Why I started Jnaapti

Note: This is a personal account and forms the prologue for why I started Jnaapti. To know about the problems we are after, read this subsequent post.

Connecting the dots…

As a kid, I was always of an inquisitive nature. What I didn’t realize back then, but happened to work out for me is that my school teachers were very encouraging. I remember them saying that I ask a lot of questions, but I don’t remember any of my teachers saying that they will not answer my question. I asked my science teacher, “Do flowers have life?”. She was not sure, but she didn’t discourage me.

However, this was not the case in high-school, and the focus was more on marks and competitive examinations. For the first time, I started feeling disconnected from the system. There seemed to be a clear distinction between “understanding the concept” and “knowing how to score”. While I scored a perfect 100% in Physics in my 12th, I wouldn’t claim to know anything about Physics today.

It is 1999. I am reading an article in a magazine which describes the problem of Information Overload and how it has become severe due to the Internet; the fact that until recently, getting information was a problem, but now that’s no longer the case. The problem now is of being drowned with so much information; it’s more of finding the needle in the haystack than not having the haystack.

I personally had already felt this problem, so this gets me started with the “Quest For Knowledge” project – a personal project to increase my own knowledge about technology and put it in a framework. With frequent visits to the cyber cafes, I bring home floppies full of data about various things – technology related. I slowly start developing an interest in Personal Information Management and Knowledge Management in general.

Fast-forward to 2002. I am an engineering student doing my BE in SJCE, Mysore. Grand goals, big dreams. I believed that Engineering is all about learning concepts and then applying it to build things that solve real problems. I envisioned hacker spaces in college (if not the word, at least the concept). I am terribly disappointed.

Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything. – Dr. Tae

I soon realize that I cannot rely on the system in general (college/faculty etc) for my education – if I have to succeed, I have to take the onus to educate myself.

The right kind of education begins with the educator, who must understand himself and be free from established patterns of thought; for what he is, that he imparts.- Jiddu Krishnamurti

But that said, my dreams never died. My 2nd year in college and I am already envisioning building “Hibernate in Linux” (like I said, I had big dreams, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Most students do before education kills it). Not that I knew what it meant, but I knew what it would look like.

We have a system of education that is modeled on the interest of industrialism and in the image of it. School are still pretty much organized on factory lines ? ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. Why do we do that? – Sir Ken Robinson

2 years pass by. The project to build Hibernate in Linux never takes off the ground, and a couple of other projects (TTS for Kannada and building a Microprocessor simulation environment) also fail before they start.

Meanwhile, other experiments are made to self-educate. We form a small group and decide on a bunch of subjects that we go learn and then teach each other. Friends are excited about this, but a series of incidents makes this dormant.

The lack of guidance and need for an eco-system that supports innovation and application is apparent.

When learning is the goal and learning is the reward, there is no point in cheating. – Dr. Tae

It’s 2004 and I am in my 6th semester now and IBM India Software Lab is visiting campus for internships. I attend the interviews and is one of six people selected. The internship lasts for 6 months (2 months training + 4 months project) – and is an eye-opener. For the first time, I begin to understand “how to learn”, “how to think in abstractions” and “how the industry functions”.

My team leads then tell me the actual motive behind the internship. They wanted to give back to the college and we’re told that it’s about time now that we did the same. I am more than happy to help out and start getting involved in university relations – via workshops, internship projects, etc.

It’s 2007; I am in my college to select the cream for an internship project that I want them to work on. This project has been running in my mind since a long time – how do you leverage existing features of Eclipse and bring it into a browser with minimal efforts and maximal reuse. The project statement is very simple to understand and understandably difficult to implement, especially for students who are still in college. But hey, isn’t that what an internship experience is all about?

A self-motivated student paired with a right mentor can learn a lot. – Dr. Tae

After a few failed attempts, my interns make me proud. Eclifox is a run-away hit within IBM and to some extent even outside. It catches the attention of multiple brands (Eclipse is used by all the 5 brands of IBM – Websphere, Rational, DB2, Lotus and Tivoli). I demo this to the CTO of Websphere and also have talks with the CTO of Rational. (Eclifox is something that I still demonstrate to students and professionals to show what can be achieved if interns are provided the right guidance and understandably my interns who are now in elite companies/startups still talk about it.)

This project gets me thinking.

If this is what “interns” can achieve in 6 months, and with minimal guidance, what talent and potential are we wasting every year? What kind of an ecosystem can we build that helps leverage this?

Eclifox, although was a hit, was not very scalable, so we start trying out other initiatives – including faculty development programs (train the trainer), curriculum development programs (better connectivity between concepts and application), workshops in colleges etc. After several such attempts, I understand a few things that work and a few that just don’t.

The traditional model, it penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but it does not expect mastery. We encourage you to experiment. We encourage you to failure. But we do expect mastery. – Sal Khan

It’s 2008 now. A surprising turn of events and I quit IBM and joined Ugenie to understand startup dynamics. I never looked back! The fast-paced environment to deliver, the relentless pursuit to achieve what we set out to achieve got me hooked. For the next 3.5 years, I am isolated from University Relations, but in hind-sight it seems like a “degree” I had to take before starting on my entrepreneurial pursuit. Also, I was not totally isolated either, as I interviewed quite a few of them in the startups that I worked for. One thing was very obvious – the problem still remained, and if anything it was far more wide-spread and had worsened. This was apparent in the quality of the answers provided by the students in interviews.

It’s 2011 and I am keen to startup. I now have enough confidence to chase my dreams. Having worked in a couple of startups, I feel I now have the skills that I need to execute, and the few things that I didn’t get to learn, I am fine bumping into it, figuring it all out and applying it. I need a goal that’s hard to achieve. The problem needs to be much bigger than just a technical challenge, but software being my strength, I am looking for a problem that can be solved with technology. After evaluating 3 ideas, I decide to attack the education problem head-on. After-all, it’s worth the adventure! What’s life without an impossible dream!

April 2011: I spend a significant amount of time researching the field, learning the terminologies used, learning about the people, the companies, the startups involved and the scenario in general. I discover people like Sir Ken Robinson, Dr. Tae, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Salman Khan among several others and also discover that the issue is global.

Jnaapti was founded on 19th of May 2011