Shifting Life Gear and putting my Money where my Mouth is

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Note: This post is almost totally personal.

Very soon after accepting the position, IIIT-Delhi had become a compelling dream for me, which I set out to fulfill with enthusiasm and optimism.  I had maintained a 5.5-day work week even earlier, I now shifted to a 6-day work week on a regular basis, focusing a lot of mental energies in devising systems, approaches, policies. For policies etc, there was an easy route available – we could take the policies of, say, IIT Kanpur, and just implement them. But then it would not have the changes that I had argued for even in IIT Kanpur. So, I decided that, while we will borrow heavily from IITK (and from IITD and IIITH), we will create our own policies, our own program, etc. But this was a big challenge, particularly when you don’t have supporting structure of other experienced people around you.  While taking up the position of Director, I was hoping to keep a good part of my professional life and R&D going. I soon realized that divided attention will not work – if I truly want to help create a good Institute, it will require, at least in the start, an intense commitment to it, even if it meant compromising my modest academic career.

It then occurred to me that the decision may actually be a larger life decision –  a choice between further personal achievement and academic reputation, and contributing to the society.  I was close to 50 already, and I thought that maybe it is time to change my life perspective from “personal achievement and recognition” to “giving to the society using whatever skills I have” – a significant shift of gears in life. I realized that the latter does not mean lack of recognition; it can mean recognition in a different sphere.  So the shift will not be so much in personal recognition, but on how I view life and what I want from it. And the task of building a new Institute seemed far more challenging and potentially satisfying than writing another book or a few more papers.

So I decided (there was really no other choice) to keep my professional activities at a low key for the next few years, and give my attention and mind share to building the Institute. And that is the way it has been for the last two years – for example, I have been able to write only one research paper on my own (my students have written a few more) and have given up the book writing project I had initiated. I also started declining invitations for membership of program committees, even of well respected conferences (for which earlier I would look out for), as they require time and mental commitments that I was not able to afford. And I started curtailing my travel to give lectures etc, unless it helped the Institute in some of its objectives.

Interestingly, writing did not stop – it just changed form. Instead of writing technical books and papers, I was now writing documents, manuals, course description, program development, policies, … and now this blog! I was also making presentations for students, for prospective faculty, for other stakeholders…. Net result of all this: my IIIT-D directory  is now significantly bigger than my IITK directory which has all the files from my HOD days, and from the almost 15 years I spent there! Just the major documents I developed for IIIT-Delhi, some with help from faculty colleagues from IITK, e.g. UG Manual, PG manual, Faculty recruitment related, Faculty handbook, tenure and promotion guideline, BTech/MTech/PhD programs, requirements document for the campus, analysis of statutes, etc will add up to a few hundred pages!

This shift in life-gear and focusing more on giving back, inevitably led to giving in financial terms as well. I had earlier contributed a few Lakh rupees to IIT Kanpur, but that was more out of fondness for the place where I have spent more than 40% of my life (5 years as student and over 15 years as faculty), and a desire to leave behind something there (so I set up a “Best Teacher” award in CSE, and a “Best Software” award for students). Since I was going to ask some friends to contribute to the Institute, I decided to put my money where my mouth is, so I can request with more moral authority. I was fortunate that in the recent past I had got consultancy projects from Nasscom (interestingly the offer letter was signed by the then President Mr. Kiran Karnik, who, as we know, is now IIITD’s Chairman of the Board) and  IBM, and had received projects from Microsoft and SAP, in which there was budget provision for honorarium. Some of these were about to end, some about to start. I shifted them from IIT to IIIT-Delhi and decided to contribute all my consultancy and honorarium from these to the Institute towards creating a corpus to support International conference travel for faculty and PhD students.

Thankfully, the Board decided that all private donations to the Institute’s corpus will be matched by the Institute. I convinced Mr. Shibulal, Director of Infosys, to also contribute towards this corpus, and he agreed to contribute Rs 20 Lakhs (the Directors of Infosys are just incredible in their giving – there are so many projects they are contributing to). So, we had a decent corpus to start with for supporting travel. (International conference travel support remains a challenge in India – more on this in another post.)

In making this largest donation decision, there was another personal factor at play. Though over the years we had become financially quite well off due to improved salaries, royalties from my books, earlier investments doing very well, etc, I still had, and have, a very middle-class mentality about money – always a desire, while spending, to get value for money.  E.g. I still will not buy a Rs 4000 shirt, or a 15000 coat for myself. I still hold that being value conscious is a good value to have. But it can easily be viewed as a miser hiding behind a value, even by you yourself – and this nagged me. These acts of giving to IITK and then to IIIT-Delhi were also to convince myself that the value I hold is sound and that it is not about undue attachment to money accumulation. The ease with which I was able to write these checks also convinced me that the “tight fisted” approach that I still display at times is about getting value for money, not just about money. Personally, these acts of giving have made it easier for me to live with this value, and I have now far less envy of people who are able to splurge on good life styles and good things in life – I realize that they simply have a different meaning of “getting value for money” than what I have chosen.

Early Advice by Four Wise Men

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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: http://www.iiitd.ac.in/SurveyOfPhDsOnFacPositionInIndia.pdf) 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.)