Original Link :


Its my pleasure to welcome S P Suresh for an interview on Coffee With Experts. S P Suresh is a Theoretical Computer Science(TCS) faculty in Chennai Mathematical Institute. Suresh completed his MCA from NIT Trichy. After this he worked in the IT industry for one year. He then pursued a MSc degree in TCS from Anna University followed by a Phd in TCS in Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. Suresh is also interested in sanskrit and carnatic music. Suresh was referred to Coffee With Experts by Hemalatha Thiagarajan Maam. I must say, we had a very long, detailed and interesting discussion. Suresh also runs a site here.

Me: Hello Suresh! Welcome to CWS! Can you introduce yourself and give a brief background about education.

SPS: Hi Sundar! Thanks for the invitation. Nothing very distinguished about my education for a very long time (unless you count the 0 in Botany and 2 in Zoology I scored in the half-yearly examination during my
12th class (or was it 11th?)). After a BSc in Mathematics in Salem (not learning anything much, needless to say!), I did MCA at REC (nowNIT) Tiruchi from 1993 to 1996 (slightly better here!). After a year in the software industry, I joined the PhD programme in TheoreticalComputer Science at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai in 1998. I completed my PhD late in 2003 (defended my thesis only in
the beginning of 2005! Quite a long time, wouldn’t you say?). From 2004 I have been with the Chennai Mathematical Institute… which is in Chennai! (Who could have guessed?)

Me: How did you go from MCA to research. What was the trigger that made you switch to such an offbeat, unusual and unique career, from application to theory?

SPS: I moved from an MCA to research. While this is quite rare, I am not the only one who has done this. I known some other people who have done the same. The switch was from industry to research, not application to theory. And it was not that big a switch in a way. I had spent hardly a year in the industry, found that I didn’t quite fancy the life, and switched before it was too late! I can imagine that there are others who feel the same way when they start off in the software industry (not enough intellectual challenges, unless you seek them really hard!). But it takes some guts to sacrifice the pay and commit five
years of your life on a PhD program (and the rest of your life as well on research, come to think of it!).

That is the social aspect of it. You also need to be interested in the subject. In my case, when I first encountered discrete mathematics, automata theory, etc. at RECT, was when I realised for the first time
that I had an aptitude for some kinds of mathematics. There was always a deep desire to do a PhD, even though I would dismiss the thought as being impractical. But the software jobs I held must have sucked so
badly, I guess, that I just switched to research at the first available opportunity. HT Mam helped a lot to develop my interest in these areas. She was the one who introduced me to the delights of mathematical logic by giving me all kinds of beautiful books on logic. So I definitely owe her one on that!
In a sense, starting to research in theoretical computer science is much easier than research in physics, say. You aren’t supposed to have learnt anything about mathematical logic or automata theory in school
or in a typical BSc Mathematics course, right? (Even in a BE/MCA course, most of the time you do not learn it right.) So, you do not feel bad about learning all this after starting your PhD. In a sense,
you might have been an average student in whatever you did before a PhD in theoretical computer science, and still do good research! I would imagine that you need to seriously start learning things much earlier, if you want a career in mathematics. (Which is what the BSc students at CMI do. Some of them are frighteningly bright!)

Me: Now you are into teaching.. How do you find this role? What are the pros and cons of academia over industry?

At CMI, we have BSc/MSc programs. I teach a variety of subjects to them apart from lecturing to PhD students also. I love both. The PhD level courses are usually subjects that are close to my heart (mathematical logic, for instance), and usually I have a captive audience. Every time I teach a course at this level, I learn more of the subject. I approach this as an opportunity to learn more and convey the excitement of the subject to the students . With the other courses, the challenge is to make the students interested in the material. I get to teach subjects like computer organization, compilers, etc. where I have to learn a lot (having lost touch with them over the years!) — which keeps me interested. I love teaching. Especially since at CMI, it isn’t accompanied by a lot of grading (there aren’t many students here!).
Pros and cons … I don’t know if I can have a balanced take on this matter. My experience in the industry has been very limited and it hasn’t been good. I haven’t seen much of the software industry recently, but my guess is that nothing much has changed over the years. I can mention some things that I enjoy most about life as a researcher in the environment I am in. I go to work in a veshti (dhothi), always! And it was only after starting on a research career that I feel about the work I have to do as my work. A sense of ownership! These are big pros for me. But it is not very objective! Somebody slogging it out in a private engineering college (if you consider him/her as part of academia) will, I am sure, have a very different
perspective to offer.

The most obvious con is that you get paid much less. (Even though nobody cons you about that. You always know what you’re getting into!)

Here is an amusing anecdote: I ran into the father of an RECT classmate somewhere near Adyar, and we were talking for a while.`Ennappa Suresh, eppadi irukke?’ (Hi Suresh, how are you?) and all that. After a while, he asked, `Velai nanna irukka? Evvalavu salary taraa?’ (Howz work, how much salary they offer?) . I am almost sure it is unrelated, but two seconds later he was saying: `Sarippa paarkalaam! Time kidaicha oru naal aathukku sappida vaayen!’ (Ok see you, when you get time, lets catch up for lunch!) I haven’t found the time to go, but I should say that I didn’t feel the pinch after all! You get enough money to spend on the things you like (which ought to be books, music DVDs, even iPods, or laptops). But don’t develop too strong a yearning for your own house, etc. I am not saying it will not happen, but it won’t be easy, thanks to your classmates in the industry who would be driving the real estate prices up!