INRIA, Rennes, France – Mihir Vahanwala

They say that your entire life flashes before you right before you die. Well, you do want to recall the high points of your life, but as a barely adult sophomore trying to draft a resume for the first time, flirting with death isn’t quite a viable option. My name is Mihir Vahanwala, and this is the story of how I got paid. 

 It all began in August 2019. “Company or university?”

The corporate world didn’t quite appeal to me. Neither did I trust my skills as a developer at the time. Of course I have developed since, but that’s a different story.

Univ.” I decided. My reasons weren’t so clear back then. My CSE-DAMP mentor spoke about how sophomores had set a trend of opting for European university internships. A summer in Europe! And universities recruited first through the PT cell. And the selection process was heavily based on CPI. My CPI was more than decent so…

Off went résumés to the PT cell. In came the recruiters. Up shot the shortlists, right to the top of oft-refreshed feeds. The internship season had begun. And with it, murmurs. 

“No surprises there. They’re geniuses, and have insanely high grades.”

“Wait what? I can’t believe it! This process is so random.”

“Look at this selection! It’s clearly biased.”

There wasn’t any point in speculating or complaining. Not when an interview shortlist was updated with my name in it, eight hours before the interview. With three of those hours to be devoted to a lab.

It was a blur. I hurriedly looked up a few details about the interviewer and his publications. However, I made a crucial mistake: I didn’t devote enough time to organize my thoughts and visualize the interview and the likely courses the discussion would take. In an evening fuelled by adrenaline, I messed up. 

Importantly though, it was reassuring to know that my résumé was getting noticed. The very next recruiters were profs from IRISA Rennes, France. This time, I made the shortlist in the first go. There were going to be two rounds of interviews: a personal round immediately, and a technical round after the endsems. This time, I was wiser. This time, I went in with a plan.

I spoke about what topics caught my fancy, particularly Linear Algebra. I spoke of how a career in research is one of my top options. I spoke about keeping an open mind, for there is still a lot to learn and discover. I spoke with humility and verve, and that made for a convincing pitch.

For the technical round, each candidate was given a published research paper based on the interests they had expressed. If recruited, this paper would serve as a starting point for the research we would conduct ourselves. How to get recruited? Explain to the interviewers what you understood of the paper the best you can. 

Meanwhile, I had found the third semester a grueling journey, and the end-semester exam was the final boss fight. I did fairly well in most papers, but Discrete Structures was, for lack of better terms, a disaster. It was disappointing, but I didn’t think much of it- I had a research paper to read; an interview to prepare for, a mission to accomplish!

I was so thrilled that I began reading the very night I got home. The paper dealt with a special case of the Skolem problem- a long standing open problem in mathematics and computer science. This is a problem that entails the application of sophisticated discrete mathematics against the backdrop of elementary Linear Algebra! Indeed, they made a note of what I said in the first round!

I had two weeks. I looked up definitions I hadn’t been introduced to. I scratched my head over tersely written proofs. I hunted down the papers in the citations. And, soon enough, the dots connected. I could actually see the concepts I learnt in my Discrete Structures course in action. I felt, “Ooh, this is elegant!”

I aced the technical interview. In the excruciating wait for the results, I prepared myself mentally to start applying independently. Apping. That wasn’t necessary. 

The day I was told I landed the internship, it felt like I had more than redeemed my terrible endsems. “Your grade in this course doesn’t matter as much as what you learnt.” We’ve all heard some iteration of this advice. That day was the first time those words truly resonated. I was proud to get my first core job. Thank you, CS 207. 

I was to work with the SUMO (Supervision of large Modular and distributed systems) team of INRIA Rennes; in particular, under Prof. Blaise Genest from IRISA, a research lab of which INRIA is a collaborator. Travel and accommodation would be paid by the SUMO team, and I would also get healthy 550 Euro monthly allowances for my 8-week stint in Rennes.

Rennes, here I come! (Spoiler Alert: not in Summer 2020.)

Semester 4 soon commenced. Having the internship in the bag made me a lot more positive. It reassured me that I had a bigger purpose. Frustrating assignments and quizzes didn’t weigh me down as much as they did before – very soon, I was going to devote my time and energy to much better things. I was sure I’d love the adventure.

Prof. Blaise made a visit to IIT-Bombay in mid-February. We had a couple of engaging discussions about the direction our research would take, how that would make for a “very good paper”, and it only reinforced my excitement!

Off on a tangent, I reckon I understood a bit of how human happiness works – it follows when you have something to look forward to. A purpose. An environment where you’re assured that your opinion matters. And in that moment, I was happy. 

And then there were a few bumps along the way. Shortly after my disappointing midsems, COVID-19 laid waste to my summer travel plans. The pent up frustration triggered a host of negative thoughts that were detrimental to my self-esteem. 

Fortunately, my correspondence with the team at INRIA was proactive. We had already agreed that working from home would be possible. With several constraints on interaction and limited technical discussions, I’d have to work a lot harder to add value to the project and make it worthwhile. I was still haunted by low self-esteem and when I started out, I didn’t have enough confidence to believe in success. 

Inspiration came from the song Livin’ on a Prayer by Bon Jovi.

We’ve gotta hold on,

To what we’ve got,

It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not.

We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot for love,

We’ll give it a shot!

I realized that the internship was the best opportunity I had to grow and to explore Computer Science, regardless of the fruit it would bear. So what if there are compromises? At its core, this is the work I had been looking forward to. Yes, it deserved my best shot. 

Despite the negativity in my head, I realized that I’m privileged to have financial security and the safety of my home in this global upheaval. I’m privileged to have parents who are incredibly supportive of my work and speak of it with pride. 

“Yes, I’ll give it my best shot.” I decided. Because you don’t cross the chasm of self-doubt in little jumps. You must take the leap of faith.

Prof. Blaise had a mission – he wanted to investigate Linear Recurrence Sequences from a novel perspective. He recruited a team: Prof. S Akshay from IIT-B, his frequent collaborator and an experienced researcher in this topic; Hugo Bazille, a bright young man who had recently earned his doctorate under the supervision under Prof. Blaise; and me, the starry eyed intern. 

Our research falls under theoretical computer science, and is purely mathematical. We set up an svn repository to collaborate. (svn works a lot like git) Our codebase: a handful of LaTeX files. We agreed to meet every Wednesday, and sometimes on Mondays, should the need arise.

The first week wasn’t all that great. I was asked to prove an intuitive claim. However, there were a few technical misunderstandings, and I produced a hideous brute-force argument. Teething problems: it takes a while to get on the same page. Well, I was learning.

In the next few weeks, the proofs became more refined, but the way I organized the growing LaTeX source code was amateurish, until it was gently pointed out. And then one day, I found a blunder in one of my crucial proofs. It took a while to fix the argument so that the other claims which hinged on it wouldn’t fall apart. It threw me off schedule for a bit but I realized that it’s infinitely more important to proceed correctly than to proceed quickly.

I felt frustrated when I would intuit something, and realize that I didn’t have a whiteboard and physical proximity to explain my thoughts. The chirpy little optimist in me said – “Look at the bright side: you are making an articulate record of your thoughts in the first go, when you type proofs out in LaTeX.” And, let’s be honest, LaTeX documents are a feast for the eyes.

I committed revision after revision to our repository. I put in hours formalizing flashes of inspiration. All to report to my team, Wednesday at 1600 IST (+0530 GMT). I’d present, there’d be constructive criticism, I’d think on my feet and fall back on the insight I gained to construct a coherent response – and in the end I would finally get my point across, and be met with appreciation. Meetings were an exhausting, but rewarding affair!

Five or six weeks in, I made my first major breakthrough. My team, especially Prof. Blaise, was delighted. I felt proud of myself. Our team was a space where making mistakes was okay, as long as I worked earnestly to rectify them. At that moment, I looked back at the past month or so, and realized how much Prof. Blaise had believed in me. And I delivered. It was a huge boost for my self-esteem.

That’s the hallmark of a great leader: believe in people. Give them a long rope to learn from their mistakes and grow. Your faith will do wonders. It did for me, and I am grateful.

A week or two later, there was a rather rough meeting with several technical disagreements. I was upset – the points were all there in my report, how could they not connect the dots? Why did they seem to be in such a rush? Am I not a priority? “Don’t worry,” said my mum. “They’ll hear you out next time.” Sure enough, the next meeting was a lot more composed. The eureka moment dawned, and all was good again. “You’ve amazed me, yet again” said Prof. Blaise, and I beamed like a little boy, yet again. 

Work progressed steadily. Prof. Akshay introduced me to some relevant literature. I was thrilled to read up on field extensions and Galois theory and other fancy mathematics, even if it was a cursory glance. I now knew what to cite to lend our arguments credibility. 

Hugo would go over the report and suggest edits – define this more rigorously, explain that more explicitly. I would diligently make note. Idea after idea got incorporated in the report.

The internship was officially supposed to last only eight weeks; however, seniors before me had continued to associate with IRISA/INRIA even after that – they went on to publish papers in conferences. I happily agreed to continue. The pandemic showed no signs of abating. This job was an excellent way to use my time, I was well set, and we were beginning to feel that we had enough results to start writing a paper. So much to look forward to!

One evening, I committed the finishing touches to one of our main claims. I noticed that a few more files had been added. One of them was LaTeX source code. “main.tex”. I typeset it. Lo and behold, it was a document in the LIPIcs (Leibniz International Proceedings in Informatics) conference paper format! It was indeed time to start writing a paper. 

Cheesy as it may sound, the Avengers theme played in my head. This was a big moment. This was a subtle, yet powerful acknowledgement from Prof. Blaise that I did well enough.

Most conferences have a submission deadline in early 2021. We haven’t yet decided on which one we will submit to, but we’ve made a start. The cornerstone has been laid, we will continue to work, and hopefully, I can make my debut as a published research author.

I have enjoyed working with Prof. Blaise so far, and have learnt more than just academics from the way he conducted our research. I really do hope I can visit him and Hugo in Rennes this winter, or next summer, and then proceed to present the fruits of our collaboration in a conference.

I love the whole research internship experience, and I’m now considering a life in academia. I know I can persevere over a problem. I’ve steadily learnt how to accept being proven wrong. Given a problem, I believe I can grasp and elucidate both the finer details and the bigger picture. I enjoy the process of extracting the essence of an idea, and then thinking of ways to organize it coherently. The prospect of teaching excites me!

“Company or university?”

Univ.” I’ll say. My eyes have more resolve. My reasons are clearer now. I haven’t had so much conviction in my ambition ever before.

5 months ago