25 Years Of IIITH: An Unconventional Start, Compelling Vision and Maximal Impact

On 2 September 1998,  from the premises of what was once the office of the District Collectorate, the inaugural batch of India’s first International Institute of Information Technology was kick-started in Hyderabad. The journey since then has been nothing short of incredible. Read on to learn more about its modest beginnings.   

To appreciate the genesis of the first IIIT in the country, an understanding of the 1990s and the implications of a newly liberalised Indian economy is in order. “IT was in the air, Silicon Valley was happening,” remarks Prof. Raj Reddy, Founding Chairman of the governing council of IIITH, referring to those times. India was hopping onto the IT bandwagon too. Speaking about Andhra Pradesh, Mr. R. Chandrashekhar, IT Secretary to the Govt at the time recalls that there was very strong support by the then Chief Minister Mr. N. Chandrababu Naidu who backed the whole idea of developing Hyderabad as an IT capital. But even as AP was trying to attract investors to grow its IT industry, one of the biggest constraints to IT expansion was the availability of talent. “The industry was complaining saying that we are not getting good quality engineers from some of our traditional universities,” says Mr. Srini Raju, member of IIITH’s governing council. Hence in 1998, the idea of having an institution to promote talent and then use that talent to attract investments was mooted. According to Prof. Raj Reddy though, it was clear from the beginning that they were going to not just teach students but also going to do research. “The goal was to set up a research-oriented institution that can start new companies to start the Silicon Valley in Hyderabad,” says Prof. Rajeev Sangal. Thus began IIIT, the first autonomous university founded as a not-for-profit partnership between the public and private sector in Hyderabad.

Aiming For World-Class
A great idea can rarely take flight solo. In the founding of IIIT at Hyderabad, the visionary Chief Minister put together a formidable team of Mr. R. Chandrashekar as Chairman and Managing Director of APIIC, Mr. Randeep Sudan as key person in CMO, Mr. JRK Rao not only assisting Mr. Chandrashekhar in APIIC with new initiatives but also as the first director-in-charge of the institute and Mr. Ajay Sawhney as Special Officer for IIITH helping with structures, administration and operations, working closely with Prof Sangal and Prof Narendra Ahuja, who was the first Director of the institute. “One of the biggest advantages that we could get in the early stages of coming into existence was being able to persuade Prof. Raj Reddy, the only Indian who has a Turing Award and one of the most eminent Indians in the field of Computer Science to accept chairing the governing council of IIIT,” says Mr. Sawhney.

Handpicked Faculty and Staff
I was invited by Mr. Ajay Sawhney, who was the acting director here. He was kind enough to extend me the honour of starting this institute with my lecture on Mathematics on September 2, 1998. The first lecture was mine,” says Prof. C N Kaul. It was later Prof. Narendra Ahuja who went on to recruit many of the other original faculty. “He knew who the right people were, I think that provided the seed, they did a great job,” remarks Prof. Raj Reddy. Terming the venerable faculty group who had joined the newly-minted institute as “academic think tanks”, Prof. Kamal Karlapalem says, ”We already had Prof. Sangal and Prof. Narendra Ahuja at that time. So some of the ideas about practice-theory-practice came from Prof. Sangal, and some of the ideas about undergraduate course curriculum and all that, we, i.e, I, from Hong Kong and Prof. Jayanthi Sivaswamy from New Zealand, and Prof. P J Narayanan, who had studied in the US and Prof. Jawahar, who had studied in Kharagpur and few others would brainstorm a lot and bring in some of those innovations and also rigour in the curriculum.”

While the traditional curriculum and the method of instruction as we knew it was getting a facelift at IIIT, the administrative machinery which forms the backbone of the institute was being put in place too. “Mr. Sawhney found six great individuals from the state government who moved into the institute – Mr K Satyanarayana, Mr. KCM Shastri, Mr. Ramana, Mr. Bhaskar Prasad, Mr. SLN Shastri and Mr. Prabhakar Sharma. The flexibility and dynamism of the institute owes as much to the administrative structure laid down by these people as to the faculty and other leadership,” states Prof. P J Narayanan.

Courting Change
It may seem incredulous now but the 66 acre campus that currently houses state-of-the-art air conditioned labs, library, gymnasium, hostel and dining facilities, was actually built for the district Collectorate and the district courts of Ranga Reddy. “That facility was made available at a nominal rent to the institution. In 100 days, IIIT rapidly got ready-made buildings converted into classrooms, into laboratory spaces and bought the necessary equipment. Fortunately, there were some quarters for judges. So those quarters were converted into student hostels and the first set of 50 students who got admission stayed in those quarters as their first hostel,” reminisces Mr. Chandrashekar.

With an emphasis on technology and applied research for industry as well as society, dedicated research centres were created that were multidisciplinary in nature. Since the belief was that the prevailing curriculum in the country at the time did not promote enough innovation amongst students, it had to be designed differently. “There had to be flexibility; teaching and research had to go hand in hand together,” says Prof. Sangal. Exclaiming that such flexibility had been hitherto unheard of, Prof. Vishal Garg, Head of Center for IT in Building Sciences at IIITH, goes on to add: “The simple thought was that one did not have to finish graduation in order to do research. Why can’t the undergrad students do research? So we said, Okay, you come here in the first year, and if you want to build a rocket, go ahead, do that. You don’t have to wait for four years to finish your degree, then enrol into a master’s programme and later build a rocket!” Dr. Soujanya, Alumni Observer in the governing council and also part of the inaugural batch says that for projects, they were made to read through a lot of research articles. “That gave us tremendous exposure to what other international universities were also doing. And it in turn spurred us into thinking, okay, maybe you know what, we should also reach that level. And that is when the whole research bug started,” she says.

Grabbing Eyeballs
The inaugural batch graduated in 2002, coinciding unfortunately with the global IT industry’s worst downturn ever. “I was the first coordinator for the placements. 2002 was a very bad year for placements. But by 2012-13, IIITH was ranked number one in placements among all institutes of the country, including all IITs, by Dataquest. So that’s where we came in just 10 years,” says Prof. P J Narayanan. As the second graduating batch from IIITH, alum Vipul Kedia recalls that the interactions they had with a lot of professors taught them not merely academics but about life experiences, value systems and how to handle situations. “So I think we all matured as individuals and the kind of responsibilities which we got and what we played were far beyond our years,” he says. Prof. Narendra Ahuja agrees wholeheartedly. “Once our students started to go out, industry began to ask, what are you doing? We started to get this feedback from abroad, from graduate schools, where they went for PhDs: Send us more. Whatever you’re doing is great. Similarly when they went to industry, we got the same reactions.”

Unique Admission Initiatives
The institute has been known for its inclusion and diversity policies in its admission process where a conscious decision has been made to have intellectual diversity through Olympiads, and National Talent Search Competitions, rural diversity via selection of top second year students from Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies (RGUKT) is AP and Telangana as well as rural students from Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas across the country, gender diversity through selection of girl students from CBSE’s Udaan scheme (for girls), and cultural diversity through a channel for NRI students. Recognising that the technology students of today need to be aware of how humans as individuals and as members of society may use tech, there has been a concerted push towards the cross disciplinary dual degree programmes of Computer Science and Human Sciences – the only requirement for a direct shortlist being high scores in Class 12 Board exams.

Setting A Precedent
IIITH has had many firsts from the get-go, its very unique model of inception not-withstanding. With research at its core, it began primarily as an undergraduate institute and now runs several other acclaimed post-graduate and research programs as well. It is the only engineering institute that allows for 60% electives – 16 courses in the Sciences, 30 in Humanities and the rest can be selected from over 200 courses offered each year. A unique aspect of IIITH is that with no governmental funding for research, professors typically approach corporates to raise funds. This sort of industry participation is now visible among other institutions such as Ashoka University among others. Alongside the emphasis on academics, there was the thought of enabling critical thinking among students, especially the ability to differentiate between the superficial and the valuable. The Human Values course spearheaded by Prof. Rajeev Sangal proved to be so successful that the UGC has issued guidelines to incorporate Human Values and Professional Ethics in higher education institutions across India. Taking further inspiration from something IIITH started in 2009, the UGC has also made traditional attire – the dhotis, sarees, kurta-pyjamas and so on – mandatory during convocation ceremonies for all public and private institutions.

Real Impact
The goal of all research here is to develop technology and to translate it into tangible products that can benefit society. Whether it is an effort to make roads in Nagpur and Telangana safer through the predictive power of AI, or an attempt to assess the structural safety of buildings in Uttarakhand using drones, an effort to shorten the lifecycle of the typical drug discovery process through the use of computational drug discovery techniques, or an initiative to create Indian language Wikipedia content, or even a platform used by Project Tiger to conserve the big cats and their habitat, the trail leads back to the hallowed portals of the institute. There is active encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit too through Product Labs and the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) on campus. The institute has given the world over 50 start-ups directly contributing to job creation and nation building.

Trailblazing Alumni
If the achievements of IIITH alumni are any metric to gauge the success of the institute until now, one doesn’t have to look too far because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. With the twin virtues of a solid value system and exacting academic standards, graduates of the institute currently grace the top-echelons of industry, academia and the social sector alike. From heading various positions at places like Facebook Workspace, Intel, Nokia and others to becoming faculty at prestigious universities such as University of Berkeley, Stanford, Oxford, IISc, and so on, IIITH alumni are also creating ripples in the administrative circles with a good number of them going on to become IAS officers.

The International Institute of Information Technology Hyderabad may well have played a part in the creation of Cyberabad but it’s claim to fame goes far beyond that. It has been instrumental in the public private partnership (PPP) model being proposed by the Government as an important strategy in the Eleventh Five Year Plan. As part of that, 20 IIITs were set up across the nation with partial support from the government. As we celebrate the 25th year of its glorious existence, rest assured that it will continue to blaze a trail.

Sarita Chebbi is a compulsive early riser. Devourer of all news. Kettlebell enthusiast. Nit-picker of the written word especially when it’s not her own.



  1. Very well documented and I am sure will help inspire Academic Leaders and administrators.

    Prashanth Arutla says:
  2. Great instituition, wish to join here! 25

    Kushagra Shukla says:

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