Interview with Anupam Gupta

Anupam 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 Department
Age: 30

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 here.

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 system.

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.
Also, Steven 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.

Do 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 matters.

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.

So 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.

Your website 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?
Probably Diwali. 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…