Technological leadership is all about vision, and visionary companies are leveraging deep domain expertise in defining how advanced technologies should empower our society.
Alpana Dubey (PhD), our next pathbreaker, leads Digital Experiences R&D at Accenture Labs, India, with the primary objective of enhancing people’s experiences through digital technologies and uncovering emerging trends in effective symbiosis between human and computer/AI systems.
Alpana talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about transitioning from an academic research setting to an industrial research setting with a focus on helping Accenture’s clients reimagine the future with cutting edge and futuristic technologies such as AR/VR/MR.
For students, pursuing a career in an industrial research lab is quite exciting and fulfilling as you learn and work on the cutting edge of the technology spectrum to define a vision and make it a reality. Take it up if you are explorers and love to enter uncharted territories of science and technology.
Alpana, tell us about Your background?
I was born and brought up in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.
My primary education happened in a school which was started by my parents after which I moved to Government Girls Inter College, Varanasi to join science stream as the same was not available at that time in our school. Since my childhood, I was interested in studying engineering. Physics and Math were my favorite subjects. During those times, there used to be a ‘Science and Engineering’ column in the children’s page in our local newspaper. Every week, there would be an article about one machinery and its functioning. That used to be my favorite column.
We are 4 brothers and 4 sisters, and I am the youngest among my siblings. My father, Late Shri Jai Narayan Dubey, was an advocate and my mother, Late Mrs. Shanti Dubey, was a school principal. My parents were big advocates of girls’ education. My mother grew up during times when female education was not encouraged greatly. However, with my father’s support she completed double Master’s (Economics and Psychology) alongside usual family responsibilities. Later, to encourage women’s education in rural areas, my parents founded a girls’ school in 1957. That small school has now grown into an education group that includes a much bigger school and a degree college with both undergraduate and master’s programs in Arts, Sciences, Education, and Law.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my BTech (KNIT), Mtech (MNNIT) in Computer Science and PhD in Computer Science from IIT Kanpur.
I was the first engineer in my family. When I was in 12th standard, I did not prepare specifically for engineering entrance exams. As per the prevailing trend, I was pretty sure that I would have to spend a year after my 12th preparing for engineering entrance exams. So, I did not put additional efforts practicing for the entrance exams while in 12th and only focused on the 12th board exams.
My brother, however, filled the engineering entrance form for me that year itself. I took the exam and to my own surprise cleared the exam in the first attempt. I did not apply for IIT JEE that year as preparing for JEE and other exams was next year’s agenda. But as fate would have it, that preparation year was not needed. I joined the BTech program in Computer Science at KNIT Sultanpur (UP). After completing my B.Tech, applying for the Master’s program was the natural option as during BTech, I realized that I wanted to go for building specialization in some specific area of computer science. During my Master’s at MNNIT Allahabad, I secured a regular job offer from one of the most sought-after companies at that time, Cisco Systems. And I had almost made up my mind to join them in Bangalore after completing my Master’s.
But when the date of joining approached, my parents and siblings being very protective of me, started getting nervous of the possibility of me living alone in a city too far away from my home state. It was also due to the fact that my family had very limited exposure to the engineering stream and the career options in engineering at that time.
So, I discussed possible options with my Master’s thesis advisor, Prof. Manoj Gore, at MNNIT. He recommended considering research as a career and therefore suggested that i apply for PhD programs at some top places in India. IIT Kanpur being one of the best places to study Computer Science and located in my home state quite close to my hometown was a natural choice for me to apply to.
I must admit that even after getting a PhD admission offer from IIT Kanpur Computer Science department, I was still not sure to join the PhD program. In traditional Indian families, careers in the Government, particularly at the top of the administration (e.g. IAS/IPS) are considered very prestigious and almost everyone aspires for joining those services. I was no exception.
Therefore, even after joining PhD, during the first semester, a career in civil services was still in my mind. As the time and commitment towards my PhD course work increased and so did the pressure of getting good grades in a competitive relative grading system, the idea of going for civil services gradually vanished as I did not want to drop from PhD and prepare full time for civil services. Rest as they say is history.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
Although I used to love Physics and Math in school, my siblings actually told me the option of engineering as an undergraduate discipline. Later, my Master’s thesis advisor encouraged me to do a PhD. And my PhD advisors helped me understand various options post PhD. Moreover, my seniors at IITK also advised me with their own experiences in both industry and academia. Therefore, I would say that the advice of many people at various stages of my life shaped my study and career choices.
I must also add that interaction with professors at IITK made a lot of impact on me as a person. The CSE Dept. at IITK is like a family where professors give individual attention to the students (especially to PhD students). There were only four PhD students at the time I joined (only one of them was a regular full-time student). My professors helped me a lot in understanding myself better. I still cherish all the valuable advice given by them. Especially, Late Prof. Sanjeev Aggarwal, Prof. Somnath Biswas, and Prof. Pankaj Jalote who helped me get clarity in my approach and how I could improve not only in terms of technical aspects but in terms of putting my thoughts across.
I think the biggest turning point in my life was joining PhD at IITK instead of joining an engineering position in Bangalore. I would have missed the golden opportunity to meet the best brains in this country who are not only great intellectuals but also great persons. This journey has taught me that humbleness and kindness are also very important parts of your intellect and personality.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
During the time I joined PhD, it was not very common to do a PhD in Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) in India. However, now there are many students who join PhD programs in CSE departments across IITs. To put that in context, there was only one regular fulltime PhD candidate in my department when I joined PhD. And he was about to complete his PhD. Computer science departments in other IITs had a somewhat similar situation. During five years of my stay at IITK, only six more regular students joined the PhD program in CSE at IITK. Today, there are around 80 PhD students in CSE, IITK. In last two years alone, around 20-25 students have joined the program every year. Today, many students want to go for a PhD in Computer Science. During our time also, a decent number of students were applying for the PhD program, but CSE departments at IITs, in particular, were extra selective in offering admission.
My PhD problem was largely motivated by the large-scale migration of legacy software systems written in programming languages, such as COBOL, to modern programming languages, such as Java, so that maintenance and enhancements are easier. To perform migration of source code, automated tools rely on the grammar of the programming language in which the software is written. However, it is very difficult to reverse engineer grammar of a programming language when it gets evolved with innumerous dialects which are not properly documented / maintained. I defined my Ph.D. problem around the topic of grammar extraction. More specifically, I developed techniques that can automatically extract/reverse engineer grammar from the source code so that translation/conversion tools can be built. These tools had huge applications as there will always be need for software maintenance/migration tools that hugely rely on the grammar of the programming languages. The migration of legacy code still remains a problem and few interesting dimensions such as using artificial intelligence for understanding and translating code have emerged in recent years.
When I joined Ph.D. in 2001, the general trend for PhD students at top universities was to seek a career in academia (Post Doc and then a faculty position). One of my seniors broke this trend by joining an industrial research lab in India even though he had a postdoc offer from a prestigious US university. His decision might have been influenced by the fact that some of the top multinational Computer and IT companies had started establishing their research labs in India. By the time I graduated, a few more multinational and Indian IT companies had also opened their research labs in India.
It is virtually impossible to continue research in one’s PhD area for long after joining an industrial lab. PhD is mainly about training a researcher to conduct research in a systematic way irrespective of the actual research problem. Of course, one builds an expertise in a particular area during PhD but very few continue in that area for long even in academia
My first job was at Philips Research Asia in Bangalore.
Hiring processes for a research position in these labs are usually different from the process they use for hiring software engineers. It is closer to what universities do for hiring their faculty members. As the number of positions as well as candidates applying for them are small, typically a candidate is physically invited to the lab for a day or two where several rounds of discussions with the senior researchers at the lab are scheduled after a one hour long research talk.
So, the most important thing for me was to prepare my research talk really well. The talk is typically open to the entire lab and often the lab director also attends it. Usually after this talk, they collect feedback from all the attendees. Having written a PhD dissertation on a topic at a top university, a candidate is expected to be an expert in the area she is giving the talk on. Therefore, the same impression should come out after the talk.
I prepared very thoroughly for the talk. This is usually a part of your PhD work; therefore, it is assumed that you know the subject very well. The emphasis of questions is mainly to understand how well a candidate puts across her ideas and how well the research ideas can be applied to a real situation for a business problem.
My first assignment at Philips Research was to develop software quality models for component-based software systems – an important problem in software engineering. We developed software evaluation models and tools that can assess legacy software systems for their suitability for migration to a service-oriented architecture. Software that are used in automation products, that companies like Philips build, are not typical software that we use on our personal computers and in IT industry. These software drive systems such as MRI machines, lighting systems for a sport stadium, or a process automation system in factory. These companies, therefore, cannot use the generic techniques and tool otherwise used in the IT industry. Therefore, our research was in the context of software systems that are used in these products. Out of this work, we could also publish a paper in a prestigious journal of software quality. We also enhanced existing defect management process used at Philips which earlier used to classify all the integration defects in a single category to a defect classification system where integration defects are further classified into various sub-categories.
After my stint at Phillips, I worked at Siemens and ABB. Siemens, and ABB being in the similar business as that of Philips, my work there also was centered around solving problems in software engineering for automation software.
At Siemens, my skills and background in reverse engineering of source code helped me in developing program analysis tools. We developed tools that can detect potential bugs in a software source code without testing and executing it. These tools also provide developers meaningful advice on how to fix those bugs. Such tools are called static analysis tool as they do not execute the program and detect frequently committed mistakes by the programmers by only analyzing the source code.
At ABB, I initially joined the software research group at their corporate research center in Bangalore. I started a new research area that we called as “Software engineering for applications”. Some of the programming languages to build industrial applications are very different from the popular programming languages used in IT industry such as Java, C++, C#, etc. These languages interact more closely with hardware, such as PLCs, and some of these are pictorial and symbolic. Therefore, existing software engineering tools that are popular for languages like C++ and Java cannot be used for these languages. We developed a set of tools to bring software engineering practices closer to the industrial applications. We ran several successful pilots with ABB business units. ABB later decided to start a program for companywide adoption of software engineering best practices, and I was one of the initial people picked for that program.
I currently work at Accenture. Accenture’s business being very different from my previous companies, has helped me in defining problems in the domains more relevant to the IT and IT services industry. So far, I have helped in shaping research problems and building technologies in the areas such as, crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence, human computer interaction including AR/VR/MR.
Software engineering, as a research area, is still very close to me and I am quite active in the research community. I have served as PC chair for some of the reputed international software engineering conferences and regularly publish papers whenever we have some results to report in that area.
How did you get your first break?
In an engineering institute, unlike its bachelor’s and master’s programs where most of the students in a batch graduate around the same time, making it easy for companies to hire students via campus interviews, PhD candidates submit their thesis as and when it is ready. There is no fixed time in a year for the thesis submission. Therefore, PhD candidates rarely appear in the campus placement cycle and companies also do not expect to hire PhD students via campus placements.
Therefore, a few months before a PhD candidate is expected to submit her thesis, she starts looking for positions depending on her area of research and career preferences. The options can be to apply for a faculty position directly, apply for a postdoc position, or apply to some industry research labs. The contacts that you make during your PhD such as the people you meet at various conferences/academic meets, your seniors, and of course the faculty members of your department including your supervisor play an important role in finding these avenues. Therefore, my advice to young Ph.D. students is to focus equally on building their network as much they focus on their research.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
As the question is not specific, I’ll break it down into two parts: challenges during PhD and challenges while working in an industrial lab.
Challenges during PhD:
PhD is a long duration program. Keeping yourself motivated is the biggest challenge. You may not always get the expected results while solving the problems that you are working on. Sometimes, you may not get the ideas for solving your next problem for months. That often makes it frustrating. Therefore, it is very important to understand that almost every PhD student goes through several phases of feeling very low during the program. Seeking the right advice, including professional help is important. I think having a good friends circle is essential and that has helped me manage such phases. I made some of my best friends for life during this period. Many people have the misconception that a PhD is all about taking an interesting problem, developing solutions for the same, and publishing papers with results. But when you are done with it, you realize that it is more about getting trained on systematically investigating an area, identifying a research problems in that area, developing multiple solutions, and getting them accepted by the peer research community. It is more about the training you get during PhD that helps you in conducting all these steps more methodically.
Challenges while working in industry:
While life is generally full of challenges, it is even more challenging for working women to balance family and work together. Although throughout my life, I have had a great support system around me including my husband, Dr. Atul Kumar, and few people at my current organization; this has really helped me grow. I really thank my career counsellor in Accenture, Dr. Alex Kass, who is a great mentor to me. Like professors at IITK, he has truly helped shape myself personally to succeed in the workplace. It is very important to have people who really care for you and it is important to have people who are strong advocates and sponsors of your work. My advice to everyone is to have a strong personal connection with people. Your skills matter but what matters more is how you conduct yourself as a person, and your approach towards people around you. Research in industry (objective approach and outcome) is very different than that in academia. A fresh PhD joining a research lab normally takes time to understand this difference and to adjust to it, which leads to uncertainties, confusion and many a time, self-doubts. Even among different industrial research labs, the process and approach to research may be very different. Many people tend to carry the baggage of their previous job to the new company which often does not work well for both the new employer and the person. Therefore, one should be open about her choices and options and invest in understanding the strategy and the goals of the organization while working on or building a research agenda. At every place, there are good people (peers and superiors) to help and guide you, but it is always one’s own responsibility to seek help when needed.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
Accenture Labs is an applied research lab with a focus on helping Accenture’s clients reimagine the future with cutting edge and futuristic technologies. I lead the Digital Experiences group in Accenture Labs India. Our group’s primary objective is to keep the company updated about the state of the art and emerging trends in digital experiences that includes human computer interaction, human in the loop in automated systems including AI, etc. My group is currently working on a couple of areas. One of them being multi-sensory experiences that include AR/VR/MR, and the artificial intelligence in defining the future of digital experiences. We have developed a multi-sensory VR experience in which users can not only visualize products but also smell it. This will change the way consumers browse various products while making a purchase decision. The second area is around developing tools to make an effective symbiosis between human and AI systems. We are also developing a set of tools for 3D designers to enhance their creativity and efficiency. We have developed tools to enhance creativity of 3D designers by autogenerating 3D models from hand drawn sketches and applying new design elements from disparate domains to the 3D model. For example, applying an architectural style on 3D model of a chair. We are also developing tools that bridges gaps between 3D designers and manufacturing engineers.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
For a human, and particularly for a researcher, the learning never ends. Therefore, keeping oneself up to date with latest developments in technologies and business needs is the most important part of my role. I spend a significant amount of time reading others’ work and their views on the future of IT and computing. I also regularly take training in technical and soft skills areas, but the most valuable learnings come from your peers both in your organization and in the community. My PhD journey has also helped me greatly in this.
What is a typical day like?
Even though I lead a research group and manage people reporting to me, my primary role is still of a researcher. Majority of my time is spent in developing technologies and solutions for the problems we have identified to work on. The research in industrial research labs does not happen in silos; business is the most important driver of any research we conduct. Therefore, keeping Accenture’s clients at the center of our work is the key. Aligning our research with Accenture’s business and our clients’ needs drives most of the research ideas we generate and the projects we undertake. I also spend considerable time guiding my team both at the approach level and at technical level. I have a very talented team with a diverse background. Some of them are trained researchers while others have come from engineering and services backgrounds. Therefore, managing their expectations and career accordingly is also part of my responsibilities.
What is it you love about this job?
The freedom of thinking is what I love about this job the most. You can get as creative as you want. Certainly, you have to be within the boundaries of feasibility and business relevance, but the job is about creating vision and making it a reality. This is the aspect I love the most about this job. The second thing I like about my job is that it keeps me abreast of newer technologies which is always exciting for me. Every day I get to learn new things which is quite fulfilling. Accenture as an employer is one of the best employee friendly companies as confirmed by several surveys conducted by independent international organizations. The inclusive environment, work flexibility, employee friendly policies related to maternity, healthcare, personal care, are just the few things to mention. And last but probably the most important is its people. My team, my colleagues in the lab, and the colleagues from business units I work with, are what makes this job very special.
How does your work benefit society?
My group and others in Accenture Labs work continuously towards making the lives of developers and other professionals better by building tools and technologies that enhance their experiences, making them more productive and their job less stressful. We try our best to add value to the business of our clients. While some of our work is confidential or proprietary, we publish a major part of our research in leading academic conferences and journals. We at Accenture labs also run a global program that we call “Tech for Good” through which we develop technology solutions for helping the society directly. For example, Accenture Labs partnered with Akshaypatra foundation to help them improve their logistics and forecasting. These are some of the small ways through which we try to make some difference.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
If I look back, I am very proud of the work I did at ABB as a part of the Global Software Development Improvement Program. I drove global adoption of software engineering best practices in ABB including use of state-of-the-art tools. It was a leadership role as a global subject matter expert on software analysis, in which I ensured that software engineering best practices are correctly followed by all the software development teams at ABB. My role was to evangelize the best practices, guide development groups with the right set of software engineering tools, and global deployment of those tools. Through this work, I could make a direct impact on the organization to achieve efficiency and effectiveness. Even though it was a leadership role outside corporate research, I being a researcher could still write a research paper from our experience and get it published at a top software engineering conference.
The other work that I am very fond of is the work that I started at Accenture to redefine product design. I created and drove the vision on how advanced technologies such as IOT, artificial intelligence and multi-sensory experiences, can dramatically shift the product design process. It started several exciting initiatives touching various aspects of the design process such as aesthetics, creativity, regulations adherence, sustainability to name a few. A project from this initiative, on AI empowered creative design process, won Accenture’s prestigious global technology innovation contest (GTIC) which is held in Accenture annually and attracts over 60000 entries.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Life is full of ups, downs and uncertainties. Uncertainties, whether they are in your mind or in the environment you work, are bound to exist. Navigate those uncertainties by identifying the best possible way out instead of making them as excuses for your failures. It is very important to take responsibilities for it and be the owner of your life and career. Accept the fact that you may not get the best outcome from everything you try. Therefore, what matters the most is whether you gave it your best or not. Hard work, perseverance, attitude, and honesty towards your work always pays. Either work what you like or start liking what you work.
I wish to remain a researcher, as, over the time, I have discovered that this is what I love the most. I have already advised a few Master’s students for their Master’s thesis and have served on the doctoral committee of few PhD students. With online classes becoming a norm now due to the pandemic, I would like to offer and teach some courses online at some Institutes / Universities, which was earlier not feasible because online classes were not very common and physical teaching involves travel and other logistics that are difficult to manage with a full time job and family.