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.