Dr. Hari Balakrishnan (BT/CS/1993) is a Professor at the EE and CS Department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and leads the Networks and Mobile Systems Group at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). He has made many contributions to the field of computer networks and networked computer systems.
Dr. Anand Rajaraman (BT/CS/1993) is a successful entrepreneur and computer scientist. He is the founder of several successful startups (Junglee and Kosmix), has headed @WalmartLabs and has worked as Director of Technology for Amazon. He is also an early-stage venture capitalist.
Hari and Anand both received the Distinguished Alumnus awards this year. They were also hostel-mates and project-mates during their stay at IITM, and proceeded to do their MS and PhD degrees in Computer Science in the US. In part 2 of this interview, Hari and Anand chat with Tanmai and Sarathram from T5E about their own journeys, and their life at IITM.
Find part 1 here.
Tanmai: Many top CS students are recruited by consultancy or finance companies. Of those who do go into engineering, many end up joining offshore development centres. What do you feel about this trend?
Hari: I cannot presume to know how other people make their career choices, but I think that taking a management consultant position right after graduating from a Bachelors programme seems like a strange career choice. I can understand it from the standpoint of monetary compensation, but it’s not clear to me that they have the necessary experience to actually provide the right consulting advice.
My own preference would be for students to do new things in technology. I’m not saying that everyone should do that. There should be a mix, but it would be problematic if that mix was skewed towards things like management consultancy. There should be a balance- some students should pursue an advanced degree, some students should try to start companies, some should try all of these things.
Anand: To a large extent, it’s a matter of demand and supply. If management consultancy is what students perceive today as the best career choice that maximises economic interests, that is what they’re going to do.
I think students need role models for different career choices they might make. If they see successful outcomes along certain career options, they might be encouraged to end up going there. Clearly, for management consultancy, the immediate financial prospects are interesting. But you have to contrast that with the big financial success that the founder of a successful company is going to get- these are very very high leverage activities. You’d expect that most people who are graduating are not going to change the world, but in every batch that comes out of IIT there will be a few that will, and the leverage of that will be huge.
Tanmai: Do you have any ideas or insights that the student community could adopt to increase the fervour for engineering?
Hari: I think the role model point is very valid. I think the single biggest thing we ought to be doing is showing students that you can have tremendously successful and fulfilling careers in pursuing engineering.
Anand: I think IITs are starting to do a good job with this; successful alumni from different walks of life are being invited to give talks, and I think these people are role models for students.
Tanmai: A lot of students have exciting ideas but very few carry them forward.
Anand: I feel we shouldn’t write off the people who do other jobs right after IIT. You shouldn’t look at the first job that someone takes after IIT as their career – that’s rarely the case. A few years of work experience is very useful in branching out. A lot of people do their first job and go off to graduate studies or become entrepreneurs. You should think of the first job that people take as part of the education process as opposed to the career.
Hari: One thing that hasn’t changed much is that most people have very little information at the time of their graduation. They think they make rational decisions, but I think their information is often incomplete. That is why the role model point is so relevant. They need to be shown a lot of different options so that they can make decisions after appropriate overall considerations.
I think if someone formally structures some sort of ‘intervention’, it’s likely to be met with skepticism from the student body. It would be better to organically show them the variety of options, and the wide variety of things people end up doing, ranging from pure research to entrepreneurship, to finance, to non-profits, and everything else.
Sarathram: Can you speak about your own decisions to be computer scientists and how they paid off?
Anand: When we graduated, the default option for people from IIT was to go to the US for graduate studies. I don’t think this is the case anymore, but in our time, it was pretty much pre-ordained – by the time we were at the end of our second year in Computer Science, we knew we were going to go to graduate school in the US. It was a well-trodden path, the one that everyone knew the most about. Also, the economic opportunities available in India weren’t so good then.
Doing CS at IITM inspired me. I enjoyed solving problems using computers and coming up with interesting algorithms. Initially, when I went to the US, I wanted to do research at Stanford, then do a PhD and then go and teach somewhere, like Hari is right now. This didn’t change for the first few years at Stanford. And then, the internet happened. When I came to the US, the browser had just come along, and a whole world of possibility was opening up. I realised even at Stanford that some of my research might be better applied in the context of this newly emerging medium, the world wide web. All this led to my establishing my first company, Junglee, in 1996. I actually dropped out of my PhD at Stanford to start this company. It was a fairly big decision because until that point I set my eyes on getting the PhD and becoming a professor. But I was fairly convinced that the value of the research I was doing was to commercialise it.
The company ended up being successful, and was eventually acquired by Amazon. Since then I’ve done various things including investing in companies coming out of places like Stanford. A rule I always use is that any company I work with has to satisfy two criteria for me to be involved – it has to excite me as a computer scientist, and it has to be doing something that makes an order of magnitude of impact on the world in some way. I’ve held these two rules throughout my career.
Hari: For me, I realised in graduate school that I really enjoyed research, more so than I enjoyed Computer Science from the standpoint of sitting in classes. To me, the fact that I could do research, write some interesting papers, and have it come into products was very fulfilling; the fact that my research succeeded, in a way that I could not have imagined, made a big difference in my career choice. Many of the things I did wound up in various standards and the like. When I applied to universities (for teaching positions), I got a job offer from MIT and it was hard for me to refuse, because when I visited MIT I was struck by how entrepreneurial the whole culture was, both from the standpoint of commercial impact and from the risk that people were willing to take in their research. And that has continued. I’ve been fortunate that a lot of the research projects that I have done or my students have done have found their way in real products. Largely, the commercialisation in my kind of work is either through start-up companies or showing up in actual standards for communication that are used around the world, and the joy of research and watching my students go and do new things has been fantastic. Probably the most successful one is the guy who did Dropbox, but there have many other students who wound up doing some fantastic things. In my case, the joy of doing research in CS is what kept me going.
Tanmai: What were your memorable experiences and learnings at IITM?
Hari: I think a lot of people are going to respond the same way, but I do think that many of the things I learnt there were from the other students. All the experiences with other students were about as important as the things that I learnt from classes. I also thought many of the courses were quite good.
We did a lot of things in teams. Anand and I worked together very closely during our undergraduate days. It was the first time in my life I’d worked in teams and I enjoyed that part of IIT. In real life, you end up doing a lot of work in teams.
Anand: It was the first time I experienced living away from home. I think that changed me in various ways. It brought me in touch with all these other students and I learn a lot from them. I enjoyed the teamwork too. I worked a lot with Hari especially in my final year- we did our BTech projects together. That was a lot of fun.
Tanmai: How did you guys pass time as students of IITM?
Anand: Those were the pre-browser days. I first came across a browser here at Stanford and Hari at Berkeley. So the only internet we had was email, to which we had very bad access. That was kind of the situation then.
Hari: Actually, we all shared one email address. Imagine that! And I think there was a funny story where a number of students had applied to the same university and there was an email sent to that address saying, “Congratulations, you have been admitted”. It wasn’t clear which student had been admitted.
Anand: We’d get back from classes and have tea. In the common area, a sport was going on all the time. Then there was the common room with the TV. These were the two hot-spots where lots of people hung out. So mainly people were playing something or the other most of the time, or hanging out in the common room or on the wing cots. Especially on weekend mornings, we hung out on the wing cots and solved the Hindu crosswords.
Hari: I was into sports. Anand and I also did a ton of cultural things together, quizzing and all of the other things you can imagine. What I remember most is that we used to read a lot. There was a reading room with a ton of books. I’d read something new almost every week. In retrospect, the fact that we didn’t have a well connected web access or internet access may have been good because we read a lot of literature.
Anand: There was a particular game Hari and I used to play and annoy people with. Tinto, or 20 Questions, it was called.
Hari: I don’t know if we were the best in IIT, but we were pretty good at it, I think.
Anand: Good enough to annoy other people! I also remember going to the Central library quite often, reading and borrowing books. It was a quiet place to read and it was air-conditioned, so that was quite a big attraction.