On this teacher’s day, I am remembering and writing about one of the most important teacher of my life – my guide, mentor and a lot more, Prof. Uday B. Desai.
This blog is particularly to remember many of those moments and also to note key elements that really inspired in me.
A mentor for life
By the time I finished graduation and got into IIT it was a critical ground setting for our career. Our parents view would be limited here, and it wasn’t really just the teachers we needed, but we need a mentor. I was attending the course of Image processing under prof. Desai in the very first semester, the very first day in M.Tech, and I don’t know exactly when he turned from being a teacher to being a mentor for me.
This all didn’t end there with my m.tech. As we were graduating out, in a deepest recession, we turned towards entrepreneurship. IIT created many avenues for us to pursue start-ups, and helped us with a lot of support even after we graduated from the school. Prof. Desai has helped us way beyond his way for us to succeed. That period was as much about learning all about business and taking life lessons as much as putting engineering to work. Indeed, many start-up activities struggled, and so did our team. we jumped from one thing to another; but in the end we did make money and gained wisdom that guides me even today. After a while, I also joined for a Ph.D. and he continued as my guide. But this time around I really didn’t live up to the expectations. He hasn’t ever cease to be my inspiration though – any day, till today. He truly is a mentor for life.
It’s about solving real problems
I begun working with for image and video in m.tech as I wanted to do something with television. To this day, it forms the central element in my career. The IIT learning itself was very tough, and very deep. The very first year was particularly hard – and all of us were greatly deprived of sleep I think. The depth in mathematics was the daunting part for the most of us. But while we were gappling with it, there was a difference in the class of Prof. Desai. He used to say – “If I take an Image, I add the noise to it, and then I remove it by my algorithm – what’s the point? The real value (of research) comes when we take up a real world inputs and show how you can remove noise from it.” Mathematics is indeed the most powerful element in most modern research – yet, it is the means and not the end. Technology, should be real and should solve real problems regardless of whether simple math would solve it or a complex one. This has been a pivotal advice guiding me for so many years.
Many a times, all it takes to publishing a paper would be to see some ideas around, make a small intelligent change and publish one more. Prof. Desai won’t get impressed with this. In fact he wouldn’t like you to take such approach. He has many publications to his name, and he also emphasizes that when we do something good never shy away from publishing it. Yet, he would always emphasis what originality we are bringing in?
Real impact from research requires that we don’t get channelized in terms of print-number-of-papers but rather think fresh and do something satisfactory.
Learn to use freedom
Many guides in IIT, would make your thesis very productive. They would follow you, step by step, they will guide you with most details – including solving math problems for you; with prof. Desai, this is absolute contrast. In fact, some people would even criticize him for giving the free hand to student -which inevitably for many would mean doing less than productive volume of work. Yet, as I experienced it during my entrepreneurship days and even now, this helps you shape up to be self driven and result oriented rather than task oriented. Towards the middle of my M.Tech thesis, prof. Desai was actually travelling, but it never left me out of sync, albeit I had to dig up stuff on my own. At implementation level, we did have to fight our own problems, and we do have to think through the entire problem, and then convince prof. Desai why the new idea makes sense or works – this turns out to be harder than following instructions plainly. And this is what really builds you. I guess, today much of my style working with my sub-ordinates greatly influenced from this pattern.
The entrepreneurial professor
One of the most obvious thing that contrasts prof. desai from all others, which you cann’t miss. When we started M.Tech in IIT, we had observed that government grants and funds were shrunk or shrinking. Many labs at that time were having restrictions in terms of infra; all except one – the SPANN lab. This lab, like me always galvanized the best students and the industry partners alike. There were a lot of funded projects and infra was always rich. I would always find him travelling, bringing new people to lab, helping students in their start ups. Sometimes I would always wonder why would we rather not be in the industry – and to my surprize, he even got a sabattical to work for HP. It was well known that if few professors could help you bend the rules, prof. desai was one of them. he would go to extent possible, to see students creating something.
An academician with a vision
In our start-up days, we used one of the standard PC boxes and physically fitted inside a customized small box, attached a camera and there we had a surveillance system. We always thought of this as an interim shortcut from having to use a good embedded system. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have money, but he said – “if we can really succeed in commercializing this, it has a potential to put a dent in entire ‘embedded system space'”. I guess most people didn’t really took that seriously that time, but today when I see raspberry pie, we can realize that there was a spark of genius in that hack! Too many embedded system exists today which are there either for the sake of it, or just because PC is simply too big to do it. This will significantly change in the time to come – and he could see this 10+ years back.
The touch of Indianness
Typically in IIT, most people worry about the state-of-the-art. Most of the Indian industry usually lags far behind. Also, while many might dislike or disagree, the overall IIT culture doesn’t quite really care about Indian social problems or Indian indigenous technologies per say. Though in my view, country like ours have their own fortune and their own problems. Copying west doesn’t always suits. A good take from this, for IIT’s is to see how we can take a lot more inspiration from taking on Indian problem and solving in Indian style, low cost – which definitely includes some jugaad as a key to bring things super low cost. At those days, when silicon valley copy was taking the momentum in business incubator, prof. Desai was one of the few who would give us wisdom from Indian way of doing business. And would motivate use of how to put the Indian way of solving problems.
Most of what I am writing here is my perception – it might be incomplete to describe truly what he is – and I might just be doing disservice to him. But it is undeniable that he was really really different from the entire faculty of IIT. Few would matched his hunger to keep touching new horizons. Also he has always gone that extra mile to see that students create something exceptional. I have been off the touch with him for sometime; but it hasn’t reduced my gratitude towards him. But perhaps the poor thing could be that I would have never told him how grateful I feel having him as a mentor. – so here I am putting it up.
Thank you sir for all you did!