Extraordinary Ordinary People: Tushar Uchil – the passing of an Instructional Design legend

There was a cream coloured plastic table in a row of cream plastic tables. There were two plastic chairs. I was sitting on one. A bearded, bespectacled young man with a slightly receding hairline, dressed in a corduroy pant and a random nondescript T-shirt rushed into the empty cafeteria. He smiled sheepishly and said, “Sorry yaar, kept you waiting. I was just informed there is an interview. You are originally from Bombay na? Apun normal baat karte hai (let’s talk colloquial). It’s been a while since I have spoken to someone from Bombay.”

And that was it. We were connected. It was June 2003; The interview lasted 15 minutes, 14 of which were spent talking about professional life in Bombay and Pune, journalism, content industry and a minute on the fact that I had cleared the written test and given my editorial background, he was good for me to join the team if I cleared the HR and management interviews.

I joined the Instructional Design team in July and met Nupur Avantika, who had joined a few days before I did. Sahana Rao was the senior most so to say since she was the first recruit, Rukesh being the next. Sahana was this quiet girl who would go all giggly when she was taking a break during high-concentration projects. Rukesh was a scientist and orator and debater who thought and talked and then magically created course designs overnight. Nupur was held in highest esteem because she had a Masters in Communication Media for Children including instructional design.

Tushar nurtured that initial team with regular water, sunlight, and natural nutrients essential for the growth of instructional design saplings – opportunity, debate, discussion, projects, access to knowledge and continuous feedback. He eventually grew that into a 50+ strong team, establishing Brainvisa’s cult status as the premier learning design team based out of Pune – a feat no subsequent Pune-based company has since achieved or sustained.

The management was a great enabler of course, but the building of that instructional design team was a direct result of the nature of Tushar Uchil’s approach to leadership and team building.

My relationship with Tushar was defined by that first meeting and our friendship grew on the basis of the shared Mumbai-upbringing. There was no need for unnecessary hanging out or laborious tiptoeing around social graces. Opinions were asked, given, and focus was always on work and life happened side by side. Dialogues with him were rooted in practical application after exploration of several theoretical viewpoints.

His academic credentials were spic and span, but few were aware of his academic pedigree. He completed senior school (Grade 12) in the faculty of Arts, achieving 9th rank on the merit list in the state of Maharashtra. He went on to study Mathematical Economics and Econometrics, eventually obtaining a first class Masters in Economics from the University of Bombay.

He recruited talent from all over the country – east, west, north, south, northeast- all over the country. He hired engineers, technical writers, PhDs, language experts, musicians, hotel industry managers, advertising copywriters, orthodox academics, school dropouts, journalists, students, teachers … there was a method to his madness. Even when he personally did not believe a design or team direction or initiative would work, he did not stop others from driving or making it work.

And that was the secret ingredient in his method: he applied democratic principles to team dynamics and the only control he exercised was who came in. Those who had talent, were willing to work hard and learn, grew fast; those who lacked any of those qualities chugged along at an appropriate pace. Many picked up pace later; some early sprinters lost steam; some worked last minute only; some worked well only when handling multiple projects, but everyone was part of a broader team, something that all contributed to and belonged to.

It was this sense of belonging that raised Brainvisa’s ID team market esteem to approach the vicinity of the great instructional design teams like Mumbai’s TIS and Delhi’s NIIT.

He had great counterparts in visual design in the form of Shashi, Reena Roy and Ashish Majumdar. He had very good counterparts in management in the form of CEO Supam Maheshwari, COO Nitin Agarwal and CTO Vikas Agarwal.

Tushar Uchil (1971-2021): Writer, Instructional Designer, Extraordinary Human Being; illustration: Sanjay Khilare

What few in the company realised back then was that Tushar had a full time 8-hour job as the head of ID and then also put in a full day as designer.

One of the most brilliant instructional designers I have ever encountered, Tushar’s design acumen came not just from academic understanding of androgogy (which was rock solid) but his practical life experience and natural empathy, the combination of which enabled him to get into the skin of the audience he was creating instruction for. How good was he? He would study audience profile, and content overnight in preparation for an introduction call and on the call, he would present the design approach and make a recommendation. That’s a design solution in 8 hours. His storyboarding skills were equally legendary. I have seen him knock of storyboarding for two hours learning content working Friday through Sunday.

He was the epitome of continuous learning long before continuous learning became a thing in the learning industry. He often took up projects because he hadn’t done one in that industry.

In his illustrious career, he designed and guided development of learning solutions for international clients in different verticals, including government (Department of Labor, US; Ministry of Education, Singapore; London Borough of Camden), publishers (Elsevier, Pearson, Thomson, Walters Kluwer), education (Babson University, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Riverdeep, Compass Learning, Primedia Workplace Learning), and corporate enterprises (Albertsons, American Express, Bank of America, Cathay Pacific, Con Edison, Deutsche Bank, Emirates, GM, K B Home, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, Pacific Care, Roche, Saudi Aramco, Standard Chartered, Symantec, Tyco, United Health, UPS, Verizon).

Tushar himself was humble and unassuming. He lacked personal ambition, but understood the importance of prestigious awards and client names on the CVs of his team designers. He knew people would come and go, and so he always focused on the individual’s personal growth and attitude development rather than their jobs titles or specific skills. “Today’s skills may be redundant tomorrow. Today’s big learning theory may become tomorrow’s garbage. If they don’t learn to adapt, they won’t grow,” he once said absentmindedly while we were going through another list of candidates.

Once at a company award function, he said to me, “Yaar all these people (management and designers) give me credit for building a good team. They don’t understand I just did my job – haven’t done anything except let them build and maintain the environment they wanted.”

His simplicity was reflected in a famous sulk just before a major client was supposed to come for a visit. The sales team wanted him to dress up in a suit. “There are already enough people in suits in the meeting! Mereko dekhne arahe hain ya design ko (are they coming to see me or the design)?!” He asked me, as he tucked his half sleeve formal shirt into his trouser. He looked like a miffed kid and I burst out laughing. That was his concession – formal shirt and pant. In later years he did put on a suit occasionally, and he had childlike glee when he did – the shock on everyone’s face was his reward.

Profession aside, Tushar was a great human being. His taste in food was simple and he took great delight in enjoying his wada pav.

His real genius was as a mentor for designers. There are designers in Pune who don’t even realise how Tushar shaped their competence and approach to design. Whenever he called and began with, “Arrey sunna (Bombay colloquial for ‘hey listen’)”, I knew he was out to help place someone in need. It was typical of him to go extraordinary lengths to help people who were in need of a second or a third chance, and he was forthright in his assessment. “If you can take on someone who could be great but probably won’t because their track record is one of giving up, then take this one on. You may not gain anything but you won’t lose anything either.”

He knew how to separate the designers from glory hunters (‘I am going to work on a Brandon Hall project’) from the narcissists (‘I am the best’) from the self-deprecating victim designers (‘I am so bad at this’) from the sales people in design garb from the design managers who always delegated. In practical terms, most designers go through all these personalities in a cyclical wave till we find our niche. And he knew each had their place in the right kind of organisation and that they all would contribute in their own unique ways.

“The trouble is when a company needs three or more of the designer-personalities, can hire only one type and gets stuck with the wrong type. That’s sad for the individual and the organisation,” he said over chai one evening.

Tushar’s career was as eccentric as his living habits. He started off as a partner director in an export firm in Mumbai (1992-94). He was then a director in a private company manufacturing and exporting leather products from 1994-99. Thereafter he served as Faculty of Economics for the Foundation Course for Company Secretaries conducted by the Sydenham College (1999-2000). In 2000 he took up his first content assignment as Editorial Consultant to South Mumbai Living Guide and West Mumbai Living Guide.

In 2000-2001 he took up several different content projects including as content provider for websites like go4i.com and Indiabulls.com, and for firms like Matrix Systems and Netrealities; Editorial Consultant to Indias-Best.com, and in charge of the entertainment section of their Mumbai-centric portal Mumbaibest.com; Executive Editor of Vaastav Roopwani, the film journal of Prabhat Chitra Mandal.

He moved to eLearning in 2002 as Instructional Designer and Writer at Mentorix Learning Technologies. In June 2002, he moved to Pune as Instructional Designer and Writer at Brainvisa Technologies. In November 2002, the company appointed him as Head of Instructional Design – a responsibility that he carried on till April 2010, long after Indecomm Group’s 2008 acquisition of Brainvisa.

He then took a year off – to do nothing as he said.

I remember calling him in the latter part of 2010 (and again in later years) asking if he was getting back to work. His answer was classic every time. “Abhi paisa khatam nahin hua hai re (my savings are still not exhausted). I will hold off from becoming an employee till I am down to my last buck, and even then I hope I don’t have to.”

In June 2011, he became a consultant in instructional design and user experience design and continued to work in a freelance mode till his untimely death of pancreatic cancer in September this year. He had been diagnosed with the cancer when it was already at an advanced stage. True to his nature, he kept a positive outlook throughout his treatment, throughout his chemo, and the alternative modalities.

We spoke once in three odd weeks. He used to call back whenever I called and he missed the call. If he picked up, his opening line was always, “Haan bol re (colloquial for ‘hey, tell me’).” The calls were like our design discussions or planning on how to place a particularly challenging candidate. He would take me through the treatment, the immediate downturn in health, the lack of appetite, the recovery and the learnings.

In a Feb call, he said, “The chemo hasn’t been that bad re. In the last few years I had been designing a lot of healthcare modules including for nursing for cancer patients. When I went into the hospital it kind of helped. I wasn’t scared or unsettled as I thought I would be.”

On a call in March, he observed that it was important to keep active and that he was making an effort to call a few people everyday so that he could keep his brain active.

He had been responding well to treatment but was practical. “Theek hai re (it’s alright). It’s Stage 4, so all this feeling better could easily reverse one day.”

Eventually in August, his health took a turn for the worse with his liver being severely affected.

He passed away at home on 18 September, 2021, in pretty much the same manner as he had lived his life.

He leaves behind a void in the lives of his family and loved ones. He leaves a treasure of rich memories for all those who knew him. He leaves behind a wealth of learning for all those who worked with him. And he bequeaths a legacy of instructional design talent to the country’s fledgling digital learning industry.

I am not a sentimental man, but even having known it was coming and having discussed obituaries with him, it shook me to my core when it did happen. I can hear his calm voice, “Chal re, wapas ake milta hoon (See you, will meet you when I return).”

Adieu Tushar Uchil. #respect

10 comments

  1. Shyamala Madhav

    Dear Sanjay, it is precious! You know him, he never let us know about the magnanimity of his work. I was only worried to see him attend to his job for nearly two hours, just two months back. I wondered that he not only worked on his Laptop, but simultaneously made notes in his book. All sounded so hectic, but we did not have the clear picture of what he was doing and how much he has worked. He was never one to speak of self. Yes, he was a precious gift from the heavens that was snatched away only too soon. I’m completely at a loss!
    Thank you once again from the deapth of my heart.

    – Shyamala

  2. Shyamala Madhav

    Revelation of the magnitude of studies and work that my Tushar undertook as also the beauty of his kind heart full of love and simplicity. Thank you, Sanjay for bringing it out in most beautiful letters! We could not save him and none could fill the void .

  3. Prachi Randhawa

    You’ve penned this beautifully Sanjay- with this Tushar will always stay in our hearts.
    I remember seeing the two of you together most times- two men with beards and specs, one with a ponytail, one with lesser hair – you both would have given jai and veeru competition!

    Tushar- He always had a solution! Every time I rushed to him about a new project, or some client fireworks- he would calmly solve all problems. He was always approachable- never carried any pride in being the lead-and always lead by example, putting his team first!

    One picture memory that stands out is about how – like a child who is excited about his work- Tushar explained to me about all the field work done for the UPS project. I recall he actually sat in the UPS trucks and met with the delivery guys before coming up with the amazing learning project. He truly put the learner first and got into their shoes to make sure we deliver nothing but the best!

    Tushar teaches me to work with passion, will always do. Will always be missed!

  4. Clive

    Hey Sanjay, that brought a tear of joy in my eyes initially and then it poured. I am not a sentimental one either, but he was something, someone, anyone, everyone and everything to many.

    You, my friend, have really painted such an accurate and beautiful picture of the personality Tushar was!! Thank you and I hope to meet you guys again in this world or the next. Phir milte hai ❤️ Clive

  5. Dharmesh Rathod

    @thebengali,
    Reading about Tushar through your mind’s eye makes me feel I should’ve met him too 🙂
    Rest well Tushar…#respect

  6. Kiran Patil

    I’ve never heard of him or seen or met in person ever, but I couldn’t hold my tears. He must be a gem of person. RIP, Tushar

  7. Rajeev

    He was a real gentle soul. I have fond memories of him. Although I moved on from Brainvisa and never kept in touch, he is one of the few I remember clearly. Saddened to hear about his untimely demise.

Leave a Reply to Kiran Patil Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: