A Summer to Remember

I spent my summer 2018 at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) as a Robotics Institute Summer Scholar (RISS). It is one of the most sought-after internship programs out there, partly as it is hosted by CMU and partly as it allows you to immerse yourself into research in the field of Computer Science. I had spent my past two years at Precog working under PK on several developmental and research projects. I was hesitant at first while applying for the program as I was not sure if my experience was enough to have a decent shot at selection. As the application deadline approached I thought to at least give it a try and was able to submit it just in time. The next few months were filled with eager anticipation for the result and it was on 14th March that I received an interview call from my to-be mentor at CMU. After my interview, I was informed regarding the confirmation of my selection in the program at the end of March after two long months.

The summer began with the orientation of ~35 scholars from around the world. I was working in Intelligent Coordination and Logistics Lab (ICLL) led by Dr. Stephen Smith along with Dr. Isaac Isukapati. I worked on two projects during my time there. The first project was regarding developing a traffic simulation which incorporates a bus dwell time model built using Bayesian hierarchical inference. The second project involved testing and developing an IOS app which would help visually impaired people to cross the intersections using minimal gestures. Both of the projects had SURTRAC at the heart of the problem statement. SURTRAC is a system developed by ICLL to make intersections smarter by seeing the oncoming traffic using the DSRC technology to change the phases of traffic lights. I worked on these projects with Aidan – another member of the cohort and one of the best colleague you could ask for.

With Dr. Stephen Smith and Aidan during the poster session
With Dr. Stephen, Dr. Isaac, and Aidan during the closing ceremony

RISS was an enriching and a holistic experience. I met with some wonderful people during the time and made some lasting friendships. This program not only focuses on encouraging students to heavily engage in research but also allows you to build yourself in an all-round manner. During the summer I got the opportunity to attend the RSS conference at CMU. It was at this conference that I got to interact with world-class researchers and even attended a talk by Dr. Sergey Levine.  We as a cohort also had the opportunity to visit the office of the mayor and interact with a councilperson regarding our internship. This platform provides several opportunities like the UBTech and DJI workshops where we worked with drones and a humanoid robot, which to my surprise were given to us at the end to take back home. It felt like I was learning something new in every second that I spent there. Initially, I used to think of research in a more technical way with a narrow-minded focus on results rather than what the results we’re trying to convey but after regular philosophical discussions with my mentor, I got to know that it is much more than that.

Humanoid robot One with everyone!
During one of our late night walks! L-to-R: Mononito, Akari, Kyuto, Aidan
At the mayor’s office. L-to-R: Dr. John Dolan (Program Director), Me, Mononito :), Nick, Ziqi, Ms.                             Rachel Burcin (Program Co-program Director), Hameed, Yike

I owe most of my success to Precog which has been an intrinsic part of my career for the past two years. They are a bunch of people who genuinely care for you and are willing to help if you face any issues regardless of its triviality. They are highly welcoming for new students and make them feel like a part of a family. The weekly group discussions allowed me to ensure regular progress and brainstorm ideas to fix any issues that I would face in my project. I highly recommend everyone to be a part of Precog and experience the warmth of this family.

An Unforgettable Experience: Summer at USC

This summer (May 2018 – July 2018), I (Saksham Suri, B.Tech. IIITD, Class of 2019) was at Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, USA. I worked under the guidance of Prof. C.-C. Jay Kuo in the Media and Communications Lab (MCL). The lab had quite a few PhD students, RA’s and even a couple of interns like me.

So to start, I would go chronologically from applications, to acceptance, to my time there and lastly the farewell.

For the application part, the internship was under the IUSSTF-Viterbi program which is a collaboration between Indo-US Science and Technology Forum and Viterbi School of Engineering. It’s deadline is around mid November each year. The application process is quite exhaustive and requires you to describe in detail your research experience and why you are the right candidate for the program as well as the professor you are applying to. In addition, it requires LOR’s hence it is of great importance that you have done some research with the faculty, for them to write strong recommendations. Your application in total should reflect you well and should stand out given that they go through a raft of applications yet only select around 20 students each year.

The waiting time after applying is quite long and it was in start of February I got the decision for selection. I was on cloud nine as soon as I saw my result. That day the smile I had on my face reflected my internal feelings quite well (at least that’s what everyone I met told me). On the same day we had a WhatsUp (weekly group update meeting at Precog) too and I think all fellow labmates and even PK can vouch for my elation. Soon I got a mail from professor Kuo too, who congratulated me and also gave me some papers to read which would would help me gain the specific knowledge I needed for the project which I would be doing there.

Then came my first day at USC. As soon as I entered the university I was completely in awe of the whole layout, design, architecture and beauty of the campus. Well this picture might help you understanding what I am talking about.

Same day I met my team whom I worked with for the summer. Below is a picture of my team From L-to-R: Yao (Master’s@USC); Myself; Pranav (undergraduate@IIT-Bombay); Professor Kuo; Jiali (PhD@MCL,USC).

My work at USC consisted of image synthesis, something like what Generative adversarial networks (GAN’s) do. We had to synthesize new images without using any deep learning methodology, using just concepts and tools from probability, statistics and linear algebra. At MCL we had weekly one on one meeting with professor Kuo. The night before the meeting we had to submit a report with weekly updates and the most fundamental part of the report was that we had to analyse the results we had got and come up with suitable suggestions to overcome the problems we faced. The meetings were really informative and it was good to have a lively discussion with professor Kuo who heard all our ideas and gave his valuable input. He always told us to focus on interpretability of what we are doing. He believed in using mathematics as a tool in order to create a sound and mathematically explainable approach unlike deep learning which mostly he said worked like a black box making it difficult to explain. In addition to these one on ones, we even had a weekly seminar. The seminar started with an informal lunch (which was quite a relief for me 😛 given that I cooked my meals and trust me cooking is one of the most exhilarating tasks) where we interacted with the rest of the members other than our project team, followed by an address from professor Kuo and at the end a presentation by one of the lab residents about their work which they have been doing. The seminars were quite enriching as post every seminar, I had learnt about the research problem of one of the PhD’s/RA’s and the techniques they were using to solve it.

Well this was the work part of my internship, but I can assure you it was mostly limited to weekdays. Weekends were mostly reserved for fun and travel. I explored the whole of Los Angeles, from Hollywood to Beverly hills to Griffith. I went to Disneyland, Universal Studios and every other touristy place in Los Angeles you can think of. I also traveled out of town to San Francisco and Las Vegas. San Francisco, well, is the city of dreams for me with all the tech giants over there and also one of the most famous bridges in the world, ‘The Golden Gate Bridge’.

           

Further to complete the feeling of being in the “land of the free” we went to a Dodgers vs. Angels baseball match, although it took me first 20 minutes to understand what the rules were.

Amidst all this work and fun professor Kuo constantly guided me and I thank him for teaching me some of the core values. He always spoke about integrity and doing the right thing. The way he conveyed it and the impact it had on me is something I will never forget and will try to imbibe it as a part of my personality. I hope I can have the same level of integrity as he did and although the seminars helped me gain technical knowledge too, but his talks were one of the most important part for me.

On the last day all IUSSTF interns had a poster presentation in the morning. In the evening professor Kuo planned a potluck as a MCL farewell to me and Pranav. We had cooked idlis, rajma and rice for the whole group to introduce them to the Indian cuisine. Although I did not want to bid adieu, I was not regretful of leaving as I knew that I will never forget all the wonderful people at MCL, especially my team members who were like a family to me. We worked together, ate together and even traveled together.

  Dishes at the Potluck.

Some more pictures from my travels:

Clockwise: Google Mountain View, Biking trip, some food delights.

Lastly from Madame Tussaud, Hollywood.

“My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” – Forrest Gump

The whole experience was very enriching and truly like a box of assorted chocolates which included friends who became family and project mentors who became life guides.

And as anyone who has been to USC will say, FIGHT ON!!

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

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

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

Day 0: Mini shocks complementary with newbie package

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go beyond not just to meet expectations”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years, Seven cities, Sixteen places!

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

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

The Precog Orientation: Skills utilised sometimes at home too 🙂

PK an advisor, a friend and a role-model

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

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

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

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

A Big Fat Loving Family Precog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Signing off for now *
– Kushagra Bhargava

Internship at MPI-SWS and a summer to cherish

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some culinary delights.

 

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

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

A Summer at Precog

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

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

The Team <3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning the midnight oil, and surprising myself:

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

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

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

Making inroads:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Working ‘with’ PK, my advisor:

June 27th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture with PK; taken in Jan 2018

The IIIT Delhi influence:

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

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

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

The one with the HOWL project team

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

Pushing the boundaries of learning: 

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

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

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

Our team of volunteers at IIIT Hyderabad

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

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

The small world phenomenon:

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

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

The Precog fam:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

-Divyansh

My GSoC experience with VLC (macOS Interface Redesign)

Earlier this summer I got selected in Google Summer of Code to work with VideoLAN on the Project VLC macOS Interface Redesign. It has been a blessing to get a chance to work on one of the highest impact open source projects. I had a phenomenal experience. Let’s have a look at my contributions 🙂

You can have a look at my GSoC Project Page and Proposal

Feel free to jump right to the code

Our Team

Left to Right: Vibhoothi, Daksh(Me), Jean-Baptiste, Felix, David

Workflow

Let’s start by looking at our workflow at VLC. VLC has a GitHub Repository which is read-only.  We use our mailing list to send Patches. We also have a GitLab instance at https://code.videolan.org/.

For my GSoC project, my mentors created a clone of upstream at the beginning of our coding period. It helped to keep things organized and eased the process of reviewing. You can find the repository we worked on during the summer at https://code.videolan.org/GSoC2018/macOS/vlc

We have an Issues Page on GitLab. We used this to divide the whole work into subcategories. Further, I have made different branches and various commits.

Face-To-Face with the team

I was lucky to be able to meet with my Mentors along with Jean-Baptiste for a couple of days. VideoLAN was very kind to sponsor me to come and meet our mentors in Europe. I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart.

During our meeting, we discussed various design aspects of several Media Players and how do we envision the new VLC design to be. We also clearly divided the parts that were to be done by each one of us (Me and Vibhoothi). This helped kickstart the work and proved to be extremely useful and increased the productivity exponentially 😀

My Work Goals

  1. Add a feature enhancement to Go-to-time popup (more details): Ready to be merged
  2. Draggable Panel instead of ControlBar in windowed video  window To bring the draggable-control-panel (currently only in Fullscreen more) inside the normal Video playing windows and test with multiple Video Windows (more details): Done and tested
  3. Title Bar Autohiding (more details): Almost done
  4. Make the draggable-control-panel as a View instead of a separate window. For now, just test with a plain view and see how it performs with an underlying video being played (more details): Done

It shows promising performance, hence in future – To extend it and have the actual panel as a View instead of Window.

Work in-depth along with code

1. Go/Jump to Time popup (branch: is9-goToTime)

It is a pop-up which helps you to jump to any particular time. To access it, you can do any of the following:

  • Press +J
  • Go to Playback -> Jump to Time
  • Double Click on Time-Elapsed or Time-Remaining (in the ControlBar)

Visual Difference

Features

  • Now you can add time in the hh:mm:ss format
  • Allows you to write bigger numbers, example: You can write 80 in seconds, and it will automatically convert that to 00:01:20
  • You can switch between fields with tab
  • You can use the stepper to change the fields

Related Code

How it is inside IB(Interface Builder), Xcode

A sneak peek at constraints

AutoLayout is a bit tricky at times. David taught me how to set the constraints in a way, that even when the language of the text changes, it still looks the way it should. It also takes care of languages that are written from right to left

2. Draggable Panel instead of ControlBar in windowed video  window (Issue 1)

  • Removed the fixed ControlBar and replaced it with a movable draggable panel. Just like the fullscreen controller
  • On resizing or moving the window, the draggable panel re-centers along with the window. There is a bit of a delay+drag as the panel is a window and not a view
  • The draggablePanel is constrained in the bounds of the window.

3. Title Bar Autohiding (Issue 3)

Window’s title bar (and its close / minimize / maximize icons) automatically appears if the mouse is moved over the window, and disappear again if the mouse pointer hides or leaves the window.

Implementation of Issue 1 and 3 (branch: PanelInMultipleVout)

4. Draggable Panel as a View

The draggablePanel was earlier a window. Having the draggablePanel as a window was creating a problem. When the video window was moved, in order to keep it at its place we had to programmatically move the panel in the same way. But a drag and a delay was coming in that.

So we decided to make it as a view instead of a window. After testing, it seems to have solved the problem 😀

  • It remains at its position even when the window is moved
  • Added the panel as a custom NSView

  • Created two new Classes `VLCDraggablePanelView` and `VLCDraggablePanelController` to handle the operations of the Panel
  • Connected all the components with the related class files

TO-DO

Currently, the buttons are non-functional. Discussion on how the classes and their instances need to be done, after which it can be implemented.

Things I learnt

  • How to work on a huge code base
  • Objective C
  • Xcode
  • Interface Builder
  • AutoLayout
  • Cocoa Framework
  • Git
    • There were numerous small and big things I learnt in Git and how to version code. Here are a few tips that you can make use of 🙂

git diff –color-words

To see the changes in words instead of sentences

git checkout commitHash

To temporarily switch to a branch at that particular commit, helps in testing

git stash and git stash apply

To undo/redo the uncommitted changes

git diff HEAD~2

To see the changes done since HEAD~2 (two commit before HEAD). Refer to this post for more options

git branch and git checkout branch-name

To list and change to a particular branch

Useful Links

The Chronicles of Precog: The Deep Dives, the Socials and the Mailing Lists

How the journey began:

My journey with PK started long before I was actually a part of Precog. In the sixth Semester of my B.Tech. (I am a Dual Degree Student), I enrolled for the Designing Human Centered Systems (DHCS) course which was taught by PK. This was one course which is said to be different from all the courses you’ll ever take at IIITD, and so it was. Owing to the way the course is planned, it is a different experience in itself where you pick a problem and work on it all semester long. You build systems which have the capability to solve problems of the real world. As fate had it, later on, I got a chance to be a Teaching Assistant for this course as well. During the sixth semester, I got to know more about PK, his ideologies, his way of teaching, and undoubtedly, he is one of the best professors I’ve had the chance to learn from. I ended up taking all of the courses offered by him during my time at IIITD.

Poster Session for the DHCS Course

I had always heard about the research group called Precog that was supervised by him. It was during DHCS that I gained a better insight into it and was able to see it functioning closely (although as an outsider). PK also talked about some of the work being done by the group in the lectures. I found the work to be exciting as almost all of the projects had a real-world impact, and I was amazed by it. Another thing that caught my eye was the culture at Precog and how people were always there for each other, and they shared a family-like bond. This was something I secretly wished to experience first-hand. During my B.Tech. days, I was always knee-deep in projects, one after another, and never got a chance to be a part of Precog. In my 7th semester, I took yet another course taught by PK called Foundations of Computer Security (FCS). By this time, I was enrolled in the dual degree program but wasn’t sure what my thesis was going to be about. I was still exploring which domain I was interested in. PK made sure to have some guest lectures in all of his courses. For these, he invited domain experts, people from the industry as well as academia. As a part of one such guest lecture, two of his Ph.D. students, Prateek Dewan and Anupama Aggarwal, joined us. Both of them talked about the work they were involved in and it really intrigued me. This was when it hit me, this was what I wanted to do. It was a sort of ‘eureka’ moment for me. I wanted to work in the domain of Privacy and Security, and this is where I wanted to spend my next year. That was when I talked to PK about the prospect of doing the thesis with him. Things clicked, and boom, I was a part of Precog. Never had I ever thought that I’d get to experience what all followed in the next one year. I was happy with the work I did and made so many amazing friends along the way who will, no doubt, stay with me my entire lifetime.

The first week at Precog:

I started my journey as a Master’s student once I was done with my B.Tech. requirements and, thus, began my journey with Precog in August 2017. The first week of the semester, I was added to the Precog core mailing list, and it’s not an understatement when I say I was overwhelmed by the number of emails I got within the first few hours. Emails asking for KK slots, WU, BM, DD slot Doodles, weekly planners, etc. I was alien to all the terms and had no clue what I was supposed to do. At that time, I did not know many people in the lab and was a bit hesitant to ask for help. I was anxious about missing any deadline in my very first week with Precog. I walked up to the lab, met Kushagra Bhargava. He was also a part of my interview panel, so I had talked to him a couple of times. Kushagra was very helpful and walked me through all the alien terms which are now deeply embedded in my blood. I must highlight that he has some awesome server password setting skills xD.

How to make the most of the group:

A couple of weeks into the semester, I was very much familiar with the ways of Precog and the work ethics, having had attended the Orientation, a couple of What’s Up (WU), Brain Storm (BM), and Knock-Knock (KK) sessions. All of these sessions have an importance of their own. I feel, it is these sessions that make Precog, Precog and help bind everyone together (apart from the outings, celebrations, socials, icecreams…the list is endless :P). The What’s Up session is the regular all-group weekly meetup where everyone gives an update on their work. This way, we all know what the other person is up to, and it even helped me maintain a regular approach when it came to work. What’s Up sessions were an excellent medium of knowledge transfer as well, as the whole group is present to give feedback and help you out if you get stuck somewhere. Many a time, I’ve been stuck at places, and when I mentioned them in the WU session, people came forward with solutions, be it suggesting a new library, using a new tool or trying a different approach to test the accuracy of my work. So, my advice to anyone who is joining Precog or in Precog would be to attend these sessions in a regular way. They’ll only benefit you in the long run and help make your Precog experience even more Precogy :P. Deep Dive (DD) sessions were again really insightful, no matter whether you were attending or presenting. These took place once in two months. While being in the audience you’d get a good knowledge of how others are approaching things, and this might give you an idea of how you can incorporate some of this in your own work! And if you’re the one presenting, it’ll be a huge confidence booster as you’ll get used to giving technical presentations and also get validation for the work that you’re doing. I found the DD sessions really fulfilling. They make sure that you’re treading in the right direction. Also, whenever anyone has a paper submission, talk or presentation, it’s incredible to see how the entire group pitches in, right from intense paper critiques to feedback on practice talks. It’s lovely to see how involved everyone is and how much, we, at Precog here, care for one another.

The one with almost all of them

A tale of two cool advisors:

My thesis work was in collaboration with Dr. Alpana Dubey from Accenture Research Lab, Bangalore. I would say I was lucky enough to get two of the coolest advisors ever. I was always looking up to the weekly collaboration calls where I would get feedback on the progress made and get a direction on where to head next. Such regularity never made me realise how and when I got so close to eventually writing and successfully defending my thesis. The entire journey was just so smooth (along with pulling some all-nighters at times :P) that I can’t believe that it happened so quickly. In a matter of 9 months, I had successfully defended my thesis. I’m thankful for all the inputs from both of my advisors who made this entire path – right from choosing the project, to framing a problem statement, and defending it – so fulfilling and enriching for me. Not only did I hone my research and technical skills but I also became more organised and confident in the process. I would also like to mention Gurpriya, who has been my constant pillar of support, right from ensuring that both of us were awake in time for the call (both of us had the same co-advisors) as it used to take place at 10:00 am in the morning, to helping me with the thesis document, and the talk for the defense. Indira is yet another person, who has guided me all along. She became my go-to person and I earned another lifelong friend.

Tryst with Google:

The amount of support I got from PK and other people at Precog was unparalleled. Last year, around July, I was declared as one of the recipients of the Google Women Techmakers Scholarship (previously known as The Anita Borg Scholarship).  Because of the scholarship, I got the chance to travel for many events, starting from the Scholarship Retreat in Seoul, South Korea, to attending India’s first ever Google Developer’s Days, to attending meet-ups at Google’s Gurgaon and Bangalore offices. In all, the trips combined took three weeks, and I was unable to give full attention to my thesis work during these events. But PK and Dr. Alpana were always so supportive and understanding. They always encouraged participation in such events and programmes. But I ensured, that after all the missed hours of work, I put in extra effort to catch up. Eventually, I had become much more productive and got even better at juggling many things at once. Time management is the key, and I’d say Precog and PK made me better at it.

WTM Scholarship Retreat at Google, Seoul

#LovingMyTALife:

In the Spring  2018 semester, I was one of the Teaching  Assistants for the DHCS course, and this was yet another fantastic experience for me where I learnt a lot.  It was amazing to see the impact that I was able to make by aiding students in the process of learning. Guiding some teams from the ideation stage to them making news on the TV and the newspaper was very fulfilling for me. Again, PK’s way of dealing with students taught me a lot. He gives students enough space to be responsible adults rather than telling them what to do. This way, he brings out the best in his students. We get to realise the undiscovered potential that lies within us.

BBI Exhibition for the DHCS Course

“Work hard, play harder” is one of PK’s favourite policies, and we, at Precog, abide very seriously by it. We leave no stone unturned to celebrate the smallest of achievements. The amount of cakes, chocolates and sweets I had in the past one year is way more than the past ten years combined. Celebrations along with other outings and socials give more bonding time. I remember the time when PK took all of us down to the lawn to play cricket. Because of such interactions, everyone bonds at different levels apart from work. Such bonding is essential in a close-knit group like Precog, where many people are involved in one project and having good bonds definitely boosts the efficiency.

Celebration after defending my thesis

I would like to thank each and every person who has been a part of my journey with Precog. It just wouldn’t have been the same without each one of you.

In all, Precog is a bundle full of a lifetime of experiences. All these experiences combined made me grow so much as a person. Now that I reflect back, I cherish everything so dearly. My advice to everyone out there, try one of PK’s courses for sure and join Precog sooner than I did, it’ll be worth it.

#PrecogGiri for life

-Simran Saxena

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.

Sojourn of an introvert at PreCog

“The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts”

This was just another saying for me until the day I joined Precog. It all began when my friends convinced me into taking part in OSM-Palooza, a hackathon organized by PreCog in Spring 2016. The task was to perform sentiment analysis on Twitter code-mixed data. The experience was fun: learning basics of machine learning, text analysis, APIs, web scraping, automation, and what not. Finally, after working for several hours, our team made a submission that ended up winning the first prize!

While munching on pizza slices with the prize money, I started thinking about this experience, and how much I loved it. After a bit of research on what PreCog does and the people in it, my friend Divam and I decided to ask PK for a spot in the research group via a summer internship. After the friendliest interview with Prateek and Anupama, we were in. The summer started off with a lot of learning, reading research papers, watching video lectures, and exploring huge datasets. Frequent visits to Precog’s lab made me realize how it was different from other research labs.

One of several sessions of Precog; every single time walking out of the room with added knowledge :’)

Whatever research labs I had entered/visited as a college student, generally had students working in dead silence, consumed in their work and not looking anywhere around. Precog was much more lively. There is a fridge with chocolates that don’t usually last, bean bags for lazing around and the most amazing people to discuss your ideas with in a chillaxed surrounding. It has positive vibes coming out it. After working for that summer and submitting our work to ASONAM, an international conference (which ended up being published!), I made the decision to continue working with this awesome group of people.

As time passed by, I learned new things that I might have never stumbled across, shared with and by the lab members. Every email that would pop up in Precog’s mailing list would be brain food: I’d open the link and try to read everything in it. Doing this for quite some time helped me discover my passion for machine learning. It is this habit of reading these emails in depth that helped me start a project in machine learning in collaboration with IBM!

While PhDs from the lab and undergrads worked on my draft, submitting research work to a conference, I was reminded of the awesome group that I am a part of.

Apart from boosting my hunger for knowledge and helping me grow in my field and as a person in general, I owe whatever success I have to Precog. Being an introvert, I wasn’t too comfortable part of being such a close-knit research group. However, with encouraging mentors like PK, Prateek, and Anupama, I started opening up. From having a potluck lunch at PK’s residence to extempore plans to order ice-cream for lunch, I have come a long way in getting rid of my shyness.

From Natural’s ice cream in the fridge to hot pizza after data annotation sessions, from group sessions and constructive feedback to heart-to-heart talks, from the coolest PHDs in the lab to the coolest mentor and advisor I could have asked for, the memories I’ve made as part of PreCog are something I shall always cherish and carry with me 😀