Women Who Paved the Way for the Internet of Things: A Teacher Finds Her Voice

If my story connects with a single person, I will have succeeded.

I am Kayalvizhi Jayavel, an assistant professor in information technology at Sri Ramaswamy Memorial  (SRM) University in India. I love my job, but 20 years ago I never imagined teaching as my calling.

This is my story.

As a young girl, as with so many others like me, my sole goal was to get good marks in school, an objective I met with regularity. By the time 12th grade rolled around, or 12th standard in my country, I aspired for admittance into a medical or engineering school and the status such a career would provide. But I also wanted as high a return on as little effort as I could muster, so I turned to computer science. I wasn’t particularly enamored of the field or anything, but it came with a lot of hype back then. Life had other plans, though, and in 1997 I was selected for the electronics and communication engineering (ECE) program. In a word, ECE was all Greek to me!

Even though I didn’t really understand what was going on, I still knew how to do one thing: continue to get the grades. It was easy for me. I saw the Indian educational system as one that did not necessarily check for skills or comprehension, just the ability to successfully complete tests. I longed to be able to apply the knowledge, but believed everyone simply got along the way I did. Until one day in 2001, the last year of my undergraduate education, I realized that was not the case.

After observing my peers, I was shocked to learn many of them not only understood but applied what they had learned. It dawned on me, it was not the educational system that needed to change, but myself. And slowly I did. I had always enjoyed teaching, and one fine day in 2003 SRM University called to interview me for a position. I was thrilled, and even more thrilled when they hired me. Another unexpected twist came my way when they hired me not for electronics and communication, but information technology. My friends and colleagues warned me to be careful; not only would the subjects be all new, but when it came time to move on from teaching no one would hire me in either field. I paid them no mind. I believed in myself.

It’s been a busy, challenging, and exhilarating 15 years since, punctuated by a wide variety of significant events for both me and the university. In 2010, I created the ACM student chapter for women (SRM ACM-W)—an event inaugurated by Gayatri Buragohain, India’s ACM-W ambassador. I served as the organization’s faculty advisor for two years. Appropriately enough, we began operations on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Later, I helped establish the ACM-W chapter at Amrita University in Coimbatore. In 2011, I became involved with JDuchess-Chennai, a Java user group for women located in and around Chennai, the city that is home to two of SRM’s campuses. I was honored to represent JDuchess-Chennai at an Oracle Java conference in May 2012, which was held in Hyderabad. I was also interviewed about the role of women in technology. A month later, back at SRM, together with other women of ACM, I organized an international women in computing conference.

Three years ago, I began working on a Ph.D. in the Internet of Things (IoT), at a time when most people had never heard of such a thing. How, they asked, could I work on an advanced degree for something that did not exist? But, once again, I believed in myself, and I believed in how important the IoT would become.

In 2014 my students and I started a club at SRM called the Internet of Things Alliance, or IOTA for short. The club is steadily growing, and has been incredibly active in a very short period of time, especially during the summer months. To highlight a few of IOTA’s accomplishments, in the last two years we conducted two summer internships. One on embedded systems—as that was my post-graduate specialization—and one on the IoT. Both were free of cost, and we trained nearly 50 students. We also held two exhibitions to show our work to the SRM community. Our tech fest, “Aaruush,” is an annual event celebrating the spirit of innovation at SRM. During the event, we held an awareness program for the entire University under a program called “Wednesday Speaks.”

In February 2015, the IOTA Club conducted a workshop on “IoT and Raspberry Pi” in collaboration with EFY (Electronics for You) Techcentre, which attracted nearly 100 students. Syam Madanapalli, an IoT pioneer in India, helped lead the course. We had previously been involved with EFY; in November 2014, I attended an IoT workshop in Bangalore organized by the group. On campus we began conducting weekly meetings to motivate students to pursue careers in IoT. A month later, in March, IOTA was shortlisted to participate in the Smart City Research Colloquium held at IIIT Allahabad, which the Indian government has declared the lead university for its “smart city” initiative. I presented my paper there. Later that month, we gave a demonstration and speech about “Arduino and IoT” at Arduino Day. Adding more meaning to our work, my team and I recently participated in a workshop on the IoT and its relevance to all, which was held at Gnanamani College of Technology, Tamil Nadu. Hearing about our work, Cognizant Technology Systems, an international IT company, sent their employees to study the feasibility of an industry-academic collaboration with our team. This would be 100 percent interdisciplinary, as we know there can be no IoT without working across disciplines.

Our future looks as bright as our past. We are implementing a smart campus within our University. And recently, two of my students attended an IoT hackathon in Bangalore. The best part of all this is my female students—who always kept away from embedded systems, hardware, and IoT—have started working on projects and papers. We are expecting a lot more activity in IoT from them and others on our campus.

There is an old proverb that says when a flower blooms at its fullest, nothing can stop its fragrance. With IOTA, our goal is to work quietly and keep a low profile. One day, we believe, our accomplishments will speak loudly for themselves.

I mention all of these things about myself, and my years at SRM, to make a broader point. It is important to have a varied set of skills and to understand how all of our work is related. While my friends and peers remarked “you will be a jack of all trades, but king (really, shouldn’t they have said queen?) of none,” I believe the IoT demands its practitioners be a Jack or Jill of all trades. Steve Jobs said “dots connect backwards.” One will not know when things happen, or necessarily why they happen, but when they connect, it can be beautiful. My students have complimented me by saying I am extraordinary at connecting seemingly unrelated topics. Working for women, collaborating with ACM, and being on the ground floor of IoT have all been the dots that have connected for me. I believe in the future of the IoT, and the future of women in this field at my university and beyond.

Editor’s Note

In the summer of 2015, the newly-established UPES ACM-W student chapter reached out to XRDS with an idea to organize an article writing competition to promote the visibility of women in computing. Contestants were asked to write about the role played by female scientists in the emergence of the Internet of Things.

The competition ran for three months, and concluded on October 1st. After receiving submissions from all across India, the top three winners were selected by an editorial jury from XRDS.

It is our pleasure to share with you the winning submission; a personal story about a great teacher who grows into her role as a computer science educator.

Adrian Scoică,
XRDS Departments Chief


© 2015 ACM.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *