The Man with a Plan
Rahul Anand R (MSc TCS 2017 -2022) and N Krishna (MSc TCS 2018 – 2023) have a conversation with Dr. R Nadarajan, Professor and Head, Department of Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences (AMCS) right before the introduction of a new 5 year integrated post graduate programme, MSc in Cyber Security. Dr. Nadarajan, in his trademark cryptic fashion, attributes all his successes and endeavors to be a direct effect of him being a non-linear person but this interview can only be written in a linear fashion owing to the medium, so read on:
Krishna: What is the story behind the inception of MSc Cyber Security? When was the idea formulated?
Dr. Nadarajan: Back in 2007, the department got a collaborative research project funded by the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) related to security in computing with Dr. R Anitha (current visiting faculty) as principal investigator. A direct outcome of that project was that some of the faculty members were able to complete their top quality PhD theses in domains such as cryptography, steganography, security protocols, malware and botnet detections, etc. This gave us the confidence that we have enough expertise in the field even in 2012 and we envisioned a 5 year programme around the same time. But by 2015, the Data Science boom was on and we jumped on that opportunity to introduce the programme.
Rahul: Was the Data Science programme being envisioned in parallel with Cyber Security at the time?
Dr. Nadarajan: No, it was put together instantaneously within a year. The MSc programme was revived in 2014, and we introduced Data Science in 2015 in keeping with our department’s motto, “Stay ahead, and be relevant”. We initially intended the programme to comprise of one-third Mathematics, one-third Statistics and one-third Computer Science, but one of our alumnus who is a data scientist at Facebook suggested that we add in a component for the business and products division. I think this sort of an alumni network is the department’s biggest strength. I always interact with people looking for suggestions and feedback and that has always proven beneficial. Another thing I would like to point out here is the foresight shown by the PSG Management. They readily accepted the introduction of the programme, seeing its relevance and that is the quality that has made PSG the pioneers in technical education over the years.
Krishna: What is the SPARK that you keep referring to when talking about students?
Dr. Nadarajan: High quality decision making demands rich debate and intuitive thinking. The evaluation is based on our experience with students over the years and our judgement. This is where I believe the trust of the management in our department becomes important as it forces us to make error free judgements. In fact, the Managing Trustee is part of the selection panel. I am a person who wants to leverage the phenomenal brand that PSG has created for itself to broaden our horizons, not just take shelter under it and our selection of candidates is in tune with that goal. There is always a small significant level for us going wrong but it has been a success for the most part as reflected by the placements.
Rahul: What should the first years expect from the department, especially in the current situation with the pandemic?
Dr. Nadarajan: The only thing I would ask them to do is trust that they are a part of a really good institution that has a legacy starting from 1951 and a department that introduced the five year integrated MSc Software Engineering way back in 1997 . Trust is very important and is recurrent in all of this – the management’s trust in the department, my trust in my faculty colleagues, the students’ trust in the department and so on. Another thing that we all trust and hope is that the pandemic crisis will get over soon. A point I’d like to add here is that the students should be looking forward to working beyond class hours in the laboratories. This has been a long standing culture in the department.
Rahul: What is your take on placements and internships taking a hit in these times? What is something that we could have done to better equip ourselves?
Dr. Nadarajan: There is a long list of things that we could have adopted. One example I could think of now is ready inclusion of student consulting projects (the internships in the department come close to this) which not only provide experience but monetary support as well. The key is more open mindedness and experimentation from faculty members. Another important change badly needed across the country is making education concept-centric rather than tool-centric. A CS graduate shouldn’t think that knowing C, C++, Java and Python is his crowning achievement but rather focus on the underlying concepts of those tools.
Krishna: An immediately differentiating aspect of the AMCS programmes are the two internships. Apart from that, what should be one factor that sways a student towards MSc rather than engineering?
Dr. Nadarajan: The teaching-learning process is completely unique to the department and that is reflected in many ways. The inclusion of student seminar sessions encourage them to not only develop their presentation skills but also nudges them towards organic discussions about various topics. A bigger factor should be the concept of packages that is followed here. We do not believe in age old bookkeeping practices such as writing records and maintaining a record book as it serves little to no utility. We rather evaluate the students based on the packages they make at the end of a laboratory course. These play a major role in exposing students to software development right from the first semester and provides them with an edge.
Rahul: Last year, it was a pleasant surprise for some of the students of the department to see a person they knew as a senior, as a visiting faculty member. How did that come to be? (Context: Ashwin Surana (MSc TCS alumnus) returned to the college as a visiting faculty for a semester. Krishna was in his class that semester)
Dr. Nadarajan: My main agenda was to connect current students with someone they can easily relate with and understand more about the industry from the horse’s mouth given that he was working with Goldman Sachs and at the time of teaching, he was working in a startup. This was a decision that was well supported by the Principal and the Management. I think that goal was achieved and Krishna can testify to that. Nevertheless, it was not an arbitrary decision or a favor that was done there – it was a meticulously thought out decision to invite him to offer a course.
Krishna: What’s next for AMCS?
Dr. Nadarajan: We have been thinking about Computational Finance for quite sometime but the idea is still in preliminary stages. Let’s wait and see how things roll out.
Rahul: Any closing thoughts or remarks?
Dr. Nadarajan: I have a very clear goal – to get my students well placed and well recognized and that is all I can see. Even if there are a few glitches here and there, the focus is always my ultimate goal. For me, perfection is a journey and it will continue till I pass my mantle on to my successor who will embark on it in a better manner than I have.
Team Bridge would like to thank Dr. Nadarajan for this interview. For add-ons to the Cyber Security programme, read Securing the Future. Check out M.Sc Data Science and M.Sc Theoretical Computer Science: Beyond Conventional Computer Science to know about the other courses offered by the department.