When Sriram Venkatapathy originally came to IIIT-H for a BTech degree in 1999, little did he know that he would call the campus his home for 10 years. An acclaimed researcher with over 8 patents to his name, Sriram is now a Senior Scientist with the Alexa Machine Learning group at Amazon. Read on to find out his views on research and why he highly recommends pursuing a PhD.
In Pursuit of a degree in Computer Science
I was born in Hyderabad. My father was a Central Govt employee, so we stayed in places all over India. We came back to Hyderabad when I was in the 9th grade. In the 11th grade, I transferred from the Central school where I was studying to an intermediate college that offered IIT coaching. My dad and uncles are all accomplished engineers and that had a huge impact on my decision to pursue engineering. IIIT-H had its own entrance exam at that time and I appeared for that too. I am referring to the early days when IIIT-H was getting a major push from the Government, and companies were being set up around it. So when I got a call from IIIT-H, joining this institute felt like the right thing to do. And I haven’t regretted the decision ever!
Living And Making Memories
Students were put up then in what is now the Vindhya block. It didn’t have any ‘rooms’ per se. It had pillars with partitions about 3/4th of the way up. And much like dormitories, there were bunk beds. There was no privacy as such; if you were to speak, everyone could hear you! But we bonded so much more thanks to this. The institute was just starting up – so from the way we lived, to how we worked, to how the classes were conducted – everything was being experimented upon. Students played a crucial role in helping build and put everything in place. For example, some of the Linux geeks amongst us worked closely with the system admin staff and helped set up the computer systems. Our batch helped set up the library too; we decided what books to buy, and created the database. A lot of these early systems evolved from various course projects. We were given a lot of freedom alongside responsibilities and no decision was taken without consulting students. It was a lot of learning hands-on on how to build things from scratch and proved to be an invaluable experience. All this really stands out for me as a fond memory.
Prof. Govindarajalu’s classes used to be really interesting and fun. He taught us Data Structures. He has such an amazing memory. He often referred to these ‘Bibles’ of Computer Science — The Art of Computer Programming by Donald Knuth — quoting the exact page number where a certain problem was mentioned. He had a great rapport with the students and often joked around with them. During his course, I remember waiting in huge queues for several hours every week to take printouts of his data structures assignments. I still distinctly remember our computer programming professor, Prof. Arun Agarwal’s very first assignment where we were asked to compute the value of PI through a program that simulated a dart game. We also had English classes which were meant to ramp up our language skills and were of great help to the students coming from vernacular backgrounds. And these classes taught by a couple – Profs. Marathe – were extremely interesting. I can’t forget the class where they worked on our pronunciations, such as uttering the word ‘sofa’ with the right intonation!
Foray Into Research
There’s a huge research culture here. At the end of the first year itself, there were research projects listed on the notice board by Prof. Sangal. We were very excited and to participate in these, we stayed back in the summer on campus. These projects got me into the mindset of doing research. For example, my first one was on extracting information from resumes. We got paid for it too at the end which was a huge surprise! Since then every summer and winter, I kept doing research projects. And this influenced my decision when I received a job offer after my BTech. I was contemplating whether to take it up or explore an alternative path. At the time, Prof. Sangal was instrumental in establishing a connection with the University of Pennsylvania, under Prof. Aravind Joshi and Carnegie Mellon University under Prof. Raj Reddy where there was a possibility of doing a joint PhD. I chose the path of research and opted for this initiative. The programme was structured such that one had to spend half the time in the partner institute and the other half at IIIT-H. I did the first half of my research at UPenn – USA. Alongside my PhD, I was also teaching courses on NLP, NLP Applications and parts of an AI course that Prof. Sangal used to teach. Thanks to this, I interacted with students and thus know a lot of initial batches of IIIT-H students very well.
More Than Just A Degree
For me, Ph.D was not just about Natural Language Processing (NLP), it was so much more! There were several activities that I participated in during the PhD. And many of these engagements were outside of the academic rigours. Apart from research and teaching, I had the opportunity to take amazing courses by several imminent people. I also met my wife Shilpi during this period — who was working as a project associate on a funded project at LTRC. We were both very active in the student mentorship programmes. We jointly conducted a human values workshop spanning a week. For this workshop, we used a beautiful book written by Prof. Sangal that focussed on issues relevant to students — such as dealing with peer pressure, understanding the importance of excelling versus competing and so on. Since we could relate so much to it, we both got really involved in activities such as facilitating the induction programme into the Human Values course. As part of a semester-long interaction with the students, we undertook activities such as tree planting, collecting plastic litter in the campus, as well as brainstorming on several social issues. I also cherish the limited involvement I had with ‘Asha Kiran’ – a school run by a few Ph.D. students to teach children from a nearby slum. As part of this, we used to walk to the slum and gather a bunch of children, escort them to the campus and teach them here. Shilpi also used to help manage Yuktahaar which provided an avenue for having simple, healthy yet tasty food, that especially came in handy for those with dietary restrictions or who were sick. It was great seeing it evolve. I also enthusiastically participated in the yoga classes and the long cricket games. In the capacity of faculty, we both accompanied students for one of the out-station trips where we had such a good time. I also ran my first half marathon that culminated inside the Gachibowli stadium next door. These are the things that I cherish a lot. That’s the thing a PhD at IIIT-H allowed me to do – it gave me a lot of time to explore different facets of life, and an opportunity to meet and interact with interesting people with radical ideas.
I had spent 10 years here (at IIIT-H) and taken up a faculty position, but I wanted to explore the world outside. I started looking for post-doc opportunities and found a research opportunity at Xerox Research Centre in Grenoble, France. We had a 4-month-old son when we moved to France where I worked for 4 years. When Amazon offered me a role in one of the biggest machine learning groups in India, it appealed to me because of the real world problems they were addressing. I returned to India and was based out of Bangalore for 2 years. I was doing a lot of machine learning for the retail industry but was getting disconnected with NLP in which my real strength lies. So, when an opening came up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the Alexa group, I took it up since it would marry my strengths in both NLP as well as ML. I’m currently driving innovations in the text understanding aspect of Alexa. At Amazon, it’s amazing that everything you do gets productionized at some point. You actually start with a press release of a product that you haven’t even built!
Pursue a PhD
For anyone who is contemplating research versus a career in the industry right after the B.Tech., I would without hesitation ask them to pursue a Ph.D Research is integral to life. There’s no running away from it. You’re constantly learning, evolving and experimenting with things regardless of what you’re doing in life. And it is while doing a PhD that you can take a step back, introspect about what you really want to do, and use that time to do something worth the while. There is a common misconception that Ph.D. is all about the Eureka moment. As Prof. P J Narayanan often mentions, it is about making a small yet focussed effort every day which eventually leads to something remarkable. Also, it’s a much more enriching experience in the sense that you are your own master, with the flexibility of exploring things beyond academia too. I would like to quote Prof. Sangal on this, when I say, it’s important what you do rather than how you do it. A Ph.D gives you a chance to really think about what should be done.