University of Cape Town (UCT) graduate Kialan Pillay broke some records when he graduated in computer science and mathematical statistics at 19 and got his honours degree in computer science at just 20, both first-class. With invitations to pursue a master’s in computer science degree at Imperial College London, Oxford and Cambridge universities, Kialan was spoilt for choice. But it’s Oxford he’s opted for. He spoke with UCT News.
Helen Swingler (HS): You were accepted at three of the world’s top universities in the United Kingdom (UK). Is there a reason you chose the UK, as opposed to the United States or Singapore, also with top-flight MSc courses?
Kialan Pillay (KP): I’ve always had a special affinity for both Oxford and Cambridge. The Oxbridge system is unique and not replicated in the United States or other countries. And through our colonial vestiges, the South African university system tracks its UK counterpart quite closely. I thoroughly enjoyed my tenure at UCT, principally because of the culture, and I felt that I would have a similar, enriching experience in the UK – more so than in another country.
While Cambridge and Imperial are both world-class institutions with excellent programmes, I felt that the Oxford curriculum, with a strong emphasis on balancing theory and practice, is best suited to my learning style, interests and research in artificial intelligence. I’d like to also express my gratitude to the Skye Foundation for awarding me a scholarship to support my studies.
Also, as a teenager, my late father lived in England for some years, and he always spoke of returning for his retirement. For this reason, particularly, I’m very proud to have been accepted to study in the UK. I feel that I am continuing that journey for him.
“I firmly believe that most learning does not happen in the classroom, but rather in your interactions and explorations outside.”
HS: You start in the Michaelmas term later this year. Will this be your first trip abroad?
KP: No, it won’t be my first overseas trip, nor to the UK. I am very fortunate to have travelled quite extensively throughout my life, primarily with my mother. I have always learnt experientially and travelling has been an extension of that unorthodox education. I firmly believe that most learning does not happen in the classroom, but rather in your interactions and explorations outside of that. It was after a visit to Oxford and Cambridge that solidified the idea of studying at one of these institutions. I knew that I would have a holistic learning experience: academic rigour and interacting with brilliant staff and students from all over the globe.
HS: What do you hope to focus on for the research component of your Master’s in Advanced Computer Science? Is there a link to your honours course at UCT?
KP: There definitely is. I’d love to continue work on my honours research project in some form. This focuses on investigating graph-based machine-learning models for predicting stock prices, and the integration of these models into a broader intelligent (AI-based) system for decision-making. Even if I cannot pursue this work directly, the projects being undertaken by the Machine Learning Research Group are at the forefront of innovation in this space. I’m really excited to get stuck in. The dissertation component is spread throughout all three terms and provides ample time to dive deep into my chosen topic – and hopefully produce an impactful study that and can be built on.
HS: As an African, what are the unique qualities or insights you hope to add to what will no doubt be a cosmopolitan class at Oxford? Some 160 nations are represented at the institution.
KP: South Africa and the African continent have incredible potential that is already being exploited by visionary youths. While Africans face significant challenges, there are also opportunities for solving problems in innovative ways that are not necessarily apparent to those from outside our continent. I’m looking forward to sharing my experience in the South African technology sector and my thoughts on how we can solve problems in low-resource but high-impact contexts. But I’ll also spend my time intently listening and discovering how others are solving problems in their own countries. I think there is massive value in taking on the learnings and insights of others, incorporating these ideas both into my own work, and bringing them back to local developers and the scientific community.
“Increasingly, people are realising the potential of AI technologies to revolutionise systems and processes across our continent.”
HS: It’s been said that Africa, with its pervasive basic socioeconomic problems, is way off a future that involves AI. As a young African and computer scientist, does that bother you?
KP: While we are perhaps playing catch-up with other countries, there is an incredible amount of research, produced within academia and in industry, in the field of AI and machine learning. I am confident that this upward trajectory will continue. Increasingly, people are realising the potential of AI technologies to revolutionise systems and processes across our continent, and especially within South Africa there is a strong contingent of entrepreneurs that is harnessing these technologies to build data-driven solutions.
HS: The Oxford site lists possible ‘next stop’ options for MSc graduates. Among these are PhD/DPhil research, data scientist, information systems manager, IT consultant, cyber security analyst, network engineer and systems developer. Do these interest you?
KP: In December I joined Amazon Web Services (AWS) as full-time software engineer and I imagine I will continue as a software engineer for the next few years of my career. It has been an incredible learning experience and it will be a bittersweet moment when I conclude my tenure there – although the door is definitely not closed to rejoin in the future. The wonderful aspect of computer science is that you can enter any industry in any number of roles; there is always a niche, and you just must find your fit. AWS has given me an excellent start to my career, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will develop.
HS: Your mom, Maheshvari Naidu, is a professor of anthropology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It’s clear that she’s your #1 supporter. What do you think are the most important attitudes for a parent or guardian to helping young scholars on their way?
KP: It’s most important for a parent to be completely supportive of their child’s choice of study, even if it is not a so-called professional occupation or conventionally well-paid. I was incredibly lucky that my parents never pushed me to pursue any particular discipline. They would have been just as proud if I’d studied at the College of Music. Being passionate about your degree really makes all the difference. There is little point in the piece of paper at the end of three, four or five years if you had a miserable experience. All thanks to my parents for their love and support over the years. I wouldn’t be where I am without that.
HS: You matriculated at 15, the top matriculant in KwaZulu-Natal, and completed undergraduate and honours studies at UCT (cum laude) by 20. What do you do to unwind and ‘change gear’ mentally?
KP: I am a pianist and violinist, although the piano is my primary instrument. I took music as one of my elective matric subjects, which often surprises people. Unfortunately, I don’t have my piano in Cape Town, so I don’t play as much as I used to. And Lego is a passion that has stayed with me since I was a young child; in fact, I’d say it has only grown stronger. I have quite a vast collection and no doubt it will continue to grow. Although my profession is to build software (which I love doing), building with Lego allows me to clear my mind and focus on something completely different. I also watch sport; I am an avid Chelsea and Ferrari fan. And an avid reader of pretty much everything.
HS: Do you have a guiding favourite quote?
KP: Yes, it’s from a fictional character Jedi Master Yoda (I’m a major Star Wars fan), and the quote “Do. Or Do Not. There is no try.” really encapsulates my philosophy. Everything I do in my academic or personal life is with 110% energy and commitment. I’ll often dive into a task at work when I have minimal context or little idea what to do or how to solve the problem. I am confident that I will either figure it out or, if it is beyond me, I can get assistance from my team. I’ve never been afraid of failure, always happy to go back to the drawing board, knowing that tapped into my full capacity.
HS: Are you prepping for the cold and wet weather? The UK is a far cry from your growing years in KZN – and even Cape Town!
KP: When I stayed in Kopano [residence] during my undergraduate years my heater was switched on permanently during the winter months. However, I was diligent with lecture attendance so braved the cold and sideways rain to take a [UCT Shuttle] to upper campus. Granted, I still don’t think I am quite ready for the climate, but it is part and parcel of the UK experience – and I’m not one to be phased by the weather!
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