This page includes some information related to my real lived experience pursuing undergraduate studies at Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI).
At the time I was pursuing undergraduate studies, I viewed learning mathematics as the chief goal. However, in hindsight, some of the most important experiences of my undergraduate years involved learning other things that were only tangentially related to learning mathematics.
One of the major ways my undergraduate education shaped my intellectual stimuli was the (for the time) fast broadband Internet access at my educational institution. The Internet speeds available at the time (something like 500 Kbps, or 50 KB/s) were very slow by today’s standards (where even 2 Mbps feels slow). But, compared to my home environment where Internet access meant occasionally dialing up to check email and then quickly disconnecting, this was a very different experience that enabled much more exploration of the world’s web content (to be clear, my home environment was actually pretty leading-edge in terms of Internet access and computer availability for Delhi in 2004. The standards really were different back then). I used it in ways that seem radically suboptimal, and frankly, there wasn’t a lot of content out there on the Internet at the time, but it was still a major step up from life before that.
Apart from the Internet, and my own exploration of it, for mathematics and otherwise, the people around me also played a role in introducing me to many paradigms and cultures that I was otherwise ignorant of. In this regard, my college roommate Shreevatsa, a talented programmer who attended the International Mathematical Olympiad Training Camp (IMOTC) (where we first met), went to the International Olympiad in Informatics and is currently working as a software engineer at Google, was a key influence. From him, I picked up many miscellaneous skills related to Unix/Linux, shells, and Emacs. I also learned about Wikipedia editing from him, and he introduced me to many ideas related to hacker culture.
Even though I didn’t acquire anywhere near his mastery, it was enough to help me with small things throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, at work and in side projects. Just having that little bit put me well ahead of 80% of the mathematics graduate students at the University of Chicago in terms of familiarity with computers. And it gave me at least a starting point when I transitioned to a job at a startup that involved a lot more programming. Had I not had that basic foundation, I may never have picked up enough to really pursue some of the side projects I did, and many things in my life would have been different.
The other person I interacted with who turned out to be most significant for my future life was Indraneel Mukherjee: it’s how I got my first (and current) full-time job. Indraneel was a year senior to me. We first met at the IMO Training Camp, where we interacted a bit. Indraneel went on to the International Olympiad in Informatics. Then we met again at Chennai Mathematical Institute. After that, we lost contact for a few years, but he made contact with me again after he started LiftIgniter, for which I did some contract work. A few months later, he offered me a job at LiftIgniter, and I accepted.
Shreevatsa and Indraneel exerted the most outsized direct influence on my life trajectory, but I enjoyed interacting with many others at CMI, many of whom accomplished great things later in life. Harish, a Masters student in computer science at CMI when I was an undergraduate, helped me with the initial setup of my subject wikis at a time when my sophistication with computers was quite low (that setup, done in May 2008, would continue till I transitioned to a more stable setup in September 2013). One of my batchmates, Arul Shankar, would go on to co-author a paper with Manjul Bhargava that formed part of the accomplishment set for which Bhargava won a Fields Medal. I also interacted extensively with Anirbit Mukherjee, a year junior to me in CMI and a physics undergraduate, and have continued to interact with him off and on since then.
I also had very positive interactions with many instructors at CMI. Madhavan Mukund, who managed the computer science program and taught the three programming courses I took, was very friendly and probably the second biggest influence after Shreevatsa in helping me acquire at least a modicum of familiarity with programming and hacking. S. Ramanan, a leading mathematician, was a very friendly individual with whom I interacted extensively, and from whom I learned a lot about mathematics. Amritanshu Prasad, a graduate of the University of Chicago and a post-doc at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, was a friendly mentor to me. They, and many others, played a key role in shaping my undergraduate experience at the time, and had I gone on to pursue an area of mathematics closer to their interests, they would have played a big role in shaping my later life.
Personal evolution: content creation
Most of my accomplishments that I personally consider significant happened long after my time at CMI, but my time at CMI did lay the groundwork for my thinking in various domains. The domain of content creation was the most notable of these.
In high school, I used to take copious notes, but these were mostly intended for purely personal use, and very few of them were in a digital form where it was even possible to efficiently share them with others. CMI was the place where I transitioned from creating transient content primarily for my personal use to long-lasting content potentially intended for use by others. I dabbled with LaTeX, personal blogs, and other forms of writing. All the time, I was writing something! Some of the things I wrote that still survive include:
- A detailed personal website in CMI’s space that included notes on all sorts of aspects of my academic life.
- Teaching materials prepared for the Olympiads, some of which I used for classes I taught to Olympiad hopefuls in Chennai, plus general Olympiad preparation guidance I put up on my CMI page.
- Editing of Wikipedia pages (which I recently resumed, see my Wikipedia editing page).
- After an exciting and extensive group-edited wiki by the students related to moving to the new campus, I decided to experiment with creating a wiki for group theory content. Started in December 2006, this laid the foundation for what would ultimately become the subject wikis, including (and starting with) Groupprops.
While CMI marked the transition from taking short-term notes for myself to writing stuff that was shared more widely, what I lacked at the time was a clear framework for feedback and a systematic way of identifying what content was most valuable to create. I was writing for an audience but it was, for the most part, a hypothetical audience, one for which I knew a few representatives, but not one that I had a very clear quantitative idea of.
I link below to some historical documents related to my undergraduate coursework at Chennai Mathematical Institute. They should not be used to inform current thinking about the state of undergraduate education at CMI.
- Courses and grades (PDF), includes a description of what was covered in each course and my experience with it.
- Official transcript: Just a list of courses and grades.
You can read my overview of summer camps I participated in while an undergradute in this document: Summer camps (PDF).