This is a cross-post of a an article published in Taarpor, ISIAA's annual magazine, journal or equivalent. Srinivas-da had suggested Life After ISI as the topic. The entire book is available here. There are some pieces that are quite outstanding.
On our ISI farewell night I was taking a stroll around the pond with one of my closest friends. Both of us knew that this was the end of our academic life. While no more studying meant a respite of some sort, I mused that this was a one-way traffic - once gone, this was gone forever.
No, the thought of a PhD had not crossed my mind on a serious note when I did my Master's. I mean, all around me I had seen classmates discussing acronyms like GRE and TOEFL that sounded impressive and imposing at the same time, but with two jobs from the campus, I knew what I was going to do. I seemed so sure of myself. So sure.
My job was based out of; you've guessed it correctly, Kolkata. Given a choice between a hefty salary and a chance to work from my hometown, choosing the latter seemed to be a no-brainer. Of course, people tried to convince me with mysterious-sounding eerie words like "career" and "future", but given the fact that I had spent twenty-three years in the most addictive of cities that ever existed, they weren't sufficient to lure me out of my birthplace.
So there I was one day, hunched in front of a desktop with an absurdly big monitor, a 256 MB RAM and a 20 GB hard disk (no, the figures are absolutely correct - there is no typo involved there). Strange words like "analytics" were introduced to me in due course of time, I was given a box of suave-looking business cards, I read jokes and cute-looking motivational PPTs forwarded by friends, and then, at the end of the month, something rather strange happened.
I got paid.
Studying at ISI had made me used to stipends, so getting paid at the end of the month wasn't new to me. What was new, though, was a pay cheque with the words Abhishek Mukherjee hand-written rather neatly across it. It was an amount worth many, many stipends (yes, I know it wasn't a lot compared to the first salary of some of my peers), and it somehow elevated me to the status of my parents, both of whom have been receiving similar-looking cheques for years.
It was a bizarre feeling. Till then I was under the impression that salaries were meant for grown-ups. By that definition, now I qualified as a full-fledged grown-up. You know the sort; people who carry serious expressions on their faces, wear formals, have their own money to spend (read squander) and even get married.
Things began to change. Or rather, things refused to change. Independently and identically distributed analytics projects came my way; projects that were responded to by writing independently and identically distributed SAS codes; and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish one day from the other.
Sure, the cheques kept coming in, but life started to get mundane. You could bunk classes – but bunking work was a different scenario altogether. Nobody cared a fig if you failed in your examinations, but people actually seemed to be rather bothered about whether their Market Basket Analysis did not reach well ahead of their quarterly sales meetings. I was rather taken aback that people would assign so much importance to the work done by me – I mean, since when did I begin to get important? A serious case of overestimation if there was one.
All this meant that I had to work late nights, and often entire nights. A fever was not a good enough reason to stay away from work anymore, and phrases like “social life” turned less and less meaningful. One actually had to work when India was playing Australia, hitting frequent Alt-Tabs for the Cricinfo window while creating a logistic regression model for customers for some obscure client located two oceans apart.
A team started to form under me. Leading was a rather strange scenario – people actually looked up to me for instructions and inspiration. The very thought intimidated me; I mean, what kind of people are actually willing to be led by me? But they actually did, young bright minds with “oh-he’s-from-ISI” and “oh-he’s-so-senior” and the rather erroneous “oh-he’s-so-knowledgeable” looks – making me more uncomfortable than content with myself.
The other things that happened were trips to the United States. Now this was something fairly important; if not to me then to my relatives. It came to me as a shock that almost no place in the great country resembles New York City (where you can call a taxi at random hours) or The Wild West (where you can, I suppose, call a horse at equally random hours), and for a while I felt seriously cheated by Hollywood.
What kept intriguing me was the fact that people kept considering my work as important, not only back in my office but even the clients. I mean, designing data warehouses, writing SAS codes, leading teams, getting work done and handling multiple projects were fine, but were they really that important to the world? I wasn’t really doing something path-breaking – I was simply analyzing data that existed; using methods that were already in place. Was I really doing anything substantial in life? Where did all the big talk about doing something really significant in life vanish?
I took time to discuss with my peers: people were beginning to finish their PhDs all around me, and were getting recruited as lecturers in non-trivial universities in all sorts of places. Some others were comfortably placed in careers identical (read superior) to mine. All around me people seemed to be quite content with what they had made out of life. I was also supposed to be happy, I presumed. And so I was.
And so, several more years down the lane, here I am, doing virtually a superior version of what I had been doing a dozen years back. The responsibilities are greater, the salary is, well, okay (o employer, please consider this as a subtle hint), but it’s essentially the same stuff. I can now safely be classified by placement agencies as another 12-year-old-analytics-guy-with-ISI-background.
Am I happy? What is happiness, by the way? I suppose, as Auden had remarked once, had I not been happy, had anything been wrong, the world would certainly have heard.