Cognitive Science Alumni

Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.

The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.

The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.

Alumnus of the Month: Ankur Jalota, 2003

Ankur Jalota

Ankur is a Senior Human Factors Engineer at Qualcomm. Qualcomm is a wireless technology company, which designs chips that are used in many mobile phones worldwide (especially if you have a phone from Verizon or Sprint). At Qualcomm, Ankur currently works on designing PC applications, which allows its customers to create applications for mobile phones.

Ankur received his B.S. in Cognitive Science (specialization in HCI) from UCSD in 2004. Over the 9 years he's been in San Diego, he's lived in UTC, Mira Mesa, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, and is now thinking about moving to North Park.

An Interview with Ankur Jalota

by Kim Sweeney

What drew you to major in Cognitive Science?

I started out as a Computer Engineering major; in my first quarter of college I realized that it wasn't what I would love doing. I started trying out various courses, and I stumbled upon an introductory Cognitive Science course. I got to see from a big picture of what Cognitive Science had to offer; being a technology geek, I knew I had to specialize in HCI. The interdisciplinary nature of the major makes it intellectually stimulating to me.

What was the most valuable thing you learned while in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD?

Nothing is black and white. After learning about theories which were later replaced by newer theories, one trend I noticed is that the newer theories borrowed elements from multiple predecessors. It's not one theory or the other that's right, it's a combination of elements from multiple theories. And you can extend such thinking to many aspects of life - we don't always have to choose one side or another, we can mix-n-match.

What's one way your education in Cognitive Science has changed how you view your every day life?

From an HCI perspective, I've become sensitive to noticing the design of things in the world. I'm always aware and silently analyzing the design of products, buildings, experiences - anything. As a result, I think I have a lower threshold for bad design and often vocalize my discontent state. My friends probably think I'm grumpy when it comes to such scenarios. lol

What advice would you give to current students?

If you want to travel, travel right after you graduate. I was recommended to do so, but I was eager to get a job and enjoy the fruits of my labor. However, once you start working, you become motivated to advance your career, and thus it becomes harder to leave your job to go explore the world. Backpacking is one of those things that's best done while you're young. And with a degree in Cognitive Science, you're likely to be more aware when immersed in different cultures, and be able to observe how different cultures think, act, and behave.

What is your job like?

As a Human Factors Engineer at Qualcomm, I've worked on designing mobile and PC applications. For mobile, I worked on making applications that would be bundled with the chips that Qualcomm sells to customers. As an example, I worked on the Contacts\Phonebook application. It seems like it would only take a few days to produce such an application, right? Well first I think of all the various things the application needs to support, like adding, editing, and deleting contacts. I then propose designs to support all these tasks. Afterwards I communicate these designs to my Human Factor peers, and then to the software engineering team; once they okay it, I go and write up what we call a User Interface Specification, which is around 100 pages, and it describes precisely how the application should behave. The sw engineering team then codes the application to comply with the UI Spec.

If you're interested in what kind of PC applications I design, they're tools that are used by software engineers, who in turn use this software to create mobile applications.

Day to day, I spend most of my time mocking up designs, on paper or in Visio, and then getting feedback from other Human Factor peers, or meet with the sw engineers. Ultimately, I spend most of my day in my office, and have a few 1-hour meetings per week.

The more fun side of my job is when I meet customers of our products, and use the method of contextual inquiry to gather data. I've flown around California, Texas, and Boston. Gathering data and analyzing data can take about a month, and it takes a lot of energy to travel and meet our end users. It's totally worth it to see how people actually use our product. We also do usability studies, where we get participants to visit us, and have them do tasks while we take notes. We use this data to drive our design process.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job and/or career?

The first difficult aspect is the technical nature of my job. I work closely with software engineers, so I must grasp technical concepts. I factor in requirements from engineering, and then turn around and propose designs. So one has to be comfortable with absorbing a lot of technical knowledge, and also discarding the unnecessary parts that do not matter to the design process.

The second difficult aspect is dealing with opinions. Anyone can have opinions on design, and many people focus on how they would design it for themselves; but I do not design myself, I design for end users. So it takes patience to work with developers, as it's my job to make the design as simple as possible, and I have to defend my design against opinions (sometimes strong opinions), as ultimately, I always keep the end-users of the product in mind.

How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?

I usually sit in front of a computer all day, so after work I try do something physical (gym, swimming, yoga, meditation), and balance my day that way. During the weekends, I like go hiking or camping and turn off my phone to be disconnected from everything except what is right in front of me: nature.

How do you keep up-to-date with your field?

I follow a few blogs (Professor Hollan has a blog that I follow). I read Interactions, which is an ACM publication. Then there are plenty of design-related books to read, the next one I'll be reading is "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". I highly recommend TedTalks as well.

Have you considered getting a Master's in HCI?

It's a question I was pondering, and ultimately, my motivation is to become a better designer. I decided that I did not need to go back to school for this, but to stay in industry and better myself there everyday. Learning does not stop when you are out of school, and I continue to self-educate and learn about HCI.

Were you able to apply anything you learned directly to yourself?

I have no sense of direction, and as a result I get lost easily. Thanks to one of my neuroscience classes, I know that it's my hippocampus at fault! </end of geeky cogsci joke>

To Nominate Someone

To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at alumnusofthemonth@cogsci.ucsd.edu.