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Grades are not important, skills are

- By Shruti Pattajoshi

My childhood, or to be precise, my school days taught me the best things which I can retain for the rest of my life: determination, perseverance, follow your passion, never stop learning and never break the continuity between winning-losing cycles.

My tryst with winning and the fear of losing all started from Class 1 in school. However, I was so young to even realize what coming first in my division would mean to me. Still, I had enough 'cousins' in my life to tell me that what favors one gets from his/her parents if they get that top position (I hope you got the Sharmaji ka beta of my life, a-ha! ) and also from school (scholar batch, scholarships, etc.). And that's all an eight-year-old Shruti knew at that point in her life! Putting all the efforts, once you get that position, you get to see all your competitors, so here comes with it: the fear of losing, and that's all that makes you keep on working. That's where I got the words which can describe me the best that's 'Result Oriented' it might sound weird and insensitive to a few of you, but that's what always keeps me on my nerves.

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I secured first from Class 1 (my first ever Achiever's Day) and fortunately went on till the year 2017 well that's when my schooling ended, for every single year. But no, the journey wasn't that simple or monotonous, it came remixed with participation in the school choir group, Annual Day plays, etc. when school exams looked too manageable (Ahem!), I went ahead with Olympiads, NSTSE, etc; and that taught me another thing in my life, have your next goal fixed even before you achieve the first one! I was that kind of a girl who won't also let a mother attend her brother's wedding reception all because she has an Olympiad the next day and wants to give it anyhow. (How could I not?? I didn't want a break to my series of medals! Ha-ha, that's the 'result' I was talking about in 'result-oriented.')

Life was really great with a series of victories in Olympiads and School Curriculum Exams until the day when one of my school teachers gave the toppers of each division a registration form of a coaching center entrance test (So, that was my reality check in Class 8). It was of 'Vidyamandir Classes': I never knew that something beyond school ever existed. Well, reality struck me hard. I couldn't even qualify the entrance exam of the "Gurukul of IIT-JEE" (Forget about IIT). (Those days VM Classes had really tough question papers, none of my fellow classmates could crack, sigh! It gave a perfect reality check to all of us!) It had a significant impact on me (for me, a big failure), changed me for good, can't explain the kind of determination I had to crack the next edition of the exam; it was incredible. There comes the subsequent teaching of life: Failures that occur unknowingly teaches us a lot and changes us for our own good. So, no fear of failure now onwards! And guess what: in the next edition, I got into the Founders batch (given to the toppers of the entrance test, didn't join the coaching though, it was to fight my fear back!). (Major thing: I qualified, sigh!).

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This opened to me the new world of students aiming for Medical (AIIMS) and Engineering (IITs). I didn't know at that point, where I was heading for? Teachers and parents (+2) for medical and me (+1) for engineering. Nevertheless, following VM Entrance Test, I started giving all the All-India Level Tests/Exams regularly (NSTSE, FIITJEE, NARAYANA, AAKASH, ALLEN, RESONANCE you name it, I would have given it!). A big thanks to my parents for driving me to various test centres across New Delhi and wait there for that long.

Fun Fact: We discovered quite a large part of New Delhi because of my tests! It was to keep myself on track and get some pocket-money for myself (coz some had cash-prizes, ha-ha!). Then, came the life-changer: I got AIR 48 in ANTHE by Aakash in Class 9th hence, free coaching for class 10th and enough pocket-money for 16-yr old! Another motivation for life, sometimes earning or saving some hard-earned money of your parents, can motivate you to study/work harder. Aakash did teach me a lot of things, but one thing was for sure that studying Biology is not my cup of tea! So, sorted, engineering it is. Again, after 10th, ANTHE scholar but with lot more competitors FIITJEE, Vidyamandir, Narayana, all with 80-100% fee-concessions (told you, result-oriented!). I went with Vidyamandir Classes, felt it was more like a circle getting completed, starting another diving into the JEE world(though for a year went to both Aakash and Vidyamandir with books/modules of all four, huh!). Fast-forwarding those two years, because it was nothing but something which can never be forgotten: sleepless nights, last-desks in school with coaching modules, sandwiched between Coaching Profs and school teachers, frightening test series and even more daunting were their results! All things went by and finally ended up into an IIT: IIT Bhubaneswar (Bhubaneswar, my Native-hometown). It wasn't a dream come true, but surely my father's dream did come true! (He wanted to visit our hometown more often!) .

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My motto in college life has never been after grades (apart from a few times) but instead was to never stop exploring and end up becoming an efficient software engineer. Here comes another piece of learning i.e., always learn by doing, at least for me it definitely works, even in the silliest of things. The initial college days were more of fun-centric and more about life-lessons (also, very important!). The career challenges started from the second year when the core of engineering started, at the beginning I kind of lost direction and couldn't really get how to align my career, basically what do I want next from it? I went following the most -talked-after topic of those days (even today!), Data Science and Machine Learning/Deep Learning. Learning by doing is all that I did. No matter how small an impact a simple project has on my CV, but the learning does go a really long way. Following that, at the end of the second year, I got a Research Internship at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in the field of EEG Data-Analysis and Graph Theory under Prof. A.G. Ramakrishnan for Summers'2019. It was a life-changing experience for me, experiencing life in one of the top-most institutes in India (for that matter, even of the world!) and getting some excellent friends for life! (Fun fact: I found my now-(and for life hopefully) best friend there!). That experience of working in the lab independently as I was the only intern under my guide, starting from hitting my head against the wall in case I don't get something to climb on to the seventh cloud when I used to get the desired output after 8 hours of execution in the middle of the night (and sometimes leaving the system & coding for the next challenge: next year summer's internship tests) was something I could have never experienced anywhere else. Also, it was IISc. where I got something which I never thought of getting in any of my wildest dreams!!

It was one fine day, when I was scrolling Linkedin, is when I came across a post regarding Google Women Techmakers Scholarship! (Me: Elated and Nervous-n-Hopeless at the same time!) Applied! Hopeful? Yes! Expected Positive result? Mixed Reply!

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When the internship at the IISc ended, it gave me another hurdle to pass through. After the application screening and interview, I finally made it to the list of 72 girls from the Asia Pacific Region of Women Techmakers' 2019. I got a fantastic opportunity to visit the Google Sydney office in August 2019 for the retreat and to meet the fellow inspirational and talented scholars and a considerable bounce in my account balance with a scholarship of $1,000. Coming back to the third year of my college life, days are passing by; the next year's summer is pre-determined to be spent in Bangalore again, interning at Goldman Sachs. With all that, I could garner throughout my college life, one of my fellow WTM scholar and I organized a workshop to help juniors out with their career to give them the best head-start. My tech-life got its extension towards development domains, all thanks to the inspiration I got from my fellow scholars. Another learning, instead of feeling sad about others accomplishments, feel rejuvenated, and inspired to work towards your own future achievements. Life has been challenging yet rewarding, met a lot of inspirational people lately, long way to go, the journey has just begun, the best parts are, however, yet to come!

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How did it feel to be a class topper from Class 1 to X? What difference does it make in the life of a student?

It feels incredible when I look back at those days. Being a consistent student since my early school days till JEE – prep days, I never thought that any achievement is big or small; instead, I took them as a step towards my brighter future. Starting early in my life helped me create an academic environment around me, because of which I never had a tough time during the transition phase from regular school days to JEE Preparation days. My school days taught me a lot of things like pre-planning tasks, time-management: balancing time between my priorities and desires, self-discipline, and ability to take success and failure equally sportingly! I have met people in my life whose ideology is more or less like only 10th -12th class school performance matters or sometimes not even that. On the other hand, what I believe is that these exams are just the final winning shots; one needs to be consistent enough to become a good player on the whole. In other words, I feel studying for even minor tests gave me confidence and made me work harder and smarter every day. Being a good student not only increases the count of medals/prizes one gets but also opens a lot more opportunities to a student and adds on to his/her personality.

That apart, you were also into every other extra-curricular activity, including Olympiads? Tell us more about time management? If you can explain your day in detail, right from the moment you wake up...to bed.

I was not that kind of a student who used to study all the time; instead, I was more sort of a disciplined person when it comes to time management. I participated in every other inter-school as well as intra-school competition in different activities like music choir groups, Script Writing, Sci.-Tech quizzes, Olympiads along with regular studies. Coming to my time-table, it was for sure, not an ideal one to follow. I never went to any tuition till Class X, so I never had any fixed time/study hours, it was always out of interest and sometimes out of deadlines. My day used to start around 7 am usually, followed by the school for another 6 hours or so till 2:30 pm. After my afternoon nap till 5 pm or so, I used to go around for playing a bit. As I said, I was punctual enough, all credits to my mother for that, I used to return around 6:30-7 pm. After this, I used to do self-study with utmost sincerity and seriousness till 9 pm. After dinner, I used to do my school homework and go to sleep for the next day around 10:30 pm. Specifically for Olympiads, I used to start Mathematics and Science early enough, to have my syllabus done till Oct-Nov, as Olympiads were usually at that time. But this kind of time-table won't really go along with the JEE-Prep; it had a lot more elements to it like coaching classes and unlimited hours of struggling with books.

Interestingly, in college, you said you were never after grades. What made you change?

In my view, grades were not the things I used to put efforts for, but instead were the by-products of the efforts I used to put in for studies. I was engaged in different activities along with studies, as I said. In the initial college days, I was in that same JEE zone, wherein I did work for grades. I also did realize soon that it might make me lose on a spectrum of different opportunities that demand time and effort. So, the race for grades took the lower gear, I started following my interest and started working towards it. I started developing my skill sets by taking different MOOCs on ML, DL, Data-Science(Data-Analysis) and also began to work on my development skills, went on participating in different competitions in tech/non-tech zone and growing-&-learning by doing! If I had been only concentrating on grades, I would have missed on opportunities like various internships which I have done along with college curriculum, Google WTM Scholarship, Adobe Research WIT Scholarship couldn’t get it but went successfully till the final round which garnered me a potential internship opportunity at Adobe Research and an overall development which one expects from college life. Apart from the academics, being part of fests and societies at some point in your college lives teach you the most essential life lessons. It's not that college grades don't matter, they do matter, and hence I still study thoroughly in-prior to exams to score satisfactorily good.

Tell us about your days of Internship at IISc? Maybe a bit more about your stint and EEG Data-Analysis and Graph Theory.

I would say my days at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, as a Summer Research Intern, were one of the best days of my life. I got selected for it through the Summer Research Fellowship Programme by the Indian Academy of Science. Those days were both exciting, yet challenging. Since I was the only intern under my guide, Prof. A.G. Ramakrishnan, at first, I felt it will be a tough task to do the things all by yourself but my co-guide, Kanishka Sharma sir supported me well with all the pre-requisites for the project and at every step of the project. I got a chance to be part of various series of lectures/demonstrations on the most intriguing topics being a member of MILE (Medical Intelligence and Language Engineering) Lab there. Sometimes, even I was the subject in various real-experiments of the lab, a delightful experience. My project was on the study of the human brain and its functional connectivity network with the help of graph theory. I had to compare the small-worldness factor of the network before, during, and after meditation after the pre-processing of the EEG-Data collected from the long-term meditators and non-meditators. I was part of one such EEG-data extraction, too, for the first time. It was a project that aligned with my area of interest, and I had a perfect time working on it.

Then you got selected to Women Techmakers'2019? How did the selection process go?

This opportunity came my way when I had just started my internship at IISc last summer. The applications open around April every year. The first round was the application screening round, wherein I had to put forward all of my technical and non-technical achievements. There was a screening round based on a few descriptive answers regarding my personality as a whole, contribution to the tech community, and the projects I had done in the past. After a month or so from the screening round, I had an interview with a Googler, which had both tech and non-tech questions related to my skill set, technical projects, and community contributions. After the screening and the interview round, I was fortunate enough to be one of the 72 girls from the Asia Pacific Region to be Women Techmakers Scholar '19.

What are your career options? Where do you see yourself in the next five years or so?

I will be interning at Goldman Sachs as a Summer Analyst for the summers of 2020. After that, I would like to work as a Software Development Engineer at any of the top-notch companies in India. Following that maybe after an experience of a couple of years or perhaps right after my B.Tech. I would go for an MBA in IT or Finance and return to work at either a software company or maybe an Investment Bank.

Five habits of yours which you are proud of

  • I always fix my next goals even before I achieve the previous one! It keeps me going.
  • Once I set a target for myself, I strive to remain as honest as possible to that target and do justice to it. I try not giving up soon, and if I couldn't achieve the target, then no regrets!
  • Proper planning is something that I always look up to. I will always have a To-Do List on the last page of all my notebooks.
  • I follow my own definition of happiness even if it's far away from the usual socially accepted definition; I have no fear of that.
  • I compete with myself every day and find different ways of coming out better each time!

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