Lalit Mohan Sanagavarapu gives up a plum job to deep dive into academics at the pinnacle of his career. He resurfaces with a Ph. D from IIITH in an emerging field in software engineering. Did he get back the controls of a hi-flying corporate career, after a 5-year sabbatical? Find out.
Dr. Lalit Mohan Sanagavarapu’s recent appointment in April 2021 as Sr. Vice President at Wells Fargo India is a direct consequence of his Ph. D in domain specific search engine and his prior expertise at IDRBT, contextualized to information security areas.
As 2015 drew to a close, Lalit quit his job at IDRBT (an establishment of the Reserve Bank of India) to become a full-time Ph. D scholar. He joined IIIT Hyderabad’s SERC (Software Engineering Research Center) to pursue research in crowdsourcing and later focused on a DST funded project to develop an approach for a domain specific search engine.
Dropping the bomb on the family
Lalit was at the height of his career when he moved away from industry. “I was probably at the best of my form, with two cars and a plush house” said Lalit. There came a point when he decided to take a step back from the frantic pace of corporate life to see if he had what it took, to pursue a Ph.D. Though his parents were initially taken aback, they stood by him and his wife was extremely supportive.
Lalit Mohan credits his early years of rigorous training at Infosys, working on projects for Microsoft, the World Bank and an offshore stint in the US with making him ready for his next career leap. In 2007, Lalit was among the first 10 employees to join the founding team at Wells Fargo India. “I started as a technology manager and ended as the Vice president, leading a team of 300+ people. But at one point, I wanted to do something for my country”, reflected Lalit.
He joined IDRBT (Institute for Development and Research in Banking Technology), established by the RBI and for the next few years, he would work on creating platforms and services for the Indian banking community. This was at a time when the Cloud was in its nascent stage. “We set up a community cloud dedicated to banks, to help smaller banks offer payment systems via the community cloud; probably the first in the world, in 2013 -15”, said Lalit.
He was also part of the team that set up Information Sharing and Analysis Centre for Indian Banks (IB-CART), the first centre of this kind in India. This came out of India’s National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection centre (NCIIPC) mandate. Lalit was one of the Co-Principal Investigators for the IDRBT-led initiative of setting up India’s first 5G Use Case Lab.
Lalit completed a 2-year PG Diploma in Cyber laws and Intellectual property rights from the University of Hyderabad, with distinction. It was all the validation he needed to take the leap into a full-time Ph.D program at IIITH.
SIREN call for a domain specific search engine
Lalit was working with academic faculty on an IDRBT project when the Ph. D bug bit him. At around the same time, his wife Dr. Sreedevi (Faculty at NIT Warangal) was wrapping up her Ph.D at the University of Hyderabad.
Lalit’s research thesis dovetailed well with IIIT’s ongoing research in developing domain specific search engine for Information Security (SIREN). The idea for his thesis actually struck him when he observed that banks were spending almost $150,000 per annum per bank on getting credible threat intelligence and cyber security.
“Lalit’s three primary contributions to overall research were in the areas of crawler efficiency, ontology enrichment and credibility”, said Prof. Raghu Reddy, head of SERC. Crawler efficiency looked at efficient information retrieval/ extraction, measuring the usefulness of data extracted and validation of the content and data sets which is then represented in graphical form. “I worked on ontology enrichment, scaling the data for larger queries and making it available for reasoning and interoperability”, explained Lalit. Credibility assessment looked at evaluating relevant data through genre selection and giving it flexibility to use as a plugin or to optimize the search results. The quality principles and approach to validation is the industry-view that Lalit brought to the large landscape.
Micro Living for the corporate honcho
“Stepping down, I had to embrace a life of micro living. I sold my car, cutting out all impulsive purchases, fine dining and vacations. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t know if I could be a differentiator going forward”, mused Lalit. The initial two years was rough since he was returning to academics after an 18-year gap. It was a challenge, not only from the income perspective, but also the long classroom sessions and pulling overnighters. “Every weekend I would wrestle with my conscience, if I should go on or quit”, chuckled Lalit.
“There were always going to be ups and downs. But he was still able to reach his aspirations, while getting things done for his family and juggling his academic workload, maintaining relationships with prior colleagues and taking on technical consulting. His hard work is definitely an inspiration, even for me”, said Prof. Reddy.
Lalit was Integration Coordinator at the IIITH Virtual Labs (2016 – 2019). “This was the early days of my Ph.D when I had started micro-living and my curd-rice came through Virtual Labs” he said with a laugh. His responsibility in the MHRD funded, pan-India initiative was to integrate 100+ laboratories of the 11 Institute consortium into an underlying cloud platform and to make it optimally available to all. “Given his background in Cloud computing, this was a natural fit for him”, observed Prof. Reddy. He also took up a few technical consultancies for the Telangana Industrial Health Clinic Limited and SRiX – SR Innovation Exchange during his Ph.D program.
Learning outcomes from SERC
“IIITH taught me to use a framework to handle any problem, in work and in life”, observed Lalit. How do you assess the problem, break it down to its components, gather the literature, find the gaps and separate the chaff from the relevant? The deep learning came from Prof. Raghu Reddy, Prof. Vasudeva Verma and other faculty at SERC. “Lalit had an industry background that tends to use a lot of buzzwords while academia focuses more on the specifics and theory. Where I tried to help him was in the transition from industry to academic mode, while at the same time, not letting him forget that practice is more important” explained Prof. Raghu Reddy, the mentor who Lalit Mohan considers his ‘Guru for Life’.
Apart from landing a sweet role as Senior VP Research and Innovation at Wells Fargo, Lalit avers that the Ph.D garnered him a lot of respect. He has high praise for his mentor Prof. Raghu Reddy, Prof. Venkatesh Choppella and Prof. C.V Jawahar. He ranks IIITH’s faculty as among the finest in the world. What he liked most at IIIT-H is the openness and keen interest to push the boundaries and come up with out-of-the-box projections.
A confluence of influence
Born into a traditional middle class family with deep roots in Eluru in Andhra Pradesh, Lalit’s schooling happened across India, wherever his father’s bank job took him. His 4-year B. Tech in Metallurgy at JNTU Hyderabad in 1997 was the first time that he developed roots and took stock of his life.
Lalit lists the birth of his daughter Gayatri, the day he was appointed as Vice President at Wells Fargo and the day he successfully defended his Ph.D as the three most memorable moments in his life. He is fond of Carnatic music and has recently picked up gardening as a hobby, experimenting with cultivation of indigenous plants.
Lalit’s secret sauce through the roller coaster ride that he calls Life, is his calm demeanour. “Hard work and keeping it simple has worked for me’, he said. Like Pullela Gopichand once told him, ‘Everyone gives 100%. The world is looking at the guy who gives 102%’.