Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Varun - the spoofer, ghost light controller and founder of

tenCube, the company that Varun Chatterji co-founded with his mates after graduating from SoC in 2005, and their breakthrough product WaveSecure, was acquired by McAfee in 2010. Now, Varun is the Co-Founder of With the confessions we elicited in this interview and his varied interests, Varun is certainly aiding us in our quest to shatter the unjust ‘goody-two-shoesy-nerdy-one-dimensional-computer-geek’ stereotype.

What did you do at SoC and what do you do now?
Bachelor of Computing (Hons) Computer Science. Even though I did only a Bachelor’s degree, I think I completely agree with NUS' mantra of "Lifelong Learning". Though I am not formally trained, I have tried to learn what I can about subjects that interest me - Physics, Economics, Poetry, Art, Music and Law. 

Having started two companies, I can safely say that each day in a start-up is a research and learning experience. Every day in a start-up, you are researching on how to improve a product. Every day, you are researching on whether there is a market and how to reach them. And, just as research experiments can fail, so can start-ups. 

Working in a start-up is like going to school. In the end, even if you do not receive a degree, you will have received knowledge. And knowledge is what anyone who is true to him/her-self should seek in life and throughout life.

I am now co-founder of, a company focussed on providing Businesses with SMS send/receive capabilities in emerging markets. I like my position to be called "Member of the Team". I pitch in wherever I can but primarily, as a technologist, I like to write code when I can. My artistic temperament, though, kicks in at times and I can be a big pain in the a** arguing over something as mundane (though artistically relevant to me) as the size of an image or font or the choice of words in some text.

Describe your SoC student experience.
SoC was a great time for me. I am the sort who does really well when a subject gets a hold of me and I can just flow with it and enjoy it immensely. Unfortunately, this has a downside for if a subject does not get a hold of me, I do very badly in it. SoC was a roller coaster ride for me for this reason. My first semester grades were A+, A, A-, C+, F. 

I think failing in a subject is an important lesson in life. Failure can teach you more about life than an A+ can. Once you realise it is OK to fail and that it is not the end of the world, you can pick yourself up from every situation because you have the knowledge of "so what? I will do better next time". Even if people make fun of you as a poor student, failure teaches you to rise above all that and persevere.

I enjoyed programming modules the most. I also enjoyed Cross Faculty Modules like American Films (in which I made an atrocious film and got a C+), Writing Home (a University Scholars Program module in which I got an A though, I was later thrown out of the USP as my faculty thought I would not make it to honours though I eventually did) and Introduction to Indian Thought (a module in which I got an A and found that philosophy is exactly like programming in the application of logic).

The point that I am trying to make is that you don't have to get good grades to enjoy a module and to learn from it. As students, many of us are just in it for the grades. That is a very shallow objective in my opinion. Learning has to be the thing and not grades. Perhaps, this is a lesson that even our educational system needs to learn.

I would say that my stint in NUS Overseas Colleges (NoC) in Silicon Valley was both the most challenging and useful. The programme brought students from many different faculties from NUS together. The free flowing exchange of ideas and the camaraderie we developed, created a heady mixture especially in the intellectually charged environment of Silicon Valley. I met one of the co-founders of my first start up in Silicon Valley even though we were both from NUS. He was my housemate and course-mate in many courses.This collective experience of having a common root (NUS) and being in a new environment in which we were all on equal footing towards the new and unknown was a really useful experience.

Prof. Y. C. Tay is the faculty member who made the biggest impression on me. I failed in one of his modules once and nearly failed in it again in the subsequent semester, but I learnt one thing from him. He used to occasionally slip in a completely unsolved problem in his tutorials. He said he hoped one day one of his students would solve the unsolvable. Though at that time we were quite flustered to find these problems in our tutorials, I think, looking back, that at least this experience made us try to solve an insurmountable problem. Who knows, maybe someday some student might actually solve some of them and make a breakthrough in Computer Science!

A start-up company is like one of these insurmountable problems. Every day you have to solve a sub problem of the insurmountable. Every day, you have to discover how to break it down just a little bit more. If you are lucky, your breaking down of the problem into several solvable bits will give you success. If you are unlucky, it won’t. But that’s just life. Learn from the experience and move on.   

Different people have different interests at different points in life. When I entered university, I was 19. At 19, I had already been programming for 5 years since the age of 14 and had even started a company with my friend Umang. This made me a little cocky and disinterested in the first year modules in programming (I did quite well in them even though I never studied). Now that I look back, I currently have a much more developed sense of interest in knowledge. I think if I was to do SoC again now, I would probably do a lot better and perhaps develop an interest in some modules that just went by because they didn't catch my interest. I often wonder if our education system is right in its imposing of learning at a particular age as a social norm.

What mischief did you get up to while you were a student here?
Please don't arrest me for these confessions!

I once spoofed an email from a professor and sent an email from his email address to my friend expressing "disappointment over his FYP efforts" and calling him to "my office". My friend got really flustered and went to the Professors office the next day. The Professor got really angry that someone had spoofed his email. I also spoofed the ‘From’ field in SMS and sent my friends messages which when opened appeared to come from "God". The text of the message read "I am watching you".

I also built a switch that could be turned on and off through SMS. So you could send an SMS to my system with the word "on" and the light in my room would switch on. And you could turn it off the same way. I once left one of my friends in my room after telling him that I thought the room was haunted and the lights seemed to be controlled by ghosts. After switching the lights on and off through SMS several times, I just walked into the room as though nothing had happened. My friend was as pale as a ghost!

What do you count as your most significant achievements since graduating from SoC? 
I would say co-founding tenCube and then selling it to McAfee would be my most significant achievement since graduating. It happened because I lost my phone and also because I was part of the NoC programme. I was still in school when I lost my Nokia 6600 which was a pretty darn new and expensive phone back then. It got me thinking if I could write a program to lock down a phone by sending SMS (I already had a reasonably good knowledge of SMS through my pranks and electronics experiments involving SMS). I posed the idea to my SoC mate Rishi and my NoC mate Darius and we agreed this would be a good problem to solve. So that’s how we got going.

Perseverance through all the doubt that surrounds a start-up is the key to making things happen. There were times when even my faith wavered as I went through a tough personal situation where I lost both my grandparents one by one. There were even times when things were not so good between my team mates and me. Looking back I can only attribute the success to who we were as a team and how we supported each other. Through any ugly situation, we were still a team and remained a team. That's what made it happen. The Team.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
I enjoy reading. I enjoy writing poetry. I enjoy western and Indian classical music. I enjoy Rock, Jazz, Blues and Country music. I enjoy photography. I also enjoy making an occasional Charcoal sketch. I enjoy any kind of research activity.

Quick-fire time! Most Interesting development in technology/science this year?
Smart watches! I think we are getting closer to a "Beam me up Scottie!" scenario.

Worst movie you’ve seen this year?

Three ultimate dinner party guests?
Mahatma Gandhi - I would like to ask him what he thinks of our modern day world and what he would do to resolve the rampant mindless violence in the name of religion, ethnicity and politics.

Elon Musk - Because I would like to hear his vision for what technology can do towards creating a better world.

Stephen Fry - Because I would probably be tongue-tied with the first two guests and I trust Stephen Fry's creative genius would never let an awkward silence arise at the dinner table! As an interesting aside, if anyone is even remotely interested in English poetry, I highly recommend Stephen Fry's book - "The Ode Less Travelled".

Which faculty members should we interview and what should we ask them? Here's your opportunity! Email

Thursday, 24 October 2013

'Crazy' Sarrie

Our victim this week is Sarah Tan, a third year Communications and Media (CM) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Concurrent Degree Programme student and former Vice-President (Finance and External Relations) of the Computing Club Management Committee. We couldn't convince her to let us Photoshop fangs and horns onto her photo for Halloween, but she shared a ‘zombified’ photo of her hand, so we've somewhat forgiven her. She’s also been providing excellent, much appreciated feedback on Project SoC Bytes, so if we start doing some dodgy stuff, it was probably her idea. :) Probably. 

According to Sarah, “most people, when asked to use only one adjective to describe me, would say ‘crazy’.” She generously offered visual proof of this craziness - the winning picture of the Best Photo-bomb Contest on the SoC Facebook page, of which she was the star. 

Briefly describe your experience as an SoC student.
[The thing I enjoy the most is] the awesome friends I have here! Because of them I'm actually more attached to SoC than to my hall :O

[I find] coding and linear algebra [most challenging], which unfortunately are the 2 most important things to know for a CM student. I suck at them ):

Almost everything that is being taught here [is interesting/useful] actually! Computing is like the most practical and useful degree ever and I really enjoy learning in SoC, even if I may not be good at it. 
[Ed: Working here has made me wish I had had the foresight to do a computing degree...]

Honestly, most of the faculty/staff members I know are like friends to me; I really enjoy talking to them and I even have quite a number on Facebook (profs tend to post really hilarious stuff :P). If I were to pick one person who has made the deepest impression on me, I think I'd probably choose Dr. Colin Tan. He's one of the Comp Club advisors so I had the opportunity to work with him last year. He's really nice, funny, crazy and spams my newsfeed everyday with pictures of Nala cat (which is a good thing)!

I would love to change the attitudes of the students here. Most of them are apathetic the stuff that's going on around them, unless it affects their grades. It's really quite sad and worrying to see how so many of our students have poor interpersonal skills and prefer facing a computer instead of humans. That's one of the reasons why we (Comp Club) try to organise so many events for the students, but the take up rate usually isn't very high unless its academic related.

[The one thing I wouldn’t change about SoC would be] the awesome faculty/staff members! I think we have the nicest people in SoC as compared to all the other faculties; my non SoC friends are always jealous of us because of that. While I do think some of the profs aren't really that good at teaching, they're all really nice people to talk to. I also know for a fact that how our school treats Comp Club is the best among all the other faculty clubs too! (:

Anything else about your student experience that you would like to share?
Orientation is awesome and should be compulsory in my opinion. Too bad Comp Club doesn't have enough resources for that ): Many of my friends were made during orientation camps as a freshie and as a senior, and they are the reason why I love SoC this much. You also get to make friends with seniors, who I feel are sometimes more important than profs in terms of the advice they give. So if any prospective student is reading this, JOIN ORIENTATION.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not studying?
Painting nails! My nail polish collection is hitting 100 bottles very soon :D I'm currently sporting a really cool blood splatter Halloween design! To see how I achieved that look (and the actual design when I finally upload it), check out my new blog.

Sarrie's Zombie Hand

What are your future plans?
I don't really have any long term plans other than the fact I want to work in Singapore, not US. For my short term plan, pull up my CAP to at least 4 so I can continue on to CMU to get my Masters in Entertainment Technology.

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I actually cry quite easily haha.

Quick-fire round! Pet peeve?
People who can't speak/write in proper English. Not that my English is fantastic; it just irks me.

Guilty pleasure?
Eating salty food! Salt is possibly the best food discovery EVER.

Worst fashion trend?
Slippers with jeans haha.
[Ed: Agreed!! You can easily spot all the South East Asians overseas with this Slippers + Jeans disease!!!]

Got questions you want answered? People you want to hear from? Don't be shy. Sarah wasn't shy. Email

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Happy Marketers

For our very first feature, we talked to two SoC alumni who have delved into the world of digital marketing. Rachit Dayal and one of his business partners, Prantik Mazumdar, both graduated from NUS SoC in 2005. Rachit and Prantik majored in Computer Science and Computer Engineering, respectively, but both undertook minors in Technopreneurship – something they considered instrumental in their career development.

Now they (with a third business partner) run Happy Marketer - Prantik heads the Social, Mobile and Display division and Rachit does his thing as Managing Partner and Co-Founder.

Left to right: Prantik, Rachit and their partner Dave

Tell me a bit about what you do now.

Prantik: I run a digital consulting firm with 2 other business partners (Rachit & Dave) and one that houses about 20 young, energetic people across our offices in Singapore (HQ) and Bangalore. I look after the business development and sales efforts of the organization but what I enjoy doing most is evangelising to clients and partners about the power of digital and then importance of gradually embracing it.

Rachit: Along with my partners, I founded Happy Marketer. And my responsibilities stretch across Business Development, Consulting Services and Financial Management of the Business. The most enjoyable part of my job is finding tough problems that clients face in their marketing, and working with my team to solve them.

Tell me about your time as a student at SoC.

Prantik: Barring the first semester, I don’t think I did any justice to my academics during my time at SOC. I was a school topper from Indonesia and I enrolled myself into SoC given my passion for technology but soon I realized that I wasn't too good or interested in programming. I loved tracking technological shifts and how it impacted businesses and our lives every day but I was not good enough at coding and unfortunately did not take it too seriously. Life at SoC was fun otherwise - I enjoyed quite a few modules, loved hanging out and working at the Computing Club and my favourite moment was to gulp down 10 glasses of Milo each time the truck arrived!

Rachit: SoC was a mix of joy and agony for me! I loved my first two years - finally found a place where computing and programming got the priority I thought they deserved. I thoroughly enjoyed the programming projects, the team modules and enjoyed creating great things. In the last two years though, I got very quickly bored of theoretical depth - and switched tracks to follow two minors in Entrepreneurship. So for most of my final two years, my interests left SoC. All the while, I was involved in Computing Club and proclaiming SoC’s superiority over my Engineering friends!

What did you enjoy most?

Prantik: What I enjoyed most during my times at SoC were modules that focussed on the marketing and commercials of technology. I also loved the fact that NUS allowed us to take multiple courses or "GEMS" across different faculties and that allowed me to expand my horizons and hone my skills in the world of technology marketing.

Rachit: My favourite parts of SoC were the team projects in the first two years.  Tough, frustrating and but very rewarding to create actual working programs of such large scale. I also loved that as a SoC student, when I went into technopreneurship I had a big advantage over students who pursued other majors.

What did you find most challenging, interesting or useful?

Prantik: What was most challenging in NUS/SoC was to play catch-up with one's CAP once one had a bad start. Given that it was a cumulative number, the odds are stacked against you!

What was most interesting and useful was the opportunity to take up the Minor in Technopreneurship. That was a game changer for me in school as not only did it revive my interests in academics mid-way into NUS but also helped me identify my passion and purpose. I learnt quite a bit, did well and realized that this is what I would like to pursue. Eternally grateful for this program!

Rachit: I'd agree with the Minor in Technopreneurship. It was really what intrigued my interest in school again, and I based my career based on that. While not strictly SoC, it was an advantage to be a SoC student in that class.

Did any of the faculty make an impression on you? How?

Prantik: Some names that come to mind are Bimlesh Wadhwa, Martin Henz, Tulika Mitra, Abhik Roychoudhury and Ankush Mittal. I enjoyed the way they delivered their lectures and made it a bit interesting. But my favourite person from SoC has to be our then TA and now Lecturer, Dr. Colin Tan. He was very affable and kind and helped us a lot with one of our killer modules - CS3216! What was impressive is that he would remember all our names without fail :)

Rachit: I was quite a geek and didn't pay much attention to my SoC teachers :-) ... but there was a Prof Lim Kwanghui who ran the TR2202 Technological Innovation module. Completely changed my life, sparked my interest in technology business and set the course for my life!

Is there anything you would have done differently during your time here?

Prantik: I would have taken coding seriously and would have practiced hard and gotten very good at it. I think it’s a skill that everyone must learn, experience and master.

Rachit: I would have taken business courses earlier to supplement my CS courses.

What’s the funniest or craziest thing that you did/happened when you were a student here?

Prantik: Have been part of many pranks and crazy incidents during the Uni days but the funniest has to be our CS3216 project submission where as expected Murphy struck during our final project submission and our software wasn't working as expected and the only way to ensure that the output was correct was to hardcode some lines that would be print out the desired output! It’s a chance we had to take and we were lucky that the TA did not find out ;)

Rachit: For me the craziest time was when I competed for a Computing Club Elections in 2002 as the Marketing Head. It involved middle of the night poster printing, door to door campaigning and trash talking of competition! I felt like a real politician, and it was quite exhilarating :-)

What do you count as your most significant achievements since graduating from SoC?

Prantik: Post SoC I worked with 3 organizations (1 Public Service & 2 young private sector companies) but I think my most significant achievement, both personally and professionally was to exponentially grow my own company with 2 of my business partners, Rachit & David. By the close of this financial year, we would have grown 10X in 3 years and that gives all 3 of us a lot of pride and satisfaction - not just the revenue bit, but also to be able to grow & manage a team of 20 people and ensure that we have some "happy", recurring clients.

Rachit: The day I wrote my last exam, I started my life in business. In the last 8 years, I guess the hardest part has been to stick to my guns about growing this business. There were many years of failures, surviving on Maggi Mee and doubt. But over time, I managed to find the diamonds in the rough - found Partners like Prantik who share the burden of growing the business and our team of about 20 who believe in the mission of revolutionizing marketing. Those partners and that team has gone on to hit huge revenue targets, great delivery satisfaction and defined a great roadmap for the business. And being able to attract like-minded people to Happy Marketer would probably be my most significant achievement.

How did it happen?

Prantik: I think one of the key success factors was an experimentative mind-set with a philosophy of "Fail Fast; Fail Cheap". It took a lot of hard work, aggressive networking and follow-up backed up with a lot of faith in each other

Rachit: Another one of our fundamental mind-sets has been to not accept outside money and influence. Setting bootstrap constraints for the last 8 years has forced us to innovate rapidly, focus on the market and make sure our core offering is amazing. And now we're in a position where our business is well proven, and we can open up to outside investments.

As Prantik said, it's relentless hard work. For me, it's been 8+ years of 80 hour weeks where everything else has taken a backseat. And while initially it seems like the world is ready to dismiss just another set of young entrepreneurs, in reality there are real gems among the people we meet. We've all met each other, our entire team - even our better halves. And managed to build an ecosystem of like-minded people.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

Prantik: Playing or watching Cricket or reading a book on my Kindle

Rachit: I love tech gadgets and news and spend a lot of my time on technology sites. I'm also a huge TV buff, and find (mostly legal) ways to catch up on the newest US TV shows.

OK guys, time for some quick-fire questions: 
Best use of technology/science this year?

Prantik: 3D Printing

Rachit: Tablets that run my PC programs! 2kgs off my shoulders every day

Pet peeves?
Prantik: Pessimists and wet blankets

Rachit: Mediocrity and businesses and people that adopt it.

Singapore’s best kept secret?

Prantik: Raffles Marina Club near Tuas

Rachit: The different reservoirs and parks around Singapore - sunrise at those spots is just gorgeous!

Worst movie you've seen this year?

Prantik: Tron

Rachit: I'd say the new Jobs movie - it seemed like an enactment of his life, rather than an interesting portrayal of his character

Best song to dance to this year?

Prantik: Applause by Lady Gaga

Rachit: Get Lucky by Daft Punk

If you could choose only three items to have with you on a deserted island, from which you had no hope of escaping, what would they be and why?

Prantik: My iPad for entertainment & communication, a poster of my favourite sports star Sachin Tendulkar & a book by Lee Kuan Yew.

Rachit: Does my fiancé count? Apart from her, a set of weights for staying fit, a fat, fat notepad for my ideas and a book on how to escape deserted islands!

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Don't be shy. Email

Monday, 14 October 2013

Beep Beep

Hello, my name is Tien and I'll be your Editor for this project. I manage Communications and Media for the NUS School of Computing and thought that we - the people of SoC - needed a platform to introduce ourselves to each other and the world. I've only been here for a few months and I've already met (virtually and physically) many funny, bright, friendly, quirky, enthusiastic, ambitious people with lots of personality and fascinating, inspiring stories. Who are these people? YOU. The faculty, staff, alumni and students of SoC. 

YOU need to tell your stories. YOU need to hear from people who have walked in your shoes. YOU need to hear about people you see everyday, but don't really talk to. YOU need to learn what the people who work in the background do to run SoC. YOU need to hear the voices of the SoC community.

So I'm going to ambush you and try to coax your story out of you. And maybe in the process, we'll all get to know each other a bit, and show the world the bit of sparkle behind our big goofy spectacles.