My enriching journey with Precog

It all started with a weekend I was free and saw a small opportunity to do something different. I saw a post on facebook for a hackathon organized by Precog. The challenge was to build a sentiment classifier in Hindi. We quickly googled the exact problem and found some solutions which could be implemented easily. Later we realized that everyone else is doing the exact same thing. That was the moment we realized, we need to do something different and out of the box to win. Before that, we used to stay in our comfort zone and rely on external sources for answers. That hackathon was the beginning when I got into machine learning. I am pretty much convinced my life would have been really different if I didn’t take part. After several hours of hacking, we put together a small working prototype and ended up winning the hackathon. During the hackathon, we got a gist of the people and the culture of Precog. Because of that, I ended up doing a summer internship and staying there till my end of my undergrads. Precog is the most selective research group in our college, which was all the more reason for me to be super thrilled to get in.

The internship was an amazing experience for me. It was the first time I started working as part of a team. I learned a lot of cool stuff from my peers. The thing that fascinated me the most was the freedom and trust of others. We used to have open discussions of ideas, where no idea was considered bad. At Precog everyone helps each other; whether it was reviewing a draft, debugging code or getting new ideas. I was with Indira and Kushagra working on solving NLP problems on Indian OSM data. I still recall the long discussions we used to have together. This was the first time I ever had access to massive compute resources. Precog has more servers than any other research group at IIITD, which was pretty cool to know (and still is)!. That enabled me to play with massively large data. I was also involved with Sonal in an image retrieval project. The research was published at SocInfo.  We used to have Whatsup sessions where we all would share our updates with the whole group. To the best of my knowledge, Precog is the only group which does that. We all used to learn a lot about new things from that session.

Precog Interns: Summer of 2016

Fascinated by the work at Precog, I decided to continue working with them after the internship as well. I started working on analyzing sensitive content with indira. We had several discussions with other teams on how to make our project better. Our system finally ended up getting deployed. The feeling of our research work helping others was quite satisfying. Together, we used to brainstorm ideas for several other projects. My experience with Precog changed my perspective. It is a fact that most of the research around the world goes unused, but this is not the case with Precog. The outings, cake cutting events and the dinners at PK’s residence bonded us together as a family.

I always used to be a “how” person, who focuses on the solutions rather than the problems. With Precog, I realized the importance of “what”. Figuring out the ‘what to do’ is much more crucial. We can easily find solutions once we understand the problem. The culture at Precog encourages us to believe in ourselves. My presentation skills improved drastically, thanks to the ‘Deep Dive’ sessions. Due to the absence of any kind of spoon feeding, we all became better at finding solutions. Rather than learning a particular skill, we mastered the skill of acquiring skills. Every Precog alum is extremely successful, and now I know why.

A group photo of our family!

As a machine learning geek, I believe we all are like reinforcement learning agents: trying to maximize our reward (for us fun and learning). For an agent to get an optimal reward, good feedback on its actions is really important. The complete group as a whole provides excellent feedback which results in us improving, being more adept to achieve our dreams and have fun on the way as well!

Looking back, I realize how these small events had such a huge impact in my life. From troubling others by crashing the servers to publishing papers, I realize what all I would have missed by not joining Precog. In my last semester, I interned at Microsoft Research doing research on unsupervised learning on video data.  If you have a desire to do something out of the box, I highly recommend you to should join Precog.

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!).

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

The journey of an unlikely doctor

My journey at IIIT-Delhi started back in July 2010. To put things in perspective, that was the year when Steve Jobs introduced iPhone 4 and the first ever iPad. Game of Thrones was a TV series unheard of. Sachin Tendulkar scored the first ever double hundred in a one day cricket match. Barack Obama had just completed 1 year as the president of the United States. And Tinder and Instagram did not exist.

The past seven years have taught me more about myself than I could ever expect to learn probably during the rest of my life. I learned what I want to do in life. More importantly, I learned what I do NOT want to do in life. The credit for that goes collectively to the institute (IIIT-Delhi), the group (Precog), the advisor (PK), and the process (PhD). This can seem to be a long blog so I’ve tried to break it down into sections.

Epilogue
The review read, “He is a smart student, but definitely has not picked up how to do research. He needs to really pick up some concrete questions and contribute with research work by end of the semester, otherwise, it is going to be tough to continue.” The illusion of success had been busted wide open.

The Beginning (July 2010 – Early 2012)
My association with IIIT-Delhi started in July 2010 when I joined as a Masters student. Too many people have talked about the cultural “shock” (in the positive sense) that they witness when they first come to IIITD. My case was no different, so I’ll skip that part. Moving on to the academics, life seemed pretty simple in the beginning. Putting in effort was translating to output and good results. One semester went by, and then another. A glowing grade card, a fellowship and an internship with IBM, and an amazing bunch of friends made life seem pretty much perfect. It was around this time [August of 2011] that I (and a few others from my batch) got an email from Prof. Pankaj Jalote, offering direct admission into the PhD program. I knew this was big, but at that point in time, I didn’t realise the magnitude of the impact that this decision [of enrolling into a PhD program] could have on my life and career. So I let my instinctive, opportunistic self drive this decision and without too much thought, I signed up within 3 days of getting the offer.

Note: This is probably not the best way to make such a big decision. I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have been able to pull this off with such an approach.

One important factor that pushed me in favour of taking up PhD was the individual I would be working with, the advisor. In retrospect, I think it was the excitement of working with PK more than anything else that tipped me into making the decision.

The Local Maxima: Illusion of success (Early 2012 to Mid 2014)
Having accepted the PhD offer, the plan was to wrap up all requirements for the Masters degree and officially join as a PhD candidate only during the second half of 2012. But something else was in store. Right around the time the PhD offer came in, PK had connected me with Dr. Maura Conway from Dublin City University regarding a research project which was part of the seventh Framework Program (a.k.a. FP7) for research in Europe. Things started moving along at a decent pace and we made some progress in the next 4 months or so. Now the thing with projects like FP7 is that they come along with their perks. January of 2012. PK sat me down and said that I’d need to travel to Ireland for around 3 months as part of the project. This is where the “honeymoon period” starts. My starting date as a PhD candidate was moved up and I officially started PhD on February 4, 2012 (it made more sense to travel as a PhD student instead of a Masters student). I was already starting to realise the differences between being a Masters student and a PhD student. I had “levelled up” in life. I had my own desk for the first time in my life. Friends and family had started looking at me differently. There was a certain sense of respect I could feel. Cheap thrills! Anyhow, a trip to Dublin was waiting. The semester ended and I was off. May 3, 2012. My first international travel. Fully funded. And I had a ball. Read all about it in another blog I wrote. I’d like to think that the 11 weeks I spent at DCU were fairly fruitful. We got a paper submitted at a conference, I completed my Masters requirements, the exposure of an international collaboration helped me understand how the outside world functions, and the amount of fun I had was absolutely amazing.

By the time I came back [July 2012], I was already part of another collaboration with Tiago and Prof. Virgilio from UFMG, Brazil. Another international collaboration with some big names, some ground work was already set up and that made life easier. Tiago and I started working on uTrack, incremented the work and submitted it to WWW, which is possibly the largest and biggest conferences in the Internet domain. Amazingly enough, it went through. Now getting this kind of success [paper at the main track of the world’s biggest conference] at such an early stage in PhD makes you feel like the James Bond of research. You tend to get the feeling that this journey is going to be a piece of cake and you’ll ace it every step of the way. And that is NOT good news.

uTrack was followed by MultiOSN, my first independent project, which was featured in national level news and media during mid 2013. I was enjoying my work. The lab was practically a second home. The year ended with an opportunity to work with Symantec Research Labs for 6 months, which I gleefully accepted.

To summarise this phase of life, I had two successful international collaborations, a project that had made national news, and an association with one of the world’s biggest and most popular brands in computer and web security. This was stuff that would make a glittering CV. All these events put me on my high horse and created the illusion of grand success at the PhD level. And this was building on top of the glorified GPA I had during my Masters degree. It was almost as if I couldn’t put a foot wrong. Little did I know that the real journey of PhD hadn’t even begun.

The Global Minima (Mid 2014 to Mid 2015)
Before I went to Pune for my 6-month long internship with Symantec in December 2013, PK clearly underlined that I “needed” to have a concrete problem defined for my PhD thesis before / by the time I came back. I agreed. Everything I had done up until this point, wasn’t really building up to a thesis. They were small independent projects, which might have come out well individually, but weren’t really building up towards a solving a clear-cut PhD problem.

PK always talked about an input vs. output graph and said that most of us fall in the high-input-medium-output zone or probably even high-input-low-output-zone. Up until now, I didn’t really agree with him. The first part of my PhD life seemed to lie kind of like in the medium-input-high-output zone. But this was the phase where I realised what PK really meant. December 2013 to May 2014 was high input time for me. In addition to the project I was working on with Symantec, I was also working towards building a concrete problem for my thesis. I used to start my days at around 10 am, go to office, work, come back at 7-8 in the evening, sat down again at around midnight and worked until 3-4 am. Pretty much high input time.

June 2014. I came back, wrapped up the Symantec work, submitted it to a conference, and it went through. However, I still did not have a concrete PhD problem. Most of what I did during the past 6 months went to dust. It was ok for some initial ground work, for scratching the surface, but nowhere close to a well-defined problem to solve. High-input-low-output had come true. And this hit me pretty hard. Research did not seem to be easy any more. I didn’t know where I was heading. I didn’t even know where I had to go. I had spent 2 and a half years in the program and I still did not have a problem statement. The comprehensive exam (somewhat equivalent of what is referred to as a qualifying exam in other universities) was overdue. I got an “Average” rating for the yearly review. The review read, “He is a smart student, but definitely has not picked up how to do research. He needs to really pick up some concrete questions and contribute with research work by end of the semester, otherwise, it is going to be tough to continue.” The illusion of success had been busted wide open.

The first few conversations I had with PK during the second half of 2014 highlighted the problems with my PhD journey more and more. It was during one of these conversations where I was given the ultimatum. Getting my act together or leaving [literally] were the only options I was given. I stepped out of the meeting and I was in tears [which is pretty rare by the way]. I came back to the lab (which was somehow empty that time of the day) and started evaluating my options while not being able to control those salty droplets dripping out of my eyes. I was seriously contemplating the option of dropping out. “I’ll figure out something, I still have a Masters degree”, I said to myself. It took an hour of consoling from Niharika to get me back to my senses.

I was shattered. This was probably the lowest point in my life. Starting 2006, I had been on top of my game. Aced undergrad, aced Masters… But as they say, “the higher you fly, the harder you fall.” Over the next few days, I told myself that I couldn’t just drop off. Overcoming this failure would probably be one of the biggest features of my life (only if I could pull it off). Failures are supposed to be part of life. Success is meaningless without failures. Basically, all those classic motivational one-liners were suddenly relevant now.

The next few months were all about trying to regroup my thoughts, learning all about research [I had realised I knew jack about research], and nailing down a concrete problem. I got it down to 1) poor quality content, and 2) Facebook. I told PK that this was the intersection I would be working in. I read some literature and put together a literature review document for my comprehensive exam which took place in November 2014. Over the next few months, I worked on refining the problem and chalking out a potential thesis outline.

Note: This phase of my life featured a 10-day trip to the US for presenting a paper, and a 6-week internship to DCU, Ireland [yes, again] too. With the kind of excitement I usually carry for international travels, these should’ve been the highlights of this part of the story, but as was evident, something bigger was going on during this time. Adventures from the travel, maybe some other time.

The Pursuit of Happiness (Mid 2015 to Early 2017)
Three years into the program, I had virtually nothing that would be part of my thesis. But the good part was that the worst was over. The next 16 months or so were all about constructing the castle of my thesis brick by brick.

I’ve always been inclined towards “building systems” more than studying / reading about things, i.e. I prefer the “practical” over the “theoretical”. However, PhD [in most cases] is incomplete without theory. I couldn’t keep myself away from thinking about a practical solution approach when I saw a problem, and at the same time, I knew that PhD would keep itself away from me if I didn’t do well at theoretically backing up a proposed solution. I had to cater to both, and I was able to do it in the form of Facebook Inspector. I identified a problem [of poor quality content running riot on Facebook], gathered some data, used the all-mightly theory-heavy machine learning and natural language processing to solve the problem, and put out the solution in the form of a system for everyone to use. That’s pretty much what Facebook Inspector was [easier said than done, trust me]. It satisfied my appetite for “building” systems and at the same time, had the potential to bring theory to the scene.

I did one project and wrote a paper, then another, and another, and went on and on. Each paper (or project I took up) was completely defined by me, unlike the kind of projects I had done during the initial phase of my journey. I learnt from every project and used the learning to improve the quality of the next project. I slowly gained my confidence back. I was getting back on my feet, but somewhere inside, I knew I wasn’t the best at what I was doing. Whatever I was doing “needed to be done” more than me “wanting to do it”. Whether I wanted to do this for a career was questionable. I had come to terms with what PhD research was, but it had taken me slightly far away from what I “really” wanted to do. Would this last forever? Would things change after some time? Would I be able to get back to doing what I want and still be good enough at research? I didn’t have the answers. Moreover, I didn’t have the time to look for answers. Building a strong thesis was top priority. It was the only priority.

Meanwhile, the work I was doing [identifying poor quality content on Facebook] was getting hotter and hotter in the community. Facebook started frequenting the news; media houses held the social network responsible for the spread of one rumour or hoax after another. The relevance of my work shot up, giving me confidence to pitch my thesis as timely and important.

The summer of 2016 helped me discover a new side of me. I was one of the “senior” people in the lab by now. Our group [Precog] was getting recognition. Students from other institutes in the country (and even abroad) wanted to come to us to work. This was an opportunity to “lead” a project instead of doing one. We got lots of very smart students from different parts of the country (and the world) to work with us during the summer. This is what is now famously known as the #PrecogSummer. As for me, three smart students, 3 months of summer, and a completely new area [computer vision] produced some really exciting output. I had not only gotten into a new area of work, but also into a new role; a “project leader” of sorts. And fortunately, it all worked out well. All the three students were happy and satisfied about what they had done during the summer, and so was I. More importantly from a personal perspective, getting back to doing something that was appreciated and taken well by the advisor [PK] really helped me get back my confidence and my competence.

It was at this point that I started getting back to being my confident self again, without worrying too much about what would happen to my PhD. PK had shown faith in me, helped me get back on my feet, encouraged me and made me believe that I still belonged to this league. Looking back now, I realise how big a risk he took with me. An unsuccessful PhD candidate doesn’t look pretty on any professor’s profile. He took the risk anyway (and I’d like to believe he would feel it was worth it :P). The advisor showing faith and trust in you is a game-changing phenomenon during PhD life. I’ve been lucky to have experienced this phenomenon.

Mind you, everything I did during this phase, had still not converted to acceptable output. I barely got enough to keep me afloat, but I needed more papers accepted at better places to have a strong enough / defendable thesis. Rejected drafts kept piling on. I kept on resubmitting to different venues. By January 2017, I had done enough work to make up [what I thought would be] an acceptable thesis. PK and I had already agreed on this. It was time to start wrapping up. More “new” work wasn’t needed, but existing work needed fixes and acceptance in the community. However, this wasn’t reason enough to stay a PhD student for long. It was time to move on, to start looking for a job, for a life after PhD.

The Mini Panic Attack (Feb 2017 to April 2017)
By February 2017, all of my work had either concluded, or under review somewhere. There was always scope of starting new projects, but it was time to step out into the real world. Browsing LinkedIn for jobs had become the most common thing to do these days. At the same time, I was facing an internal conflict. All my student life, I wanted to go outside India to work after finishing studies. But finding a job in Europe or the US is pretty goddamn hard for the simple reason that you’re not a local. Why would any organisation go through the pain of bringing a foreign national onboard. Not only is it complicated, but expensive and time consuming as well. A good alternative was post doctoral research (famously a.k.a. postdoc). This route was comparatively much easier. However, postdoc would have meant continuing to do academic research, something which I already confessed I wasn’t the best at, and something I wasn’t sure I really “wanted” to continue doing. The only option left was industry in India, but then I wanted to go outside!

While I was going through this internal conflict, I got news that Niharika was leaving. Leaving for good. She had wrapped up her work and I knew she was looking for job opportunities. She got a pretty amazing job offer and she had to join soon. Of course I was happy for her, but this still hit me like an absolute shocker. Why? I’d like to use up the rest of this paragraph to take a bit of a detour here. Niharika and I started our journeys together way back in July 2010 as Masters students at IIITD. We did almost all our courses, assignments, and projects together during M. Tech. We joined PhD together, with the same professor, in the same lab, around the same time. We also shared our journey back home together for the first couple of years. We shared big chunks, and all the ups and downs of our PhD lives with each other. Essentially, she was one constant in my life at IIITD who was there every single day, every step of the way for the past 7 years. And when I realised that this constant wasn’t going to be there any more, it gave me a mini panic attack at multiple levels.

After that, somehow, the lab didn’t feel like home any more. Every day I stepped into the lab since, something told me that I HAD to leave soon. Not only had one of my closest associates left, this was also a reminder that it was high time for me to make a move on, too. I was lagging behind. Apparently, I wasn’t taking job hunting too seriously. But now I knew I had to step this up. I started preparing for interviews and started setting up interviews with any company that would show interest.

The Flurry Towards The End (April 2017 to June 2017)
While I was coping with the shrewd job market as a fresher, my inputs over the last year or so started showing output. One paper got through a journal. Then another got through at a decent conference, and another as a book chapter. I also got an opportunity to spend 3 months as an intern at IBM Research. All this happened within a span of a couple of months or so.

The IBM internship was important at two levels. One, this was perfect timing for me to “impress” IBMers to get a shot at a full time position, and two, this was my opportunity to leave the lab for good and move on in life. However hard it may sound, I knew it had to happen. It was about time. So I thought the sooner the better. April 30, 2017. My last day in the lab. A mixture of emotions amidst a goosebumpy level farewell from fellow lab mates. I was excited to have “potentially” levelled up in life, but at the same time, it isn’t easy to go away from a place where you’ve spent 7 good years of your life. Above all, this opportunity wasn’t technically a move on [that’s why I said, “potentially”]. If I couldn’t convert this internship into a full time position, or couldn’t find another job in the next 3 months, I would have no where to go. I had already told myself that coming back to the lab was not an option. This feeling really, really stressed me out.

I moved to Bangalore the very next day and joined IBM as an intern on May 2, 2017. The next three months were pretty eventful. A completely new area of work, regular outings with fellow interns, and job hunting kept me pretty occupied. The month of May was particularly stressful. Consistent rejections from job interviews were eating me up from the inside. Stress levels were at an all time high. Normally, no matter what happens during the day, I usually sleep well at night. This was probably the first time in life that I started encountering sleepless nights. Was I being too harsh on myself? I don’t really know. After all, I really did not have a plan in life after July 2017! How many rejections would it take to get one acceptance? Would that “one” acceptance be the only acceptance I’d ever get? What if I don’t like that “one” and don’t get another chance either? Finding the first job on your own is one hard nut to crack! No matter what your CV or qualifications say.

The Last Ball Sixer
Among the many applications that I had put in, was an application for a Data Scientist position at Apple [that company which makes fancy, expensive phones]. A few days after I put in the application on the Apple website, I received an email from someone at Apple asking for my availability for an interview. This was kind of unbelievable. I was struggling to get through tiny startups! Moreover, the response rate that I was experiencing was no more than 2 in 10 applications [in the best case]. I looked at the email header to verify if the email was genuine. It seemed ok. I confirmed the interview which was supposed to happen later that week.

Four rounds of interviews and one month later, the HR called me for a face-to-face at Apple’s Bangalore office and told me that I would be getting an offer. I had made it through. THIS was a moment for which words like “flabbergasted” are made. I did my best to control the excitement but kept this strictly to myself. I had to see the offer with my own eyes before sharing this with anyone. Another 3 weeks later, I got the offer which I accepted. Done deal. My biggest cause of stress had vanished. I finally knew what I would do, where I would go, and where I would be [hopefully for a foreseeable future] after July 2017. I shared the news with family and friends. All my near and dear ones were ecstatic.

Here I was, struggling with my PhD until less than a year ago, knowing I wasn’t the best at what I was doing, barely making progress in life, and all of a sudden, I had a contract with one of the world’s best. What’s more, the profile I was offered, wasn’t academic research. It needed “practical” applications of whatever I had learnt, to address real world problems. The moment I was told what my job profile at Apple would be like, I knew this was what I wanted. Like Steve Jobs once said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” I can’t think of another moment in my life where this could be any more relevant.

Meanwhile, one of the papers that I had gotten accepted a few months ago, had me visit Sydney, Australia for a week for the presentation. This trip had come right in between the IBM internship and joining Apple. Exactly what I needed. This was the cherry on top of the metaphorical cake. Life was sorted. Everything was in place. I couldn’t see how anything could’ve been better than how it was in the current state. PhD journey had come to an end. The real world was waiting. All’s well that ends well. Happy ending.

The People, The Lab, The Culture
One consistent factor throughout my journey (and probably everyone’s journey) at Precog was the people, the lab, and the culture. We were always a happy bunch of kids who worked together and partied together. There was always someone for everything. From people who’d leave behind their work without a second thought and brainstorm with you to solve your problem, to people who’d be ready in a jiffy if you ever felt like going out for a drink, we were a great mix of everything. We never let anything get to us. No matter how big the problem, we knew we’d eventually figure it out. All of us, as a group. It was towards the end that I truly realised the true value of having such a strong support system. Surviving 5 years of PhD [especially for someone like me] without such an environment at work would have easily been at least a hundred times harder. Ofcourse there’s the commander-in-chief [PK], but it is also the people that make Precog magical.

The Most Important Learning
People often say that PhD is not a destination, it’s a journey. What they don’t say is that it is a journey of self-discovery that humbles you to the core. This is a phase in life where you get the freedom to do what you like, fail, pick yourself up, repeat, and figure out what’s best for you. What I learnt about myself was what I did NOT want to do in life; academic research. As ironical as it may sound, this was my biggest and most important learning from PhD. I was doing academic research but it didn’t really come to me naturally. I trained to work hard, be patient, and persevere. I wasn’t a natural at any of them. Mind you, these skills are priceless to possess and I’ll always appreciate learning them no matter how hard it was. I could train myself and get better at academic research. In fact, I did to an extent. But I knew if I had to do it for long, I wouldn’t be my happiest self.

If I took up academic research as a career, I would always think that there’s something else out there that I might be happier doing. So I made my choice. Academic research wasn’t for me. I had to push myself away from it, and move into something more and more hands-on, something where I could spend more time experimenting, failing, learning, improving, improvising, and innovating but without the infinite time-consuming cycles of cramming my ideas into eight (sometimes ten) page documents packed with jargon, and defending them to an unknown bunch of people through a peer review process.

“Gyan” that worked for me
1. Louis Pasteur once said [PK also said this a few times], “Fortune favours the prepared mind.” What kept me from breaking during my journey was the fact that I was always prepared. Prepared for the best and for the worst. If you’re prepared, nothing can surprise you. Eliminating the element of surprise from a situation deflates half its impact already, making it easier to deal with.
2. Harvey Spector says, “Anyone can do my job, but no one can be me.” You’ll always be replaceable. There’s nothing you can do that someone else can’t. It’s only a matter of finding the correct replacement. So be more than a machine. Bring more than your technical skills to the table. What you do has a price. Who you are, doesn’t. There’s a difference between what your value is, and what your worth is. Make yourself worthy in addition to being valuable. Because there will always be someone else who can do your job [maybe even for a better value], but you’d be preferred only if you’re worth it.
3. “The hardest choice may not always be the best choice.” When someone says something will be really hard for you to do, your natural instinct is to prove you can do it, and work as hard as it takes to eventually do it. It is a great confidence booster if you are able to do it. But before getting into it, pause for a moment, and think. Just because it is hard, is it the best thing for you to do? I knew great academic research was a hard nut for me to crack. But more importantly, I realised that just because it was hard, didn’t mean it was the best thing for me. So I didn’t try to take it head-on. Instead, I focused on developing a skill set that would help me get a job. This connects to the philosophy of “picking your battles wisely” and working “smart” over working “hard.”

Acknowledgements
I’ve been fortunate to have some extremely smart, fun, and hard working people during PhD. There are too many people to thank here and I would prefer not to specifically add names simply because of the fear that I might miss out someone, which I would hate to do. So, to everyone who has been associated with me during this journey, you know if you are one of them. I’d like to say, thank you.

MT10014 and PhD1111 signing off.


Cheers!
Dr. Prateek Dewan
B. Tech., M. Tech., Ph. D. (OMG)

#DeanGiri V1.0

It is natural in the course of a faculty’s life to take up administrative roles in the institute. Rolling positions of Deans, HoDs is something faculty would do at least once in their career. While it is very prestigious to be a Dean or HoD, it also means less time for research, attending more meetings etc. So, obviously it was a mixed emotion when I started as the Associate Dean of Communications and Alumni starting July 1, 2017. I was excited that I will be interacting with students/alums all around the world. This is something I have been doing for past some years on my trips to various cities in India and abroad. Now I will be doing it more formally. I will also be interacting with faculty more often now. I will get to know their research better, so that my team and I can share it on different communication platforms such as IIITD website, Facebook page, etc. I will get the opportunity to showcase the accomplishments of students and faculty, two main stakeholders of the institute, through various channels of communications.

Another aspect I was excited about was, being able to work with an excellent staff of the office of the Dean of Communications and Alumni along with inputs from the staff of various other departments like academics, HR, Placements, etc.

I started off with all these exciting thoughts and some apprehensions and now it’s been four months since I have been doing Deangiri! In the past four months we have had alumni meet ups in three cities, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Noida. It is always refreshing to see our past students doing great work, in industry or academia, they never fail to make us proud.

From our various interactions with the alums we realised that many were curious about the status of IIITD construction, Phase II. They were eager to know its progress and wanted to know about new facilities being added to the existing infrastructure. So we did a Facebook Live of the new Academic Block, we had 25+ alums join from all around the world.

About two weeks into Deangiri I was told to prepare an annual report of the institute. This came as a surprise. Not just preparing it but also presenting it to the Board of Governors. I must accept that it was only an average job done, given the little time. But the bright side of the whole endeavour was, I got to know the institute better. As a professor one is more focussed on his/her own research, students, courses, etc. and not much aware of the institute as a whole. This annual report helped me look into IIITDs achievements at a broader level, where we stand today in the country / ranking and why, what are our strengths and where is the scope for improvement. There are so many statistics; average pay packages our students get, number of students getting placed in A* companies, variety of funding agencies, and so on …

We also had interactions with faculty groups, student groups, PhD students groups, and alums to get inputs on what they would like our office to do. What are their needs and where our office can help to make their stay at IIITD more exciting and fulfilling? Many interesting ideas were discussed and we will take up some of these over the next few months.

Very soon we will start a new feature on IIITD’s website, ‘Behind-The-Scene’, where we will get to see who keeps our gardens beautiful or keeps our campus safe, the library staff or the finance office. All these people are like those backstage artists who never get the spot light yet are like pillars behind our successes. So it will be good to know them a little up close.

In January, we will organise Retrace, an annual home coming for alums across the world. This year the event will be followed by a happy hour and a sleep over. Like I said before, all credits to our discussions with various groups, they have come up with some really cool ideas to make this Retrace a memorable one. The day long programs will be followed by a happy hour at the Director’s Terrace garden. Some alums are totally excited about staying in the hostels that night. We think it will be very nostalgic for them to re-live their days on the campus. Our new hostels (construction, phase II) are getting ready just in time for this sleep over.

To conclude, I never imagined this responsibility will be so exciting. Thanks to IIITD community. There is a lot I am learning in the process. My only hope is, I am able to add some value to the institute as the Associate Dean of Communications and Alumni.

On a lighter note, not sure if it has to do with my deangiri, but I observe more people in campus exchanging pleasantries with me. I have become popular 🙂 !!!

This is Why I Love My Job #2

Once again it is that time of the academic year when all graduating students and Research Associates are moving on to the next phase in their life; starting work or grad school in India or flying off to some grad school outside India.

I don’t have to write the nth time how much I love my job. But will definitely like to mention that it is very gratifying to see students achieve what they want to achieve and it is even more satisfying to know that, as a faculty, we play a small role in their achievements.

Below is the list of students (arranged in alphabetical order of last name) who have spent significant amount of time working with me this year / last 2 years or who are graduating with me or I have written a Letters of Recommendation (LoRs) for their admissions / job and are now headed to great places.

  1. Mallika Aggarwal: #classof2017 Has taken some of my courses, did a project spanning 2 semesters. Started Masters in Computer Science at GaTech.
  2. Amod Agrawal: #classof2017 Has taken many of my courses, did UG thesis on Privacy with me. Started Masters in Computer Science at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
  3. Varun Bharadwaj: #classof2017 from NIT Trichy, #PrecogAlum from Summer 2016. Starting Masters in Intelligent Information Systems program at the Language Technologies Institute  at Carnegie Mellon University (my alma mater!).
  4. Juhi Bhatnagar: #classof2017 Has taken many of my courses, did UG thesis with me. Started Masters in Computer Science at Rice University. 
  5. Srishti Chandok: #classof2017 #MTech Has taken some of my courses, did Masters thesis on Privacy with me. Started work at Nucleus Software. Thesis | Slides
  6. Sahil Jain: #classof2014 Has taken some of my courses, has come back to be as evaluator for my HCI course. Started Masters of Business Analytics at University of British Columbia, Canada.
  7. Shiv Kandikuppa: #classof2016 Has taken some of my courses. Started Masters in Computer Science at Ohio State University.
  8. Saravana Kumar: #classof2017 from CEG Chennai, #PrecogAlum from Summer 2016. Started Masters in Computer Science at Ohio State University.
  9. Aditi Mithal: #classof2017 Has taken most of my courses, did UG thesis with me which contributed into a peer-reviewed research paper. Started Masters in Computer Science at UCLA.
  10. Priyanshi Mittal: #classof2013 Has taken some of my courses. Started Master of Science in Software Management at Carnegie Mellon University, Silicon Valley Campus.
  11. Bhavna Nagpal: #classof2017 Has taken some of my courses, did UG thesis with me. Started Masters in Design at IIT Guwahati.
  12. Mansi Panwar: #classof2016 Has taken some of my classes. Started Masters in Information Systems and Operations Management at Warrington College of Business at University of Florida.
  13. Ashwin Rajadesingam: #classof2012 from VIT, #PrecogAlum 2011 / 2012. Completed Masters at ASU a few years back, and now starting with Ph.D. in Information with cool Professors Ceren Budak & Paul Resnick at University of Michigan.
  14. Apoorv Saini: #classof2014 Has taken some of my courses, completed UG Thesis on Anonymous Social Networks with me. Started Masters in Computer Science at Syracuse University.
  15. Ayush Shah: #classof2017 Has taken many of my classes, completed UG Thesis with me. Working at IBM IRL.
  16. Yashovardhan Sharma: #classof2017 Has taken some of my courses, did a project spanning 2 semesters. Started at University of Cambridge to study MPhil in Advanced Computer Science and will be advised by one of the pioneers in the are of Information Security Prof. Ross Anderson.
  17. Mayank Vachher: #classof2017 Has taken some of my courses, was my Teaching Assistant for the HCI course, did UG Thesis with me. Started Masters in Big Data Program at Simon Fraser University, Canada.
  18. Manan Wason: #classof2016 Has taken some of my courses, did summer internship with me. Started Masters in Information Security at Johns Hopkins University.

Below is picture with most of these students. I sincerely thank each one of them for contributing towards my ProfGiri!

Here is a pointer to the blog that I wrote last year (2016) about graduating students and their next steps.

Hoping to see more and more success stories every year!

Precog: The Quintessential Group

As curtains drew on the summer vacations of 2016, I was already planning on doing something constructive during my next summers. My mentor at IIT Kharagpur sent me a circular about an internship opportunity at a research lab in IIIT-Delhi. This is how I first got to know about professor Ponnurangam Kumaraguru and this supercool group known as Precog! I found the work in conformity with my interests and applied at once. After some rigorous technical rounds and interviews, I was informed of my selection.

On 8th May 2017, I joined the group. Having got hostel accommodation at IIIT-Delhi itself, I got settled in my room. Soon after, PK invited me to discuss the project I would be working on. My work was to analyse online social platforms through data extraction and arrive at potential sources of privacy leakage. The project targeted matrimonial sites. I was thrilled about the work and got started with it. This was my first experience as being a part of a research group. The working environment at the lab was something I had never experienced before. It was so conducive to efficient working that many of us stayed there even past midnight! I was surrounded by diligent people passionate about their work. Their thought process to tackling a problem and diverse knowledge left me awestruck. Everyone was very humble. At Precog, we were like a big family, always ready to help out each other.

Semi-weekly group meetings called WhatsUp kept the group updated about everyone’s progress. Fortnightly sessions called Deep Dives were meant to share intricate details of the projects to the whole group. Questions were asked and feedback was given. Solutions were proposed to resolve deadlocks. In my opinion, this is the driving force of any group, the ability to work together! And Precog exemplifies this. At Precog, you are never alone solving a problem.

Then there were Hackathons. The whole group would sit together for the complete day and attack one problem. It was a brainstorming session which promoted teamwork and learning. At the end of the day, the team would have figured out some solution. There were paper critiques within the group. This helped me develop a habit of reading research papers.

A majority of people perceive researchers as “boring” who don’t enjoy life. I had a similar opinion. Being at Precog made me realise how inaccurate I was. We had regular get together called PrecogSocial where we ate delicious food, played mafia and other games, laughed, talked about just anything but work 😉 Exploring different places in Delhi could never have been so much fun. Back in the hostels, we even played Foosball and billiards. My initial perception was completely shattered. Researchers are fun loving people too. It’s just that when they work, they let themselves be completely immersed by it. PK sums this up as “Work hard. Play harder!” 😀

PK is a source of constant motivation. He held an informal session with the interns called ‘Intern Sabha’. This was meant to break the ice between him and the interns. He possesses the skill of the getting the best out of his students. His experience is invaluable to the group. He can foresee the problems that might arise in a project and guides accordingly. This is what drives Precog.

Precog taught me how to function as a group. This is extremely important when you strive to achieve something great. I will always cherish my time at Precog. I made a lot of friends, met awesome people. Comparing the versions of me pre and post the internship, I can say this with certainty: I am better learned. The positive atmosphere within the group inspires you. It stretches you to your limits. The attitude of the group is aptly described by a wall hanging picture frame just outside the lab which quotes Randy Pausch:

“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.”

A picture of the group (mostly interns) at PK’s residence when he invited us for dinner:

Pages from a chapter called Precog

Back in 2014, when I came to know about Dr. PK, he was associated with Backpack, FindAWay, IDEA and other cool things that were going around the campus. It was very intriguing because I did not know much about him except that and the courses that he took. Little later, I found out about Precog, the research group that he has at IIITD. For me, Precog was this intimidating elite group that I would never be able to be a part of. But oh! how wrong was I and so are you if you ever felt that. Trust me, I am an insider. 😛

Fast forward to 2015, I saw many of my seniors going for HCI and very soon after that I realised the direction I wanted to do something in or be closely related to. Ever since, I fell in love more with the field so there was no question when DHCS was offered by Dr.PK in Winter 2016! I was more than excited, and that followed all through the course! Dr. PK is such an amazing professor. He makes sure that lectures are interactive, interesting, and there are surprise activities too – so giving you plenty of reasons to get up in the morning out of your bed. He builds up your assignments to your final project, and helps students get feedback from each other through critiques and himself too! He makes a lot of efforts to make sure students are learning hands on, which is commendable. It was one-of-a-kind course at IIITD for me, at least before I graduated.

I really wanted to work on a HCID project in my summers, and I started interacting with PK time to time regarding that. What is great about Dr. PK is that he is so helpful – he will guide you about interests and tell you about resources where you could find opportunities to even offering you to apply for an internship at Precog. I could not believe when he did that but a task and conversation later when I was in, I really could.

Being a part of Precog gives you a sense of belonging and the pillars (the scholars of the lab) help Dr.PK provide a learning ground for everyone in the lab! It is always fascinating to listen to him and if you can decide to implement on anything you learn from him, it has the potential to work wonders! There are several good things that are a part of the Precog culture. One of them is the mailing lists! Even though it has the potential of overshadowing all your other emails on some days, I think those discussions and looking at everything from a ‘what can I do with this’ eye makes you critical of the things that are going on around you. It is just one of the really helpful things I have learnt and I take forward from Precog to everywhere I go.

On certain days, the lab feels like a festival while on others you’ll see people working hard on their desks and in the CERC lounge – where even a peep will sound like screaming in a crowd. 😛 Now, I know I have painted a certain picture here, but believe me it is not all that rosy. Being a part of Precog is certainly an adventure in itself. You get to have a lot of fun but the people here, work so hard – sometimes it amazed me. I have had a stretch of time where I was afraid of working on a certain thing and I procrastinated. It only lead to guilt because I could not contribute to WhatsUp (the weekly update meetings of the whole group), which pushes you to finally try what you fear and get better.

If you have known Dr. PK for even a little time, you’ll know he loves to be vague 😛 To be honest, I felt off with that approach at first and I got intimidated but with time I have not only accepted that methodology but I am trying to apply it to my life currently. There are so many little things that you will learn from PK if you become a part of Precog or interact with him ever, little things that will go a long way if you closely listen. Precog is not just this but a lot more, something that can not be put to words in this post. The best part about all this is – for you precog will be totally different, it will be what you make of it.

The Anatomy of a Precog Internship!

It all began in September 2016 when I saw a big informative picture (image below) in my Facebook feed. In big bold blue letters the picture said “Internship 2017” with Precog’s logo on the right side. I had heard a whole lot of awesome stuff about Precog from people in IIIT-D and didn’t think twice before applying. The selection process itself was quite rigorous and after a few interviews I got selected for an Internship at Precog in the summer of 2017!! Add to that the fact that PK told me I could join right when my semester gets over and my joy knew no bounds!

I distinctly remember my first meeting with the group was at 4 PM on 2nd December 2016. Introductions were shared and I got to meet my mentor Srishti Gupta. She told me all about the work going on at Precog and what all projects were on offer. Then came the difficult but cool part, I got to choose which project I want to work on! Given my interest and background in mathematics I chose a project which involved modelling the spread of information across online social networks. I worked throughout the month of December and the winter semester. In fact I got course credits for my work throughout December. My college’s faculty were intrigued to know the kind of work that I did in that period. To some disappointment our research on information flow did not reach a conclusive end. And here I realised another thing from Precog, getting feedback about your work and then striving ahead is something that’s part of the research cycle. Disappointment is meant to strengthen your desire to achieve more. Officially beginning my internship in June 2017, I worked on identifying malicious users using modern graph theory concepts across the humungous graph of an online social network. Part of the work cycle at Precog are the regular update meetings where one gets to learn about what others are working on and also get some help about issues anyone is facing. This accompanied by fortnightly sessions know as DeepDive which as the name goes, allow the team to get acquainted with all the projects at a more detailed level. The openness of the group is strengthened by the fact that anyone (even PK) can be reached out to for help. With such amazing ly versatile people working in a group, there’s very slim chance that you wouldn’t find help about something that you’re struggling with.

If by this line you’re thinking that Precog is all about work, work and just work, get ready for a change of thought. The regular get together is aptly named #PrecogSocial. There’s only one rule about this get together, don’t discuss work related stuff. And the location can vary from Barbeque Nation to PK’s own home. Yes you read that right, PK invited all of us to his house for a feast. Get together aside, the interesting part about #PrecogSocial was the stories and anecdotes that everybody shares. The jokes, the games, the food, all of it will be cherished for a long time. Sir/Ma’am are a thing of the past at Precog, in fact everybody insists calling them by their name. If you try to associate the common academic stereotypes with this group and it’s people, you’d fail miserably.

If you’re a hardware fanatic (I am too :p), you’d be even happier at Precog. Want to run a deep learning model and want the results fast? Why not, use one of the many Nvidia GTX 1080s. Want to run it even faster and feel the raw power of GPUs? Go ahead and use the Titan X Pascal, awarded to Precog specially by Nvidia. And even if you’re not the GPU type, one of the many high performance servers are at your disposal. This is backed up by really fast NAS servers for all your storage needs. Although I haven’t been able to use the GPUs till now because my work doesn’t entail their use, I wouldn’t miss any opportunity to play around with them.

The Precog experience has been absolutely amazing for me right from the beginning. There was no shred of doubt in my mind when I decided to continue my work here after the official internship period ended. As many Precog alums say, Precog is not just a research group, it is a family. A family consisting of people who are awesome at what they do simply because they absolutely love doing it. As the great Randy Pausch once said “Follow your passions, believe in karma, and you won’t have to chase your dreams, they will come to you.”

Here’s a picture of the team at Barbeque Nation for one of the #PrecogSocial

Precog: A Family Affair

Before joining IIIT-Delhi, my father and I sat together to go through the list of faculty members who would teach me. We were awed by them all but some names stood out, one being PK’s. I read about his achievements and was eager to enroll in one of his courses when I joined IIIT-Delhi. After completing my first year, I was presented with several domains within computer science which I did not know existed; I wanted to explore them all. During the same time, Backpack was a hot product which students and professors were gushing about. I was told that a few of PK’s students had created Backpack and my interest in working with PK increased. However, it wasn’t until my third year that I actually met him.

I enrolled for DHCS, a CSE course on Human-Computer Interaction — the first of its kind in India. I liked the work we did in the course and wanted to dig deeper into this domain. This led me to become a Precog intern in the Summer of 2016. I worked with Dr. Niharika Sachdeva (recently received her Ph.D. from the group) to analyse the satisfaction of citizens after police response to their complaints. I also evaluated the Android applications that the police had released for use by the people.

Pic: Precog Interns: Summer of 2016

My association with Precog and PK continued as my last year at IIITD rolled in. I took up a BTP, collaborating with another faculty member on campus — Professor Shriram Venkatraman — to study the social impacts of Killfie. I enjoyed the research immensely and learned more than I could ever hope to. I was given the freedom to work on a project I liked, making it more fun.

The culture at Precog is imbibed with working smart and partying hard. Regular socials (where everyone interacts with each other informally) ensure we know people from different projects, making Precog a research family rather than just a research group. The openness with which we greet each other (we can’t call anyone Sir/Ma’am, not the PhD scholars, not even PK himself) brings with it the comfort of familiarity I haven’t witnessed anywhere else. We have regular group meetings too, where everyone is encouraged to participate in the discourse, leading to a fresh set of eyes noticing something unique in the project.

At Precog, I met a group of people who were not defined by just what they did. Like the stars in a constellation, everyone had a different story to tell.