Professor Jayant Haritsa. Alumnus of electrical engineering from the batch of 1981. Chair of the Computer Science and Automation department of IISc. A brilliant database specialist who has been awarded the Infosys Prize in Engineering and Computer Science in 2014, for the significant impact and advances his work has made in the field of databases. Distingushed Alumnus Awardee of IITM in the year 2012.
Bearer of the insti name ‘Hacksaw’ because of his last name, and his fondness for cracking poor jokes.
I was truly lucky to be able to talk to this man.
When asked to tell us about himself, he makes no mention of his distinguished position or awards.
When asked to tell us about himself, he makes no mention of his distinguished position or awards. He simply tells us about that after earning his BTech, he did his Masters and PhD from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a post-doc from the University of Maryland in College Park. He has been in IISc for 23 years now – from the year 1993 – and is Bangalorean by birth. He still resides in his ancestral house fifteen kilometres away from campus.
We speak first of Professor Haritsa’s time at IIT Madras. He tells us that the greatest thing which he learnt at IIT is the ability to look at problems and solve them in a conceptual manner; not just from an application perspective looking at the mathematical perspective and the underlying concepts. “That”, he says, “is the hallmark of IIT. Most engineering colleges don’t teach you concepts, they teach you tools. But you don’t understand why they work and that is more important in the long run than just having some mastery of the tool.”
Professor Haritsa was a man of many interests. He was, in his time at IIT, the general secretary of Mandakini hostel ( in his first year), the editor of the hostel magazine of Ganga hostel, and a patron and student (unskilled, according to him) of Carnatic music.
He recalls for me a particularly memorable incident from his first year, involving a Professor Swami (now deceased) who taught him physics. “He was a brilliant teacher, but he had a rather volatile temper. So one day in class, he asked a rhetorical question – ‘Gentlemen, why is there no good textbook for physics?’ And I quietly told my neighbour, ‘Because he hasn’t written one yet.’”
Unfortunately, this comment did not go unheard. “He came towards me, and I was convinced that my career at IIT was over”, Professor Haritsa says humorously. “He was just looking at me and I just stood there waiting for my death. Then suddenly he started laughing uproariously. ‘Very impertinent’, he said, ‘but very true!’ I never opened my mouth in class again.”
We encourage people to be good at analysis but not at design; we can analyse a circuit and derive all the currents and voltages, but asked to design a new one – that is very hard.
We now talk of Professor Haritsa’s time abroad, and of the difference between the American and Indian educational systems. According to him, about ten to fifteen years ago universities abroad were far better with regard to encouraging creativity. “We encourage people to be good at analysis but not at design; we can analyse a circuit and derive all the currents and voltages, but asked to design a new one – that is very hard. Abroad you are encouraged to be unconventional, go against the grain, go against conventional wisdom, not worrying about if something in syllabus or not; the focus is on creativity. We Indians were scholars but not researchers.”
Though this is changing, according to him, we are still stuck in a ‘note-taking, syllabus based’ idea of education. “Why should you take down notes?” asks Professor Haritsa. “The slides are available on the web; the textbook is there; so there is really no need. In the USA there was no insistence either on attendance or on notes; it is not something that engages your mind with the subject, it is just mindlessly writing down things. But here many professors get upset if you don’t take down notes, they feel that it is rude and that there is arrogance in your behaviour.” As he begins to warm up to the topic, he explains to us the system he uses in IISc. “The exams we conduct are open book and open time exams; we start at 8 in the morning and you can bring any book you want for reference. We give you as much time as you want; even if you stay till 8 at night we will even provide you with food. We say that we are going to give you interesting and creative problems; let’s see how you do them, without any need for mugging up the text book or a clock ticking over your head; and that I feel is how it should be done, especially in higher educational institutions. In industry they won’t say ‘I’ve taken away the book, tell me the answer’; they ask ‘can you give me an answer?’ And generally you face new situations for which there are no ready-made answers.” This is, according to the professor, where American universities differ from ours and it is a key difference.
When asked why he took up teaching as a profession, he wryly admits that he swore never to do so as a student; he was a trouble maker in school, and had no intentions of suffering through the same torment he inflicted on teachers. “I think,” he says, “you often become that which you swear to never be!”
He then says that the reason he became a teacher was so that he would have a captive audience for his poor jokes.
I like drawing parallels with the real world – for example I tell my students that everything that is there in computer science is there in Hindi movies!
Speaking more seriously, he tells us “But more than that I enjoy teaching those things which involve concepts and require you to think differently, and I like drawing parallels with the real world – for example I tell my students that everything that is there in computer science is there in Hindi movies! And as I like to write this kind of came naturally.”
His greatest joy as a professor in IISc is the feeling that he is helping to transform the by-rote Indian educational system into a true educational system.
We now talk of bringing creativity into the Indian educational system. As soon as the topic comes up, Professor Haritsa’s eyes light up – clearly this is something close to his heart (in fact, he later tells us that his greatest joy as a professor in IISc is the feeling that he is helping to transform the by-rote Indian educational system into a true educational system).
“We should encourage the students to think, ‘how do we do something new’?” he says earnestly. “And I’ll give you an example from a US university. We were asked what kind of system would we design if we had to go from here to the moon; and if it were left to us then we would say, ‘I’ll build a rocket and design a space station and I’ll fly from here to the moon.’ But there one was one very interesting answer from an American student. He said, ‘I’ll connect a steel cable to the moon and make an elevator. You press the button saying moon, and it will take you to the moon.’ (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, anybody?) Now look at the engineering involved in this. Because of the wind pushing the cable it will get ripped out of the earth, so he said that he would build it in the ocean; since that can take some movement in the area where the cable is anchored. And because it is a twisted cable and it is shaking there is some engineering involved with that. It may still be a far-fetched idea but could any of us have thought of this?”
He then cites the example of Kekule-he had dreams of snakes chasing their own tails and he thought of the structure of benzene. “If an Indian student had had those same dreams they would have thought of Nagapanchami, not of carbon connections. So it’s not that we don’t have the same dreams, it’s our receptivity and reaction to them.”
“We need to be goats, not sheep; goats are very independent, they do their own thing. There is too much of herd mentality.”
“One more thing is this – all the JEE toppers generally take computer science, and the next set take the next branch, and so on. So does that mean that all the top rankers like computer science? It is peer pressure that makes us do this. If a JEE top ranker likes Aeronautics, will he have the courage to do that? So that is why I say we need to be goats, not sheep; goats are very independent, they do their own thing. There is too much of herd mentality. I take the analogy of Venky Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. He joined the MBBS program in Baroda and then he switched to BSc; even the clerks thought he had made a mistake because everyone was switching in the opposite direction. Then he did a PhD in physics, and realised that he was not good at physics and did a second PhD in biology. Then he had a high paying job in the US and he shifted to England to work for half the salary because he wanted to work with that group. Then he won the Nobel Prize. Every decision he made was contrary to conventional Indian wisdom. It is because he had the courage to make those decisions that he won the prize. That courage is something which we largely remove from our students. This is what we need to change. We need to let them do new things, explore. That is the big difference between outside and here; they think for themselves but we allow our aunts and uncles to think for us and that is the problem.”
We now speak of Professor Haritsa’s work in databases. According to him, it is the heavy lifter and the most important aspect of computing. It is present everywhere though you don’t see it; behind the screens, and it is what does all the number crunching and data management. “Everything – the JEE exam and counselling; the Aadhar program; E-governance; net banking; it is all based on databases”, he says strongly.
“Stop outsourcing life and think; you’ll be far happier in the long run.”
Unfortunately, due to lack of time, we were forced to leave our conversation here. Professor Haritsa left after giving these final words of advice. “Please think for yourselves. Don’t worry about what others around you are doing; you need to live your life. So stop outsourcing life and think; you’ll be far happier in the long run.”
Stop outsourcing life. A powerful motto to live by.
To read Professor Haritsa’s article, “Why Indian Students Should be Goats and not Sheep”, on the Infosys blog, click the link below :