A quiet revolution is on in Janardana Hills, Gachibowli, in Hyderabad, where a group of close to 70 artificial intelligence and machine learning specialists are training Indian students and executives in big data, machine learning and data sciences.
The faculty at INSOFE International School of Engineering have been drawn from US educational institutions, the research departments of companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Google, and elsewhere. Most are in their mid-40s to -50s, focused on research, and happy with the opportunity to come back to their country.
In the past eight years, INSOFE has produced 6,000 data analysts and experts in machine learning, artificial intelligence, deep learning and big data. It has also trained chief executives of many global companies, including Sachin Bansal of Flipkart fame and Booking.com’s former CEO, Gillian Tans.
In 2020, it will launch its first bachelor of science (BSc) degree. The institute now functions from three campuses — Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Mumbai. “The whole thinking behind the initiative is that in future, every person will need to be able to work with data at some level, even if they don’t become data scientists,” says Sridhar Pappu, co-founder and executive vice-president, academics.
Data-based thinking is already essential in domains such as sports, politics, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, health care, logistics and also encompasses all functions of an organisation — be it HR, legal, operations, finance or marketing. “The gig economy requires new, refreshable skills, and data science is a core skill. Many decisions that were made by humans based on instinct and practice will now be taken with greater support from data analytics and AI,” adds Sandeep Aneja, founder of Kaizen Private equity, who invested in INSOFE in 2017.
What distinguishes INSOFE from others of its ilk is that its course content, pedagogy, lessons and assessments are certified and vetted by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the world’s leading institutes in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and also the alma mater of INSOFE’s other founder, Dakshinamurthy Kolluru.
Kolluru and Pappu were classmates at NIT, Trichy, and went on to do their PhD in the US — the former at CMU and the latter at the University of Texas. Kolluru was teaching at CMU when he got an offer to work on the Agni missile under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. He grabbed the opportunity, delighted that he could come back to India and work under the guidance of Dr Kalam.
Although he enjoyed his stint with the Defence Research and development Organisation (DRDO), Kolluru’s heart really lay in education. By now his friend Pappu had also returned to India and the duo decided that they wanted students here to experience an academic journey similar to the one they had enjoyed in the US.
But to understand what they needed to offer, they first wanted to determine what industry’s needs were. For four years, they worked closely with small and medium sized Indian IT companies. At the time, most of them were still acting as HR providers to large US corporations. If the client needed 10 Java programmers, the Indian company would find them, give them some basic training in English, put them through the H1B process and be paid for their services.
But as Indian IT companies matured and grew, they wanted to do more than just “body shopping” and were keen to develop the technical knowhow to do value-added work right here in India, which were more lucrative to their bottom line. “But though these companies had become very good HR firms, they had not built any competency in machine learning or data sciences,” says Kolluru.
He and his partner began to help these companies develop skills to “solve a problem rather than be just a staff provider”. By 2009, they felt they understood industry’s needs and could fill the gap by educating engineers right here in India.
INSOFE launched its first course in 2011 at its Hyderabad campus. The biggest challenge was attracting the right faculty. “To overcome this, we designed highly attractive compensation packages and a good work-life balance that allowed the academics to also pursue their research interests,” explains Kolluru.
Their initial investment was entirely into course content, methodology and pedagogy. Kolluru roped in CMU on a consultancy basis to ensure that their programme was on a par with what CMU offers.
Ganesh Mani, adjunct faculty at CMU, who has watched the journey of the two founders closely, says, “The reverse brain drain has allowed them to attract talent back and offer high quality programmes in India.” The founders decided not to go in for university status for their institute as machine learning and data sciences teaching needs a very flexible structure that may not be able to conform with Indian degree requirements, which tend to be quite rigid. Also, they found that unlike other sectors, companies that wanted data science and machine learning skills were not fixated on degrees.
To begin with, INSOFE offered postgraduate-level courses. Today, while over 90 per cent of their students join directly, some are sponsored by their companies. INSOFE also has tie-ups with international institutions. For instance, it’s MSc programme is run in association with Rennes School of Business, France. Moreover, by monitoring, constantly upgrading and adding to course content, it ensures that its courses are comparable with the best in the world. Typically, the duration of a course is from six months to 16 months and the base-level programme costs over Rs 3.5 lakh. According to INSOFE, the average salary rise after the course ranges from 40 to 60 per cent.
In the next few years, INSOFE hopes to expand its footprint and attract students from countries like China, Korea, Taiwan, who, like Indians, also head to institutes in the West to pick up these skills. The founders say that they also hope to contribute to NITI Aaayog’s stated goal of #AIforAll.
This institute is clearly determined to go places.
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