Grateful that Santa came early bearing gifts for me from Buffalo this year

On Dec 12, 2022, the department of computer science and engineering at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), bestowed a distinguished alumni award on me. Dean Kemper Lewis handed me the award. I would have attended the ceremony in person, but I had just returned after a difficult trip to India and too much was going on at home and work. In fact, I almost missed the first email from department chair Jinhui Xu informing me about the award because I was in India.

This is better than any christmas present I could have imagined. Therefore, I thought I would take this opportunity to write down what UB and CSE mean to my life and career. It has been a while since I wrote on my personal blog and this is as good a topic as any to start.

The five years I spent in Buffalo in the early 90s were formative in many ways. I made lifelong friends I still hang out with more than 25 years since graduating in 1996. We drink beer, obsess about physical fitness and solve world hunger regularly when we meet. Many fellow UB CSE grad students were professional colleagues as well at various points in my career. Even today, when I need to discuss a difficult professional issue, some of the first folks I call are people I met in Buffalo. Of course, there are too many to all name individually, but, Ravi Bhagavan, Rajiv Chopra, Sreenivas Gollapudi, Ashish Naik, D. Sivakumar, Sridhar Seshadri, Vivek Swarnakar, Ram Narasimhan, Alok Baveja, Sriganesh Madhvanath, Ravikanth Ganesan, Srirangaraja Setlur, Kripa Sundar, Shiv Ramanna, Guruprasad Bhat, Ajay Shekhawat, Dipankar Talukdar, Vinay Dabholkar, Rama Balakrishnan, Indumathi Shankar, Geetha Srikantan, Uma Mahadevan are some of the folk who come to mind as folks I have worked with and learnt things from in no particular order. I know I have left many people out of this list and I apologize to those folks in advance. Mea culpa.

More importantly, the PhD I did there with Prof. Bharat Jayaraman as my advisor really developed my technical taste. This has influenced what problems I choose to take on in my career. For me, programming languages is central to computing with deep theoretical and extremely pragmatic aspects and that was the reason I decided to do my PhD in programming languages. I have always gravitated to solving problems that have that dual nature. My latest venture is called ThetaRho in a shoutout to Seymour Papert’s classification of problems in AI, Theta being theory problems and Rho being real-world problems.

Interacting with Bharat and other key faculty including the late Alan Selman, Ken Regan, Jin-Yi Cai, Min-You Wu and others shaped me immensely and I am thankful I had the opportunity to be influenced by them in my life. Alan’s theory seminars taught me that asking the right questions is key in research, and as I found out much later in life in management/leadership as well. Buffalo also gave me the opportunity and freedom to explore a wide variety of problems and make a contribution, not just in my thesis research area. In fact, one of the papers I wrote with Siva, Vinay Dabholkar and a visiting professor, Reuven Bar-Yehuda, on randomized approximation algorithms for MAX-CLIQUE problems is the reason why my Erdos number is 3. I recall working with Marek Zaionc from Poland about learning functions written in simply-typed lambda calculus and stumbled on an insight about how many examples it takes to fix a polynomial with non-negative integer coefficients. To this day, this is my go to party trick that works with everyone, including Turing award winners like Yoshua Bengio. The work I did with Ravikanth Ganesan and Min-You Wu on the connection machine appeared in supercomputing comference as well as the journal of parallel and distributed computing. My thesis work appeared in the top programming language conferences such as POPL and ICLP. Bharat arranged funding from Xerox for my thesis on preference logic programming because we wanted to explore applications in declarative document processing. I got the opportunity to work with Surya Mantha who also kindly agreed to be on my dissertation committee.

But, the joke I tell people is that Bharat not only taught me how to do world-class research in programming languages, he also taught me how to write. I still remember, the first paper we wrote together on intensional algorithmic debugging of logic programs. After seeing the first draft, Bharat asked me if I had read Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and that has been my bible for writing ever since. Of course, you may say that this blog post is shoddily written and breaks every single rule in Strunk and White. Guilty as charged.

I have tried to stay engaged with the department and the university in the time since I graduated. For example when I was in HP working on some of the earliest implementations of web services and later while setting up services research group in HP Labs, I collaborated with Prof Ramesh Ramaswamy of the management school at UB. We collaborated on workshops on the future of internet-enabled commerce in Buffalo, and globally distributed work in IIM Bangalore in the early 2000s, way before these became the norm. I hired UB grads in my first startup and ServiceNow when possible, with Shiv Ramanna being among the best product managers I have had the pleasure of working with.

Later, when the CSE department asked me to serve on the alumni department advisory board, i volunteered and tried to help the department head, Chunming Qiao. When the late Prof Sargur Srihari was thinking about how to get UB to invest in improving its ranking in AAU I did some story boarding with him. More recently, in my last job as VP AI science and engineering in ServiceNow, I got ServiceNow to start hiring PhD interns and the first PhD intern we hired, Yuhao Du, was from UB. When Yuhao’s advisor Kenny Joseph asked if I could serve on Yuhao’s thesis committee, it was a no-brainer for me and I quite enjoyed it because it took me back to those days at UB.

It was in this context that when the current head, Jinhui Xu, sent me mail about the distinguished alumni award, I was truly humbled. It reminded me that I will always have well wishers in the CSE department at UB and I am eternally grateful for that. I am sure I will have the opportunity and reason to visit UB in the not too distant future and rekindle old relationships and establish new ones.

3 Responses to “Grateful that Santa came early bearing gifts for me from Buffalo this year”

  1. Radha Says:

    Congrats Kannan, it was interesting to read about your time at UB and how you sustained that relationship over time. Thinking back on our visit to you in the early 90s when we were so young it was so nice that you made time for us and shared a little part of you while being so busy. We still have those Calvin and Hobbes books!

  2. vatsalar Says:

    Congratulations kanna. Very proud of you

  3. Rajesh Singh Says:

    Congratulation, Kannan!! I never read the book “The Elements of Style” (will order now :)) but what you wrote is so engaging and inspiring.

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