IIITH Student Snags Competitive Inaugural MLH Fellowship

In response to the thousands of globally lost student internships due to Covid-19, Major League Hacking (MLH) has teamed up with a group of companies such as Facebook, Amazon Web Services, PlutoVR, Indeed, Royal Bank of Canada and many such others, to offer a unique apprenticeship. Meet Jivitesh Jain, 2nd year CSE student and part of the inaugural batch of 144 MLH fellows who tells you what it’s like. 

Jivitesh Jain, second year CSE student was all set to go to Bangalore this summer for his research internship at IISc when the pandemic struck. “The internship didn’t get cancelled as such. It’s on hold until things normalize. I was given a virtual option as well but it didn’t really work out,” he says of how he was left with nothing to do this Summer. Lost internships and jobs were a worldwide trend which led Major League Hacking (MLH) to create an alternative to the traditional internship program – the MLH Fellowship. For the uninitiated, MLH is a company that organizes and supports student-led hackathons. The unique part of the fellowship is that since MLH works with GitHub sponsors who are located across 32 regions worldwide, the program reaches out to a global pool of open source enthusiasts. When applications for the 3-month fellowship were thrown open in May, MLH reported being inundated with over 20,000 resumes.

Selection Process

Admittedly a part of the selection criteria took into account a previously held internship opportunity that was lost. In addition to that, prior exposure to working on open source projects helped. In Jivitesh’s case, his first experience with open source came in the second semester thanks to a course titled Introduction to Software Systems. “IIITH runs the VLabs initiative which deals in open source software, so I worked there,” he says. Even after that he continued to make some open source contributions on his own accord in the second year. For selection to the fellowship, there were two rounds of interviews based on the information provided in the resume itself, such as assignments and projects undertaken. However, Jivitesh adds that apart from academics itself, due to the collaborative nature of open source, the recruiters are looking out for soft skills such as the ability to work in a team, lead efforts and so on. “You have to work with and talk with a lot of people who own and maintain the projects. My experience in extra-curricular activities did count I guess,” he says. Jivitesh is not only actively involved in the affairs of the Entrepreneurial or E-cell on campus, he is also the coordinator of the Arts Society of the institute. The artist in him can often be found sketching or perfecting his pencil shading techniques. As a fresher on campus, he discovered the Arts Society whose meets he began to frequent in a bid to unwind from the academic stress. “Eventually in the second year, I was asked if I wanted to be a coordinator,” he says, going on to explain how he was involved in organizing all the events that are typically held such as water colour and origami workshops, as well as the hugely popular wall painting during Felicity. “This year we painted 16 walls, and this includes the back of the amphitheatre, several of the walls in front of Kadamb as well as the entire wall along the football field,” he reveals.

MLH Project: Julia 

Under the mentorship of professional software engineers, all MLH fellows are currently contributing to open source projects used by companies and professionals worldwide. Selected fellows are divided into smaller groups of 10 or 12 popularly known as pods. Everyone in a pod works on same or similar projects, under the close supervision of a full-time mentor. The pods are created based on their knowledge, interest, as well as time zones in which they are located. While the fellows are asked to fill out a preference form, there is no guarantee of being assigned preferred projects. Jivitesh and others in his pod are working on Julia – a programming language intended for scientific and mathematical programming. “Because it is mathematical computing, my group is basically involved in a lot of ML applications. I’m specifically working on the image processing library of the Julia language itself. And that includes adding features. My first assignment was to add a new metric for measuring the structural similarities between 2 images. It’s called a structural similarity index, and has arisen out of a recent research paper,” explains Jivitesh. Apart from adding new features, the pod also works on fixing old issues, making improvements, and so on.

For someone who never knew Julia before the internship, being asked to work on the language came as a huge shock. “The first week, I was quite freaked out,” confesses Jivitesh. Not only that, he was very new to Machine Learning too. “I took my first baby steps into ML only last semester with an introductory course,” he says, adding that everyone else around him was quite experienced with it. Not only were they senior to him – 3rd year or 4th year students, with some of them even being Masters students, but he says, “We had people who had worked on projects that came out of research papers, that seemed out of Iron Man movies, people who had been contributing to Julia regularly. They were the ones who had gone to the official annual Julia conference.” To top it, the Julia programming language is supported by MIT and researchers from there review the code sometimes. Despite the initial panic, Jivitesh learned the ropes quickly enough and began contributing to the project. This, he attributes to the way they are taught at IIITH. “A lot of our assignments seem like this; they have never been taught to us in class. They just give you an assignment and you have to figure it out, and learn on your own. Basically the concepts remain the same even if the language is different,” he says.

Not A Typical Corporate Internship

According to Jivitesh, the biggest difference (and a welcome one at that!) between this fellowship and a routine corporate internship is the nature of the work itself – contributing to open source software. Another is the presence of full-time mentors. While MLH assigns mentors, it doesn’t own the open source projects. Therefore the primary role of the mentors is to oversee the projects and help the fellows. “Available throughout the day on text channels, mentors look at things from our point of view as well. For instance, they understand that I’m new to Julia and let me take it slow wherever needed,” says Jivitesh. Each work day is kicked off with a meeting in the morning where they discuss the previous day’s progress, plans for the current day and pitch in with help if there’s a glitch. At this fellowship, the emphasis is on learning, which Jivitesh likes to underscore. “This is so important because internships are meant for us to learn more than anything else. It’s an experience that you do not get in college; that of actually seeing how things work in the real world,” he says.

Not All Work

To accommodate interns from different time zones, fun activities and educational talks are scheduled through out the day, some even twice. Talks on career paths, personal experiences of people who have worked in the open source world either in small startups or large companies are held providing valuable life lessons to the interns. Since MLH deals with students and university organisations in the US and Europe, interns also get access to the workshops and events that are routinely held such as hackathons.

Global Culture

Interacting with a global team is a daily lesson in soft skills. Besides learning to respect differences in time zones, one also learns to respect different cultures and ideologies. “We’ve to talk to a lot of people we’ve never interacted with before and we’ve to work with them for 3 months. From watching them fail miserably in trying to pronounce our names (!) to making sure to keep sensitive issues out of conversations, we learn how to communicate effectively via text because text doesn’t convey emotions accurately and there are high chances of getting misunderstood.” In Jivitesh’s case, with fellow podsters hailing from Pakistan, Nepal, and New Zealand, discussions rally forth on a vast range of topics from coding to music and even coffee. “There’s a separate place where you can discuss coffee!”

An Engineer’s Purpose

For Jivitesh, it took the fellowship for him to appreciate the power of open source. Speaking about how open source is not restricted to a particular team of engineers, he extolls its collaborative virtues. “Issues are discovered faster because anybody in the world can look at the code and see what is wrong. It’s transparency enables you to see what the application is doing behind the scenes. This is probably the reason why even big IT giants invest in open source.” He may probably be echoing his peers thoughts when he says that as an engineer-in-the-making, one of the nicest feelings is when something you build is used by others for the first time. “The quickest way to get this feeling is through open source. We work on complex assignments and projects for a large part of our courses but there are only two people who see those apart from us – the TA who is evaluating it and the plagiarism software that is used,” he remarks wryly. While contributing to open source however, he mentions mixed feelings –  a blend of happiness and responsibility. “You are elated but afraid at the same time that the code might break. I am now contributing to a programming language which is used for scientific and mathematical programming so scientists, researchers would be using the metric that I helped in coding – which is potentially millions of people. Sometime in the future, I might be using this language myself and in particular, the metric I helped build,” he says in conclusion.

Sarita Chebbi is a minimalist runner, practising yogi and baker of all things whole-wheat, and sugar-free. Currently re-learning her ABC’s…the one that goes: A for algorithm, B for Bayesian, C for convolutional (neural network)….

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