Experiences,  Students

Precog: The Extraordinary Voyage

I am writing this blog after an exhilarating experience of 3 years spent at Precog. When I started my undergrad four years ago, little could I imagine that I’ll be conducting high impact research, building real-world systems, writing and publishing papers and even presenting them at top conferences across the globe. The freshman version of me just wanted to get a decent paying job! Yet 4 years later, here I am headed to pursue a Ph.D. in Computer Science at the University of Maryland, College Park and Max Planck Institute for Software Systems under the Maryland-Max Planck joint program. A good part of who I am today, professionally and academically, can be attributed to Precog and its unique culture. Even though no single blog can do justice to my time here, I will try to recapitulate my experiences being a part of this amazing research group

“Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.”

I joined Precog at the start of my second year. Like all other members, I also underwent a rigorous selection procedure to get entry into Precog. While getting in through such a process gave me a sense of satisfaction, it was when I started working and being involved with the work at Precog, that the imposter syndrome really hit me. Everyone at Precog, undergrads to PhDs was not only working on cool projects, but they also owned it. Nobody did something only because PK told them to, they did it because they also believed it was the right thing to do. And here I was, a sophomore who could only run a few python scripts and build some basic web apps.

It was during this initial phase of self-questioning that (coincidentally) PK sent an email to the group mailing list with a quote (paraphrased): “If you get an opportunity that you feel you don’t deserve, you work your ass off and make yourself worthy”. This struck a chord with me and over the course of the semester, I built 2 systems (News Bugle & MyVoice), deployed them on Facebook’s FreeBasics platform and analyzed the TCP dumps to gain some critical insights into the much-debated FreeBasics platform. I felt like I had done enough justice to my project. However, the bar for what was “good” was pretty high at Precog, so I still had some lingering doubts. During the winter break, PK summoned me for a meeting with just him and the 4 pillars (PK calls his Ph.D. students Pillars, and rightly so, if PK is the heart and soul of Precog, they’re the muscle power!). With a little anxiety at the back of my mind, I entered the lab to meet with PK and the Pillars. The first line PK said was (paraphrased): “Vedant, I am impressed by your work and commitment, will you work with us till the end of your undergrad?”. It was in this moment I knew that I had cleared the first hurdle and made myself worthy.

“A mind needs books (or papers?) like a sword needs a whetstone.”

One of the great things about Precog is that while you have a dedicated project which you’ll put the majority of your effort on, you are always part of a larger group striving towards a collective goal of acquiring and advancing knowledge in the broad field of social computing. There would be weekly “WhatsUp” sessions where everyone would share updates of what they did the past week. This would also be the time to bring up any issues one was facing in their projects and everyone would collaboratively brainstorm a solution. In fact, there are many (now successful) projects which started as spin-offs off a discussion started in WhatsUp sessions!

We also had bi-weekly “BrainStorm” sessions where we would pick and read interesting papers. I myself lead a few of these sessions and gained inordinate amounts of knowledge by analyzing the paper through multiple perspectives. Later on, when I attended WWW (a revered data mining/social computing conference) and did an internship at MPI-SWS, I met some of the authors on the papers we had studied in depth in these BrainStorm sessions, and all of them were thoroughly impressed that I had read and understood their paper in such detail!

A huge credit for keeping the energy and enthusiasm throughout WhatsUps and BrainStorms goes to the commander-in-chief: PK. While the benefits of these sessions aren’t apparent at first, the little bits you aggregate from these group meetings is what makes a huge difference in the long run. Indeed, it was this unique culture cultivated by PK that allowed me to go above an beyond just my project and get interested in the broader field.

My first Precog Social

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”

One thing that is inevitable with any research project, is that things will go south at some point. No matter how much effort you put in, you won’t see the results, you’ll be rejected from places and things won’t make sense. It’s in trying times like these when you need all the support you can get from your advisor and your peers. Luckily, I found myself surrounded by amazing people who I could count on to have my back. In many cases, these were people who I had no direct work with, but the unique ecosystem of collectivism cultivated by PK made sure I could walk up to anyone (including PK himself) and engage in both technical and philosophical musings.

Picture says it all.

PK always practiced and preached the “work hard, play hard” philosophy. We had regular group outings (called Precog Social) where we would talk about everything but work. All Ph.D. thesis defenses were celebrated at PK’s place with the entire group (I was fortunate to be a part of 2 of these celebrations). I also shared a special bond with PK of playing tennis with him. Not many advisors are as cool as he is and certainly that helped me in getting past some dark moments in an otherwise illustrious stay at Precog.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

At Precog, there are always plenty of interesting, high-impact projects going on all of which are infused by PK’s energy to keep the wheel spinning. Precog is powered by state-of-the-art machines. We have 9 CPU servers and 10 GPU servers. These are numbers which not even the finest institutes across the globe can boast of having. Thus, if one puts their head down and works hard enough, the sky is the limit.

During my time here, I worked on a fair share of projects, built many systems (http://newsbugle.mpi-sws.org/, http://myvoice.mpi-sws.org/, Saftie app and chatbot, Saftie Camera), all of which are still being used by more than 1000 users each! I got my work on KillFies mentioned in local and global media (even got featured on Patriot Act by Hasan Minhaj!), published 3 research papers (at SIGMETRICS, ICTD and MSM workshop@WWW) and interned at MPI-SWS (read my experiences in a dedicated blog). Overall, I would like to believe that I had a productive time here :

“Part of the Journey is the End”

After a memorable time at Precog, it’s now time to bid adieu to the place that has given me so much. Through Precog I have made cherished memories, worked with terrific mentors but most importantly, I made some amazing friends and ties which will last a lifetime. To anyone out there interested in computer science, I would encourage you to check out Precog and take a leap of faith and send in your application.  

In-campus Wombat party. Congrats PK!

My Last Precog Social :'(

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