Chi Square Tests, Calendar Events and Cake : A Three Act Precog Tale

Testimonials

Where do stories begin? With that suitably philosophical opener, I begin my Precog story. Did mine begin when I joined IIIT Delhi for a Masters? Or when I joined Precog for an Independent Project? I think my Precog journey started somewhere between the two, kickstarted by this post on Quora. In my first semester at IIIT Delhi, I didn’t know which area I wanted to work in. Having read Prof Ben Y Zhao’s glowing praise of Prof PK, I decided to take the ‘Privacy and Security on Online Social Media’ course in the hope that I would make an impression on PK and get an opportunity to work with him. I managed to do that and was offered an IP with him and assigned to work with (now Dr.) Niharika Sachdeva on a portion of her Ph.D. work. What followed has roughly three dimensions.

Act 1. Chi-Square Tests: the importance of using the right features

“Why do you want to take this approach?”. “Why do you think this method will work?”. “How do we make this system better?”. At Precog I have been bombarded with these questions and their ilk. Precogs take their work very seriously, which is not a wonder when you see the quantity and quality of papers, theses, and systems being churned out. What is not obvious is the sheer depth in which the problems are studied. Precogs are involved in high-quality research that draws from multiple areas such as Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, and Data Mining and contributes to further research in HCI, Social Computing and, Privacy and Security. Lab members, especially the Ph.D. students (‘pillars’ as PK aptly calls them), know a multitude of fields. Every research statement is broken down into subparts and rigorously understood leading to the Precog maxim, “You should be able to defend and justify what you’ve done.”

The problems are dissected not only by the person helming the project, but also other members of the lab. There are dedicated weekly slots when the lab collectively pours over each project to provide feedback and suggest improvements. Needless to say, with a setup as cooperative as this, help is always at hand. Not only is the lab full of bright minds but the culture fostered in Precog ensures that they come with attentive ears and eager responses. Another thing that has never ceased to surprise is how much people know about a project they are not even directly involved in. This is a testament to the open communication, and happy-to-help attitude Precogs have bolstered through forums where lab members can ask questions, offer advice and even post potential opportunities.

On a personal note, I was involved in a few projects here and have had the opportunity (privilege really) to work with numerous lab members. I have learned from them far more than any textbook could ever teach me, not least because they are extremely smart and excellent teachers but also because they are generous with sharing their know-how. Special shoutout to Anupama Aggarwal who mentored me throughout my Master’s thesis and taught me how to approach problems, frame research questions and finally go about solving them. (And not to mention for putting up with my numerous shenanigans and being patient with me.) Working with my mentors as well as seeing other lab members flourish made me understand the importance of mentorship in research life. And even if I didn’t work with the other members on a specific project, I can honestly say that each and every one of them has somehow or the other helped me become a better researcher either by answering my questions, brainstorming with me or providing technical help. On that note of Precogs being fiercely intelligent but surprisingly helpful, ends act one. Remember, they’re the people you call to save your skin if you get into a sticky place when it comes to work (and I can testify to this because I have).

Anupama’s comments on polishing my defense talk: Precogs have your back

Act 2. Calendar events: Organization is key

This brings us to the next dimension of the Precog Story. After our first email conversation, PK told me to meet him and to send him a calendar event for the same. Unfortunately, back then I was (even more) technically challenged (than I am now) and had to do some serious googling to see what a ‘calendar event’ is and how one sends those. After two years at Precog, I can confidently say that I can even send one in my sleep. Precog operates at enterprise level of efficiency, allowing us to attain higher productivity. PK also keeps reminding us of productivity hacks now and then, and best of all, leads by example by practicing them himself. Be it a regular schedule of meetings, one-on-one sessions or group meetings, the regularity is enormously helpful, especially when you’re stuck.

The lack of bureaucracy in getting organizational things done is frankly wondrous. It would be a failure not to mention the meticulous focus with which PK approaches problem, both research and otherwise, and inspires other lab members to follow suit. Precogs have ironed out kinks that I thought were impossible to untangle and PK himself has helped us manage obstacles with ease.

Borrowing again from personal experience, I would like to talk about my thesis defense. The entire lab pitched in to help with numerous practice talks as well as organizational assistance. They ensured that every component of the defense ran smoothly, allowing me to focus on just the work itself. Precogs not only embody the philosophy of ‘work smarter’ but also that ‘to cut down a tree in five minutes, spend three minutes sharpening your axe.’ Essentially they’re the people you call when you need things done and done well.

Happy faces after my glitch-free-Thesis-Defense

Act 3. Cake: The glue (frosting) that binds

And finally, we come to act three. I can confidently make the claim that Precog consumes more capita cake than any other group at IIIT Delhi, backed up by some hand-wavy, back-of-the-envelope calculations. It’s a metaphor for the celebrations we have here. There’s cake on birthdays and milestones, going out and celebrating during Precog Anniversaries, and the numerous socials where there’s an excess of food and laughter. The socializing not only act as a stress buster for the discouraged and an icebreaker for the uninitiated, but it also helps us forge bonds that (I hope) will live a lifetime.

Parties’R’us

Celebrations aside, these are people who will never fail to lift your spirits. Even when they’re scolding you, you don’t mind, because you know it comes from a place of concern. Without resorting to heavily sentimental cliches, I’d like to think that the lab is comprised of people who will always be your well-wishers, who will always want to see you do well and who will always strive to help you become not only a better researcher but also a better version of yourself. Essentially they’re the people you call if you want to have a good time, or alternatively if you’re in need of some cheerleading (Trust me, I’ve abused the both privileges far too often.)

The past few years have taught me things that will stay with me a lifetime. At Precog and because of PK, I’ve learned something new every day. You might think this is a figment of my imagination and exaggeration, but you’d be wrong. I know this because some time in the middle of my Precog tenure, I finally became organized and started maintaining a TIL (‘Today I Learned,’ which I also incidentally learned about in Precog) diary. Most of its pages are full of research tidbits (do you know about the “Majority Illusion”?), some of them have productivity hacks (classify tasks), but the best entries contain the sticky notes my Precog friends wrote for me (I’m not sharing those, sorry, come work here and get your own!).