January 18, 2014

Director Professor Sahasrabudhe, distinguished guests, the honored graduating class and their parents:

I am delighted and honored to be given this privilege to address you on your graduation. I must confess I have some anxiety in addressing you, even though I have given hundreds of talks, because this is my first convocation address. It is well known that when professors start talking it is hard for them to stop, and yet I am a little lost as to what advice I can offer you which is not full of platitudes and which will not put you to sleep immediately. My wife accuses me that I was snoring at my own PhD graduation by the time the chief guest started speaking. Let us see if I can do better.

First of all, congratulations on your achievements thus far. Let us give a round of applause to the graduating class for making it this far amongst the highest levels of competition.

It is 50 years ago that I started as a freshman at IIT Kanpur. It was 1964 and a lot has changed since then.
There was no television, there was a total of three stations on the Short Wave and Medium Wave radios, the primary entertainment in IIT was the weekly 16 mm movie that was organized by the student body. Of course there was no email, Internet, Google or Facebook. And the first female undergraduate was yet to enter IIT Kanpur. The vast majority of us came from middle class families which itself is a euphemism because middle class then meant we were quite privileged in some statistical sense. Yet it did mean that none of us had any money, and also there was no possibility of earning any money as students. Fortunately IIT was practically free ---the tuition fee was Rs100 and year, room charges were Rs200 a year and our mess bills used to be under Rs100 a month. IIT was far less expensive than the schools most of us had attended. Another small solace was that the city of Kanpur did not offer many opportunities for spending money beyond an occasional movie or a meal at our favorite and only Chinese restaurant called Chung Fa. (Believe it or not even in those days it was a bit dangerous to eat street food.)

So how did we entertain ourselves? We talked with fellow students endlessly and formed everlasting friendships. Daydreaming, especially about girls, was one of the biggest past times. Some of us played a lot of Bridge, even at the expense of homework and sleep. Some of us read voraciously. And some of us were fortunate enough to also have made bonds with the faculty who would invite us to their homes. Some participated in cultural activities, sports and even launched a campus newspaper.  I often thought of IIT as an open prison, open because there were no rules or supervision but prison because there was no place to escape either. In spite of all this, I and most of my classmates cherish those 5 years at IITK!

Clearly, times have changed. However the theme of my talk today is that the factors that will determine your success in life going forward have changed little.

1 Competition

Competition is a much maligned concept and it is easy to understand why when one sees the extreme stress associated with college entrance examinations in India, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and even in some European countries like France. The fact of the matter is that there is always competition in most walks of life, it cannot be wished away. What is important is how we deal with it.

Let me explain my point by a simple example. In freshmen surveys MIT often asks the question: “Will you graduate in the top 10% of your class?”  This is an interesting question because MIT does not assign ranks, assigns only pass and fail grades to freshmen, and even wants to stop publishing the grade point averages (GPAs) on the grade sheets.

Guess what?  90% of the students polled say that they will graduate in the top 10% of their class.

How can you not have stress when your fellow classmates feel that way? And how can you tell a student that he or she should not aspire to graduate in the top 10% of his class?

You may encounter a different type of competition in the real world.  In the end, the level of competition does not determine your success, but your approach to that competition does.

My message to you is that you must never get crushed by the competition, but to find a place among your peers, and focus on enjoying the whole learning process. I am sure everybody feels wonderful after learning or discovering something they did not know. It does not matter if the whole world already possessed the knowledge you have just acquired. You must have already noticed that some of your fellow students learn new things much faster than you but I can assure you that in the long run the speed does not matter. As long as you remember this, the competition or the time it takes to learn something will fade in the background.

2 Blood, Sweat and Tears

In our disciplines of Science and Engineering there is no replacement for hard work, whether you’re a college student, a tenured professor, an engineer in industry, a high-level manager or an entrepreneur.

The methods of instruction have changed and are still changing—the whole course material, including the videotapes of the lectures, is posted on the web; most of the labs can be conducted remotely; online help is often available 24/7. Still, one has to work hard to learn the material—there are no short cuts. In our discipline, and I speak broadly of Science and Engineering, a student knows whether he has been able to absorb some material or not. You know you are in trouble when you read a question in the homework or a quiz and feel that you are reading Chinese or Greek. Or when somebody gives you a hint to solve the problem and you say to yourself: “This is supposed to help me?” I like to play the game of Sudoku on the computer and it, like many games, lets you choose the difficulty-level of the game you want to play. It gives you hints in case you are stuck. I can consistently solve puzzles labeled ‘Difficult” and consistently need hints for puzzles labeled ‘Devious’ to ‘Nightmare’. A computer helps in assessing the level I am at. It’s no longer a question of opinion or a biased teacher. Skill acquisition, a large component of modern technical education, has a strong analogy with game playing. You have to learn to solve problems and nobody else can do it for you.

I don’t mean to imply skill acquisition is the sum of our undergraduate education. There is a creative aspect of education, which is often full of serendipity— it is not planned—you never know who when or where some new insight may come from. It could be from a teacher; it could be from a fellow student or worker; it could be because you are thinking deeply about some problem that does not seem to concern anybody else. Please look to your left and to your right and thank your classmates, teachers, friends and family for the stimulation they have provided you. To this day I feel what made the IIT Kanpur experience special was the intense interaction with my classmates and professors.

It is also important to remember that no one can sustain the level of effort required in your studies or work if you don’t enjoy what you are learning or doing. One cannot just work for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – one has to enjoy the journey itself. As you grow up you will realize that there is often no pot of gold to be had – but if you had enjoyed the journey, you would have no regrets.

3. Lifelong education

Regardless of what you learn in college – you have to learn a lot more once you graduate.  In fact good education is about learning how to learn.  Those of you who don’t want to learn new things are guaranteed to fall behind those who do. (I am in a bit of danger on this front myself because I don’t like to do facebook or tweet. My excuse is that at my age I can choose to retire rather than learn to tweet!). I will illustrate this point with a few very varied examples from my own career.

IIT gave me a strong background in continuous math but as a graduate student I discovered that Computer Science was all about discrete math. The main lesson of IIT was not to get intimidated and I just jumped into groups and rings and never looked back. It is only in this millennium that both continuous and discrete math have become equally important in Computer Science.

My first summer job as a graduate student was as a programmer in the marketing department of Pillsbury, a famous food processing company with headquarters in Minneapolis. We had access to detailed demographic data and Pillsbury product sales data and my job was to discover the relationship between the class of buyers and the types of products they bought. This required running very sophisticated regression analysis on large amounts of data (a precursor of what we would call data-mining today), and I would keep their main frames buzzing for hours every day and night. Another project involved determining the price of chicken which Pillsbury sold by the millions. Every extra penny we could charge without losing the sales meant several million dollars of profit per month.  I was dazzled by the technical sophistication of these projects. My department had two PhDs from MIT Math department and two MBAs from MIT’s business school. And yet I would often go home a bit disillusioned. It had never occurred to me that my IIT education would be put to use in selling cookies and cakes. I had these lofty goals of becoming an ace researcher -- but selling consumer products? It took me a long time to understand how a capitalist society worked. Ultimately people determine what they want and if they want to buy cakes then, by God, we are going to produce the best cakes. And if we required the most sophisticated computers to analyze the sales data then we were going to buy those computers. And if it required the whole sales force to have iPads then we are going to buy an iPad for each sales person!

They loved me at Pillsbury, perhaps because I made a good 4th for their Bridge team, but after two summers I decided that that type of work, though technically quite challenging, could not sustain me all my life.

Another crisis for me came when I started working on parallel supercomputers. Around 1980 the agencies which were most enthusiastic about supporting my research were the ones that supported the big energy labs in the USA – Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos.  Guess, what is the primary purpose of these labs? Designing nuclear weapons! I was never inclined towards nuclear weaponry and it had certainly never crossed my mind that my work may be used for the benefit of that enterprise. I talked to several friends and learned that 1. I was really not going to be working directly on nuclear weapons; 2. If the machine I built was remotely successful, these labs would have unfettered access to it regardless of who funded the research; 3. I needed to assess my real position on nuclear weapons – should the United States of America have no nuclear weapons?

Two practical philosophies emerged from this experience. The first is that don’t participate in any research, in fact any activity, if you do not like its immediate consequences. Second, it is difficult to know how a specific technology will be used in future – a responsible position is to protest as an informed citizen when a technology is abused. Edward Snowdon’s case is a good example in the current news. As a computer scientist should you not work on the Big Data problems? It is the Big Data research that has made it possible for the US National Security Agency to collect and analyze such massive amounts of data.

I also learned a lot when I decided to take a two-year leave of absence from MIT to start a fabless semiconductor company at the age of 50. Sandburst was a venture-capital backed company to produce a chip set for 10Gb Ethernet and was sold off to Broadcom in 2006. Before this undertaking I never read Wall Street Journal or paid any attention to the stock market. I did not know the difference between marketing and sales, or how easily profit and loss statements can be manipulated within legal boundaries. Also I had never used my phone as much before! All my life my secretary had shielded me from unwanted calls and now I was the one making cold calls for two hours every day! Well, I did learn a lot by running the company for two years. It had 50 engineers and often what motivated them was different from what motivates students in an academy. Most importantly, I learned that timely work in industry is far more important than creative work without time constraints. That it is important to be able to explain how a product may help a customer without explaining how the product actually worked. As an academic I took pride in explaining things clearly but suddenly discovered that no one outside the company wanted to know how cool the inside of our product was! The customer was merely interested in how the product may improve his/her life! All this understanding has had profound impact on my research presentations ever since.

Most of all I learned that the quality of my life as a professor was far superior then running a company. I don’t like to hire and fire people, and I like to think about a problem as long as I like to think about it. Besides, constant association with young people, who seem to get younger every year, keeps me young.

My parting thoughts for you are that that the fundamental things in life do not change because of technology or politics. Hard work matters and sustained hard work is possible only if you enjoy it, if you feel passionate about it. You can never stop being curious or learning new things. Learning is far more important than the speed of learning. Finally, no aspiration is too high as long as you are willing to work towards it. You are graduating as an engineer that gives you a license to be whatever you want. You can aspire to be a giant entrepreneur like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Narayana Murthy. Or aspire to be a top researcher like Claude Shannon or Alan Turing or John von Neumann. Or aspire to serve people as a politician like Jimmy Carter or Arvind Kejeriwal. Engineers are engaged in all sorts of disciplines these days. The opportunities for you are limitless. Just remember to enjoy whatever you choose to do and do not worry about that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is a life well-lived that matters.

Congratulations once again and thank you.