A stay of 2 months: An experience of lifetime

Like every engineering student, when I took admission in engineering college I had high hopes and ambitions of doing something big and worthy. But the monotonous curriculum, seniority dogma, student-faculty gap never provided conducive environment for research and those high ambitions somehow faded away. Engineering seemed to be limited to only what was there in textbooks. However when I finished my summer internship this year (2017) at Precog, I suddenly experienced a revival of my engineering ambitions. People around were working and building stuffs that are being applied to solve real world problems and being one of them was like dream come true! My stay at precog was the most enriching part of my academic life.

My project supervisor, Prof Ponnurangam Kumaraguru (PK) is the most awesome teacher I ever had. My journey with Prof. PK virtually began in fall 2016, when I took up his online course Privacy & Security in Online Social Media on NPTEL. I was looking for domains where I could apply my knowledge of computer science to solve real world problems, when I stumbled upon this course. Back then I was in 3rd year of my BTech study and was aiming for a summer internship at some premier research centers during my forthcoming summer vacation. Few weeks into the NPTEL course, I was so fascinated by the  course contents and teaching of PK, I absolutely made up my mind to do internship under him. Some time after the course had ended, I mailed PK with my SoP and CV, explaining why I wish to work at precog and how my interests and previous works align with the research domains pursued at precog. Few days later, I got a mail from him and after 3 rigorous rounds of selection process, I finally got selected for my much coveted internship.

My project at precog was on Information Overloading with Niharika Sachdeva as my mentor and guide. I primarily worked to figure out how the frequency of posting affects the engagement on posts made by police pages/handles on Facebook and twitter. Will write a separate blog on my technical work. Getting a conclusion from the large dataset was however not easy and took me weeks of failed analytics and experimenting with different statistical measures on the data. The best thing about precog is that it pushes you to your limits. I used to spend most of the time in the lab, highest being 18 hours. Lab hours never got boring, as I was always surrounded by hardworking and awesome people round the clock. People around were always ready to provide helping hand, be it professional or personal.

My most favorite thing at precog used to be WhatsUps  (regular meetups held twice a week) as it facilitated interaction with everyone, including PK, and also getting to know each other’s work. It thrilled listening to exciting work going around. Then there were detailed discussion sessions known as #DeepDive (a nightmare for me though :p) where one has to elaborately explain their work, codes, hypothesis, observations etc. I used to be highly concerned about DeepDives as I had to be prepared for most unanticipated questions and criticisms. The suggestions, criticisms and feedback however helped me a lot in refining the work done and coming up with better results. Here everyone was keen to help whenever I got stuck in something.

IIIT Delhi also had some surprises for me, that were to break my prejudices I had about educational institutions. I belong to a government engineering college; and being from a government college I am not used to niceness of professors and research scholars. I am used to professional barrier between students & teachers and undergrads & scholars. But starting from my day 1, I was extremely surprised how people were at precog. There is absolutely no professional protocol existing, like addressing research scholars as sir/madam, following a strict formal conversation style with them etc etc. These were something I was never used to, and it took me some weeks to get adjusted to. Everyone is friendly irrespective of them being PhD scholars, MTech scholars or RA’s. We cracked jokes, played games, went out for lunch. The person who made the most difference is PK himself. He is the most wonderful and friendly teacher I ever met and is completely different from conventional teachers. He invited us for dinner at his place, watched movie with us, took part in fun games; somethings hardly any professor does these days. He emphasizes on “Work hard, play harder”, thus apart from work related stuffs, he organizes fun gatherings and outings (we call it precog social). My best memory with him is this selfie. Its the first time I ever had a selfie with a professor!!

What I got from precog is experience, and as Randy Pausch aptly says

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.

Being in Precog was much like being a part of a big family. It feels great being in such a group of highly talented and knowledged people working on really cool stuff that are making a difference in how online social media is used. I am super delighted to have worked with these awesome people. Can’t have a summer better than this!!!

Here’s the glimpse of precog family of which I was a part of.

 

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Hey there.

My tryst with PreCog happened in my second semester at IIIT Delhi. I had been catching up with Megha Arora (PreCog Alum now MS CS Candidate at CMU) about what she had been up to, and I was pleasantly informed about this cool research group she works with. She also kept on going on and on and on about this professor who likes to call him PK. That same day, I went online and looked up PreCog and I was awestruck. My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw PK’s CV. I had to work with the coolest professor in town. I had to work with these guys!

After gathering a decent amount of exposure in doing research with the Program Analysis Group at IIIT Delhi, I applied for a PreCog Internship in the Summer of 2016. I was exhilarated with the task given to me as part of the interview process. It was a perfect fit! I have always wanted to build systems which help others in some or the other way, and my task at hand was to build a social engagement calculator for Facebook pages (apologies for the Jargon! :P). While doing this, I learned about writing a technical report as to how the system works, the perceived shortcomings of it and some exemplary statistics of popular Facebook pages. I advanced further ahead in the process and met Prateek Dewan and Anupama Aggarwal for the technical interview round. I remember being extremely overwhelmed yet anxious when I was told that I had advanced to the final round and I have a meeting with PK. I am thankful that they found me competent enough to join the group!

I have had the tremendous honor of working on 2 projects which boast of really nice disruptive technology that can change the way people use social media. One of them is in the domain of Privacy in Social Media on Mobile Platforms whereas the other project is in the domain of social computing, data science, and HCI.

Killfie was a god-send for it allowed me to explore and finalize the subfield of Computer Science that I wanted to specialize in. It was a humbling experience to work on never-done-before things aimed at saving lives, hence the term disruptive. What seemed impossible at first took a lot of toiling, mentoring from great people, and a collective effort of the team working on the Killfie project for it to come to a realization. I am proud that I was able to contribute and solve a problem faced by the youth of the world at the moment, and thankful that I was given a chance to work on the same.

Have you ever felt a warm fuzzy feeling when you look at a group of people and just absolutely adore them? That’s what PreCog was to me from the outside. Now, take the outside perspective and amp it up by a thousand factors and you have got the state inside. We all like to hang out, discuss interesting anecdotes, take advice from each other … you get the picture. The good part for me in this scenario was that I could ping any of the pillars (the Ph.D. students in PreCog) and bricks (everyone else except the Pillars) and they would be happy to guide me on the right path, be it personal or professional life.

I have had nothing but positive takeaways from my experiences at PreCog. There have been times when I have crashed the server and yet, I was just let of with a strict warning to be extremely careful with the same. I have had sleepless weeks with just me getting 2-3 hours of sound sleep per day, showing me that I can still push my limit in working. People have properly heard me out, and given me proper constructive feedback. I have been scolded and got back on track if I was deviating. I have been pushed to experiment and let my creativity run wild as well.

We are always reminded of Randy Pausch’s famous quote in the group:

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.

I can surely say that I figured out how badly I have wanted some things in my life and how can I actually achieve those things. If somebody offered me the chance to start working with PreCog at an earlier point in my life, I would definitely take it in a heartbeat.

Below is a picture of happy PreCog-ers after having had a sumptuous lunch in the month of June of 2016:

The PreCog B(r)unch

The Great Precog Expedition

It all began with searching for opportunities to work in the summer of 2016. I had heard endlessly about the work culture at IIIT Delhi, the research groups and the out of this world faculty. After researching through the site, I stumbled upon Professor PK’s profile. As I read further about him, I was awestruck and amongst the many who would want to work with PK.

My first meeting with him lasted for roughly 15 minutes but I went back home with a bag full of riveting information about what it takes to be a Precog-er. This was also the first time I got to know about Randy Pausch. At home, I watched ‘The Last Lecture’ and understood why the walls of the Precog area are adorned with his quotes.

Soon after I took part in the OSMpalooza Hackathon and witnessed firsthand how quick progress is made by students here. My team came up with whatever best solution we could think of, for the problem statements given. Sadly, my team didn’t win a position but I witnessed some amazing solutions by other teams and most importantly I saw myself serious and engrossed in a project in Social Media Analysis. This was the time I was further sure of wanting to work in Precog since majority of the work is done on analysing social media content. This incident would be incomplete without quoting the following:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.” –Randy Pausch

Very soon, I applied for the internship. After an intricate interview process, I received my offer letter. My first day at Precog was a Brainstorming session (which is another bonus point of this internship). Before the internship, how I went through research papers was basic skimming. And in the first session itself, I witnessed the dissection of a paper and not only deriving the entire methodology, but also discussing elaborate ideas about extending the current paper and implementing those as well. This is just one example of how working at Precog means legit serious work.

I was lucky to have Prateek Dewan as my mentor during the internship period. I started working closely with Prateek and soon after there were series of things I learnt that I apply till date. Before the internship the only language I worked in was Java and by the end of it, I had another language i.e. Python, to add to my skill set. Each little doubt regarding my project was cleared by him and he promptly replied to any query I had at any odd hour. I was a little apprehensive in the beginning since the progress made at Precog is super quick but I learned it all in my own time.

The most incredible characteristics of this group are the levels of sincerity and passion shared by each Precog-er when it comes to work. Apart from the respective projects carried out by each group, the regular Brainstorming sessions covered the latest research topics extensively. Several new ideas and information about the tech world were discussed in the mailing list and very soon I got the hang of it. One particular email comprised of PK discussing his latest choice of book to read, “Eat That Frog!” By Brian Tracy. Being an avid reader, I bought it the next day itself and the book has had phenomenal influences on my life. (amazing book suggestions!; another bonus of the internship). Striking a balance between working and having fun is another take away. The binding force of Precog is PK and the smart-working researchers, known as Precog-ers, make this group what it is.

Why I chose such a heavy sounding title for this post is because Precog can’t be defined by anything less. It is indeed a great expedition and I am fortunate to have experienced it.

I would like to end by quoting my favourite Randy Pausch saying that has now adorned my room’s wall as well:

“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.” 

Below is a picture from one of the group photo sessions!(Missing in the picture: PK)

I have been Precog-ed (for life): Part 4

Holà! It’s the first day of 2017. All of us just got done with looking back at the past year, trying to fathom how time flies and life metamorphosizes. My life has taken a leap too and this is my last blog as a part of the ‘I have been Precog-ed’ series. Earlier, I have written about my first stint at research (Part 1), a wonderful summer at the Information Sciences Institute at Marina Delray, Los Angeles (Part 2), my first paper presentation at ICWSM 2016 in Germany (Part 3), and my time at Precog. This post is about the last 6 months of my journey and an attempt to express what being a Precog-er is all about (for more on this, please read the first three parts too). Being a Precog-er for more than 3 years, I have more thoughts than I can ever pen down; from being an undergrad who joined Precog as a noob to a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University, my path has always been illuminated by the light of learning and hope.

April 2016 – I was struggling with end-sem preparations, document processing and Visa applications for my trip to ICWSM and my masters in the States, and the humdrum undergrad life when an unexpected email got an unexpected reaction from me –

“Dear Megha,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected as an one of the 40 CERN Openlab Summer Students 2016 (out of 1461 applicants)! For nine weeks, CERN will be your host for what we hope is going to be an interesting, fun and active summer…”

I have been an amateur astronomer for 9 years, and getting to work at the ‘Mecca of Particle Physics’ would have been a dream come true. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it. I was applying for my Schengen Visa for Germany (which would take another 2 weeks), and then I had to start my application for the US visa. I needed another Schengen Visa for Switzerland in a span of one week. On top of that, the only dates I could select for the internship were overlapping with my initial orientation schedule at CMU. I almost disrupted a meeting in PK’s office to break the news to him. I was sad. Pillars (Ph.D. students at Precog) and PK were convinced that I should try and if it doesn’t work out, so be it. That’s a Precog trait – not giving up until you have given your best shot! After cutting short the duration of my summer at CERN, pushing CMU to allow me to skip the orientations (convincing them that I’ll manage when I wasn’t sure myself I’ll), and getting my Schegen for Switzerland in a day (thanks to CERN’s administrative staff who made a special request for me to the embassy), I was ready for a summer at CERN.

I worked for 2 months at CERN’s data center on a storage system of ~125PB (one of the largest in the world). CERN openlab program includes a lecture series to helps CS students understand the Physics needed for some of the projects, trips to ETH Zürich and EPFL Lausanne, hackathons, and several means to help the students gain insights about the revolutionary projects spanning across 100 hectares in Switzerland and more than 450 hectares in France! It was a humbling experience, which entailed learning something new every day. Europeans have nailed the work-life balance too. Along with finishing my project on time, I managed to check Geneva, Lausanne, Lyon, Zürich, Paris, Montreux, Bern, Engelberg, Chamonix and many more off my list!

Delhi for 2 days, and Pittsburgh was my next destination, my home for the next 16 months. I am an MSCS student at CMU now. Last to arrive and one of the youngest of the lot, thanks to PK I had ample of background knowledge about life as a student here and the city of Pittsburgh. The experience I have gained at Precog comes in handy when I have to identify research gaps and solve hard problems. I feel more equipped and confident to take up the challenges that come along with grad life at a school like CMU.

Throughout these 6 months (Jul – Dec 2016), I have been working with a few Precog-ers on what we now call the Killfie project. It has turned out to be one of the most exciting projects I have worked on as a part of the group. It is the inclination to work on interesting problems with some brilliant people, which gives me the motivation to find time for this amongst courses and projects at CMU.

I cannot finish this blog without revisiting these lines from my first blog – “…PK, the heart and brain of Precog. He is the coolest adviser I have ever met and his skills and dexterity at work are almost mind-boggling. I came to know him as my Probability and Statistics professor, the role changed to being my adviser working at Precog and now I see him as a mentor for life..”. A lot of what I have been able to achieve in the last 3 years, I owe it to PK’s unconditional support. Thank you PK for illuminating my path always and for proving what good mentorship can accomplish!
My time at Precog has taught me how to help people, make friends, eliminate distractions and focus, improve daily, think big, fail often and give nothing short of your very best effort! I have had last minute unscheduled video calls in the middle of the night from the other end of the world with Precog-ers when I needed help. Pillars, interns, RAs – thank you each one of you for this experience. Even though I live in a different time-zone now and my attendance at the 4th floor Ph.D. lab has been at an all-time low, I know my association with the group will last forever.  As has been rightly put – ‘Once a Precog-er, always a Precog-er!’.

PS – Some pictures…

Just another day at Precog…
“It’s all about the people!”
The room where Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web at CERN!
This one doesn’t need a caption… 🙂
The Aiguille du Midi Skywalk, “Step into the Void” at Chamonix (altitude – 3842m)
CERN Openlab Summer Students 2016