Insightful Suggestions by Chancellor and Chief Guest in IIIT-Delhi Convocation

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IIIT-Delhi held its 7th convocation on Sat, Aug 25. This was the last one for me as Director, and the first one we held in the 500 seater auditorium in our new Seminar Complex (a huge building with seminar rooms, class rooms, labs, etc, as well as one full floor of incubation center.) In my address to students, I talked about some lessons that are embedded in the IIIT-D’s decade long journey – the previous post gives a few of these.

IIIT-D’s Chancellor, Hon’ble LG of Delhi, and Chief Guest, Rajan Anandan of Google, gave excellent speeches. One point from each of their speeches really stuck a chord with me. I think they are useful for all – so will like to share them here.

Hit the pause button occasionally in life. Hon’ble Chancellor, in his speech (video of which is here) observed that in the world today everyone is running. All of us want to be in Fast Forward mode for life – achieve everything in a shorter time, cover more ground faster, …. He advised that we should also learn to “hit the pause button” occasionally – and use the pause to reflect, absorb, travel, etc. which can help us grow more and also help us do course correction that may be needed.

Such a wonderful advise. And how true – we are indeed all running to do/achieve more. Even with a noble/higher cause, people are driven to achieve or contribute more. But this speed will normally push the person to continue what he/she is doing – just do it faster and more efficiently. It does not allow for a rethink or reflection to change directions or do something else – and in the long life that most of us have, this lack of ability to change direction or purpose can be actually sub-optimal even for what one can contribute or achieve. And this relentless drive certainly makes the life less enjoyable, and the life journey less happier.

I often advise students to take a semester off (and in IIIT-Delhi we have regulations to do it easily) and explore life, or India or world, or go and work for a company…. Though there are some students who indeed do this, there is a strong desire and a clear pressure on students to finish their BTech in 4 years – parents also have this  expectation. Somehow, students are not able to see that starting the long life of working professional a few months earlier is of no consequence – though taking a semester off (i.e. pause) to explore can make the university life much richer experience.

As it turns out, next year I am also on Sabbatical. And I had decided not to work for any one organisation during this – but instead visit many places and engage with different groups. I hope to read, travel, connect with people, and write during this Sabbatical, without any “job requirement” for doing it. This will be my pause. This advise helped me put my plans for Sabbatical on a more solid principle.

People are remembered for their successes, not their failures. Mr Rajan Anandan gave an excellent speech (video is here) which connected excellently with the students – besides many examples from his life, he also pointed out how speeches given in convocation are forgotten. There is one point he mentioned which I found extremely insightful, and which helped me in clarifying my own thoughts and see things in a better perspective. I am mentioning it here – a small attempt to make sure that it is not forgotten easily.

He made an observation, which is also a lesson, which is so true, yet many of us do not think of it. He said that people are remembered for their successes, not their failures – it is us who remember our failures not others, who remember people by their successes. And he supported it by saying that there are many things he did in his life in which he failed – but no one remembers them – all remember him for the good things he has done or achieved.

This is so true in academics. Students are remembered not by the instructor of the courses in which they got a C or a D, but are remembered by instructors of those classes in which they got an A+ or did excellently, or by faculty with whom they did some exciting project. And it is these faculty members who give strong recommendation letters for the students, often without regards for grades students may have gotten in other courses. But many students, chasing a good CGPA, optimize by getting a decent grade in all courses, rather than excelling in some subjects (which will also make them much stronger in those subjects.)

Similarly, for contributions by researchers and faculty – most faculty are remembered and defined by the good books they may have written that are used widely, or great papers that are cited heavily, or technologies they may have developed that got used by companies, etc. Almost by definition, no one remembers the papers / books the researcher/ faculty member wrote that very few people read, and consequently no researcher or academic is defined by them.

Remembering our failures is done mostly by us. We sometimes let them become bigger that they really are, and feel bad over them or have regrets for a long time. If we realize that in the larger scheme of things, failures do not matter and few people give them much thought (except perhaps nagging relatives or negative colleagues who may be looking for opportunities to pull one down). We are defined by our successes – what we achieved and what we contributed. And others also notice these more (even the envious person gets envious due to successes.)

This perspective I personally found deeply insightful and helped me put some things in better perspective. During the IIIT-Delhi journey, there were setbacks every now and then. I often worried about these and worried endlessly on what I could do to revert them or avoid them…. For example, if a good faculty member left, I will feel really bad and it will pull me down for sometime. I now realize that the better perspective is that as long as the Institute is moving in the positive direction towards its vision and growing at a healthy pace, it does not really matter if some people leave or some setbacks occur – as both are inevitable. We just have to learn from them, and move on…..

I would like to add a personal view on this. The above holds for professional life. In personal life and interactions, it is probably the exact opposite – friends and relatives will often remember the things you did not do or things you did which offended them. They are likely to forget all the good you may have done before that. I.e. personal relationships often, unfortunately, get defined by the negative interactions and experiences, rather than the positive ones.

 

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Some Life Lessons from IIIT-Delhi’s Journey

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Recently I completed my second and final term as Director. In my last last convocation (7th for IIIT-Delhi) speech as Director, I talked about the decade long IIIT-Delhi journey, and some life lessons from it. While they were directed at graduating class, I am sharing some more general ones here. Full text of the speech and video of the report and speech, as well as speeches of the Chancellor, Chairman, and Chief Guest, are available on the convocation webpage. (For information – I continue in IIIT-Delhi as Distinguished Professor, and will soon be on Sabbatical – hope to be able to write more then.)

Focus on creating / generating value. I have always believed that organizations and individuals are valued by society and people based on the value they deliver. At IIIT-Delhi, we maintain a sharp focus on delivering value in whatever we do. In courses, we ensure that there are good conceptual learning as well as actual engineering capability development, in research we focus on publishing in good quality venues and impact, in our infrastructure management we ensure that things like STP are actually working, etc,

It is an easier path to just work without focusing on outcomes, or just manage the perception by talking loudly about whatever one has done or even not done. But in the long run, the focus on value delivery will always pay. For IIIT-Delhi, this focus has already shown good results – our graduates get good opportunities in jobs as well as higher studies, our faculty is highly respected, and now we have been included in BRICS rankings as well.

So, the first life lesson from our journey is that you must always deliver value to the organization you work for, including your own start-up. Never lose sight of this, and more importantly never rely on short cuts for “managing the perception” of value, which are inevitably short lived.

You can achieve a lot. There is no doubt that at IIIT Delhi we have achieved a lot in 10 years. Let me highlight some;

  • From one floor in library building in Dwarka to a campus that Hon’ble CM said is of one of the most beautiful he has seen
  • From an intake of 60 to more than 600 this year overall.
  • From 1 program to 6 programs of Btech, 8 specializations in MTech
  • From 1 faculty to over 75 including visiting
  • A strong Phd program with over 160 scholars, bigger than even the older IITs in CSE

When I look at IIIT Delhi today and what we have, it is quite remarkable actually. If you ask me whether this is what I had imagined – absolutely not. In all honesty, if I was asked that this is what we have to build in 10 years – not clear I would have taken up the challenge. I suppose the same is true for all colleagues who joined in early stages. We all had a vision of creating an institution that is globally respected for research as well as education and some plans, but the actual achievement was done through steady contribution year after year towards the vision.

So, the second life lesson is that you keep chipping away, keep contributing, keep growing, and over the years you can achieve a lot. Actually a lot more than what you can imagine today.

Effort and Support from Colleagues and Family. But to do this – you have to put in the requisite effort, and you also need support from colleagues and family. There is no gain or achievement without effort. Yes, luck matters, but the main determinant which is in your control which influences the outcomes is your effort. You have to put in solid effort on an ongoing basis to achieve success – and you have to seek support from colleagues by leading by example. For the first many years I routinely worked at night from home and over weekends – it is only now that I had started reducing my effort to allow me some time for my innings after the current one as founding Director of IIIT Delhi gets over. And I know many of my faculty colleagues often put in 10 to 15 hour days often. Our team involved with campus construction and running often put in long hours.

Clearly this is not possible without strong support from your family. In my case, it was clear that my mindshare for family matters had reduced considerably. Once when I noted that I am usually home at night, my wife rightfully observed that “while you are physically here, your mind is in IIIT-Delhi”.

The third lesson is, that effort matters hugely. Do not rely on luck – rely on your effort. Hopefully, luck will also come as the famous quote by Jefferson says “The harder I work the more luck I have”. And seek support from your family and colleagues.

Innovate in your sphere – there is always room.  In 2008 perhaps a dozen new Institution started by Govt. At IIIT Delhi we have perhaps innovated the most. Let me give some examples:

  • Admission – while we adopted the common exam JEE, we innovated by recognizing achievements beyond a single exam by having the framework of bonus marks. This has worked very well and is something that I hope can get replicated.
  • In our course design and teaching – we have added post conditions, expected outcomes, etc, to make education learning focused rather than teaching focused.
  • We championed the much needed interdisciplinary programs at BTech level – the only Institute in the country to have some CS+X programs (e.g. CS+Applied Maths, CS+Design, CS+Biosciences, CS+Social Sciences).
  • For faculty we have system of yearly feedback, tenure, etc, to help them achieve their potential
  • We were perhaps the first govt institution to actually hold full faculty selections overseas
  • Our campus management has many innovations – e.g. using FMS, BMS, etc

The point is that we are also within the same overall environment as other institutions – but we have innovated in many aspects. And let me assure you that innovation is badly needed in higher education in our country.

So, the fourth lesson is that regardless of what is your job or the environment, there is always scope for innovation and we must innovate. In this fast changing world, those who will not innovate will not survive long. And individuals who will drive innovation will be valued more and more.

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.)