A life that most Indian students couldn’t even imagine!

Disclaimer: This blog is about an experience of a lifetime in two years. So, bear with me if I am too detailed in the write-up 🙂

It was my final year of undergraduate studies when I used to Chair the ACM Student Chapter of my college. My team was looking to invite an academician for a talk and thus, was scrolling down a list of Worldwide ACM Distinguished Speakers. That’s when I first heard of a IIITD Professor who works on Social Networks. But no one knew that inviting him was going to change the next two.. pardon the next “n” years of my life! I have always dreamt and strived to become world’s one of the most impactful speakers more than anything else. Watching and listening to PK’s one-hour ACM talk on “Privacy and Security in Online Social Media” was surely a teaser of what I always desire to achieve. That single-hour talk wasn’t only about the magic he creates as a speaker; rather, it was also my first step towards one of the very few research groups in India which believe in Computing for Social Good.

Day 0: Mini shocks complementary with newbie package

High Voltage: After clearing the rigorous selection process of the group, involving a challenging task and tricky interviews, there I was, on my first day, entering the lab.

Okay, wait…
A research group. Check  ✅
Apparently, some of the smartest minds working. Check  ✅

What do you expect when you enter their workplace? A set of some very serious people, sticking their faces to the computer screens and minding their own jobs? Not really. As I walked towards the lab, I could hear 5-6 people shouting on the top of their voices, and as I entered, I found that the number is ~20 in a 16*12 sq. ft. room “politely” arguing over a methodology followed in a research paper. We cutely call this regular practice of ours as “Brainstorming Sessions”. Overwhelmed with the energy fields in that small magnetic field space (our lab), I was sure that this was the right place for me.

Old lab – Place from where it all started. Clicked the left one on my last day! The right one was clicked on one of the infinitely many occasions we celebrate 🙂

Unexpecting the unexpected: Now, my concern was whether I was good enough for the place. Just when I was introduced to the group and was so pumped up to rock the hell out of any project I’d be assigned, the following happened to be my first official project conversation with a senior:

“Have you worked on _____ technology?”,
“No”,
“No problem. Take your time. Learn it by tonight? We’ll start working tomorrow.”
“Ok, WHUTT?!” (That’s how my reflex worked xD )

To all those who believe in “settling in”, “taking some time in your new job”, it’s an illusion at Precog. Theoretically, you have time to settle in, but in reality, YOU DON’T. This constant time-crunch, in retrospect, always forced me to keep pushing my limits. In pursuit of matching the pace of the people around, I developed a habit to keep accelerating. That’s what Precog is – people chasing their own better version every single moment.

“Go beyond not just to meet expectations”

Next day. An hour-long meeting. The first project assigned to me and I became a victim of information overflow. There were technologies being used which I only read about in blogs of successful start-ups. The project was already on an unbelievable scale. Astonishment, excitement, and nervousness struck together when you realise that the job is not just to do some amazing stuff, but to top the brilliant piece of work achieved by three generations of Precogs.

Pulling off all-nighters to get the code talking to me, to build something that I will always be proud of, to meet close deadlines and nailing it – all this was honestly beyond my anticipation and simply unachievable without the people I worked with. The best part of Precog is that it continually increases your appetite for challenges and simultaneously, has enough resources to feed what it grows. So, when things had started settling in, the obvious happened. I wanted to have more on my plate.

That’s when I began working on a research submission for The Follower Count Fallacy project. Everything was different in this endeavour. More than being different, it was unexplored for me. Meanwhile, in an ongoing email conversation with PK, he sent me a slightly coded reply saying–

I couldn’t decode it until I delved into what was not my comfort zone – Research. I did know how to build things – how to “implement” a thought and bring it into reality, but research was a completely different ballgame. The effort was not just about finding solutions; it was more about taking a step back and asking the right questions. Apart from PK, I was fortunate to have a mentor who was supportive enough to walk me through in this endeavour. As much as she is a perfectionist, she helped me in my struggles, and failures, despite the time-crunch we used to have. It was her mentorship only which eventually enabled me decode PK’s message, i.e., when you work just to meet expectations, you set your boundaries and limit yourself from hitting higher. After all the failures, believe me, that the success tasted much better!

Amidst the process of exploring/struggling/failing/succeeding, you don’t realise when you actually become a Precog than being just a part of it. Late-night group brainstorming on somebody’s problem statement and debugging a program with teamwork had become a routine. It was now time to take up a third challenge apart from the two projects with me already. This was one for the team. I was given the responsibility to manage the humongous server infrastructure of Precog. Combine the infrastructure of some renowned universities, and we can beat them with ours. I clearly wasn’t skilled in handling this, but I was sure ready for this. Managing the resources for numerous students working on uncountable projects, along with several external collaborations – my plate was so full. I was struggling badly, and yet I was enjoying it!

Learning was surely at an exponential high during these two years. The challenges here didn’t only make me a better developer, researcher, or a better team player. It eventually made me a better thinker and a fighter!

After one of the deadlines successfully ended. Couldn’t be any happier during my RA-ship!

Two years, Seven cities, Sixteen places!

My decision of refusing two industry job offers to join a research group, which was a massive leap of faith, conveys the intensity of impact that PK creates on stage. Sharing stage with the man, who has spoken at places like Harvard and Stanford, was a dream. But, dreams do come true! It all began when PK had to deliver a technical session at a place. Everything was going smooth, we were done with three-fourths of the session when PK paused for a break and asked me whether I’d like to speak and deliver the remaining part. Omg! moment and in no time, I agreed to deliver my first ever professional tech session.

Since then, I got chances to present our work and deliver tech sessions with (and sometimes, without) PK at numerous occasions. I traveled to seven cities and interacted with people across the country. This enriching experience is special not only for the places I visited, or the sessions that I delivered; it is more about the impact we were able to create amongst the people we’d never known. Nothing of this was possible if I had not been a person that PK-Precog helped me become!

The Precog Orientation: Skills utilised sometimes at home too 🙂

PK an advisor, a friend and a role-model

At most academic places across the world including ones in India, there’s always this unsaid generational, professional and emotional gap between a professor and his students. You don’t particularly expect to go for a Biryani feast for dinner with a Prof, or play bowling and cricket with the whole group, or rock the dance floor together. Now, you get a hint of how unconventionally cool my advisor is.

The group’s energy is just a derivative of the amount of energy that he brings in. This energy is tremendous, contagious and honestly, was scary initially because I’d never worked with a personality as dynamic as his. He is a person who leads by example and whose actions inspire people to become as sincere in life as he is. The most amazing thing is that he has time for everyone and everything! From being actively involved in each of the innumerable projects that Precog is working on, to delivering university lectures, and then, traveling to places across the globe to deliver talks and sessions, to also take out time for going out, playing and enjoying with the group, he has this extraordinary time management skills.

Indeed, there are several research groups in India, but the differentiating factor that makes Precog incredible is the liberty you get in making decisions. This freedom in making choices develops a sense of ownership in you towards everything you pursue and allows you to be more open to experimentation and learning. All attributed to the PK-effect which flows in the group.

Words will always be less to quantify the influence he’s had on my mindset, career, and life in general. I will miss the infinite times of *knock-knock* at his office for discussing every small and big, good and bad moments in my professional as well as personal life. Just as he plays a pivotal role in impacting the lives of so many students around him, I hope I’ll be able to continue what I started in Precog and keep making a positive impact on people’s lives in my way.

A Big Fat Loving Family Precog

At Precog, it is so fascinating to experience the incredible pace at which strangers become friends, and friends become family! We take the slogan, “Work hard, party harder” so seriously that good and bad experiences were only an excuse for celebration. These people make every success look grander and every failure smaller.

I will definitely cherish the late night productive and unproductive discussions we had, the many #PrecogSocials we enjoyed, the pranks we planned on each other, the weird dance moves we discovered together, the jokes that made us roll on floor laughing, the board game conspiracies, the fight for free pizzas and the list would go on.

No matter how much work these people have, they’d be ready to solve your problem without looking at the clock. To your kind attention, I’m not just talking about a few people in the lab; we are in fact so huge a family that you’ll find at least one of us in every big place across the globe. And irrespective of the fact whether we know each other personally or not, a “Precog connection” is more than enough for one to go out of their ways to help the other. This fantastic connect with people is the foundation of Precog. And nothing would have existed without the cohesives of the group – The Pillars of Precog!

Pillars are they, as Precog stands on their shoulders – the Ph.D. students! There’s no way I could’ve achieved the delta within me without their support. The equation that I share with each of them is simply inexplicable and I feel nostalgic every second when I think of each of them. No matter what wrong or right is happening in my life, even if I have no idea what was happening in my life (which was the case mostly), they’d know me better and guide me in the right direction. Each big and small conversation with them made me wiser, and more charged up. Their presence has such tremendous influence on us, on the group that I think I have unknowingly acquired some notable traits of all five of them.

Okay, now imagine the energy level with these people in the 16*12 sq.ft. lab space I was talking about. Did you sense that? :’)

At last, I’d say that it is absolutely fine sometimes to take a calculated leap of faith because it is only then when you truly understand the impact of choices that you make in life. Consequently, you tend to experiment more wisely and collect richer experiences. Joining Precog was one such huge leap of faith that I took, and it turned out to be one of the most amazing times of my life.

Loads of love to everyone who played a role in making my journey so special!

PS: A huge shout out to my two elite Counterstrike (CS) team members. CS is of course only an excuse to mention the two brothers I found in this endeavour. It’s very rare in life, to find people whose frequencies match perfectly with yours. In life, we don’t ask for cover as we got each other’s backs already! To both of them – * Check bhijwa dena zara *

* Signing off for now *
– Kushagra Bhargava

Internship at MPI-SWS and a summer to cherish

I spent summer of 2018 (May – August) as an intern in Prof. Krishna P. Gummadi’s research group at MPI-SWS in Saarbrücken, Germany. It was an enthralling and enriching experience to work on cutting-edge and high impact research problems, interacting with some of the best researchers and PhD students in the world, and also making some amazing friends from across the globe. In this blog, I’ll try to recapitulate what was the most happening and enjoyable summer for me thus far.

First off, the question which I have been asked very often since I updated my internship status on LinkedIn and FB: how did you get in? Short answer: PK’s recommendation can take you places. Long Answer: I have been working with Precog for the past 2+ years now. My first project at Precog (and with PK) was a collaboration with Rijurekha Sen (who back then was a postdoctoral researcher at MPI-SWS). Our work got accepted to SIGMETRICS’17 as a poster, and then later to ICTD’17 as a full paper, which I believe buttressed my application greatly. I applied to MPI-SWS around October 2017 through their portal along with PK’s recommendation to my eventual advisor, Krishna P. Gummadi. I got an email from Krishna sometime in late December informing me that I had been selected! And that is my long story short. To sum it up, MPI-SWS has an amazing and very competitive internship program for which you’d be competing against Masters and PhD students from some of the top universities in the world like ETH Zürich, EPFL, GaTech to name a few. In such a case, being an undergrad from India, your best bet is to stand out through your work experience and most importantly, your recommendations.

After a tumultuous semester, summer finally arrived. At Precog we had been reading research papers by Krishna’s group and often considered those papers as seminal works in the field. The thought of working with pioneers of their field was exhilarating. I explored multiple projects during my time at MPI. I started by working on adversarial machine learning, then shifted gears to work on data fairness in automated decision making and then finally settled on dabbling with detecting and mitigating discrimination in targeted advertisements. I won’t make this blog insipid by delving into the nuances of these projects, but, in the process of ruminating on these nuances I gained a lot of insights into both technical and philosophical aspects of research some of which have had an indelible effect on me.

On the technical side, I learnt about various notions of fairness in decision making, learnt a great deal about attacks and defences on machine learning systems (particularly neural networks) and even proposed my own attacks and defences on targeted advertisement systems. In addition, we used to have weekly reading groups where we would take up some interesting concept and deconstruct it to get an intuitive feel of what’s going on. However, the most important skill I gained out of my internship was to understand the importance of asking the right questions. Often times in the past, I had been guilty of over-complicating things and selling my work behind a veil of buffed up jargons. However, it was during my internship I realised that science is about elucidating rather than obscuring. After long thought provoking discussions, meetings which would warp time, my outlook towards research has been broadened.

Here’s a picture with the group at MPI. L-to-R: Till; Junaid; Reza; Prof. Niloy Ganguly, IIT Kgp; Prof. Krishna P. Gummadi; Bilal; Myself; Koustuv (intern, PhD at GaTech); Ashmi (intern, MS CS at TUM)

While it may seem at this point that my internship was only work, it was far from it. Being in Europe bestows you to some of the most picturesque places in the world. Being a football fan, in the midst of a world cup, was an icing on the cake. I got to watch the final in Metz, a small football crazy city in France and watched the 2 french open finals: women’s singles and men’s doubles on court Philippe Chatrier. Of course my journey in Europe would be incomplete without mentioning the amazing (and not so expensive) ice creams! I’ll let the pictures do rest of the talking.

 

Some culinary delights.

 

French Open (above) and Le Petit France, Strasbourg (below)

To sum it up, I would strongly encourage anyone looking for research internships to apply to MPI-SWS. I sincerely thank Krishna for having me at MPI and PK for recommending me.