Eighteen years is how long it takes for a baby to grow up and mature into a bright young person about to head out to IIT Bombay. It’s hard to believe that iitbombay.org, which was registered way back in December 1996, is just about as old as freshies entering the hallowed portals of IIT Bombay this year.
To give netizens of today some perspective on how archaic things were in 1996, it may be hard to believe that Google did not exist, Hotmail had just been founded as the very first web-based email service, Netscape Navigator was the browser of choice, people were using modems to get dial-up Internet at speeds measured in kbps instead of the Mbps, and AOL was considered cool. There were only about 100,000 websites at the time compared to some 600-700 million active websites today. If we had spent the time and energy we spent building the IIT Bombay Alumni website and infrastructure on an e-commerce site, we could be lounging on a beach in the Caribbean instead of working for a living.
And yet much more satisfying than any realistic (or otherwise) dot-com day-dream is the fact that iitbombay.org helped lay the very foundation of IIT Bombay’s alumni network connecting 40,000-plus IITB alumni across the globe. The sapling planted in 1996 has grown into a thriving tree that is being nurtured and enhanced by a terrific team of volunteers and IITBHF/IITBAA staffers from Hyderabad to Mumbai to London to New York to Chicago to San Francisco.
It is widely acknowledged as the best alumni network of any university in India. It has changed lives and made a real difference for alumni, whether for job searchers, business connections, going to graduate school, assistance in emergency situations, or simply to find a familiar face while in a strange new place.
The genesis of the IIT Bombay website itself goes back to December 1996, when IIT Bombay’s then Deputy Director, Prof. Sahasrabudhe, was visiting Citibank’s trading room floor in New York City. He had come to meet with Victor Menezes (’70) who in many ways provided the inspiration for forming an alumni organization to help build Brand IIT. We had been debating back and forth on how to get the alumni effort started. This was still close to the dawn of the Internet era, and yet the powerful global reach of the worldwide web and the role it could play in connecting widely dispersed alumni was already becoming evident.
In the spirit of the old saying – Kal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab , right there on a surreal trading floor, surrounded by traders and flashing screens of market prices, Prof. SC Sahasrabudhe and I called up a few ISPs, and signed up the domain titled www.iitbombay.org for IIT Bombay’s alumni website.
The Alumni Directory database was in a nascent stage since most alumni did not even have an email address. A fellow Class of ’80 alumnus, Rajeev Rohatgi, had started an IIT Directory in printed form way back in the early ’80s. The preamble to this directory stated that “The IIT directory project was conceived and put into execution during fall 1981. It was felt that the directory would fill a long-standing need for a means of communication within our community” … this directory was produced at MIT primarily using MULTICS. As Prof. Urjit Yajnik IITB’s Dean of Student Affairs and another member of the Class of 1980 noted, “… data were gathered by manually filled forms travelling by post.” This was after all the days of UUCP and ArpaNet, which were predecessors of what eventually became the Internet.
Rajeev ended his paper-based IIT Directory with the words … “I should mention that my involvement with this project ceases with the publication of this directory, and I’m looking around for an heir apparent.” Without really planning to, yours truly became the heir apparent and webmaster for the next 10-15 years.
Meanwhile, the alumni webzine Y-Point, which in many ways was the predecessor of Fundamatics, was launched in Winter 1997. Articles in the first issue included a message from Director S.P. Sukhatme, an interview with Kanwal Rekhi (’67), who was the original inspiration for the movement to give back to IIT Bombay, news from each batch written by class representatives, and an update on the 1997 Bay Area alumni picnic, amongst other stories.
As of March 1997, the online alumni directory had a grand total of 30 entries including 9 Public Entries and 21 Private Entries. Fast forward to today, the Alumni Directory has over 45,000 entries, showing how far we have come since the early days.
As of March 1997, the online alumni directory had a grand total of 30 entries including 9 Public Entries and 21 Private Entries. Fast forward to today; the Alumni Directory has over 45,000 entries, showing how far we have come since the early days.
By January 1998, we had converted the paper IIT Directory into an Excel spreadsheet, with total entries of 1,025, including 100 or so alumni each from the Bay Area, New York and Mumbai metro areas.
Alumni were told that “If your name does not appear in this list, please send the following information to firstname.lastname@example.org … listings will be Public unless you specifically request a Private Listing. Information such as address, phone number etc. is not publicly displayed on the website, and will be kept for Alumni Association use only.
For the next 3-4 years, alumni data was manually entered into a spreadsheet by me, and thus the alumni database was built, one row in an Excel spreadsheet, one name at a time. Meanwhile, not everyone had emails which meant that phone calls and snail-mail updates were not unusual.
Sometime around the year 2000, with Rahul Herwadkar (’93) playing a lead role and supported by a company appropriately named Y-Point, founded by IITB alum Jiten Apte from the Class of 1985, the database was converted into a professional SQL database which alumni could update by logging into the website.
Along with the SQL database, another key development was the acquisition of IMail Server to provide email services for alumni mail. Taking a cue from alumni websites of major US universities, Anil Kshirsagar (’75), then President of IITBHF, suggested that a lifelong email forwarding facility be provided to alumni to create a bond with the alma mater. With the help of Xoriant and under Rahul Herwadkar’s supervision, personalized @iitbombay.org e-mail ids and chapter/batch mailing lists became a reality circa 2000. Having a real database backbone instead of an Excel file maintained manually was crucial in supporting the provision of email forwarding services for alumni who could now get a personalized @iitbombay.org address.
Raj “Mashru” Mashruwala (’75) reported that “our batch has made many new business ventures. Guys you saw in worn-out lungis and pajamas are now strutting around in 3-piece Armani suits …
For several years after the initial launch of the website, alumni names were listed on an open webpage, and those who did not request for private listings had their email address on public display. After all, these were the early innocent days of the web when professional spam artists had not quite perfected their art. Following a rise in incidents of the Alumni Directory being used for bulk-spamming alumni, a password protected version of the Alumni Directory was finally launched in August 2000.
The website itself was being edited using HTML editing tools like FrontPage and hosted on a server of a San Francisco based company, which was a precursor to current-day hosting companies like RackSpace. In Year 2000, with the help of Y-Point staffers, the website was re-designed completely with a new look and feel, and edited using Microsoft’s FrontPage, since CMSes like Drupal and Plone were not yet commonly in use.
The website featured online news updates about IIT Bombay alumni and campus news culled from newspapers and online news sources. Old-timers may remember nuggets such as the time in December 1999 when then Director S.P. Sukhatme had to issue a public letter disavowing any plans for alumni from Infosys and other IT firms to take over the IITs. The News pages also recorded the summit meeting with distinguished alumni in Chicago where Prof. Sukhatme said memorably that “I dream of an IIT which never forgets that it has a tryst with excellence,” echoing the words of Pandit Nehru on the eve of India’s independence.
The iitbombay.org website featured website tools and facilities such as chat rooms and a guestbook which were cutting edge for the time. In an attempt to connect alumni online in an interactive chat session like a Group IM, a Weekly IIT Chat Hour was scheduled on Sundays from 9 to 10 am West Coast Time. The Chat Room was open 24 hours each day, and alumni could set up a time slot for IIT classmates or other friends to join a Chat Session by e-mailing to them.
Class Notes, a forum for batch-wise news and updates, like many other features on the website, was modeled on a similarly named facility offered by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Sameer Anand(‘90) wrote in July 1998 about a batchmate who was “a very eligible bachelor, looking for a sweet Gujju girl.” Raj “Mashru” Mashruwala (’75) reported that “our batch has made many new business ventures. Guys you saw in worn-out lungis and pajamas are now strutting around in 3-piece Armani suits … we are also getting older – this year marks the first time that second-generation ’75 kids are polluting institutes of higher education .. (such as) .. MIT and Harvard”. The Class Notes feature was replaced by batch-wise Yahoo Groups in November 2003.
A custom designed Jobs Board also made its appearance in the same time frame. The Board displayed job openings at companies ranging from Microsoft R&D India, who had recently launched their R&D operations in Hyderabad, to openings for financial engineers for jobs on Wall Street. Alumni looking for positions could also post their resumes for employers to peruse.
The alumni database proved tremendously valuable after the terrible events of 9/11. Within hours of the tragedy, we could identify alumni working for firms in the World Trade Center area and efforts were under way to contact them to make sure they were safe. One riveting anecdote from that traumatic period was learning that Sunil Mohandas (’82)who worked in 1 WTC had missed the train to work that morning and was safe. The alumni database was cross-checked with the names of Indian-Americans from published lists of those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center disaster.
The Global Alumni Newsletters had begun in the 2001-2002 timeframe and were sent out by me as the webmaster of iitbombay.org, unlike the situation today where they are compiled and sent by a terrific global team of alumni and staff volunteers. To this day, some of those who used to receive the newsletters and other IIT Bombay alumni mail remember the webmaster, a designation which had a special connotation in the early days of the web but is relatively uncommon now. The September 2001 Newsletter went out more or less on time in spite of the fact that it was just 12 days after 9/11. It began with “Dear fellow IITian … September 11, 2001, was a day of infamy that none of us will ever forget.” It included an announcement that “… events including the New York Chapter banquet and Hudson River Cruise as well as events planned in Texas, California and elsewhere have been postponed till further notice due to the aftermath of the events on September 11.”
The year 2002 was a landmark year because it marked the unification of the Alumni Directory database, which is unique to IIT Bombay unlike all the other IIT alumni organizations. The US-based IITBHF Alumni Directory which began as a spreadsheet in the late 90s and was then moved into an SQL database in 2000 remained independent of the IIT Bombay database till April 2002. While the Alumni Directory SQL database had about 5,000 entries, IIT Bombay had its own database using somewhat outdated pre-SQL technology with close to 4,400 entries.
On April 29, 2002, Prof. Gaitonde gave the green signal to combine the IIT Bombay database with the Alumni Directory being maintained by IITBHF.
Several months of intense discussions took place regarding sharing of IIT Bombay’s alumni data between IITBHF and then Director Ashok Misra, Prof. Uday Gaitonde, Professor-in-Charge of Alumni Affairs, and Prof. SL Narayanamurthy, with the primary concern being coordination between the campus website and iitbombay.org, and privacy issues to protect alumni data.
On April 29, 2002, Prof. Gaitonde gave the green signal to combine the IIT Bombay database with the Alumni Directory being maintained by IITBHF. The dream of unification had finally come to fruition, and alumni were not going to be confused by two apparently competing sites. The importance of this event cannot be understated because it has led to a global alumni database that is now used by IIT Bombay, IITBHF and IITBAA.
Meanwhile, in that same month of April 2002, the iit.org website was acquired from someone who was cyber-squatting on the URL, and the PanIIT website was co-hosted on the iitbombay.org server as a courtesy to the PanIIT organization.
Continuing the foundational work done by Rahul Herwadkar (’93), the baton was passed in this time period to Balaji Srinivasan (’93). Rahul and Balaji have played a critical role in building the core infrastructure for iitbombay.org, including facilities such as the ability to login to the website and update personal information in the Alumni Directory, lifelong email forwarding, mailing lists for batches, chapters, and departments using IMail, ChatRooms, Jobs and Resume Board, and much more.
The first half of our story ends in February 2005 with the coming together of IITBHF and IITBAA to share the alumni web infrastructure and use the unique strengths of each organization to build a single virtual global alumni organization.
To be continued …
Editor’s Note: Readers can visit www.archive.org for historical snapshots of iitbombay.org dating back to the 1990s. The Class Notes in particular may bring a smile to your face if you recognize the names.