Writing everyday

Habit forming is hard. Over the course of many years, I tried and failed at it many times. Most of the time, it isn’t anything serious. But there were a few important habits I failed to form.

I was told that I write well, by many. I considered my skill with the quill better than average, barely. I wrote semi regularly when in college, always carried a few sheets with me. Of late, the frequency reduced, gradually, and then suddenly to zero.

One of the suggestions often given out to people interested in writing is to write something everyday, to focus on consistency and to not worry much about quality. I’ve tried implementing it in various ways at various times, but eventually there’s no time or I don’t feel like writing at the moment, it’s just a single day, won’t hurt to take a break, yada yada yada, and a week or two later the realization hits that the exercise failed.

This attempt, I’m trying something different. I’m writing digitally, on mobile. Trying to see if not having to find a spot, reach for pen and paper; being able to write on the go, in short bursts at short notice without much preparation or ceremony — trying to see if it all makes any difference.

I’m trying to write a post, every day.


Reading docmentation

Reading documentation is an art, and can be very enjoyable if it is well written.

As a software developer, one of my aims is to write documentation that people should want to read, while designing systems that work well without having to read the documentation. Seemingly opposite goals.

I have a habit of reading documentations. And when I say reading, I mean thoroughly.

One of my earliest memories with computers was me failing to jump between buildings in a spiderman game, giving up, and spending time reading windows help. I have read almost every single page in windows help for XP, back then.

It was the beginning of a habit. When I started programming in python, which was after entering college, I read python 2.7 documentation. Every single line from every single page. All the functions in all builtin modules, changelogs, what’s new, guides, the whole deal. It changed me. I would write programs very differently.

The habit persisted. Pretty much any technical document I read, I read it in entirety. A friend commented that I was incapable of skimming things. He did not imply it was necessarily a bad thing.

Among other documentations I’ve read are a few notable ones – Docker, Erlang, Bash, git. Did you know Bash can do tcp/udp communications by writing to special psuedo files, and : is a valid command, bash’s own noop, handy for commenting blocks of code?

Elasticsearch joins this list tomorrow. I’m close to completing a new set of docs – something larger than a hundred pages – after long. Feels good.

On completing my first online course

If you’re around me long enough, you’ll know that I love exploring, tinkering and learning stuff. With the advent of MOOCs, I suddenly had access to a lot of courses that present subtopics in a structured way. I tried many times previously, but due to various valid and invalid reasons, I couldn’t complete any courses.

Today, I completed my first online course. By completing I mean following through the course schedule and doing assignments on time. It was Cryptography-1 by Dan Boneh from Stanford on Coursera, and it was good. I used to read a lot on crypto but never did a structured course. Due to my own reasons, I couldn’t take up a crypto course at my university, now I’ve done the first part of a two part course that is structured and is reasonably detailed.

If you are interested in cryptography, and are a beginner, do check it out. The course will repeat next month, and you can take it for free. Actually, if you are an average internet user, I believe you should understand how security in the modern digital world is engineered and implemented. In my first year at IITD, I was made to work hands-on on carpentry, sheet metal work, casting, forging, black  smithy, welding, and lathe machining. That taught me to appreciate the work. I’ll certainly remember how challenging and physically straining the work was if I ever have to bargain with a carpenter or welder, for instance. Similarly, if someone studies the crypto primitives and tries to understand the basis of modern digital security, they will be able to appreciate the inner workings and would respect the engineers and computing devices.

My thanks to Prof. Dan Boneh, for the excellent course, and Stanford university and Coursera for making it possible.

Aside: I never recommend anything unless I try it myself. When people ask me to recommend someone to program their stuff, I decline unless I have worked directly or have reviewed the work of someone in that field. I never recommend a software or a particular technology unless I get my hands dirty with it. Considering that most freshers at IIT Delhi are not familiar with Linux, and will need to be familiar with it for their study here, I have considered recommending Introduction to Linux by The Linux Foundation on Edx. Though I should trust LF on all matters linux implicitly, owing to my habit, I’m trying the course. Just started it and if time permits, I should be done by tomorrow and will post a follow up recommending it.

Update: Took me much longer than expected to finish the course since I was busy and lazy (a terrible combination btw). It covers just the absolute basics, but I’d still recommend it. Takes not more than a few hours to go through it all; and after completing it, you’ll at least know how to find your way around.

Student mentorship Program, IIT Delhi

What do we do as MRC?

At IITD, my tenure as a mentorship coordinator is nearing its end. And now, our team is faced with the task of selecting the next MRC. I have a very mixed feeling about this. I loved working with my team. At the same time, it has been very challenging. I remember the night-outs, being sleepless during mentor allotment, freshmen orientation, while designing the survey, prolonged and heated discussions on what to do next and how. I have absolutely no idea how our team pulled it off.

And now when the time comes to select the next MRC, we realized that many are unaware of our activities. Many had queries on what we do, and how. I will make an attempt at answering those questions.

Prince Dhawan, our super senior, called together a bunch of his friends, and convinced the then president of BSW, Prof. G.S. Visweswaran, that IIT Delhi is in need of a structured student mentorship program. A team of students, hand-picked by him, formed the first Mentorship Review Committee. They selected mentors, assigned them to incoming freshmen, and tried to make a dent in the universe, so to say. That was the birth of SMP at IITD. Atleast that is what I consider it to be.

Three years down the line, I applied to be a student mentor. Deepak Vasisht and his team was the incoming MRC that year. In these few years, MRC has established itself as a recognized student body and it retained complete autonomous control over all its decisions. One fellow mentor, Sidhant Sachdeva found the existing orientation boring. A proposal for redesigning the freshmen orientation was put forward. It took a lot of effort, but we made it.

The freshmen orientation was redesigned, from boring lectures in our iconic Dogra Hall that I don’t think many paid any attention to, to be a tour of stalls that introduce freshmen to all student activities at IITD. I worked closely with the MRC during the orientation and throughout the year. That year, I was overjoyed to receive awards for the best student mentor and outstanding contribution to the program. Sidhant was awarded outstanding contribution to the program, for his efforts in redesigning the orientation. MRC had its constitution inked out, added as an annexure to BSW constitution. We got a faculty coordinator. In other words, the institute acknowledged the MRC.

And I made it into the next MRC. Vatsal, Isha, Sidhant, Tapas, Rohit, and myself. MRC 2013-14.

Also, Mentorship Review Committee was renamed to Mentorship Committee. But we stuck to the abbreviation MRC because MC in a Hindi-speaking community would have been slightly awkward.

Activities of MRC

We had some initial wave of meetings, and we got down to work.

We had to select our team. One mentorship secretary, and about 150 mentors. It was about two weeks before majors. I have absolutely no idea how we managed that. But after two rounds of interviews, and an intermediate round of peer review and background checking, and a final heated discussion that lasted an entire night – no breaks – we selected Ankit to be our mentorship secretary. Once we narrowed down the choice to last three, we had absolutely no way of picking one among them. Finally, sinceit is a purely managerial role, and this guy is known to have tricks up his sleeve that can get work done in our tight deadlines, we picked him.

We had to interview mentors, about 400 applications were received, and we interviewed every single one of them. Then did a background check on every potential candidate. We came out with a short list. The majors were near. Very near. And we had night-outs every day. It was when I invited people for a party, on my own, perhaps for the first time in my life. On a friend’s birthday.

We had estimates of how many students are going to be admitted, and what the hostel distribution is roughly going to be. And we spent about a month allocating mentors. And then the institute bombed us. Almost literally, with the actual allocation. More than 150 students in two new hostels, where there are no senior undergraduates. Our plans were screwed up, and we had to redo it all. And this was a bigger challenge. Cross hostel mentoring is known to be very tough. It had terrible feedback in all previous years. Isha managed to do a good job, though. Both while allocating, and in the previous year as a cross hostel mentor.

I set up a freshmen forum at our then-active domain discourse.smpiitd.org. It received an overwhelming response, and I was billed Rs.4000 for the server utilisation. I found it too heavy for my pocket with zero income, and so had to take the service down after orientation. I have later added it to our group expenses, and we are yet to settle it among ourselves, by the way.

Who is better suited at handling the orientation than its architect? Sidhant was the unspoken incharge of the team during the orientation. We had rains, unexpected delays, tight deadlines, and I have no idea how we managed it. Sidhant did an excellent job. We had tour of stalls, street play, and departmental Q&A sessions. And we had to handle parents who were angry at the infrastructure, who were angry at us, student volunteers. Oh and I got calls from parents asking which gate to use to enter IIT. You know what? Publishing your mobile number as a first point of contact has its perks. (Hope you get the sarcasm.)

Isha and Tapas worked on mentorship code of conduct and mentoring handbook. Rohit worked with Mrs. Rupa Murghai, our student counselor, and designed the mentor orientation and training. It was good, but in hindsight, the process should have been actively extended throughout the year. The initial sessions were not totally enough in my opinion.

Our team visited all hostels to meet with freshers and identify any potential issues. We conveyed the messages to the respective channels, and they were dealt with appropriately.

Language sessions were organised. Tapas handled english classes. An instructor was appointed by the institute for the classes, and they received a good response. I handled hindi classes, and that wasn’t as good. When the winter chills set in, all of them being new to such weather, completely bailed out.

We collected mid semester and end semester feedback. And I had to replace a couple of mentors who weren’t doing their job well.

Whoa! I barely covered major events of first semester. And people ask, what does MRC do at all? Maybe we should do better publicity.

Then we had a curious case of mass copying. I really don’t want to discuss it, but it should suffice to say that almost all of us spent a lot of time on that. We had another round of mentor self evaluation and feedback. It is being analysed. We had organised an all day long gender sensitisation event titled Jamaavda, followed by a discussion on the same. We had also organised a couple of career talks.

I personally toured all hostels with BSW secys and SAC and CAIC Gsecs, to discuss code of conduct and the general outline for the meeting with director. It was postponed due to an unfortunate accident that claimed the lives of four of our final year students.

Vatsal got a initial draft of survey questions designed, and myself and Vatsal worked for a couple of days and nights and published our annual assessment and feedback. Responses are being collected as I write this. We will analyse the results and present them as a part of our annual report. The anonymised responses will be made available for the entire IITD community to analyse for themselves.

We are still working on our recommendations to the institute, which will be included as the final section to our annual report. It is going to be slightly bulky. Just a review of our activities is upwards of 50 pages as of now.

We still have to select the next MRC, and join the advisory board of MRC. I just made that name up. All past members of MRC are still in contact with each other through a online community, and we regularly discuss our plans and ask for advice when necessary. Why not give it a good sounding name as well?

About the team:

The team consists of six coordinators, one of whom will act as the overall coordinator. We have a very flat structure, everyone is an equal. The OC is a little shiny tag that carries the massive responsibility of representing MRC to the institute. Also, an unwritten rule states that OC pays for all parties. By the way, MRC runs on a strict zero budget. We handle not a single rupee from the institute. We don’t want to.

Everyone takes up responsibility for some specific task they are good at. I was already moderately famous (infamous?) at IITD, and I managed to do a hopefully-not-so-bad-job of interacting with freshmen batch of 2012, so I took up outreach as my primary responsibility.

Primarily, Isha handled feedbacks, Rohit handled student counseling services, Tapas worked on language classes, Sidhant was incharge of orientation, and Vatsal managed all our activities. Most other activities were shared by two or three of us.

What do we do? We manage mentoring. And in short, if something concerns first yearites, MRC probably can do something about it. We just restrict ourselves to make the work manageable. I’m not really good at explaining stuff, but feel free to ring up any of us if you still don’t have a clear picture of what MRC does. Unless your query is “How did you manage to do all that”? For that, I have no answer. I have absolutely no idea how we made it this far. All I remember is it took us some effort.

It has been a great experience. Looking forward to the next team.

If you want to join the team and make a dent in the universe, so to speak, apply to be a part of the next team.

What I’d been doing last week

Hi folks!

I was glad to hear that my blog has some regular followers, and they asked me what I’d been doing the past week, so here’s a summary.

  • I was trying to figure out what should be done regarding my project. ( Ethernet controlled thermal testing chamber ) Bought an oven, a compressor, and was trying to play with a beagleboard my professor gave.
  • And our mentorship team decided to have a new website, I hopped in. Tried Drupal locally for the first time, and with 4 hours of struggle, got abasic site with pretty stuff up and running. After a couple of demos, I was asked to deploy it live. We went ol, around three days back, and after two full night outs and a couple days work, We now have a fully functional site  at www.smpiitd.org ( Its down for maintenance, atm. Should be back live in a week, after I add proper content. )
  • Had been teaching few class XII students maths. ( This is for NSS, in collab with Aarohan NGO )

Pretty much, thats the most of what I’d been busy with. And I must say, the website design thingy was very exciting, and I lost track of time doing that. Worked some 35 hours at a stretch,  taking gap only to go for Aarohan teaching, and I had to stop when my tummy made a ‘Hunger call’ and my eyes refused to stay open. Had a moderate dinner and slept a good 17 hours after that. 😛