The Visiting Student

I wrote this article for NIT Surat’s (my alma mater)  college mag, Renesa. You can download the mag here http://issuu.com/svnit_renesa/docs/renesa_may2010_2011

I can still vividly remember the first time I stepped inside my first year hostel room with luggage in hand, hope in eyes, fear of ragging in mind and stench of urine from the nearby washroom. The room (BF-3, Gajjar Bhavan)was nothing like anyplace I had ever lived in; a decrepit, disheveled, disintegrating excuse for a room that was smaller than my bedroom back home and was somehow supposed to fit 3 living human beings. To say that I was disappointed would be a massive understatement, I was devastated. It is in these times that you really start appreciating your mom and begin to sympathize, even long for, her obsession with cleanliness that always irked you.

First year is probably the most important year in your undergrad life, both academically and personally. You learn to adjust with complete strangers, get used to invasion of your personal space and learn to put up with quirky habits of not just your room mates but also their friends. Some of my very good friends are those my roomies introduced me to. I got introduced to southies (or as I called them Idli, Dosa and Uttapam) through one room mate and Jats and Punjabis by the other. One of these, who should rightly be compared to an Uttapam because of his size went on to become a KVPY scholar and has 2 patents to his name (considering the nature of his patents I am sure the abysmal toilets and latrines in the hostel inspired him to a large extent and the hostel office rightly deserves 40% of royalties from those patents).

 The fear of ragging was obviously there but it turned out to be largely hype and very little substance and seniors soon became friends. I was also introduced to ‘Ginglish’, the Gujju accented version of English, in due course by the faculty and staff – it sure did take some time to figure how a beam could rest on a ‘hole’ (also pronounced as ‘wall’ in Queen’s English) and a boiler could have a ‘cape-city’ of 20 MW, but things soon fell in their own sweet place.

 Seniors played a significant role in shaping me up and I was lucky to meet some awesome seniors through my association with ACM and Drishti. Exams had become unimportant to me in the very first month and I found myself at a ACM Linux workshop the night before the first internal. ACM was like a baby and we nurtured it, we made mistakes, had some triumphs but things worked out eventually. We also started ACM Quest with the intention of having a totally computing oriented event having a ‘no frills, no garbage, minimally sponsored tech-focused event where money is to be spent only on prizes’ policy. I also spent some great time at Drishti labs but never really managed to learn much about electronics (I still remember having shorted the entire 8051 board while soldering in first year and then painstakingly unsoldering it).In retrospect, I really should have learnt more electronics.

Oh yes, the acads bit; well I took the suggestion of two awesome ACM seniors (one of them, a 9 pointer here and a MS from Texas A&M who has written patches for NMap and now works for McAfee; and the other, now a MS student on full scholarship at Carnegie Mellon University Language Technologies Institute, who never gave a damn about pointers) a little too literally and really hoped that you could “easily get a 8 pointer by studying one night before the exam” and ended at the bottom of the academic pecking order – a 6 point someone. Classes were something I scarcely attended and once a teacher remarked “What happened Sandip? How did you enter a class so early in the morning?” when I swayed into her 8:30 class 20 minutes late (I also once entered a class minutes before it was about to end so that I could give my attendance and once I entered the wrong elective class insisting vehemently that this was ‘the right class’ ). You could almost say that I was a visiting student and went to class only when I wanted to meet up friends.

 I got involved with Renesa in 3rd year as I wanted to have some side activity beside tech and Renesa was the perfect opportunity. Working there taught me to put words together to form a decent sentence and it was one of the liveliest and most stimulating interaction there could possibly be. I really miss the team and the people.

Among my batch mates and friends I can count a guy who has made it to a CompSci program at University of Michigan, another who scored AIR-4 in GATE and is now at IISC, another who scored AIR 11 this year while another friend who came 5th worldwide in the Top Coder Studio Collegiate design contest in 2007, chucked a regular engineering job to join a online music magazine as a staff writer. Then there was this CAT phodu who’s doing an internship with Coca Cola and another who is doing her Masters in Germany. There is also this guy who is doing an M.Tech in Rural Technologies at IIT-B and intends to join the Civil Services one day. Have I missed anyone? Hell yes. My batch mates were awesome and it would take an entire article to list down their achievements.

College life is all about making the best of four years, learning new things and building up yourself to face the challenges once you are out of those four walls. Getting an admission at NIT Surat, does not mean you have arrived and are ‘set’ for life; far from it. It only means you have it in you what it takes to become a good engineer and it’s up to you whether you are willing to put the necessary effort to become one. For those in 1st and 2nd year who have already decided that they want to do an MBA, I strongly urge them to give engineering a chance. Engineering is awesome and I you will miss it once you are out of that place.

So here’s wishing my best on behalf of the entire class of 2010. Be awesome. Take risks, be foolish, dare to dream, don’t opt for the ‘safe’ option. No risk, no return. That’s the fact of life. You are young and have very little to worry and the backing of a undergrad degree from a prestigious institution. If you don’t take risks now, you sure can’t take it after you are 30 and have a family to support.

The BIG ACM post

This was a long time due. While I blabber about a lot of things on this blog, I have rarely written anything about ACM or Association for Computing Machinery. During my undergrad at NIT-Surat, it was by far the most important thing in my life, more important than academics or attending classes.

I was inducted into ACM by Sunayana on the very first Linux workshop in my first year. I was sitting behind her, on the second bench, and was making comments about the lack of knowledge of the presenter (yes, I was always into Linux), and I even answered one of the question that was posed to him and he was unable to answer. She was impressed (I am awesome, what up?) and asked me to join and I join I did. Well, Anusha Jayanti(her batch mate, my senior and ACM Vice Chair 2007-08) was with her and I thought she was kinda pretty and you don’t argue or think twice when asked by a pretty girl to join some club she is in. Actually, I had read about ACM on the institute website and was a little curious, and since this was all about computers, joining it was the most obvious thing to do. Oh did I mention, I had internals on the very next day of this workshop and I still decided to attend it. Yes, my apathy towards exams had begun.

One of the first things I was asked to do was to get people to join the ACM Chapter as student members. I, Punit and Sanchit (my classmates) took up this job very enthusiastically; we visited room to room and got people to join (and mind you joining wasn’t free) and at the end of the week we had 130+ members from first year itself, without any poster being put up or any seniors coming to give a brief talk on ACM. The three of us managed it entirely by word to mouth and door to door publicity. That year, and that was the first year of the chapter, we became the largest ACM chapter in the world and were given the Outstanding Chapter Recruitment Award by ACM.

It was in my second year I got some more responsibilities. Sunayana had become the Chair and we worked well together; and along with Punit, as well as Sanchit and Harit, we did some really good events. My first event was a Linux workshop. We had prepared well, made a decent presentation but I was not at all comfortable with public speaking and seeing a crowd of more than 100 that had miraculously arrived for the talk, I was unnerved and literally trembling. But when it began, I cooled down and everything turned out well. I used to have this tactic of just concentrating on one or two member of the audience who seemed interested in my talk and that’s what I did. Almost the entire time, I looked at just one member of the audience who appeared to be deeply interested in the presentation and I was able to deliver a decent talk; all thanks to that member in the audience, you saved the day. Of course such a tactic results in lack of eye contact with the rest of the audience but at least the audience does not see you shivering or stuttering. I have improved a lot since then, and don’t need any such tactic anymore.

It’s the people who make an organization and ACM always got the best in the institute as far as computer science was concerned. Ankur Nandwani (guy with hair like Jonny Bravo, a flirt (a legacy I inherited from him), talks in a strange accent swaying his head from side to side) was the founding Chairperson, he was way too studious and was in the good books of all the faculty. He always liked playing by the rules and his most common statement used to be “I have to talk to Jinwala Sir about this”; only later did I realize that this statement had to be the daily chant of any ACM Chairperson. Ankur’s style of leading the organization was a little laid back and he was good at delegating responsibilities (usually to Rajdeep,Sunayana, Anusha, Punit and me). He was instrumental in doing all the ground work in starting the chapter and get it up and running. Sunayana was the opposite of Ankur. Like me, she didn’t give a damn about exams and hated the system much more than I did. She has great ideas and had a finger on various things happening in the world of computer science. It was her idea to start a Linux Users Group and a Web Design Club; which we implemented and I headed. She always motivated everyone to go for research and enjoyed discussing about various happenings in the field. However, as with most research oriented people (and nerds), she was bad(sorry Sunayana) at execution. Her tolerance for tantrums thrown by the faculty and bureaucratic red tape was nearly zero and her most common statements began with “I just hate…..”. We spent long hours discussing computing, our vision for the chapter and stuff that she hated (usually some faculty or the other). While she came up with ideas, it was mostly Punit and me who implemented them. And that was a good thing, because we learnt to manage before getting to lead. When our time came to lead, we too came up with some good ideas and quite a few not so good ideas; but as far as ideas and vision are concerned Sunayana was probably the best.

Leading a voluntary organization has its own challenges. No one is legally or contractually bound to work for you, you have motivate them, threaten and beg if needed, to make them work. Most importantly, you have to yourself set very high standards of work ethics so that when you ask others to perform, fingers shouldn’t be raised at your own performance. Also ego management is a very tricky affair, you are managing a team of equals and that must always be at the back of your mind; you never know when something just manages to hurt someone’s ego.

No discussion about my time at ACM can be complete without Quest. We decided to do something big and like every other club in the institute, we too wanted our very own fest. So in came Quest, a two day computing event. There were a lot of things going against us; this was the first time a computing event of this scale was happening in this part of the country and there were very few students interested or even good at programming; and even among those few, most were ACM members and helping organize the event. Plus, we got delayed in starting off because of some administrative red tape which was beyond our control. There were two other fests (Autofest and Entrumeet) by two different clubs in the institute about to happen around that time in the college; so there was huge struggle for sponsorships as well as good people to work in the team. We had openly told people that they should expect to get any sort of monetary incentive to work for us and that kept away a lot of people from working for us, some of whom were really good at organizing. We wanted to be a taint free event. The fight for sponsorships and participants from other colleges ensured that that the people in the other two events undercut us and even spread false information about Quest in other colleges. On the days of the event, regional politics by these two clubs caused many students to abstain from our event. The ACM chapter was always against any form of regionalism and we did not employ a tit for tat strategy.

However, the biggest problem with Quest was probably my lack of trust in the commitment of my team, which proved to be a very misplaced notion. I was bad at delegating and impatient for results, as a result of which I ended up doing almost everything and micro managing even the smallest of tasks. When I trusted a person, I gave them complete freedom but if I didn’t I had the habit of interfering in their work. Most of the time the person in question was trustworthy and it was only my fears that prevented me from trusting. And I paid for this heavily during Quest. Of course I ended up trusting and delegating more and more towards the end of the preparations but it was too late then. Nevertheless, my team member surprised me with their ideas and commitment for the event. Akshay and Bimal did an admirable job with managing the events, something I had planned to micro-manage. Biswaranjan did a great job on the Infra end and got his hands dirty with the arrangements. Harit organized the best ever press line up and the smooth press conference impressed the administration. Punit was much much more than just the Sponsorship head. In retrospect, having two conveners, the other being Punit, would have been a better idea. May be I should have been the events head instead of being the Convener. The juniors too did a great job and worked hard in every way to make the event a success. Kudos to them.

I thought Quest would slowly die out as we won’t be able to find interested people. I have been proved wrong this year with more than 400 participants and a very very successful run of Quest. Undoubtedly, the current team has pulled off the impossible.
I think my contribution to ACM was in giving it a proper shape and structure. Ankur was the initiator and Sunayana was a dreamer who had great ideas. I was more into managing and getting things done, building a proper structure, laying down rules, guidelines, dos and don’t and giving the chapter an overall character. We presented the image of a free and fair club, where people are chosen entirely based on merit and not based on regional dynamics. By taking a stand on not fudging our financial statements for personal financial motives, even when that meant that we did not always get the best people to work for us in Quest, we set a precedent for all other events; some followed it and some didn’t. At ACM people did not command respect they earned it; and that was true even if you are a senior. We empowered juniors and they could do their own events or freely argue with us. We made ACM the place to be if you are interested in computing.

 

Besides Quest being a success, 6 teams from the chapter will be participating in the onsite round of ICPC which is a great achievement for us. Kevin Patel needs to be thanked here as he is the one who guided these teams. The current chairperson Deepak (who like me wants to do an MBA) and the vice chair Shrey deserve a round of applause. They have taken the chapter to greater heights and I hope we will continue doing well. We succeed because we choose the best people and give them complete freedom to do their thing. Last year’s interviews were one of toughest and we asked people to write algorithms and solve conceptual questions on the spot when they were probably expecting some globe HR questions like “Why do you want to join ACM?” Some of those questions were taken from Microsoft, Google and Directi interviews. We also set the benchmark high for every generation of members and the final outcome of such a system is that we get better people every year.

Whoaa. That was long. But have I covered everything? Well no, not at all. There is just so much to write and I will keep that for some other time. A lot of what I am, professionally and personally, is because of my long association with ACM. I got to do cool stuff, met and worked with some really cool people and made some great friends.

Innovation @ ACM

As most you reading this blog might know, I was the Chairperson of the ACM Student Chapter of our college last year. As I am in my final year now, I have resigned and handed over the reigns of the chapter to an enthusiastic group of third year students. I will advising them in the capacity of a Student Mentor and so will Punit Mehta, the ex Vice Chairperson.

Until now the focus of ACM has been in conducting events and imparting knowledge to the students. This year, the junior decided to curtail on such events and instead go on a project drive where a group of students from First (Freshers) and Second (Sophomore) years will be alloted a project and they have to complete it by the end of this year. The will be guided by their seniors in Third (Junior) years.

Being senior students, I and Punit are guiding these students in  their projects. Our job is to look after all the projects and ensure that issues are sorted and deadlines met. The projects are from varied areas like web designing, J2ME, Java apps, Robotics, Image Processing and Linux. I wont go into the details here. Between me and Punit, we have experience in all the areas and yes, the projects were itself decided based on the experience of the people guiding them. A Project Allotment drive was conducted by the current ACM Core Team and projects were assigned.

And today was the first meeting since then.It was held at the canteen.I and Punit talked to the students on what technologies they were required to learn and how to go ahead with it. We gave each team a small task to accomplish by the end of their diwali vacations. Also we would be interacting with them on the ACM SVNIT Mailing list. We have high hopes with these projects.Lets see how things turn up.

Parting 1.0

All the final year students are leaving now. Most assos have already given their farewell to their seniors. Many cried. I did not join any asso so I was not invited to any of those farewell where people booze and cry. In fact I am hardly attached to any senior. I and two other friends had earlier given a (booze free) farewell to some seniors. Today, I again went out with Sunayana for dinner.She is by far the only senior I am close to. She was the one who inducted me into ACM during the first ACM workhsop that was conducted when I was in my first year. Since then we have always shared a very good relationship because we were both interested in tech.  I was always in awe of her. She taught me to forget CGPA and do what one likes. She brought me into ACM. which has (happily or sadly) become my life in college. She encouraged me to start the Linux Users Group and Web developers group in our college, after all I was just a fresher then. Also she did way with all senior-junior formality like calling ‘Maam’ and wishing seniors whenever we meet. She was by far the coolest senior I have known.

So now, she is leaving tomorrow. We went out for dinner. It was all very normal and we talked about our future plans and other casual stuff just like it was some other dinner and we would surely meet the next day at the department(and curse it). But then when she was leaving, suddenly I realized that I am probably meeting her for the last time. This would probably be the last time we would curse the department together, talk about tech and other chit chat. So it was kinda strange. Seniors do matter and you do miss them. 

Hey Tech Mom, all the best to you for your future. And I would surely offer you a position in my software company. 
[For those who dont know, our college has this Tech Parenthood tradition. So your direct senior becomes you tech dad/mom and your direct junior you tech son/daughter. And this goes till great grand son/daugther/mom/dad. Since I was a non-asso and so was Sunayana, she became my tech mom and I her tech son]

Updates

Here are a few updates:
1. ACM Quest 2008 is finally on a roll. We are now working franatically
2. New ACM Team for 2008-09 has been formed.
3. Certain things I thought I would quit and/or forget are back again.
4.Certain things I thought I would never forget are on the verge of being forgotten.
5.Am participating in Imagine Cup 2008
6. SVNIT Linux Cluster just might see the light of the day.
7. Am doing CAT coaching at IMS.