Serving Mankind through Technology: Ashutosh Dutta
Jan 11, 2016 | Aratrika Ghose
One of those stellar alumni who was felicitated at the recent NITRAA Golden Jubilee Celebrations, Ashutosh Dutta, from the batch of 1985 of the Department of Electrical Engineering, is one of the first few who ventured outside the country and continent to pursue his higher studies and follow his passion in a distant country. As the Director of Technology Security – Mobility and Virtualization at AT&T, not only does he fulfil his role to the fullest extent, but go that extra mile to serve humanity through technology in association with IEEE. In a highly enriching interview with Team Monday Morning, he shared his experiences and left a powerful message for the entire student body.
MM: Going back to your beginnings, tell us something about your life before NIT Rourkela (then REC). Any childhood memories that you will always cherish?
AD: I did my ISC from BJB College. My childhood was mostly busy with studies and I had very little extracurricular activities. I was considered to be a good student. I was a so called rank holder in my state because I did well in my ISC. Of course, I played a few sports like cricket and its likes, but during those days, I hardly had any recreation. My personal development happened only after I joined REC Rourkela, during those four years. They gave me a whole new world and dimension; I made friends from all around the country! Initially, for the first two years, our marks weren’t really included in the grade that we got, so we had a lot of time and opportunity to indulge ourselves in other activities like athletic clubs, electronic clubs, debates.
There is a saying in Sanksrit, “Basudeva Kutumbakum” which basically means universal brotherhood, and that was the most persistent feeling that lingered with me.
We all thought then that we were like a family. When my neighbours fell sick, I took them to the doctor and vice versa. It almost felt like I was living with my brother next-door. That was one of the best things that happened!
MM: How was life at REC back then? Share with us your experiences of your times at REC.
AD: I think when I was visiting NIT recently, I realized that there has been a sea of change. We didn’t have a swimming pool, we had a stadium but not with a gallery and everything, we didn’t have so many buildings either – so in a way our activities were very limited. We had a reading room where we used to go in the evenings, and we used to play badminton in our hostels. The fun parts were of course hanging out with our friends in back post and once in a while we used to go to Sector-5 which had a market, Aam Bagan, etc. One thing that we tried was starting the Spring-Fest, which I hope is still continuing. We used to have something called the fete, which was a small, fun fair kind of thing. Obviously cricket, soccer, and other sports were fairly common and we often hosted these games for students from other colleges as well. I think we had a very good close relationship with all the students and faculties.
MM: How do you think life at REC has changed?
AD: Life at REC has changed for the better. Nowadays you get a lot of opportunity to develop a 360-degree personality. I mean you even have a television for entertainment. I also hear that placements are going well for you. When I joined TELCO, there were only a few good companies that came to the college and this was one of them. However, I was recently in conversation with some folks who graduated in 1995 and they said that there are a lot of new companies coming. We had really few numbers of people who were studying to go abroad, out of every batch which came up to maybe only five or six. A few of us sat down together and figured out how to prepare for GRE and TOEFL. In those days, there was no online procedure, and we had to write the pre-application. We had a study group for that, and we spoke to our seniors which was also quite difficult, since there weren’t many. I wish I would have been studying now. I mean looking at NIT now, I think its rank has also gone up. So I think yes, I would have definitely liked to study here even more, now!
MM: You are here to attend the NITRAA Golden Jubilee Celebration. After how many years are you visiting the institute? What changes do you observe since your last visit?
AD: I left for USA in 1987, and before that I worked for two years in TELCO. After that I visited once in 1991, but after that I haven’t come very often. It was only late in 2010 that I visited the campus again to celebrate the silver jubilee of our batch and the golden jubilee of the institute. So needless to say, I had a marvellous time, then! It was good to see all my friends, somebody had lost hair, somebody had grown a beard and some people were visiting with their grown-up kids; unfortunately, I was visiting all by myself. Then, in 2014 I took my family – my wife and both the kids, for one day just to show them the campus. In 2015, I decided to do this visit since I was traveling to India anyway, and they said they wanted to felicitate some star alumni and luckily I was one of them.
In 2014 when I visited, I met up with a lot of students and faculty and delivered a lecture. I think that was the time when students were just coming back from their semester break, it was around the month of August. But this time it is winter break, so there were no students and I focused mostly on the celebrations that were taking place in the Dilip Tirkey Stadium. So to answer your question, I think the campus looks pretty neat and organized. I see a lot of security which is good. But this time I didn’t get a lot of chance to go around the buildings or interact with students and faculty!
MM: What changes, in terms of academics, infrastructure, research and industry relations, would you like to observe in the institute in the near future?
AD: One of the major things is that we are desperately trying to set up a bridge between the current students and overseas alumni.
For example, in USA, we have established NIT Rourkela Overseas Alumni Association (NITROAA) under the leadership of Mr. Sandip Dasverma and we are now in the process of establishing stronger bridge between overseas alumni and NIT.
Personally, I’m also very involved with IEEE which is the official forum and organization for electrical and electronic engineers worldwide. I have been pretty active there, and IEEE is really like a stepping stone for the students before they go out into the world and work in the industry or take up an academic job. That is one thing I’d like to strengthen, like the relation with a professional society and IEEE is the largest professional society with 500,000 members. I am already discussing this matter with Prof S. K. Sarangi and Prof B.S. Subuddhi. We would like to have monthly webinars on a specific topic. The other thing we are seeing is that there is a need for internship or placement. There are a lot of alumni who are faculty or are working in well-to-do posts in industries. Suppose, I work for A T & T myself and we have a lot of industry internships for under graduates. Suppose somebody is pursuing a degree abroad, or has availed some sort of a scholarship, we would like to see them try and establish a connection with NIT alumni and use it to their benefit. They are not just in USA; they are in the rest of the country as well! I think the NITRAA is already trying for something like that, but there is need for greater collaboration between them, the NIT management and the alumni elsewhere. Prof Saroj Patel, from the 1985 batch, has done a tremendous job. He and Bharat Mohanty, president of NITRAA, have done a pretty good job of creating an alumni database and then tracing them down. The IEEE connection has to strengthen, and I personally would like to contribute to that. It not only provides funding for humanitarian projects, but allows people to interact, debate and discuss with some of the brightest professional minds in the world today! We share our experiences, and it is like giving back to our alma mater and in some way that will benefit the current students and staff. Another thing that I’d like to see is greater outreach. Suppose this newsletter that you write – is it mailed to them? Do they subscribe? How do they get to know? I think a condensed weekly digest would be nice. I mean you don’t have to send the link or the whole article because sometimes we might not even have the time, but just the headlines or highlights of the week would definitely interest us! I don’t think the alumni will mind receiving a weekly email.
Another cause of concern is that in USA, the colleges use the alumni donations as a huge source of income, so I don’t know how far that idea has been pursued earnestly here. There should be some really easy way to pay, so people can just go and click on it.
You can have a body of students to reach out the alumni, so out of hundred at least ten will respond and pay. The other thing was about how much research opportunity you get. In USA, even second year students try to get involved in research. Starting independent study at an early age is always greatly beneficial – you can even write papers. I know government of India now provides a lot of funding for writing papers and delivering them outside. I myself am in the Research and Development Department, so I like to see students involved in research from an early age and that will also help the faculty.
MM: If you compare a top notch university in India like IITs or IISc with a top US university like Columbia University, we find a huge chasm, when it comes to research facilities. Why do you think there is such a widening gap when it comes to research facilities in the two countries? How do you believe this gap can be bridged?
AD: I think it is not the students – it’s the process. Every single one of the students who get admitted to an IIT or NIT are brilliant in their own way and could have definitely earned themselves a place in any deemed university outside the country! There’s also nothing wrong with the faculty, so it’s got to be something wrong with the methodology. Since I’m acquainted with the existing systems in USA and UK, I can tell you that right from their high school days, they have a lot of classes on practical knowledge which is in clear contrast to the kind of theoretical exams that we write in our academic career. The next thing is that project oriented courses are important.
I sometimes teach here in Delhi University, when I go there and start teaching I see there is not enough focus on project based learning, or hands-on training, and without that it is very difficult to rouse the interest of a student.
Maybe the faculty need to be trained a little bit more, because they are accustomed to teaching in the way that has become obsolete. So if you get faculty from outside they will also implement similar ways. If it is not possible to hire such people, then we can even send out own faculty for two or three years’ deposition in one of the foreign universities to imbibe their methods of teaching.
In USA, there are two things, there is funding for research projects from even private companies. Secondly, there are a lot of industry sponsored projects – I don’t see that happening here. Every big-shot company has a budget allotted towards research and development, but I don’t know how much collaboration you have in India. If you work in the industry, they sometimes like to take advantage of the young minds. It would be really good to have a part-time, or maybe even a full-time dedicated faculty member working from within the institute on industry outreach. Many of the foreign universities have separate departments for the purpose of industry relation and collaboration. Even sometimes when you don’t have a course that a particular industry demands, you introduce it for the same purpose.
MM: Why did you choose to pursue your higher studies outside the country? Do you believe the aforementioned gap between research facilities to be a major reason for this?
AD: Even before I went for masters I worked in India for two years. I was very happy with my job, working as a computer engineer and constantly trying to learn new things. We also had good institutes within the country, but the fact remains that an education abroad opens up a wider expanse of opportunities for you. If you’re willing to work hard there, then there is absolutely no stopping you! Your undergraduate degree doesn’t even matter if you work hard and manage to affiliate yourself with one of the reputed faculty members. I went there with the intention of getting a master’s degree, and came home carrying a PhD from one of the Ivy League schools. Probably the underdeveloped research facilities in our country were one of the reasons, but I also wanted to explore other avenues. At that time, there was not enough collaboration with the rest of the world, as it is today. I always wanted to learn and find a way to give back to both my alma mater and my country.
MM: You have so many patents registered in your name. Citing some statistics, China leads with the number of patent applications per year followed by USA, with India nowhere in the competition. Why do you believe such a scenario is prevalent in our country?
AD: When I was working for a company called Bellcore, I managed to have thirty patents accredited to my name, but there were colleagues of mine who had over a hundred. There is a need for people to understand the importance of patents. In India there is a new trend, because of which there are a lot of new start-ups. When you are a part of a start-up, and your idea has been conceived from your own thoughts, then you need to protect your intellectual property. So it is not that we lack brain power or talent, it’s just that the process is tedious and many of us are just simply ignorant. There has to be awareness about intellectual property. Even if there are classes or seminars on it, I think it will manage to create sufficient buzz. Maybe you can invite people who know about the patent process to talk about it, because the patent process in India will be different from the process in any other country. In a research and development department like I am in, we apply for a provisional patent even before publishing a paper, and then we follow that with an application for the actual patent. Sometimes the process could take just three years, and sometimes even more – one of my patents took seven years! You have to patiently maintain dialogue with them, when they give you feedback you have to make the necessary changes and send it back. A lawyer is also required to push the process forward and take care of the legal nitty-gritties. As such, it is certainly not an easy process, but without a doubt, an absolutely essential one!
MM: You currently serve as the Director of Technology Security – Mobility and Virtualization at AT&T. How has your work experience been so far? Students at NIT Rourkela would love to know more about what Mobility and Virtualization actually encompasses and its applications.
AD: Every role has a different objective. Right now I’m the director of technology security, and AT&T is one of the first and largest operators in the world where I’m part of the chief security office. Our main objective is to make sure that when you are calling somebody or using your handsets for some other purpose over our network, you are secure – which means, that nobody can hack into your system or take credentials out. It is important to make sure that there is security end-to-end. We are a strategic department and we are looking even beyond what is happening today. My job is not limited to simply maintaining status quo, I also have to constantly research about what can be done to improve the current scenario. I talked about something called Network System Virtualization or Cloud Computing – nowadays when you look at the system, operators have their own proprietor system, but they want to make a more flexible, cost effective system, so that a single hardware can be made compatible with multiple software, and all these things are interoperable. Your system will be scalable, flexible and you can provide multiple services with it. This could give rise to a lot of start-ups, also! It is almost like an ecosystem. So I work with a multitude of vendors trying to see who produces what, and then we bring them to the lab where we have used systems. Suppose I want to make sure that nobody can do a “Denial of Service” attack to one of my network components, because if that component goes down and you are calling somebody, and they are calling somebody else, nobody will get through even though it is an emergency call! My job is to make sure we have enough protection within the network, so nobody can attack it or bring it down. Once I innovate and come up with the best solution, I have to see that it works in the lab and then it works with the deployment people and then deploy it properly. Since I’m in security, my main job is to ensure that it is secure, resilient and robust enough to detect an attack, immediately and see to it that it is mitigated.
MM: You were interviewed by IEEE Communications Society for your role as Director of Marketing and Industry Relations during ICC at Sydney, Australia. How did you feel? Tell us about your affiliation with IEEE.
AD: I am a volunteer at the IEEE, which basically means that I’m not paid. IEEE works across the world in 10 regions, and India comes under region 10. IEEE has different societies, and I’m the director of its Industry Outreach program in the Communications Society. There are two flagship conferences that IEEE has. The one that happened in Sydney had a board of governors meeting where we tried to come up with ways to improve the relationship with the industry. For example, nobody knows what 5G is yet, and we took up the leadership to start awareness about it. We had a 5G Summit in Princeton, in Santa Clara, in the Silicon Valley, and then in Toronto. We are trying to have a few of those in India.
As the Industry Outreach Director, my job is to see some of these high profile things like 5G, Big Data, Cyber Security and then work with the industry folks in the local section.
So I can work with local folks in the Kolkata section because they have an active IEEE chapter, and they can work with folks in NIT, Rourkela, or Bhubaneshwar, or Patna. We can maybe have a 5G Summit in the Eastern Part of India, and another one in Bangalore. Academically, we should be able to host these summits in any university. Frankly speaking, I’ll be happy to have one of those in NIT, Rourkela.
MM: You have reached the pinnacles of success in all spheres of your profession. Have you ever felt, having missed out on the personal front? Do you have any regrets?
AD: You have to talk to my kids and wife, properly. I do this because I like to do it. When you talk about success, it is about what gives you the satisfaction, right? Time is always a critical factor and I wish I had more than 24 hours in a day so that I could give more to my wife and kids and family. In terms of my job, I like to do well for my job and give back to my company, but as an IEEE volunteer I like to serve humanity and mankind, because that is what IEEE stands for – it is like the United Nations of Technology because there is a common objective to help humanity. I sleep less, I don’t watch much television, but I need to do this because there is no substitute for hard work and you have to have very clear focus. I cannot solve the whole world’s problem, but I can take one of those and then try to work with it. Probably I can’t solve problems alone, but I can motivate others – friends or fellow colleagues, or maybe some students. It is not like I have to do everything myself, I show the path, or sometimes I lead the path and then others feel motivated and follow.
MM: After a hard days’ work, what is it that you always look forward to when you return home? Any hobbies that you might have taken up during your college days that you pursue actively even today?
AD: My hobby is IEEE work right now. I always wanted to play guitar and stuff. For my 50th birthday my kids got me a guitar and got me enrolled for classes, but I still have not been able to complete that course. Trying to find time is always a challenge! But when I go and have these IEEE events, and things actually happen – that gives me a lot of satisfaction. It depends on what you call your hobby – anything you do other than work, is your hobby, it could even be going and helping people. The journey that began thirty years ago, leading to what I am today, the environment I grew in – during those four years, the sense of helping others and universal brotherhood, I got that when I stayed with those people from different backgrounds and cultures, it is almost like a mini world there.
Some of those leadership qualities and the idea of helping others, maybe I inherited some of it from my mother, but most of it I inculcated it during those four years.
College is like a learning ground, and this is an opportunity where I can amplify this. I have to work really hard, but that’s alright because in the end when we do something, and it turns out to be huge, it is very satisfying.
MM: Every success story has an inspiration source and ideology behind it. Enlighten our readers with yours.
AD: I think each of us are God’s children and all of us are full of energy; however, we don’t always utilize it to the fullest. I think my mother was the first person who asked me to work hard and serve others. After my parents, I think my wife’s role was instrumental in supporting me and nowadays my kids. The fundamental thing that drives me and makes me want to go that extra mile is the fact that God has given me some potential and I should utilize it to the fullest, until the day I die. I know I am good at certain things, and I want to focus on those. Of course I have some idols like Sam Pitroda, who was also more or less in the same field, or Swami Vivekananda who has always motivated me throughout my life, and also my PhD guide, Prof. Henning Schulzrinne, who was a very hard working person himself and taught me how to manage my time.
MM: Finally, what is your message for our readers?
AD: Firstly, always be self-confident. Have faith in some higher power, or your parents, but also believe in yourself. You need to work hard, be focused and objective because we cannot solve the whole world’s problem, but we can always tend to a specific area. Most importantly, don’t be afraid of not being able to do the right thing, or working hard. Finally, team spirit is very important. You won’t be able to do everything on your own, but you can definitely show the path and then hopefully people will follow. Most importantly, don’t quit. There may be obstacles on your way, but don’t stop trying to achieve what you think you deserve. The sky is the limit for you, then. I would like my NIT family to know that I am always ready to communicate with them, and help them in whatever way they need and I wish them all the very best in all their future endeavours.