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.