What does a computer scientist do at ISRO?

Did you know that the Indian Space Research Organisation wants to “launch a single rocket carrying 83 satellites” in 2017? That would be a world record, you know. India has surely come long way from launching its first indigenous satellite, Aryabhata, in 1975. ISRO has made the country proud. To put a satellite in Mars' orbit at a cost—USD73 million—lesser than the budgets of many Hollywood movies is an amazing feat. That too, in its first attempt, in 2013. NASA's Maven Mars mission set the US space agency back a whopping USD671 million. I remember reading an article where they called our space agency “famously frugal.”

It's a big deal.

Perhaps, this is a post that’s a tad different from what we usually write at HackerEarth. Here’s why. Our audience at HackerEarth is predominantly software engineers who are mostly passionate about what they do. Given the cool things that ISRO is doing currently, it is only normal to be curious about what it takes to work for the organization. Like Dr. U R Rao, chairman of ISRO, said, "Achievements like the Mars Orbiter Mission would attract graduates to ISRO. You need passion to work in ISRO. That's why people who join the organization seldom leave it for another job.”

What does an ISRO software engineer deal with?

In a 2014 Reddit Ask Me Anything session by three ISRO scientists, one question that was asked was what the work is like at ISRO for a software engineer. (These scientists were back in 2015 to answer a slew of new questions.)

The answer goes like this, “The software scene in ISRO is more of an operations thing than research. We need and develop software to run our various systems and these systems are the focus. Apart from user/service software/applications developed at centres like Space Application Centre, we have an intensive network of centres/GROUND-stations and this network is managed by ISTRAC. We use both Linux- and Windows-based platforms and develop for both too. JAVA is the favoured language, but we use C, C++, C#, Python, Perl, etc. a lot too. Whatever gets the work done. At ISTRAC, computer networking is a high priority and in-demand task. Then, there is the requirement of building simulation software. This is done by all centres as per their requirements. Also, India's largest supercomputer is at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, meant for aerospace simulations.”

Are you discouraged? Don’t be. After all, how can a facility that launches rockets not have exciting software systems? Forget about the non-programming and administrative tasks, just focus on those moments where your valuable computing skills are integral to critical processes for a mission.

Who gets to go there?

As an exemplary organization requiring brilliant minds, ISRO has to be discerning about its engineering hires. ISRO's preferred discipline is aerospace engineering, but it doesn’t mean that good minds from any engineering stream don’t stand a chance. ISRO is not partial to elite technical institutions such as IIT or NIT. "We look for strength in fundamentals, wherever the person is from. It is essential to have people from different institutions," said Dr. V Adimurthy, Senior Advisor of Interplanetary Missions.

ISRO Centre Total Staff From IITs and NITs
Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Tvm 4,486 43
Space Applications Centre, Ahm 1,183 144
National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyd 864 2

(Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/education/news/Just-2-of-Isros-engineers-are-from-IITs-NITs/articleshow/43458127.cms)

Linux aficionados have a good chance of landing a job at ISRO. In the same Reddit AMA, one of the scientists said that there's a great affinity toward Linux at ISRO. “Linux is used very widely across all centres/missions/projects. Simulations, operations, servers, networks, analysis: Linux is used everywhere. It is a good OS for all scientific requirements and is developed actively by various scientific groups all over the world, so it never falls short.”

Although they would not answer specific questions about OS, they did say that on-board software for satellites is written in Ada. Who knows, those conversant with the programming language Ada, might have a good chance to work with ISRO too.

And this is what they had to say about a typical workday for an ISRO software engineer: “Not very different from any other programmer’s except for the fact that there is a slight lag in the adoption of new technologies. This is partly due to heritage inertia and partly due to the fact that function is preferred over form. If it ain’t broke… It also depends on the kind of work you get. Development is always exciting. So is stuff like implementing a new network end-to-end, which will push you to learn stuff way beyond what you’ve previously been comfortable with.” Well, nothing is perfect. But then, imagine having a hand in getting a perfect satellite out in space? Come on, lots of us have dreamed of becoming rocket scientists.

Are you “eligible”?

Interestingly, ISRO doesn't mention computer science as one of its preferred degrees. The space agency recruits students from the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST). To get into ISRO the scientists said, “You have to be an Indian with a degree or diploma in Mechanical /Electronics/Electrical/Civil disciplines. Open positions include Scientists, Technicians, Technical Assistants, Admin Officers, Purchase Officers, etc. depending on eligibility. There will be an exam for each type of post followed by interview for selection. One can also get into ISRO by enrolling into IIST complete the course and get absorbed.”

Well, you don’t need a degree in computer science to work on their exciting projects. But you need passion and requisite skills for the role. It’s really about priorities and what you value most. Whatever the downside of the job, I would say working with amazing talent will teach you skills you might never find elsewhere. Sleepless days, working tirelessly during a launch—appeals to you?

What are the upsides and downsides of working at ISRO?

I shouldn’t even be writing this bit. Where’s your patriotism, guys?

No, seriously, when you get down to brass tacks, ISRO is no slacker. There might be those within ISRO who believe that there aren't as many perks and services in ISRO as compared to other government services. But on more holistic terms, the starting pay for engineers at ISRO is above industry standards. In its Bangalore facility, an entry-level Scientist/Engineer ‘SC’ gets between 7 and 9LPA, without deductions, per the 7th Pay Commission. Reading reviews suggest that culture can be a less bohemian or appreciative than you want with motivation and the money can be a little less as well. (Money is not everything. Tell yourself that; you will believe it soon enough.) But if you read reviews on Glassdoor, the wariness should disappear. Despite the perception people have about the cons of working in a government organization, on the whole, most insist that the environment and learning make it worthwhile.

Do you agree?

Share your thoughts in the Comments section.

About the Author

Raghu Mohan
Raghu is an engineering grad handles Marketing at HackerEarth. Prior to this, he was an editor at YourStory.com. When he’s not working, you can find him at the nearest music shop having a jam session.