Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Journey Towards Becoming a Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholar

Those of us who know me and have been following me may know that I recently got the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship for Europe, Middle East and Africa. This is the first time that a woman from Pakistan has won this prestigious scholarship ever since its inception in 2007. Over the past few weeks several people (specially women in Pakistani tech circles) have requested me to share my journey towards this scholarship and what were the hurdles that had to be overcome along the way. So, here I am sharing my story for those who had requested me.

First and foremost it would not have been possible without the support of two very important males in my life namely my father and my husband. My father has a huge role because he is the one who gifted me with the best education possible throughout my childhood thereby building strong foundations for me in early days. I firmly believe my husband to be one of the finest programmers of the world and those who have worked with him can definitely bear testimony to that. My husband has a huge role in this success as he is the one who is always working hard on me to polish my programming skills (giving me useful advices at every stage of life be it technical or any other matter pertaining to life). For a woman to be successful, it is very significant to have the support of male members of her family and this is what completes a life of a female member in the family despite the fact that media continuously reports negative things; the reality has been different throughout my life and also in the life of those whom I know back home in Pakistan. By splitting family apart no entity of family can function better and I would compare family to a running engine with each part playing an important role.

Coming back to the story it all began with the nights I used to spend in solving tough mathematical problems during my O-level days. When compared to the matriculation system, we have a considerably different and tougher Mathematics curriculum in O-levels (with subjects such as Probability and Statistics, Differentiation, Vectors etc. included and which normally Matriculation students study at a later stage); more than the curriculum I very well remember the role of my teachers who kept re-iterating their pride in me when I successfully solved a Mathematics challenge problem (our O-levels book had some of those in every activity and normally I was the only one in class who solved them); the joy of getting praise from your Maths teacher for solving a problem that no one in the class was able to solve was simply out of this world and it kept me going until the undergraduate stage came where I had to decide my major. On account of my love for Applied Mathematics a natural choice was Computer Science. This new world both amazed and baffled me for I had no prior experience in programming but challenges are one of the biggest motivators towards the path of learning and even history bears testimony to that; greater the challenges in one's life greater he/she is able to learn to overcome them.

Right in the beginning of my undergraduate years I came across some highly innovative and selfless people and together we formed the first ever open source students body BloX in our university, under BloX I imparted useful Linux knowledge to my juniors and helped them in getting a grip over fundamental Linux concepts. Mind you I have completely discarded anything to do with Windows as of now and am a proud Linux convert; and I also attribute a great deal of credit in my success to this wonderful operating system which always teaches you so much about the world of Computing. Many of those who had joined BloX in its initial days left it; it turned out they were after the fascination of it all as BloX got to represent Department of Computer Science, Karachi University in ITCN Asia 2004. Soon after ITCN Asia 2004 when actual Linux development had to be done not many wanted to go for it as it was not the "in thing in market" and could not guarantee a job which seemed to be the only purpose of Computer Science undergrads those days (this remains true to this day) and very few cared about the knowledge of science behind Computers. We finally had to dissolve BloX but the experience left us more motivated and charged; today a smile comes to my face thinking of those fun-filled days. I along with my colleague (who happens to be my husband now) kept doing the fun things in the world of Computer Science winning software competitions along the way, developing our own research-based Linux distribution called PAL Linux which was also distributed to all students of Parallel Computing final year course and finally getting our very own research paper published (it was about redefinition of images so as to enhance semantic search over them). All this while our colleagues started internships/jobs in reputed software houses of Pakistan and they had already begun to make money adding to the peer pressure; however, we kept going despite the odd questions we faced with regard to our career after BS (Computer Science). I did however join a small, unknown software house and I very well remember the critics of this decision from among my class mates; however, that was only to keep some amount of money coming since we needed funds for both marriage and MS abroad (by this time we had made up our minds to pursue an advanced degree in Computer Science).

South Korea seemed to be the best choice for both of us as there was tuition fees exemption along with a stipend to cover living expenses and KAIST happens to be the MIT of entire Asia. I felt more passionate when Professor Kyu-Young Whang of Database and Multimedia Laboratory in KAIST was ready to support our application as married students. Despite the fact that to many, South Korea was an unusual choice, and in their ignorance (underestimation of South Korea as significant entity in scientific world) everyone seemed to be advocating for United States as ultimate destination for Master's degree in Computer Science, we knew we had made the right choice and time bore testimony to that. KAIST turned out to be a life-changing experience and I can easily say it made me learn more than what some of my seniors doing MS in Europe or United States learnt. Professor Whang is an ACM Fellow within the Database community and a Computer Science legend within himself; he made us spend hours in the lab (sometimes we would work for more than 16 hours a day and during my Master's thesis defense I spent three days plus three nights straight in the lab with my husband cooking noodles for both in snow using a portable stove). I attribute much of my Computer Science research skills to Professor Whang and his PhD/PostDoc students who taught us valuable stuff behind coming up with a research statement, identifying open issues in current state-of-the-art within a field, design of solutions for solving a research problem in Computer Science, programming in the best way possible so as to keep systems scalable and useful for generations to come and writing your papers as clearly as possible adhering strongly to scientific method of passing knowledge. This article of mine on "Programming vs. Coding" was a result of some of Professor Whang's advices during his Database class and I did mention this article in my Google Anita Borg application. All this time we maintained links back in Pakistan and students kept writing to me for advices on career paths; I took out time to answer them and to always stay in touch with my roots back home.

During our respective PhDs, we wanted to explore a different region and Europe was our choice with flexible, caring supervisors and excellent research opportunities to come up with our own problem statement. Adding to this is wonderful experience of my current PhD supervisors namely Colm O'Riordan and Gabriella Pasi who always have enriching research directions from within information retrieval and fuzzy logic; and they provided us with what was missing in South Korea i.e. the opportunity to form research networks around the world and freedom to pursue paths we choose best for ourselves. Lastly, and most significantly, we still maintain a presence in Pakistan via our own research lab within the Computer Science Department of the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, Pakistan - an experience that could be characterized as both exciting and frustrating. At times it is really painful to argue for hours with people in academic circles back home on the usefulness of a research lab and why it is essential to conduct scientific research. In countries like Pakistan, universities focus mainly on teaching, as there is insufficient support for research (mainly due to economic problems). I am constantly working to break this culture; I work with various students from time to time where I assist them for their thesis or final year projects motivating them for novel research ideas in the domain of Web Science. The Web Science and Technology Research lab, despite still being in its infancy, has been successful. Last year it was represented at the International Conference on World Wide Web, one of the most prestigious conferences in my field.

As a summary here are some tips for those who asked
1) Value people and treat them with respect as you can learn something from each and every person you come across. Take out time to reply to emails of those expecting something from you or reaching out to you even if its a very small matter; it does make a lot of difference at the end of the day.
2) Speak less and do more; there are times when actions mean everything and you have to give up ranting about things like success and rather take steps to achieve your goals. Remember procrastination is human's worst enemy.
3) Don't keep complaining about your circumstances as they are never easy for anyone. I remember a time when I did not have money to buy a Computer table and I had to program sitting on the floor; I didn't complain then and today I own around three computers/laptops in various parts of the world.
4) Communication skills matter a lot and it is extremely important to market yourself in the best way possible. Everyone has something special and he/she just needs the right way to market that something special.
5) Love technical stuff (not just gadgets) but science behind the things; do not kill your intellectual curiosity by settling for "glittering" gadgets and instead focus on innovative ideas stemming out from your gadgets.
6) Do not pay much heed to critics of your decisions for they are there to make you firm. This does not mean not paying attention to meaningful advices from people that matter but remember most of the criticism comes from people who know not.

To end on a humorous note, I made a funny meme which sort of was my reaction when people acknowledged my achievement in big words. This is not intended to make anyone feel bad and is just pure humor.


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  2. MashAllah sis just loved reading through ur journey , gives me motivation to do my MS too :)

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