Interview: Vineet Vinayak (ECE-2017)

Please state your current major and explain the area of research you are currently involved in. Do state your past work experience/research experience.

I am an environmentalist at heart and love doing social service. I enjoy playing table – tennis and doing yoga for 2 hours everyday. Also, I like to collect airlines’ boarding passes and have a collection of 108 so far.

Coming to my major in the research that I’m currently involved in, it is at the intersection of computer vision, deep learning and natural language processing; which I am currently extending to computational neuroscience and reinforcement learning. I work on developing deep reinforcement learning algorithms that mimic the human psyche and make smarter AI systems. I am currently interning at Amazon Alexa’s Conversational AI team at Boston.

 

When do you think is the right time to make a switch to a different career option? When did you decide to make a switch from electronics and communication to computational science & engineering?

I have been interested in AI (Artificial Intelligence) since my 2nd year at NIT Trichy. Professor Ramakalyan Ayyagari in ICE department inspired me to learn about game theory and AI while I did summer research in his lab. I wrote several research papers, in my 3rd year, at the intersections of machine learning and game theory. I also published these papers in international conferences at Taiwan and Thailand and interned at the National University of Singapore to further my knowledge of these domains. In my 7th and 8th semesters, I found that my interest also lies in image processing and natural language and proceeded to do several projects at their intersections with game theory. My final year project thesis on sentiment analysis was a culmination of all my experience and it helped me bag an internship at Adobe Research Labs. There we built a novel AI plugin for Photoshop that won us a Best Project Award from senior management.

Making switches can be very risky and not many know what they are interested in. It’s more a matter of what you will do to see through any efforts you have made at the end of the day. All fields are interesting but what makes us go for a field is how we can solve problems that we feel are important to solve using the new domain – it shouldn’t be motivated by money or position especially when we are just entering industry.

 

What courses helped you most in your area of research? Did any form of self-learning, like online courses, help you further your knowledge in that field?

I did a lot of self-learning through online video and blogs especially in subjects like computer vision and deep learning. The blogs present the content in a concise manner and makes the content easy to grasp. Medium.com is particularly a good site to follow for blogs on a variety of topics. I had also referred to online video courses like CS 231n, CS224 from Stanford and UC Berkeley’s 294 which provide introduction to computer vision and deep learning. Besides these, doing a lot of projects would help you gain in – depth knowledge of the subject.

 

What is an average day in your life like?

My day starts at 3:45 am in the morning and I get ready by 4:30 am. I practice yoga for 2 hours. I believe it helps me stay focussed and maintain my calm. It is essentially helpful when you know the project you’re working on will take long and hence patience and calmness should be the innate qualities. I have breakfast at around 8 am and spend close to six hours(9am to 5pm) in college or at my intern work place. After coming back, I spend time reading books, blogs and articles about latest innovation articles for two hours in case I haven’t got any assignments. Otherwise this time is dedicated for working on assignments. I cook food around 8pm. I prefer fresh food and fruits which are really good for health.  I listen to inspirational personalities , podcasts on compassion and leadership and watch related videos for about an hour after which I go to sleep at 9:30pm.

 

Your research focus is on deep learning and reinforcement learning. What kind of employment opportunities can one look forward to in ML, AI and related fields?

Machine Learning, Deep Learning etc are today’s buzzwords. Almost everyone is aiming for a career in these fields. I would say that if you have good skills in your respective area of interest then you need not worry about internships and job aspect of it.

The problem arises because students get into the field without properly figuring out if they are really interested in it. To gauge your interest and make the right decision, I would suggest that you read papers, publications and blogs online. If you’re able to get hold of what’s happening under the hood of the algorithms, then you should definitely dive deep into the subject. Otherwise you may end up getting frustrated. Coming to the job market, there are plenty of job opportunities in software development domain but there are limited ones in the AI domain which demand a high level of experience. So, follow your genuine interest and passion and develop your skills accordingly without worrying about the money aspect.

 

Is a minor in CSE or Computer Applications useful if one aims to have a career in that field? How important is it if one wants to pursue Masters in computer science?

A minor in CSE or CA may not always help.  One needs to take up coding intensive courses. In my opinion, if one wants to shift industry then he/she should change his major, not minor. What one can do is, apply a certain segment that you learnt in your minor course to the research/project in your major.

 

Is the syllabus in colleges in India (specifically NIT Trichy) up-to-date to meet the current requirements of the industry? What can students do to bridge the gap?

I personally feel the syllabus in NIT Trichy is below standard.  We read texts written years ago. No doubt, it’s important to have a strong hold on the fundamentals of any subject but at the same time you should be up to date with the current state-of-the-art.

I feel that I have learnt more in that past one year at Georgia Institute of Technology as compared to what I did in the four years of my under  – graduation at NIT Trichy. Here at Georgia Institute of technology, we have an ‘advanced month’ which is the last month of the course. In this month we essentially focus on the state-of-the-art technology and developments happening around us. We’re given a lot of projects and assignments to help us develop a ‘practical-oriented’ approach.

It’ll definitely take time to update the whole engineering syllabus. Students cannot wait till then. They need to bring a change in their approach as well. Students should take up as many projects as they can whether within tech clubs or individually. Learning is best within a peer group. Implementing ideas together with your batch mates keeps you motivated. Tech clubs could organize tech talks to involve more students.

What are some things about your career path you wish you knew in college, in retrospect?

I wish someone told me what the state-of-the-art was. There are so many things which I didn’t know but were expected to know when I came to the West.

Also, no one teaches compassion, empathy and kindness. You can learn a lot from textbooks, lectures, google up to satiate your curiosity but in work culture these are the sought-after qualities. For being able to work efficiently, to get promoted etc. leadership quality is very essential. Integrity, hard work and respect for others, are again very important qualities one should possess. These qualities will help us outlive the automation of jobs and become better human beings.

 

Why are research internships important? How do students hone their skills through these internships?

Research internships are very important as they provide one the opportunity to do cutting edge work. We research on the state-of-the-art technology, publish papers and work hard to get the core product. It is quite challenging but at the same time involves a lot of learning. It’s a lot more than just reading papers and implementing something. In a nutshell research internships allow you to understand yourself as a person and help you push your limits.

 

What other skills, do you think students need to learn before/while pursuing masters?

Learning the psyche of your teammates, being responsible, taking ownership and leading others towards achieving the common goals are some of the soft skills that students should learn.

Talking about hard skills, one should be good at coding. Publishing open source projects would be highly beneficial. Also, one should know and explain one’s research domain well.

 

What do you think are the inadequacies in research in India, and specifically in NIT Trichy?

Professors aren’t as motivated to involve UG students in research work. I believe we’ve ample resources. There’s no shortage of funds. The alumni body too keeps pouring in funds from time to time.

Also, it’s not just that professors have to put more efforts to improve the research scenario. The UG students are perhaps too impatient to venture into the industry and start earning.  So, both professors and students need to change their mindset in order to bring about a change in the current situation. Both need to be willing to work hard.

I strongly suggest not to waste time on deciding the grad school for long. Keep your mind active. You can utilize the time well by implementing projects and contributing to the open source, in case you aren’t interning in your final year. Also, a nice vacation with friends will help you open up your perspective!

 

How can one arrange funds for higher studies, especially those who are going abroad? Are there any notable scholarships or educational loans that one can avail?

J.N. Tata, K.C. Mahindra etc are few scholarships that I am aware of. However, these scholarships do not waive off the tuition fees completely. The portion of fees waived off is quite small. I didn’t apply for any of these. On the other hand, I had very good projects and had also published papers which in turn helped me get a research assistantship position at Georgia Institute of Technology and entitled me for a full fees waiver. In next semester, I got a teaching assistantship position. The stipend that I received even waived off my rent and food expenses. So, I would advise to aim to get a TA or RA position in the college instead of spending a lot of time on getting a scholarship before joining the college. Moreover, it’ll help you in the long run to have got a TA or RA. No doubt, there is heavy competition and it will definitely not be easy to get one but with good skills it is surely possible.

 

How can one be sure that a certain career path is right for them? What is a good way to make that decision?

Firstly, do not chase money or respect. Chase the learning opportunities around you. I have changed my interest several times. This might not be the case with everyone.  A good way to gauge your interest is by doing a lot of projects; this will help you figure out if you enjoy working in that domain. Read blogs online. Don’t stop searching online for any doubt you might have, no matter however small it may be.

I have had many sleepless nights and skipped my meals many a time while doing my projects. When you come to a similar situation and don’t remember whether you had food in the last one day, you are really enjoying yourself and don’t mind the challenges that you are facing – that’s when you know what you like to do. If you feel you can work dedicatedly in the field you’re interested in, then probably it’s the right choice for you. It’s more about your mindset towards a field, than a field itself that matters.

 

What are the challenges faced during learning new things and adapting to new environment?

I feel the biggest challenge that one would face during learning new things is surmounting one’s mental block. The attitude that what we know is enough and we don’t need to learn more is a sign of failure in itself. Also, one needs to overcome the fear of failure and the fear of doing something that’s beyond your comfort zone. I would suggest that you go study a subject in – depth. Keep experimenting without the fear of failure. The experience in itself would be very enrichening. I would also like to focus on the importance of lending a helping hand. Do not hesitate in asking for help, be it from your junior or senior. If you help someone, they’ll help you back. Always be willing to learn from others and help others. It makes you a better person.


I advise students not to ponder over the bad choices that you’ve made. What has been done cannot be altered. You need to stop complaining about your wrong decisions and the wrong things happening around you. Make the most of the opportunities and utilize your time well. The bad times are what are going to define your character for years to come and are your opportunities to grow.

The next time you are down and in a situation you hate, think about this – If Christopher Nolan were to direct a movie on your life, what would be the climax moments he would focus on if you got everything you wanted easily? What inspired you to start your journey in the first place that will be the foreground for a Hans Zimmer masterpiece in the movie? And when that movie is the highest grossing movie of all time to come, what do you want people to remember you for – your achievements or the tough character you displayed in the toughest circumstances of life?

 

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