PreCog : The Google of Research Groups

I feel ecstatic to write this blog post today as I complete an year at PreCog. I would like to use this opportunity to write about my journey till and through PreCog, with all the fantastic and memorable experiences I’ve had during this time. Jump to section III to know why I think PreCog is the ‘Google of Research Groups’.

I. Getting In

It was late 2015 and I had barely started my second year in college when I decided I wanted my UG life to have as many diverse experiences as possible. So, I started participating in various activities in college, which included founding and heading a student chapter of The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) at MAIT. As a chapter, one of the first major events we planned was a Distinguished Speaker talk and after going through the speaker’s list, we found that the talk title of Prof. Ponnurangam Kumaraguru (PK) of IIITD – “Privacy and Security in Online Social Media” would resonate the most with the students and would be an awesome kickstarter. We decided to invite PK for the talk and PK graciously accepted. This is the point when I started following PK on social media.

Summer of 2016 was approaching when PreCog opened their summer internship applications, and I applied. Without knowing anything about research, I applied just for the sake of exploring, and because the area of research sounded super exciting. I got rejected. It wasn’t a shock, I was expecting it. Fortunately, I got through one of the SDE internships at a startup for the summer. But, I made a mental note that research is something I want to explore before graduating and this is one area I felt very passionate about.

I enjoyed my SDE internship and as soon as it got over, I was determined to pick up on the ‘Required’ and ‘Recommended’ skills I lacked the previous time I applied to PreCog. I also started working on the SOP before the applications even opened. I really wanted to make it this time. And this time, I wasn’t applying elsewhere. Early applications opened, I applied, got through the rounds and got accepted. The process was extremely streamlined and everyone was professional. I was definitely on cloud 9 after getting the ‘S’ on chat from PK after my interview with him (after much thought, I decrypted ‘S’ meant ‘Selected’). I had made it in, and we had decided I would start as soon as my semester got over.

II. The PreCog Journey

A. Work
Getting the best start to the year one can imagine, I joined PreCog on 2nd January 2017. At the onset, I got the chance to witness the best of ‘The PreCog Culture’ (more on this later) when the group celebrated their 6th birthday on 4th January 2017.

As per tradition, the newest members cut the cake.
(L-R) Me, Dattatreya, Viraj and Vedant

The next day, PK introduced me to my mentor – Srishti Gupta, with whom I would be spending most of my working hours thereon. I was assigned a problem which was still in the ideation stage. We collected and explored the data to get a better idea of what the problem statement might be, but even though we did not reach a definite statement, we did get interesting observations and could see scope for exploring further. During the same time, I joined Srishti to work on a completely unrelated problem, on which I spent most of the rest of my time at PreCog. We worked on it through the spring semester and submitted the first draft as the semester ended. I joined back in the summers, this time staying on campus 24×7, which marks the start of best summer I’ve ever had (more on this later).

All the interns had an introductory session where PK gave a brief lecture on ‘Research Methodology’. Srishti and I continued to work on the draft we had submitted, while Vivek (a fellow intern from IIT-KGP) joined me and Srishti on the first project. During this time, I was also introduced to our awesome collaborators – Prof. Mustaque Ahamad (Georgia Tech), Dr. Payas Gupta (Pindrop, Atlanta). We were later also joined by Dr. Manish Gupta of Microsoft Research, Hyderabad. It was an ineffable feeling to be working with such big names and it is now that I realize how much I have learnt from their thought processes with the limited interaction I have had with them. We worked on it through the summer and the fall semester and submitted the second draft too. At PreCog, Srishti is someone I have spent most of my time with, and also learnt the most from. She is the most hard working individual I have ever met, (dare I say) with an almost bot-like work ethic. Personally, she is the sweetest person, and the absolute best friend one can ask for in a professional environment. She is always there for support and tries really hard not to get annoyed with my endless queries. 😛

As part of routine activities, we regularly had WhatsUp (status updates) and DeepDive sessions (detailed status updates) along with hackathons in an all-hands-on-deck style (as in picture).

Now, to the interesting part.

B. The PreCog Culture

Starting at PreCog was a cultural shock for me. I had never seen such a close-knit group of fun-loving ‘smart creatives’ who lived like a family, and worked like a team. PK was nothing like a professor (take it as, it would be a really difficult task to identify ‘the professor’ if you meet the whole group) and PhD students were nothing like the typical ‘nerds’ one would expect. Don’t get me wrong, they were super into their work and obviously knew a lot, but they didn’t ‘look nerdy’. Some cool memories I have:

  • One of the early days, I remember, PK was just casually sitting in the lab, peeling and eating litchis and offering all of us.
  • Some of the interns (no names) took out a packet of exotic imported chocolates a lab member had purchased as a gift for someone and made it their midnight snack. A forwarded mail about lab rules and this is what we got in the morning –To which the same interns, replied with –
    The mantra at PreCog is: work hard, party harder. And to that, we had regular parties (some even at PK’s place).

Manoj’s Birthday
(L-R) Gowtham (the funniest #PreCogIntern), Kartik, Kushagra, Dipjyoti, Manoj, me and Vivek

A farewell party to the interns @ BBQ Nation
…where we also celebrated Sonu’s Birthday

Sonu’s birthday; after ‘cake cutting’
(L-R) Dattatreya, me and Sonu

As interns, 24×7 on campus, we had a lot of fun activities too, the highlight of which, for me, was playing pool (with Gowtham).

In pic, one of Gowtham’s signature shots. xP ‘Scoring’ the black ball with the white ball.

For the uninitiated, this probably is *the only* definite way to lose a winning game in Pool.

III. My observations and learnings :

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. They’re there to stop the other people.
Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

This is a quote on a wall outside the lab, and is very frequently referred to, in fact, to a point where quoting this seems cliched, but this is something which resonates very strongly with me. This is also something I have written on a wall in my own room too. I read the book, and it is an excellent guide to lead one’s life with all the ambitious dreams. A must read!

The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.
Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

This is something which PK keeps referring to, time and again, both in group meetings and in his mails. Just being around PK, and observing him manage such a huge number of projects and other tasks, I have learnt that managing time efficiently is half job done and I’m gradually making progress in that direction. By referring to such stuff, PK has nailed a lot of useful life lessons into all of us.

One of PK’s most motivating mails (for me) had this Quora answer by Ben Zhao which said that your own opinion of yourself should not limit how far you go in life and if someone offers you an opportunity you think you don’t deserve, you should rather work your ass off to make yourself feel deserving of it. Just epic.

This is the screenshot sent by PK, read the third paragraph.

Now coming to why I think PreCog is the ‘Google of Research Groups’, if I may. Having read ‘How Google Works’ by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, I know a thing or two about how Google works :P. I would like to enumerate the things that resonated with the culture at PreCog when I read it :

  • When an average person thinks about Google, they think great products. PreCog (especially PK) has always had a very strong product focused approach to research. As PK always says, your work should not be just about publishing papers, it should solve a real-world problem and you should always keep thinking of turning it into a product for people to actually use and benefit. Otherwise, what’s the point?
  • When an engineer thinks about Google, they think passionate, smart and ambitious people. PreCog is also a group of ‘smart creatives’ extremely passionate about what they’re doing with ambitious goals. I would say this succinctly describes what PreCog is.

    “Smart creatives thrive on interacting with each other. The mixture you get when you cram them together is combustible, so a top priority must be to keep them crowded.”
    ― Eric Schmidt, ‘How Google Works’

    “The most valuable result of 20 percent time isn’t the products and features that get created, it’s the things that people learn when they try something new.”
    ― Eric Schmidt, ‘How Google Works’

The authors explain how at Google, the engineer’s work time is divided as 80-20, where they spend 80% of their work time on their ‘daily jobs’, and they are given full freedom to explore fresh (daring) ideas in the remaining 20% of the time, where the actual breakthroughs happen. Some of Google’s top products (InstantSearch, GMail etc.) came out of the 20% time. I feel PreCog also has this culture where everyone is spending approx 20% of their work time on exploring fresh ideas some of which later turn into great ideas worthy of the 80% time. This is awesome!

There are also other compelling reasons like the competitive hiring process, a ‘work hard, party harder’ attitude and the no hierarchy rule (calling someone with ‘Sir/Maam’ results in a fine :)) but I guess you get the point. xP

I would truly be indebted to PreCog (and PK) for these experiences and the learnings. This would stay with me forever, and I think I can safely say – ‘I’ve been PreCoged for life’. ^_^

IV. Other cool stuff @ IIITD

Gowtham excited (and hopeful) while receiving the new Titan X PreCog ordered

An experiment with a drone collecting data to identify suspicious behaviour

Customary group pic with the ‘PreCogSummer’ T-shirts