The Current Education System is Dead

I don’t think this article will tread new ground, but its an attempt at organizing my thoughts.

Observe events of the past few months. We have been forced to go from classroom lectures to online classes  – video recordings of lecturers speaking about their topics. If we have a hypothetical college in Pune with ~400 students in a batch, and therefore ~7 divisions, we suddenly realize that we do not need 7 lectures, but can do with just one. And that one lecture can be conducted by the most effective teacher. So not only is a lot of labor saved, but students get the best instruction. 

Question: Why not do this as a practice, if there are benefits all around? Why subjugate students to sub-standard teaching?

Thinking further, extend this to all colleges in Pune. Get the best teacher for each topic, and we only need one lecturer and students get the best of Pune, not just the best of their college. 

Question: What differentiator is a college providing to justify locking in students to only their offering?

And naturally, why limit ourselves to Pune? Why not get the best teacher in the entire world?


There are two additional factors to take into consideration. 

First, evaluations. How do we give feedback to students so that they understand how much they have learned, and what they need to focus on (this is should be the primary goal of evaluations)?

Second, degrees. What purpose do they serve?


This leads me to wonder why we even have colleges and universities in today’s day and age. Companies have their own criteria for evaluating applicants, and if they use college scores at all, it is as a filter (which is pretty stupid!). There are many that conduct tests online, so it doesn’t matter where you studied, but what you know (see Hackerrank for continuous iterations of this). 

So:

  • I can attend courses online, learning from the best teachers in the world. In some cases, I can learn the same subject from multiple teachers, to get different perspectives, and deepen my understanding.
  • I can engage with mentors who have the right research, academic and industry experience to guide the subjects that I focus on.
  • I can build a portfolio of projects to demonstrate my capabilities. I can contribute to world-class open source projects so that I am gain experience working in teams large and small.

Why do I need to attend college at all?

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Identifying/Creating the Right Opportunity

What would you prefer:

  • Apply to any and all openings, and be forced to ‘accept’ the first offer that you get, or
  • Identify the right place for you, and proactively create your opportunities therein?

How can you go about getting the ‘right’ internship? It depends on what ‘right’ is — so the first thing to do is be clear about what you are (or are not!) looking for (see this previous article). Once you have this down, its time to search for opportunities that match your targets.

…Which is pretty much not going to work!

In my experience, you will not have much success if you look for opportunities. You don’t get opportunities by searching, you have to create them.

This process can be divided into the following factors:

  • What capabilities does your target internship require?
  • Who are the people and companies that you would like to work with?
  • When should you start
  • How do you create your opportunities?

Let’s dive into these.

Your internship is a combination of contributions and learning. A company is more interested in the former than the latter, and the more you can position yourself as someone who is going to contribute, the better chance you have of landing your opportunity. How can you position yourself thusly? Easy — figure out the skills that are needed and develop these. This does not mean getting certificates or doing well in exams; it is being able to demonstrably solve problems in your domain. Make a list of expected skills, learn, practice, and enhance these skills and showcase them.

Do you have a GitHub repository with all the projects that you have worked on?

Next, identify your targets – and I don’t mean the companies that you want to work at, but rather, the experience you want to gain. This goes back to having a clear idea of what you want to achieve with your internship. Once you have this, you can filter openings based on your goals. Speak with friends who have done internships and learn from their experiences. An internship at a large firm is going to vary drastically from division to division, and big names are not necessarily the best options.

If you are looking for a summer internship and start thinking about the process in, say, January….. you’re too late! Building the skills needed takes practice, which needs time. Creating a portfolio to showcase capabilities is a long-term and continuous activity. Determining what you really want is not a five-minute thought experiment.

Finally, how do you create your opportunities? This is the part that most separates the successful, effective students from everyone else. You have to build a network. Reach out to people and start having conversations with them. This is not asking for internships, but reaching out for advice, mentorship, and learning. Keep in mind that most people are busy, but are willing to help – as long as it’s not a waste of time. So when you connect with anyone, be clear and upfront about what you are looking for, and if possible, offer something in return. You will be surprised at the response that you get. And you will be amazed at the doors that your network can open for you.

Apply the perspective above to building your network — what do you need (be interesting), who should you approach (begin with invited speakers and visitors to your college) and when should you start (early).


In general, I have found that success comes to those who consciously pursue their goals. Some students “get” the right opportunity, and are labeled “lucky,” but luck has very little to do with it. Look behind the curtain and you’ll see initiative and effort.

I’ll end with two contradictory pieces of advice:

  • once you are clear on what your goals are, don’t settle, have the courage to say ‘nyet.’
  • if you are in an internship that is not to your liking, convert it into something that you gain from. There’s a skill that will make you a 10x contributor.
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My (Evolving) Intern Selection Strategy

This is part of a series of articles on internships. Previous posts talked about the motivations of doing and offering internships (Why Intern?) and my motivations for taking on interns (Why I Work With Interns). This one is about how I go about deciding whether you are the right candidate.

First a bit of background — I’ve been fortunate to go through the Shell assessment training program, where we went through the philosophy of a good assessment and how to go about making the right decisions in a structured, objective, non-judgemental, unbiased manner. This helped me to formulate necessary and sufficient characteristics of good interns and how to evaluate these qualities in candidates.

Unfortunately, trying to do this in an interview is too time-consuming, hazardous, and ends up being imprecise. Basically, a 1-hour conversation is insufficient, and multiplying this by the number of candidates is inefficient. 

In order to rectify this, I tried doing a ‘pre-internship’, where I invited students to work with me and then we would decide if we wanted to continue. This didn’t work out too well for a number of reasons that I shall not go into here.

My current approach is to create a bunch of filters to make things easier for me and students interested in an internship.

Filter 1: Technical capability

I ask students to work on a small problem based on their area of interest. This is not a pass/fail test! I am more interested in understanding how students went about researching a new topic, developed an understanding of the problem, and developed a solution and how they solved or tried to implement the solution. Thus far, I’ve asked students to work on:

  • digit recognition using vector distances
  • AGM visualization of across a range of (pairs of) numbers
  • simulate and visualize the behavior of an RC circuit to a step input

They get a week to work on a problem, and I encourage them to consult google, Wikipedia, etc. but to implement their solution themselves. I don’t think these are challenging, and an internship would need (at a minimum) the ability to solve these problems. 

There has been a spectrum of responses:

  • Some students don’t respond — I guess they find this too difficult, or it is out of their interest
  • Some do work on it, but struggle, and realize that maybe this isn’t for them
  • Some of the outcomes are not up to snuff, so I gently suggest that they work on their basic skills and re-apply
  • Some don’t solve these but demonstrate the ability to independently pursue new areas and come up with innovative approaches
  • Some do a fantastic job, and we have great conversations around their ideas and implementations

Note that, once again, solving a problem or not does not guarantee or disqualify you from an internship. 

The only thing I don’t like about this is that it is a ‘negative’ filter that removes candidates, but so be it! This has saved me untold hours, and has resulted in a few interns that I’m excited to work with!

Filter 2: GitHub

This has not been too useful. My goal is to understand if you have been working consistently on any area and to take a peek at your code. Unfortunately, students don’t have the discipline of using a repository; many don’t even have a github account! 

In addition to technical capability, this also helps surface other qualities that I am looking for. More when I write about this in a future post.

Filter 3: Your CV

Your resume says a lot about you:

  • Are there any simple grammatical/spelling errors? It’s perfectly fine to not be proficient in English, but there are so many tools that highlight these. If you cannot take care of the document that represents you, I don’t have much confidence that you will take care of a document that represents your project!
  • Is it formatted well? I’m not looking for artistic designs, but I do expect a minimal level of consistency
  • What are the things that you are most proud of? And do these matter to a successful internship?

Filter 4: Your email/message

I do not use this as a filter, but including it here as food for thought.

Unsolicited emails convey a lot in terms of how you introduce yourself, and how you express your goals, interests, and motivations. 

Responses to presentations/LinkedIn posts/Articles are fascinating. I explicitly ask for certain pieces of information, and most respond appropriately. Others just say ‘Interested.’ This signals that you are unable to follow simple requests, and can be a pretty powerful filter as well. 


Share your thoughts on this approach! If you are a student who has gone through this process, I’m very keen on understanding your perspective.

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Why I Work With Interns

This is part of a series of articles on internships. A previous post talked about the motivations of doing and offering internships (Why Intern?). In this article, I discuss my motivations for taking on interns.

This is very much about my perspectives. If you are interested in interning with me, my hope is that this helps you understand my motivations, which will lead to better outcomes for everyone. If you are not interning with me, these points will help you think about what you could look for from an internship.

  1. When I was in my last year of engineering, I realized I did not have a clue what a job would entail. My father was at that time retired from the Indian Navy and was working in the Merchant Navy, so his experience wasn’t applicable (or so I thought!). I spent quite a bit of time speaking with students who had graduated a year or two before me, going over what their day was like, and while I got some insights, my experience turned out to be completely different. Fast forward to my next few jobs after my M.S. and PhD, and I realize now that my mindset was very restricted. I was heavily focused on ‘what’s in it for me,’ rather than ‘how can I grow the best’ and ‘how can I contribute the most’. The most effective people I have met create their own opportunities, and this comes about by thinking very differently.So: one motivation for taking on interns is the conceit that I can help students be better prepared for their careers by inculcating better work habits and disciplines that I had when I started out.
  2. One reason I quit my job was the desire to change the world. I see an opportunity to do so by coaching students to be more effective. The good students will anyway figure things out by themselves, but if I can hasten the process for a few and create awareness in the rest, mission accomplished!

The next few motivations are more selfish in nature:

  1. There are many, many areas to explore, and I can only do so much by myself. Plus, my biggest contribution now is at the larger idea-framing (or definition) stage, rather than in the nuts and bolts implementation. With students, I can do much more than what I would be able to do on my own.
  2. Brainstorming different areas with students creates more opportunities. Explaining and understanding ideas lead to new insights that I otherwise would not have.
  3. I get to learn new technologies and perspectives.

And finally, the biggest reason why I take on interns is it’s a lot of fun!

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Why Intern?

This is the fundamental question, one that unfortunately nobody pays any attention to! I think there are two important perspectives:

The Student’s Perspective

Because it is needed, either mandated as part of the syllabus, or because it will look good on your resume, or it may lead to a job without the hassle of campus interviews, or the chance to earn some money. All valid reasons, and if any of these are why you are looking for an internship, you should look for one that meets these goals.

However, there are many more benefits from an internship!

  • You get exposure to working in an industrial setting. This is significantly different from what you do in academia
  • You get to test whether your chosen field is a good fit for you
  • If you are interested in a different domain, you get to try it out, at relatively low cost (its easier to switch out of an area after one internship, much harder if you’re in a job)
  • You get a feel for different parts of a business, what they are, how they interact and how your contributions can have an impact. No amount of reading books can substitute for experience! 
  • You get to understand the differences within roles. As an example, there are different kinds of developers: you could be developing the platform or applications on top of the platform. To be more explicit, do you want to develop SalesForce or a SalesForce app?
  • You get to understand different industries (the difference between IT and CS, for example!)
  • You get to develop your network, possibly get a mentor/s and deepen your self-awareness
  • You get to understand the culture of a workplace
  • You get to try out a company to see if you would want to work there – or not!
  • …. and so on

I highly recommend being clear of your personal motivation for doing an internship and then finding the place that will most likely meet your expectations. Of course, you may not always find something that fits perfectly, but if you are clear on what you are looking for, it is more likely that you will be able to create the opportunity for yourself once you start your internship.

The Company’s Perspective 

Students tend to forget that there are two parties involved in the internship, and a successful internship is one where both get what they wanted out of it. So: what do you think the company is looking for? An internship is expensive not only in terms of money but also in terms of the time that your manager is going to invest in you. Also, given that you are still a student with limited experience, your output will likely not impact the bottom line at all. So…. why do companies do these?

When I used to work, there were a few driving factors:

  • An internship is an extended interview. And it is many orders of magnitude more accurate than an in-depth 1- or 2-day interview can ever be, and covers all technical, personal, leadership and any other aspects that the company may be interested in
  • Many things are not ‘must-have.’ but rather, ‘good to have’. Interns are great at executing these (assuming that they can be sized appropriately)
  • Introducing fresh thinking into the team. 

My motivations for taking interns are a bit different, but that is a topic for the next article!

What would you add to this list – as a student or as a hiring manager? Add your comments below!

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Thoughts on Internships

This is a series of articles on internships. If you are a student planning on interning, I hope this will structure how you look at, how you can make the most of, and how you can have a successful internship.

Potential topics are:

  • Why do an internship?
  • How can I identify the right opportunity?
  • What does success look like?

And, from my perspective:

  • Why I take interns — my motivation
  • What I look for in students 
  • My (evolving) selection strategy

Stay tuned!

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आपकी नज़रों ने समझा

Are there any lines more beautiful than these?

Penned by Madan Mohan and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan

आपकी नज़रों ने समझा / प्यार के काबिल मुझे
दिल की ऐ धड़कन ठेहर जा / मिल गयी मंजिल मुझे
आपकी नज़रों ने समझा
 
जी हमें मंज़ूर है / आपका ये फैसला
केह रही है हर नज़र / बन्दा परवर शुक्रिया
हँस के अपनी ज़िन्दगी में /कर लिया शामिल मुझे
दिल की ऐ धड़कन ठेहर जा / मिल गयी मंजिल मुझे
आपकी नज़रों ने समझा
 
आपकी मंज़िल हूँ मैं / मेरी मंज़िल आप हैं
क्यों मैं तूफाँ से डरूँ / मेरा साहिल आप हैं
कोई तूफानों से कह दे / मिल गया साहिल मुझे
दिल की ऐ धड़कन ठेहर जा / मिल गयी मंजिल मुझे
आपकी नज़रों ने समझा
 
पड़ गई दिल पर मेरे / आपकी परछाईयाँ
हर तरफ बजने लगीं / सैकड़ों शहनाईयां
दो जहां की आज खुशियाँ / हो गईं हासिल मुझे
दिल की ऐ धड़कन ठेहर जा / मिल गयी मंजिल मुझे
आपकी नज़रों ने समझा
 
The original was sung by Lata Mangeshkar, but also see the amazing Shreya Ghoshal + Berklee interpretation here
 
One history is this is sung by a devotee to the guru – fits perfectly as well as a lover to another. 
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Scaling Challenges for MOOCs

I’ve been a massive fan of MOOCs ever since they started, and have personally leveraged the opportunity to the fullest (though it did take some time to figure out how to complete a course, versus starting one!). Students get to learn from the best educators in a variety of different subjects (sometimes they (the teachers) are also from the top universities) for free or for a nominal cost. What’s not to like?

These days Universities are moving from offering individual courses, or ‘micro-master’s’ programs to offering full-fledged online Masters Degrees. These are equivalent to what one would obtain by physically attending the college (the certificate does not distinguish between online and in-person), but this also requires a lot more rigor in evaluating students who attend online, a point that I come back to below. 

I’ve seen quite a transition from a video recording of the teacher with slides/monitor on the side to attempts using Microsoft Kinect. And there’s the disconcerting trend where the instructor writes on a board facing us, but we see things the right way (I haven’t quite figured out how that is done). However, at its core, the model is unchanged: the lecturer lectures and we watch them online, rather than being physically present in the classroom. The watching is done at our convenience and pace, and we can rewind and rewatch what we want. MOOCs are making knowledge accessible, but I don’t think we’ve actually used technology to develop a new way of instruction.

I’d like to focus on a few aspects of scale — the ‘Massive’ part of MOOCs. How do these courses deal with the sheer number of students enrolled, and how do they impart the best possible instruction?

The first, obvious, observation is that there are numerous platforms available (edX, Coursera, Udemy, etc.) that take care of the bureaucratic stuff: accounts, logins, billing, tracking, etc.) and the technology (videos, tests, etc.), so these don’t have to be redeveloped for each course. And yes, there are no scaling limits here. 

The second aspect of scale is that of content delivery. Lectures are recorded and available at all times. We don’t need to have all students in the same location (or online) at the same time. Since the model is different from a physical classroom, the limitations of a physical classroom are dealt away with. This is a solved problem.

The third aspect of scale is where things get interesting, and is that of student evaluation. The original MOOCs (and I suspect, most of the current generation) used to limit themselves to quizzes that consisted of multiple-choice questions. Some were embedded in the videos. These are, of course, easy to grade automatically. Others allow text boxes to enter (numerical) values, and sometimes $\LaTeX$ formatted answers, but these take a bit of getting used to. I have also seen some that require essay-type answers, these are peer evaluation, which I thought was a good way to address the problems of scale, but this seems to have gone down – a failed experiment, perhaps?

Back to the degree-granting MOOCs (can I call them that?): they decided the only way of evaluating students was the traditional way of evaluating students, namely, have them write an exam they way they normally would. So…

students turn on their webcams, rotate them around the room to prove that there is nobody around helping them, and keep these on and focused on them for the duration of the test. I believe the microphone is kept on as well. And there is a person on the other end of the connection keeping an eye on the student! Holy 19th-century non-scalable solutions, Batman!!!

This is a great opportunity for an unskilled proctor who otherwise would not have gainful employment. I have no idea how much they make, and what trauma they go through, having to spend their waking hours watching students bent over exam books.

The final aspect of scaling is that when we have essay-type questions (say, ‘develop an algorithm to do x’), a human grader is going through these and assigning scores. Even if we overload a poor TA with 100 exams, the larger the course, the correspondingly larger staff needed to manage just the grading. 

I think we’ve been going about this the wrong way. We’ve been trying to replicate what we do offline to the online world, which leads to issues like the above. How might we look at this from a fresh perspective? Glad you asked!

  • Goal: Provide feedback to the student on which areas they are doing well and areas for improvement. This is (or should be) the only reason to conduct exams, but that is fodder for another article. A secondary goal is to provide a normalized score that accurately captures the student’s capabilities in the subject. Ultimately, we would like to measure how much a student has learnt.
  • The means of measurement have to be scalable. It should work across thousands or tens of thousands of students. 
  • It should not be possible (too restrictive? Maybe it should be very difficult) to game the measurement

We can think about how technology can solve these issues once we have clarity on what we are trying to solve!

Thoughts?

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Internships!

I’ve had great fun in the last year with a fantastic group of interns (Dhanashree Bajoriya, Kimaya Badhe, Himaja Chandaluri, Neha Choudhari, Akansha Dakre, Sonali Jeswani, Samruddhi Kanhed, Nayana Mangalpalli, Kanchan Sarolkar, Shraddha Vibhandik) and the year before that working on Blockchain with Shikhar Bhatt, Kailash Gaur and Sumit Hotchandani). Oh, and we got some great outcomes along the way.

I plan to continue this year as well, and I’m looking for students who have the drive and desire to change the world. 

Some of the projects that are on tap are:

  • Font Generation and related ideas: A patent has already been filed and another is in the pipeline. Key technologies are eye tracking, gaze estimation, and data analytics. 
  • Pollution Monitoring: This is funded by an emergent ventures grant, and further development is planned including productizing and operationalizing the project. Key technologies are IoT, Cloud, ML and data analytics, and visualisation.
  • New Interfaces: Specifically voice (Alexa, Siri, etc), but possibly others such as eye-tracking (see the first bullet)
  • Mobile App Development: Implementing and rolling out 3 specific ideas around pollution, traffic and learning.

There are many non-technical advantages of working with me – you’ll get to learn a lot more than just the above technologies. And we’ll have fun along the way. Speak with the previous interns to find out more!

If you are the kind of person who does what they are asked to do, this is not the right place for you. On the other hand, if you are excited by new opportunities, have a burning desire to change the world, can take the initiative to develop solutions and want to learn, drop me a mail! Send me your resume, interests, what you’ve done in the past and why you think you’re right for the role. 

I’m also specifically looking for an intern from management/marketing. Drop me a mail if you are such a person.

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