Search This Blog

Friday, June 23, 2017

IIITD: Information Technology and Social Sciences

This article is about a very exciting program being started by IIIT Delhi this year. If you have done 12th class from a school in Delhi and you were NOT a science student but did study Mathematics, and your aggregate marks (in 5 subjects) is at least 80%, you have a chance of getting admission into this really fantastic combination. But hurry, deadline is tomorrow (24th June), 3PM. (Deadline extended till midnight.) Here is the link to apply online. If you are a Science student and has taken JEE, you can apply for this program through Joint Admissions Counselling website.

This program is a unique combination of Computer Science and Social Science. I am not aware of any other under-graduate program in India with this combination. Of course in US universities (and other places around the world), one could do a double major but such flexibility is missing in Indian universities. And even where such options are available, most students consider studying anything other than Computer Science as waste of time. So, IIIT-Delhi has decided that instead of only offering a regular BTech (CSE) program with options of doing a second major in different disciplines, they will offer programs where the student commits to the second major right at the time of admission. This allows tailoring of program right from the 2nd semester. (There are other programs of this nature: Computer Science and Applied Maths, Computer Science and Design, and there are plans to offer more such programs in future.)

The program requires you to study all the core Computer Science courses, and a few electives in CS, but it also exposes you to social sciences. There are three Social Science streams offered: Economics, Psychology, and Sociology/Anthropology. The student has to choose two streams to do at least four courses in each of them, and do at least one course in the third stream. Besides, there are some foundation courses, and a few electives that have to be done in any social science discipline. (Besides these three disciplines that we will be offering several courses in, we do offer a few courses in Philosophy, Literature, History, and so on.)

Since one of the goals of this program is to produce social scientists who can understand and use computational technologies, the social science content has been chosen with a view that a graduate can seek admission in any reputed Master's level program. So suppose you want to do Masters in Economics, not only you will do minimum 4 courses in Economics compulsorily, but can also choose a few more electives, and with 6-7 courses in Economics, will be ready for admission to the relevant Masters programs.

The society and the industry today desperately need people with such combinations. If one wants to be an entrepreneur, understanding technology is not enough, the exposure to social science is extremely important. The same is true for those who want to be managers and administrators. Even product development will be significantly enhanced if one really understand the society for which that product is being developed. On the other hand, there is a serious need for social scientists who can use Computational technologies to improve our understanding of society. Data analysis has become an important tool for social science research. And of course, one can do inter-disciplinary work that overlaps with both CS and Social Sciences. Since there is a huge gap, it translates to a huge opportunity for the graduates of this program.


More details of the program can be read from this link on IIITD website.

We had an open house yesterday, which had a focus on the two new programs, including this one on ITSS. I am mentioning here a few typical questions or concerns that were expressed by students or parents in the open house.

The foremost was this: I am only interested in Computer Science, and I am considering ITSS only because I am unlikely to get admission to CS. Is the social science component a waste of time for me, or is it useful.

There is one question that many students ask us all the time. Why should a CS student study Chemistry or Thermodynamics or Sociology. Vikram has recently explained the need for diversity of courses in an educational program really well. To add to what he has already written, broad based education will really help in future because today, we have no idea what kind of jobs and careers would exist just 15-20 years from now. And remember, the person entering higher education today will probably be an active worker 50-55 years from now. How do educational institutions ensure that today's education remains relevant in an uncertain future world. Really speaking, the only thing we can do is to impart some knowledge and skills which are likely to remain relevant in the next 10 years, and impart the most important skill of learning new things on one's own. And learning becomes easier if you can make connections of new knowledge with the knowledge you already have. And therefore, having a broad based education ensures that you can learn more easily throughout your career, since it would increase the chances of making connections with past knowledge. This is one reason why liberal arts education is getting so popular lately. The hope is that a broad based education will enable you to do anything that you may want to or have to do in future.

So, coming back to the original question, my take is that even if you are not deeply interested in social science, having a diverse set of courses would be immensely useful to anyone. Of course, we would love to have students who are equally interested in CS and SS. That would make for a more interesting class and everyone learns better as a result.

Also, anecdotally, when ever we have asked senior alumni of IIT Kanpur regarding what courses have really benefited them in life, surprisingly, a large number of them mention social science courses. My personal belief is that studying a large number of social science courses is very positive even if someone was only interested in CS related careers.

The second question was: Is this program better or worse than Computer Science program.

It is difficult to compare two programs. However, one should note that whenever any university will think of starting a new program, it will certainly think of whether the program fills a need of the society and whether it can be offered with at least similar quality as its existing programs, if not better. It would be trivial for IIIT-Delhi to expand by simply increasing the number of seats in its existing very successful and popular programs. There was no need for a massive one year effort in planning a new course, which included taking feedback from 100s of people in India and abroad, personally visiting several universities and checking out websites of a lot more, having multiple workshops of subject experts as well as people from industry and academic thinkers of the country. So it is a program that we have invested in heavily because we believe that this combination is a great need of the society and the graduates will contribute in leading India to greatness.

Question 3: Would it be difficult for non-science students to compete with science students in the same class.

The IIIT-Delhi curriculum does not have any compulsory physics/chemistry/biology courses. And Mathematics at the 12th class level is required for admission. There may be 1-2 courses (like a course on circuits) where some exposure to Physics could possibly help, but in everything else Maths is sufficient background to perform well. We believe that a mixed class would lead to better learning and we are really hoping that many non-science students (from Delhi) will seek admission to the program.

Question 4: The all important question of placements/internships.

Howsoever I may like to convince students and parents that if you get good quality education, you will not have to worry about jobs and careers, this question keeps coming up. Well, obviously, we don't have data and won't have data for 4 more years. The only thing we can say is that even the first batch of IIIT-Delhi that graduated in 2012 had great placement, and they are currently either studying in great universities around the world, or working in top companies of the world, or are doing other interesting things like their own companies. And we have not looked back since then. The placement (if we consider the median salary offers) is one of the best in the country. And this is purely based on the quality of education that IIITD provides. If we could have a great placement for our first two programs when no one knew us, it should give confidence to prospective students and parents that it can only get better after we have made a mark in the education sector. So look at our faculty, talk to our students, convince yourself that we continue to provide high quality education and trust us that quality leads to great jobs and careers.

In terms of sectors and kinds of jobs/careers that could find this education very useful (though I must warn again that good quality education allows you to learn many new things quickly and hence get into other sectors/careers quickly), I think the Data-centric approach of some ITSS courses (Econometrics, Networks (Social Science Research Methods), Machine Learning (Pattern recognition, etc.)) are contemporary areas with a lot of job opportunities that will only grow in the shorter-run. Specific sectors include e-commerce/retail, Banking/Insurance sector, credit card companies with risk-management roles, consulting sector, data-driven journalism, new media/social media roles, and many more. Of course, any IT product company like all well known MNCs, would find this education highly desirable.

To end this article, let me quote from an article in Quartz:
As the vociferous Shark Tank host and entrepreneur Marc Cuban has recently observed about business careers: “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. [You need] someone who is more of a freer thinker.”
While we are not in the business of liberal arts education, we certainly believe that a more liberal education would be hugely valuable in future.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why are Parents Confused about College Choices

In July, 2015, I was at the Pan IIT Conference in Santa Clara, US. In one of the chat session, the legendary Vinod Khosla said something close to my heart. Let me paraphrase him and change the context from Silicon Valley to India:

"It is understood that you need to live comfortably, that you would want to rent a decent house, and eventually buy an apartment, that you would want to buy a car, have all the modern amenities in your home, take care of all your responsibilities like childrens' education in good places, supporting parents in their old age (including their medical bills), save some for a rainy day, have a vacation every year, and you can add a few more things that you really want to enjoy. This will translate to securing a decent job after your education. But once you have achieved all this, what next. Would you want the second house, a third car, a fourth iphone, more jewellery, and so on, or would you then think of jobs that you enjoy doing. May be the job that you like is also the job that gives you lot more money. But if there is a choice between doing something not so enjoyable but getting lots of money, and doing something that you enjoy and still getting money greater than your threshold for comfortable life, what would you prefer."

I am sure, if the question is asked in this fashion, most people would say that they would follow their interest once they are reasonably secure financially. But do they mean it.

In our country, someone starting with a salary of 4-5 lakhs and a decent growth (say, 5% more than inflation) would mean that everything that we have written above could be done very easily. In fact, one could start at even lower figures and grow from there. And pretty much every discipline in any good institute would enable a good student to get these levels of jobs. So the placement question that every parent is so interested in should really boil down to whether the median salary of the graduates is more than 4 lakhs or not. And beyond that, the student should be free to decide the program and college. But we all know that is not the case. Parents and students are easily excited about large salaries and do not even attempt to figure out what they might like.

Often, the goal is to earn the maximum. The optimization function is the money to be earned over the next 50 years. Unfortunately, this function is very difficult to compute. We don't even know what jobs and careers would be there 10 years from now, what to talk about 50 years. An average person will not remain in the same career for so long, and indeed people change careers every 10-15 years. So what is needed for success is not a particular discipline, but the ability to learn new things. Even if you happen to be in a low paying career in the beginning, when the time comes to change your career, you could then pick up a better paying career, if you had the ability to learn. On the other hand, if you do not pick up the ability to learn, being in the highest paying career is of no use if you are going to lose that job in 10 years.

So from monetary point of view, one should look for education which gives a decent start and prepare you for change of careers (or teaches you the most important skill of self-learning). Again, it would seem that pretty much any discipline in any good institute would meet this requirements.

Since it is pretty obvious to anyone that earnings over the next 50 years are impossible to compute, parents use a proxy. The first month's salary. The assumption is that if the first month salary is high, it would be a strong indicator of higher lifelong earning. That is a huge leap of faith, since as we just said we don't even know what kind of jobs will be there after 10 years.

Let me give you my example. When I was in my final year, and was applying for higher education, the hottest areas were theoretical computer science and Artificial Intelligence (which at that time was really about search and expert systems). I had thoroughly enjoyed the course on Networking and wanted to pursue that. Each of my well wisher advised me that I should write TCS/AI in my statement of purpose, but I was adamant. It had to be Networking. I was lucky to get admission in a good school (UMCP). And I did my PhD in Networking. By the time I finished, all the smart folks were competing for a diminishing number of jobs in TCS/AI and there were extremely few networking PhDs. I got a job in IIT Kanpur, which was considered the best CS department in India at that time, where around the same time, we rejected the applications of PhDs from top departments of the world in TCS/AI, since there were just so many of them. If you were in networking in 90s, the industry lab to work in was Bell Labs, and I could get a visiting position there for a semester. Not having to compete with an army of smart people has helped me a lot in my career. And those who only looked at what is the current favorite actually were so disappointed with the job market, many of them had to change their careers right away. And, of course, today, the networking is no longer hot. One should have morphed into a security expert, or a cloud expert or an IoT expert, or something else.

So, if we don't know what jobs we will be doing 10 years from now, we can not take it for granted that high first month salary will necessarily mean high income over 50 years

But, the first month's salary is important to parents. The next issue is that even if you know exactly what salaries have been offered to everyone in the graduating batch, how do you know what will your ward be offered 4 years from now. Let us consider two programs, both having 10 graduates. In one program, each of those 10 graduates has a job with a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs per annum. In the other program, there is one graduate with a salary of Rs. 1 crore, another one with a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs, and the remaining 8 with salaries of Rs. 2.5 lakhs each. So the average of the first program is Rs. 10 lakhs, and the average of the second program is Rs. 13 lakhs. On the other hand, median of the first program is Rs. 10 lakhs, while that of the second program is Rs. 2.5 lakhs. I can bet that most people will select the second program. My son is the best in the world, and will certainly grab that Rs. 1 crore job. Never mind that since most parents think like that, the competition would be much tougher in that program. So to guess their first month salary, people often look at the highest salary, and if they are a bit more grounded in reality, then average. Hardly anyone ever asks median and hardly any college will give out median.

In summary, the way things get decided are as follows:

1. The optimization function is maximum earning over the lifetime.
2. Since that is not easy to compute, assume that the first month salary would be strongly correlated with the lifetime earnings.
3. Since first month salary is also difficult to guess, assume that the highest salary offered last year would be offered to your ward (suitably enhanced, of course) 4 years hence.
4. And hence the program which had the highest salary package offered last year is the one we want to join.

If the algorithm is so simple, why are parents confused. Well, there are multiple reasons:
1. Do we really know the placement data. (Usually, No.)
2. What happens if the data for the last two years is contradictory (which is often the case).
3. Continuing with 2, will the relative ordering of programs change over the next four years. (That is, if Program 'A' had one student who was offered 100L, and program 'B' had one student who was offered 99L, is it possible that 4 years from now, there would be one program 'B' student who would have a 100L offer, while the highest offer in Program 'A' would be 99L.) Of course, it will happen.
4. The ordering based on highest salary is different from the ordering based on averages, which is different from the ordering based on median. Which one to adopt, particularly when most of the data in public domain is false anyway.
5. Other unknowns.

There is a simple solution that will take care of all your stress. Read the second paragraph again, and convince yourself that beyond a reasonable salary, you wouldn't worry about placement. Stop being a rat. Become a human. And you would be astonished as to how you will actually be able to think of your interests. You will actually be able to think of what you want out of college. And then choosing a college will become that much easier.

I was talking to a philosophy professor a few days ago and discussing this issue of stress during admission season. He told me that the problem of decision making is that a lot of people want to solve an unsolvable problem, and since the problem is unsolvable, they are stressed because they are investing time and effort without any result. If people start focusing on what is possible they will be able to take better and quicker decisions.

Also, as this excellent article by Hunter Rawlings in Washington Post points out, "The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum." Hard work is a more important key than the college itself. So if you are confused, just toss a coin.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Are there Alternatives to IITs

In the series of blogs about various questions that I get asked in this admission season, the question that I am discussing today is:

I have a good JEE advanced rank, and can get a good combination of program/institute. But I also have admission offer from another top place, both within India and abroad. What should I prefer.

One issue is that of foreign universities, both US/Canadian universities, as well as places in Singapore, HongKong, etc. The other issue is that of choice within India, IISc, IISERs, CMI, IIITs (particularly Hyderabad and Delhi), Ashoka University, etc.

First of all, I am extremely pleased to see that a couple of students from within the top 1000 have declared that they are not going to join IITs. Here is the list I know so far:

The JEE rank 5 wants to study Mathematics. And he is planning to join Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

The JEE Rank 10 wants to study a combination of Computer Science and Physics. And he is planning to join University of Pennsylvania.

The JEE Rank 38 wants to study Physics and Maths from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  (Based on his profile on quora.)

The JEE Rank 45 is interested in Physics, and will study in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. (Based on comments on this blog.)

The JEE Rank 446 wants to study a combination of Maths and Computing. And he is planning to join Chennai Mathematical Institute.

(If you come across any story of anyone in top 1000 not joining IIT system, do let me know, through comment, or email.)

I am also aware that every year some students who couldn't get admission to old 5 IITs in Computer Science have been joining IIIT Hyderabad and IIIT Delhi instead of going for newer IITs. Of course, many prefer IISc Bangalore and a few even IISERs for science programs over the science programs in IITs. At below 3000 ranks, students start considering other places which will give them a discipline of their choice, including BITS, NITs, IIITs. I think it is important for the parents to know that IITs are not the only places worth studying in, and any time, someone in the top 1000 ranks decide to study outside IIT system, it strengthens that message. Eventually, if we start taking alternatives seriously, the stress of JEE will come down and it will be a great thing for the society.

I digress. Let us come back to the issue of foreign universities. There are multiple parameters that we need to consider. On the positive side, any of the top 50 (or even more) US universities would have a better teaching-learning experience than any IIT. You can choose your courses. You can choose your major/minor. You can do multiple subjects. The infrastructure will be better. The faculty interest in teaching is likely to be higher. The quality of Teaching Assistants will be better, and so on. On the negative side are a couple of issues. The primary one is cost. It is just too expensive and unaffordable for most, and I am not in favor of taking a large loan for higher education which will force you to take up immediate job and that too abroad to repay that loan. The second reason is cultural. Most 17 years old in India have had no freedom at home. They have had very little exposure to different cultures even within India. And there is doubt if such persons would adjust quickly enough in a foreign land. But, of course, if you have family and friends near the place you are considering, who can help you settle in the beginning, this reason will not be very important. A reason related to costs and RoI is that while the quality of education in IITs may not be as good as many of the foreign universities, the membership of Alumni Association is hugely valuable.

So my own summary is that if you can easily afford (no loans), and you have admission to a good university, and you are not considering a job in India immediately after your education, and you think you will be able to handle vast cultural differences, then go for it. If the answer to any of the conditions is in negative, take admission in an IIT.

Comparison of IITs with other institutes within India is really about the specific interests that you have which may be satisfied more by a non-IIT institute than an IIT. If you want to study a combination of Maths and Computing, for example, most IITs would offer this through their Mathematics department and even CS courses will be taught by Maths faculty (but do check each program, there is a lot of variation), and CMI does a fantastic job of offering such a program. At CMI, Maths faculty teach Maths courses, and CS faculty teach CS courses. A few alums of CMI that I know have been extremely happy with their experiences. In case of science programs, IITs force you to choose the program at the time of admission and change of program is very difficult, while IISc and IISERs give you a broad based education and offer flexibility. Programs like Information Technology and Social Science (and also, Computer Science and Design) in IIIT-Delhi offer you a unique combination not available anywhere else in the country. So, if you are one of those few students who know what they want to study, then you must select the best place to study that discipline (or combination) without worrying about the IIT tag. Membership of Alumni Association is valuable but not to the extent that you kill your passion for it.

Added on 13th June, 2017:
Thanks to Prof. Amit Sheth who reminded me of this talk by Malcolm Gladwell who explains "Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder" which means that we are so enchanted by association with Elite Institutions that we forget our self interest. The toppers of average institutes perform better than average students of elite institutions is the main argument. Here is the youtube link for the video.

He also has pointed out this excellent article by Hunter Rawlings in Washington Post. In one line, "The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum." This also points to hard working students getting more out of education at an average place than students not working hard at a top institution

What these two excellent articles are intending to say in the context of this blog article is that there indeed are lots of alternatives to IITs. You only need to make sure that you work hard.