Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Life After ISI Is Working on Independent and Identically Distributed Projects

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.

Sigh.

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.

34 comments:

  1. bhalo laglo pore tor moner kotha.Straight from the heart.

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  2. auto biograhy na auto analysis?? naki auto biography of an analyst??

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  3. ভালো লাগল লেখাটা পড়ে। ২৩ বছর বয়সে নিজের সম্পর্কে কত ভুল ধারণা পুষতাম ভাবলে সত্যি অবাক লাগে। আর আমার ধারণা হ্যাপিনেস একটা ভাঁওতা। লোকজনকে ওর পারসুইটে ব্যস্ত রাখার ধান্দা যাতে অন্য ব্যথাবেদনা কম টের পেতে হয়। সেটা অবশ্য একদিক থেকে ভালোই।

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    1. খুশি থাকার অনলস প্রচেষ্টায় আমরা ক্রমশঃ বছরগুলো হারিয়ে ফেলছি, না রে?

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  4. why Don't you simply say you crave for a "Dr." before your name?

    for the record Siree,you have been dishing out that mythology with us applauding,while here your real life platter is as insightful as it is flavoursome.(pardon the food metaphor,came out of the lunch hour--when i have your posts).

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    1. Anonymous, both of us know it's not about the "Dr", isn't it? :)

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  5. To indicate the driving force behind their art, their creativity, and indeed their genius, all authors, poets, painters, sculptors speak of some sort of frustration, some inchoate sense of incompleteness, discontent, perhaps even disgruntlement, which they nurse, nurture and cherish. Even on the philosophy front, Aristotle had his Xanthippe. So... All in all, you are in good company, wouldn't you say? Is it any wonder, then, that people who know you expect great things from you?

    Re your job. You have complained time and again (and here, too) how boring and repetitive your professional work is. Oftentimes, the challenges that we encounter in life lie within us, not without. You have a very specific skill-set, something that many others (me, for example) sorely lack, and your employers are using those skills to the advantage of themselves, as well as of the clients. Not every kind of skills results in swashbuckling. It is up to you to accept your talents or not. As I said, your internal strife, your duality - perhaps these are what motivates you to create elegant prose that is so delightful to read?

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    1. SUIRAQUA (I didn't copy-paste this), I agree: but then, the "what-could-have-been" thing comes back to haunt you every now and then.

      This is certainly not life as I had thought would be like a decade back. Let me see what awaits me a decade from now.

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  6. Novelty wears off any work that you once looked forward to with gusto,unless you happen to be a film critic;).My campus to college transition was pretty demystifying,and for a long time i blamed the unfamiliar city i had migrated to.
    Today,I work in an air conditioned office and provide reasonably well for my family,reminding myself of poet Philip Larkin who knew drudgery as a common man's way for the timely payment of bills.Honestly,none of us know what we want in life and if at all it'll work for us in the long run.

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    1. So true, anonymous. You echo my thoughts.

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  7. It seems that irrespective of the paths chosen, one's work tends to iid s , simply because it is usually deemed to be the path of maximum 'efficiency' ... concepts that have more traction in the market than interesting and fun. But what a wonderful account of life post ISI! This is another reaffirmation (if one was necessary) that you really should be writing books.

    Incidentally, your definition of qualifications to be a full fledged grown up reminds me of one of my favorite books. The author discusses the qualifications required to be considered grown-ups by different groups of people he knew (you know folks from home, from work, and from field work) and discusses how he passed each of those qualifications.
    I am purposely being vague since I do not want to say much about the book, but whole heartedly recommend reading it if you have not: It is called "A primate's memoirs" by Robert Sapolsky.

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    1. RGB, thanks for the nice words and the book reference. Shall try to grab it ASAP.

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  8. now what are you doing exactly and if you can see the change since switching over?

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    1. Erm, didn't get your question. Can you rephrase? Switching over from what?

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  9. are you doing phd? what's this 'superior' work?

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  10. Finally getting around to posting :).

    Straight from the heart, as someone remarked.

    I'll try to answer your question if you answer mine:

    Why are we here?

    (And no, just saying that we are part of a complex organic computer program designed to seek the "Question" won't do :). You'll have to tell me what we do with this Question.)

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    1. I have no idea, Apoorva. I wish I ever got to know. I wish I get to know some day.

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  11. I still look at all the ph.ds around me and do not feel any penchant to be a part of them.am I happy: Yes,if happiness is being non demanding of self,I am indeed happy. :)Insightful

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    1. Congratulations. I'm not a jealous person by nature, but I suppose I do envy you.

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  12. loved this post....got answers to many of my unasked questions :)

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  13. You know Abhishek,THIS writing is straight fromthe heart because i am sure many can relate...This is straight from the heart...i don't understand why you fool with other flighty topics at all.
    -Sanyuki

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    1. Thank you. To be very honest, I basically write whatever comes to my mind.

      Also, are you Japanese? Just curious.

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  14. My friend posted this link and told me to check it out.I am glad i did.
    I agree with the author here regarding the banality that life acquires over time,but I also believe that those who deal with fine arts,music and literature never get bored with what they do.My friend taught literature,and never ,even once,complained about his life draining the creative juices out of him.One can believe that AR Rehman gets tired of his craft,but never bored.I believe stats is not the author's passion.Crunching numbers never is :(

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    1. Thank you. At 35 I have learnt the hard way that I have been in the wrong profession, and am trying to make amends in the only possible way I can.

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    2. I have a few questions.Please answer if you can.
      Do you think you'd have fared better as,say,a lecturer? Writing is not a paying profession unless one is well established,and Middle class people have to earn their bread as well.Don't you think People undermine your capabilities if you teach literature or arts ,since it's seen as a no-brainer,unlike your superior analytical skills.
      What is your dream profession and if you also think writing is overrated,since we all can write?

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    3. Yes, I agree with you that people undermine the qualities of a literature or arts teacher. The mentality of the Bengali middle-class is responsible for this - the best students almost invariably study science (and hence the arts/literature teachers, who are basically ex-arts/literature students) are looked upon rather derogatorily.

      As for my dream profession, I always want to be a cricketer; however, I am not talented enough for that.

      Realistically, I guess at this age I realize that I get more satisfaction from writing than doing anything else. I guess ideally I should have tried to be a writer, along with a profession as a journalist or a teacher of literature.

      Then again, there are responsibilities...

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    4. I thank you for this honest reply.Though i do believe that then you'd have been mightily dissatisfied with the salary part...

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    5. I am aware of that. However, if I pursue an entire career in analytics, I will possibly turn up in an asylum of sorts. My bank-balance will come handy, in that case.

      Jokes apart, I know money is important. However, in my case, it would not have been an important parameter, in case I did not have responsibilities.

      I guess I have to multitask, which is terribly difficult at 35. However, it is not an impossible task.

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    6. so then I presume you are 'happy' after all,even if it is moderately happy?

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    7. I am happy (or 'happy') despite my profession; not because of it.

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