Interview with Anupam Gupta
Gupta, Assistant Professor, CSD
Degrees: B. Tech from IIT, Kanpur (Computer Science
& Engineering); PhD. From UC Berkeley (Computer Science)
New Job Title: Assistant Professor, Computer Science
In love with food, travelling and New York city,
Anupam Gupta also has a lot of humor to share.
Can you tell me a little about yourself? Let’s start with
where you’re originally from.
I am from Calcutta, India. I grew up there, and my parents still live
there. I went to Kanpur for my undergraduate education, and then I went
to Berkeley. Very exciting, sort of the “promised land” (California)…except
we thought it would be sunny California, which it wasn’t—it
was cold and foggy California—but then I realized I actually like
cold and foggy California! After that, I lived in New York for 2 years,
working for Lucent Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and then I came
Why did you pick Carnegie Mellon? And why did you pick Pittsburgh,
especially after “cold and foggy” California?
I picked Carnegie Mellon because it’s a great place to be. The people
are fantastic. This place is very good in so many different departments
and so many different areas within computer science as well. There’s
so much variety…picking Carnegie Mellon was almost a no-brainer!
Regarding Pittsburgh, since I lived in New York for 2 years (New York
is my favorite place in the whole world), I was slightly hesitant to come
to a smaller place. But then I came here, and it’s actually very
nice! It’s all green and pretty, and quite beautiful. It’s
a great place to live. We always say that in New York, you decide what
you want to do, and then you find out where it’s happening. In Pittsburgh,
you just have to figure out what’s happening, and then you decide
what you want to do. But there’s a lot of stuff happening, so it’s
not too bad.
What’s your favorite thing about Carnegie Mellon?
The people around. There are so many good people here. The department
is amazingly friendly! There’s this spirit of collaboration and
it has sheer strength—it’s a collection of people who are
really experts in their field.
So do you find a difference from IIT or Berkeley?
IIT is more of an undergrad school—the grad school is just starting
to mature. It’s different in that the focus is more toward the undergraduate
education, but there are extremely good people out there as well. It’s
getting stronger and stronger now that more people are returning to teach
and do research, and more money is being pumped back into the Indian educational
In comparison to Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon is very similar. In fact it
was great to come here, because when I was a grad student, Manuel
[Blum] was still a professor at Berkeley—and then I came to
Carnegie Mellon, and Manuel had moved to Pittsburgh and was a professor
here! So I felt right at home.
Rudich was visiting Berkeley for a year, and he taught me complexity
theory. He’s one of the best teachers I’ve had, and here I
am now co-teaching a class with him!
So how does it feel to be teaching 251
[Great Theoretical Ideas in Computer Science], with Professor Rudich,
which is one of the most renowned classes in the School of Computer Science?
It’s scary, because I have to live up to the reputation of “251”!
But it’s also fantastic… the freshmen class is there, and
this is their first jump into the deep end of theory. This is our chance
to give them our take on what the world of computer science is like from
a theoretical perspective. It’s quite a challenge, but there’s
a line from the movie Spider Man that says, “with great power comes
great responsibility,” and yeah, it is a great responsibility, but
it’s a lot of fun! The students are really eager…they want
to learn…so it’s great!
Did you always want to teach?
No, actually not. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a hacker…typical
geeky kid, sitting around his computer all day, wanting to write the smallest
program that could defeat somebody else’s little program! I didn’t
think so much about it, but when I did, I thought I wanted to perhaps
write programs for a living. But then when I went to IIT, all my teachers
were really good role models. They engendered the idea that how you teach
and how you explain things can make so much of a difference to so many
people. They’d introduce all these really complicated ideas, and
then they’d say, “oh, but it’s just this.”
And then you sit back and think, “oh, it is just that!
And the rest is detail!” So at that point, I thought I would teach…
Are your parents also Computer Scientists?
No, they are not. My father is a Mechanical Engineer, and my mother has
a Master’s in Hindi Literature. But they did get the idea that computers
would be big, early in my life. So even though it was pretty expensive
in India back in those days, they bought me a computer, and it helped.
Sometimes the computer would break down and we’d fix it ourselves.
Sometimes our “fixing” it would break it even more, but we
learned a lot!
So, yeah, though my parents aren’t computer scientists, they gave
me lots of freedom to do what I wanted, and also, they guessed the future
somehow…maybe just sheer luck.
you plan on teaching any other classes, or just continue with 251 for
a few years?
I’ll probably teach 251 for a couple more years, because it’s
a fun experience, and I really like the course. Maybe I’ll teach
some new courses at the grad level, but for the undergrads, I think 251
is the course I’ll be teaching for the next few years.
How does it make you feel to be so much younger than your co-workers,
yet only a few years older than the students you teach? Does it hinder
you, or does it encourage you to work harder?
It doesn’t hinder me—except for the fact that every now and
then I go to somebody, and they assume I am a grad student (which is very
flattering), but then I have to say, “No, I’m actually teaching
this class…I’m a professor out here.” And then they
do a little double-take. But people here are very nice, so it never really
It’s actually quite amusing at times, because sometimes you can
slip by without people noticing. One time a student came back after chatting
for a while and said, “Are you a real professor?” and I said,
“I am…!” He said, “Wow! That’s cool!”
and gave me this thumbs up. That’s very flattering! So you can sort
of mingle easier with students.
On the other hand, you do realize how much more senior colleagues have
achieved, and how far you have to go. It’s inspiring, and sometimes
I think, “Maybe in 10 years I’ll be where X is, and if I reach
there, I’ll consider myself really fortunate.”
Amongst all these people who have achieved so much here, do you
have any role models so far?
Manuel. He has this overarching view of theory. He’s given us so
much in complexity theory, program checking, zero-knowledge proofs, lots
of stuff on cryptography, and he helped give the definitions that in many
ways have decided where computer science has gone —and where almost
all of theory has gone. So I’d say Manuel is definitely a role model.
What hobbies or passions do you have outside of work?
I read a lot, I watch a lot of movies, and I eat a lot! My big hobby is
eating—I love to eat! Whenever I visit a new city, the first thing
I do is to try and find a good place to eat. As for other things, I’m
not particularly active—though I play squash every once in a while.
since you love eating and checking out places to eat, what are a few of
your favorite places in Pittsburgh?
I like a place called Chaya
in Squirrel Hill—it’s got good sushi, and the owners are very
friendly. There’s a crepes place in Shadyside that I end up going
to a lot since it is close to home. Oh! And Udipi Café [Monroeville]—that
place rocks! Udipi has better food than most South Indian food places
in New York, which is saying quite a lot.
Do you have a preference for any particular type of food?
I love sushi…and Thai food, and good falafels—too many things
to mention, but actually, I love almost any kind of food.
has a page with a brief discussion on accents—how would you characterize
yours? Do people comment often on your accent?
I would characterize mine as a mishmash of accents. It’s really
a weird mix. There’s a strong Indian overtone—of course, since
I’m from India—but when I was in junior high, we had an English
professor from Britain. He taught us how to pronounce things correctly,
and since we all wanted to emulate him, I think we all got a few British
things in our accents.
Then I came to America, and realized that ordering a sandwich held more
dangers than you’d ever imagine! Because they couldn’t understand
what I was saying, and I had no clue what they were saying—in fact,
it’s amazing how anything ever got ordered in my first few months
here! (A lot of my friends have had this problem, too!)
And yeah, people do comment on my accent every now and then, and the
comment I usually get is, “oh, you have such an interesting accent—where
is it from?” and then they guess something, and it’ll often
be “India, and, did you live in Britain for some time?” and
then I usually respond with, “no, not really…I’ve only
been to Britain once.”
So, yes, I do identify with that guy who wrote the article
on my website.
If you didn’t go into academics, what would you have done
in another life?
I would like to be a baker. I love bread.
So it’s always back to the food then?!
Yeah! It’s always back to the food! If you see what the turning
points in my life were, they’re all about food! [Laughs]
Other than being a baker, I would love to travel. I would really like
to visit Japan, and more places in Europe.
What’s your favorite color?
I don’t really have one, but I guess it would be black by default…once
you live in New York, you see everybody wears black out there. I used
to wear my typical Indian bright colors, but after living there, almost
by osmosis, you start wearing black. All the clothes you buy are dark,
and you just blend in! It’s also very easy to match with other things
you wear—black and black, black and white, perfect!
What’s your favorite holiday or festival, and why?
It is the Indian festival of lights. You light firecrackers, create a
ruckus, eat good food, and dress in nice clothes…generally, it’s
a time of great happiness. Your relatives come visit you, and you go visit
them back. And it’s a holiday from school…it’s all good!
It’s a holiday that I still cherish.
…other than that, I’d say Thanksgiving…but again, it’s
all about the food…