Friday, October 28, 2011

Light and Dark

I received some good news about the Institute a two days ago. It was an article in Time of India. A few of our students celebrated Diwali with blind students of Bhima Bhoi High School. The report is reproduced below:

Festival of lights in the dark

BHUBANESWAR: It was a different Diwali for the students of Bhimabhoi Blind School here on Wednesday. Used as they are to a dark festival of lights, this year it was fun-filled, with loads of chocolates, sweets, a feast, songs, dance and firecrackers, thanks to the altruism of a group of engineering students from the International Institute of Information and Technology (IIIT).
Prayas Purusottam, a third year engineering student of IIIT, said, "We wanted to make this Diwali special for these children."
The students set aside a portion of their pocket money and used that sum to buy chocolates, sweets, candles and crackers for the 80 inmates, including 30 girls. The girls were decked up with mehendi, alta, kumkum, nail polish and bindi, while the boys played cricket and carom. They also participated in different competitions like antakshari and other games. The engineering students also sponsored a special lunch.
"It was probably the best Diwali of my life. The bhaiyas and didis did a lot for us. We are really grateful to them. I don't think we will ever forget this Diwali," said Badal Kumar Das, a Class-X student.
What's more, the IIIT students decorated the school campus with rangolis, diyas and candles. "These children cannot see light but they can feel it. The smile on their faces is precious. It's an overwhelming feeling that by spending a day with them we can bring so much happiness to them," said Anuja Rout, a third year computer science student.
Sabina, a student of Class-I, said, "These didis and bhaiyas made our day special. I didn't miss my family."

But this day of light was preceded by many dark days.

Prof. Ajit Das fractured his hand and was out of circulation. The fracture was particularly bad : the forearm broke into two pieces. He had a surgery lasting four hours. We must thank God, the creator of human body and the greatest Engineer of all: The broken arm will be as good as new in a few months.

A few students assaulted one of our staff members. It was an unpardonable act irrespective of the whatever the provocation. The students seemed apologetic afterwards but is that enough?

As few days ago two groups of students got into a melee.

We had to cancel Diwali celebrations and packed off all the students from the hostel.

I am deeply disturbed by such events. Such events direct our limited energy towards meeting internal challenges where as we should be spending our time in meeting external challenges and pursue innovation and excellence.

Such incidents are observed in many Institutes and Universities including IITs. This of course is no consolation for us. A few individuals can not be allowed to obstruct the process building a great Institution.

In the wake of such horrible incidents, the celebration of diwali among the Blind Students was really good news. Thanks you people for such wonderful act of kindness and making the Institute proud.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs Passes Away

Today morning as I scanned news on iPad, the most prominent one was Steve Jobs is Dead.

The whole world is showering praise on what he had achieved in 30 years.

I have been a fan of Steve Jobs for years. I have followed his innovative career with great interest. His commencement speech at Stanford was legendary. We showed that to our students during orientation programme. The transcript is reproduced below.

The products created by Apple are cool and they are meant for the rest of us. I do not classify myself among the rest of us. When you are a gifted geek, you create systems for the gifted and not for the rest. Steve Jobs created stuff for the rest. That is a true gift.

He had angularities: Autocratic, Secretive, Arrogant. But his passion for perfection, simplicity, aesthetics, makes him a great leader.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish: Steve Jobs' speech at Stanford

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every  drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky - I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation - the Macintosh - a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down - that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me - I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope it's the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.

Friday, September 30, 2011

10000 hours rule

I came across a very interesting idea while reading The Outliers. Outliers are very successful people in their own field: Sachin Tendulkar in cricket, Bill Gates and Bill joy in Computer Science, Beatle in Music and Motzart in Classical Music.

The hypothesis in the book is that every successful person went through 10000 hours of practice before they attained perfection and success followed.

Everyone knows that classical singer do very hard practice before they face the public. Sachin too practiced very hard and gave up studies for cricket. Bill Gates and Bill Joy did work on computers for more than 10000 hour before embarking on their ventures: Bill gates started Microsoft and Bill Joy wrote Unix.

Does the 10000 hour rule apply to engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs? I am sure practice is required to succeed. But I am not sure if one must practice for 10000 hours before you succeed.

How much is 10000 hours? If you work for 7 hours a day (Do not include the class hours), 30 days a month and 12 months a year, it is four years. If you want to be an outlier i.e. immensely successful, your IIIT years give you these 4 years to slog.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Pigs and IIITians

The pigs have a very important place in the imagination of Human race.

Remember the pig was one of the Dasavtars.

One of my favourite books is Animal Farm by George Orwell. He wrote the book as communism was on the rise. The story is about an Animal farm. The animals revolt and throw the owner out. They run their own farm which is supposed to be sans exploitation. The leaders are the pigs. The pigs slowly start ruling the farm and start enjoying all the good things which comes at the cost of other animals. It also runs a KGB style intelligence apparatus to keep the animals in check. The finale involves pigs wearing ties and learning to walk like human beings. In Orwell's mind, the Pig is the animal which comes closest to human beings.

Pigs are staple diet for majority of human beings. The pork, ham and other variations are favourite dishes for a lot of people. The Muslims and Hindus do not eat them because they are thought to be dirty.

When I was watching Chillar Party, one the characters was saving money in a Piggy Bank. What does pigs have to do with banks and money? The idea of saving starts with piggy banks for children.

In Bengal, a favourite expletive is Suarer Bachha (son of a pig). The interpretation of a Pig is a low form of animal. Son of a Pig is worse than son of a bitch which will make one a dog.

I am reminded of a story where a man and a pig get into a fight. The man was appearing to be winning. In the process of fight, they get into a ditch with smelly, filthy dung. The smell was atrocious. The man suddenly saw that the pig was enjoying the fight. It was feeling very comfortable in the environment. The outcome was clear: the pig won.

Where are the IIITans in this blog.

Last few months, I am noticing a lot of garbage in the campus. Much of it is solid waste which is a result of construction. A lot of it is plastic waste thrown around by students. In the hostel, below the windows one can see plastic wrappers of pepsi, kurkure, lays, fruti, emply plastic cups of coffee and tea, plastic bags. When I discussed about this with some students, they seemed to be oblivious to such garbage. Our own cleaning staff clean the corridors but feel quite comfortable with the stewn garbage.

Have we become the pig feeling very comfortable in the filthy environment? I hope not!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Social Responsibility at IIIT

As is my wont, I take a walk around the campus looking for imperfections and there are plenty of them. Last month, I was pleasantly surprised by a sight.

The food courts had just opened in the workshop building. I was walking around to find how students are responding to the brand new eateries. Then, I found a bunch of children from the labour huts huddled around a few of our students note books in hand and reciting ABC. These students were all girls.

Some of our girl students have started this initiative to educate the children of people who are building our campus with their sweat and toil.

The children are offered sweets and chocolates as an incentive to attend these classes regularly (a midday meal scheme in disguise).

This is the spirit which will set the Institute apart.

My good wishes for these young students and young teachers.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tragedy Strikes

On 11th April 2011, as I was preparing to leave for Delhi to attend a e-governance forum, I heard the tragic news: Three of our students are missing in the Derras Dam. I was shell shocked for a moment. I prayed that the missing students are alive. I gave up my plans to go to delhi. I proceeded to Derras with Ajit.

In Derras, the forest guard told us that the accident has happened in Jhumka Dam. We went to Jhumka Dam. It was sprawling with police men, news men, village people and some of our students. One of the bodies has been recovered and was sent to hospital. We waited for about 3 hours before the two more bodies were recovered. I went to the campus to sense the mood spent an hour there and instructed everyone to help the police, doctors and the parents.

On 13th, we had a condolence meeting. It was attended by large number of students. It was a emotional event and many of the students and faculty were weeping silently.

A few days later, we had a Shanti Homa.

The incident is more or less forgotten by now though the campus still remembers the tragic event which hit the Institute so early in its life.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Deities and Demons

The ICC world cup just got over and India won the world cup after 28 years. The first time India won the world cup was in 1983. Few of us were lucky to experience the event.

I has just finished 5 years in IIT. We are really desperate to get out the IIT. My father was posted in a village. I was there before I was to proceed to Mumbai (Bombay then) for my first job in Nelco. The Prudential World Cup was in progress in UK.

No one gave any chance to India. However, I gave a faint chance for India's win. India was still learning the art of ODI cricket. In the first match Gavaskar played through all the sixty overs and scored 60 and perhaps thought he had done quite well. Shehwag today scores that many runs in 6 overs. India had visited West Indies before the world cup. They had done remarkably well. Mohindar Amarnath found a way to handle the West Indies Quickies by Hook shot.

In the first match India beat West Indies. It was a shocking game for both India and West Indies. West Indies was shocked that they lost. India was shocked they won. When Ravi Shastry took the last wicket, the cricketing world was truely shell shocked.

The match with Zimbawe was another shocker. When I tuned in the Radio, India was 17 for 5. I thought, this is end of India in the world cup. I switched off the radio and did other things. When I switched on again after about 2 hours, Kapil had scored over 170 runs and India was still batting. India went on to win that match. It was victory from the brinks of defeat.

India won and lost to west indies and Australia in the league stage. Then, there was semifinals against England. England started celebrating victory even before the game began. They thought it was a cake walk. In one over Sandip Patil scored 24 from bob willis. That one over gave victory to India.

In the finals, India could score only 181. We all thought India has done well to reach the finals and even a loss is not bad. India bowled out India to every ones surprise.

That month I had my ears glued to the radio for 10 hours a day. I had kept extra batteries in case I will run out of battery and miss the BBC commentary. The thrill was beyond imagination.

The cricketers were living deities at that time.

Many of them fell from grace subsequently. Kapil cried on BBC over match fixing in 2000. We saw that happen to former IPL Boss Lalit Modi.

It is important to keep your feet on ground both when you succeed and when you dont.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Capacity to Receive

When Subroto Bagchi delivered the First Commencement Lecture, he mooted an idea Capacity to Receive. I have been experiencing the importance of this idea everyday in personal, organizational and societal context.

Usually capacity is an idea which is associated with giving. If you have money or material or knowledge you can give what you have. The capacity to give has also a willingness component. In India, we do not seem to have that willingness component. Imran Khan built a cancer hospital in the name of his mother. Saurav Ganguly has built a restaurant. That is an example of willingness or lack of it to give.

My focus here is on Capacity to receive. If I am a teacher and knowledgeable about by subject, I have the capacity to share / give my knowledge with my pupils. However, the pupils need a capacity to receive this knowledge. Not everyone receives this knowledge and uses it well in their life. Once-in-a-while I meet a student who tells me how he benefited from something I taught a long time ago. There are many who do not say a thing implying perhaps they did not receive much from the class.

I see examples of lack of capacity to receive in many places. The Government builds infrastructure. Do the citizens have the capacity to receive and use the infrastructure well? In Bhubaneswar, we find the traffic lights donated by corporate houses like Infosys and Nanclo but most often they do not work. There are at least a few traffic policemen around a traffic junction. The traffic light is supposed to regulate the traffic without human intervention. This shows the lack of the capacity among the citizens and the traffic police department to receive and make good use of Traffic lights donated.

The world bank and other donor agencies give money to build Dams and Canals. However, the agriculture productivity has not improved a lot. This shows the lack of capacity among our farmers to receive the water and improve agriculture productivity.

For last 25 years the government has been pouring money among the poor in KBK districts. The improvement among the poor is not very perceptible. Once again this shows the lack of capacity among the people to come out of poverty with the money given by the government.

In our Institute we build facilities like labs, sporting facilities, libraries etc. We organize events for learning and talent spotting and development. One can argue that the facilities are not sufficient. The amount of facility given is our capacity to give. However, how well the facilities are used are an indicator of our capacity to receive. When we organize an event, we find only a few students willing to participate in those events.

I observe numerous examples of lack of capacity to receive among the IIIT community.

Improving our capacity to receive is critical for our success as individuals, institute and society. In addition to asking for more let's be critical of how well we are receiving what is given to us.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Aiming and waiting for Perfection

When I joined IIIT in 2007, I shared my office with Prof. Ajit Das and M Y Rao my secretary. I used to have an office which was bigger than room three of us were sharing. I moved to my room only after six months. In IIIT, at that time there was no Internet, Library, Canteen or any amenity one is used to. It took time to build some of these features.

Subsequently, when we moved to Gothapatna Campus, the story repeated. We moved to a half constructed building. There was no electricity, no phone, no fax, no Internet. Prof Das and I shared a room. We tried hard to bring such facilities aend eventually over time these happened.

When I spoke to the students in the inaugural function, I said IIIT aims for perfection but does not wait for perfection. I am convinced that if you wait for perfection, it will never happen. Get there and make perfection happen is the principles we follow at IIIT.

So, you will see plenty of imperfections in IIIT. It is there in infrastructure, people, processes. We are aware of these imperfections and make effort to bring perfections. It causes inconveniences for people affected but we believe that is way to go.

Since ours is a residential campus, there is no need for transport service. However, we run a bus service to the city for convenience of the students. However, it is a 40 seater bus and gets crowded some times. Should we run 10 buses ensuring a seat for every student or run a bus based on our estimation of average load which may be inaccurate. We have chosen to run a imperfect transport system but aim for perfection by adding capacity or requesting Municipality to extend the City Bus service. Eventually, we will have a near perfect transport system.

Above is one example of our principle of Aiming for Perfection but not Waiting for Perfection. There are many instances. When I was chatting with Subroto Bagchi, he said it is a great idea and write a blog on this.

So here is the blog.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Moral High Horse

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to meet Ratan Tata in a conference in a conference in St Gallen Switzerland. He was the speaker in a session and I was a delegate. When I reached the hall there were a handful people and Ratan Tata was there. I told him we started our career from the same place. He looked startled. I told him that he started his career as the chairman of Nelco and I started as an Assistant Engineer. He was excited and he asked me if I knew about Abhyankar, Mahasur and others. I told him that I worked under them designing UPS, DC Drives and AC Drives.

Last month, he was in news for two reasons. He addressed somewhere in Uttrakhand and talked about how he refused to pay bribe and never got to start a Airline. It was telecasted and several channels had discussions on morality in business. A couple of weeks later the Nira Radia tapes were released and Ratan Tata featured there too. His stature seems to have fallen a bit after the release of these tapes.

Personally, I have very high regards for Ratan Tata. However, one lesson emerges from the episode. To practice morality and ethics is a perfect virtue. However, to sit on the moral high horse may not be a good idea. For when you fall from it, you seem like a villain when you are a hero.

In academic environments, we tend to climb the moral high horse. At the same time heating, copying and plagiarism is quietly practiced by students and teachers alike. The BPUT exams require one invigilator for every 20 students. This indicates the expectation of the unethical behaviour when the situation demands. One professor friend from UC Davis, recently told us he does not invigilate in exams; he expects the students to be honest when unsupervised. I wonder when we can expect that from our students.