Dr. Chandy graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering (Electronics) from IIT Madras in 1965, and later, with a Master’s degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1966. In 1969, he obtained his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Electrical Engineering at the Operations Research Center. After working for Honeywell and IBM, Dr. Chandy joined the Computer Science Department of the University of Texas at Austin and served from 1970-1987. Since 1987, he has been at the California Institute of Technology, first as Sherman Fairchild Fellow for two years, and then as Simon Ramo Chair Professor in Computer Science till 2014. He is now an Emeritus Professor at Caltech.
He received the A. A. Michelson Award in 1985 and the IEEE Koji Kobayashi Award in 1995 for his contributions to computer performance modeling. He was awarded the John Sherman Fairchild Scholarship in 1987. He received the ACM SIGOPS Hall of Fame Award and the ACM Edsger W. Dijkstra prize, with Leslie Lamport, for their paper on distributed snapshots. He received the IEEE Harry H Goode Award in 2017 with Jayadev Misra for contributions to distributed computing. He became an IEEE Fellow in 1990 and was inducted into the United States National Academy of Engineering in 1995. He has received teaching Awards at the University of Texas and at Caltech and has graduated more than 30 Ph.D. students. Dr. Chandy has written four books and published widely-cited papers on queuing theory and the performance.
Chennai36 had the opportunity to interview him when he came down to the Institute to collect the Distinguished Alumni Award.
How would you describe your time in IIT?
It’s been great. Everything was new, and I couldn’t ask for anything better.
An awe-inspiring journey that saw IITM, the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, MIT and later the University of Texas at Austin and Caltech. How have these places contributed to your growth as a world-renowned academician?
At IIT, the teaching was really superb. It made the classes exciting, the study exciting and the research exciting. I really wanted to continue to work in research. So, I went to Brooklyn Poly. It was the natural way to go from an IIT because scholarships were available. It was an enriching experience. After this, I went to the corporate world for a while (even here my work was research-based). This gave me a new outlook towards research. I then went to MIT which was simply wonderful. The teachers were brilliant, the students were great, and it taught me that research was one of the most exciting things one could do.
Not only because it was so engaging, but because it could really help mankind.
How do you see the outlook towards research here and in the US?
Over the years there has been a shift in research from fundamental theoretical research towards the kind of research that meets more practical needs. Computer Science, in particular, has built stronger inclinations towards the industry. The key change is that while research was about answering more theoretical questions in computer science, now it’s concerned about expanding its practical applications over exciting avenues such as medicine, social networks, government logistics, NGOs etc.
We have also learned that before joining the University of Texas at Austin, you had worked in Honeywell and IBM. What prompted a shift from a corporate setting to academia?
I enjoyed the corporate world very much. My work in IBM and Honeywell was also research-related, so my transition to academia was only natural. An important difference in both kinds of research is that while in the industry the research is about catering to the needs of the industry, in academia there is the freedom to choose the problem you want to work on.
With close to four decades of experience in academia, how would you assess the change in the academic system in general and in the Indian context?
First of all, when I look at the students who come to IIT today I notice that they do a great deal of preparation to come here. The preparation that they do today is far greater than what was required in our days. While this has its benefits, one asks about the ramifications of this. In order for one to make a contribution to research, (or anything for that matter) one must have a broad outlook towards the world. It requires a creative, lateral thinking, for which this massive preparation, course load, regular coaching classes etc. are not very conducive for. On the other hand, when I see the students of IITM they are quite broad minded despite the rigorous training they went through before they joined IIT.
It’s been more than 50 years since you graduated from IITM. How do you see the transformation of IITM over the years?
Today everybody knows IITM. Back in my time, it didn’t have nearly as much fame. The change is massive. Another massive change is the kind of support IITM gets from the government. Back in my day getting fund money was a very tiresome procedure. Today this has become far easier which is very conducive to research and development. Another important change is the increased presence of women, be it in the student body, or professionals, or academia and it’s an extremely welcome change.
But the most important change is in the student body, which has become so much more diverse today with students working in so many aspects.
We understand that your research is mostly focused on distributed command and control systems and their applications. Could you tell us briefly about your research?
Yes. There are different kinds of research at different stages in my life. So, I’ll tell you about the research I’m doing now, which is quite different from what I did earlier. So, when you look at it there are streams of data that come from everybody. There are sensors everywhere. There are sensors in your phone, sensors on bridges, sensors in hospitals. It’s exciting to see what you can do with all these streams of data to make applications more effective and more exciting. Applications that range from detecting intruders into a building, detecting earthquakes, etc. For example, a specific problem I have worked on is putting very cheap sensors into buildings, high-rises, and detecting when the Earth starts to shake so that the people inside get a warning or also determine which buildings have shaken the most. So, this is an example of using very simple kinds of sensors with lots and lots of data with several practical applications. And these can really help humanity, particularly in crisis management by helping the people in a crisis. Earthquakes, being an example, is important for where I live in California.
What advice would you like to give to scholars at IIT-M?
I think the scholars here are too good and are already doing wonderful things. If I were to give them one piece of advice, it is to think of the world really broadly. You have to think about not only the engineering you are doing but the consequences of the engineering that you are doing. And I must admit that I haven’t always done that. And sometimes, the consequences are much further downstream, many years down the line. So, getting back to the example of IIT, one fundamental concern is whether it can be used for bad purposes. A typical example is when somebody hacks into the system. So, if a person can hack into the IIT system, they’ll be able to do all kinds of really horrible things. So, from the very beginning, you got to think about how other people could exploit your work. This is not something we think about at all. You just got to think broadly about what you are doing and how it impacts people and how much it can be exploited.
Author: Divika (BT-CH ’21) & Shrigyan (BT-ME’21)