A stay of 2 months: An experience of lifetime

Like every engineering student, when I took admission in engineering college I had high hopes and ambitions of doing something big and worthy. But the monotonous curriculum, seniority dogma, student-faculty gap never provided conducive environment for research and those high ambitions somehow faded away. Engineering seemed to be limited to only what was there in textbooks. However when I finished my summer internship this year (2017) at Precog, I suddenly experienced a revival of my engineering ambitions. People around were working and building stuffs that are being applied to solve real world problems and being one of them was like dream come true! My stay at precog was the most enriching part of my academic life.

My project supervisor, Prof Ponnurangam Kumaraguru (PK) is the most awesome teacher I ever had. My journey with Prof. PK virtually began in fall 2016, when I took up his online course Privacy & Security in Online Social Media on NPTEL. I was looking for domains where I could apply my knowledge of computer science to solve real world problems, when I stumbled upon this course. Back then I was in 3rd year of my BTech study and was aiming for a summer internship at some premier research centers during my forthcoming summer vacation. Few weeks into the NPTEL course, I was so fascinated by the  course contents and teaching of PK, I absolutely made up my mind to do internship under him. Some time after the course had ended, I mailed PK with my SoP and CV, explaining why I wish to work at precog and how my interests and previous works align with the research domains pursued at precog. Few days later, I got a mail from him and after 3 rigorous rounds of selection process, I finally got selected for my much coveted internship.

My project at precog was on Information Overloading with Niharika Sachdeva as my mentor and guide. I primarily worked to figure out how the frequency of posting affects the engagement on posts made by police pages/handles on Facebook and twitter. Will write a separate blog on my technical work. Getting a conclusion from the large dataset was however not easy and took me weeks of failed analytics and experimenting with different statistical measures on the data. The best thing about precog is that it pushes you to your limits. I used to spend most of the time in the lab, highest being 18 hours. Lab hours never got boring, as I was always surrounded by hardworking and awesome people round the clock. People around were always ready to provide helping hand, be it professional or personal.

My most favorite thing at precog used to be WhatsUps  (regular meetups held twice a week) as it facilitated interaction with everyone, including PK, and also getting to know each other’s work. It thrilled listening to exciting work going around. Then there were detailed discussion sessions known as #DeepDive (a nightmare for me though :p) where one has to elaborately explain their work, codes, hypothesis, observations etc. I used to be highly concerned about DeepDives as I had to be prepared for most unanticipated questions and criticisms. The suggestions, criticisms and feedback however helped me a lot in refining the work done and coming up with better results. Here everyone was keen to help whenever I got stuck in something.

IIIT Delhi also had some surprises for me, that were to break my prejudices I had about educational institutions. I belong to a government engineering college; and being from a government college I am not used to niceness of professors and research scholars. I am used to professional barrier between students & teachers and undergrads & scholars. But starting from my day 1, I was extremely surprised how people were at precog. There is absolutely no professional protocol existing, like addressing research scholars as sir/madam, following a strict formal conversation style with them etc etc. These were something I was never used to, and it took me some weeks to get adjusted to. Everyone is friendly irrespective of them being PhD scholars, MTech scholars or RA’s. We cracked jokes, played games, went out for lunch. The person who made the most difference is PK himself. He is the most wonderful and friendly teacher I ever met and is completely different from conventional teachers. He invited us for dinner at his place, watched movie with us, took part in fun games; somethings hardly any professor does these days. He emphasizes on “Work hard, play harder”, thus apart from work related stuffs, he organizes fun gatherings and outings (we call it precog social). My best memory with him is this selfie. Its the first time I ever had a selfie with a professor!!

What I got from precog is experience, and as Randy Pausch aptly says

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.

Being in Precog was much like being a part of a big family. It feels great being in such a group of highly talented and knowledged people working on really cool stuff that are making a difference in how online social media is used. I am super delighted to have worked with these awesome people. Can’t have a summer better than this!!!

Here’s the glimpse of precog family of which I was a part of.

 

On Precog, PK (and everything else that fits between the two entities)

So, what is Precog? A research group, a culture, a lifestyle? At the risk of sounding unbelievably corny, I’m going to go ahead with the last one. But really, it was.  

Ever since we had arrived at IIIT-Delhi almost four years ago, Precog (along with Dr. PK) had been one of the most “heard about” groups over here. Some of our batch-mates had already started working for Find-A-Way and Backpack, while most of us were still trying to work on our skill-sets to even be able to think of doing the same somewhere down the line.

Fast forward to the summers before the 4th year, I finally thought that I had the skills, and more importantly, the motivation to apply to Precog. There was no other professor or group at IIIT-Delhi working in the domain of Natural Language Processing, something I was deeply interested in exploring at the time. Hence, this seemed like a natural choice. The applications for Precog are a task by themselves, requiring a complete statement of purpose (SoP) and everything. I spent quite a bit of time writing this, polishing my resume, and finally applied. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in. So why am I writing this blog? I don’t know, you’ve been Punked.

Kidding. I spent the summers doing other things, tried to fill up some possible holes in that SoP and my resume, and re-applied for the coming semester. This time, I got the instructions for a task which was a part of the selection process, followed by the interview with PK’s senior students, and finally one with PK himself. The reason I mention these steps is that I was completely awed by them when the process was happening. The task itself gave me an idea of the kind of work I might be doing later on, which was pretty cool. The interviews were rigorous and detailed, a step one couldn’t cross purely by hand-waving. Come the semester’s first week, and I was added to the core mailing list.

Now, this addition to the mailing list, is a blessing and curse all by itself. We used to get like 5 emails a day, and this was probably an inactive day. Found it slightly annoying then, miss it quite a bit now. So, while we cribbed about these emails on a regular basis, each of us knew on the inside how cool they were. They kept us in touch with the latest items related to data science and even computer science in general, kept us updated about what other work our peers at Precog were doing, and while all this seems trivial when stated like this, it was great in that it kept the blood flowing – it kept us regularly motivated.

Other such half-blessing-half-curse traditions include(d) the weekly “What’s Up Sessions” and the “Brainstorm (BM) Sessions”. In the former, we all gathered to discuss in a little more detail what everyone was .. well, up to. Again, I found these to be great because they sort of gave us the feeling that everyone cares about every project. Ideas for all projects were discussed by everyone, all opinions were taken into consideration. When a group was writing a paper, it was presented to and reviewed by everyone. This was probably one of the practices that I think is somewhat unique to Precog. As undergrads, we did not spend all our time working in the same space as the Ph.D students and the RAs, and hence, it was these sessions that helped us build rapports with other Precog members.

The mentorship was amazing as well. I joined the text-team with Indira Sen, Kushagra Singh and Nalin Gupta, with Indira mentoring us for the most parts – and I cannot thank her enough for being so unbelievably patient and understanding with everything. Apart from this, PK was completely supportive regarding well, everything – including other commitments (uni applications, exams, health, everything), and it’s really important to mention this because those took huge time chunks in our semesters. He also conducted a couple of sessions to help us with our SoPs for applications, which was pretty cool (apart from being crazily helpful, of course). We even got lucky enough to once get to interact with Dr. Hari Sundaram, a professor at UIUC.

One of my other interests at the time apart from NLP was Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), which interestingly stemmed from having taken one of PK’s courses in one of my earlier semesters. So, I along with three other batch-mates had decided to take part in a related competition. PK even guided us with that and provided us with constructive feedback for some of our work. Basically, the overall growth model was wholeheartedly supported, which was a fresh blessing.

Our presentation for the Designing Human-Centered Systems (DHCS) course project at BBI ’16

Also, great perks! Birthdays, Precog anniversaries, graduation, achievements (!), not a single occasion went by without a lot of activity on the mail threads and PK’s invites to the lab with sweet, sweet promises of ice-creams and cakes. Again, this probably sounds cheesy but it was these kind of activities that truly made me feel like I was a part of a family.

One such perk from Precog’s 6th birthday!

Overall, I think Precog has some great practices and systems set in place to ensure that all of us stay motivated to keep working hard, as well as have a bit of fun while we’re at it. I only have one regret – not joining early enough. So, a piece of unsolicited advice if you’re a student in your third, second or even first year – don’t hesitate in applying “early”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to publish anything in my relatively short duration here, but even then, the experience was nothing short of perfect and (needless to say) a critical part of my time at IIIT-Delhi and well, life.  

 

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Hey there.

My tryst with PreCog happened in my second semester at IIIT Delhi. I had been catching up with Megha Arora (PreCog Alum now MS CS Candidate at CMU) about what she had been up to, and I was pleasantly informed about this cool research group she works with. She also kept on going on and on and on about this professor who likes to call him PK. That same day, I went online and looked up PreCog and I was awestruck. My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw PK’s CV. I had to work with the coolest professor in town. I had to work with these guys!

After gathering a decent amount of exposure in doing research with the Program Analysis Group at IIIT Delhi, I applied for a PreCog Internship in the Summer of 2016. I was exhilarated with the task given to me as part of the interview process. It was a perfect fit! I have always wanted to build systems which help others in some or the other way, and my task at hand was to build a social engagement calculator for Facebook pages (apologies for the Jargon! :P). While doing this, I learned about writing a technical report as to how the system works, the perceived shortcomings of it and some exemplary statistics of popular Facebook pages. I advanced further ahead in the process and met Prateek Dewan and Anupama Aggarwal for the technical interview round. I remember being extremely overwhelmed yet anxious when I was told that I had advanced to the final round and I have a meeting with PK. I am thankful that they found me competent enough to join the group!

I have had the tremendous honor of working on 2 projects which boast of really nice disruptive technology that can change the way people use social media. One of them is in the domain of Privacy in Social Media on Mobile Platforms whereas the other project is in the domain of social computing, data science, and HCI.

Killfie was a god-send for it allowed me to explore and finalize the subfield of Computer Science that I wanted to specialize in. It was a humbling experience to work on never-done-before things aimed at saving lives, hence the term disruptive. What seemed impossible at first took a lot of toiling, mentoring from great people, and a collective effort of the team working on the Killfie project for it to come to a realization. I am proud that I was able to contribute and solve a problem faced by the youth of the world at the moment, and thankful that I was given a chance to work on the same.

Have you ever felt a warm fuzzy feeling when you look at a group of people and just absolutely adore them? That’s what PreCog was to me from the outside. Now, take the outside perspective and amp it up by a thousand factors and you have got the state inside. We all like to hang out, discuss interesting anecdotes, take advice from each other … you get the picture. The good part for me in this scenario was that I could ping any of the pillars (the Ph.D. students in PreCog) and bricks (everyone else except the Pillars) and they would be happy to guide me on the right path, be it personal or professional life.

I have had nothing but positive takeaways from my experiences at PreCog. There have been times when I have crashed the server and yet, I was just let of with a strict warning to be extremely careful with the same. I have had sleepless weeks with just me getting 2-3 hours of sound sleep per day, showing me that I can still push my limit in working. People have properly heard me out, and given me proper constructive feedback. I have been scolded and got back on track if I was deviating. I have been pushed to experiment and let my creativity run wild as well.

We are always reminded of Randy Pausch’s famous quote in the group:

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. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.

I can surely say that I figured out how badly I have wanted some things in my life and how can I actually achieve those things. If somebody offered me the chance to start working with PreCog at an earlier point in my life, I would definitely take it in a heartbeat.

Below is a picture of happy PreCog-ers after having had a sumptuous lunch in the month of June of 2016:

The PreCog B(r)unch