Linking the Globe through Blockchains: Ashwin Sekhari
From developing a gaming app in the springtime of his life to polishing his coding skills and then getting intrigued by the concept of blockchain, Ashwin Sekhari has transformed in numerous ways. The present third-year Computer Science scholar has always been focused on constructing his own modus operandi in the research arena. It all started with an internship in his first-year winter and after that, he climbed every single step closer to a better future. In the summer of his second year, Ashwin bagged an internship at the esteemed University of Waterloo, Canada where he worked on RCanopus consensus algorithm.
In an interview with Team MM, Ashwin Sekhari talks about his life, research experiences and upcoming future ventures. Here are the excerpts from the interview-
MM: Walk us through your early life, your schooling days and the things you were ambitious about?
AS: I was born and brought up in Faridabad in the northern state of Haryana. I did my schooling from Delhi Public School, Faridabad. My school life was pretty amazing and every moment spent over there have several beautiful memories attached to it. Talking about being ambitious, I had a strong inclination towards Computer Science from the very beginning. I learned Python during 11th and 12th through an online course from MIT.
MM: What were the various fields into which you devoted most of your time apart from academics?
AS: I was enthusiastic about competitive programming. Moreover, I indulged myself into developing games. I even made a small game in Unity, which is a platformer running game engine. Apart from that, I was mostly into Python programming. My brother always motivated me to get into competitive coding.
MM: How did NIT Rourkela become a part of your life? What are your views about this place and your experiences as a fresher?
AS: I had made up my mind that I would pursue Computer Science Engineering. I didn’t opt for any other branch apart from CSE at some better NITs as compared to NITR. I was really fascinated by this place after I reached here. I like how it rains suddenly. Initially, it was difficult to adjust with the professors and their teachings as well. The way they used to teach was a bit weird (laughs). I used to study most of the things of my own.
MM: Share with us your very first internship at NHPC (National Hydro-Power Corporation)?
AS: It was in the winter of 2017. It was a 4-5 day internship programme. Basically, I was introduced to their SCADA system. SCADA is an automation software which is used to automate the dams, the gates, operate the powerhouse, etc.
MM: What was the project and the field you were working on at IIT Kanpur in the summer of 2018?
AS: I was working as a Student Research Associate (SRA). The project was funded by the Uttar Pradesh Government. We were translating the current land-registration system to blockchains. The current land registration system has a lot of limitations and ambiguities. There can be instances of forgery, where false documents could be shown to claim a particular piece of land. Land record is a generic term that could mean a record of rights, Khasra, Shajra, etc. Any one of these documents could be used to prove ownership of land. Our main aim was to make these record of rights tamper-proof.
MM: Apart from Blockchains, your CV also mentions about your skills in Distributed Computing, Consensus Protocols and BFT systems. Are all these branches of the same tree or are they completely different?
AS: They all are grouped together in a complex way. For example, Blockchains as you think it to be a new technology in trend, but in fact, it is not. What’s interesting about blockchain is that lot of old technologies are joined together into a single thing to form a tamper-proof record. That’s what makes blockchains interesting. In blockchains, distributed computing, consensus and BFT systems come into play. That’s how all are interacting with each other.
MM: What was the application procedure for this IIT Kanpur summer internship and the work environment?
AS: I mailed my CV to the professors associated in the concerned field. I went through their research profiles. Based on my accomplishments as of then, I got the opportunity to work under Prof. Sandeep Shukla. The professor told me that there is a security website of IIT Kanpur and told me to read all the technical reports and asked me what interested me the most. I told him that I was enthusiastic about blockchains. The work environment was amazing. The people over there were more focused on research which was possible through the presence of numerous sophisticated labs which we don’t find here at NITR.
MM: Share your experiences of paper presentation at IIT Bombay?
AS: It was a four-day workshop where I presented a paper at IITB. The professor under whom I was working at IIT Kanpur gave me the news about some knocking opportunities for paper presentation at IITB. The whole of December I spent writing the paper and ultimately we presented it.
MM: Winter of 2018 was quite overwhelming since you visited Israel Institute for Advanced studies where you presented a poster. Brief us about that.
AS: The poster I presented was based on the same project I worked on at IIT Kanpur. It was named as “Permissioned blockchains in land registry management.” It was actually a winter school and there was a Student Spotlight session allowing the students to showcase their work where I got the opportunity to present it. They had an online portal opened for receiving application prior to the start of the winter school. I had a letter of recommendation and a list of work that I had already worked on, that helped me achieve this. They even provided reimbursement for all the expenses that I had to bear. It was really an amazing winter school. It was organised by Cornell, MIT, Brown University, etc. I got to know about this programme from one of my friends at IITK. It was specific to blockchains only. It is like the universities have various other winter schools but each of them focuses on different aspects. Probably, I was the only undergraduate among them, rest all were either doing Masters or pursuing a PhD.
MM: How did you get the golden opportunity to bag a coveted internship at the University of Waterloo, Canada?
AS: One day I was reading an article about the usage of blockchains in Transactive Energy Management in which a professor proposed that we can actually use the solar panels lying at home to monetise the renewable energy generated by using blockchains by making tamper-proof meters and storing the readings on a ledger. There was a mention of the consensus algorithm by the professor. I went through that link, read that paper and I really liked the content. The professor was Dr. Srinivasan Keshav. I approached him and told that I was really interested in his research. Moreover, I had prior internship experiences and also a paper of my own in the very first year, so I was invited by him to Waterloo, Canada.
MM: What do you want to convey to your juniors who are in their concerned fields and are in the quest of getting their desired internship?
AS: To figure out what to do in your life, your region of interests should be your priority. I would suggest them to explore as much as they can. In the first and second year of engineering, one should explore as many domains as possible.
MM: Recommend some courses which students can start with or which are in high demand in the present scenario.
AS: I started with a course by MIT under the name of ‘Introduction to Computer Science using Python’. It was an amazing and helpful course. Apart from that, there is a CS50 course by Harvard. These are certain online courses that one can opt for, which also provides certification if willing to pay for it.
MM: Apart from the studies, what are your hobbies and interests?
AS: I am a member of Spawn, Codehub and Google Developer Student’s Club. Thus, I teach computer programming to the Spawn members. I like swimming. As a hobby, I love to do competitive programming. I was and am a mentor in SCS.
MM: What was your area of concern at the University of Waterloo, Canada?
AS: I worked on making a Byzantine Fault Tolerant membership service for the RCanopus consensus protocol. Explaining in layman’s terms, there are two types of faults- crash fault, where the user is aware that the machine has crashed and the other kind is Byzantine Faults, where the user is unaware whether the machine is working properly or not or sending garbage values. There is a library named Concord Byzantine Fault Tolerance which is developed and maintained by VMWARE. My task was to use that library and make a distributed system to perform various queries.
MM: Apart from your work, how was your experience in Canada? Certain people are scared of foreign internships. Though skilled, they fail to overcome the fear of adjusting to a new place. What were the hitches that you faced during that period?
AS: Canada is a lovely country. People there are incredibly nice. Most of the students don’t want to leave the comfort of their home. They have to step out of that. Initially, I faced a lot of problems because I had to do everything by myself and cooking was a colossal task. I along with four others booked an apartment together. Two of them were Indians and the remaining two Canadians.
MM: When is the appropriate time for students to start applying for internships? What was the next step after you applied for your internship?
AS: Ideally, the process of emailing professors should start by October or November because you’ll need time for visa applications. My email was followed by a Skype interview with Professor Keshav, under whom I was to carry forth my research. He was interested to know about my research experience and what drew me towards his profile. He is currently working in the arena of energy systems.
MM: What are your future prospects? What do you have in your bucket list after NITR?
AS: I am more inclined towards research work. I haven’t decided a field yet. However, I am eager to explore new dimensions. One needs to decide whether they are interested to perform development work or research work. In research, there is a lot of demand for skilled students in the field of blockchains. Another advantage of research work is that the industries can accommodate you if you have industrial or research experience. However, industrial work students may not be accepted for research purposes.
MM: What do you think about the research opportunities in India and how are they in comparison to foreign universities?
AS: The research opportunities in India related to Blockchains is growing due to the need for efficient algorithms. As compared to abroad universities there is a huge difference in the quality of the research labs available for use.
MM: Who would you like to call out as your support system?
AS: I am grateful to my parents and my brother. They are always with me. I love you, mummy and papa.
MM: What message would you like to convey to NITR Junta?
AS: Use your first and second year to explore new things and try to find something which you are passionate about and would like to do for the rest of your life. If you are from circuital branch, do get into sports programming from the starting (not for the placements but because it’s fun to do). Use your time wisely, it’s the only thing that is limited. Don’t ever stop learning and growing as a person. Always remember, what you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.
Team MM wishes all the very best to Ashwin Sekhari for his future endeavours. Keep learning and keep inspiring!