From an Engineer to a Finance Professional: Meet this IITian who started leading Finance in multiple startups

  • Hi, I am Niranjan Chavan, an engineer from IIT Bombay, an MBA (Finance) from the University of Toronto, and a CFA charter holder.
  • While working at Schlumberger as an engineer, I realized the importance of Finance and wanted to learn more about it.
  • Hence, in 2008, I decided to take a Finance route and migrated to Canada to pursue my MBA in Finance.
  • I progressed in Finance and Strategy, eventually becoming the CFO of Toppr and now Head of Finance at BrowserStack – a leading Technology SaaS startup.
  • Here is my journey from an engineer to a Finance professional.

My life as an IITian and Engineering student

I was born and brought up in Mumbai, India.

Being a curious person, I enjoyed my academic life and eventually, this motivated me to prepare for the very competitive engineering entrance exam of IIT.

I gave my best and was fortunate to get admission at IIT Bombay (an institution recognized worldwide as a leader in engineering education and research) to pursue Mechanical Engineering.

It was a privilege to pursue education in such a premier institution and be placed amongst the world’s best brains. I felt exalted given the opportunity, and it was a satisfying end to the intense preparatory phase of university entrance exam studies.

As seen in movies like 3 Idiots, how you spend life outside classes shapes your personality, and so at IIT Bombay, I experienced life in a broader spectrum.

Organizing technology festivals with over 10000 attendees and planning drama sets in a full-size open auditorium were major feats for me. Some of my other proud achievements include winning international robotic contests and publishing an international research paper in nanotechnology.

Apart from that, I had my fair share of bunking classes, binge-watching movies/TV series, and playing all-nighter Bridge or online games.

This overall experience broadened my mindset and helped me hone my skill set to prepare for professional life.

Working at Schlumberger as an Engineer

In my final year at IIT Bombay (2005), I got a campus placement at Schlumberger – a Fortune 500 oilfield services company as an oil rig field engineer. It was one of the top employers in campus placements, so I decided to take the job opportunity.

From working long hours on oil rigs in harsh conditions to managing crew undertaking complex operations, and interacting with senior executives at oil firms -  Schlumberger challenged me to work out of my comfort zone.

It was a physically and mentally taxing work stint with 24/7 operations. But it gave me immense confidence in the early part of my career.

In a short span of three years, Schlumberger allowed me to visit six countries and interact with people from different nationalities. So, I had good global exposure in an engineering setup.

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Switching Gears: From engineering to Finance

In the final year of my tenure at Schlumberger, I was responsible for managing a base plant of over 75 employees and was accountable for its finances.

Any new initiative that I was conceptualizing went through Finance for approval. I was intrigued by the decision framework, and I wanted to understand what those guys knew that I didn’t know. It was here that I understood the importance of the financial side of the business.

At that point, I decided to take a Finance route and migrated to Canada to pursue my MBA in Finance from the University of Toronto and took up a CFA charter.

During my MBA in Finance and CFA curriculum, I learned accounting and taxation matters. Post-MBA, I came up to speed on applying such matters. I was exposed to GAAP, SOX, taxation, financing, investment, corporate governance, and relevant KPIs.

I knew I found my calling in Finance.  

Building a career in Finance one step at a time

After my MBA, I continued to live in Canada, and my career progressed in Finance and Strategy.

Finance is a vast ocean of knowledge with ever-evolving rules, and to make the most out of it, I sought rotation roles to gain exposure to different facets of Finance. From 2010 – 2017, I worked in several companies like Capital One, AECOM, and Compass Group.

Gradually, I also understood that no one is an expert in all matters. It would help if you used your experiential learning to take the proper reference or advice, or support.

Hence, plugging into the right network and forum is vital. Therefore, I diligently worked to set up the professional network as support.

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My Finance journey in India as a Head of Finance

Working in Finance roles in Canada helped me build sound knowledge, and I was now looking for my “next” move.

As destiny would have in August 2017, I was offered a CFO role at the EdTech startup, Toppr in India.

I took up the opportunity, and here started a fantastic journey. (This was a significant achievement as in the Indian ecosystem, Heads of Finance/ CFOs are typically CAs who would have probably worked in Big 4 audit firms before!)

CFO role is a challenging role with greater accountability. So, taking this responsibility for the first time, especially with an unconventional profile and working in Indian jurisdiction after a long time, you realize that there is skepticism and reluctance to accept in the Finance community. Hence, you would have to put extra effort into work and learning. But, in my experience, the initial skepticism fades away as you start delivering results.

The IIT and Schlumberger engineering experience groomed me to work out of my comfort zone and adapt quickly to new challenges. Hence, I attribute my ability to establish credibility in the Finance community to my engineering experiences.

Gradually, I could set up the foundation of the Finance function at Toppr. I hired resources with complementing skillset to deliver the mandates on audit, compliances, due diligence, financing, and data analytics.

Eventually, I was well versed in Indian GAAP or Ind AS and had established my credibility.

Since then, there has been no turning back, and at present, I head Finance at BrowserStack, a SaaS technology startup and a global market leader in software testing.

Questions I get asked most often:

"Can engineers evolve into successful Finance professionals?"

As an engineer, you harness your analytical and quantitative horsepower. The function of Finance also demands those skills. Also, engineers who are a minority in the typical Finance function can lend a new perspective to age-old problems. So, yes, I strongly do believe Engineers would make great finance professionals.

I also agree that for the Head of Finance/ CFO role, the first person to mind is a CA; however, an Engineering background can help in a Finance role in the following ways:

  • Fit with Technology CEOs/Founders/Board: In my opinion, the head of Finance is a strategic advisor to the CEO, founders, and board. There is a higher proportion of engineers in the CEO, founder, and board group in the technology startup world. Hence, as an engineer working as a Head of Finance, it is easier to connect with that DNA.
  • Forecasting and planning: As an engineer, you have an intuition about what goes into R&D, what could be the risks, and where costs could get out of control. You can easily estimate the production and anticipate failure points. The Finance leader is the one who has to be able to vet things. Engineering encourages the formation of logic in different ways, to critique assumptions, and to verify facts.
  • Evaluating Technology acquisitions: Technology acquisition requires a perfect blend of technology and Finance experience. You need to understand how an asset fits in your product roadmap and value it accordingly.
  • Driving efficiencies through process optimization: Lean Six Sigma methodology is the default practice in the engineering world, and driving cost saving is second nature for an engineer.
  • Data analytics: Programming and understanding of databases form the foundation of data analytics. So, as an engineer, you can get on the data-driven decision-making quite quickly. Also, it is easy to design business intelligence systems.
  • System integration: Most advanced Finance organizations use robotic process automation for mistake-proof processes and quick decisions. System integration, APIs, and automation are the natural skillsets for most engineers.
  • Formation of policies and processes: The engineer knows how to frame a question, use the scientific method, and make a structured framework to solve the given problem. Hence, it is easier to form company policies and processes.

In my Finance teams at Toppr and BrowserStack, there are ~30% of team members with undergraduate degrees in engineering, proving that an engineering degree helps in a Finance career immensely.

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“Advice for Engineering graduates who wish to build a career in Finance.”

For engineers to start in the Finance world, I recommend starting in sub-functions of Finance, where transferable skill sets are valued, such as Financial Planning & Analysis, Mergers & Acquisitions, Data Analytics, Treasury Management.

The alternative is to gain banking or investment management experience and enter corporate Finance laterally.

Also, it is easier to start your Finance career in a technology startup where you can connect easily with operations and other company employees.

An MBA in Finance or CFA/FRM or equivalent charters or certifications would be beneficial. Once you have a working knowledge, you can progress smoothly in the Finance function.

Wrapping Up…

In the Indian ecosystem, there is a tendency for most students to get into engineering or medical streams. At such a young age (15-16), most of us don’t know the practical side of the studies, and it is only during our undergraduate or initial jobs that we discover it.

Hence, engineers who want to transition to Finance or any other function are everyday observations in the Indian ecosystem.

The S&P database has about 1500 results for Finance Heads with undergraduate engineering degrees. Also, in India, famous examples are contemporary or former Finance Heads of Tata Motors, Wipro, Infosys, to name a few. All these data show that engineers can progress in the Finance career.

To wrap up, I would encourage my fellow engineers with a passion for progressing in the Finance function to chart out a plan and work diligently towards the Finance leadership role.

I am sure you can “engineer” your Finance career!

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