Experiences,  Students

At the crossroads: (with) Precog

Life is a journey through innumerable cross-roads. And at each cross-road, we are going to meet new people, experience new things, and spend our precious time. In January 2019, I (Aanshul Sadaria – IIIT H Class of 2020) came at one such crossroad, not that I knew it was going to be a life-remembering junction of my journey. I happened to remember reading a mail from an unusual named professor – Ponnurangam Kumaraguru asking for students to work on the #Killfie project. It didn’t tingle my senses much due to the fact that it was a more formal mail (which is quite anti-PK) and more importantly because it focussed on Computer Vision, not one of my interests at that time. I missed that cross-road in Monsoon 2018, and finally while surfing through BTP project choices, my luck didn’t let me miss this one. I applied for Elections Project and was interviewed by Precog’s core panel – Shwetanshu, Neha, and Mohit. It is actually funny that I didn’t even know what an SOP was at that time and Neha asked me to write a formal statement of purpose which I wound up with less than 200 words. I had literally zero-research experience at that time. I got shortlisted further due to my passion and interest in the field of Data Science which I was yet to explore. After that, I had an interview with PK (Ponnurangam Kumaraguru) which proved to be quite unconventional as he focussed only to study me as a person, my interests, and how I would respond to challenges. Ultimately, I got selected for the Elections project to be mentored by Shwetanshu.

Elections team is all smiles! Spring 2019.

And This Is How It Began…

The ice-breaking wasn’t that cool as, during the first week itself, I went on a trip and got nudged by my mentor for lack of presence. PK is very relaxed and calm as a person; you can never know if he is going through any storm in his life. And these qualities are reflected in his research group – Precog. The first thing he mentioned firmly during the group meeting was to say “work with PK” instead of under PK. And that was his first impression on me – treat students as his equal. His attitude is his trademark which reflects in the large pool of students willing to work with him (because it allows them immense freedom of what/how to work).

Precog Family having a virtual lunch together during COVID pandemic, June 2020.

In the first week, I learned everything about the data – how it is collected, where it is stored, etcetera. Shwetanshu was the systems administrator at Precog and the heart of our Elections project. I owe a special mention to him for being like my elder brother throughout the journey. I miss the life and future discussions at DLF. I remember the late-night debugging sessions together and going out at 4 in the morning to eat tawa bonda and GD’s burger. Only to leave for hostel at 7 in the morning discussing whether to remain awake till breakfast is served in the mess or go to sleep.

The attitude of PK is reflected in each of his pillars (core of the group) as he proudly calls them; treating each project as their baby, ready to help at any hour for as many hours and most importantly respecting their peers. PK tried to understand every result that our team produced with child-like curiosity. If we ask him, whether we should dwell deeper into the reasoning and study the causality, he would always answer affirmatively. I don’t remember even a single instance where he scrapped off a finding and told us to move on.

PK And His #profgiri!

His way of working professionally is quite informal. When I first received his mail, I thought PK misplaced the content of the mail into the subject but later I learned from him that he used this convention because people usually read/ignore the mail by reading the subject and if his subject contains details sufficient enough for the body of the mail to be ignored, none of his mail would be ignored that way. That was really some thinking he had put in and he kept impressing me as a mentor. I remember vividly one morning, I and other core members received a mail with weird-looking text in the subject – @#@#@#@#@#. Later, Shwetanshu told us that he sends such gibberish when he is actually (very) angry (or disappointed). And it was very counterintuitive for me because he is usually composed and let go even when we make big mistakes but gets angry at minuscule details. It was an eye-opener for me as to how he actually liked working. He was quite lenient when it came to the way of working but when it came to presenting the work, he always aims for a notch higher because he firmly believes – “you can put in weeks to work on a thing and produce amazing results but if you can’t connect it with the reader, then all the efforts are worthless”. Hence, he pushes us a little further when it came to making presentations and refining tiny details in the blogs and slides.

#LokSabhaElections2019 work interviewed at KRC – IIIT Hyderabad

I can write a book about him (obviously I am exaggerating) because that’s how much time he spent with us during the elections project. I will try to write in as less words as possible about how he and not who is. Those who work with him realize that he is not the typical research advisor, he is different, unusual and unordered. Yes, believe me when I say he is unordered because he would suddenly come up with a plan to get clicked in superhero t-shirts or take up a research thread based on whim. He is unordered because he listens, a rare quality in humans. I mind you not get confused between the words – unordered and random; there is this thin line that can make things go hay-way or create magic. And we know he creates magic! Being unordered meant that his way of working wasn’t monotonous and this led to a spur of creativity within the group. Not being random meant he didn’t lose control over anything. He knew exactly what is the priority and what requires a nudge versus when he should give independence to his students allowing them to work things out their way. This surely would sound less impressive against how it actually felt working with him. There are also funny incidents owing to his unordered nature. He can be really excited one week to work on something and would completely ghost us the next week out of the blue. He would come up saying he cleared his calender the entire week for the project and then we wouldn’t see his face for that entire week. Incidents like this are rare (that he wouldn’t show us his face), but yes he can be really moody.

Not All Heroes Wear Cape!

The elections project was one such work where he literally poured his heart and he himself told us that there hasn’t been a work in the past which had kept him awake nights and made him work so hard. This might seem contra factual to you that an advisor is working; yes they work out of their sleeves sometimes because it is so close to their heart. But there is a counter-side to it – we had to remain awake for late nights pulling up content for his blogs but never felt tired of working because his love for the work was contagious and so was his aura. He constantly spread positivity amongst us when things were going low and more when there was a time to rejoice. I remember one time during the live election analysis I was supposed to compile all the results as I was the one having scripts. But I had some other urgent deadlines and hence it got delayed a bit. Any other advisor would have got angry and given a mouthful to me but instead, he calmly asked me to do it at my convenience and not stress up and degrade my health (I was having kidney stone pain at that time). That was he, always positive, always constructive, and not the cake-eater. If there was any interview related to our work, he would let the lead researcher give some views rather than he soaking in all the limelight.

War room during first phase of Elections 2019 (April 11 ’19)

During the phases of elections, we had set up a war-room in one of the conference rooms in Kohli Research Centre. The goal was to sit together in one place and study the trends on twitter live. This was more fascinating than it sounds here and quite arduous because there was no trial-and-error. There is a fixed pipeline – code runs, publish results. And sometimes we had to even prepare codes live to obtain results which I would say would be a nightmare for coders working on something on-the-fly.

Smiling faces after gruesome Phase-1 analysis of Elections 2019! 0700hrs to 2200hrs…

PK was the first man to enter the war-room before 7 in the morning and left at the end at around 10 in the night after preparing the blog and publishing all the results. Yes, he worked almost the entire day, maybe even after going to his home. No doubt we also worked with him but it wasn’t a new territory for us working on the last day of assignment deadlines and preparing for exams the night before. To see him burning himself up like that, and his eyes shining like a kid when the first trend was published or when he came up with a new analysis to be done was very heartening.

V for victory and V for Phase-2 Elections 2019 analysis! Post 1900hrs…

During the seven phases of election + result day, he was the only constant man as researchers kept changing around him due to internships. And never did we see his enthusiasm towards his work drop an inch. Half the battle is won in the mind, reach out to him to master the skill of winning this first half. We also celebrated after our gruesome days in the conference room; sitting on conference chairs with neck popping out to see trends on the projector screen. We also ordered tonnes of pizzas and food for lunch during the first phase of election (which was paid by PK).

My Tryst With Destiny

The fate was ultimately sealed when I learned PK was beginning a course in Spring 2019 – Big Data and Policing. I wasn’t too sure about policing but like other data science enthusiasts, the phrase “big data” caught my attraction. Thus started the journey with PK as his student. To clear the doubts of the readers – I started first by taking this course by him and then ended up doing research with him. So, the blog might seem like picking up different snapshots at different timestamps – not necessarily chronological but ordered to make meaning out of the relation between me and PK.

Big Data and Policing Class – Spring 2019 (After finishing poster presentation)

His method of teaching is quite unique. His slides would never contain much text, relying on graphical references. I don’t remember him teaching any theory during the course; he brought up different case studies for every lecture to enhance the quality of interaction and attention in the class. There were occasional guest lectures where officers/officials talked about how technology (big data in specific) aids them (or can aid them) in effective policing. Overall, I can’t remember any course where I had put in so much attention and involved myself in interactions with my peers and PK. I remember the first day he came to take the class, he said: “I am a Ph.D. from CMU”. He believed in effective marketing, and that is not to be confused with boasting. He was proud of who he was and what he did and with utmost humbleness, he made his way amongst the crowd. When we were supposed to come up with ideas for projects, he made it very clear what he expected – he said “Do work which is impactful!” There is a lot of research going on which is highly resourceful but has zero impact on the people (I don’t mean any research is useless), PK always motivated us to be philanthropists along with computer scientists. That is not to say all his work is directly impactful for people, but a series of work on #Killfie, #LokSabhaElection2019, #WashKaro has relevance with the common people who have nothing to do with social computing. His choice of work and passion for it made him the guru we all need.

What PK taught effective marketing of work is… (Me explaining our e-challans work to attendees)
Versus what I understood effective marketing is 😛 (I don’t know why I did that!)

The e-challans project which we researched as a part of his course Big Data and Policing turned into a research thread at Precog. I was surprised and happy to see him allowing me to lead the research. The domain was new for me and to see him trust me and put forth his belief in my vision was exciting. We did submit the work in a conference only to be rejected but that didn’t diminish my hopes for the work and the impact it may have in the future.

The (Anti)furious PK

I would love to bring to light a rather embarrassing memory of mine as a student. I couldn’t be available for a project evaluation of his course and hence was given zero grade for it. I wrote a long mail ranting about how it was unjust to me for putting in efforts but couldn’t be available due to personal reasons (at 6 in the morning). The entire class was talking about me just four hours later and I almost thought PK would slam me with his words. I realized I could have given more polite feedback but what was done couldn’t be changed and I only prayed. PK is full of surprises and so is his sense of sarcasm. His reaction was rather bland as if he didn’t care about my rants and just laughed out. He said “Sorry sir, galti ho gayi. Maaf kar dena!” (Sorry sir, forgive me. I did a mistake) I could only apologize in my response. I would like to apologize again (here) because I know PK wouldn’t prefer remembering such moments but as a student, it sometimes haunts me and I wish I could change that. That’s actually when a bond of friendship started brewing between us. We used to sarcastically taunt each other, and there were no bitter leftovers of that. He loved taunting me (and the way my beard looked) and I would never miss an opportunity allowed to taunt him. PK would say rather humorously when asked if he wanted to continue his sabbatical at Hyderabad – “If Aanshul and Kanay weren’t there, then he would have given a thought about extending the sabbatical”. Such was the relation between PK and his students. He never showed off his authority as a professor or advisor.

Celebrating his birthday in Hyderabad <3

I was pursuing my BTP with him. I fairly remember the first evaluation where I tried to present the breadth of the work done which seemed to off my evaluators. I knew he didn’t share the same ideas as my evaluators and calmly told me to not think a lot about it. Personally, I felt the result was unfair for the long nights and efforts I had put in but PK pacified that ocean of rage and motivated me to look at what is ahead because nothing else could be done. The same night when I told him I was going out for a movie, he even asked if he could join. I wish I was going alone and he had joined me but since I told him I was going with my friends, he resisted.

The Final Destination?

One of the best things about PK, anyone would say is that he takes immense pride in his students’ achievements. He wears it like a badge of honor and celebrates like his own achievement. Such was the moment was when he emailed me few hours before my eConvocation – “Aanshul Bhai, Congrats on the Gold Medal .. this is SUPER BIG News .. we need to celebrate this..” For me, the feeling that he enjoyed this news a lot was more satisfying than the fact that I was going to be awarded the Institute Gold Medal (for highest CGPA in the graduating batch and also CSE programme). What better feeling can you get than your parents and friends and gurus being proud of your success?!

This surely isn’t the final destination, PK. Hope you will feel equally proud of me a few years later when we meet up for a surprise visit. This achievement has lots of contributions from you and Precog where I learned values of hard work, dedication, and leadership. I will try to be a better human every day as you taught us to be. Here’s a little memento (It belongs as much to you as it belongs to me!):

Finding PK

Those who know PK and has worked as a researcher under him would know how hard it is to get treats out of his pocket. He can be a real miser at times. He and his family had organized a dinner treat for us before the semester ended. When we entered the house, he was eating sabudana khichdi, making us wonder if this was his dinner plan. Thank God, he asked us to order online.

Feast at PK’s place

We had an amazing time at the dinner party, as we teased each other, he introduced us to his family. We had some really meaningful conversations about life and education that night which will be cherished forever. The Delhi vs Hyderabad banters are a treat as he finds himself fixed in time between the two (along with geography). His mood can be really unpredictable – for a man with a tight-packed calendar like that is understandable. Not that he is short-tempered (I never saw him get angry – one of my bucket list goals is to see him angry once), but he works on a whim sometimes. One of the frequent messages you will learn as you work with him is – “Out of sight, out of mind”. He will literally forget who you are and what you worked on if you don’t show your face and keep him updated about your progress.

Precog @ IIIT Hyderabad

One of the most memorable times was just after he left for Delhi after his sabbatical. He was having one-to-one conversations with his students, and we had a really cheerful conversation about Delhi, his new role there as DOSA, and the changes in his life and perspective of working at two operationally different places. At the end of the video call, he mailed me that he was sorry he had to end the call and wished he could talk more as he felt really good talking with me. I have even screenshotted the mail because experiences like this with your advisor are rare particularly at premier institutes such IIIT.

One of the few treats we managed to get out of him! (After he was promoted as Full-Professor at IIIT Delhi)

The funny side of this incident is, a couple of months later he tells me “you know now I am the Dean of Student Affairs (DOSA) there”. And I was shocked because he didn’t remember telling that to me personally on that video call. It was funny because I taunted him getting old after leaving Hyderabad and forgetting things. I couldn’t blame him for I was out of sight for a long time. Wish to see you soon! Keep visiting Bangalore now, soon and frequently. Your student(s) miss you.

At the end, I ask myself: Is he a mentor, a friend, or a father-figure I keep admiring and looking up to?

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