Tuesday, 4 July 2017

A Story to Tell : My Experience at IIT Roorkee

[This was originally published on Expectations IITR, run by Geek Gazette, just after completing my B.Tech. at IIT Roorkee]

My desk is definitely not this organized

Truly, time flies extremely fast when you are enjoying yourself. These 4 years have been amongst the most memorable ones in my life till date, and have helped me grow as an individual in countless ways. First year was the first time I was staying away from home, for an extended period of time. To make things more challenging, I was at the same school for the previous 12 years! To come to a new place, and not a single familiar face to be found on campus, I definitely was anxious before arriving on campus. But my fears were unfounded, and I quickly found out, that in a campus with thousands of people, there are bound to be those who think alike, and we tend to find each other as time passes.

Amongst my neighbours and branch-mates, I found friends whom I could go for trips and treks with. And since I had a massive collection of movies and TV shows that I'd brought from home on my laptop, frequent marathons were bound to happen. At the time, RJB didn't have a good internet connection (NoLAN, as we liked to call it), and so we ended up purchasing an Ethernet switch, and long LAN cables, so that we could all play Counter Strike. Even then, it was often more fun to just move chairs into a single room, and continuously curse while shooting in either de_dust2 or $1000$.

Soon enough after joining IITR, different campus groups started their recruitment sessions. After asking around, doing some reading, and understanding what the different groups do, I decided to apply to only two -- Geek Gazette and SDS PAG. GG was a place for the geeks of the campus to unite, and try to change the world, one bit at a time. As I had tried writing short stories in the past, I applied as an editor to the magazine. It was during the interviews that I realised, that I had found my kind -- people who are extremely (almost obsessively) passionate about gaining knowledge about the things they love, and like to share those things with the world. Over time though, for me, it grew into a family where I could implicitly trust everyone in it. Other than GG, I applied and got selected into SDS PAG, which seemed like an obvious choice for me, since I had already been doing competitive programming since class 11 (Informatics Olympiads etc). Here was a place I found people like me, who lived on the "adrenaline rush" of solving puzzles and challenges through the use of logic, algorithms, and code.

Academics, of course, went on, alongside all these amazing things, but overall, I didn't find it too much of a burden. As long as I stayed awake in class, I was able to manage great grades without needing to spend too much extra effort outside of class. And the great thing was, we only had ~25 contact hours a week, which meant that I could do a lot more than just merely academics. Hence, apart from all that I was doing, I decided to take a shot at open-source development. One of my seniors had said "doing a Google Summer of Code in first year is impossible", and I just couldn't accept this as true. After a few months of intense work, I got selected into, and that is how I spent most of my summer after 1st year (and the first couple of months of 2nd year) -- working on the open-source network security scanner, Nmap. It was an amazing experience, and I got to work with some of the most amazing developers and security enthusiasts. Even though it was not required, it was so much fun that I was spending over 70 hours a week!

In a few months though, once the GSoC period was complete, I realised how tiring pure development could be. Additionally, 2nd year had begun, and with it, came a whole bunch of new hobbies. This is when I first heard of CTFs -- a Capture The Flag contests, where many challenges are given to hack into, legally. This seemed like awesome fun, and with a few friends, I decided to try it out. Little did I know, at the time, how important this would turn out to be. Soon enough, we were starting to get relatively decent at this "new" field, and we started taking part in national level competitions -- our first, being Deloitte CCTC, where we went and won! The thrill of breaking into software was something my teammates and I got addicted to, and over time, it decided the fate of our careers. However, at the time, it was merely a hobby.

As a serious career prospect, I was considering research in Computer Science, but was unsure of the sub-field. One of the professor's course was really fun, and I decided to ask him for some research project work. Prof Bala suggested that I work with him, and Prof Partha (who had newly joined the department), on a topic in Image Processing and Computer Vision -- Scene Text Segmentation. This led me on a long journey of actually learning what research entails -- lots and lots of failed attempts, and that one final satisfying"Aha!" moment. It was great, and for the 2nd year summer, I decided to apply for foreign university internships in the field. Maybe it was bad timing, or maybe I needed to learn more, or maybe... -- whatever the reason -- I was met with mainly unanswered emails, and the occasional rejection. I took these rejections, at the time, as a way to have some extra focus on the project at hand. Over the course of the summer, with more improvements, I was able to obtain publishable results, and decided to write a research paper about it. It was accepted at the Asian Conference on Pattern Recognition, and I ended up travelling to Malaysia in the 3rd year to present it. That trip was amazing, and I still tend to use one of the photos clicked there as a profile picture on some websites.

As part of enjoying life though, I think my friends and I had matured by then, and had started going for longer treks, and started playing "serious" games such as AoE2. Of course, a trebuchet is the weapon of choice to lay a siege with, since it utilises a counterweight to launch a 90kg projectile over 300m! Obviously, it is superior to the measly catapult, but I digress.

By the time 3rd year rolled around, I was made the president of GG, and with that, came a whole slew of new experiences and responsibilities. I was able to lead an amazing team, with great friends by my side. Frankly, it was something I thoroughly enjoyed. It did take up basically all the time I had available, but I still managed to get a lot of other things done too. One of these, was to start up a new group on campus for security enthusiasts like me. This was the birth of SDS InfoSecIITR -- a group conducive to hackers, with the purpose of pushing IITR's security culture to new heights, mainly through conducting and taking part in CTFs.

While InfoSecIITR was still in its infancy, we were still trying to figure out what might be the best way forward. However, with the experience of leading GG, I had realised that we need to strike the right balance between planning and action, in order to get optimal results. Too much planning and it is a waste of time, and it is the same for unplanned action. With this in mind, we began to come up with a rudimentary plan of action with only a small number of members (though it was an open group and anyone could join). Over time though, as 4th year rolled by, it would grow by leaps and bounds (with over 100 first yearites showing up for some meetings), and we would have come up with a much more concrete plan of what to do next.

As we started taking part in more and more CTFs over the year, I realised that there were some teams, at an international level, that did consistently well. One of these is PPP -- a team from the Carnegie Mellon University, that has consistently won almost all the most difficult CTFs that happen each year. Looking into their structure (mainly to figure out how to help InfoSecIITR progress more), I found that it has a faculty advisor who does research in the same field -- software security. Wait, seriously?! You could take this hobby up as a full career? Even though I was reading papers in security before, I had suddenly found out that academia considered this a complete field! After a lot of reading of papers, thinking, and testing some ideas, I decided to apply for a summer research internship under Prof David Brumley -- the aforementioned faculty advisor.

After a bunch of emails back and forth, he was happy to invite me over to CMU for a fully funded summer internship. This intern was arguably the best time I've ever had while working, probably because it didn't feel like work at all. I was helping develop systems to augment humans in finding vulnerabilities in common software. Additionally, this is where I fell in love with using Emacs (it is better than Vim, but I digress again), started loving OCaml, and figured out that this field is probably what I want to continue in for the foreseeable future.

Once back in Roorkee, 4th year began, and with it, came the whole "tension" of applying for further studies. While batch-mates prepared for job interviews, I had decided that I wanted to go for a PhD. Taking up the standardised examinations, asking for letters of recommendation, writing a statement of purpose, updating my resume, filling out forms -- it does turn out to be a very time-consuming task. However, it indeed is a very rewarding task if done right, in two major ways -- it helps you really think about all you have done and what you want to do further in life, and it provides a sense of confidence in knowing that you can really achieve all that you wish to (since you've achieved a lot of what you originally set out to do, and even when goals changed, you've adapted and done well).

Managing time between all these, as well as the Bachelor Thesis Project (BTP), a whole semester flew by almost instantly; all the applications to the 5 institutes I had applied to were also sent. What now?! Then began the long and dreadful wait (at least, as described by others). The last semester of college was one where compared to the previous 7 semesters, I had very little to really do. Academics had gotten very chill, BTP was going fine, campus groups were being handled easy enough, I'd gone on multiple trips/treks, I was taking part in multiple contests, and yet I had time to spare. So I decided that I would spend my free time divided amongst 2 main things -- spending much more time with those I am close to, and helping juniors out on a larger scale.

Over the previous few years, I had formed extremely strong bonds with a lot of people on campus -- people I loved spending time with, whether they were juniors, seniors or batch-mates. However, each of us were busy with our own things until then. Now, with the little bit of extra free time on our hands, we could spend more quality time. Each moment spent definitely becomes more precious, as the time to go apart draws closer.

Apart from this, while I had already been helping juniors out in various ways, mainly through mentoring or just being there for advice when needed, I decided that I should start working on making a larger impact on the general crowd, and help move IITR's culture more towards research. Over the years, I had tried pushing for this culture in as many ways that I could, but now it was time to reach out to as many as possible, before I bid adieu. So, along with others who had done research interns, and others who were doing research, I took a few talks, and reached out to everyone who was interested (even casually) in considering research as a career possibility. Turns out, there are many who want to try things, but just don't know whom to approach. I realised that it became a moral duty for those of us who had been through the pains of starting off, without having any guidance, to actually guide those who wanted to pursue their dreams; and this was amongst the most fulfilling things I have ever done.

While all this was going on, the decision letters started to arrive from the different institutes, and I had gotten selected into 3 really amazing places -- MIT, UCSB, and CMU. And suddenly, I had a problem -- how can you really decide between 3 of the best places for the kind of research I wanted to do? Of course, getting selected into any of these is a matter of joy and pride, but getting into all 3 is a bit of a problem. Of course, it is a good kind of problem to have though. After much deliberation, I decided that I would go with CMU. And with that, began the farewells, of the different campus groups, as well as the department.

It doesn't hit that hard until you reach the point of the farewells, how much you have come to love the time spent over the 4 years. It is at this time that many tend to get emotional since, for some of us, it might be a very very long time until we meet again. Thankfully though, the tradition of dressing up as different characters (such as Jack Sparrow, or Davy Jones), does provide a bit of necessary relief from the otherwise extremely emotionally charged farewell.

However, even after all of this, Roorkee doesn't let you go. The final semester exams, and the final BTP evaluation happen after the farewells, and even after that comes up the extremely amazing tradition of the "no-dues". Most people really understand these pains only when they need to rush through campus, in the hot sweltering sun, just to get a few signatures on pieces of paper that are probably gonna be thrown away in almost no time. Yet there is a kind of fun in everyone cursing the same people and the tradition each year, standing in those long queues, waiting for those coloured slips of paper.

Soon enough though, even that is done, and it comes time to finally say goodbye, and it really breaks my heart to say goodbye. It was an amazing 4 years, and I am going to cherish these memories forever. A lot of the connections and friendships that I have made, cannot even be put into words, but I feel that those are what I am going to remember more than anything else. I believe it is the people, and not the place, that really grows on you.

If I have any advice for 1st yearites, it would be this: across the 4 years, not everything you do has visible benefit, and not everything will get to the resume. Not every part of it needs to be for a predestined goal. Nor does it need to be just smooth-going successes. Do not limit yourself to only academics, but neither let it suffer. You will stumble, and you will struggle, but that is part of the process. You just got to keep your head cool and keep moving forward, trying new things, finding new interests, building strong friendships, and enjoying your time at college. Because as long as you don't waste them, these 4 years are definitely going to become a story to tell.

No comments:

Post a Comment