Raj Patel: A Zealous Doer

Raj Patel: A Zealous Doer

A 5-star rated coder at Codechef, recipient of Academic Academic Excellence Award multiple times, several prestigious job offers in his bag and a multitude of achievements in notable contests – that’s Raj Patel for you. 

Raj Patel is a graduate of the batch of 2021 from the Department of Electronics and Instrumentation, hailing from Gujarat. He has acquired Academic Excellence two times at NIT Rourkela for being in the Top 3 rank in the department. He has bagged several offers from companies like Intuit, Amazon, Razorpay and many more as a software engineer. He has remarkable profiles on Codechef, Codeforces and GeeksforGeeks and has secured ranks in prestigious contests like Google Kickstart and ACM-ICPC 2020. He managed to bag this feat, despite starting coding ‘late’ in his 6th semester.

Team Monday Morning got a chance to catch up with him and enquire about his journey. Read below to find out how Raj Patel transcended from a first bencher to a software engineer in a reputed company within the span of a few months.

EARLY LIFE AND SCHOOLING:

Monday Morning (MM): Walk us through your life before NIT Rourkela, i.e., your childhood days, schooling, etc.

Raj Patel(RP): I did my schooling in a local village school till grade 8. After that, I was selected as one of the candidates for Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) School. I continued there till grade 12, after which NIT Rourkela happened. Since childhood, I have had a keen interest in cricket. I used to play cricket regularly and watch cricket matches frequently. Even during my college days, I continued the same. To date, I have fostered my love for cricket. 

MM: Can you tell us more about your experience at JNV School?

RP: It’s a system of central schools for providing quality education to talented students predominantly from rural areas. Entrance exams are held at various levels, particularly in class 5th and 8th for admission into the consecutive grades. I had been selected for enrollment in class 6. However, I used to be quite homesick as a child, so I let go of that opportunity. My sister had appeared in the examination as well and enrolled in grade 6. Whenever I visited her, their teaching method and the conducive atmosphere always intrigued me, which led me to reappear for the examination in class 8. Hence, I got enrolled in grade 9.

It is a boarding school that focuses on the overall development of a child. Their curriculum focuses on a lot of other aspects apart from academics. It incorporates tons of adventurous activities, valuable life lessons and instils a friendly attitude towards the environment; also, physical education and growth of a child are kept in mind.

LIFE AT NITR:

MM: Why did you choose Electronics and Instrumentation at NIT Rourkela? How do you see your decision to join NIT Rourkela?

RP: Initially, I was intimidated by computer science. As someone who had limited knowledge in the field of computer science, coding and software, I believed that computer science wouldn't be the ‘it’ field for me. I developed an interest in electronics in senior school, which seemed like a viable option to dwell in the future.

Looking back, I wished I had explored coding earlier. I started coding in my 6th semester and shouldn't have let my fear of coding get in the way. I would like to suggest students to go ahead and explore because without exploration you never know what the field holds for you.

The decision of joining NIT Rourkela was mainly based on the college ranking. NIT Rourkela was high up in the ranking status, and that instantly made it my go-to choice. Now that I look back at it, I think it was a great choice in terms of infrastructure, academics, placements and campus life.

MM: Brief us about the clubs you were an active part of during your days at NITR.

RP: In the first year, I tried to join a few clubs but was not very interested. My peer group wasn't really into any clubs either. Hence, I was barely involved in any clubs. I don't have a fluent hold over English, so I wish I had joined a few clubs to enhance my communication skills.

MM: You were a part of the cricket team of VS Hall of Residence. Tell us more about it.

RP: I actively participated in cricket tournaments, be it branch-wise or halls. Being an ardent lover of cricket, I always had a great time. It was never just about winning tournaments; it was the entire experience and the thrill that was unforgettable. (laughs) I used to think I was a great cricketer, but I realised I had overestimated myself a great deal after meeting other great players.

MM: How would you describe your academic experience at NITR?

RP: I was a very academically focused student from the first year itself. Before I took up coding, i.e. until my 6th semester, I was a frontbencher and regularly attended all the classes. I never really studied a lot in the hostel. Being regular in my classes and keeping my notes up-to-date helped me maintain a good academic record.

MM: You have bagged the Academic Excellence Award for the first two years of your college life. What was the daily routine that you followed related to academics that helped you bag this prestigious award?

RP: As I mentioned, I didn’t study a lot in the hostel but maintained consistency and focus during class hours and cleared most of my doubts. If I needed to do some extra brush-up on my concepts, I would go to the class early or sometimes to the library. In my free time, I used to watch movies and sometimes play cricket in the hostel. With consistency and a little bit of hard work, it is easy to maintain a remarkable CGPA.

THE BEGINNING OF CODING PEREGRINATION:

MM: You started your coding journey comparatively late, i.e. in your pre-final year. How did you develop an interest in the same?

RP: The internship season had begun by the time our 5th semester had started. At that time, I was focused on preparing for GATE and cracking one of the coveted PSUs. I used to study in the common room along with some of my friends who were pursuing computer science. 

Once during one of the study sessions, they were stuck with a problem that required some background knowledge of electronics. Since I was a student with an electronics background, so they asked for my help. At that time, I barely had any knowledge about coding and tried to solve the problem by applying basic logic. I enjoyed the process of solving the problem and consequently tried building the logic for a few more. So that was the point when I decided to try my hand at coding.

Initially, I planned to try coding for a month, and in case I didn't find it interesting, I would continue with my GATE preparation. I learned C++ and tried coding on GeeksforGeeks for a month. In the 1st month itself, I got 2nd or 3rd rank in the monthly All India leaderboard Geek for Geeks, which was a major boost to my confidence.

Later, my friend suggested that I should try out competitive programming platforms like Codeforces, Codechef. After participating in a few contests, I realised I was more interested in competitive programming and decided to delve deeper into it. 

MM: ‘Better Late Than Never’ In such a short span of time, how were you able to build robust profiles on coding platforms and exhibit excellence in distinguished coding competitions? Please give us a brief roadmap that you followed.

RP: I was enjoying the process and never got bored of solving problems. Even now, I like participating in contests. Honestly, I didn’t pursue coding for placements; my mindset was never to solve problems solely for a job offer. However, eventually, it helped me in placements as well.

I used to participate in contests regularly and solve as many problems as possible. I would rarely miss contests on Codeforces or Codechef. I had also participated in a few virtual contests with my friends. For those problems that I could not solve during the contest, I used to try the next day again. If I still was unable to solve them, then I used to go through editorials. If I came across a new concept, I would learn about it and put it to practice. 

Also, I have people in my peer group who’d spend the entire day stuck on a single problem. I used to do the same. However, I soon realised how futile that was.

The key is to approach every problem with full focus and take frequent breaks. Do not let life stop when it comes to academics or placements. Keep up with your hobbies and interests. Things always fall into place eventually.

MM: You have secured global ranks in Google Kickstart, Cook-off challenges and even got selected for the regional round in the ACM ICPC 2020. Tell us about your preparation and your experience with these prestigious contests.

RP: Preparation strategy involved participating in regular contests and learning new concepts now and then. For Google Kickstart, I solved previous year’s contest problems.

As for ICPC, I was in my final year during that time. Most of the final years were not interested in participating and forming a team. Luckily, my junior, a pre-final year student, was looking for someone to form a team. We both knew each other as good coders, having participated in contests on platforms like Codeforces. Hence, with two pre-final year students, I formed the team.

I had a great experience in ICPC. In individual contests, you are all on your own. In ICPC, I learnt a great deal about teamwork. Trusting your teammates is very important. Dividing the problems and solving them as quickly as possible is essential, not individually but rather as a team.

MM: Apart from the never-ending list of achievements in coding competitions, you have had several projects on your resume. Brief us about your projects.

RP: My first major project was on Hotel Management System, using Java Swing and MySQL. I also made a Real-Time Pizza Tracking Application, where I developed a full-stack web application for ordering pizza and getting the real-time status using node.js. All in all, I did 2-3 individual projects, one Product Design (PD) Lab project, which was a team project, one project I did during my internship and one final year research project.

MM: How did you juggle between coding and developing projects and eventually grab a job offer?

RP: Since I started coding right when the placement season was up, it was hectic to manage everything. It would help if you had a good hold over coding, a few note-worthy projects on your resume and a well-rounded knowledge of CS core subjects for placements.

It was a bit difficult for me to manage everything. We just have to manage our time accordingly. You have to be passionate and dedicated to whatever you’re doing.

I had a good grasp of DSA because of my consistent coding and participation in contests. In my first coding round for a company, I coded as I would in contests - without proper naming of variables, explaining my approach to the interviewer. So, initially, I faced several rejections. However, with each rejection, I built upon my mistakes and kept on improving myself. 

Despite all these, I would still find time to take a backseat and relax. I watched the entire IPL season during this time. It is not tough to manage things. With dedication and consistency, it is undoubtedly possible. 

MM: Many students who aspire to have a career in the field of Software Development tend to confuse whether to pursue Competitive Programming, Machine Learning, or App/Web Development. What would be your advice to the students regarding the same?

RP: There is no clear-cut answer for this. Go for your interest. However, DSA, I would say, is required irrespective of the field you choose. Hence, basic knowledge of DSA is always beneficial. Apart from this, you should choose what you like best and what aligns with your interest. As a fresher, you should explore all the domains. Go for a few fields and try them out for a few months. Then, you can conclude wherein you want to continue or try something else.

MM: Coding and Development is a craze among the students, and the competition has increased manifold. What is your mantra to be a successful programmer?

RP: I think consistency and practice create a successful programmer. Dedication and hard work certainly play a crucial role. When I started, I was a little worried about coping with my fellow batchmates who have been doing this since their first year. However, after a few months of sheer dedication and practice, I realised that I was on the same level as them. What seemed unachievable to me initially was, in reality, not so when I started working for it. A few months of perseverance and focus can take you places.

There is no one-size-fits-all mantra to success. It requires a few trials and errors to find the path that works best for you. You must allow yourself room to explore and make mistakes in order to be good at anything. 

MM: The coding culture of NITR is evolving but is still far behind the reputed institutions like IITs and other NITs. What would be your say on this, and how can this be improved?

RP: Having participated in several prestigious contests, it is visible that students of other engineering colleges are performing exceptionally well compared to those from NIT Rourkela. The coding culture of NITR lags behind several IITs and NITs, and other engineering colleges.

I have noticed that students tend to pursue whatever ultimately helps them in grabbing a placement. Instead of understanding their own interests, they flock to where the crowd goes. It suppresses talent and innovation.

I wasn’t a part of any technical club, so I can’t comment on what happens there. However, technical clubs can be the beginning of a fresher’s coding journey. Moreover, there is a lack of awareness among students regarding the myriad of opportunities, contests, and competitions. Students must be made aware of the opportunities they have and encouraged to grab them. Compared with a few years ago, NITR’s coding culture is definitely improving, and we have a long way to tread.

AN EXEMPLARY EXPEDITION: INTERNSHIPS AND PLACEMENTS

MM: You were a Machine Learning Intern at Novel Patterns. Tell us about your preparation for the same, the application process, and the work you did over there.

RP: It was an unpaid internship. As I started very late, I was unable to bag any on-campus internship offer. So, this start-up named Novel Patterns visited our campus, and the selection was limited to resume shortlisting. There was no specific coding round or interview round. I got selected. 

My work experience there was beneficial and was a great learning curve. My project was based on Liveness Detection for Face Recognition. Our project aimed to identify whether the person is natural or has used a spoof image or artefact.

MM: You have bagged several offers from companies like Intuit, Amazon, Razorpay, and many more. What was the secret behind this feat?

RP: I faced rejections for an entire year. I learned from the rejections and improved myself. Since I started late, I was not expecting to get great offers either. However, I believed that all my efforts would indeed be used when I decide to switch companies after a few years. That was the long term plan until I got offers from several companies altogether. I got all these offers in a month, right after my 8th-semester examinations. (laughs) My friends would comment that it was because of my patience, which can also be crucial. 

It was not an overnight feat but a culmination of efforts put in for over a year.

MM: You have bagged an SWE role at Intuit. Tell us about your preparation for this offer, the application process, and how the experience has been for you till now.

RP: There are notifications of job openings on the career page of every company. However, I came across this on LinkedIn, so I applied through the same. The interview was around the same time when I was preparing for other companies, so I didn’t have a specific preparation strategy for this one. 

My experience at Intuit is excellent. We have a week or two for onboarding, and there are many fun events as well. Now I’ve started working on a couple of projects. The work culture is healthy. My colleagues are cooperative, too. As a fresher in the company, they are ready to give me a hand whenever I face any challenges.

MM: What, according to you, should be the ideal roadmap for a candidate who wishes to bag off-campus offers in reputed companies?

RP: You can have a good development or coding profile. Do not blindly follow people who have bagged great offers; you don't necessarily have to do the same. Follow whatever you feel comfortable with. Prepare DSA since some level of DSA is mandatory for almost all companies. You must also prepare CS Fundamentals and participate in competitions to get used to OTs. It would be best if you had few projects in your resume, be it Machine Learning, Web Development, or Android. Other than that, it is your call whether you want to have a stronghold overdevelopment or competitive programming. Find where your interest lies and continue with it. 

HERE’S TO MEMORIES, FUTURE PLANS AND SOME ADVICE:

MM: Looking back on your college days, what are your fondest memories? Regrets, if any?

RP: There are so many memories of bunking classes and getting caught by the professor. When we were called back to campus in February, I enjoyed the last few months of my college life. We used to play badminton the entire night and roam around the campus the whole day.

Talking of regrets, I wish I had explored coding a bit earlier. Since I would like to work on my communication skills, joining a few clubs could have helped me immensely.

MM: How was NIT Rourkela instrumental in shaping you as a person?

RP: I met some brilliant minds, which helped me explore many fields.

NIT Rourkela provided me with a platform to explore things and chase my dream.

I’m grateful to one of my seniors; since he was the one who motivated and guided me towards coding and programming. I have a friend with whom I love solving and discussing problems. To date, we do the same. Apart from these, my friends have contributed a lot in enhancing my professional skills and my personal growth.

MM: What are your future goals?

RP: For now, I have a one-year goal of enhancing my development skills. The long-term goal is to lead the team and contribute more to whichever organisation I’m working in from the professional forefront.

MM: Any message to the readers out there. 

RP:

Enjoy your college life the most. Try to make a balance between your academics and extracurriculars. You’ll get a lot of time to explore things. Don’t follow any specific roadmap; some things may work for a particular person and not for the other. Everyone has their journey; try to make the most out of it. Though the path of success may be filled with unexpected obstacles, hard work and determination are certain to make the journey a bit smoother.

Team MM wishes Raj Patel for his achievements and wishes all the best for his future endeavours.

Designs by – Harshavardhan Reddy

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