A Summer at Precog

Prof. PK visited my college, BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus in March 2018 and gave a talk. The last slide said that he wanted interns and that was an opportunity I wasn’t going to let go. I applied, and after a task and an interview, I was in. The internship process was really smooth and all issues were dealt with promptly. IIIT Delhi does not let bureaucracy hinder work and progress. I love this fact about IIIT-D. There are many such small conveniences that make a big impact by easing out students’ and researchers’ lives. Everyone’s time is valued here.

The best things about Precog is its people. There were RAs and PhDs who led projects and discussions. Research sometimes can be solitary work and often prone to small setbacks. For someone like me, who was venturing into research work for the first time, the support and help from the RAs and PhDs was very necessary. I’m pretty sure all the interns felt the same. The people at Precog intellectually feed off each others’ brains. The internal mailing lists are a proof for this. I learned new things everyday. Where else will you get paid to learn a lot 🙂 ? I’ve learnt from each and every person during the 2 months I spent in Delhi.

The Team <3

The culture at Precog has been influenced a lot by Randy Pausch. For those who don’t know him, stop reading this right now and read ‘The Last Lecture’ or watch the talk on YouTube. I adored the Randy Pausch memorabilia scattered throughout the lab and PK’s room. We used to have a WhatsUp, a short meeting where everyone told the status of their work, every alternate day. I felt that the WhatsUps were like Scrum standups, except every alternate day. They were helpful since anyone who was stuck could explain his/her problems and ask for help. People also got a general idea of what everyone was working on and they would pass on relevant research papers or articles around. About once or twice every week, PK would ask someone to summarize a research paper. I did that a couple of times and loved doing it. From never reading a research paper to summarizing long papers, I feel I’ve come a long way.

At Precog, we had our share of fun too. We regularly went out to Nehru Place(good food ftw!) in the evenings. PK hosted a party for all interns at Barbecue Nation, and it was great! PK couldn’t be with us then, but he made sure to video call us. Many such small gestures show his love for the team. At the start of the internship, Prof. PK told us “Work hard and have fun too.” The people here made sure we followed that 🙂 . A new habit that I picked up here was playing board games. I was introduced to Catan and Small World. The fact that they still work together after playing Catan just shows how strong their bond is! (Those who’ve played the game understand this 🙂 )

The work at Precog has a direct social impact. Work on many diverse projects goes on simultaneously. Just listening to others talk about their work helped me learn a lot more than I expected. Isn’t it great to learn stuff without putting in a lot of effort. I was lucky to see the speed with which the WhatsApp lynchings problem was attacked. Seeing your solutions affect the world is a really satisfying thing. The Lab windows have research papers authored by Precogers taped for people passing by to read. Looking at the amount of effort the people here put in, I’m sure the window is gonna be full soon.

I’m writing this blog a month after my internship was completed, and this has helped me understand and appreciate the things that I worked on and learned in the summers.

I would recommend undergrads to do a research based internship for the experience. The lessons that I’ve taken back are helping me a lot. One of the most important thing that I’ve learned is that you have to be patient to solve research problems. Getting such an attitude adjustment early on in one’s career is like finding a treasure. Feedback from the RAs and PhD folks helped me a lot with setting expectations. Expect too much and you’ll feel overwhelmed/discouraged. Expect too little, and you’re squandering away your talents. I appreciate the help with finding the thin line in between. I now notice that full time research work is a bit different than working on a project with a professor during the semester. Make sure you like the latter if you are considering a research based career.

During my initial interview with PK, I told him that I wanted to see if a career based in research was the right thing for me. The internship at IIIT D helped me confirm that it indeed was.

I really thank Prof. PK and Prof. Arun for this great opportunity!

A tryst with Precog : My journey of 2 years, an adventure of a lifetime

I am writing this blog entry after an incredible period of 2 years of work at Precog, which has surely given me a multitude of tangibles to talk about. But, it will be the intangibles that Precog has left me with, which will be the hardest to pen down on a single blog. My time working full-time at Precog has had an overwhelming impact on my life and career. It is undoubtedly the differentiating factor in my life, which has placed me into the Masters program at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science. It is difficult to describe the feeling I have for my advisor, my fellow lab mates, how each and every one of them have inspired me to become a better version of myself, and how I wish to take all these people with me for my future endeavours. The people I met at Precog ended up becoming the most valuable resource I possess right now.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took a leap of faith:

Joining Precog as a Research Associate is one of the toughest decisions I had to make. Coming from NSIT, which largely has a placement oriented atmosphere I just wanted to get a decent job and work in the tech industry for a while; a job which I did land through campus placements. But something did not feel quite right. I had a feeling that my job wouldn’t challenge me enough. I wanted to try something offbeat, which is when I started searching for full-time research opportunities.

Based purely on my instincts (and definitely second-guessing myself all along :P), I decided to refuse my job offer, take a leap of faith and join this research group named Precog as a full-time Research Associate from 14th June, 2016. It was definitely a tough call given how all my friends were about to begin jobs with reputed MNCs, and here I was, making dumb decisions based on gut-feelings. Remarkably, I also wasn’t someone who was dead sure of going for my masters, yet I took the call of venturing out to unchartered territories. However, looking back at that time, it is one decision that I can definitely feel proud of.

Here at Precog we often talk about the remarkable strength of weak ties in life. I would like to iterate how it was some weak ties and cold messages that helped me apply for this RAship. When I look back at the last two years at Precog, it has been definitely been the most fruitful period in my life, and I feel that a big credit for that goes to weak ties in life

Burning the midnight oil, and surprising myself:

From day one, I began working on two projects at the same time, one having a steep learning curve and the other one being classic exploratory research. Both completely new things for me. In the 3 months that ensued my joining at Precog, I realised what working hard actually meant. To the point that it made me question the ‘hard work’ I had put in last 4 years of undergrad. I was learning too many things at the same time, and everything that I learned just left me hungry for more. For the first time in my life, I tasted the satisfaction one feels at hitting brick walls and eventually taking them down.

Most of my initial weeks at Precog saw me working tirelessly all night on one project, and then waking up early to make progress on the other. In these first few months, I truly understood how everything in this world is simple, but not easy. Simple, but not easy. The quality of both the projects ensured that for the first time in my life, I was happy to be burning the midnight oil; the oft sleepless nights that did not end before I hit my eureka moment were thrilling and enjoyable. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t phases of struggle, stress, frustration and anxiety related to work. I had my fair share of each of them. That is probably a part and parcel of every job. Attempting something uphill always entails these things, I believe. But at the same time, there was a constant feeling of content in all the hard work I was putting in, and I knew I would probably end up surprising myself at the end of it.

The first Precog picture I was a part of; Summer 2016

Making inroads:

One of the most exciting things about my experience at Precog has been how rapid my pace of work and expected delivery of projects has been. The idea that I was new and should therefore take things slowly never came up even in my initial days at Precog, which in hindsight has been a huge boon for my profile, as it enabled me to always punch above my weight.

There were specifically two project deadlines that I remember very fondly, because meeting them gave me a great sense of accomplishment at Precog. One of them was a deadline for my development project, just 3 months after my joining, and the other one being a paper submission on the Killfie project in December 2016. Being my first paper submission, it was really exciting to be a part of that group which worked together to pull off a whole paper in a very short duration. My definitions of what can be achieved in X amount of time changed considerably in just a matter of 6 months. And I had begun to realise the value this time spent at Precog will add to my life.

The people I worked with on both these projects have probably set such high standards that it’s going to be incredibly difficult for any other project team to match that. I can happily boast of a very healthy coordination and work ethics in all team projects I have executed at Precog. In both the projects that have defined my time at Precog, there were few recurring themes that is something to take lessons from. Both my teams genuinely believed in the problem we were trying to solve, the impactful nature of the project and had a clear understanding of what we wanted to achieve through our efforts. Both these teams had a very clear and candid channel of communication amongst them which made coordinating all tasks easy. Of course, having PK as an equal part of each team was probably what made this possible. Most importantly, all members in both the teams found immense satisfaction in the work they were doing and understood that at every single point, we need to put our best foot forward.


Whats Ups, BMs and Deep Dives: The building blocks of the Precog life:

Being an RA at Precog did not just give me a chance to work on some really impactful projects that I can proudly call my own, but it gave me a chance to immerse myself in a research environment completely. As an RA, my involvement was never limited to the projects I was working on, but the atmosphere at Precog was such that I was aware of every single project in the lab. The opportunity to think in so many different directions at once, and to indirectly contribute to a host of different ideas in my domain was instrumental in shaping my aspirations for the future.

Weekly scrum sessions (Whats Up), Bi-weekly paper reading sessions (BMs –  short for brainstorming sessions) and detailed project updates (Deep Dives) are the way of life at Precog. These sessions kept us up-to-speed with the work not just other Precogs are doing, but also helped us learn from the problems that other eminent researchers in our domain are exploring. By investing time in brainstorming with other Precogs, I have no doubts that I’ve probably learned as much out of their projects, as I have through my own.

My third day at Precog, saw me taking part in a Brainstorming session with the group. The was probably the first time I actually enjoyed reading a research paper, and definitely the first time I critically discussed a paper in a group. It was the first time reading a paper did not feel like a burden, which eased me into the idea of research.

The first Deep Dive I had, I was thrashed by the group’s questions. I will always distinctly remember that day. I realised that spending time and effort on coding different parts of the project was not enough. My first Deep Dive prompted me to know my work in and out, and well enough to answer all the Why’s and the How’s there could be.

This holistic learning environment made sure that no one at Precog felt alienated from the other things going around in the lab. The Whats Ups, BMs and the Deep Dives ensured that we as Precogs stayed on top of our game, as well as critically examined everyone else’s. Without a doubt, having these as a part of the Precog culture minimized the loopholes we had in our projects and pushed us closer to success in our work.

Working ‘with’ PK, my advisor:

June 27th, 2017

The group of RAs at Precog were visiting this reputed university in Delhi, to conduct a day-long workshop on Machine Learning with their undergraduate students. A part of the conversation that ensued with the college dean is as follows:

Dean (to PK): All these RAs work full time under you? (referring to us)
PK: No, they do not work under me, they work with me.

This one incident is fresh in my memory like the day it happened and speaks volumes about PK’s character.

This blog would be incomplete without giving a glimpse of how incredible a professor PK is. Have you ever played cricket with your professor/advisor? Have you ever had social meet-ups with your profs/advisor till 12am in the night? Have you had the chance to do candid weekly meetings with your professor to just share your honest feelings about everything? I guess not), and that’s why PK is one of the coolest people you’ll get a chance to work with. The work hard and play hard slogan is something that PK (and everyone at Precog for that matter) takes very seriously.

Conversations with PK were always so frank and candid that I ended up feeling a little wiser at the end of each meeting with him. His habit of imploring the group mailing list for inputs on various things always kept the energy high in the group.

PK always has immense faith in all the people that work with him, and that was something I wasn’t too well versed with life in my undergrad. And I can probably pin-point that as the single most important factor behind everything I was able to achieve at Precog.

Working at Precog fundamentally developed in me the belief that brick walls are not the end of the road. I feel that delta change in myself, from someone who used to get jitters looking at hard problems, to someone who believes that given time and effort any problem is solvable. (Remember, simple but not easy?) A huge factor in being able to develop this attitude is PK’s constant motivation to take ownership of our projects. PK has perpetuated this beautiful culture in Precog, wherein if you’re a part of something, then it also means you have the power to take important decisions on that project, which I believe is rare. Coming from an entirely different college environment as compared to IIIT Delhi, it was initially difficult to get adjusted to working with a person who gave me so much freedom to express my ideas. I truly thank him for giving me the opportunity to work with the group.

Bits and pieces of ‘PKs philosophies’ like this will continue to stay with me and inspire me as bigger challenges await in life.

Picture with PK; taken in Jan 2018

The IIIT Delhi influence:

Even though my experience was largely concentrated to being at the Precog lab, being a part of IIIT Delhi was a major advantage. Working at IIIT Delhi helped me not lose touch with the academia and introduced me to countless pioneers. Working here ensured that my learning wasn’t limited to just what happened at Precog, but expanded to what other students and professors at IIIT Delhi were doing. In IIIT Delhi, I had found a second home after my undergrad, and I can feel the difference it has made in my life.

The IIIT Delhi atmosphere was always abuzz with a host of technical events to learn from and participate in. Even though my association was with Precog, I was able to audit the amazing courses at IIIT Delhi, participate and volunteer for the workshops happening in the institute.

The most memorable for me was being able to audit the Designing Human-Centered Systems (DHCS) course. I ended up spending way too much time (happily) in the course activities than I initially thought I would, and at some point you couldn’t differentiate me from an actual IIITD student taking the course. The BBI presentation for the course (plus the countless nights we spend preparing for it), was one of the most enjoyable days I have spent at IIIT Delhi. Building our project with my team was an experience I’d trade for nothing else.

The one with the HOWL project team

I will fondly recall attending poster presentations from random courses in IIIT Delhi, and even judging a few. The thesis defense presentations I attended gave me a deep insight into the kind of problems people are solving. The symposiums and the winter schools I volunteered for made sure I was learning way more than my ‘job’ was supposed to teach me. I am sure that the IIIT Delhi environment had something to do with me sitting here at Carnegie Mellon, and I feel thankful that Precog was housed in IIIT Delhi. Probably it played just as important a part as Precog did. Bottom line being, your advisor, peers and the work ethics are not the only thing that matter, your environment plays a pivotal part too.

Pushing the boundaries of learning: 

Just like the influence of IIIT Delhi allowed me to grow beyond what I was doing at Precog, the connections that PK has built at Precog provided many wonderful learning opportunities to me.

For instance, I was given the opportunity to be a Teaching Assistant for two online courses on NPTEL, something that lies beyond the ‘job description’ of an RA. Working on a development project deployed in the real world allowed me to constantly interact with users and gain a wholesome perspective of product management. I was given the responsibility of leading hands-on workshop sessions at symposiums, winter-schools and summer workshops that Precog conducted. These were things that made me grow in more ways than I expected out of being at RA at Precog, when I joined. All of this was made possible by the incredible connections PK has with the academia and industry.

The most memorable of these events was the summer school organized at IIIT Hyderabad by us. I decided to single out this experience because it was a turning point for me in some manner. I thoroughly enjoyed working with a group of ~70 students, leading workshop sessions on privacy and data science. It also allowed me to interact with grad students at IIIT Hyderabad. The confidence boost I gained after spending that week at IIIT Hyderabad, was something I carried for a long time with me. It was a much needed break, which allowed me to re-adjust my focus in life before the much dreaded period of grad school applications began.

Our team of volunteers at IIIT Hyderabad

Opportunities like this not only made sure I strengthened my hold on what I was learning at Precog, but also helped me gain great confidence in talking about my work. It helped me improve my public speaking abilities. For the first time in my life, it allowed me to share my knowledge with others. Explaining a concept to a room full of undergraduates, and seeing their satisfaction at having learned something new from me was indeed a rewarding experience. It taught me the importance of communicating my point in a concise and effective manner.

These opportunities ensured that life at Precog wasn’t confined within the four walls of the lab for me. My work gave me multiple opportunities to travel, make new connections and gain varied perspectives. I didn’t just add things to my profile for the 2 years I worked at Precog, my way of thinking changed in a lot of intangible ways.

The small world phenomenon:

It is also important for me to highlight just how far the support structure of Precog extends. One of the most inspiring things at Precog is the influence of its alumni who have gone on to study/work at amazing places in the world. The best part is the connect all alums still have with PK and Precog. In the process of their visits to Precog, we were very fortunate to learn about their experiences and information about their institutions/ companies was something worth gold for us. The insights that I gained through these alumni visits not only helped me in my projects at Precogs and my knowledge, but it also had a significant impact on my grad school applications. So much so that while writing my applications, I never felt like a lone warrior, but like I had the support and the knowledge pool of the whole group along with me.

Being a part of Precog truly reinforces the small world philosophy, because Precog alums are everywhere, and you can trust them to have your backs. And I can proudly say that not just for the sake of it, but through my experience here. I have found great support from every single Precog alum I have reached out to, despite the fact that I had never met them (nor did they know about my existence). A simple message saying “I work with Precog/PK” was enough to seek help when you would least expect it. I cannot stress enough on the importance of connections like this in life.  These incidents time and again reiterate the value of the entity Precog has become today. It is a testament to its legacy. It further motivates me in my effort to support my peers and future Precogs no matter where I am in the world.

The Precog fam:

On my second day itself, when I barely knew everyone’s names in the lab, these people dragged me to a social outing. If you talk to people at Precog casually, you’ll be surprised to know that majority of us would account for something like that in their first week with the group. Breaking the ice was never a hurdle with Precogs, everyone was welcome, whenever.

I always found it funny how I stayed at home for the 4 years of undergrad (since college was nearby), and my hostel life began when I started working at Precog. This blog would be incomplete, and wouldn’t do enough justice to life at Precog, without a mention of how supportive the Precog family was during that phase. Long discussions on winter nights over tea, over-analysing everything under the sun, having paranthas at 3am in the IIIT Delhi canteen and playing 6 hour long board games will be dearly missed.

I was blessed to find better project partners then I could ever ask for, and an incredible roommate for my hostel life. I set out to find a roommate, and probably a friend, but I ended up finding a brother in him. And I will forever be thankful to life for him.

All #PrecogSocials we had are fresh in my memory as the day they happened. The fact that my fellow Precogs even end up seeing me off at the airport tells you how special the bond is.

One with (most of) the Precog fam. I loved interacting with every single person in the picture.

I probably cannot stress enough how cool and special every single person in the Precog family is. And I’m not even talking about their work. Surely, I had the chance of working with some of the stalwarts in my domain, which was an incredible learning experience. But these were a bunch of people with whom you could have intense technical discussions going on for hours, as well spend the whole night cracking jokes and making memories of a lifetime. You could expect help at even 3am in the night; asking questions was never looked down upon and such an unwavering support is what made Precog family a distinguishing factor in my life.

The PhD students with Precog are (aptly) called the ‘Pillars’ of Precogs. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had significant overlap with the pillars, during my time here. It is impossible to quantify the kind of impact the pillars have had on my knowledge and my decision-making process. I’ve lost count of the number of times the pillars covered up the screw ups caused by me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I was in distress and just one conversation with one of the pillars made life so easy. I’ve lost count of the number of times I discussed my career goals with them, and felt I was on the path to making smarter choices. Like I said, I wasn’t someone who was sure about going for my masters from day 1, and the pillars played a pivotal role in helping me define my career goals. I have gained a unique perspective in life through conversations with each one of them. Without them, I surely wouldn’t be sitting here recounting memories so fondly. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here. It was so hard to say goodbye to each and every one of them.

But the best part about working at Precog is that you can still very much feel the influence of the pillars who’ve left. You can still reach out to them for anything in life. They will still be my fallbacks. When the going gets tough during my Masters journey, I am sure these people would be the ones I reach out to, and I know for a fact that everything would be fine after just one call with them.

 

Picture with the pillars (missing Niharika ma’am)
A picture with the outgoing Precog cohort; One of the last Precog pictures I was part of

I applied to Precog simply expecting to learn about and do research, but I got so much more in return. I ended up getting my hands dirty with research, development, TAship, managing workshops, leading lab sessions, organising #PrecogSocials, taking technical interviews, traveling to cool places and so much more. Things have a way of exceeding your expectations at Precog, provided you’re willing to work aggressively towards your goals. And that is something probably every member can attest to. A thought I’d like to leave with the future, as well as the current Precogs – the more you give to Precog (in terms of the time and the effort), the more it’ll give you back. Without a doubt.

My ultimate advice to you would be to venture out and seek opportunities outside your comfort zone. Seek out the right kind of people in life, they matter much more than the work you’re doing. Appreciate the good connections you have made in life. Take a leap of faith sometimes even when you’re not sure of things, and it might just pay off provided you’re willing to put your heart and soul into it.

-Divyansh