If not academia, he would have probably gotten into sports, and become professional tennis player at that. In a free wheeling conversation, this professor who dons multiple hats with ease, talks about converting a personal pain point into an institute-wide solution, liasoning with corporates, and indulging in any kind of strenuous sporting activity just to keep himself occupied. Meet Prof. Raghu Babu Reddy. Y, Head of the Software Engineering and Research Centre.
Catching up with Prof. Raghu Reddy in the midst of the admissions process turns out to be a fortuitous learning exercise. He’s hunched in front of his giant-sized Mac and deftly switches from signing off on a prospective student to proceeding to place a hardware request for the centre that he heads – the Software Engineering and Research Centre (SERC). “Initially when I came here, I used to complain a lot,” he smiles. “Everything required my intervention. If I wanted to say, understand a policy, I had to ask someone, if I wanted to know the status of a certain project, I had to ask someone, even the status of a purchase request, I had to ask someone.” With an inordinate amount of time being spent on manually following up on processes, Prof. Raghu tried to reason about why all these systems required so much manual intervention rather than being automated. Thus, IMS, the Institute Management System where most of the processes of the institute can be managed online, was born. Prof. Raghu and Prof. Shatrunjay were appointed as the co-chairs for the IMS Committee. Prof. Raghu was given an entire semester off to oversee the implementation of this project that was done by a third party. It’s now a one-stop place for everything from the admissions process, to teaching assistantships, to course registrations, to hostel-related information, to the accounts department and more. “Instead of 20 things in 50 places, it is all integrated here.It’s still not complete per se. It’s a piece of software that keeps on evolving even as the processes keep on changing,” he says. The implementation of the solution has now been officially handed over to the IT team that oversees it.
Software Engineering vs. Computer Science
Chairing the ERP implementation project (along with Prof. Shatrunjay) happened by chance. Prof. Raghu was originally invited by the institute to set up the Software Engineering and Research Lab. At the time he was an Assistant Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), NY, which was among the first to have a program in software engineering at the undergraduate level. “Until then if you wanted to study how to build good, robust software systems, you had to study Computer Science”. In response to my befuddled expression, Prof. Raghu explains by saying, “Computer science is basically applied Math while software engineering is applied Computer Science. Computer Science tends to be more algorithmic in nature, borrowing from the Sciences, whereas software engineering tends to be more engineering-oriented, borrowing from engineering disciplines.” At RIT, Prof. Raghu was one of the principal persons responsible for starting the Masters program in Software Engineering. A major part of his profile necessitated him being active in the research community. At one such conference in Mysore, along with others from the software engineering community, he met Prof. Vasudeva Varma, who heads the Information Retrieval and Extraction Lab (IREL) and the then Software Engineering Research Lab (SERL) at IIIT-H. “As we started talking, five minutes became half an hour, half an hour became three hours and then we met during the banquet again. There was general discussion about the state of research in India and this institute called IIIT. I had never heard of IIIT until then,” remarks Prof. Raghu. Since his family had been toying with the idea of returning to India after the birth of their two children, Prof. Raghu researched about the institute (IIIT-H) and applied for a position. He was taken aback by the alacrity with which the institute responded by setting up online interviews and subsequently making him an offer. “An offer to join as an Associate Professor. In a sense that was an added incentive, because if I had stayed back I wouldn’t have been an Associate Professor at least for another couple of years.”
Software Engineering Research Centre
From helping establish the SERC, moving some faculty here, attracting people, and funding, to working on a number of government as well as industry projects, Prof. Raghu is in a happy space. “A lot of empirical work goes on here at the centre. And focus is on broad areas. Say for usability engineering, while the cognitive sciences folk would work from the end-user perspective, we look at it from the computing perspective.” The centre is currently working on multiple projects with corporate entities such as Siemens, CA Technologies and others, as well as with the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). “Three years ago we were one of the institutes which got selected as part of the Design Innovation Center (DIC) initiative from MHRD. The group that forms our DIC is us, IIT-Hyd, IIIT-SriCity and IIIT-Kanchipuram.” In the past, Prof. Raghu has also chaired the IIIT-H-CA Innovation Centre where SERC students jointly collaborated with CA by adding value to their (often times acquired) products from a research perspective. One of his goals is to make SERC the largest research centre in software engineering in India and make it globally popular.
But as a professor close to his heart is a core course that Prof. Raghu enjoys teaching: Structured Software Analysis and Design (SSAD). It’s something that he designed and kick started at IIIT-H.“The entire course is about how you build a piece of software. Students work on developing a real and live aspect of a product with some company. Every year we get a large number of small to mid-sized companies who want to sponsor particular projects. Out of the 60-65 proposals that come in, we pick about 40-45. And these get executed by the students. It’s a requirement for the class and I think it has been received well,” he says.
The Person Not The Prof
Discovering Prof. Raghu Reddy at the helm of the Sports Committee comes as no surprise especially after he remarks, “I think whatever sport I play, it comes naturally…in the sense that I can play any sport for the first time and still not appear to be a novice!” In fact while growing up, his parents were extremely supportive of his inclination towards sports, with his father expressing hope that he would become a tennis player. “My dad was very nice because he said do whatever but do that one thing which is going to basically make sure that you have a life. And at that point, he felt tennis was awesome because it would be the next big thing to take off in India.” However, things worked out otherwise and thoughts of professional sports took a backseat. But that said, anything requiring strenuous physical activity will find Prof. Raghu making a beeline for it. From getting a Black Belt in karate at a young age, to playing Ultimate Frisbee and skiing while in the US, to now playing badminton on a regular basis, he says, “I’ve always had one sport I used to play just to keep myself occupied.” For the institute, this interest has seen changes in the way the PT curriculum has been restructured. From mere running-related fitness, students now have more options to keep themselves fit by playing games such as football, volleyball, basketball, badminton and even Taekwondo. To bring in more regularity among the students, the credits are spread across 4 semesters rather than being confined to a single year. There are plenty of changes visible in terms of infrastructural upheaval too, such as renovation of basketball courts, laying of tennis courts, creation of volleyball and throw ball courts, hiring of coaches and soon-to-be installed indoor facility for pool tables. “There’s still a long way to go because we are nowhere close to what a typical university sports program should be like. But it’s understandable because (as an institute), our primary goal is different,” says Prof. Raghu.
Championing Financial Literacy
Prod him a little about other interests he pursues and Prof. Raghu reveals that he reads up a lot on financial matters. In fact as a natural offshoot to this, he wants at some point to push for financial literacy of faculty and staff on campus. “The financial health and awareness on campus is not so good in terms of how to manage finances, how to diversify, how to invest and where, available options and so on,” he says. Contrasting it with the level of awareness in the US, he says that universities there promote themselves to the extent of having financial experts and real estate folks during faculty interviews. “It’s not always research and academia that matters…the peripherals that come along influencing people’s decisions are missing here,” he says ruefully.
Steering Other Initiatives
As chair of the Placement Committee, Prof. Raghu talks about streamlining and making placements more process-oriented while being visibly excited about a new placements office whose construction will soon be underway in the Nilgiri block. He is also going to chair the Technical Resources Committee that takes care of all the technical infrastructure of the campus. He signs off saying there’s nothing more interesting while making a mental note to try his hand at swimming, something he hasn’t learned yet.