There isn’t a single child in this world, who hasn’t been asked the question – “What do you want to become when you grow up?”
And the answers are bewildering – some say bus driver, some say astronaut, some say teacher, and so on.
When I was a kid, around the first grade, I had just been introduced to computers. My parents had bought a 486 which cost a ton back then, and simultaneously, the school I was studying in had an introductory course on computers. They taught us a programming language called LOGO, which involved a triangle on the screen, to which we issued commands like MOVE X PLACES, TURN LEFT, MOVE Y PLACES and so on. Most of my classmates were confused with the introduction of this new machine. To my credit, I took right to it like another exciting toy. I got proficient in moving the Turtle, as the triangle on the screen was called, and was often asked to demonstrate short programs to other children. I would sneak books in the library to find some sort of documentation on LOGO. Of course, I didn’t know it was called documentation back then. But I got better and better at LOGO than my other school activities. I sucked at drawing and crafts.
At home, I used to draw imaginary scenes and places using MSPaint. And there were games to play on the computer. But like any other kid back then, my main playground was outside the confinements of four walls. One fine day, my mom, who was doing a short course diploma on the various technologies, was coding FoxPro at home. I sat by her side, looking at the screen, as she typed line by line of broken english words. To my 7 year old mind, it didn’t make any sort of sense. But I could make out that it was some sort of pattern, or structure to how she was writing it. And so as I kept looking, I noticed a missing word in her lines, and pointed it out to her. She filled it with something that I didn’t understand, but I knew that I had been correct in identifying an error in the code. That was my first exposure to programming. Ever since then, at that moment in my life, I had and have decided to do something in computers. What, I had not decided yet. My dream company was Microsoft, and I aimed to get a job there. However, I did not pay much attention to the fact, that I had to work towards getting better with computers. The constant exposure to the PC at home made me adept with all the tools available back then. I got proficient in Word, Powerpoint, Excel and even CorelDraw for a while.
Then, when I was in third grade, my family moved to the remote village of Kamshet, which is near the scenic hill station Lonavala. I hated the place. Coming from a metropolitan capital like Mumbai, I could not fathom the many differences I was now forced to go through. And the schools and society were very different too. For a while, my friendship with computers stagnated.
When I moved to Don Bosco’s High School for my 5th grade, I was again introduced to computers and programming. The starting years were about going through the internals of what made a computer, something I had grasped long back. Then came the paint, and typing tests. I had the fastest typing speed of any kid in my school – about 50 words per minute. But that never sated my curiosity. Then, in the 6th grade, I got introduced to BASIC, a programming language known for its simplicity. While the other kids dealt with computers as another mundane subject, I got immersed into it entirely. I would write BASIC programs on paper, and search for ways to make the program perform more functions. As the other kids typed their programs line by line, looking at printed notes, I sped through ten lines at a time, writing programs from memory, trying to do something more. My teachers were always impressed with me, and always encouraged me to do more. I used to read up books, from the library, on different subjects.
Back at home, the PC was upgraded to a Pentium, and then to a Pentium III. Windows 95 gave way to Windows 98. It was the golden era of computer awareness. Internet trickled into India, and my school. Of course, it was still a dial-up, and I did not find many resources online then. The world’s knowledge was in the libraries, or so I thought. A computer institute had opened up next to my home in Kamshet. I used to spend my time there, looking at how they repaired PC’s, did some typing work, or played games. I cajoled my mother into letting me join a computer class there. When we went to enquire, he gave me a plethora of options that people usually chose. Basics, Microsoft Office, DTP, etc. All of which I already knew, or had no interest in. I wanted something more exciting. He told me they were starting a small batch for people who wanted to learn C, a programming language. That immediately caught my fancy. And so I enrolled to learn C.
The first day, I went, the person who was teaching C had already arrived and was discussing and teaching the others the basics of the language. I simply sat near him listening. He took me for a kid who was there for another class, and did not pay attention to me. The next day, the same thing happened. About halfway through, I asked him a doubt. To which, he was surprised that I was in the C class as well. He thought me too young to join. But still he continued teaching me C. As months went by, I could write basic programs in C, but nothing more. I hadn’t yet grasped the compacted aspects that make the language such a precious tool. The teacher left the institute after that. I switched to a different institute where I started to learn Visual Basic 6. The teacher this time was a young software professional, who travelled everyday to come and teach me. He chided me for not being able to write a good C program, and proceeded to teach me how to do it. After that, the visual basic constructs took over, and I was thrilled at the simplicity to make GUI’s. When he taught me how to connect MS Access to Visual Basic, I created a project application. One of my uncles needed to keep track of all his bills, and I created a short program that saved the bills, and allowed him to print the invoice. That was during the summer holidays between my 6th and 7th grade. Sadly, my mother had noticed that I neglected my other subjects and had ended my love affair with programming.
Thereafter, I did not pursue it again for years to come. But I kept tinkering with the PC at home. I played with the hardware, often bursting and short-circuiting the power supply on the board, to be severely reprimanded by my parents. Every month, I bought a magazine, either CHIP, or DIGIT. Both had CD’s that came with software. In the pre-internet age, these were my only source of software, and to know what was happening in the world out there.
After months of reading about Linux, I decided to try it once and for all. I partitioned the hard disk and tried installing it. The result was that I fried the boot loader. This happened a hundred more times. My parents were fed up with my constant tinkering and kept threatening me to make me stop. I would, for a while. But I was too restless to not try it again. During my 8th and 9th grades, I was fascinated with viruses and hacking. I read up everything I could find about it. A guy called Ankit Fadia had made the national news. He was young, a professional hacker, and had several successful books on the subject. I looked up viruses on the internet. I found dark forums where script-kiddies could find ready-made tools to deploy a malware attack. I was intrigued about how the virus managed to do all its work. And so I found the Windows Registry. I found out by analyzing the anti-virus databases, which viruses modified which registry keys. And I successfully modified those keys with a script without triggering the anti-virus. I had a cd full of live virus samples with their code, which was my most prized possession in those days. But for some reason, I never used those against other people. I always tested them on my own machine, on my own time.
Of course, when I received the thrashing for corrupting the data on the hard drive, I could hardly stop blaming myself for being so stupid. There could have been ways to prevent that from happening. And so after that, I kind of stopped doing the whole nasty business. Everything else lay dormant until I took admission to an engineering college to study computers. I thought, ignorant as I was, that merely studying for the degree would be enough. I could never have been wrong.
I studied hard in the first year, concentrating most on the programming subject. It made me learn C all over again, and I got exceptionally well at that. In the second year, I was one of the few persons in the class, that could program with ease. Right since then, I spent more time doing the practicals than actually bothering with the theories. When I realized that I could have done all this by myself in school as well, I was depressed and saddened for months. I realized that by depending on the education, and only the knowledge taught by my teachers, I won’t reach any of my aims. And so I started learning by myself, getting exposed to ideas, and trying out new stuff. I became obsessed with knowing what was happening in the tech world. Keeping myself abreast with all the latest technologies. If the course made me use Visual Basic 6, I used the latest version of .NET framework to try out things. I was never satisfied with what I was learning.
But I was also directionless, not realizing what I needed to learn, and what things I needed to focus on. But still I struggled on. In the final year, I chose the project topic as a Semantic File System. I thought the future was evident in the adoption of a semantic file system. It seemed logical and blatantly obvious that the future would leap towards such semantic systems. I knew the data lay dormant in our file systems, and I wanted to tap that data, make it bend to our wills, towards how we want to use it. We ended up using the Apriori algorithm to suggest tags in the file system. It was a novel approach, but I never felt I personally had done enough.
After my graduation, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my time. When I decided to do a masters, I had no idea what field I would choose. Somehow, I ended up doing a masters through research. Originally, my ideas was to access the data in the smartphone in a way similar to my final year project. But my supervisor, bless his soul, asked me to be more specific. And so I came up with, just on the spur of the moment, to do a contextual data research on smartphones. I find that to be one the best decisions I have ever taken in my life. It is evident again, as it was before to me, that smartphones and all connected interfaces are technological devices of the future. The PC is of the bygone era. Everything is moving to the cloud, and the access to our hands. I wanted to be ready this time, to do something that I knew WOULD be used tomorrow. That’s my ultimate aim in life, to dream the tomorrow, and hope that it turns out to be true.
If someone asks me what I really, practically want to do with my life, I would say I really wouldn’t know. My dream job would be at Google, Apple, and their likes, even a small startup, but doing something I have great passion in – being technocratic and creating the future. If along the way, I have to struggle, I have grown to be ready for that. If along the way, I have to sacrifice, yes, I’m ready for that. But if I have to give up, even for a while, what I want to do, what I believe in, then I’m not yet ready to do that. Perhaps I never will be. Ever.
I have plans to eventually settle down someday, maybe get married, have kids, go through my biological age. But I will never be as passionate about anything as I am about CREATING something. The morning when I wrote this, when I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth, I wondered, who designs these toothbrushes? How do they decide that one size is the best one for all? Is there any way I would know which toothbrush is actually the best for me? Can I construct something on my own? That’s the kind of guy I always want to be. I remember, and stay true to some greatest words of wisdom, that embodies ages of wisdom and culture passed down through my heritage -
“Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”.