Soon after I had agreed to take the challenge of building an Institution from Scratch, something I had many years ago declined for other IIITs (around mid 90s when IIIT in Hyderabad and Allahabad were being set up, I was contacted for leading them, but I felt I was too young, had too much academics still left to take such a challenge. It turned out to be somewhat true – I ended up writing two more books, many more papers, and my thinking clearly evolved and matured significantly), I went to Hyderabad and Bangalore to seek advice. In Hyderabad I spent two days in IIIT-H finding out how it was organized, how it was run, etc and talking with its Director, Prof. Rajeev Sangal, who is also an old time friend from IIT Kanpur (Rajeev was the Head when I joined CSE/IITK as an Assistant Professor.) In Bangalore, I met with Mr. NRN Murthy, Mr. K. Dinesh, and Mr. MD Pai – all Directors at Infosys, and who I had worked with when I spent two wonderful and perspective-changing years at Infosys, and who I had high respect for.

To each of them, I asked for some advice, some words of wisdom.  My first IIIT notebook is still filled with many-many pages of notes I took during these interactions. But I remember one advice from each of these people to this day, which has guided my thinking and planning.

  • Rajeev Sangal. Very early in my interaction Rajeev advised: “come what may, don’t give up” – a strange advise for someone who has just taken up a challenge and had started dreaming. Looking back, I can see how far-sighted that advise was. There has been one or two short periods even during my short tenure of 2 years, where I have thought to myself “Why am I doing all this? Why not simply go back to the productive and reasonably interesting life of a Professor in IIT” (life as a Professor in CSE/IITD was indeed quite varied and interesting for me – besides teaching and guiding PhD and MTech students and having projects, due to the reputation I had built in my area of Software Engineering, I was constantly being invited to various forums for giving lectures, advise, participate in advisory committees, was interacting with many companies, etc. And had ideas for at least two more books, one of which I had actually started working on.) It is in these periods I realized the foresight of Rajeev’s advice. I realized that he, who is highly respected in his area, must have also gone through rough patches like this and must have found something to give him strength and hope. For me, it became easier – I just took his advice as an axiom – it helped me handle these brief and very few, not even very serious, introspections about my choice.
  • NRN Murthy. With Mr. Murthy, one thing I discussed was how to attract young faculty to join and seek his help with this – he is extremely well connected in the global academia and has an excellent understanding of the global scene, and from a perspective we academics don’t often get. His answer to this question was surprisingly straightforward: “Pankaj, why don’t you ask this question to the young faculty members or prospective faculty”. This direct and insightful approach for a solution, rather than the solution itself,   forced me to change my thinking. After returning, I designed a questionnaire and first took inputs from my younger colleagues in CSE/IIT Delhi (I was still in IITD and had not officially joined). I also did a survey of graduating PhD students (results of which are available on the Institute’s website: about what they want in an academic career in India. These inputs I finally used to design the overall package which included decent compensation, travel support, initiation grant, etc.
  • Mohan D Pai. With him also I discussed various issues of leadership, how to raise funds etc. At some point he said, “Pankaj, I will give you a one word advice: Scale”. And then he explained – don’t think small, think large scale right from start, as in India making an impact is virtually impossible without scale. An advice that will haunt me every time I would make future plans, as almost always the plans got constrained by the small size of plot we were allotted – cant really think very large scale in a physically small University. But I continued to plan for “as large an Institute as possible” given physical constraints. These constraints led me to believe that the largest we can grow is about 2500 students and 125 faculty (there were various assumptions made in this – how much we can construct, how many faculty and student accommodations we will have to built, etc.). And this is what I used in the long term plans made. Recently, a visit to UTS (university of Sydney) changed this – they perhaps have a plot smaller than ours, and have some other plots spread across the city, and they have a day-time student population of over 20,000! While we can’t have as tall buildings as they have, we certainly can think bigger. I am now back to drawing board – trying to see how much scale is feasible. I should add that it is the generosity and commitment to higher education of Mohan Pai that he also promised to set a Faculty Research Fellowship by donating Rs 20 Lac of his personal money for it – all for an Institute that had no faculty (indeed, even I was not yet an employee!), no premises, no students!
  • K. Dinesh, who was my boss for most of the two years I spent at Infosys, and with whom I have a warm relationship till today, was, as always, welcoming and ready to share experiences and life lessons. His advice was: Quality. Being Director of quality at Infosys for over a decade (when I was a VP of Quality at Infosys, he was the Director), he understands the value of this well. And his vision of quality, as he explained, was wider – not just quality in core work, but quality in all support and other activities as well. This also is an advice that comes back to me whenever I feel the urge to accept “chalta hai”. And Dinesh also agreed to set up a Research Fellowship with Rs 20 Lacs for an Institute, mostly, I believe, due to his confidence in me. (Gestures like these are a source of strength in times when you need it – after taking such help from friends like him, you know that you cannot but give it your best shot – you owe at least this much.)

These gentlemen, inspirational as they are, have already helped me personally in the new role I had assumed. I am sure the Institute will seek, and get, a lot more help from them (Prof. Sangal is already a member of the Board, and hence contributes regularly with his wisdom and experience.)