Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"The Proof of the Pudding Argument"

People who know me understand why I love xkcd comics, and this one in particular. It is actually titled "The Economic Argument", but you know how much I like food so I call it "The Proof of the Pudding Argument".

Your irrationality seems a little uncomfortable, eh? No? Study that table again...carefully...Now? What, still irrational? OK. Get a dowsing rod over your head to check for some brain, and take some distilled water...I mean, sorry,homeopathic magic formula...to gain some neural matter. But, do that at an auspicious time with a pyramid over your head, while a baba dances with neem leaves around the bed. Go on, picturize it. What, that sounds crazy? Well, it apparently works for chicken pox! And Arthiritis. And Cancer. And Aids. But sadly not for "Moronitis".

While we are making fun of people suffering from Moronitis, check this out too. Ha Ha Ha.

Friday, November 26, 2010

10 Bitter Truths about Work

One of my old managers used to say, “we come here to do a good job. Little else matters”. Many of us have been shocked when faced with certain realities of working in a corporate environment. This is my understanding of ten such surprises that catch us unawares, especially in the first few years of our careers:
1.   Sorry, but this is not about you
It is a humbling realization, but irrespective of your standing in the org chart, your job is all about serving others. You strengths, your skills, your personality, your talent are all valued for the benefit they offer to others. Any consideration you get, in terms of benefits, compensation, vacation time etc. are all given so that you can serve others better. It is never about you, but about your colleagues in another department, people reporting into you, customers, investors or bosses. It pays to remember that responsibilities come before rights in a professional organization. And it pays to put your clients and the company before you.
Another off-shoot of this point is that you need to tend to your needs and aspirations, and not expect someone else (manager or HR) to automatically take care of you. I am not saying that they don’t…it is their job…but ultimately you are your best friend.

2.   You don’t manage people, you manage lives
Managing people is not about power, but responsibility. I have seen people’s personalities changed, for better or worse, by their managers. I have seen people’s lives and careers shaped, again for better or worse, by their managers. So act responsibly, and remember that your influence extends beyond here and now. Three points to remember:
·    If I could give you one magic word for people management, it would be “candor”. Only say things you can back up, and never hold back either praise or criticism.
·    Avoid overt emotions in office. So, don’t shed tears of joy when announcing a promotion, and don’t yell at people when they make mistakes.
·    Be genuinely interested in your team members’ careers and well being.

3.   Authority is given, but power is earned
Authority is an institutionalized or legal right to make a decision or command obedience. It usually comes by rising up the ranks in the org chart, and is given to you by others- bosses, board of directors, regulatory bodies etc. Power, on the other hand, comes by the sheer ability to influence people. It is independent of position, rights and jurisdiction. I have seen people in a position of authority who don’t yield much power. And I have seen many people in the lower rungs of the org chart whose voices reach far and wide. Power is about leadership, while authority is about operations and management. Be clear what you aspire for, and plan accordingly. If you wished for power and merely gained authority, you might be in for a rude shock.

4.   You may not like it, but you must do it 
Working in a professional environment is about getting things done. And often, this includes doing things that you don’t particularly like. You are not on that sexy project, but relegated to a mundane operation? Let your aspirations be known, but first make sure you are doing your current job well even if you don’t like it. This raises you in the eyes of your bosses to dizzying heights.

5.   You may not like them, but you must work with them  
You don’t have to agree with everybody around you. You don’t have to be pals with your coworkers. But you must work with them and get things done. Your personal feelings notwithstanding, be nice to people. Always. Without exception. Respect and dignity at work don’t come with any strings attached, and you must give them unconditionally to all people. Remember that you are here to execute something, and if it means interacting daily with someone you absolutely hate, so be it.

6.   Pursuing practicality is more rewarding than pursuing perfection
Somebody wise said that the worst enemy of good is best. Perfection is expensive, but also elusive. It is noble to aim for, but you should know where and when to stop. It is an old technique in Software Engineering where we categorize bugs/issues and make the release as long as the show stoppers and other major problems are dealt with. We don’t necessarily try to squash on every single bug in the code- that would be impractical for most large applications. Similarly, that presentation will never be perfect, so move on as soon as it has everything to make the impact. Same goes for documents, speeches, plans, analyses and processes.

7.   Whiners go nowhere
Negative vibes are very contagious in the work place, so chronic whiners are (rightly) seen as damaging to the environment and treated accordingly. You should first choose your battle carefully and then take your complaints to the right people, at the right time for the right impact. If possible, offer your solution along with the complain. Constantly bitching around the office about everything from the coffee to the super-boss or even the general economic outlook is a total no-no. You should not only avoid whining, you should also avoid the whiners. They go nowhere, and they pull you back from going anywhere.

8.   Distractions are galore
This was a true shocker for me in the initial years, but offices are surprisingly inefficient for most of us in the knowledge economy. Meetings, managers and coworkers can be very disruptive. It takes time, patience and discipline to learn and tackle these disruptions. Plan your day, so at least the scheduled meetings don’t bother you. When coworkers and bosses call you up, be nice but also brief. In fact, if you are in the middle of something really critical, don’t hesitate to respectfully tell them so. Trust me; even the biggest of your bosses appreciate it.

9.   Competition is cut-throat
Office is not the place for overt altruism. Unless you understand the value systems and political landscape of your organization, you risk losing the career race to someone else. That ‘someone’ could be your pal in the next cubicle that you tag along for lunch, or a stranger just brought in from outside. In an ideal world, nothing matters but your performance. In a real professional world, performance is necessary for success, but not sufficient. Understanding value systems, networking and visibility are all very important. Ignore them at your own risk.

10. Communication and presentation skills are vital to success
Great products that don’t advertise themselves well enough quickly slide into oblivion. Similarly, if you can’t represent yourself well enough in the organization, you’ll find it tough to rise up the ranks. You need to constantly improve your communication skills- oral, written, listening and non-verbal. Bad communication skills not only masks your good work, it lets others take an unfair advantage. It is still your fault, so you just can’t have an excuse here. Take communication classes, hang out with people who are good communicators, read self-help books in this area…do whatever it takes because this is super important for your career. It is also important to remember that communication skills are in constant need of upgrading.

Most of us are smart enough to see the above on our own, but just don’t want to accept the truth. This works to our own disadvantage so face it and get over it. Lastly, remember that today’s corporate environment is like a treadmill- you need to run just to stay in place. Stop, and you'll fall flat on your face.

I am sure there are many other surprises and shocks, and this is not an exhaustive list. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Musings of a part-time philosopher

Someone we knew for a long time died in a freak accident couple of days ago. When I mentioned it to a friend he remarked, "such events make me fearful of my own eventuality". I smiled and quoted Mark Twain, "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it". This friend was shocked at my response, to say the least, and he took the discussion towards soul, spirituality and the whole nine yards in that direction. Here is my humble philosophy on these matters (as you will see, I borrow quite heavily from great intellectuals and thinkers, and add a few cementing touches to form my own philosophy).

Imagine a castle that your child just made out of lego bricks. This castle undeniably exists in space-time- right here, right now. He then takes the bricks apart and throws them all in his toy box. Where is the castle now? In the toy box, you may say. But, no. Its "constituents" are in the toy box that the child can later use to make a truck, a train, a robot or a house. The unique arrangement that made the castle does not exist anymore. You could easily imagine a mathematical model that defined this arrangement. Similarly, every atom in our body came from somewhere in the universe. If you could track an individual atom's journey (dear physicists, please ignore the quantum implications of such an exercise), you may find that it once formed a part of a highway robber, a saint, a king, a pig, a fish, a tree, an amoeba, a stone, a meteorite, a star...there are a zillion other possibilities. A person's existential reality is merely a unique arrangement of matter in space and time. Just like the lego castle, but a zillion times more complex. To me, this mathematical reality, when applied to living things, approximates to the concept of soul.

Consciousness is merely a mental model that integrates the particles of our body into a unitary perception, contemplates the relationship of this perception with its environment and (most importantly) contemplates itself contemplating all of this. If this is complicated, I am sorry, but consciousness is not easy. The last step where the mind contemplates itself contemplating the reality differentiates human level of consiousness with that of other living things...or so I hope. The neural network of our brain should exist, and in a certain form to create this consciousness. It is also easy to see that mathematically, this arrangement is a subset of the model that we called "soul" above.

To sum things up...
  • The physical reality of our material constituents is our "body".
  • The mathematical reality of this unique arrangement in space-time is "soul".
  • A special subset of this arrangement that creates a mental state of awareness of these realities is "consciousness".
(Child of the Universe, by Josephine Wall)
So, what is death? The arrangement that we called "soul" need not be completely decimated for one to die. Death is merely an irreversible elimination of the conditions that give rise to consciousness. The rest is physical degradation. And before you ask me, the difference between being in coma and being dead is irreversibility. Why don't I particularly fear death? Because, death is absence of consciousness, and therefore experience. I needn't fear something I wouldn't experience. 

In the end I'd like to quote Dr. Wayne Dyer- "your life is but a paranthesis in eternity".

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Landing a great job

I recently moved from D. E. Shaw to Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. A good move, I hope, and obviously lot of my other friends looking for a jump have been asking me for "tips" on landing a great job. While I could write a lot on the subject, I found a very well written article called "How To Land a Job at Google (or elsewhere)". Go read it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

5+5 rules for work-life balance

Yay! A blog post after almost two years :-)

When I started working over 14 years ago, the best PCs had 8 MB of RAM and their processors boasted of mega hertz speeds. PC hard disks were still under 1 GB, and floppy disks with 1.44 MB storage were very popular. Our machines have come a long way since then, but what about us, the people? Our programs’ compilation speed may have gone up, but so has the size and complexity of our code. As our server RAMs get into hundreds of GB, so does our programs’ memory footprints. As our productivity grows, so does our work slate. We are still slogging 14 hours in office, with little regard to our life outside. I have been witness to a few horror stories in this space- where a mother couldn’t attend to her infant, a guy couldn’t spend time with his new bride and a son couldn’t spend time with his parents who had come visiting from another country.

Having thought of this problem for some time, I have come up with five rules for employees and five more rules for managers to ensure that work and life don’t eat into each other.

For Employees:

Rule1: Talking of work life balance, we should get one cold fact straight first. As far as your management is concerned, you can have all the work life balance in the world as long as their work expectations and deliverables are met. I am sorry, but you can’t go home early or take time off for your school reunion while there is unfinished business on your table. Your manager isn’t running a sweat shop, but he isn’t running a charity either. Harsh? May be, but that is the cold reality. Make sure that you meet your basic expectation before anything else.

Rule 2: This is important- you can do many things while trying to balance your work and life. But bitching about your boss or the organization is not one of them. The word does go around, even past your thickest office pals, and you may risk losing the work component from the equation. Talk about your situation and workload with your manager, but never vent it out outside this channel.

Rule 3: Gather brownie points to be redeemed for, among other things, work life balance. This takes time and continued impressive work. I have allowed people to work from home for extended periods. I even know of someone who worked from a different continent for many years as she moved there with her family. These people had earned their respect and could be trusted enough with a few liberties and flexibility. It is similar, in principle, to Stephen Covey’s emotional account- you can’t withdraw more than your deposits.
    1. Understand what your managers expect of you- beyond what is written in your job description. There are managers who need to be “engaged” personally almost on a daily basis, while others need a weekly written status report, still others prefer that you satisfy a few numeric metrics on their dashboard, and so on. Getting this right would go a long way in ensuring that you successfully gather and redeem your brownie points
    2. Keep a personal list of accomplishments and “pat-on-the-back” notes/e-mails. Some managers need to be reminded that you have been having a successful career (unless it is on an official performance review form, such reminders need to be subtle- a single sentence over coffee or as part of a related conversation)

Rule 4: Develop some good old fashioned discipline and planning skills. One of the biggest reasons people end up living at their desks is lack of proper planning. Or laziness, which manifests itself as lack of planning. It is bad enough if you carry forward unfinished tasks into the next day, but it is much worse if you don’t even know that you are doing this, or if you are attending to minnows while there are sharks out there. My solutions has been simple- lists. Prioritized temporal lists. You may write your things-go-do in your notebook, whiteboard or use tools like MS Outlook- they all work equally well as long as they satisfy a few basic criteria:
    1. The list must be comprehensive, and dynamic. You may add or remove items from it all day long, but it should be as complete and up-to-date as possible
    2. The list must have a date/time component. It is almost never enough to say “I’ll do X”. It is useful only when you say “I’ll do X by Y time”
    3. The list items must be assigned priorities- at least mark high priority ones, if bucketing everything into high, medium and low is deemed unnecessary
    4. Begin today’s list by first reviewing unfinished items from yesterday’s list. Mark them as carry-forwards so you can knock them off at the earliest while still not confusing them with high priority tasks
Rule 5: This rule has the maximum impact on your work life balance, but is last because you can’t do this without first getting the other four rules right. It is called “expectation management”, and is an extension of rules 1 and 3. I can’t give you concrete guidance here, because the details are heavily dependent on your organization and your particular situation. At a high level, the following need to be considered:
    1. As a young professional, you start stay until late to please your bosses and also because you don’t have anything better to do at home. Quickly, clients and managers expect to find you working at such odd hours. This goes fine for a while, until you get into a relationship, or are married, or have kids. Sounds familiar? You shouldn’t set such expectations to start with. Make sure you have a predictable schedule, even if you work in a flexitime environment
    2. Share your work slate with your manager. This might be a spreadsheet with tasks/projects or a project management system you use in-house. It is important that your tasks and schedules are clearly articulated and communicated with managers and clients, or they assume you can do it all today
    3. Learn to say “No”. Even to your managers, and clients. It is natural in professional environments for people to give you as much as you can handle. And it is up to you to tell them when to stop, or ask for further support (say, an additional resource under your supervision). Another successful trick is to ask “what gives?”. If you are insisted on taking on something, you could say, “Sure. But, what can slip or be put on the back burner or given to someone else?”

For Managers:
Remember that a worn out and sleep deprived team is useless. As a manager, your are responsible for the work as well as for the workers. You are responsible for creating a culture of harmony, trust and happiness, rather than stress, sceptism and sorrow. Five simple rules to bear in mind:

Rule1: Ensure there is clarity and adequate coverage of roles in a given team or project. For example, not having enough management oversight in a project teams makes the team miss the big picture as everybody focuses on the fine grains. As another example, take a project team that doesn’t have a Business Analyst, or the BA is competent enough. It ends up with one of the team members (almost always the brightest, most valuable one) donning the additional role. Now, that person is doing more than one man’s job at the cost of his personal life. In the long run, the person would feel frustrated- some get there in two weeks while others get there in two years but they end up in frustration nevertheless. Make sure that the roles are properly covered, and that nobody is stretched too much for too long.

Rule 2: Avoid hero-culture, which is a sure-shot sign of an immature management. Fire fighters are seen as adding more value than fire preventers. Result? Politically savvy people sometimes start fires just so that they can put them off, while their managers watch them in awe and applause. Inevitably, this means taking on more pressure and long hours as a habit. When others see these guys being “liked”, they try to emulate them with a result that whole teams stay late and focus on putting off fires instead of looking at productivity and preventing fires. Attaching one’s success to that of the surrounding people is important. It is also very difficult, but worth every effort. Even getting the message across that you value team work more than individual heroics goes a long way.

Rule 3: Keep things simple. Do you really need that 200 page requirement specification, or a shorter/simpler version be more useful? What is the value of a weekly report that takes half a day to prepare, but is not really read? Can it be made every two weeks or every month, instead? Do you really need that weekly meeting, with every soul in the team present? Or can just a couple of folks meet up? Make sure that you perform a quick cost-value analysis in your head and cut anything that doesn’t justify itself. Eliminating unnecessary items from people’s work slate is sure to win you accolades as a manager but also free up valuable time to be focused on real work. Specially, watch out for paper work and meetings as they tend to account for a lot of unproductive time and effort.

Rule 4: Design a simple and easy-to-follow process framework, and stick to it. Every single team I saw in my experience that worked without clear processes and role clarity ended up with over-worked, under-motivated people. However, remember Rule 3 that these processes should be simple and just right. Focus on value adds like clarity, communication, flexibility, reusability and redundancy in your processes. You shouldn’t require people to do something that doesn’t add material value. Because value parameters change with projects/time/situations, processes need to have a certain degree of flexibility designed into them. Make them too rigid, and you will find someone filling out a long audit form for a task that isn’t even on the auditors’ radar.

Rule 5: Properly manage expectations across the board. As a manager, this is one of your primary job responsibilities so do it well. Don’t over-promise to the clients, except on a rare justifiable occasion. Don’t overload the team, unless there is a short-term and strong business reason. And avoid surprises like plague. This last point is very important and it tests your prowess as a planner, coordinator and communicator. Did your team member know enough in advance that there is a late night meeting with a key stakeholder? How many people slogging in the middle of the night know that this is short term, and unavoidable? Does the client know enough in advance that a particular deliverable would be delayed?

I have noticed that the more high value an industry, the more high pressure it turns out to be. Keeping one’s life in balance in this environment is not easy. It requires tremendous powers of focus, motivation, communication and assertion. Trying to juggle your personal life with your work cannot come across as a compromise on work ethics or dedication. It is therefore a very fine balance and it takes concerted efforts and experience to get it right. I have myself been guilty of violating many of the above rules, but I have also learnt from experience and actively strive to stick by them.