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.