. Last month, I went to the US for two weeks, then to the UK and Scotland. One business idea is to start a travel service company for Japanese people traveling to India, as from my experiences it is relatively difficult to travel within India.

What have you learned from traveling to so many places?

Travelling opened my mind and also taught me to plan ahead and be comfortable outside of my comfort zone. I became comfortable traveling alone. I was all by myself when I went to Chile. There, I went hiking by myself for the first time and it was also the first time I went hiking in my life. I went on a 80km trekking adventure on the Torres del Paine for three days. By the way, all the elderly people were much faster than me {laugh}. 

Thank you very much for the interview! Finally, could you give some advice to the current scholars?

Try to do an internship while in university.

Try to pass the JLPT N1.

Try to join a circle or club in university.

You might find some of your best friends in university.


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