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 😀

The Precog Amplification

The summer break after graduation is when one realizes that IIIT has changed their life forever. It’s too soon to say whether it’s for the good or bad, but “sitting idle”, “not learning”, or “not chasing something new” become the biggest worries of life. Fear not, the bouts of peaceful wondering (and guilt-free procrastination) catch up soon, but for me it was the former set of feelings that saw me hunting for something to do in the summer.

I got a glimpse of what working at Precog would be like during PK’s DHCS course that I took in my final semester. It was meant to be a light course that undergraduate students crave for in their final lap, rightfully devoting the residual time appeasing their friends before the great dispersion. Ironically enough, it turned out to be anything but light, though still served the purpose of letting me have a great time with my friends. BBI (Building Better Interfaces), the conclusive project showcase, was almost like a start-up convention on steroids with students going to unfathomable lengths – pitching their projects and getting validation on their design process from practically everyone on campus. It’s difficult to forget a course such as this where you have witnessed banner wars, basketball challenges, beer pong and simply students going all-out on their projects. The enthusiasm was contagious and getting involved with Precog over the summer definitely seemed like an option to consider. Despite the fact that the domain of social {computing, networks, systems} was completely alien to me, I was incredibly lucky to make it through as a summer RA (maybe I just rode along on our cool DHCS course project, Fettle).

Building Better Interfaces 2016
Building Better Interfaces 2016

The following month, I started at Precog on a development project alongside a bunch of enthusiastic interns. During the first few weeks, as I familiarized myself with the domain of social media analytics, I found myself get attracted towards a particular thread. Given the rapid rate at which media content is growing on social media (~2000 images per second!), it was a question that often found its way into discussions  – how can we summarize this enormous dataset of social media images and make it more succinct and browsable? Having a background in Vision and an inclination towards research I found a certain affinity towards this problem and I shared my intent to work on this idea with Sonal, another RA at Precog who had just wrapped up one of her own projects (and happened to be looking for a new problem to work on. What luck, right?).

People@Precog Summer 2016
People@Precog Summer 2016

sometimes having the right answer is less important than seeing behind someone’s eyes why the question had to be asked – source

As both of us delved into conducting a high-level literature survey, we found that even though image data set summarization is a well-researched problem, in the context of social media data it is almost unexplored. I was all in for pitching the idea to PK right that moment, but Sonal, the more seasoned Precoger, advised against it and proposed for preparing a more polished case for the problem, one that would more eloquently bring out some exciting use cases. This was the first time I got introduced to the concept of making people excited about your research  and it starts with your PI itself. The first question PK would ask is “how do I sell this?”, which would encapsulate the other fundamental questions, “who are we helping?”, “do they need our help” and “how can we help?” (in that order). As brutal and business oriented the line of questioning would seem, I could appreciate the intent behind it. It was not meant as a discouragement of open ideas but instead as a first-round validation of how well the involved people are able to make a case that the idea is worth pursuing. This constant reinforcement that the job of a researcher entails being an effective communicator and convincing an audience that the problem is worth solving was something very unique to PK. Once we had this part out of the way over the many sync-up sessions, the ecosystem was made extremely conducive towards carrying out the required research work. Instead of narrating the experience any further, I’d rather break the rest of it down into more consumable nuggets –

  1. The secret to all material success is self-discipline and grit – Be it your grades, getting an internship, an admit, building a project, coding a hack, or writing a research paper. If you can’t invest the required time and effort, it is wrong to expect a meaningful outcome. Yeah, you may get lucky once in awhile, but as Deadpool says “luck isn’t a superpower”. The 80 hour highly-organized work weeks at Precog, make sure that there is minimal dependence on luck. Keeping up with the expected commitment, Sonal and I continued working on our submission even after our RAship was over and saw it getting accepted to ACM Multimedia (you can read about how we approached our summarization problem and created #VisualHashtags here). This was one of the most rewarding experiences and only Sonal will remember burning all our stipend on Starbucks coffee, feeling guilty about constantly overloading their free wifi.
  2. As for non-material success, it is empathy and gratitude – Academia is a very competitive domain and one where no matter how much you accomplish, self-doubt comes in plenty. Peer-review doesn’t stay limited to academic manuscripts and becomes a part of everyday life. It becomes important to support your colleagues in their effort because with so much competence around it is often that one starts getting really hard on themselves. Precog is one place where you would always find someone or the other to celebrate something as small as a midnight bugfix with. You would have to be seriously off the grid if you haven’t seen PK leading from the front, encouraging and taking special pride in bragging about his students and their work.
  3. Diplomacy isn’t really a treasured asset in a research lab – The lab is devoid of any echo chambers because there are just so many strong voices. The senior most PhDs and fresh interns alike, everyone enjoys open channels of communication and get to navigate their journey at the lab. It was this environment that allowed me to switch projects with little friction and pursue a new idea during the middle of my tenure. It would be safe to say that with everyone here being absolutely blunt about their work and also with their feedback, I have started to adore conference peer reviewers (just kidding). The many reviews and rebuttals from Prateek, Niharika, Srishti, and Anupama greatly strengthened our ACMMM submission. (On a side note, I do think I owe an apology to Anupama for not being so server savvy at the time!)
  4. Collaboration is equally important as individual brilliance – Working in the domain of Collaborative Cognition, I can vouch for the fact that collective intelligence trumps individual effort in more ways than just performance (Spoiler Alert: Avengers: Infinity War is an exception). An expert in one domain need not be an expert in another, and that is how it should be. At Precog I learned that it’s a big fallacy that one skill is better than the other. It may be more valued than the rest in a given context, but then it’s a matter of finding a match. What matters is being a master of that skill. The knowledge sharing that happens when different people, each with their own niche, work together leads to diverse perspectives and hence, exciting prospects. Such collaboration is common to most projects at Precog; even including our work on #VisualHashtags, where we had AVS and PK, two experts in their respective fields, collectively advising us on our research problem.
  5. If something doesn’t make you anxious, is it really worth doing? – It is evident that people at Precog go places. Besides the qualification and merit gained at the lab, this success rate is because of the step-outside-the-comfort-zone attitude inculcated by PK. The bottom line is – a bunch of rejection emails in your inbox is much better than having only million dollar cheques from the Prince of Nigeria. Last year, I took the leap and applied for a few graduate programs in my area of interest – and to my delight received an admit to the Masters of Science in Robotics Program at CMU. As I start on this new endeavor this fall, PK being an alumnus at the same university makes it even more special – I am sure his mentorship and my association with Precog will continue in some form or the other.
People@Precog Farewell 2018
People@Precog Farewell 2018

Though my stint at the lab has been shorter than most, my blog entry and learning has been not. So, TL;DR: Precog is definitely a place to spend time at if you are remotely interested in rising from being mere nodes in a social system to being its philosophers and problem solvers. The line of research is highly interdisciplinary (Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Data Mining, HCI, Social Computing, Privacy and Security) and if you look around the projects here, you are bound to find something of your interest. It has everything to offer, from savvy GPUs to savvier researchers, and from cool projects to cooler friends. If you are ready to put in the hours, it’s an investment you won’t regret.

Chi Square Tests, Calendar Events and Cake : A Three Act Precog Tale

Testimonials

Where do stories begin? With that suitably philosophical opener, I begin my Precog story. Did mine begin when I joined IIIT Delhi for a Masters? Or when I joined Precog for an Independent Project? I think my Precog journey started somewhere between the two, kickstarted by this post on Quora. In my first semester at IIIT Delhi, I didn’t know which area I wanted to work in. Having read Prof Ben Y Zhao’s glowing praise of Prof PK, I decided to take the ‘Privacy and Security on Online Social Media’ course in the hope that I would make an impression on PK and get an opportunity to work with him. I managed to do that and was offered an IP with him and assigned to work with (now Dr.) Niharika Sachdeva on a portion of her Ph.D. work. What followed has roughly three dimensions.

Act 1. Chi-Square Tests: the importance of using the right features

“Why do you want to take this approach?”. “Why do you think this method will work?”. “How do we make this system better?”. At Precog I have been bombarded with these questions and their ilk. Precogs take their work very seriously, which is not a wonder when you see the quantity and quality of papers, theses, and systems being churned out. What is not obvious is the sheer depth in which the problems are studied. Precogs are involved in high-quality research that draws from multiple areas such as Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, and Data Mining and contributes to further research in HCI, Social Computing and, Privacy and Security. Lab members, especially the Ph.D. students (‘pillars’ as PK aptly calls them), know a multitude of fields. Every research statement is broken down into subparts and rigorously understood leading to the Precog maxim, “You should be able to defend and justify what you’ve done.”

The problems are dissected not only by the person helming the project, but also other members of the lab. There are dedicated weekly slots when the lab collectively pours over each project to provide feedback and suggest improvements. Needless to say, with a setup as cooperative as this, help is always at hand. Not only is the lab full of bright minds but the culture fostered in Precog ensures that they come with attentive ears and eager responses. Another thing that has never ceased to surprise is how much people know about a project they are not even directly involved in. This is a testament to the open communication, and happy-to-help attitude Precogs have bolstered through forums where lab members can ask questions, offer advice and even post potential opportunities.

On a personal note, I was involved in a few projects here and have had the opportunity (privilege really) to work with numerous lab members. I have learned from them far more than any textbook could ever teach me, not least because they are extremely smart and excellent teachers but also because they are generous with sharing their know-how. Special shoutout to Anupama Aggarwal who mentored me throughout my Master’s thesis and taught me how to approach problems, frame research questions and finally go about solving them. (And not to mention for putting up with my numerous shenanigans and being patient with me.) Working with my mentors as well as seeing other lab members flourish made me understand the importance of mentorship in research life. And even if I didn’t work with the other members on a specific project, I can honestly say that each and every one of them has somehow or the other helped me become a better researcher either by answering my questions, brainstorming with me or providing technical help. On that note of Precogs being fiercely intelligent but surprisingly helpful, ends act one. Remember, they’re the people you call to save your skin if you get into a sticky place when it comes to work (and I can testify to this because I have).

Anupama’s comments on polishing my defense talk: Precogs have your back

Act 2. Calendar events: Organization is key

This brings us to the next dimension of the Precog Story. After our first email conversation, PK told me to meet him and to send him a calendar event for the same. Unfortunately, back then I was (even more) technically challenged (than I am now) and had to do some serious googling to see what a ‘calendar event’ is and how one sends those. After two years at Precog, I can confidently say that I can even send one in my sleep. Precog operates at enterprise level of efficiency, allowing us to attain higher productivity. PK also keeps reminding us of productivity hacks now and then, and best of all, leads by example by practicing them himself. Be it a regular schedule of meetings, one-on-one sessions or group meetings, the regularity is enormously helpful, especially when you’re stuck.

The lack of bureaucracy in getting organizational things done is frankly wondrous. It would be a failure not to mention the meticulous focus with which PK approaches problem, both research and otherwise, and inspires other lab members to follow suit. Precogs have ironed out kinks that I thought were impossible to untangle and PK himself has helped us manage obstacles with ease.

Borrowing again from personal experience, I would like to talk about my thesis defense. The entire lab pitched in to help with numerous practice talks as well as organizational assistance. They ensured that every component of the defense ran smoothly, allowing me to focus on just the work itself. Precogs not only embody the philosophy of ‘work smarter’ but also that ‘to cut down a tree in five minutes, spend three minutes sharpening your axe.’ Essentially they’re the people you call when you need things done and done well.

Happy faces after my glitch-free-Thesis-Defense

Act 3. Cake: The glue (frosting) that binds

And finally, we come to act three. I can confidently make the claim that Precog consumes more capita cake than any other group at IIIT Delhi, backed up by some hand-wavy, back-of-the-envelope calculations. It’s a metaphor for the celebrations we have here. There’s cake on birthdays and milestones, going out and celebrating during Precog Anniversaries, and the numerous socials where there’s an excess of food and laughter. The socializing not only act as a stress buster for the discouraged and an icebreaker for the uninitiated, but it also helps us forge bonds that (I hope) will live a lifetime.

Parties’R’us

Celebrations aside, these are people who will never fail to lift your spirits. Even when they’re scolding you, you don’t mind, because you know it comes from a place of concern. Without resorting to heavily sentimental cliches, I’d like to think that the lab is comprised of people who will always be your well-wishers, who will always want to see you do well and who will always strive to help you become not only a better researcher but also a better version of yourself. Essentially they’re the people you call if you want to have a good time, or alternatively if you’re in need of some cheerleading (Trust me, I’ve abused the both privileges far too often.)

The past few years have taught me things that will stay with me a lifetime. At Precog and because of PK, I’ve learned something new every day. You might think this is a figment of my imagination and exaggeration, but you’d be wrong. I know this because some time in the middle of my Precog tenure, I finally became organized and started maintaining a TIL (‘Today I Learned,’ which I also incidentally learned about in Precog) diary. Most of its pages are full of research tidbits (do you know about the “Majority Illusion”?), some of them have productivity hacks (classify tasks), but the best entries contain the sticky notes my Precog friends wrote for me (I’m not sharing those, sorry, come work here and get your own!).

Collective Aspects of Privacy in the Twitter social network

With an increased online participation on Social Media, privacy concerns have risen to unprecedented levels. It has become extremely important to allow individuals the full control of their private information. Popular mobile applications integrated with Online Social Networks (OSNs) allow them to access user’s private information like their contact lists. This might allow OSNs to create shadow profiles of non-users using the data of existing users. We test this hypothesis for the first time on Twitter and further evaluate the predictability of location and biographical vector of a user from the information given by a friend who has created a Twitter Profile before our user.

Dataset

To get an unbiased dataset, we collected 1,017 random twitter users which we call as ego users by random digit search method. We obtained their metadata and filtered spam users and celebrities by thresholding the follower to friends ratio in the range from 0.1 to 10. To maintain homogeneity, we collected only those users who have English as language on Twitter account and further obtained their timelines (up to 3,200 tweets). We identified the users mentioned at least 4 times by the ego users and used these links as an approximation to the underlying social network between Twitter users that is revealed when users share their contact lists through mobile phone apps. Thus, we generate a dataset of 68,447 alter users.

User Analysis

We identified the location of our users from their geotagged tweets and location provided by them in their Twitter Bio. We normalized these locations using Google’s Geocoding API and identified the City, State, and Country pertaining to each location. This way, we were able to locate 630 ego users and 38,936 alter users in our dataset. We further mapped each location to a unique set of geo-coordinates.  

Figure 1 shows the locations of users in the dataset, illustrating that users come from a wide variety of countries but are generally located in countries where Twitter adoption is high and the users of similar locations are more associated with each other.

Figure 1 : User locations in the Twitter social network

We processed the Twitter Bio of each user by removing stop words and converting the tokens into stems. We considered only those users which had at least 3 tokens in their bio to obtain 49,576 alters and 676 ego users. Over this text, we applied a pre-trained 100-dimensional Doc2Vec model and further reduced the vector to two most informative dimensions with Principal Component Analysis dimensionality reduction.

Twitter API also provides us the source of each tweet which identifies the way tweet was produced. We mark all the alters that produced at least one tweet with the source “Twitter for iPhone” or “Twitter for Android” as “disclosing alters” as they used a mobile application which accessed their mobile contact lists. This way we obtain 934 ego users and 53,724 alters which amounts to 78% of our dataset.

Shadow Profile Problem

Figure 2: Twitter data and the shadow profiles problem

For each ego user, we identified the preceding alters that had joined Twitter before ego user. Some of the alters disclosed their contact lists (red) and others did not (blue); see Figure 2. The shadow profile problem consists of the inference of personal information of the ego user based only on the information given by disclosing preceding alters, ignoring all data from non-disclosing preceding alters and alters that joined Twitter after the ego user.

To predict the location of ego users, we took the locations of all disclosing alters and identified the most frequent city among alters, i.e., the modal predictor. We used this location as the unsupervised prediction of location to be compared against the ground truth of the location of the ego user. We evaluated the quality of the prediction by measuring the Haversine distance in Km between the predicted point and the ground truth which is our error distance. We predicted the biographical vector of each alter as the average vector of its disclosing alters and evaluated this prediction through the cosine similarity of predicted and ground truth vectors. Therefore, a high similarity will mean a high accuracy of the predictor.

We evaluated both the predictors against a Random Null Model which took a uniform random sample of all users for prediction. For each projection, we generated 100 instances of Null Model and took the average result over those 100 predictions.

Location Prediction

Figure 3: Location prediction quality using only disclosing alters

In Figure 3, the left panel shows the Cumulative Density Function (CDF) of the prediction error of user locations when using only the data of disclosing alters. Black lines indicate empirical errors and the blue line depicts the errors in the Null Model, revealing that empirical errors (median = 68.7 Km) are much lower than the Null Model errors (median = 6308.9 Km). The right panels show the regression profile of the empirical error versus the number of disclosing alters in Twitter. The line shows the model estimate and the shaded area its standard error. Prediction error decreases with the number of disclosing alters in Twitter.

To make stronger care for an actual scenario, we used the fact that all Twitter users do not have the Twitter mobile application installed or haven’t provided access to their contacts. We now made predictions, given a probability that the user will share his/her data. For each alter, we picked a random number in the range of 0 to 1 and compared it with our selected probability ρ. This allowed us to have only ρ*100 % alters for prediction for a particular ρ.

Figure 4: Location prediction quality as a function of disclosure tendency and number of friends

In Figure 4, the left panel shows the median error of location prediction in 1000 samples for each value of ρ∈[0.1,0.9]. The median error approaches the value of the error when ρ=1, using all alters, which is 72 Km. The inset shows the error of the Null Model, which is several orders of magnitude larger than the error of shadow profiles. The right panel shows stratified regression lines of median error as a function of the number of alters in the samples, revealing that error decreases with the number of alters for the different values of ρ.

Biographic Vector Prediction

Figure 5: Biography cosine similarity in predictions as a function of disclosure tendency and number of friends

In Figure 5, The left panel shows the median cosine similarity of predictions and the Null Model in 1000 samples for each value of ρ. The cosine similarity of predictions outperformed the Null Model for ρ>0.2 and increased with ρ. The right panel shows the regression analysis of cosine similarity versus the number of friends on Twitter, revealing a trend of growing similarity with the number of friends.

The error level for shadow profiles of location (68.7 Km) is comparable to error levels using full information, which are typically between 57.2 Km and 28.3 Km.

Our results demonstrate that even if as less as 30% of your network disclosed their information, your private information could be inferred with significant accuracy.

Limitations of our study :

  • Historical audit using future data as ground truth
  • Using mentions network to determine friendship link
  • Biographical vectors don’t allow the straightforward interpretation of user interests

The implications of our results are clear: individuals do not have full control over their privacy, and the decisions of other people mediate the decision not to share information with online services, which means that we cannot conceive online privacy as a purely individual phenomenon that can be reduced to the choices of a person.

Please find the full paper accepted at EPJ Data Science Journal 2018 here for detailed description of our work. This is joint work with Dr. David Garcia, Amod Agrawal, and PK.

PreCog : The Google of Research Groups

I feel ecstatic to write this blog post today as I complete an year at PreCog. I would like to use this opportunity to write about my journey till and through PreCog, with all the fantastic and memorable experiences I’ve had during this time. Jump to section III to know why I think PreCog is the ‘Google of Research Groups’.

I. Getting In

It was late 2015 and I had barely started my second year in college when I decided I wanted my UG life to have as many diverse experiences as possible. So, I started participating in various activities in college, which included founding and heading a student chapter of The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) at MAIT. As a chapter, one of the first major events we planned was a Distinguished Speaker talk and after going through the speaker’s list, we found that the talk title of Prof. Ponnurangam Kumaraguru (PK) of IIITD – “Privacy and Security in Online Social Media” would resonate the most with the students and would be an awesome kickstarter. We decided to invite PK for the talk and PK graciously accepted. This is the point when I started following PK on social media.

Summer of 2016 was approaching when PreCog opened their summer internship applications, and I applied. Without knowing anything about research, I applied just for the sake of exploring, and because the area of research sounded super exciting. I got rejected. It wasn’t a shock, I was expecting it. Fortunately, I got through one of the SDE internships at a startup for the summer. But, I made a mental note that research is something I want to explore before graduating and this is one area I felt very passionate about.

I enjoyed my SDE internship and as soon as it got over, I was determined to pick up on the ‘Required’ and ‘Recommended’ skills I lacked the previous time I applied to PreCog. I also started working on the SOP before the applications even opened. I really wanted to make it this time. And this time, I wasn’t applying elsewhere. Early applications opened, I applied, got through the rounds and got accepted. The process was extremely streamlined and everyone was professional. I was definitely on cloud 9 after getting the ‘S’ on chat from PK after my interview with him (after much thought, I decrypted ‘S’ meant ‘Selected’). I had made it in, and we had decided I would start as soon as my semester got over.

II. The PreCog Journey

A. Work
Getting the best start to the year one can imagine, I joined PreCog on 2nd January 2017. At the onset, I got the chance to witness the best of ‘The PreCog Culture’ (more on this later) when the group celebrated their 6th birthday on 4th January 2017.

As per tradition, the newest members cut the cake.
(L-R) Me, Dattatreya, Viraj and Vedant

The next day, PK introduced me to my mentor – Srishti Gupta, with whom I would be spending most of my working hours thereon. I was assigned a problem which was still in the ideation stage. We collected and explored the data to get a better idea of what the problem statement might be, but even though we did not reach a definite statement, we did get interesting observations and could see scope for exploring further. During the same time, I joined Srishti to work on a completely unrelated problem, on which I spent most of the rest of my time at PreCog. We worked on it through the spring semester and submitted the first draft as the semester ended. I joined back in the summers, this time staying on campus 24×7, which marks the start of best summer I’ve ever had (more on this later).

All the interns had an introductory session where PK gave a brief lecture on ‘Research Methodology’. Srishti and I continued to work on the draft we had submitted, while Vivek (a fellow intern from IIT-KGP) joined me and Srishti on the first project. During this time, I was also introduced to our awesome collaborators – Prof. Mustaque Ahamad (Georgia Tech), Dr. Payas Gupta (Pindrop, Atlanta). We were later also joined by Dr. Manish Gupta of Microsoft Research, Hyderabad. It was an ineffable feeling to be working with such big names and it is now that I realize how much I have learnt from their thought processes with the limited interaction I have had with them. We worked on it through the summer and the fall semester and submitted the second draft too. At PreCog, Srishti is someone I have spent most of my time with, and also learnt the most from. She is the most hard working individual I have ever met, (dare I say) with an almost bot-like work ethic. Personally, she is the sweetest person, and the absolute best friend one can ask for in a professional environment. She is always there for support and tries really hard not to get annoyed with my endless queries. 😛

As part of routine activities, we regularly had WhatsUp (status updates) and DeepDive sessions (detailed status updates) along with hackathons in an all-hands-on-deck style (as in picture).

Now, to the interesting part.

B. The PreCog Culture

Starting at PreCog was a cultural shock for me. I had never seen such a close-knit group of fun-loving ‘smart creatives’ who lived like a family, and worked like a team. PK was nothing like a professor (take it as, it would be a really difficult task to identify ‘the professor’ if you meet the whole group) and PhD students were nothing like the typical ‘nerds’ one would expect. Don’t get me wrong, they were super into their work and obviously knew a lot, but they didn’t ‘look nerdy’. Some cool memories I have:

  • One of the early days, I remember, PK was just casually sitting in the lab, peeling and eating litchis and offering all of us.
  • Some of the interns (no names) took out a packet of exotic imported chocolates a lab member had purchased as a gift for someone and made it their midnight snack. A forwarded mail about lab rules and this is what we got in the morning –To which the same interns, replied with –
    The mantra at PreCog is: work hard, party harder. And to that, we had regular parties (some even at PK’s place).

Manoj’s Birthday
(L-R) Gowtham (the funniest #PreCogIntern), Kartik, Kushagra, Dipjyoti, Manoj, me and Vivek

A farewell party to the interns @ BBQ Nation
…where we also celebrated Sonu’s Birthday

Sonu’s birthday; after ‘cake cutting’
(L-R) Dattatreya, me and Sonu

As interns, 24×7 on campus, we had a lot of fun activities too, the highlight of which, for me, was playing pool (with Gowtham).

In pic, one of Gowtham’s signature shots. xP ‘Scoring’ the black ball with the white ball.

For the uninitiated, this probably is *the only* definite way to lose a winning game in Pool.

III. My observations and learnings :

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.
Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

This is a quote on a wall outside the lab, and is very frequently referred to, in fact, to a point where quoting this seems cliched, but this is something which resonates very strongly with me. This is also something I have written on a wall in my own room too. I read the book, and it is an excellent guide to lead one’s life with all the ambitious dreams. A must read!

The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.
Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

This is something which PK keeps referring to, time and again, both in group meetings and in his mails. Just being around PK, and observing him manage such a huge number of projects and other tasks, I have learnt that managing time efficiently is half job done and I’m gradually making progress in that direction. By referring to such stuff, PK has nailed a lot of useful life lessons into all of us.

One of PK’s most motivating mails (for me) had this Quora answer by Ben Zhao which said that your own opinion of yourself should not limit how far you go in life and if someone offers you an opportunity you think you don’t deserve, you should rather work your ass off to make yourself feel deserving of it. Just epic.

This is the screenshot sent by PK, read the third paragraph.

Now coming to why I think PreCog is the ‘Google of Research Groups’, if I may. Having read ‘How Google Works’ by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, I know a thing or two about how Google works :P. I would like to enumerate the things that resonated with the culture at PreCog when I read it :

  • When an average person thinks about Google, they think great products. PreCog (especially PK) has always had a very strong product focused approach to research. As PK always says, your work should not be just about publishing papers, it should solve a real-world problem and you should always keep thinking of turning it into a product for people to actually use and benefit. Otherwise, what’s the point?
  • When an engineer thinks about Google, they think passionate, smart and ambitious people. PreCog is also a group of ‘smart creatives’ extremely passionate about what they’re doing with ambitious goals. I would say this succinctly describes what PreCog is.

    “Smart creatives thrive on interacting with each other. The mixture you get when you cram them together is combustible, so a top priority must be to keep them crowded.”
    ― Eric Schmidt, ‘How Google Works’

    “The most valuable result of 20 percent time isn’t the products and features that get created, it’s the things that people learn when they try something new.”
    ― Eric Schmidt, ‘How Google Works’

The authors explain how at Google, the engineer’s work time is divided as 80-20, where they spend 80% of their work time on their ‘daily jobs’, and they are given full freedom to explore fresh (daring) ideas in the remaining 20% of the time, where the actual breakthroughs happen. Some of Google’s top products (InstantSearch, GMail etc.) came out of the 20% time. I feel PreCog also has this culture where everyone is spending approx 20% of their work time on exploring fresh ideas some of which later turn into great ideas worthy of the 80% time. This is awesome!

There are also other compelling reasons like the competitive hiring process, a ‘work hard, party harder’ attitude and the no hierarchy rule (calling someone with ‘Sir/Maam’ results in a fine :)) but I guess you get the point. xP

I would truly be indebted to PreCog (and PK) for these experiences and the learnings. This would stay with me forever, and I think I can safely say – ‘I’ve been PreCoged for life’. ^_^

IV. Other cool stuff @ IIITD

Gowtham excited (and hopeful) while receiving the new Titan X PreCog ordered

An experiment with a drone collecting data to identify suspicious behaviour

Customary group pic with the ‘PreCogSummer’ T-shirts

The journey of an unlikely doctor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MT10014 and PhD1111 signing off.


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

Precog 101

In the summer of 2016, I was a third year Computer Science engineering student at the College of Engineering, Guindy in Chennai desperately looking for a summer internship. A chance encounter with a senior from college, who was then a Research Associate (RA) here, is how I first heard of Precog. What followed was a year long journey in which I’ve gained mentors, friends and an admit at the Ohio State University for the MS in CSE program (Let me assure you that my time at Precog is what got me in). Here I try to summarize my observations on what makes Precog awesome.

What makes Precog Precog?

Extreme organization.

After working with PK and Precog for slightly more than a year now, I’ve seen how they’re meticulous about communication and scheduling. All communication happens through email, everything is written, there’s a separate email thread where you can reach out to the whole group when you need help or just want to share something interesting. PK occasionally sends motivating emails such as,

Are you spending 100 hrs a week? Just wanted to check with you….

All meetings are scheduled through shared calendar events, and meetings start exactly at the specified time. As PK says,

If it’s not on my calendar, it’s not in my life.

Collective intelligence.

The biggest advantage in being a part of Precog is that you’re not just one person trying to solve a problem. When you’re working on a problem at Precog, everybody is contributing in solving the problem in one way or the other, big or small. Therefore, you’re not restricted by just what you know. However, this does not mean that you will be spoon fed. You’ll probably get a new perspective on the problem or how to approach it which will eventually help you learn something new at every juncture.

Apart from just sending out an email on the thread, there are weekly “What’s up” sessions and monthly “Deep Dive” sessions where everybody presents their work and gets inputs from the rest of the group.

Amazing Mentors

One awesome thing about Precog is that you are never alone. There is always somebody who’s responsible for guiding you in the right direction when you’re stuck not knowing what to do.

In the one year that I was at Precog, I worked on two interesting projects with Anupama Aggarwal. Although I was told that she can be scary when she wants to be, she is one of the most hard-working and considerate person I’ve come across.

Constantly looking for important problems.

The people of Precog are constantly aware of what’s happening around them. Where others complain, they try to come up with solutions to make things better. The email thread is always abuzz with ideas on how to solve some very difficult problems.

The brainchild of one such discussion was the acclaimed Killfie project. What started out as PK sending out a news article about selfie deaths in India and asking

Can we do something about this?

progressed to become a full blown paper. To me, this is what is super awesome about Precog, the fact that they’re willing to spend their time and energy in doing super cool things that can make a difference.

Precog’s ability to attract awesome talent.

After years of looking at resumes and emails they’ve nailed the art of identifying super talented people to work with them. This quality control and insane standards ensure that when you work at Precog, you’re working with some of the smartest, brightest, most creative people you’ll ever cross paths with.

Feedback

Precog works on a system of feedback. Nobody is ever afraid to tell you when you’re slacking or not working hard enough. Although it maybe hard to swallow, it helps you bounce back quickly and produce cool output. It also works the other way around. Nobody at Precog is unwilling to listen, including PK. They welcome any and all constructive criticism that can help them improve themselves or make your experience at Precog better.

Nobody at Precog is ever afraid of failing. I’ve been told multiple times that it’s better to fail fast and correct quickly than to never fail at all and not know what you’re doing.

They love what they do.

Part of the reason why PK and his students are able to produce awesome output is because apart from being extremely talented, they’re super passionate about what they do. Don’t be surprised if you walk into one of our Deep Dive sessions to find a bunch of people in a heated discussion about the merits and demerits of somebody’s work.

They celebrate. A lot.

We celebrate a lot. We take part in each others joys and sadness. We’ve celebrated birthdays, work anniversaries, first days, last days, paper acceptances and paper rejections in some small way or the other, be it the full blown cake or the humble chai party at CDX.

Chilling.

Last but not the least, everybody at Precog knows how to really chill. Before I left from Chennai (in 2016), my mom said,

You’re going to be spending the summer with PhDs. They’re not a lot of fun and they study too much. You’re going to hate it there.

Her words could not be farther from the truth. In the one year that I’ve spent in Precog, I’ve really learnt how to strike a balance between working and having fun.

Overall, I’ve had a productive and fun year here at Precog and coming here was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’ve changed a whole lot for the better from when I first came to Precog and the journey so far has been amazing.

 

Precog: A to Z

Hi, all.

I (Kartik Sethi, B.Tech. Final year at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus) interned at the Precog Research Group of IIIT Delhi in the summers of 2017 (May – July). I have tried to express my experiences through the following paragraphs.

A – Amazing was the word, which flashed in my mind when the programme started.

B – Best environment and bonhomie was the hallmark of the internship. I found the environment and infrastructure in IIIT as one of the best in any such institution.

C – Challenges. Every difficult problem is usually entailed with an innovative solution and every new solution is associated with challenges of its own. I also did face many hurdles during the course of my projects, but the peers at Precog were always ready to offer help and render their valuable inputs.

D – Deep Dive. These are the fortnightly in-depth sessions similar to WhatsUps (more about it in later paragraphs) where people get opportunities to share their project ideas, their ongoing project progress and take relevant feedback from other participants. One important aspect to gain from these sessions was that regular feedback is an essential prerequisite for any important research project.

E – Exploring new vistas and avenues. We got so many opportunities to learn and experience new vistas, ideas, and avenues. This was the first time when I got the taste of what real hard-core research is. I got to experience all the nitty-gritties related to approaching a research problem.

F – Family. The atmosphere here at Precog is more like a family. A family, who gels together, discuss together, sits together, enjoys going out together, dining out together and group members coming forward to each other like a well-knit family.

G – GPUs. Precog has many CPU servers and 3 GPU servers (two NVIDIA GTX 1080 and one NVIDIA Titan X Pascal!, currently the best in the market) with high computational specs. My projects were related to Deep Learning, so I had the opportunity to tinker with these amazing tools.

H – Hackathons. During the course of the internship, we worked on some challenging problems in the form of Hackathon(s) where all of us (interns, PhDs, RAs) brainstormed and collaborated to find innovative solutions.

I – Interns. I got the opportunity to work and collaborate with some of the most ebullient and brightest minds of the country belonging to various reputed institutions. It was the ravenous attitude of everyone in the group to crack arduous research problems, that kept me going and made me do better and better. Overall, it was an amazing experience getting to know them, work and learn with them.

J – Journey.

“Success is a journey not a destination.” – Ben Sweetland

My journey at Precog was indeed a roller coaster ride, filled with momentary disappointments (in not achieving the desired results) and spans of joyful triumphs (when I actually figured out where I was going wrong).

K – Keenness to learn. The atmosphere at Precog brings out the best in you. The internship serves as a great platform to gauge your research interests and work in the direction of the research areas which one likes to pursue.

L – Learning. My projects were related to Artificial Neural Networks (namely CNNs and LSTMs). The problems that I tried to tackle allowed me to experience a holistic learning in terms of concepts and ideas that have been tried and the improvements that can be ensued.

M – Mahasabha. Also known as Intern Mahasabha, it is basically a one to one session with PK, where we can share our progress regarding the projects and also if we are facing any problems. The session is informal so one can discuss about other things as well, even not related to Precog.

N – Nostalgia. Once a Precoger, always a Precoger! 🙂

O – Openness. The openness of every member of Precog is admirable. You can approach anyone for help (even the Precog Alumni). One will surely receive new ideas to try and also, there might be moments of constructive criticism, which is necessary for getting results in any kind of research.

P – PK. I still remember that awe-inspiring moment when I first researched about PK and the work that has happened at Precog. PK as a supervisor is the coolest faculty one can ask for. He is an epitome of a mentor who motivates, guides and supports you to a great extent. He makes sure that every individual in the group gets ample opportunities to discover their true potential and so that they can hit the acme of their goals. It was a fabulous experience to work with him as his mentee. He is truly the glue that holds this (Precog) family together.

Q – The Quality of research at Precog is at par with other research institutes in the country.

R – RAs and Pillars. Research Associates and PhD students (also known as Pillars), which I must mention are the exact manifestation to what they are to us and the group itself. All of them were very helpful. They guided us, motivated us when we were not getting the desired results. Also, everyone likes to be called by their names, so don’t you dare call anyone Ma’am/Sir here (not even PK!). It’s a statutory compulsion, and fines for those who violate it. 😛

S – Socials. The group is not at all limited to only work, we had regular fun outings, also known as #PrecogSocial. The outings ranges from PK’s place (yeah, you got that right!) to Barbeque Nation, etc.

T – Tenacity. The tenacious work environment and challenging projects kept me driving throughout the course of the internship.

U – Ultimate experience. The overall experience was ultimate at this institution, where one could learn to any extent.

V – Precog helped by giving me a Vivid picture of what and what not I want to pursue in future.

W – WhatsUp (WU). Toned down version of DeepDives (DD), these are the bi-weekly sessions (with the entire group), where Precogers discuss their projects, ask for suggestions and give interesting inputs. Through sessions like WUs and DDs one gets to know about the different frontiers of research happening around you.

X – The Xenial relationship that I have shared with Precog is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Y – There is a strong Yearning to return back to this place, whenever an opportunity strikes. 😀

Z – The Zealousness that I have seen in every Precoger, to solve problems related to social good is truly inspirational.

At the end, I would like to mention that Precog is a wonderful group to learn, work together and there are numerous opportunities where one could excel. Therefore, if someone is looking for an all round and comprehensive research experience or want to make a career in research, it is one of the best places for him/her to start their journey.

Here’s a glimpse of the Precog family.

The Journey Known as Precog

I was interested in Precog long before Precog was interested in me. Ever before I joined IIIT-Delhi, I had an innate fascination with the field of Security – especially how it affected us all in the digital age. So imagine my delight when I found out that IIIT-Delhi had an entire centre dedicated to Security, a.k.a, CERC (Cybersecurity Education and Research Centre). Among the several research groups that formed CERC, one of them was Precog.

What interested me most about Precog was its focus on security and privacy, especially in the context of online social media. To me this seemed like an issue which was of vital importance, especially given the prevalence of social media, but one that not enough of us thought about. The second thing that caught my eye was the person behind the creation of Precog. Professor Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, as he’s known to no one at all, is the enigma who brought the concept of Precog to life. PK, as he likes to be called, is one of the coolest people on campus, or so our seniors had informed us. Now, having worked with him and having taken nearly all of his classes, I can safely vouch for this fact. PK is unequivocally one of the best professors I’ve had the fortune of learning from.

Precog’s 6th anniversary celebrations!

Instead of making this blog post about the work that I did at Precog, or the work that Precog does in general, I’d like to focus on the philosophy behind Precog, and what makes this research group tick. First and foremost, Precog is like an extended family. People here like to help each other out. And I don’t say that lightly, they really do! We are encouraged to make use of each others expertise, rather than remain confined in the silos of our individual projects. What really enables this sort of collaboration is the fact that there is no formal hierarchy in the group. Free of the burden of labels such as ‘senior/junior’ or ‘undergrad/grad’ everyone is able to mingle freely with each other. This in my opinion truly brings out the best of each person in the group.

Secondly, I’d be remiss to not mention the influence of Professor Randy Pausch and his philosophy on our group (Here’s an intro for the uninitiated).

“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.”

These words were etched in my memory from the day I read The Last Lecture, and are the same words that hang on a picture on the fourth floor where Precog is located. PK in fact likes to share this quote in the very first class of all of his courses. It is a testament to how seriously, these words and Randy’s philosophy, are taken at Precog. I think all of us in Precog can thank Randy for the motivation to keep on going, no matter how tough it got.

Another valuable lesson for me that got reinforced at Precog, was of steady iteration. We as a group deliberately try and make progress in small and consistent steps, rather than making huge leaps in one go. This ideology has personally helped me streamline my work process and achieve my goals with great consistency. Keeping this idea in mind, we have weekly meetings whose sole purpose is to get everyone to give updates on their work. This is beneficial in many ways since everyone in the group is kept abreast of each other’s work, and everyone in the group gets the chance to weigh in on projects other than their own and give suggestions that may be useful in that project.

Lastly, the great thing about Precog is that it truly embodies the “Work hard, Play hard” attitude. When we work, then all our time and attention is focused on the task at hand. But from time to time, Precog organises outings for the entire group – ranging from going to eat, bowling, playing games, having competitions or just hanging out. For those who say that nerds don’t know how to have fun, I’d like to point you to Precog. Precog is a group that is very capable of having some good old fun.

Graduating Precogs with PK. Celebrating before everyone heads off to grad school!

I’ve learnt a great deal in my four years at IIIT-Delhi. Many different people have given me lessons that I will always cherish and remember. Precog is definitely one of them. I owe a great deal of my success to all of these people who have helped me become the person I am. So now, as I embark on my next great adventure – graduate school at the University of Cambridge, I just have to say that I will truly miss all of this: the Whatsup sessions, Deepdives, Brainstorming Meetings, Precog Socials, and the people. But one thing I can confidently say is that I am Precoger for life, and the work ethic that I’ve learnt here will always remain with me.

To all my juniors, I present this piece of advice – take one of PK’s classes, work with Precog on a project. In the end, you will be glad that you did.

Yashovardhan Sharma, signing off.