A conversation with Dr. Sridhar Chimalakonda is peppered with terms such as ‘Pushing the boundaries’, ‘Thinking Out of The Box’, and ‘Innovation’. As someone who aims to reverse the brain drain happening in the country, Dr. Chimalakonda is actively innovating by using technology to improve the current quality of education. We caught up with the MS and PhD alumnus to discover the many hats he dons and his vision that’s brewing.
Please tell us a little about yourself? What led you to pursue higher education in Engineering at IIIT-H?
Currently, I am a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Tirupati. I stay in faculty housing along with my wife Aparna, 1 year 3 month old daughter Naina and my parents.
I hail from Nandyal, a small town in Andhra Pradesh and I was not even aware that one could pursue Engineering in IITs while I was in +2. The only thing in my favour though was my curiosity and a penchant for following the unconventional. When I first visited IIIT Hyderabad for an MS, I was working in a research startup in Bangalore and enjoyed the work. I wasn’t fully convinced about pursuing a Masters. But then, life has its own surprises. My father retired from State Government service and my parents moved to Hyderabad. On a whim, I decided to join IIIT-H. It was here that I became aware of state-of-the-art research projects in Software Engineering. Two years of deep dive exploration led me to research and papers of several researchers in my area. It was during this time that I also realized the impact most Indian students and professors at top universities across the globe have in research in their areas. The question was: Can we do it from India? And If so, why are so many students and professors abroad? I felt that IIIT-H is the place to embark on this adventure as it has a global perspective and faculty who have that desire to do the best! I eventually decided to continue with a PhD at IIIT-H.
A IIIT-H memory that stands out for you…
There are tonnes! No one was as influential as Prof. Kesav Nori to me when I was at IIIT-H. What an intellectual and great personality! My passion lay in demonstrating top-notch research results from India but Prof. Nori’s plans were different – to solve the grand challenge of adult literacy in India through computing research. We had deep discussions along with a lot of heated debates.
I also remember an email from Prof. PJN when he was Dean (R&D) to all research scholars immediately after admissions, directing students to either publish at top-class venues or not publish at all! The message was clear: we aim only for the top! Another wonderful memory is my interaction with Prof. C.V Jawahar during the last two years of my PhD. I probably discussed more with him than any of his PhD students. His philosophy and strategies enthralled me! The practical lens brought by Dr. Raghu Reddy is indispensable, both for me and the SERC lab!
My PhD defense was strange, with both Software Engineering and Educational Technologies (ET). I was clearly on the Software Engineering side, but there was also a lot of work on ET. It was challenging with panelists looking at the thesis from different perspectives. In the end, after heated discussions, it was classified as a dual thesis.
Explain your thesis that eventually led to it being available on Google Play Store (and Telangana Govt websites).
How to facilitate the design and customization of software systems [educational technologies] for scale & variety? [287 million learners, 22 Indian Languages, varied instructional designs]
My PhD thesis explored the idea of applying software engineering concepts such as patterns, ontologies and software product lines for design of a large scale and variety of software systems in education domain. Specifically, we demonstrated that eLearning Systems for adult literacy in India can be developed in around 2 person-weeks from the previous best of 6 person-months.
The metric for evaluation was not just publications but transferring the technology to the Government of India. This eventually happened as we transferred our work to National Literacy Mission with the first experiment successfully done by the Government of Telangana. As a PhD student, I was called for a meeting headed by a Union minister (MHRD) to make suggestions on design of educational technologies. The sad part is it is hard to sustain once you move on.
What do you do currently?
I am continuing from where I left off from IIIT-H. I’m still trying to find solutions to the question if we can deliver top-quality research from India. Currently, I am working on mining of large volumes of software engineering artifacts such as code, bugs, user reviews to facilitate software reuse and improve software quality. I also work in Educational Technologies, in which I focus on the design of novel interventions in teaching and learning; and automatically or semi-automatically generating educational technologies. Apart from this Human Computer Interaction is inherent in most of the research projects that I work on.
I volunteer for ACM SIGSOFT (Software Engineering) as Social Media Chair, Associate Editor for IEEE Software Blog, ACM iSIGCSE (Computer Science Education) as core member, was an Area Program Chair for ACM ITiCSE 2019, IEEE ICALT 2019 and as one of the experts for ISO standards in the area of Software and Systems Engineering.
What are your future plans?
I am trying to establish a research lab in Software Engineering. Informally labelled as ISHA (Intelligent Software & Human Analytics) Research Lab, the goal is to do cutting edge research in software engineering from India. I will continue to do research in educational technologies and Human-Computer Interaction focusing on projects with societal impact. I will not rest until I fulfill my vision.
Any words of advice to other aspiring youngsters who are inclined towards research with a societal impact?
Set the benchmark high and strive towards it. I discuss something called as ‘theory of boundaries’ in the first lecture of the course I teach. Everybody has a boundary and we do not know whether that is our boundary unless we work at the edge of the it, That’s when we realize that we can push the boundary! For those interested in education, I believe that teaching should inspire students beyond grades and jobs, instill foundations for life and push boundaries! I would like to forewarn that the teacher may be critiqued by everybody as the path is difficult and may be unusual. But, I strongly believe that unless we innovate, it is hard to improve quality of education.
For every societal challenge that you witness, look at it through the research and engineering lens and you will find a solution and impact.
When you try new things, people will criticize you! You will falter, fail, but do not lose hope, after all you are at least trying something, and this alone can give you satisfaction. Things have not worked for me several times, but I’ve never lost hope.