Magic of Appreciating Words: DHCS experience

It was that time of the year again when all students were supposed to register for courses for the approaching semester. Like everyone, I was confused and in a fix about what course to opt for. I wanted to explore and was looking for interesting courses then. I came across “Designing Human Centered Interfaces” course offered by Dr. PK. Everyone in IIIT knows Dr. PK is one of the coolest professors and nobody ever regrets taking his course because he is quite flexible and has bunch of engaging activities. Also, I had heard about this course before and decided to go for it. I never knew this course would contribute so much to what I was seeking for so long. I never had much interest in coding and when I attended the introductory class, I realized that something was there for me, something I would enjoy and love to do. Dr. PK showed some very interesting projects from previous year and it motivated me to come up with one. So our team came with women security app called “Suraksha”.
Dr. PK makes sure his course has fun elements and incentives for students. I still remember in his very first lecture, he mentioned about awards he had given last time and no doubt it was a driving force to work hard for our projects and win such award. Also, his words of appreciation and motivation at each stage kept us going. Getting appreciation from professor was a big thing for me as it was the first time I was ever appreciated in IIIT :P. I still remember the day when he called our group “Underdogs” and we were so elated to hear that. It motivated me so much that I wanted to do best in each iteration. We were supposed to complete tasks in each iteration. Conducting Contextual inquiry in one iteration and task analysis in another. Roaming the entire city, gathering the user data, interviewing people and taking feedbacks were few things we did during the course. No doubt it was a nice excuse to hangout with friends while doing your project 😛 and that was also one reason we loved this course :P.
The best part of this course is BBI session. It’s like a Grand Finale of some kind. Each group wants to showcase their project in best way possible. The entire CCD area looks beautiful- so colorful and full of creativity. We wanted to do something out of box so we prepared a rap song for BBI session as an invitation. Video

Preparing poster for BBI session was one hell of a task because we wanted it to be the best. Making it as informative as possible and creative at the same time was really a challenge. The night before BBI session, our hostel room was a complete mess. It looked something like this :P.

Reserving the space for poster for next morning was not a child’s play. Our poster was quite big. So we needed more space and our group literally sat entire night safeguarding the space. All this was so much fun :D.

But all this was so much fun because we hardly get to do these things in other courses. Everyone appreciated our efforts. Also, Dr. PK gave me the golden opportunity to be the evaluator for the next BBI session. I was extremely happy and no doubt it was a wonderful learning experience.

The course concluded but it showed me a path. I remember the very first lecture slide had a quote by Randy Pausch which goes like this “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” And I made this my moto. I decided to give design entrance exam. The things I learned during the course helped me a lot in building my portfolio and even during interviews. I showed my DHCS project in interviews. Luckily, I got into Interaction design at IIT Kanpur and this couldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t taken this course.

I am glad our institute offers such wonderful courses and give chances to students to explore and learn. Moreover, I realized how much vital role “words of appreciation” plays in student’s life. Few words of motivation by teacher are instrumental in changing student’s life and help them achieve their dreams. So glad and lucky to have such rocking and cool faculty at IIIT Delhi.

I have been Precog-ed: Part 3

Hi! A big thank you for landing here. I don’t blog often; when I do, it feels great that someone else took out time to read it and hopefully take away a few things from it as well. If you know me already, you might have read Part 1 and 2 of my journey. If not, take out a few more minutes and read them first. You will be able to connect the dots much better, I promise!

From the work I did with Prof. Kristina Lerman at University of Southern California in summer 2015, we ended up writing a research paper. After many hours put in, more than a dozen skype calls and half a dozen blacked out draft reviews from PK, as I sat down with a copy of my first paper, I was pleased. It was due for submission to a big conference. A month and a half later, I sat down heart-broken with my first paper rejection. I had no clue how acceptances at these conferences work out. Pillars (that’s what we call the Ph.D. students at the Precog lab and the metaphor couldn’t be more appropriate) told me it was a close miss. For me, it was as if a part of my world crashed (yes, I can be that dramatic!).

After incorporating some suggestions from the reviewers, we sent it to ICWSM 2016, another great conference (source: Pillars). This time, I decided to be less hopeful and stopped thinking about it. I remember having difficulty sleeping the night before the result was due. The paper got accepted. After a few congratulatory messages and phone calls, I realized that brooding over the previous rejection was an absolute waste of time. I have such revelations when I am extremely sad or happy. The most I had learned from this phase was when I was doing the analysis, which the paper was based on. The acceptance was just going to be a line in Font 12 on my resume and an end to the journey of working on my first paper. That’s about it! But life had something else in store for me.

Kristina wrote to me that she cannot make it to Cologne, Germany, where ICWSM 2016 was going to be held. David, one of the co-authors, was going for the conference and I thought he would present our paper. After a few weeks, I found out – PK is going to attend the conference and so am I. From that moment began the journey of my first paper presentation. I had never attended one. So I was miles away from knowing what a good paper presentation is like. I got a few slide decks for reference from the Pillars and after a few iterations on my deck, it was time for my first practice talk in the Precog lab. Now, these adorable people in the lab have the potential to thrash you in and out if your work doesn’t meet the ‘Precog’ standard. They DID NOT like my presentation, and that’s me putting it politely. PK was going to join in the next practice talk from Germany over Skype (yes, he always goes the extra mile for his students). I had worked on the suggestions that came after the first practice talk. However, I still felt a little clueless and the reviews I got reflected that I was nowhere close to the mark. I am not that bad with presentations but presenting a paper is not the same. This time, I was upset. Determined to deliver a good presentation, I boarded my flight to Cologne.

I reached Cologne a few days early as I had planned to explore the city before the conference. PK was going to come in another 2 days. I spent time listening to recorded versions of my presentation and practicing with my friends over Skype and Hangout. I did take occasional breaks to cruise off the coast of river Rhine, try some German delicacies and explore the Roman cathedrals all over the city. Europe is as beautiful as they say it is! I also attended the ICWSM slam, which was organized by David. ICWSM is the only conference that has this sort of a creative event.

Cruising off the coast of river Rhine..
Cruising off the coast of river Rhine..

PK arrived on the morning of 18th May, the first day of the conference. I was looking forward to it as I wanted to take away a few things for my presentation, which was scheduled on 19th afternoon. I asked PK to rate each presentation on a scale of 10 so that I could differentiate between good presentations and the ones that were very good. I spent most of my time diligently making notes that could benefit our work at Precog. Another discovery that day made me uncomfortable. I was one of the only two undergrads at ICWSM who were there to present. The other one was from Stanford. I should have felt accomplished belonging to this minute fraction of attendees, but it only made me more nervous.

The evening reception for ICWSM was in the Chocolate Museum (isn’t ICWSM the best conference ever?). I had – fun and intellectual conversations, a couple of drinks, and a lot of chocolate. It was time for my final practice talk with PK. He was ready with a notepad and I didn’t feel nervous at all. The list of suggestions was much smaller this time and he felt I had improved considerably. I couldn’t be more glad, or it would have been another sleepless night with my slide deck.

In front of the Chocolate Museum.
In front of the Chocolate Museum.

It was the day of my presentation. I could feel my stomach rumbling. Breakfast was difficult to swallow. I was sitting in the presentation room, but mentally I was in the Precog lab and my practice talk wasn’t going well…. It was the coffee break before my slot and I went to check if the laptop and the presenter were working smoothly. It was 11:20, 2 spotlights on my face, my slide deck on the projector and in the audience, people who did this for a living (told you I can be dramatic!). 14 minutes later, I was asked two questions. I answered, came downstairs, went to PK and asked – “How much on a scale of 10?”. The number he typed on his phone was way beyond my expectation. I couldn’t talk much then but I knew two things. I didn’t mess it up and PK was just trying to make me feel better as he had gauged how nervous I was.

Presenting my paper at ICWSM 2016
Presenting my paper at ICWSM 2016
Presenting my paper at ICWSM 2016.
Presenting my paper at ICWSM 2016

In the lunch session, everyone I talked to started the conversation saying – “Good/Great talk!” I ignored it thinking that researchers are way too polite anyway. It slowly started sinking in that my presentation went well. Someone told PK that they haven’t even seen Ph.D.’s deliver presentations with such confidence (something along those lines…). The hashtag I use to describe such moments is #happinessUnbound. That evening I spent some quality time with PK. I didn’t know when I was going to meet him again (oh yeah, I missed that detail!). I have completed 4 years of my B.Tech. at IIIT-Delhi and am headed to Carnegie Mellon for an MS in Computer Science.

My take away from my first paper and presenting it – ‘If you only do what you can do, you will never be better than what you are.’ :’) It has been 4 wonderful years working as a Precog-er. There is a lot I can write, but words cannot do justice to describe this time. I am still going to try to sum all of it up in my next blog. Stay tuned!

PS: Link to the paper and slide deck.

Precog @IIITD — my journey and the people

A journey is best measured in friends!

Of course we are doing some breath taking work!
Of course I highly recommend everyone to apply for open positions here!

But I won’t talk about the work (everyone else already is). I will talk about what really makes Precog — the people@Precog.

Outsiders see it as a group, insiders see it as a family

In my second semester I had taken up a course in Probability and Statistics under Prof. Ponnurangam Kumaraguru “PK”. This is how I got introduced to Precog and PK.

It was 2013, at that time I was trying to figure out my niche as a CS major . I was in search of a new and exciting opportunity. A friend who had been working with Precog told me about an opening. As I have already mentioned in another post of mine, I have a threefold criteria while evaluating opportunities:

Is it aligned with my short and long term goals?
It was definitely aligned with my short term goal of getting my hands dirty with new technologies. At that time I didn’t realise the extent to which Precog would contribute towards moulding me into an aspiring product designer in the long run.

Is there exciting work that I can contribute to?
Without divulging any details, let me just say it was a product of national interest. The research and development activities at Precog are making their mark in more ways than meets the eye ( of course I can’t speak about it :P, If you want to know apply and get in! )

The people I will be working with
This was and still is the most compelling reason. Not only are they really smart researchers and developers but also very helpful. Precog alums and collaborators are everywhere: Facebook, Apple, Princeton, UIUC, CMU, Georgia Tech etc

(PS: I will be joining Georgia Tech this fall for my masters. I already know so many there because of Precog. I am staying with an Ex Research Assistant from the lab)

After a month of interviews and coding tasks I was picked as a software developer for the project. Over the next couple of months I got to know the entire team, even people who weren’t working on the same project as I was (very welcoming people!).

In the coming time I collaborated with different people from the lab, learnt so many different things from them, specially from PK. He’s helped me not only with professional, but also personal matters (thanks!). He’s invested much more time than a normal advisor would’ve in making this relation stronger.

My lab mates taught me the real meaning of ‘with great responsibility comes great power’, after the first time I messed up some daemons on the server (:P) Everyone in the lab has contributed in so many ways that I don’t even know how to write it down. From helping in my assignments to giving me feedback on my applications.

While concluding I would strongly recommend everyone to apply for the open positions@Precog, you won’t regret it.

From Brick Walls to Ladders – My Experience with PK

As an undergraduate student there’s always that point when you say to yourself, “it’s time to get your act together and figure out what you want”. For me, it was working on Human-Computer Interaction. If you’re familiar with Randy Pausch, you’d understand when I say Dr. PK was the metaphorical brick wall in the way of that simple desire.
In his earlier courses, he was just the cool professor. In Designing Human Centred Systems however, he was the person that would help me prove myself.

Like his other courses, DHCS too was light and engaging in terms of lectures, but unlike the others one needs to invest a lot of time and energy outside the classroom. Personally I believe, this hands-off approach fosters more creative ideas. Plus he would never let you slip of the rails either. Regular interactions and constructive criticism from his end is what ensured that a challenging problem isn’t dealt with an impossible solution. Being an amateur graphic designer at my institute, I knew that clients who are too involved or conversely least bothered are the worst to work with. And a professor mentoring/advising on a project is no different. Fortunately, PK always operated in the sweet spot. That’s probably one of the reasons I took another one of his project-intensive courses (Privacy and Security in Online Social Media) and really enjoyed it.

Last minute attempt to bring some colour into our DHCS project

Interestingly, PK is self-admittedly a vague person. To a degree this is intentional. However, he is also equally understanding and welcoming. In my group projects I preferred prioritising the building/designing of the actual product over how to present it. This led to arguments on how we’re not doing the requisite “arts & crafts” needed to please PK in an evaluation. But at the end of the day – in spite of never having the coloured chart papers and other aesthetics – never did we fall short on grades. When an instructor can clearly see through the fluff and actually reward you for solid effort, it gives students more confidence in their method.

After this course I started working on independent projects with PK. These assignments were virtually Precog work that involved Precog people. Hence, my loose association  with Precog began. The best way to describe my dynamic with them is similar to that of a touring guitarist with a rock band. I wasn’t a part of their main lineup, but I got the best insight into how these extremely intelligent and sincere people work.
A highlight of my experience was the process of feedback and iterations that Precog gave access to. Sometimes it could be overwhelming, but it was always building towards larger improvements. Another memorable aspect of working with Precog was the diverse skill portfolios I was connected to. Everyone always brought something unique to the table.

A rendition of what was PK explained to me using finger gestures in the air

Beyond my academic relationship with PK, I was also his dedicated design guy. The institute’s design club, Ink. (which I was the admin of) got a lot of work experience in designing technical communication content through his tasks. We also received a lot of publicity due to the outreach our posters got via his network.
Echoing and re-emphasising what I stated before; designing for PK is the most comfortable space designers could possibly find themselves in. A testament to which is how my juniors jumped at the opportunity to be his exclusive liaisons at Ink. when I was graduating.

One of my favourite digital designs for PK

Very soon I would be pursuing an MS in HCI at Georgia Tech. When I look back from this point I realise that the person who was initially a brick wall for me evolved into a ladder that helped me rise higher to reach my goals.

Things came full circle when I became the TA for the same course where it all started