An “Alien” of Extraordinary Ability

I’ll pick up this post exactly from where I left if off on LinkedIn:

Sometime last year, a small little envelope arrived in my mailbox. It was thin, light, unassuming. Its physical appearance not at all representative of the freedom it was about to unleash in my life. 

The card inside the envelope goes by many acronyms: EB1A, GC, PR etc. (If any of these sound familiar to you, you might want to hear what I’ve got to say).

Since this news has traveled around a bit in my professional network, I have been getting many inquiries into how I managed this. I want this post to serve as the one stop shop for everything I want to say on the topic. For all the noisy discourse around legal immigration to the US, I invite you to focus on (and never forget) just 2 things:

The US immigration system is clogged and as such designed to block legal immigrants from India and China. Death by a thousand degrees is the general going theme. Feelings run high in all camps, the opposition, supporters and the casualties of this system. In this scenario, most legal immigrants are stuck between a rock and a hard place. And EB1A is increasingly becoming a way out. This is reflected in the fact that many borderline charlatans have popped up on the internet: “guides” who will “coach” you through the process, media publications who will boost your SEO, “influencers” who will teach you how to game social media. All for a fine fee ofcourse.

This is unnecessary. Firstly I would refer you to this excellent and realistic primer put together by my good friend Nikunj Kothari on what this visa category is all about. Next skip the charlatans, save your money and instead pay an amazing immigration lawyer (like Wells Wakefield).

Secondly, as the “influencers” keep deceiving the boundary of what qualifies for EB1A, so will the adjudicators become more random/unstable in the approval of this visa. This ever-increasing artificial randomness (like the one that already exists for H1B, both for approval and sadly even vetted renewals) is imposed on us by 2 groups of politicians. Someone sitting in a room detached and disconnected from the outcomes of their decisions locks a bunch of people in a quagmire of misaligned incentives. If any real progress is to be made for all the parties involved (opposition, supporter, casualty), it must be made by attacking that artificial randomness. Until then, even if some “influencers” slip “up” the cracks by whatever means (like making it their life’s mission to game the existing sorry-ass of a “system”) we are all mostly stuck in a lose-lose situation.

I personally do not want to be party to B.O.N.K-ing (Brevity Overshadowing Nuanced Knowledge) or RADSHaM-ing (Rapid Attention Demanding Simplified Hyperbolic Message)- (all fun acronyms concocted for me by chatGPT and amazing alternate names for social media :D). So, below is the real scoop on how I found myself with an EB1A GC.

A Rebuttal for the Extrovert Ideal

I am not going to waste words here on explaining how hard it is to qualify for an EB1A visa. A simple google search and the top few results should make that abundantly clear. What is not clear though is that to get there it is necessary to take non-obvious bets. When you take these bets, there is no guarantee that it will work out. By its very definition taking a risk means giving it all, sweat and tears without knowing whether its going to play out. 

My generation has something extra, a special salt shaker on the inevitable scars that one will accumulate while taking a risk. Its the constant blast of shameless promotion on social media. 

On any given day, at any point of time in history, it is hard enough to find out where the real value proposition lies. To create value and then to capture it. This is hard enough. Add to this the constant din of hyperbole from “influencers” who just can’t stop talking on social media and we suddenly find ourselves living in a communal FOMO induced hysteria. This situation is rooted not only in engagement greedy social media algorithms but also in the Extrovert Ideal : “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight”. I suppose every generation has had its salt shaker – print media, tv advertising etc. Social media takes all of that to a steroidal next level.

Still the R in “IRL” hasn’t changed. Creating value is still extremely hard and requires obsession, discipline, focus and risk taking. So if you do find yourself on that path, how do you maintain focus? Where should you spend your time? Building vs. distributing? Is distribution enough? Many “influencers” think so.

But then, what happens when you are focused on building? Chasing value. Balancing on that tightrope of focus while survival risk thanks to immigration and ADHD induced self promotion leaps up at you from every corner? When you find yourself out of energy and time for participating in this frenzy because you spent it all on surviving the tight rope.

For a long time nothing. Stone cold silence in the face of gut wrenching doubt. 

And then something changes:

From the moment my partner heard about the EB1A program, he knew we were a match made in heaven. We did a few profile evaluations with a few lawyers and one of them, Wells Wakefield decided to take up my case on a success fee basis, i.e. he would get paid only if my application was approved. He thought my profile had a great chance. I didn’t fully digest this enthusiasm or confidence at the time but the deal was too good to pass. The EB1A visa needs you to meet 3 criteria at the minimum to be considered for approval. Over the 3 months that we worked on our application, we discovered that I actually met 6 of them. It doesn’t stop there. In about a month’s time a bunch of spectacularly esteemed people had signed my endorsement letters for the USCIS. Going against somewhat conventional EB1A application wisdom, Wells submitted my application with premium processing and in 11 days it was approved. It doesn’t stop there. I had my green card in my mailbox in 5 months. Even my lawyer was amazed at the speed of execution and he later mused that this was one of the fastest green card processes he has ever seen in his career.

It has taken me quite a long time to digest this, to tell the background processor of immigration in my brain to shut down.

This is the good part. That small little part which one calls happiness. A “the dots connected” moment. What were the dots?

Waking up 3 Giants

Deep learning algorithms have changed the fields of computer vision and natural language processing. These algorithms have a massive appetite for data. And who has massive amounts of data represented on the internet? 

Anyone who has built ML models which interact with the real world daily, quickly runs into the limitations of the answer to that question. What about the under-represented majority (often incorrectly labeled minority) use cases which are not well represented on the internet? How to make ML models work for them? (This question is going to become even more relevant in the new era kickstarted by chatGPT).

This under-represented majority has another name. The Long Tail. The Long Tail is notoriously hard to model. Making ML models which are inherently built for the represented, also work for the under-represented requires a lot of expertise and creativity. 

I essentially found myself in this position early on in my career. A senior experienced engineer had tinkered around with a classical language modeling technique to do this. I was tasked with scaling this tinkering and seeing if it stood that test. The one of Global Scale that is. As I worked to scale this technique for languages and regions that fell in the long tail, integrating location and speech signals seamlessly in a privacy conscious way to improve the intelligibility of long tail words, it seemed to beat every test it was offered.

Now here’s the fun part. In some review by a powerful conservative government (1st giant), it was flagged and put under export control. (“Lets stop the entire thing”, the classic way conservative regulation deals with what it doesn’t understand). The whole platform could operate cross-border except for this little module whose bits and bytes would not be allowed to cross the optical fiber lines beyond the physical border of the country. Yes- the digital bits and bytes are being treated like physical goods here. 

In an internal report (2nd giant), it was found that this model was being used 35 times every second every day. Let that sink in. 35 times every second every day. This kind of “engagement” would give many “product” folks an orgasm. (Also, so much for the infrequent long tail). 

Kudos to my lawyer Wells Wakefield for understanding the full legal and economic impact of this work and adding that to my petition (for the 3rd Giant).

The Big Picture

If you survived this long into the post, I want you to click on the link of the paper, the core language modeling technique which provided a systematic way to deal with the long tail. I didn’t share this link simply to sound credible or to throw around jargon.

Among the motley crew of authors on that paper who have done phenomenal work in NLP, 2 names went on to have a disproportionate impact on the financial landscape of America. And then one of them went on to have an even more disproportionate impact on the political landscape of America. The king maker behind Donald Trump. There is an extremely good chance that his life’s work, both political and otherwise, in some way or another, has impacted you directly.

The simple, unassuming nature of that 1992 paper, belies the power and the genius of (the) Mr-Hyde-of-Ren-Tech. If his political beliefs had their way, a person like me would never have been able to carry on his intellectual legacy and bring it to the present. No one on my team who worked on making this idea live and breathe would have been able to do so if the immigration system was cast in the mold of those political beliefs.

This is the cruel irony. 


Against the backdrop of a constant one-step-forward-2-steps-back cadence of politicians and their immigration policies, the world actually moves forward because of builders.

It is the mark of true builders that all the esteemed people who provided me endorsement letters for my USCIS petition believe in the values of privacy over fame. As much as I dislike it, I refrain from citing them lest they be unduly flooded with such requests in the future. This group includes but is not limited to a phenomenal self-made entrepreneur and venture capitalist, a founding CEO of one of the largest and youngest media houses in India (its a she btw ;)), an ML researcher who had worked directly with Geoffrey Hinton way before deep learning was cool and another ML researcher who is changing the field of multimodal computing as we speak.

Again – What do you get for focusing on building value? The company of other value builders. This in and of itself is probably the best reward I have received for my work over the years.

Last but not the least, my best friend, partner and better half, Sahil. We have been together for 11 years now (married for 5 of them). Sahil was there with me every step of the way for every success (and every failure) that got me here. He has seen it all with me and been my rock through the mighty highs (and the inevitable lows that come with trying to scale “mighty” highs). Sahil managed all the moving parts and external dependencies of this process so seamlessly that we achieved this in record time while managing massive other life changes, both personal and professional. 

I don’t fit the stereotype of someone who should be this successful and independent. Neither in my country of birth, nor in my country of immigration. I receive that message from both those societies regularly enough. But the world moves forward not at the behest of naysayers but because of focusing on the few that make it worth the while. Waking up to Sahil is a daily reminder of that fact.


I hope that serious and deserving EB1A applicants find some solace and then some strategies in my story. All the best!!!

Musings on a BITSian Life: “Extracurricular”

This post is written as a supplement to “Basics” focusing on the time management aspects of student life. Somewhere in the space of the first few weeks at BITS Pilani, one goes through the semi-formal process of “Interactions”. It is an interesting melting pot where ideally you meet a wide variety of individuals. Variety in age, interests, ideology, background (economic strata, upbringing) etc. etc. It is actually a great time to meet new people because this period does not come around again for the rest of the year (and possibly, for the next 4 years).

“Interactions” for most part are a less objective (sometimes just plain dumber) version of campus “Placements” which you might choose to go through towards the end of your BITSian time.

Humor me for a bit here. Interactions or Placements both lie someplace on the spectrum of forms of “Vetting”. Why would you need to “vet” someone?

  • Check skills to satisfy a need.
  • Check for team/group “fit”

Figure 4: Vetting Process

Figure 5: And the lack of it.

The quality of the vetting process is directly proportional to how clearly and specifically the need is defined (Figure 4). 

As the need becomes less defined or less of a consequence, subjectivity takes over and the process suffers. Sometimes the subjectivity is channelized into finding team fit. Leading to the common phenomenon, “birds of a feather flock together”.

Groups which are formed around hobbies or interests (like ‘Clubs’ in the BITSianverse) have better anchors for their vetting process. Groups (like ‘Departments’/college fest organizing teams) which don’t have such clearly defined needs are more subjective.

Of course there are some “interactions” which don’t have any of the goals laid out above (Figure 5). In line with the direct proportion relation, they are purely subjective and the only needs being satisfied is some form of personal agenda (ego massage etc.).

In any case, this is not meant to be an in-depth review of the complicated social phenomenon by which people who have come before, handle people who come later (“ragging”, “hazing” etc. also falling into this category).

However, it is to highlight the weakness of the nascent impressions that will be formed about you and might follow you around for a while. These impressions will be extrapolated to project how “interesting” it might be to have you around in a club/group/department. Just as the first impression of your skills will be extrapolated to project how well you might fit to a job at the time of placements.

It is not that important what others make of you. First impressions can be changed (whether good or bad) and hopefully become irrelevant as you realize your priorities over the course of a BITSian life (and life in general). But it is very important what you make of it in terms of understanding your environment and what kind of “management” sits on top of you. It is a survey of the land and the best chance to do it.

Most people who don’t treat their time with care are unlikely to extend that care for yours. The thing that you as an individual cannot solve is bringing accountability to others for your time. Because this problem is bigger than you and BITS Pilani. It is a cultural and societal issue which manifests itself in many forms like the success of Bollywood, popularity of Facebook or the many failures of our education system, etc. (In this scenario, the only way to handle this is to practice a hard cutoff, which is what I want to come to next).

In my third year in college, I came across a wonderful letter written by Harry R. Lewis, then Dean of Harvard College and an esteemed Computer Scientist, for the fresh(wo)men joining Harvard in 2004. The last 2 pages of this letter are something that I found to be extremely relevant for a BITSian life. I want to quote verbatim, the most salient point of the letter here:

“Don’t try to do two major extracurricular activities simultaneously. Taking this advice requires classifying extracurricular commitments into “major,” of which you should probably have at most one, and “minor,” which might involve a meeting a week, a few hours of volunteering, or some recreational athletic participation that does more to relieve than to create stress. But if you’re starting on the varsity lacrosse team, you probably shouldn’t accept the lead in the House musical the same term. If you are the go-to person for a weekly publication, you probably shouldn’t also be the manager of a conference that will be bringing five hundred students to campus. There are exceptions to this rule too — some people are exceptionally good managers. But before you take on too many simultaneous major extracurricular commitments, you should at least pause to ask yourself if you are trying to prove to someone, either yourself or another, that you are superman or superwoman, and maybe even setting yourself up for failure in that endeavor. Or if, perhaps, you are trying to avoid studying a subject that no longer interests you.”

I know this to be good great advice because I was definitely one of those people who had signed up for way more than was ideal. With the gift of hindsight (in my third year and now), I wish I had followed this.

Most of rest of what I want to say and have concluded over the years is put together and summarized more eloquently than I can, in the letter above. Verbatim key points of that being:

  • Look inside yourself for the question you are really asking.
    (Something I have tried to elaborate upon in at least one BITSian context in Part1).
  • Join a student group and work to change it, rather than starting a new one.
  • Don’t ignore your health, physical and emotional.
  • Don’t expect yourself to be perfect.
  • Finally, don’t treat my advice — or anyone else’s — as rules you must follow!

And so I, end here.

Musings on a BITSian Life: Basics

I wanted to keep this short and sweet. I couldn’t.

Over the past few years, I have received many questions from BITSian juniors about career, applications, relationships etc. The questions are very specific but I see an underlying pattern that doesn’t have much to do with the exact professional choice but which shares something more common and abstract.

Also, I had many burning questions when I was younger and I saw batch after batch coming in with the same fire and same confusions. Here is me looking back, ‘thinking’ about the experiences I know of and trying to make sense of it in the context of these patterns and questions. Hoping that all of this will be of use to some motley soul.

When you think too much, you invariably end up giving yourself a hard time. It’s the nature of Thinking. Anyone who is too happy/proud with themselves or the world around them has likely spent little time in this exercise, whatever their IQ and (past, present, future) achievements may have been.

I write this because I want to address all those daring souls who actually ‘thought’ during their college life. I write this to ease their burdens a little bit. I write this to tell them they are not and have not been alone.


Let’s get the basics out of the way.

First things first, something that everyone wants to know indirectly or directly. Some people are ‘too cool’ to acknowledge this. (I will address that kind of self-delusion shortly).


To GPA or not to GPA, that is the question

GPA is an interesting attempt to summarize a young person’s experience with a floating point number of 2 digit precision.

If you have had the good fortune of studying information theory, you would know that a single signal that is attempting to encode information about something as complicated as life experience, is likely to be extremely noisy. (It is then natural that most higher education adcoms across the world look for more signals, IIMs => high school grades, US univ => recommendation letters etc. etc.) So, I am not sure why people in general are so quick to judge each other based on GPA inside and outside of college.

Admission committees are working on a large scale and so they have systemic limitations to how effectively they can get a sense of a person’s experience. However, I see no reason why that same principle should carry over in one’s personal life where you are operating at a much smaller scale and can find out much more about a person apart from their GPA to truly get a sense of who they are. I would, at best, call the former kind of decision making stupid.

Most people try to place other people on this visualization of the scale of various approaches to GPA:

Figure 1: Scale

I would like to twist this a little bit because the scale might as well look like:

Figure 2: Scale

Let me talk about the two seeming ‘extremes’ of this scale.

On the one ‘end’ are people who decide to live out their ‘Americanized’ high school fantasies during college. Because who are we kidding. It is likely that you have jumped ahead in a huge rat race to get to BITS Pilani. It is likely that you have made the rounds of many coaching centre sweat shops (*1) to get here and just getting here was so mentally/emotionally/undesirably exhausting that you decide to put on a Bob Marley’s song, smoke your lungs, stomach and brains out, and look weirdly, condescendingly on anyone who still has some fuel left in them to try more.

On the (seemingly) other end are people so in love with GPA that it is the main thing that gives meaning to their lives. Its jumping from one rat race into another. And doing it because its a clear path to prestige in this kind of setting.

Many people exist in between. People who don’t care and still get a good GPA. People who care and still don’t get a good GPA. Sincere people with low GPA, smart people with low GPA, insincere people with high GPA and the list goes on.

The point is that it’s a pretty poor metric to judge someone or yourself. Blind maximization of this metric or giving up and ignoring it in all its complexity, both sound like sub-optimal strategies for your college career. Hence, while the 2 ends of the scale look at each other with much condescension and strangeness, they are actually very similar in their lack of thought about it.

Coursework, the origin of GPA, is widely known to be outdated and behind its time in most colleges (in India).  I am not sure why there is no comprehensive/effective review process for the curriculum that we are being taught and its quality of instruction. There seems to be no GPA equivalent for the GPA issuers. Moreover, with the availability of online courses, I don’t see the need to force such a large group of young people through poor teaching methods.

I don’t necessarily mean this as a personal insult to anyone because there are many complicated factors that go behind not having good faculty to teach in our country. The vicious cycle that ensues can be broken by technological innovation. Namely MOOCs and the larger internet sphere.

In my BITSian life, I found myself increasingly agitated at the prospect of being “forced” through an examination system for an outdated curriculum when it was so painfully obvious (to me atleast) that it had little real world value. I only mention “examination” because lectures/ instruction methods and all that other stuff, I don’t even want to go there.

Also, and again, I only mention “examination” because at the end of the day, that is what it is. A long drawn branding exercise, finding different (and yet lacking) ways to measure you and in the end stick a brand on you. (Some people actually relish this so much that they go onto do more of it, people of the em-bee-aayyy persuasion :P). In my career I have benefited greatly from being proactive about finding out what was important to learn and learning that from excellent books, MOOCs, peers and anyone who had something valuable to add to my perspective.

I think the world would be a better place, if some education institutions (global and otherwise)recognized that they are actually glorified certification/placement centres. And stop pretending that there is real knowledge/training going on there. Let the good teachers rise, get more credit and decision power while other (sometimes downright evil) “instructors” be prevented from wasting everyone’s time, money and energy. I did not appreciate this enough when I was at BITS but having an operational, honest system for grades, examinations etc. is also a relative luxury from many perspectives. If institutions want so much credit, at least let them have it for the right reasons.

BITS alumni are doing well but I think the system hides behind the law of large numbers. The sheer size of the youth of our country and a brutal selection process results in some people doing well because things lined up for them, or because of putting smart young people in close proximity to each other etc. How much of that happened because of, or to be more accurate, despite the current system is the real question.

Now I do think that armchair critics have a special place reserved in metaphorical hell and whatever “judgement” may be in store for me, I do not want to join that group. So now that our wonderful respectable honorable older generation has decided to subject us to this ill-designed objective, what do we about it?

Courses are a little bit like a buffet meal. Just as you are not required to (/should not) eat everything that is served in a buffet on a platter, similarly not every course is automatically worth your time. What is worth spending time on? This is the real question. The only one that will really ultimately matter.

GPA is a number. Treat it like one. The system designed it to apply a few rules on you, so you of course decide your rules for it. What is worth spending time on and how much of a GPA do you need to negotiate from your BITSian constraints to get there? That is the question.

And its answer is usually neither easy nor obvious.

No point in being a 9 pointer and wasting precious time of your life if that is not going to help you negotiate anything that you value. And worse, leave you with little time to think about what you might want to value.

No point in pretending to be a “cool” 6 pointer when you have a business set up by your “baap” to keep you busy for the rest of your life after college (yes bro, that pretense aint working :P).

You are not required to have this answer at the start, but whether you work towards it or not is pretty much going to decide your future.


We have talked a bit about the question part. Lets talk a bit about the advice part. Most advice or responses to your questions may fall in some leaf node of the tree in the following figure:

Figure 3: Advice Categories

Lets walk through this tree a bit.

Doesn’t matter-> Current Older Student

This answer usually says more about the Current Student than anything about the answer you might be looking for. The person may fall on one end of the scale in Figure 2. The other reason could be the existence of a hidden agenda. A hidden agenda to recruit you to some purpose of their own, e.g. “Department” work, “hangout with me/my group” etc. I usually took a figurative run in the opposite direction, when I met such people. Not only were they not helpful, their advice was potentially detrimental.

Doesn’t matter -> Alumni

I have found some version of this advice repeated by some alumni. The “sab-kuch-moh-maya-hai” types of advice. I think it is a convenient stand to take after one has already benefited from one’s struggles and labour. It’s a borderline taunt, “Hey, you know that number you are obsessing over, or that interview you are preparing for, or that project you are sweating over, and twisting your panties over, really, all that stuff doesn’t matter.” “Great! gee, thanks! That was so helpful (and btw, not hypocritical at all :P).”

This kind of advice could come from people who either have no idea how they got wherever/whatever they got or don’t want to shed light on it. Or it could come from someone who has regrets about how they spent their time in college. Unless they outline their learnings from that regret, hopefully this post will prevent you from being in that position (:D). In any case, not helpful and hence not worth your time.

Convention matters

This kind of advice may come from a person who falls on one end of the scale in Figure 2. If it is not backed by any kind of deeper analysis as to why GPA or analogous conventions are worth it other than that following convention is just easier, I think this should be borderline redundant/outdated information.

Depends -> No Nuance

If this is followed with no nuance, then either you are being dismissed nicely or they are out of time/energy/ways to articulate what they want to.

A lot of advice falls into some of the above categories.

Depends -> Nuance

There is a small subset of people who might say ‘It Depends’ but follow up it with a perspective/summary of what they did and how it did or did not help them.  This nuance with at least a tiny bit of curiosity for where you want to go, and how their experience might be useful to you is the real deal.

I have received a lot of advice in my life that wasn’t worth it. But occasionally and very rarely, I did strike gold too. It was the people who gave me nuanced advice, tried to understand what I was asking. And then, connected me to people whose experience could better answer it. This has made most of the difference.


It is important to formulate a good question. It is important to select carefully the people you will ask it to. Both require work.

It is unlikely that a person who hasn’t been curious in their life about the “buffet” they are being served will be able to help you with these questions. Personally, these are the kind of people who amaze me the most. People who have rarely thought about what they might want to make of themselves if they weren’t given a “buffet”, measuring stick and a prestige obstacle race.

A crude (yet personally effective) thumb rule has been: if a person is still worried about their grade in meaningless courses towards the end of their BITSian career, it is a good indication that they have learnt nothing from their time here and have little insight into how to proactively shape it outside of BITS.

Also, IQ provides a big momentum to some people early on in their lives. And that momentum lasts for a while. This does not necessarily mean that they have spent time evaluating how they will design their future and are worth taking advice from. I have covered this in its abstraction in an earlier post: “The Contrarian Question“.


One of the most interesting criticisms I have received for the ideas I have put forth here are that everyone cannot afford or handle clarity. E.g. if you need to be tied to maximizing your GPA for ‘Merit-cum-Need’ scholarships, how does it help to realize your lack of freedom?

In a larger sense, how is it a good thing to realize the external limitations to your dreams/desires?

I guess it is true that clarity is not always pleasant. At first. But clarity is quite liberating eventually because I do believe that there is some value in understanding how much of your choices are a product of your circumstances and how much of it is actually you. That kind of understanding may clear the path for better life choices and lead to more sustainable/meaningful happiness or outcomes.

History may not be on my side. Because this small question of clarity is actually analogous to the larger question of understanding the reality of your place in the world. Which can be a very harsh truth. Most historians, philosophers have cited that inability as the major reason behind Religion’s success.

Currently I take side with hard earned clarity. It may be because of my current phase/state in life. Maybe I will arrive at a different conclusion a few years down the line. If and when that does happen, I will reach out with an update. By different I mean that maybe I will develop more appreciation or acceptance for how much someone may want/need to live in denial.

But for now, this is what it is.

(*1) – which is not a reflection on anyone but the dilapidated education set up of our country.