An open-source evangelist, Phatak, head of Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology, IIT Bombay, has inspired and helped an entire generation of youngsters morph into thought leaders. One of the most respected teachers, Phatak is always surrounded by his students and has made computer science a much sought-after stream not just at IIT but at other Indian universities as well. To reach out to a larger student universe including rural India, Phatak started Eklavya, an online distance-learning program for the IITs.As a journalist working for Prof. Phatak, I used to interact often with him because he is one of those rare people loved by journalists for his ability to come up with quotable quotes for any occasion. Later, I worked with him to put together the ekalavya/Red Hat Scholarships program. Prof. Phatak passionately believes that open source can help India as a country and that it offers great benefits for Indian education in particular. It is therefore apt that IIT Bombay is leading a project that aims at Adoption of Open Source Software in Science and Engineering Education under the National Mission on Education through ICT project of the Ministry for Human Resources Development.
Several generations of India's IT leaders have learnt under the tutelage of Prof. Phatak who is a very popular figure in the IIT Bombay campus. Despite his accomplishments, he retains a child-like curiosity and enthusiasm for new ideas and projects. One of the most entrepreneurial professors in India, he has tremendous stamina for work. He is an inspiring speaker and I once heard him address a group of sales and support staff and he was able to captivate them from the word go and talk to each of these groups in their own language.
Once, while he was addressing the Mumbai GNU/Linux User Group I noticed that his belt had a prominent Playboy logo on it. Imagine that, an IIT Bombay professor wearing a Playboy belt. When I pointed this out to him, he nonchalantly replied that the belt belonged to his son who forgot to pack it while leaving. One of his students told me this gem called "Phatak's leaky stack algorithm" and those who have been part of the professor's round table discussions will vouch for its truth. The algorithm goes thus. The first person to enter Prof. Phatak's room gets a slice of his attention. The next person to enter gets another slice and so on and so forth. Since people are always walking in and out of Prof. Phatak's room, the first person (now firmly at the bottom of the stack) finally gets up and leaves.
At the age of 61, Prof. Phatak retains a mischevious glint in his eye, a quality that he shares with another Prof. Isaac, another IIT professor legendary for his absent-mindedness. If you have got tales of Prof. Isaac or Prof. Phatak to share, please post them in the comments. I'd love to hear them.
Prof. Phatak is also an intensely patriotic person. On his web site he says:
Dr. Phatak's dream is to see a resurgent India catching up with the world using Information Technology as the spring board. He hopes to make IT work for the millions of Indians so as to enable them to lead an honorable, comfortable and peaceful life full of love and harmony.Those who followed the OOXML saga know how upset he was with Microsoft for the extent to which they stooped in their efforts to get India's No vote on OOXML overturned.
Over the last 18 years in the IT industry, it has been my privilige to meet and work with several wonderful human beings and Prof. Phatak is right there at the top of that list.