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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Sibi Venkatesan on UC Berkeley. The Daily Grind, Great People and Donut runs.

Episode summary introduction: Sibi Venkatesan knew he wanted to study Computer Science. He had always enjoyed it and was good at it. When time came to go to College, Sibi moved from Bangalore, India to Berkeley, California to pursue the prestigious Electrical Engineering and Computer Science program.

Sibi gives us a ringside view into his experiences at University of California Berkeley.

In particular, we discuss the following with him:

  • Why he chose Berkeley
  • Being an International Student at Berkeley
  • His advice for Students applying to Berkeley

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Berkeley - “Fantastic Experience” [2:00]
  • Choosing Berkeley [4:27]
  • Bangalore to Berkeley - The Transition [7:57]
  • “Very Smart Students” [14:42]
  • Campus Life [22:37]
  • Amazing Food around Berkeley [24:58]
  • Summers of Research [28:42]
  • On to CMU for Grad School [31:33]
  • Comparing Berkeley and CMU Campuses [37:05]
  • The PhD Research  [42:47]
  • Advice to Aspiring Students [44:55]
  • “Video game I couldn’t quit!” [49:45]

Our Guest: Sibi Venkatesan graduated with Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science from University of California Berkeley. Sibi is currently pursuing a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University.

Memorable Quote: “I just shot him an email saying I am in your class, I read some of your papers. Really interesting, do you think I could work with you?” Sibi on how he got his summer research project with Prof. Pieter Abbeel at the end of his second year. 

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Venkat  0:10

From the time he was in high school in Bangalore, he has always loved Math and Computer Science. He has a number of awards to prove that. So, when time came to think about colleges, he wanted to go West.

Hi! Welcome to this episode of College Matters. Alma Matters.

Sibi Venkatesan came to the University of California Berkeley to study, the highly sought after, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science or “EECS”. Soon, Sibi adjusted to a new country, mingled with high caliber college peers, and started engaging in research.

His one vice: he fell prey to the allure of donuts!

Sibi has agreed to share his Berkeley undergraduate years with us today. Over coffee and donuts of course!

Let’s go over and meet Sibi!

Venkat  1:09  

Hi Sibi, how are you doing?

Sibi  1:11  

Good, good. It's a slow day here. And since I've been sitting at home all day. Has been good so far.

Venkat  1:19  

Good, good.

So first of all, let me welcome you to our podcast College Matters. Alma Matters. And look forward to chatting with you about your Berkeley years. So, thanks for making the time.

Sibi  1:34

I am excited.

Venkat  1:36  

So cool.

So maybe the best way to do this is, I guess start at the beginning.

So let's start with you know, now looking back, what your overall undergraduate experience at Berkeley looks like and then we can get into details.

Sibi  2:00  [Berkeley - “Fantastic Experience”]

So yeah, overall, I had a fantastic experience. Berkeley, Berkeley was a really, really great experience. And I remember if I think hard about it, I know that it wasn’t easy and it was stressful through a lot of it. When I think back to it, I only have like, only the good memories stick out, which I'm happy about.

It was difficult to start off with I was Fresh Off the Boat. But, it took me a while I rooted myself in classes and it was after that the food is great. The people are great. I met some great people. And the daily grind was easy to just root myself into that, ground myself there and then keep going and by the end of it all, I turned out that it was a fantastic experience overall.

Venkat  2:44  

So you know, you obviously you know, you went to school in India in Bangalore. I don't know how big the school was, but must have been quite a transition from that to a school of Berkeley size right? Is quite biggish.

Sibi  3:05  

Yes. Yeah, my, my school was fairly small actually. Every, each graduating batch had 110 people so going to Berkeley was a shock for more than just one reason. One thing is that I was, I had never been out of the US, let alone, having never never been out of India, let alone to the US.

And getting there and when classes started orientation began, the throngs of people, so many students, so many people was surprising. And so it took a, took a while to get used to. And one thing was that my, my dorm experience, which I was when I moved into, I didn't have really a good social circle there. So it was, it was just a little bit difficult to get myself settled in my dorm. But then because of that, I ended up finding good friends and classes and it was good.

Turns out that Indian pronunciation for a lot of different words were different. So I know that for the first two or three months, I had to reacquaint myself with the way, the way to speak so that people will understand. And yeah, so that that was that was fun and a little bit embarrassing at times, but then I got used to it.

Venkat  4:27  [Choosing Berkeley]

Let's sort of talk a little bit about, why did you come to Berkeley? How did you end up choosing Berkeley sitting in Bangalore? Why was this your choice? How did that happen?

Sibi  4:39  

So I have a serious answer and a joking answer. I don't know which one you want to hear first.

Venkat  4:45

Both. Let's start with the fun one first.

Sibi  4:47

With the fun one. So my name is Sibi. And “UCB” is the initials of

Venkat  4:54



Sibi  4:55  

“I am Sibi” and so, somebody was saying “you are Sibi”,  where else will I go?

Sibi  5:02  

Sorry, that was the serious answer. And I will tell you the joking one.


Sibi  5:08  

So the criterion is fairly simple. I think for a lot of people in India, I think we, in general, it's a little unfortunate sometimes. But it's a rat race for the best named engineering school even in India. Everybody wants to go to the IITs and such.

So yeah, the ranking is using a ranking as an as a criterion for choosing is pretty common. And that was what we looked at. We applied to the top program, so Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, it came down to Berkeley and CMU at that point, not just the ranking. Rankings, I think, for CS [Computer Science] were the same, but Berkeley pipped it for an overall school.

And at that point, at that and California and proximity to the people, like a bunch of people, including yourself who I know in both in California, kind of tilted towards that. Yeah.

Venkat  5:56  

So actually, let me ask you one other question then. So then, you know, you said CS and EE. How did you, how did that happen?

I mean, is that something that you developed an interest for, Or you kind of, you know, a lot of times people follow, the parents might have pushed, I just want to know, how did you end up picking a major like that which, you know, obviously, is a good one. Just curious where that came from?

Sibi  6:27  

Yeah, that's a good question. I think so my parents have, in general, never been pushing me towards one thing or the other. But I do, I do think that that choice is a product of my environment in which I grew up, that doesn't change.

Everybody around me were like they were all like kind of looking at these STEM fields, for instance, and I was generally good at computer science and maths throughout school. So I kind of my my aptitude for those kind of shaped my interest in those as well and slowly develop that idea.

I just thought that it was something which I was to do without even thinking. So it became a no brainer by the time I applied, but I guess my kind of the seeds had been sown right at the start. And I think that STEM feel, like a lot of my friends around me were interested in the same thing. So like, six, seven years of growing up with that, and then I just like, it became ingrained in me that that's probably what I want to do.

But that said, I really, really enjoy math and computer science. Like, I love coding. And I've always enjoyed those. So it has, never I've never regretted that decision. In fact, I never even came close to reading it. But yeah, yeah, it was the right choice for me.

Venkat  7:35  

Cool, cool. It's good because knowing what you want to do is probably 90% of the battle so that's, that's great.

Venkat  7:57  [Bangalore to Berkeley - The Transition]

You apply to a bunch of schools, you pick Berkeley, for all these reasons, and you show up here.

Tell me how, how was it sort of transitioning from high school to the first semester of Berkeley, just from an academic point of view, how did that go?

Sibi  8:06  

Okay academic. Makes sense. I think one thing was that when I first came here before my classes started, I was doubting myself. Am I really, Am I really supposed to be in a school like this? Am I really good enough in this, in that.

But after I started taking my classes, and I was able to understand the material, a lot of the material, at least the opening CS and math classes were things which they teach in high school in India, just just the beginning classes. I had taken them and I realized that I was actually following the material easily. In fact, I knew how to do all like a lot of those things before even start, so excuse me, so because of that, I think I felt more comfortable, I felt Okay, well, maybe my place is a spot here and then I started doing well in my assignments and stuff, but it was rocky to begin with, I think that both being, both being Fresh Off the Boat and not knowing many people over there to take take classes with I think that was a difficult to start off with.

But in the classes I found a lot of very good friends. And we work together, did homeworks together, worked on assignments, worked on projects together. And I think that that kind of connection allowed me to appreciate the classes more and then it became you know, it's no longer me taking class but two of us taking class. Right? And I my first semester I got like, in every class, I found a great friend. And with that, I think that kind of pairing made, made it very, like streamlined to go through the classes.

It was it was not easy. I should mention that it was never easy. It was always busy. Even if the assignments were things I knew, doesn't mean it takes any less than six hours to complete any given assignment.

Yeah, but I know that if I know the material, I know how to do the assignments, and I will do them and because of that, I think slowly, I just ease myself into that system. And sooner rather than later, I just just found myself getting used to it. And I was yeah, at the end of it. I was at the end of the first semester, I felt like well, okay, I guess I'm here and I belong.

Venkat  10:13  

Very nice. Now, as you were, you know, in these classes now, Berkeley is notorious for huge classes, right, some of the core curriculum, kind of things. So how big are some of these classes?

Sibi  10:29  

Yeah, that's a, that's another good question. I think that it has exploded in size. It started exploding in size when I was there. Yeah.

When I talk to some of the students, so okay, just for context. I should mention this, I didn't mention this to begin with. I came into Berkeley in 2010. I should mention that, and I left in 2014. So over the past six years, whatever has happened has been through secondhand information from friends and other people who have graduated from Berkeley, who I know.

And I know that the class size has been exploding a lot more since I left when I was there. I think the biggest class had maybe 600 to 800 students that was the notorious CS 61A, which is basically intro to programming almost, cs 101, basically, and now it has, it spills over into three classes or something like that. three versions of the not three with the more three sections of the class, each with 1000, or something like that.

And when I was there, 600 or 800 was a huge number. And that's just ridiculous. It has been exploding. I think that it's also because especially with the interest in machine learning, computer science and all those rising, lots of people want to take the classes and even if you're not a major in computer science, a lot of students who are majoring in various different things need to take 61A if you want at least minor in computer science, and so because of that the classes are packed.

So yeah, huge, huge classes it gets, it gets much more hours in upper division much more sparse and even like the major classes even required classes mainly because I think people stopped turning up the classes.

Yeah, the, the everybody's wide eyed when they first come there, everybody goes to every semester. But after that they become I mean, you get “senioritis” in your second semester itself and major sitting at home and all of that. But yeah.

Venkat  12:17  

So these big classes had recitations or smaller tutorials or things of that.

Sibi  12:24  

Okay. Yeah, I think...

Venkat  12:25  

Sorry. Go ahead...

Sibi  12:28  

Yeah, so I think a class, when I was there in general, there used to be a split of about 20 students per recitation, was called the discussion section. I think it's called recitation in some places, in Berkeley it was called discussion section. And usually the the ratio was around 20 to 25 students to one TA, that is no longer the case as far as I know, but that was the ratio back then. So 200 people essentially means about, we have 10 TAs and 10 different discussion sections throughout the week, but yeah, that helped you actually interact with an instructor more one on one as opposed to being kind of drowned out in a huge crowd. And that did help you meet you meet you're in generally make good friends in those discussions and rarely in the main classes because there are just too many people. But yeah, so there are small discussions and those really helped. Those were fantastic in general. Really, the TAs are very good.

Venkat  13:25  

Now, did you feel I know, you said that you're taking a bunch of courses in high school. Did you feel well prepared for the college program in general?

Sibi  13:36  

Ah, yeah. But I realized I was well prepared only after a little while, which you can ...me. I came there, thinking, because I wasn't sure whether I, I was well prepared at all. And then because my first CS class was in a language I had never seen before. It's in Python now. But it wasn't Scheme which is a Lisp language. Back when I started and it was one of the last few times it was taught using that language. And so I got into a class and I had to take that class and I was worried that I wouldn't know anything. But a lot of just like matte physics and all those things, all the other level one classes I had to take.

When I sat through the classes, the lectures, I realized a lot of those had been taught before. And that's when I kind of noticed that he actually I did prepare them. And I was also part of that rat race for JEE. And I also spent many, many years studying for that exam. So all those paid off one way or another. So I know that when my first semester came around, I ended up being prepared. Well prepared.

Venkat  14:35

Good, good.

Venkat  14:42  [“Very Smart Students”]

So, how were your classmates, your peers, what kind of students, what was the general caliber of these students?

Sibi  14:51  

So Berkeley is a state school. And so a lot of students come from in-state right. And so sometimes that kind of adds as a kind of a neutralizing effect. But in general, most people who do come there are usually top of their class in their high school, they're all really smart. And then you suddenly have to have a spectrum over the really, really smart over the really smart, So.

But in general, the, I mean, the average student was really smart, but the real, the extraordinary students were more extraordinary than you would expect. I think there were some of the smartest people I have ever met in some of my classes, and I think... I've stayed in touch with a lot of them. And they are, yeah, so you will find people who are just exceptional in whatever they do. And you'll find one or two in every class, maybe the silent guy sitting at the back who's always getting 100% all the time or something like that.

But in general, the classmates with the caliber is really good and in general, people are very friendly. Very easy to get along with people. It's very, it's, at least when I was there, it was easy to form groups, to go up to people and say, do you want to work on this project with me? And in general, people don't.. people are easy to get wrong with. And yeah, so smart people are super smart, for sure. And it was a good mix of people from different places that, that's another interesting thing. About vast majority of people were from California. But yeah, there were people from all over the place in the like the 20%, which was not.

Venkat  16:36  

Yeah, that's roughly how they're distributed.

Now, as an international student, did you feel pretty welcome. I mean, was that you know, did you just blend in and did that work Okay?

Sibi  16:48  

Yeah, so, um, the first memory I had of landing in the US was, me juggling the bags, which I had when I was going out of the security point, and I had kept my boarding pass or whatever, my passport in my mouth, and then the and then the the person at the counter was like, I don't want to touch that if you put your mouth on it and wait, that was a weird experience.

But I think after that checkpoint, everything was fantastic. It was very welcoming experience. I in fact, one of my closest friends from Berkeley is somebody who just on a whim he is from California, and on a whim just decided to talk to me because I seemed interesting. And then we had lunch after our first class and then and when he realized it was International, he did as much as he could help me blend in.

In fact, he invited me over to Thanksgiving on in my first semester there so I went to his house and had dinner with them. So yeah, I felt welcome. I think in Berkeley itself, I generally felt quite welcome in my classes and such. Dorm was a little bit... I was not social enough, I guess. My second year my dorm was much more social, but my first year I guess I didn't connect with them, but the classes I found people are really social, easy to connect with.

Venkat  17:59  

How was the teaching? And how were the profs? The profs teach, the students teach, or was it a mix of that?

Sibi  18:06  

In general, I think that in general during the semesters profs were teaching the again you will always have good professors and bad professors but the really famous instructors and really good professors were fantastic.

I think like some of the, like, I can recall specific lectures I sat in because they were so great. And that was six, seven years back. And, and I think this is something which, which unfortunately happened is that after my first semester, I just could not get up at 8am. I just was not up for it. And, but, there were classes, which were really early in the morning, which I went to without fail, like 8:30/9am because the teaching was so good that I kind of naturally woke up because some professors are really good in terms of who teaches the classes in general, when I was there again, it was professors during the semesters and over the summer, it's usually a grad student.

There were cases of some students who were TAs right from their freshman year. And in their senior year, there were TAs almost every semester for the same class. So I think there was one case or a couple of cases of an undergrad teaching a class - went right after he graduated, I think.

But in general professors taught the class and, yeah, and the students in general, Berkeley had a lot of undergrad TAs. And we had in general, for the tougher classes there were grad students, but for the basic classes there were too many students for you to find as many classrooms as you need. Yeah.

So yeah, that’s the undergrad years.

Venkat  19:45  

So very good. So. So in general, for your program, you had an academic advisor who was guiding you? How did you pick classes and how did that work out?

Sibi  19:58  

Yeah, I think we are assigned an academic advisor to begin with, depending on your department, and I ended up getting assigned to somebody who is one of the biggest names in computer vision, his name is Jitendra Malik. And he's a really, famous in the field of computer vision. He was my academic advisor.

But I think essentially what that meant was that I went to him and I said, Do these classes look okay? And he said, Yes, that's basically what happened in the end. Because a lot of the times you, you, your choice of upper division classes, you everybody has to take the same lower division classes.

When you go into upper division classes there are fairly strict, not fairly strict, there are requirements which will need to graduate and those who have to take. But apart from that, whatever else you take is, generally kind of it's never bad to take any mix of classes almost. There are va... in the EECS department went all the way from kind of communications pure math to graphics, which is essentially in daily coding.

So, and people took both and statistics and versus graphics and like, and in general, I think that you needed I think there was like a requirement for a design class there was a requirement for a  design class could either be something like OS design, or it could be graphics or something like that. They had like basic structures in place, which made you choose classes at least to some semblance of, you know, diversity. But after that whatever you chose was generally fine.

My, the academic advisor would kind of look over your classes, but it's very rare that they would say no, it was the only case what they would say is when you decide to take grad classes, which is generally difficult, then they would tell you Okay, well, if you haven't taken these four classes, then this grad class is going to be difficult, but in general, your choice of undergrad classes, they yeah, they were generally yeah, they just okayed it.  

You talk to a lot of your friends, your seniors, in your like people who are above you, you talk to them. And generally you come up with a good, people usually came up with, like a very viable set of classes just from talking to people. So it was never really absurd. So in general, there's no reason to say no.

Venkat  22:21  

So let's switch a little bit to the outside class life, you know, campus life. So let's start with the dorm you started talking about. First year. So how did it go, the first year and then onwards from there?

Sibi  22:37  [Campus Life]

Yeah. So the first year I think what happened was that I kind of moved in maybe three or four days too late. And so they were like this, since everybody is new, they kind of formed cliques immediately just to kind of get acquainted with the place and I kind of missed out on that clique formation at the start. So what happened was that and my housemate in my freshman year, I did go to one of the dorms. I went to anybody who was considering it, I went to Foothill dorms in Berkeley.

My office, my roommate was also kind of a reserved guy. He was also I think he and me, the two of us were the only two people who are doing EECS or in engineering, I think on my floor. Yes. The two of us kind of just did not connect with anybody else. But that made us good friends to each other.

But my dorm life itself was, in my first year was a bit lackluster. I don't know I had all these ideas of like extremely friendly people and like, you know, it's going to be the best late night board games this and that, and donut runs and stuff. And it was not really as I was kind of anticlimactic in my first year, I couldn't really make friends in my dorm. But because of that I made very good friends in my classes.

The dorms in my second year, were a bit I think after I had, I had gotten used to the fact that I in the US and I am, okay, I'm, I'm supposed to be, I deserve to be here. After all those issues went away, I think I was much better. And I made very good friends in my dorm. In fact, my current girlfriend is one who's who I met in my dorm, in my second year, we've been together for eight years. And so if I did meet a lot of good people, some of my closest friends are from that dorm.

And so I think that it all came down to how prepared I was to kind of meet that social life. And I like looking past that culture shock and all those things. So dorm life is certainly good if you know how to navigate it. If you don't, then it's going to be difficult for some time, so just got to be prepared for that.

Venkat  24:49

So how was the food? I mean, I know Berkeley has a lot of food, a lot of cuisine, so, but how is it in general?

Sibi  24:58  [Amazing Food around Berkeley]

Berkeley, the food was amazing. I think we, in my third and fourth year, I think we had a little thing going with a few of my friends where we would very often go every Sunday night, we will go try new place, they will just fantastic places to eat. Then there was this kind of strip of places called Gourmet Ghetto, which is the reason it's so there, which had kind of slightly fancy but really, really good restaurants and people I know a lot of people who used to drive in from Fremont, for instance, just to have pizza from this one place Cheeseboard, if you're familiar with that.

But there are fantastic places to eat. The dorms themselves were not so good. I think that especially because there are so many students, it kind of felt like the food was mass produced, that's still good for some guy who was not a picky eater, but the food outside was a lot better, and a lot of them will open late into the night, until 2am.

If you decide at 1am that you're hungry for donuts. You can go donuts, which is I guess something which I enjoyed a lot. I used to, I said donut runs, which I did not do in my first semester or first year only because I did it very, very often in my second semester which was amazing. Okay.

Venkat  26:18  

Okay, so, did you get involved in cultural and social activities on campus? I mean, what kind of things there are clubs or what do you do?

Sibi  26:30

There is in general a club for everything, but I did not involve myself in most any of them actually.

I was your kind of typical shut-in, engineering student, sort of person and like I preferred to kind of I play games in my dorm in the evening as opposed to go out and do something interesting. So, I did, I did kind of visit nearby places. I've never been to Lake Tahoe, for instance, but I did visit like occasionally, we would go to like places around Berkeley, San Francisco for things but in terms of campus based cultural and social activities, there were not too many that I was specifically a part of.

But that said, I think once or twice I was dragged into the Holi celebration in Berkeley I think that's very interesting because when I went that I saw absolutely zero Indian people also, I think it was because I couldn't actually notice if they were Indian or not, because the color, but in general, it just seemed like a lot of people just having fun. And using the event to have fun, of course, is just fantastic. So a lot of people getting together and just having fun on Holi. And so that that happened every year Diwali happens on every year. I did not associate myself too much with the with the Indian group on campus.

I do I do want to mention that because when I when I first went, I was still very new to the place and I sat down in the Indian interior thing was called Indus. And when I first went there to the first opening orientation meeting or something just to have the kind of have people come join their group.

I like, I just could not connect with the people on stage. I just felt very disconnected from them and I just felt like you know what, I don't really I might be these people might be Indian, but I just don't feel like I can connect with them. And I did not do that. And they used to have regular Diwali events and like, you know, different buffets and stuff for, like different, like Bhangra night and all those things, which I just never went for, but they did.

Venkat  28:37  

What did you do during the summers?

Sibi  28:42  [Summers of Research]

In my first summer, which is the odd one out, I took classes, that helped me kind of get ahead and then I could reduce the load on my later semesters because of that, but for my second semester onward, second summer onward. I started doing research.

So in my, I think, third or fourth semester at Berkeley. I started working on research in a robotics lab. And right now the professor has become super famous. His name is Pieter Abbeel. Remember, like he's, he's right now, Yeah, he's, he does a lot of stuff. He actually was part of open AI and all those things. And often that lab I think every summer after that, my second and third year, and fourth year summer I came back home to India, but my second and third year summers, I worked on research, and I worked with robots in his lab. He is a fantastic, very busy body researcher. He still is, I heard that he sleeps like people don't know when he sleeps. He's there all the time. Yeah, he's the first one in last one out sort of person works very hard. It was a fantastic experience kind of learning from him. And that's kind of the reason why I stuck with research moving forward. But yeah, those 3rd and 4th years. Like, paid research both those years.

Venkat  30:04  

How did you find these, find the research project? How did you find this?

Sibi  30:09  

One thing was that, when I, when I joined his lab, I was taking his class. And I was taking his class with a friend of mine who was working in his lab. And he, I enjoyed the class. It was an artificial intelligence class in CS 188, which is a pretty popular class, upper division class for most students in EECS. And he was teaching that class. And I had a friend who I would take the class with, who was also taking, was working with him and he gave me only good news and like good things to know about this person.

So what I was, this was before this was before he became as popular or even close to as popular as he is now. So I just shot him an email saying, I'm in your class. I've read your some of your papers. It's really interesting, can, do you think I could work with you? And he said, Okay, well, do you want to come and chat for some for some time. To see if there's a match in interest, and I went and spoke to him, and that was that.

Right now he's, he's famous for having an undergrad army, which is basically a bunch of students who want to work with him and a bunch of students who do work with him. I know that, the, the barrier to entry is a lot higher right now, but at that time you shoot him an email and he responds and you respond. I don’t think it works like that anymore. It was that simple. Yeah.

Venkat  31:26  

Yeah. But you had to take the initiative, which is great. So.

Venkat  31:33  [On to CMU for Grad School]

Cool. So you spent two years, I mean, two, sorry, two summers doing research. You're coming upon, you know, the final year, you're deciding what to do next. What happens then?

Sibi  31:48  

So I think my decision strategy at that point was I don't know if I'm ready for a job yet. Mainly because I was just like taking classes and I was enjoying taking classes. And a lot of my students, I had not done an internship. Many of my friends had done internships. So I just didn't have a taste for that kind of company life and working in, like a tech company or something. I didn't have that taste. So all I had known was the research I had done in the students before me in my lab had gone on to grad school. So it was kind of a natural part, a lot of my friends. Also were doing grad school, even if they weren't working in my lab, they were going to grad school, and I made a lot of friends who are grad students in the lab I worked at. And so, it by the end of it, it became a no brainer. Just like I didn't apply to jobs at all. I just applied to grad schools.

And yeah, it was yeah, it was like, back then it was an obvious decision. Like, well, I've been, I've been really good at taking classes and doing research. So I'm just going to continue doing that was the strategy and yeah, I applied to grad school. And yeah, I'm right now just starting as a seventh year PhD student CMU. So yeah, I guess I stuck with that all the way.

Venkat  33:04  

So, if you can talk a little bit about how you arrived at that. So you, you decided to obviously continue in grad school. And how did you end up picking CMU?

Sibi  33:18  

Yeah, that's a good question. I applied to a few places for because I had worked in a robotics lab I had applied to places which were popular for robotics. And I had had quite a few choices, but CMU was just bar none, It's just exceptional for robotics. And it was almost a no brainer choice. I, I did not get into Berkeley. I would have, I don't know if I would have stayed. I might have.

But CMU was like the hacker, I had gotten into CMU made it kind of clear that I will be going to grad school because CMU is better than any other choice of not going to grad school. I decided that I will go and then I, what happens in grad school time is that, in, in the application period, once you get accepted from different places will give you a call and then you go to visit days. So they will, in general, at least it works in the in CS departments like that usually where they pay for you to come to visit their departments for a day or two, and of see the lay of the land and see if you like to place and I think I went to visit four or five different schools and I had a call over Skype with a professor from the school, I could not use it. And so essentially, the idea is gather as much information as you can meet as many people and then make a decision.

And CMU just had a really great impression, made a really great impression on me. And because there are just so many people doing so many different things. There is a department specifically for robotics called robotics Institute and because of that, I think I like my options. But if I, if I wanted to choose CMU, I will always have an option, something or the to do something or the other and that's one of the reasons I chose CMU. Yeah.

Venkat  35:04  

So that's, that's great. I mean, CMU obviously, is a world renowned institution, especially the areas that you're talking about.

So, so what, so what did it feel like that transition from? First of all two major things. You're going from undergraduate to graduate, and you're going from the west coast, Berkeley to Pittsburgh. So how are those transitions? How was that transition?

Sibi  35:33  

Yeah, so one thing Pittsburgh was notorious for before I had come to it is that it was a steel city and it's going to be dirty and smelly and all those things. It was not true at all. So I think they kind of there was like this fear of Pittsburgh, not comparing to California. And while the weather in California is such a much better Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh, I think that it was funny because there were so many Many people who told me that Pittsburgh is not so good before I went there and then when I came here It wasn't so much better than what I expected that people started saying it's not as bad as you think almost making it's not as bad as you think a motto for Pittsburgh.

I am talking kind of anti-negatively, is like I want to say positively that Pittsburgh is fantastic. It gets hot in the summer, cold in the winter, but apart from that, you can tell as many things as you want to do you can do around I was surprised as to seeing you know, if you like there are so many bike trails that are if you want to go mountain climbing, there's a place rock climbing, and like, you know, there are great natural parks nearby. And it's fantastic. As a place, surprising how amazing a city it was. And it was different from Berkeley and that Berkeley is basically like a college town at least a part of your city where Berkeley is. There are, there is like another side of Berkeley but around campus. It is like you know, almost the definition of a college town. Everything is basically about campus.

Venkat  37:05  [Comparing Berkeley and CMU Campuses]

So, as a student, and you know, obviously you are an hour grad student, how did, how did the campuses compare in terms of facilities and programs? I mean, just overall as a student, how was Carnegie Mellon, of course CMU is also a private school compared to Berkeley being a public university. So how was that overall experience? What are the differences you felt?

Sibi  37:33  

The biggest difference, which you could, which is the first one I found was how different the sizes of the campus Berkeley's campus is much, much bigger than CMU. I think it takes about 25 minutes to go from corner to corner, in like diametrically opposite ends in Berkeley's campus. That is if you walk fast, and the CMUs takes eight minutes, maybe at most. It's much smaller, but it's at the same time. It's much less busy than throngs of the crowds just yet Berkeley is nothing close to so it's seamless, nothing close to that.

Yeah. I kind of like those aspects of both. Interestingly enough, I was in undergrad, it was like really an eye-opening experience to see so many people in one place. And then by the time I was done with that, I was like, you know what, it'll be nice to go to somewhere slightly quieter. And so when, I when I came to CMU, that's what I wanted. So it was interestingly what I wanted at both times.

In terms of facilities. CMU is actually, it's always been improving. The gym, which was there when I came as is like, no longer the gym. They refurbished that. They added a tennis court, or those might have been there before but they campus facilities at CMU are, are actually really good. I didn't make Use of those in Berkeley as much like the swimming pool I've been to the gym and the swimming pool only a handful of times at Berkeley.

I don't think I've ever been to the swimming pool but I know that those are all good facilities but I, I can't speak much to their merit but in CMU, the pool is great. The gym is the new gym is fantastic. And you know, there are lots of places you there is a little place. Like there are tennis courts, you can play volleyball, you can play basketball, there is soccer, there is football, like it is a little bit of everything, running track and all those things. So CMU is not known to be like a sports heavy University, Right? I think for that it's, there's a lot of different things you can do can do it at CMU.

The other thing I wanted to mention was that the difference in kind of campus culture is I think that there is a lot more grad students. It's the ratio of grad students to undergrad, I think it's a lot higher at CMU than it was at Berkeley.

And because of that, I think that you do find kind of the crowd you're interacting with to be, I guess slightly more mature in general, in a slightly older and they're all grad students and, and, you know, there are undergrads, but I didn't really get to see that many of them as often even. Especially because we, the building, which I my office was in was not, that was not heavy for undergrad classes. It didn't have that many undergrad classes. So in general, my interactions were mainly the classrooms. And so, I like I cannot maybe give you a direct comparison between undergrad and graduate students.

But I know that as a, like the cultural differences is that it was a little bit more laid back and kind of chill for me because undergrads are busy bodies. A lot of the times they're always working and grad students are kind of like, you know what, I'm done with under I'm just gonna, I don't really care about getting this grade grade in my class, I just want to research it's just a lot of people are a lot more laid back. And so that environment is a lot. It's a lot more chill. That's not, may not be a good thing, maybe a good thing that's different. But yeah.

The other thing is that, surprisingly enough, I think that I thought I interact and I find a lot more Indian people per, you know, like per average person I meet at Berkeley, at CMU than Berkeley. There are a lot of  Indians at CMU.

So that's relevant to you, I think you can find like kind of a little niche for yourself more almost all of them are masters students, not master students, Masters and PhD. Yeah, I do. I can't speak much more undergrad but there was a nice little niche here for that. And yeah, I was not expecting that. So that was interesting. I think that and so there is this famous thing called the Fence at CMU which is, which is a little fence which is painted over. Every time there is a new kind of event or like a new holiday or something not like an whatever, like whatever event takes place. Yeah called Independence day it will be painted in, in Indian flag colors, for instance. Yeah. And you see like, every time you go past it, you see a different color on it kind of shows. I've seen the Indian flag so many times through both Independence Day, Diwali and Holi, all those three things, the Indian flag will be there, but like there are lots of different things represented that and so there are active cultural, like groups and stuff on campus, which do care and then they do want to express themselves. And that's that

Venkat  42:37  

No, that's, that's, that's great that you're getting to experience two wonderful schools.

Venkat  42:47  [The PhD Research]

Now, before we leave CMU, what, give us a quick overview of the problem that you're trying to solve or you know, what kind of thing To do about the PhD, when why what kind of research are you trying to do? Or are you doing?

Sibi  43:06  

Right. So interestingly, I came in all about robotics. And I'm just gonna do robotics now. And then things didn't pan out hit me. Like working with the professors. I wanted to work. So I ended up switching over to data science machine learning. And that's what I've been doing recently. And I and I enjoy it because it's a lot less dealing with hardware, hardware can be fickle, and a lot more dealing with software, which is you tell your computer what to do. And you just hope that you know it's going to do hopefully, you know, it's going to do it, it's going to listen to you more often than hardware does. That's what I did.

So, I've been working on machine learning. I switched an advisor once, and I switched projects at least two times. But right now I'm working on multimodal machine learning or multi view machine learning, which is if you have different types of data, like in a video in a video you have audio and a visual stream, right, or an images - Images and caption maybe are like in, in patient monitoring your vital signs, different vital signs, our oxygen content, all those things. If you have multiple types of information, which you can leverage, how can you learn models? Which leverage is this inter-relationships between those. So that's basically the high level of the problem I am looking at.

Venkat  44:21  

Very nice, very interesting, okay. Yeah, yeah, I mean, you know, we are all getting information through so many different sources and so many different ways. And there's so many different forms, I think, Yeah, it's, it's a, you know, there is, and then maybe in this COVID world, there's a lot more, you know, absolutely hands-free contact-less and distant and remote stuff that people want to do. I think like, who knows where all this is going.

Venkat  44:55  [Advice to Aspiring Students]

Sort of give some advice to students who are looking to study undergrad in Berkeley. I know your experience, based on the thing, what, what are the things that you might tell them to look out for or in their applications, what to focus on whatever broad pieces of advice you want to give.

Sibi  45:18  

Right? I want to mention beforehand that it's been 10 years since I joined. But there are invariances, there are things which will always be the case. And I'll try to talk about both my experiences and what I think will still be the case.

It will be the busiest four years, or three years or how many hours you're taking off your life. It is just busy. And it's if you know how to deal with that. It's fun, but it will be busy. There are days when we shouldn't do like you know waking up and going to work. It's going to be another one of these days. Another project like I have a project due today two homeworks that's due tomorrow and an exam three days from now and then like it's going to be a rock like that. But if you are able to kind of get into a rhythm. It's fantastic.

I think think in terms of applications. I think back when I applied, I essentially had a good background for math and computer science, I'd won a few awards for like the National Cyber Olympiad. And I had kind of been the head of the math club in my school. So I had collected a couple of accolades, which helped me and I, of course, I don't know how the application process exactly works. You're probably more familiar with that. But it was not really as transparent to me.

But I did have a kind of big portfolio showing that my, my computer science and my math, which is what I was interested in, I spoke about was strong and that helped. And but once you get that, I think, yeah, not speaking as much about the application process, but more about when you get there. It is going to be a very busy place, both in terms of your time, and also in terms of just the number of people. You're going to meet a lot of people, a lot of them are going to be super-cool, super-interesting. And those connections, if you do it right are going to stay with you for the rest of your life.

And that's very important to keep in mind, I think you were an extra learning experience for me, mainly because as especially as an international student who had never been out of India, the kind of the, the, like the speed at which you have to become mature to the working of the world. And I'd say it's like in a flip of the switch, you're suddenly kind of you're thrown off the deep end. And if you're ready for that, even if you're not, you will end up being ready for that you will end up being you know, you get into the pace of things. And I think, it's a, it's a very different world from what you would be expecting in undergrad, high school and stuff. And if I think that there is always something to do, there's always people to meet. It's going to be busy, and you're going to curse that sometimes. But at the end of it is it true for me that I, I only have good memories which pop out.

I know I had bad times, I know there is, there are some exams I didn't do well in some homework sets, which didn't come back with a good grade. There are some times I didn't get to sleep. But all those aside, I know I only remember really, if I think about Berkeley, I think what the good experiences. There are just like fantastic experiences out there, waiting for you. Now make sure that you have fun, late night, shenanigans with your friends in your dorms if you can. Yeah, and like go watch a couple of movies, there are a couple of things to do, visit San Francisco. Make sure that you do enjoy the full undergrad experience.

It is easy to get sucked into the whole classes thing I did for a long time. It's very easy to get just by just saying I have too many classes to do and I can't really do anything else. It's always going to be the case. So make sure you do kind of spend time enjoying yourself once a week if possible. And yeah, Berkeley is a fantastic place to seize the beautiful views and like the San Francisco lots of really nice places nearby to go visit lots of places to eat. So it's absolutely worth your time to go try and explore around the place.

Venkat  49:19  


Venkat 49:23  

Okay, so Sibi before we wind down here, anything else you want to talk about any memories, any insights, anything else that you think might be beneficial to aspiring students and parents and folks like that, anything else you want to share?

Sibi  49:45  [“Video game I couldn’t quit!”]

I don't know if this is beneficial or not, but I know that if I had, like if I, I had something of a gaming addiction when I was at Berkeley, and I'm saying that with like a touch of merch, I think it's So it's I made a lot of friends, especially in the engineering department who love playing things like League of Legends and stuff like that. So pretty popular. I was pretty popular back then. I, I, I played a lot of video games. When I was there.

I think it was my counter to saying, I'm not so social, and I'm not going to do all these social events. I'm just gonna sit here. And that has cost me a couple of times, I missed a quiz of mine. There were three. There were three quizzes in my class, they only do three of them throughout the semester. And I missed one of them,  because I spent I think I was up until four or 5am playing League of Legends. I haven't played League of Legends for six years now, but I know that it's very easy to get sucked into things like that. I guess fortnight is the game people are playing right now. But it's very easy to get sucked in. So you just have to make sure that you moderate. You do everything in moderation. Take your time and don't lose your way by something silly like this.

It was a good thing in that one question. After the dropped one out of three quizzes, so I just had to make up for it with the getting, like doing good. And the other quizzes kind of helped me, but I made like I might not have been that lucky otherwise. So make sure that you don't get stuck with one of these silly vices. Yeah, that said you should if you have friends are doing then you should absolutely play with them. Just make sure that you do moderation because that's something which I have a problem with.

But yeah, it's a lot of fun though, so I can't blame you if you do.

Venkat  51:29  

Cool, you know, that's what youth is for as well.

So, very good Sibi, I think this has been a very interesting and a very enjoyable journey that you shared with us.

So, I, I'm sure that folks will find it very useful. And the other vignets and the little piece of advice, you know, go a long way. Rather than people discovering them themselves, so, right.

So cool. So I'm sure we'll talk again soon. But yeah, then take care. Be safe. And thank you. Thanks so much.

Sibi  52:13  

Thanks for having me Venkat. You too. Stay safe.

Venkat  52:16  

Yeah. Bye. Bye.

Sibi  52:17


Venkat  52:21

Hi again!

Hope you enjoyed this podcast with Sibi Venkatesan.

Sibi has painted a passionate picture of his years at Berkeley. How he adjusted and later thrived in college as an international student. Berkeley laid the groundwork in research that has inspired him to pursue a doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon University.

Hope Sibi’s story motivates the college-bound out there, to explore Berkeley further.

For questions to the guest or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io].

Thank you so much for listening to today’s podcast.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

University of California, Berkeley, University of California Berkeley, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, EECS, Jitendra Malik, Robotics, Carnegie Mellon University, CMU, Pieter Abeel, Computer Vision, International Student

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