Yunis Lone, Vice President - Engineering in Unify Technologies, a mid-sized company based out of Hyderabad, has over two decades of experience in the IT industry. So when he decided to go back to being a student', in order to learn more about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), he was apprehensive, both due to his age, as well as his ability to complete the course. But his interest and enthusiasm to learn more about these technologies spurred him on. "AI, ML, Robotics and allied technologies are ushering in a revolution of sorts, and as an IT professional I find it very intriguing." Yunis attended the three-month long Executive programme on AI /ML offered jointly by IIIT-Hyderabad (IIIT-H) and TalentSprint.
He explains why he chose this programme over an online course. "I have pursued online courses for a number of a technical subjects. And, there's no way I can undermine their impact. But, for subjects like AI and ML, I was clear that I wanted a hands-on experiential learning."
The executive programme consisted of 12 in-class sessions held on weekends, which included masterclass lectures, workshops and team hackathons. "The course is structured to reinforce learning by putting concepts to work in industry relevant assignments and projects, thereby equipping professionals like us with the ability to build and deploy AI/ML and Deep Learning (DL) applications," he says.
Dinesh Koka, CEO and Co-founder of healthtech startup Onward Health, which is building a machine learning platform focused on oncology, says he could deem the course successful if he passed a simple litmus test - being hired in his own startup as an intern with the technology team. Explaining the rationale behind this, he says, "As a business management professional and the CEO at Onward Health, my focus is on building and strengthening client relationship as well as deep diving into healthcare workflows. But I strongly believed that that it is imperative for me to understand the technology that we are building as well."
So, did he pass the test? He responds with a resounding'. "Today, when I talk to the ML team, I understand their challenges as well the opportunities they are trying to build a solution for. The conversations with clients and research partners are much more mature and I can talk more knowledgeably about how we frame a healthcare problem in the form of an algorithm. I'm starting to also try out the work the ML team does on a daily basis, starting by handling and reviewing data that comes in."
Over 400 professionals, from 120+ companies have completed as the first cohort of the course. Many term it as a 'transformational experience'. After doing the course, some have moved to high-profile AI projects in their organisations, made a career shift from gentech to deeptech, have the ability to translate their AI solutions from paper to reality, moved into advanced learning, and much more. "For many of us, the programme's impact has been that we are able to kick-start ideation and work on tangible innovation at our respective workplaces," says Saritha Kasturi, a senior technical manager at Netcracker Technologies, who has over 18 years of industry experience. Usha Rachakonda, Associate Director at Agility, a leading provider of integrated logistics, reaffirms this. "Today, after purusing the AI / ML course, when I look at the different businesses in the organisation, I see opportunities to implement the learnings to bring about differential impact," she says.
Crafting an impactful hybrid learning model
A key factor that makes this executive programme distinct is its hybrid model. The AI / ML programme is designed as an experiential learning program where the utmost focus is on implementing the learnings through a five-step approach - contact classes, hands-on lab, mentorship, industry workshops and hackathons," says Santanu Paul, TalentSprint Managing Director and CEO. "This aspect is unique to this programme and we are not aware of any short-term executive programme that takes such a comprehensive approach to learning."
The 12-weekend contact classes and workshops help build a strong foundation of AI and its concepts among the participants, equipping them to build applications. The mentoring, hands-on labs and hackathons help reinforce and practise the learnings. The labs are executed on virtual machines on the cloud which every participant has access to necessary processing capacity. Being on the cloud, the participant has the access to the lab anytime, anywhere. According to Santanu, "Mastering deep and disruptive technologies like AI/ML requires a multi-pronged approach to learning. Hence, we have incorporated the hybrid model."
Even the participants reinforce why the hybrid model was integral and conducive to their learning experience. "The programme had a great mix of both hands-on as well as contact classes. The overall structure did not overwhelm, considering some of us haven't been coding hands-on for a while. The exercises in the lab were structured primarily on the theory class, which helped us relate to the concepts better and with the mentors reemphasising some of the theory concepts in the lab sessions, helped to make the connect easier," says Saritha. According to her, the weekend contact classes help to create an engaging and encouraging learning experience which may not always be possible with an online course.
Venu Chigullapalli, Managing Director, India Operations, BostonLogix, likes to call himself a 'data to information' guy and is someone who is keen on leveraging technology for the greater good. With an intent to understand the practical implications of the buzz around AI and ML, he signed up for an online course on the subject. But he could not invest the necessary time and couldn't complete the course. When he got to know about the Talent Sprint AI / ML course and its hybrid model, he knew it was his best bet to learn.
But the initial stages of the programme had him worried. "There was a lot of foundational theory. I thought it was too academic and had little practical or real-life implications." However, as the course progressed, he realised his initial concern was unwarranted. "It's only later that I understand how important it is to understand the underlying science/maths to apply it to real-life problems. More importantly, the discussions, peer networking opportunities, knowledge and resources shared on chat groups, the hackathons and lab sessions certainly provided the necessary hands-on perspective and exceeded my personal expectations."
The programme design takes into consideration the needs of working professionals and the key requirements of the industry. Learnings from various workshops and programmes and by IIIT-H and TalentSprint were incorporated into the design. The action workshops host industry veterans such as Dr. Anbumani Subramanian (Lead Architect, Intel Corporation), Dr. Shailesh Kumar (Vice President and Distinguished Scientist, Ola), Sundar Srinivasan (General Manager, Microsoft AI & Research), Nikhil Rasiwasia (Senior ML Scientist, Amazon) and Suman Reddy Eadunuri (MD Country Head, PegaSystems) among others. The industry veterans are part of the action workshops and help to blend the industry experience and knowledge with the course curriculum. The experts showcase the potential and possibilities of AI and ML. The workshops, along with the hackathons, add colour and complete the programme.
The academia industry collaboration
The other reason why the programme is interesting for the participants is because of the two organisations which have come together to offer the course. The IIIT-H faculty take the lead in designing the course content, pedagogy and the delivery of the content, TalentSprint manages the efficient end-to-end operations and stitches the hybrid format together using its seamless and scalable learning platform.
Ramesh Loganathan, Professor, Co-Innovation, who heads the Research/Innovation outreach at IIIT-H, has been closely leading and driving the structure and content of the programme along with the faculty at the IIIT-H. He shares why they opted to offer a course on AI and why the collaboration with TalentSprint was a natural fit.
"Today, we have some of the world's leading institutes offering very interesting massive open online courses (MOOC) courses tailored for Indian professionals. So, as a leading academic institution in India, we were sure that we didn't want to duplicate the efforts. Upon deliberating we decided to create a format where we could leverage our academic expertise, focus on the course content and pedagogy, and not worry about the operations or marketing aspect of the course. Also, we had a crystal-clear focus area - work on developing and imparting short-term immersive courses on current technologies."
Since its inception in 2009, TalentSprint has been at the forefront of running blended coding bootcamps and has a deep understanding of the needs of both - professionals and industry. Ramesh says, "TalentSprint was operating out of IIIT - H, and we have closely observed their expertise to run a disruptive programme."
For TalentSprint, the expertise of IIIT-H and its lab facilities were top two reasons why the academic institution was the first choice for collaboration. Santanu says, "The expertise of IIIT-H is well understood by the industry. Having a great brand and expertise in the graduate, post graduate and research level, IIIT-H was looking to expand their forte to include executive education. Also, IIIT-H houses one of India's largest Research Labs in the area of Machine Learning. The complementing strengths of the two organisations, coupled with a shared focus and objective, was instrumental in forging a collaboration."
India needs to upskill its AI knowledge to stay relevant to the global IT industry
India's IT industry was built largely on outsourcing and cost-arbitrage. But today, it has outgrown this phenomenon and is making its mark as a technology and innovation hub. And AI is becoming increasingly integral and innate to new technology solutions that are being developed. AI has had a transformational impact on almost every sector - from online and offline retail to consumer electronics. It is believed that around 75 percent of the applications that are being developed have some AI component. "So, if India has to continue to remain relevant in the international technology business landscape, it must have a deep understanding of AI. But, there's a huge skill gap, with just about 1 percent of the Indian IT workforce having tangible exposure and understanding on AI," says Sridhar K, Chief Digital Officer, TalentSprint.
"Other than a handful of research and educational institutions, the thousands of engineering colleges which contribute to the output of the engineering talent pool do not have the requisite focus on AI, be it in curriculum or infrastructure. Hence, even after working for three or five years in the industry, not many are able to grasp the concepts of AI."
This is where the professionals and industry see immense value in courses like the AI / ML course from IIIT- H and TalentSprint. It is a great fast track solution to close the yawning gap between where the vast majority of industry professionals are today, and where they need to go.