Prof. David Koilpillai (Dean, Planning) speaks to the Chennai 36 team about his time at IITM, his dreams for the place and life in general.

On JEE coaching and JEE

I didn’t have any formal coaching. I took some postal coaching now and then. I first heard of IIT when I went to Loyola college for my 11th and 12th. I focused more on the board exams.  A whole bunch of people from our college, Loyola College (Madras), came for the exam. The first exam was Maths. Three-fourths of the people didn’t come back for the rest of the exams. There were four exams of 3 hours each stretched over 3 days. I wrote the exam without any expectations because Maths was very tough. Usually one subject would be the elimination subject (Maths in our year) and it was the first paper. So on the day of the results, they would put it up outside all the gates; I didn’t even come to check the results. A classmate told me that my number was there.

On hostel life at IIT M

In our days, the first years were in a separate hostel. There were only 230 students in the incoming batch. We were all either in Alak or Mandak. I was in Alak. For the next four years I was in Jamuna hostel.

In our year, South Zone did really well. We had AIR 1,3,4,7,9,10 in our batch. Ours was an interesting batch. Those days IIT used to conduct an exam called Joint Advanced Test. If you cleared it after JEE, you could skip one year. We were the 21st batch to enter IIT. In the last 20 years, not a single person had cleared JAT. But in our batch there was one student did. He chose not skip one year. Later, he won the Feynman Fellowship to Caltech. We also had really good sports persons. There was a boy who had represented Karnataka in Swimming. Hockey turned out to be one of those games where we had a strong team. If Mandak and Alak had been allowed to compete as a single team we would have probably won a lot of events. I played hockey from school. My father and grandfather played hockey before me. My goal in IIT was to represent IIT in Hockey because it was a family tradition. I didn’t have any other goal. I also started playing Kabbadi, Basketball, Volleyball and Athletics. I used to play on the right extreme in Hockey.

The number of activities in our time was comparatively less. Most of them were hostel centric. Today the number of activities and the number of clubs have increased. Ours was a time when there was no internet. There was not much to do after class. There was time for crossword, scrabble competitions. Our schedules were not as packed as yours. We had Mardi Gras in our days. Now Saarang has 5 events going on at once.

We used to go cheer for inter hostel events. It was a lot of fun. We used to have informal interaction sessions basically what is called ragging today. (Us: Even today it is not called ragging). It was based on the Department you were in. Electrical was supposed to be a very tough branch. Students had to be prepared to stay for 5, 6, 7 years. It was all on a lighter vein. I didn’t come across anyone who was abused. If they knew that you play hockey, they would send you to the hockey ground and the hockey people would tease you. The seniors would pick on the guys who were interesting characters. If a guy was a good orator, the seniors would give him a random topic and test his skills. We enjoyed that quite a lot. We were once asked to stand in a line and insult a sardarji (Also a senior). And the sardarji said that if you insult me then you’ll really have it. It was a memory that would last a lifetime.

On hockey

Six of the insti hockey team members were in Jamuna. We constantly won medals. An inter IIT that was supposed to be held in Chennai was cancelled due to rains. The next year we went to Bombay for Inter IIT. We had won 9 consecutive Inter IITs previously.  It was like Madras versus all other IITs. Bombay had the strongest team and the other IITs were helping Bombay to win. But in the end we still won the trophy for the 10th successive year. The trophy was given to us as a permanent keepsake and we gave back another trophy. It was pleasure to be a part of that team.

On his profs when in insti

Electrical used to have outstanding but tough teachers. We had interesting teachers. Some of them had no hesitation in failing the entire class. Several of our teachers were pretty student friendly. One teacher once gave an exam on circuits such that every answer came out to be zero. After a while, we got really worried and tried to get some non-zero answer. After every lab exam we had a viva. There were really tough teachers there. We had to give a list of requirements and if we missed anything we had to work without it. First, they would ask you a very tough question to make you feel like you knew nothing in the course and the second teacher, would provide hints and make you answer the questions.

On Caltech and his experiences there

Very few people got into Caltech. I decided to try. I was second in my branch. I was sort of fortunate to get in. The letters that used to come were very thick letters. The postman who used to come would ask for tips if it was a scholarship letter. The Caltech letter was very thin and so he just slipped it under the door. Caltech was a dream experience. In many ways it was similar to IIT Madras. What was amazing was the amount of motivation the students had. First few days, one of the professors didn’t come to class, the next time he came one of the students actually asked him when he would conduct a backup class. That never happened in IIT. Infact, I remember this little rule we had which was that if the prof would come 5 minutes late, you could assume that the prof wasn’t coming and leave.  Most of the profs were on time. There were days when you knew the prof was in the building and the entire class would leave through the other staircase. In Caltech, they were really serious. Probably because this was a grad school.

First exam, the prof gives the paper, it says 3 hours and he leaves the room. Everyone starts leaving the room. I was surprised.  I asked an American classmate and he said that you could leave the room. I asked him if I could go back to my room. I asked him who would keep the time. He said you have to keep the time. Start the clock and when you finish draw a line and submit the paper. This system actually worked. Students are asked to draw a line after 3 hours, we were allowed to continue. It was an honour code. People who enforced it were the students. The student council would take action on defaulters. This set the tone for interaction between faculty and students. You start asking how to learn a subject as supposed to how to get good grades. Here in IIT the mind-set is different. Caltech taught me how to approach studying a subject.

During my time, 4 of the professors were actually Nobel Laureates. I had the opportunity to listen to Richard Feynman who was still teaching at that time. In IIT, there were toppers from every school. Coaching was not very strong at that time. They were evenly distributed among states. In Caltech it was one notch higher. There were people from all around the world and you could ask anyone for help. We had only mainframe computers in IIT, in Caltech there were PCs all over the place. I had to get help at every stage. People would be willing to help you. Another thing that I saw at Caltech was that the person who helped the most was 20 years older than I was and he was a part of a rock band. He had suddenly decided after 20 years of music to complete higher studies. Before Caltech, I thought people from IITs were amongst the hardest working people. But I was really taken aback by the work put in by people here. There was a guy from Korea who was a part of the president’s guard. His English was really weak. He would record every lecture and he would listen to every lecture 4 times to figure out what the teacher had told. We had a really tough course in the last semester. We had a 36 hour paper. After 12 hours, I met this Korean friend and I asked him how the paper was and he said that he hadn’t even understood the paper yet! He still got an A in the course.

On Mardi Gras

There was a lot of freedom during Mardi Gras. There was a lot of alcohol. For people like me, there was not much to do. Mardi Gras was catering to the others rather than IIT students. I’m glad that somewhere along the line, it became more IIT centric. The level of events was really good. The musicians and the plays were really good but there was always a wild side. Events would go on till late in the night. Western music would go on till 2-3 and people would be lying drunk in OAT.

On his professional life

I was always interested in teaching. I felt that Industry experience would help me be a better teacher. I was with GE for four years. They were pioneers in communications. GE partnered with Ericsson and later they bought over my unit of GE. I then worked for Ericson. Deciding to join IIT was a very simple decision. 40 years was considered a cut-off to join IIT. I was 39 years old and the advertisement came. I joined immediately.

On his experience as a Dean

We are responsible for the entire infrastructure. The buildings, water, electricity etc. Four years ago we were suddenly asked to double our intake. Suddenly IITs started to grow very fast. The challenge is there even now. We have self-imposed a constraint to preserve the biodiversity. We are already at a maximum-37%. The only option is to demolish old buildings as they were not designed for more than 2 floors. I believe we have done reasonably well. The fact that more and more people getting into IIT is a good thing. Some of those who don’t get in are equally capable as those who get in. But a sudden increase is problematic. You can always adjust timetables for classes but research facilities are a problem. An 18 Crore facility in coming up near CLT. It is a one of a kind transmission electron microscope. It is an extremely sensitive experiment; even minute magnetic fields from underground electric cables would damage it.

One final message to the students

Let me just say that one of the reasons I came back to IIT Madras is that I spent my happiest days here. I feel that the best way to repay the system is to make the students’ experience here very memorable for them. I encourage them to play games like Hockey. Hopefully they will be proud of being from IIT Madras. Whatever I have learnt from my time at Caltech, I will try to share with students hoping that someday with the cooperation of the students we would be in the same league. We have the potential. That’s my dream. In my time we had more interactions with faculty. I think today maybe because of large numbers we are not having much of that. At every occasion possible, I try to have some form of engagement with students like Electrical Freshie night but I think that we should move one step higher.

Prof. David Koilpillai graduated with a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering in 1984 from IIT Madras