Today I complete 24 years as a faculty member of CSE Department at IIT Kanpur. It has been a fascinating journey, and I have learnt a lot. The student interaction has been particularly satisfying. So here are some incidents/events that I recall on this day. I realize that people write these blogs on 20 years or 25 years, and not at 24 years, but I don't want to assume anything about the future, and I feel like writing today.
It is long. So take your call whether you indeed want to read this.
The first thing I remember about the department is how poor it was when I joined. As a graduate student, I had two workstations on my desk, each with 1GB hard disk, both full of network monitoring data. When I was coming to India, I copied that data onto 20 tapes of 60MB each. My advisor told me that it would be useless since I won't have so much storage/compute power to do anything with this data. But I was like, if I can have two workstations as a student here, the premium computer science department in India would at least give a workstation to its faculty. How wrong I was.
When I joined, I was pampered by the department, and I was given the PC with the best specifications. A giant 40 MB disk. Out of this, 20 MB was consumed by Windows, and I was left with 20 MB of diskspace for my files. The Computer Center used to give a disk quota of 10 MB, and the CSE lab gave me yet another 5MB. I pleaded with both CC and CSE to give me 60 MB of space for a few hours. There were two tapes which had the most important data with which I could start working with. I need to copy the entire 60 MB on a disk, and then delete 40MB out of it, and move the other 20 MB to my PC and then I could do some post processing. But for the next six months, I would not get 60MB. I was promised that if CC or CSE buy any new server then before making that server public, I would get access to it for a day. And that took six months.
CSE Department had a total annual hardware budget of Rs. 1 lakh, and an entry level server would cost more than that. So CSE department could never buy a server unless in some year, the administration was kind enough to give us a special grant to do so. Most of the servers and infrastructure in the lab, including PCs, were bought through projects by faculty members. (Can you imagine today faculty members placing their resources in a common lab in any department. But that was the CSE department culture at that time. And it was this culture that had attracted me to IITK to begin with. The labs are considered personal fiefdoms of the faculty in most departments even at IITK, not to mention the other institutes.)
It was a very tough period. And frankly, CSE departments in other IITs were not this poor. Our budget on a per capita basis was the lowest compared to all other departments in IITK. I had other options, and I thought about them. But the person who mentored me throughout this difficult period was Gautam Barua. But for him, I would have left IITK soon after joining.
The department was a very cohesive unit, and it took care of everyone. For one whole year, before I got married, I only cooked on Saturdays and Sundays. Lunch was in some hostel mess. Dinner was fixed. Every Monday at Sanjeev Kumar's place, every Tuesday at Ajai Jain's place, and other days by rotation among several other faculty members. The social life was absolutely fantastic. So many kids' birthday parties, potlucks, picnics - sometimes with families and sometimes with students, and sometimes both. Today, we are more professional and such get togethers happen within small groups, that too infrequently.
Pankaj Jalote realized that the only way to build the department was to get more money, and the primary source of that money could be industry. So he started something called Industry Affiliates Program (IAP). In those days, any faculty member wanted to initiate anything, they would be encouraged to do so. In IAP, we will invite industry to become our partners by paying a small annual fee. In return, we will inform them of every project, thesis, etc., happening in the department. We will invite them once a year for discussions on various issues, including joint projects and curriculum, etc. After a year, this responsibility was given to me. I was much more direct in asking for funds. I never had shame in asking for money. And we received a large donation from Verifone. It was around Rs. 35 lakhs. Let that sink in. A department with an annual budget of Rs. 1 lakhs suddenly get a check for Rs. 35 lakhs. That was the largest donation that IITK had received till then, and was more than all the donations that IITK had received in the year through Dean of Alumni Affairs office (called DPRG at that time).
And the way it happened was interesting. Verifone decided that they wanted to donate Rs. 1 crore to Indian academia, and to ensure that this had some impact, they also decided that they will not spread this too thin, but divide this money into only three departments. So they wrote to who ever they knew. And thanks to Industry Affiliates Program, we were on their radar. Prof. Phatak from IITB immediately called them, arranged a meeting and flew to Bangalore. I did not have budget to fly, but I called them, sent them a presentation, invited them over to Kanpur, and there was no third department who approached them. They told me that since Prof. Phatak was most pro-active, IITB will get Rs. 50 lakhs, since I was next, we will get Rs. 35 lakhs, and some third department will get Rs. 15 lakhs.
This was really the turning point. We had a "Verifone Lab" in the department for the next few years, which could take care of all our requirements. And within that time frame, thanks for Pankaj's stint in Infosys and knowing Mr. Narayan Murthy, we received a very generous donation from Mr. Murthy.
But before that, other problems had to be faced. We were suddenly told that there is very little money for MTech and PhD fellowships. So we could only admit so many PG students with assistantship. If we wanted to admit more students, they would have to be on "self financing" basis, which means that they won't get any assistantship and their tuition was also higher. But, if we could get industry to sponsor their assistantship, they will continue to pay lower tuition, and the department would get a matching grant for another MTech student. With my credentials as the fund-raiser of the department, I was put on the job. And we got more industry fellowships than all other departments combined. So much so, we did not have to reduce our admissions by even one student, and the Institute said that they did not have enough money to give matching grant.
Another major funding happened by IBM. They wanted to get into the training business which was completely dominated by NIIT and ApTech at that time. So they prepared a curriculum and approached us to develop coursework for them with fairly generous terms, both in terms of initial money, and royalty over the next few years. Normally, we wouldn't accept such an assignment. But the money was so much that it could transform our labs. More than half the faculty was involved in developing course material for IBM. (They started this business, but couldn't succeed, and later used those notes outside India, and still gave us royalty from the money they earned in other countries.) Now, after taking care of all department costs, and Institute overheads, there was still a lot of money left. As per the norms, this was personal money. All of us who had build that course work sat together and decided that we will take a small amount of honorarium and donate the rest to the department. What we donated to the department was more than 6 months' salary for me (I think it was closer to a year). And we did that because our labs and other infrastructure despite Verifone lab was still considered inadequate, and we weren't going to get any money from the Institute.
Let that sink in too. More than half the faculty members donate several months' salaries to build department labs. I don't know if this has ever happened anywhere else in the world. That was the commitment of the faculty towards academics, and I was and still am proud to be part of such a group.
Of course, once we had the gift by Mr. Murthy, there was no looking back. Once we did not have to worry about small moneys, the focus shifted to research. Not that we didn't do research earlier. My group was the first one in the world to have a minimal working implementation of IPv6 for Linux. Unfortunately, we couldn't carry that forward for lack of resources.
I was extremely lucky that Pravin Bhagwat and Bhaskar Raman decided to join our department. Together, we received a huge Media Lab Asia grant to build the world's longest multi-hop network based on WiFi. This was my first time to work with poverty and rural India. It was so surprising that there were places near Kanpur-Lucknow highway where the nearest public telephone booth (PCO) would be a few KM away. And, of course, the nearest Internet cafe was perhaps 10-20 KM away, or even more. Poor persons were willing to pay double or triple the BSNL charges for making a phone call to their son in Mumbai, since their only other option was to lose half a days' wages by going to that PCO in the other village. We also did research on how poor people consumed Internet by setting up an Internet cafe in a village not too far from IITK campus. This was probably the most exciting times in the department.
Later, me and Deepak Gupta worked with some not-to-be-named agencies on monitoring Internet. This was a self-inflicted disaster. We worked on it for 6 years and at any point in time had a product far superior to what the Indian intelligence organizations were using at that time. But in every review, they would tell us that if we could add one more feature, they would start using our stuff. This was the first time I was getting exposed to the politics. Product development does not result in publications, and in any case, they strongly discouraged us from publishing whatever we could potentially publish. After 6 years, we realized that they had no intentions of ever using our work, and we called it off, but the damage was done.
One day, we were sitting in the department and thinking how to improve PhD program. The outcome was that there aren't enough students applying for PhD not just in IITK but across IITs. So we need to tell students about the advantages of doing Phd. Just the previous year, IITB had arranged such talks in many colleges, and we felt that we should do something similar. With the department now very rich could easily afford to go around and give talks. I volunteered. I was given one semester off. Every week, I will choose three colleges where I could visit on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The criteria was that I should be able to go from 1st to 2nd and 2nd to 3rd college either by a couple of hours of car journey, or by an overnight train. 12 weeks, 36 colleges. I thought what I should do for the whole day besides giving a lecture on why they should do PhD. I came up with a plan that included one technical talk, one career talk, meeting with students, meeting with faculty, meeting with leadership, etc. I used this opportunity to understand technical education. What are the issues our colleges are facing. What kind of curriculum they follow. What is the pedagogy. How do they hire faculty. And so on. I realized that while resources were a big issue in many colleges, autonomy was an even bigger problem, and in many cases, it was just the lack of exposure to best practices. We created a program under which any faculty member of any CSE department could spend a month at IIT Kanpur. We will take care of local hospitality and the person could sit in classes, sit in some of our meetings, meet any faculty and find out how, in general, we did what we did. Unfortunately, never took off, and we had less than just a few visitors from one college from South India. The colleges did not want their faculty to be away for even a day, and certainly not when they had to pay for it.
What has always been interesting in CSE department is that I could go around and make commitments, even those commitments which will have financial implications, and the department would always support those commitments. They supported me not just when we had good bit of money but when we had very little money. The trust between the colleagues was the hallmark of the department.
After this semester of traveling, I realized that very small things can improve the quality of education in India, at least CS education at college level. And I started writing articles in media, my website, and later started my blog. The reaction to most of what I wrote was that all this is good in theory but won't work in practice. That despite that semester on travel, I still haven't understood Indian higher education. So when I received the offer of leading LNMIIT, I grabbed it with both hands, and the institute became my lab. In 2 years, we did a lot of interesting things and looking at the success, I got even more convinced of my ideas.
One of the big part of department culture is its faculty tea room, a place we could go to any time and help ourselves with a cup of tea or coffee, all at the department cost. This was the place where we could discuss our ideas, discuss issues related to courses, students, and what not. It was a comfortable place to have discussions with a guest. But alas, one of the recent Heads stopped free tea and now we need to pay. This has ensured that only a few coffee addicts like me go there, and none of the department issues get discussed there (because what is the point of discussing with a small group, when a larger group would take a decision later on).
24 years is a long time. Lots of memories. I have not written about students at all. But it is already too long. May be if I am around next year, will write about students. Thanks for reading.
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