Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Selling is for everyone

I began my career with sales (while still in college), and have since moved on to different roles. But, selling has continued to dominate my professional life. I have realized that no matter who you are, what you do and where you work selling is darn important. Which is why I encourage young grads to begin their careers with a stint in sales, at least part time. It hones you as a professional, eradicates many bad traits like shyness and hesitation (but may introduce new ones like greed and smart-assed-ness), teaches you to respect time and generally makes you organized. Okay, all this is not guaranteed but one thing is certain- you will get them ten times quicker in sales than in any other job.

But, I am a techie dude
In a typical software development role, what role does selling play? Well, a lot.
  1. Even if you aren't part of your marketing department, you might be asked to make a technical presentation of your product/service to a prospective client
  2. You might have an idea that you want others in the team, department or to accept and adopt
  3. You might be interviewing someone really good and you want to convince him/ her that your company is better than the competition. You might even be giving a campus presentation, which is a pure sales pitch
  4. Last, but not the least, appraisal is a time when even the most unlikely fellow will become a top notch salesperson. Or at least makes a decent attempt. And for good reason- you need to be a good salesperson to be noticed and move up the org chart
It can be imparted...even to techies
Despite the importance that selling has in everybody's life and career, a typical software development organization gives almost no training in sales to its employees. Its technologists may move across projects, work in SEPG or SQA but are hardly ever "rotated" into the marketing and sales department (or HR, which is sad too).
Typical sales training programs I have seen fall under three categories:
  1. Boring and useless: The worse trainers in this space are those that give long lectures, throw theories at you and expect you to imbibe it all sitting motionless and bored in an air-conditioned hall. These sessions hardly last longer than a day (and if they do, the audience doesn't).
  2. "Here's the map; go find your route": Slightly better ones introduce you to the concepts (here is a good reference), show you how to practice the skills and leaves you with some good material (books, CDs, worksheets etc.) for reference. This kind of training typically lasts two full days.
  3. "Let me help you find the route": The best kind of training goes beyond concepts, guidelines and reference material. It makes you do stuff. It forces you to let go of your inhibitions. It shows you how to empathize and synergize. It typically takes a portion of your day, and goes on for a week or two. And in my personal opinion, it is best delivered by an external trainer along with a senior manager from within the organization

Enthralling. Amusing. Hypnotizing. Endearing. Magical. Romantic. Showman. You may use any number of adjectives to describe an ideal salesperson. But, salesmanship is not just about these. It is about understanding your customer as an individual; his/her stated and unstated needs and goals; knowing that people buy with their emotions; realizing that good salespeople aim at building relationships and not merely selling products. Patience and Emotional Intelligence are therefore vital virtues. Talking of salesmanship, don't miss the small article by Jack Carroll called "The Art of Salesmanship is the Absence of Salesmanship".

And lastly...
Selling, whether externally or internally, involves lots of planning, discipline and vision. J. C. Penney once said “Give me a stock clerk that has a goal and I’ll show you an individual who will make history. Give me a salesperson without goals and I’ll show you a stock clerk”.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dear fellow techies: what you should do?

Siddharth Uppal (Sid, as we call him) has been one of the best technologists, and certainly one of the best people I have known. He was my very first team mate at D. E. Shaw after I joined the company and even though I was his Manager, I got to learn a lot from him. Among other things, he got me into blogging.
Quite an avid blogger himself (his blog is called Some Creativity), a few months ago Sid wrote a small and simple piece that every techie should read. In this article he gives very down to earth, simple yet powerful advice to techies working in a typical project team. I personally agree with his points 100%. I have shared my views on project management and related stuff on this blog in the past, but I think Sid's post encapsulates most of those points in a simple manner.
While you are at it, check out his discussion about a simple report generator- like the man himself, simple yet awesome.
I proud of you, my friend.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Markets, Lehman Brothers and stuff

These days many people ask me the same set of questions- “what’s happening in the financial markets?”, “Is the worst over yet?”, “why did Lehman Brothers go bankrupt?” And so on. Working in the financial industry, I am somehow supposed to know it all. Yeah, right! But, I can share what little I know so here we go.

Financial Markets in Crisis

Financial markets are not just in some crisis, they are in deep crisis. You know that when Allan Greenspan says on TV that this is by far the worst he has seen in his life. You know that when every major financial institution is going under, one by one. You know that when governments and central banks the world over push $ 800 billion into the markets to keep them alive (more like on life support systems, but breathing nevertheless). And finally, you know it for sure when Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG are all in the news for either being bailed out, bought out or, in Lehman’s case, just out.
So, what’s happening? When one of the world’s largest economies is perennially in debt, when “experts” pretend to know how to manage that debt, when “risk managers” fool themselves and others that they have things under control, when “intelligent finance gurus” create instruments to make money out of all this and when they all are living in a fool’s paradise, it is obvious that the party can’t last long. Signs are that the party has ended. Depending on who you are talking to, this is the worst financial crisis the world has seen in ten, fifty, hundred or a million years.
So, is this the bottom? Are worse days ahead? In my honest opinion, this might be one of the worst financial crises the world has ever seen, but I am confident that many of us would weather the storm. Big names will fall. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the financial markets as we know them. If there is one thing that the bean counters and managers in this market are known for (apart from greed) is resilience. How long will this storm last, and what will we see next? Well, I don’t know. Nobody does. Even the experts who write long articles in business magazines or talk on TV, with bookshelves and flowers in the background, are saying just one thing: “we have no clue at all. Just wait and see”. Anybody who claims to know the future in today’s market is either a shameless liar, an absolute madman or God in disguise.

So, what happened to Lehman Brothers?

Lehman was America’s fourth largest bank; a 158 year old grand institution that had weathered the great depression and many other storms successfully; a financial company so important that if it sneezed, the world would catch flu. Well, it didn’t just sneeze, it kicked the bucket. So, what happened?
It all started in 2007, and the subprime mortgage crisis. Lehman owned a subprime lender called BNC Mortgage and closed it down in August 2007 following the infamous crisis. This led to about $25 million charge and $27 million reduction in goodwill. The crisis spilled over to 2008 and Lehman’s losses started to mount. Though it closed BNC Mortgage, it held on to large positions in lower rated (subprime, even) mortgage tranches when securitizing the underlying mortgages. It probably did so hoping for a reversal in the market. It is also possible that it couldn’t sell the lower rated bonds.
In Q2 of 2008, Lehman reported losses of $2.8 billion. By now, it had lost 73% of its value in the market. August 2008 saw rumours that Korea Development Bank was considering buying Lehman Brothers. That didn’t go through, most probably because KDB had trouble attracting partners for the deal and pleasing regulators. As a result, the already battered Lehman share value plunged by a further 45%. After seeing all this, investors became wary of this stock and its price continued to go down south. The bank tried every trick in the book to stay afloat- it tried to downsize, sell parts of it to others, approached the Fed for help and even tried selling itself to somebody. Nothing worked. Barclays and Bank of America both mulled over buying it out, but declined after due diligence. With no other option left, it announced bankruptcy on Monday, 15 September 2008. On 16 September, Barclays came back showing interest in the bank. Here is a link to the announcement on Lehman's website.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

When bugs are features and features are bugs

Reliance Mobile
If you are in India, and haven't been living under a rock, you wouldn't have missed the new Reliance mobiles commercial. It has a young couple on phone, who keep pulling each other's leg based on what they hear in the back ground. The girl hears a 'saas-bahu' serial in the back ground, the guy hears the girl flipping a magazine, the girl hears the guy burn his toast and so on. The point of the commercial is that Reliance's new phones give superior, digital clarity. That is the feature. But, really? Isn't that a bug? Aren't good phones supposed to eliminate back ground noise? Imagine if you are in traffic or train or a restaurant and you are using one of these phones- the background noise could be a pain in the...err...ear. Instead of fixing the problem, is Reliance trying to turn it into a feature? Is this a case of an Engineering problem being solved by the Marketing department?

I have seen it in many other places. And not just hi-tech equipment and software.

Damn door!
It was some time last year that I went to this posh and popular resort outside Hyderabad. The greens, the water, the cottages all looked good. I collected my room keys, picked my bag and hurried towards my cottage. No, I really hurried. Because, you know, I had to go. I opened the front door, slammed it quick, threw my bag on the floor and pulled the toilet door. It wouldn't move. So, I pushed it. No luck. I pulled and pushed. Again and again. With all my might. It wouldn't move. It was an ordinary looking wooden door with a very ordinary rotary knob, and a key hole. I tried the keys as well, but no luck. So, I called the reception.
"Hello, my bathroom door is struck"
"Oh, I am sorry sir. I will have some one come over immediately"
"Make it quick, please"
It took the guy two long minutes to come in. He walked in, grabbed the knob my absolute disbelief...slid the door open. It was a f***ing sliding door. How was I to know? There was no sign on the door. Not even a subtle hint. I wanted to beat the crap out of that guy, but that wasn't his fault. Even if it were, I didn't have time for violence as I had to go.
That was a bug. A design bug, to be precise. In a land where 99% of doors are hinged, you can't expect a new guy to just realize that the door slides. Not while your thoughts are drowning in a bloated bladder. The resort manager, who I met later, said that this was a pretty common problem and the reason was that the architect wanted to have a certain "feel" while also conserving space. Hence, the door design. To the architect, it was a feature. To a hapless guest, it was a bug...almost a disaster.

Data...where housing?
The above should convince you that it is important to differentiate between features and bugs. And that Marketing department (or whatever you call the bunch of client facing folks who like to make decisions, look important but blame poor techies for screw ups) should never solve Engineering problems. Nowhere do I see this more often than in software. Many years ago, I had just begun working on a data warehousing project for a very big client. One of my first tasks was to attend to a bug that the client had logged- the roll up report, which was based on a certain cube, wasn't working as expected. It didn't take me long to figure out why- the roll up was supposed to be done using a certain (complex) formula and not using standard aggregation functions like sum and average. At the outset it looked like an impossible problem to solve. But, I was new to data warehousing and I thought there might be some way to do this so I went about searching for one. Meanwhile, the account's relationship manager got busy with some serious out-of-the-box thinking. In his case, the box was his Cranium!
He flew all the way to the client's office in Japan (we were in India) and demo'ed them a report using summation for rolling up values up the cube's hierarchy. He sold them the idea, showing how great this report was and how it gave them valuable insights they wouldn't otherwise have. He then promised to solve the main issue in a week's time and flew back. He shot me a mail on Friday saying we have a deadline, and we need to talk when he comes back on Monday. So, I did some out of the box thinking (in this case, the box was our DW server) myself, worked on the weekend and solved the problem even before he arrived. I met him with the reports :-) How? Well, I just queried the basic, leaf level data, rolled them up outside the system in a C++ program, populated a bunch of new reporting tables with the values and had the report ready for consumption. In other words, I completely bypassed the main system. The Relationship Manager had just sold a bug as a feature and I had to solve the main issue by bypassing the actual engine and storing data in completely new set of tables. I was a hero. Didn't that create problems in the future? You bet. But, I had moved on to another project, another team, another client and another country :-)

So far, I love my life.