When I joined IIIT-Delhi in 2009, the institute was still in its infancy. In fact, there were only 60 students more senior than I was! Even at the counselling, there were clues that I was entering an institution that thought differently about education. Rather than encourage everybody to join, Dr. Jalote instead warned the incoming batch that “if you do not believe in hard work, this place is not for you”. Joining IIIT-Delhi turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I am writing this to share with future IIITians why this is the case.
In true 2015 Buzzfeed listicle style, this post is about eight things I learnt during my time at IIIT-Delhi. Although I sometimes wish I’d known them at the beginning, I realise that part of the journey was figuring these out on my own!
1. Coming out of high school, I believed that even if I could achieve 95% of my goal with 75% of effort, I did a good job. In my first few semesters, I put just enough thought and work into courses and projects to get a decent grade. I was ridiculously wrong about this. There are no shortcuts. There are no easy paths. Giving 100% effort is the only way. The good thing, I realized, about putting complete effort is that even if you don’t succeed, there is nothing more you could have done – so at least you feel satisfied. I started putting in 100% effort and thought in my courses and more importantly projects in the second half of my BTech. As a result, I was able to work on impactful projects like an even recommender and personalization app called What’s Next Up and research projects which resulted in papers presented at international conferences and workshops.
2. It is very common to measure achievement from ones successes. Rejections and failures let me down a lot. One of my papers got rejected from conferences a few times. My partner and I failed to get funding for What’s Next Up. It was a slow process but the rejections made me realize that my aim should not be success all the time. I needed to give more importance to the learning part of these experiences. I learned to appreciate the learning involved in every experience. I owe this to IIIT-Delhi simply because I had so many opportunities to try new things – I failed at some while succeeded at others.
3. Another thing about opportunities is that it is important to explore them. I realized the importance of doing breadth first search rather than depth first search so I could explore more during this learning period. Coming out of school, I did not know what particular area of computer science interests me, what problems appeal to me. At such a stage, it is very important to explore more. The lesson here is that even if you think you have found a project or an area that you are sure appeals to you, do not stop expanding your breadth. This is the only time you will get to explore the breadth of the field. After graduation, at work or higher studies, one usually is busy exploring the depths of problems. In my four years at IIIT-Delhi, I explored topics as varied as privacy and security, application development, artificial intelligence, multi-agent systems, randomized algorithms, machine learning, data mining, linear algebra and social science courses like ethics. And yet there was so much at IIIT-Delhi that I could not explore such as psychology, cryptography, bioinformatics and economics, not to mention all the extra-curricular activities!
4. As one of my friend says “if you are going home after classes, you are missing out on a lot”. I learnt the importance of learning outside of classes. The professors at IIIT always have their doors open. They welcome student collaborators. I loved the algorithms design course and while I was talking to my algorithms professor, he mentioned an opening in their group about a research project. That’s how I started my first research project outside of classes. There are a lot of projects that students are doing on their own. That’s how I started working on projects like What’s Next Up. There are PhD students who love to work with undergrad collaborators. That’s how I started working with a PhD on community detection and analysis on Twitter. Apart from this, there are a lot of student run clubs and groups about competitive programming, hacking and so on. One can also contribute to IIIT’s annual tech fest. I was fortunate enough to live in the hostel in my final semester and it was a tremendously rewarding experience!
5. It is very important to realize the importance of communication. There are a ton of opportunities but they are not useful if you do not express your interest in them. There are a lot of professors and fellow students who are willing to collaborate with you but that’s not useful if you do not communicate with them. There are a lot of people who would be happy to help you when you are stuck but that’s not useful if you do not communicate. You may have some great ideas but if you do not communicate and discuss you will never know that another student was working on a similar idea and you could have worked together to get a better solution out. IIIT-Delhi offers courses in communication and organizational behavior to strengthen these aspects.
6. It is okay to not know what you want from life. Even in my last year, I was not sure if I wanted to pursue a PhD or masters in computer science. I knew I loved distributed systems but did not know what topic within distributed systems appeals to me. If you do not know, there is no harm in exploring. I talked to Dr. Jalote and Dr. Bedathur before starting my masters and the feedback I got made me feel good about not knowing what I want to do – “you are young so explore, it doesn’t matter if you are wrong”. Now that I talk to people who were sure about what they wanted from life, they tell me that they have realized that they don’t know either.
7. I have realized the importance of balance between the love for your work and the ability to pivot when needed. The two extremes are dangerous. I have experienced both extremes. I have refused to change my idea when stuck in project because of my affection for the work done so far and I have given up on ideas because of insignificant issues. I have realized that it is by experience alone that you learn when to keep working and when to look to pivot.
8. Surround yourself with people who not only have fun with you but motivate you when needed. This is very important. I found myself in tough situations a lot of time in the four years. It’s these situations that teach you a lot about your support system. As an example, I would have never applied for higher studies had my friends not motivated me.
I owe these to IIIT-Delhi because of the general atmosphere here about “doing things yourself”. If you are passionate about computer science and want to spend four years in an atmosphere where you learn by doing things, IIIT-Delhi is the place for you.