As I See ‘IT’

(This is the essay I wrote for Cisco IT Scholarship 2007. The topic was “A Career in Information Technology — Opportunities for Innovation and Challenges.”)

Most academic scientists are aware that computer databases exist, but what bothers me is the smallness of the fraction that actually uses them.

~ John Sandy, University of Texas. Editorial in ‘SCIENCE’, 25th June, 1982.
(Source: “The Challenge of IT: Proc. of the 41st FID Congress,” by KR Brown)

Cisco Logo

…And what was true of academic scientists two decades back is almost certainly valid for all of us — the potential users of ‘Information Technology’ that we proudly are. Why should this be? I begin with a contention that the “problems” of IT industry are not merely technical (hardware/software), but rather of relevance, of user behavior and of perceived costs. IT includes much more than computers and communication.

For a prospective professional, IT field has far more opportunities, well-packaged with challenges, to offer than any other. Consider “information” as an integrated approach to enable people in problem-solving and you will not find yourself in competition with other professions. I believe this societal commitment on him/her is, in principle, justified.

Waiting in the wings eager to jump into the bandwagon, I mull over research in IT as a plausible career option. And this essay reflects just why.

I’d position the following eight areas as the ‘cornerstones’ of IT in this era of Internet. Data Storage — Storage Area Networks being the latest buzzword; Semiconductor Chips – with raw computing power shooting by the day; Software — latest battleground for computer wars; Parallel/ Distributed Architectures — coming together of systems and networks for want of speed; Natural Language Processing — talking with IT; Fiber Optics/ Wireless — for efficient data communication; Biotechnology — data-crunching to sort DNA strings or test new drugs; and IT-Enabled Services — change through e-commerce and e-governance. Scope for innovation in every of these areas is astronomical. It’s heartening to note that cutting-edge research is happening on a global scale, and happening for sure!

The sudden dawn of Personal Computer created an industry-standard blueprint for hardware and a compatible operating system. After PC created waves, IT industry now embarks on the next computing revolution — a world in which intelligent devices will connect people, businesses and information. I seize this opportunity to delve deep into my area of interest — ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Of late, AI has triggered my curiosity, has made me sit in amazement and awe.

To put things in perspective, I present a case study shot in a business environment. While an algorithm-based search engine for a company catalog would demand from the customer the complete set of specifications as search strings (an expectation too imposing), a ‘case-based reasoning’ intelligently arrives at a decision when provided with a partial set. AI is ‘the behavior by a machine that, if performed by a human being, would be called intelligent.’ This apparent thinking power of a computer is exploited to the hilt in applications like expert systems, pattern recognizers, and intelligent networks and so on. Intelligent agents toil for their masters just as humans. Still at a nascent stage though is the research into an Automatic Programmer, which codes on behalf of the developer. The prospect of a human-like ‘thinking’ machine can throw open unforeseen vistas to the mankind in general and computing in particular. Fits the bill, just right, for the sort of career I’d love to don (!)

Despite the gray warnings about how the computer world inevitably dehumanizes us, it has not till date. We are as human as ever. Let us seize the opportunity and live up to the challenges that IT has provided, and not be dodos – delightful but extinct. It reminds me of a proverb “Man will wait for a long time with his mouth wide-open, before a duck flies in.”

Duck is worth going and getting.

~ Vikram Subramanya

Highlights of my Lisbon Visit for ACM CIKM ’07

(This piece lists various facets of my trip to Lisbon to present my paper at ACM CIKM from November 6-9, 2007.)

ACM Logo

I am back at NITK Surathkal, after one of the most memorable weeks of my life. I’m glad that I got the opportunity at a highly appropriate juncture — at a time when I am about to enter the graduate study, the most crucial phase in my academic life.

The Lisbon visit was truly amazing, to say the least. The amount of computer science that I learnt in those three days could probably be more than that in one whole semester spent at the college. My professor at Otago had predicted this long back and it turned out to be true. I attended presentations/talks from people at Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft Research. Further, I met some professors and a number of graduate students from elite universities and got insights on what it takes to get there.

I jot down some interesting experiences to share with you:

  • My poster presentation went great! Many showed keen interest to understand my compression algorithm and gave a patient ear for the same. Some were impressed, while others had some reservations to be cleared about the feasibility of the technique. But they were unanimous to acknowledge two facts: (a) that I, an Indian student, had collaborated with a professor in New Zealand which resulted in this publication, (b) that the design/layout of the poster was superb. Kudos to people at Otago University who made the poster, and shipped it to Bangalore!
  • The head of Yahoo! Research, Dr. Prabhakar Raghavan’s talk was the one I loved the most. He spoke on how search engines display advertisements on the right side of the search page, relevant to the search query. He mentioned a case in which Nissan had offered a huge amount for the string “Tundra,” its rival automobile. I later asked him why Yahoo didn’t find this tactic unethical. His reply: “Internet is a medium where ethics can hardly be defined. What’s for me may not be for you, and vice versa!”
  • A Ph.D. student from Carnegie Mellon, who I shared a room with, gave me a picture of the kind of research that happens there. We had long conversations on topics ranging from Information Retrieval to my choice of MS/PhD. He encouraged me to dream big and experience the satisfaction of research life. Meanwhile, his arrival in Lisbon was delayed by a day due to the cancellation of his flight. His check-in baggage wasn’t with him too. What was shocking was that the airline announced no compensation for the great inconvenience it had caused.
  • I was disappointed that there were only two from India, of which I was one. And the other guy was from IBM Research, Bangalore. I fail to understand why the Indian universities don’t focus enough on research, so critical to technological progress of our country. I should mention here that Chinese universities had more than 8 representatives.
  • Lisbon is a wonderful city, very similar to the New Zealand cities that I’ve seen. People at the hotel knew English, thankfully. In a bus, a lady who I spoke to said, “English no speak.” Helpful that those people are, she took out a city map from her purse and gave it to me. I must admit that a vegetarian like me would find the going tough. At the elaborate conference lunch, all I had on my plate were some raw vegetable pieces and green leaves! To make matters worse, when I requested for a Veg meal on the Lufthansa Lisbon-Frankfurt, the airhostess says, “Sorry Sir. We only have the ‘normal’ one!” May be that she thinks being Veg is abnormal, and I had to go without a breakfast. I wish I could see more of Lisbon city. Three days, in the middle of the conference, was just too short.
  • After traveling for more than a day, I landed at the Mumbai airport. The crowd at the airport made it immediately obvious that I was back in India — not anymore in a thinly populated country. A lady bumped her trolley on me, and left even before I could hear her ‘sorry.’ I had technically touched 4 countries in a matter of two days – Portugal, Switzerland (Zurich airport), Germany (Frankfurt airport) and India, of course.

I conclude with a special “Thank You” to my professor at Otago Dr. Andrew Trotman who pitched for my attendance at the conference from day one. I am grateful to all those who played a proactive role in making my trip happen. NITK Surathkal and Otago University also chipped in to cover some of my expenses. The visit is sure to remain in my memory for a long time to come!

Redesign of NITK Surathkal Website

(My friend Nitin Rao and I presented a proposal (in Jan 2006) to the Deans of NITK Surathkal pitching for redesign of our college website. The text is here; click the link below to access the slides)

Slides of our proposal to redesign NITK Website

NITK LogoAs we redesign the NITK Website, we face a unique and exciting challenge today. To capture a melting pot of cultures. To capture the very spirit of excellence. To better exploit technology to showcase our potential. For many, the website is ‘the face’ of our college. We have the opportunity of building a platform to bring together students, faculty and alumni alike to learn, share, ideate…

Our present website leaves much to be desired. We need a website that is built in an elegant and consistent manner. All departments must be given the freedom to add their own content, while standardizing on certain fields.

The needs of users are unique. Students and faculty need to be provided with personal accounts and e-mail.

STAKEHOLDERS

  • College Administration

The administration is widely seen as using excessive paperwork in its processes. Making sweeping changes, the students must be able to use the website to communicate with various departments. The administration itself could very powerfully use the Website to improve its internal communication.

An online facility to make reservations at the Guesthouse would improve occupancy and make visiting the campus a lot easier.

The most ground-breaking idea of all is to use our Website to simplify collection of fees. Fees could be collected through ECS or a secured gateway. This would improve the efficacy of collection while freeing capable manpower.

  • Current Students

Students should seamlessly learn about courses on offer, register for newer courses or even send in an appeal for review of grades. Grades with background statistical data would help students benchmark themselves against their peers.

Students should be able to check their attendance levels. We can ill-afford to keep the parents out of such an initiative and it is imperative that they have access to this information.

Students can voice their opinions through polls and moderated message boards.

The students at NITK are fortunate to have a large library. To fully utilize its potential, the student should be able to seamlessly search through a database of books, renew existing books or make reservations for new books.

  • Faculty

Collecting faculty feedback has been both a sensitive and arduous process. Permitting students to fill faculty feedback forms online would ensure higher confidentiality and improve the credibility of the process.

A college of our repute has a social responsibility to further the cause of learning. Providing OpenCourseWare would improve our standing amongst premier institutions while giving us the good fortune of becoming facilitators of higher learning.

  • Alumni / Prospective Students

The Alumni page must have an updated database and information on Mentorship. The college could partner with the alumni in sponsoring new initiatives at the college. An alumnus must be able to use the online gateway to send in his contributions. This would sharply increase the revenues of the college, while bringing us closer to the alumni.

To attract the finest talent to our college, we must provide information for prospective students. A section on Life on Campus with sample Student Profiles & Diaries would be a great step in this direction.

Internet facility in the hostel blocks is critical to the success of this initiative. We are confident that this will be addressed very soon.

Institutions across the globe are leveraging their websites for the greater good of all its stakeholders. It is for us to recognize this opportunity and be frontrunners in this field.

~ Nitin Rao & Vikram Subramanya

Made in ‘BEL’

(This was the article I wrote for my school magazine on the 12 years I spent at BEL institution. Incidentally, BEL School and Pre-University College celebrated its 25 glorious years since inception through this edition.)

BEL LogoStand-at-ease”… “Attention”… “Bharat Mata Ki”… with a spontaneous “Jai!” from a thousand mouths – if you are wondering why I am uttering these, so typical of being school assembly counts – well, go on, this article is penned for you. For those twelve precious, but lost years (1992–2004), these very words heralded the dawn of every morn. The sort of bonding that I share with BEL Institutions goes much beyond this page of writing, slightly intruding into my emotional zone.

Turn your clocks fourteen years back to the very first day of June, 1992. You’d get a sorry picture of a cute kid gazing at one of the huge school buildings in awe, with a parent on his either side. Anxiety turns to fear for the first time in his life – fear of having to spend years together with strange books and equally strange people. But far more surprising is the pace at which the school and teachers win him over by creating a homely atmosphere. Within a day or two, school-going turns out to be an activity of great pleasure and not to mention – big fun for him. No prizes, though, for guessing that this kid was me.

Well, I am VIKRAM Subramanya currently pursuing third year of Bachelor of Technology in Computer Engineering at NIT-K Surathkal. I’d much rather prefer to introduce myself as a pure BEL product, proud of having undergone its tests and trainings for a record 12 years. Reason for this being my belief that, had the sound BEL foundation not been laid so early in my life, I could have possibly ended up without a chance to give the first introduction at all!

Years sprinted faster than most of us could even comprehend. 10th board result turned out to be the license to step into a bubbly college life, as much as to deprive me of the love and care of my BEL School. Much to my disenchantment, I was left to come to terms with the sheer number of options that now lay before me for a Pre-University College. But comfort would only come from some remote corner of my mind – “Hey, why am I worrying so much, when, after all, there is my college – the BEL!

Choice for the college definitely became a lot simpler with the mere mention of the word ‘BEL’. Alternatives faded further into the dark and my decision got reinforced after a five minute chat with the Principal Mr. B.K. Gopanna, a towering personality who has always commanded the kind of respect in me that none can. And hence, the BEL tag would safely hover around me for two more years…

Strange as it seems, Day One of the brand new college life did precious little to boost my confidence. Be it an hour of Physics, Chemistry or Mathematics, every question was shot back with an answer at a lightening speed. So far, so good! But it wouldn’t take too long to spot that all the answers stemmed from only one particular corner of the classroom. And with the associated harshness came the realization that I was nowhere near that ‘answering’ group. The segregation line between the State and Central board syllabi had never been more distinctly visible. Fortunate enough, this unhealthy trend saw its premature demise, many thanks to the sensitivity and vast experience on part of our lecturers.

There goes a saying that one’s worth is better realized in its absence. The coaching facilities, faculty and infrastructure in “our” BEL College can give any college worth its name, a good run for its money. Two full years in the college have exposed me to a rich set of friends and lecturers, whose caliber finds no matches in its range and class. I can easily dare a bet on BEL College going places in the foreseeable future.

Tears of joy in the shiny eyes of the lecturers better explained my triumph in CET 2004 than the newspaper columns, announcing my 5th rank to the rest of the world, did.

The warmth of the reception that knocks me on each of my visits to the college, even to this day, should stand testimony to the elegant values so widely prevalent in the BEL College. Quote from our Physics lecturer often keeps lingering in my mind. It, sort of, sums up my entire stay in this college – “I’d rather have you guys transformed into noble human beings than into physicists short of values.

~ Vikram Subramanya