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Tag: Musings

The Expectation Test

I got a phone lying down on road. Since I could not unlock the phone, I waited for the owner of the device to call. A couple of hours later he did call and in his opening sentence started pleading to return it. Even though he was the rightful owner of the phone, he expected me to never return it to him.

I was stuck in a traffic jam caused due to BWSSB(Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board) closing a section of the road to fix a sewer. This was on an afternoon on a main road in Bangalore and no wonder, there was a traffic pile up for close to 3 kilometers. I cursed myself for taking that road instead of some other alternate route. I did mentally spew venom at the people digging the road, but it never occurred to me to hold the authorities accountable for this and expecting better from them.

The curious case in both the incidents is the expectation. Even though the right thing to do when you find something that is not yours is to return it to the owner, people nowadays expect that not to happen. It is the responsibility of the government to execute tasks in such a manner that it causes least annoyance to the citizens but we no longer expect that from our administration. If things do happen the right way, we are mesmerised and think of ourselves as lucky, it does not occur to us that this is how it should be. This is not a good sign because when expectations hit rock bottom, it becomes the norm and from there on, it is a vicious downward spiral.

The same is true for organizations as well. Holding people to higher expectations and making them accountable is the key to success. If in an organization you are happy that your team members are not taking impromptu leaves, there is something really rotten. There is nothing stupendous about people not taking unplanned leaves, this should be the norm and if someone following the norm is an aberration in your organization, it is a warning sign that there is something deeply wrong which needs immediate fixing.

One of the tests for any organization to see whether it is on the path to greatness would be the expectation test. Mentally go through your expectations from employees/company and see whether these are really higher expectations or something that should have been the norm. If these are expectations that breach the bar, well and good, if not, do a reality check and fix them.

At what cost?

I happened to read the comic by zenpencil on Jim Henson yesterday while reminiscing on the comic by the same artist on Bill Waterson’s advice. Both the comics have the same essence of escaping corporate drudgery and following your dreams. Also yesterday, I watched Inside Llewyn Davis. Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholic movie that depicts the daily struggles of a musician who has given up his job as a seaman to become a musician. Serendipitous right?

Most of the time, I get a feeling of disenchantment from people about their occupation. To put it bluntly, it is fashionable to be cynical about one’s job and complain about it. A lot of people feel that they want to do something different but most of them do not know what is this different path they want to take. And to fuel this fire, you have hundreds of books and blog posts which extol you to give up your job and follow your passion.

You go on a scuba diving holiday and all of a sudden you want to be a professional scuba diver. You do a couple of hikes and a la, you aspire to be a travel writer. You have started to cycle to office and you have this strong urge to start a bicycle touring company. You purchased this new DSLR and now your single aim in life is to be a wildlife photographer. An article about a so and so who gave up his cushy corporate job to start a local bike store or became a wildlife photographer reinforces these thoughts.

Even though these thoughts are romantic and warm the cockles of our heart, the reality is a bit different. When a hobby becomes a job, the fun aspect of the hobby goes out of the window and the boring part kicks in. When you do something repetitively, the novelty wears off. Some paragraphs from this article on becoming a travel writer:

But while free trips, global travel and your name in print sound glamorous, there are down sides. It’s hard work, hugely competitive and – unless you are the second Bryson – you won’t earn much. Roving overseas with a notebook, a deadline and a pack of other journalists can also take the fun out of travelling altogether. Not put off? Read on to find out how you can get this dream job.

Below is a paragraph from an article by a scuba diving instructor:

The job duties of an instructor aren’t what most newcomers expect, either. And to many it comes as a sad surprise. The reality of being an instructor at least full-time is that teaching is only a small portion of what you’ll do. Mainland-based instructors often work 40 hours a week at a dive store counseling customers or repairing equipment, then teach one or two classes a week on top of that. That means 60-hour weeks are commonplace. Think it’s easier at a resort? The norm for resort-based instructors is six days a week, and during busy periods seven days isn’t uncommon. Here, too, teaching is only a minor part of the job, but an instructor ticket is essential, if for no other reason than to get a permit to work in a foreign country. Many have left the industry disappointed that their dream of spending their days primarily as teachers never materialized.

And to top it all, you have to read this from a person who started his own micro brewery.

A lot of times, we misunderstand novelty for passion. You have a sedentary desk job and travelling once in a while looks like life’s calling, but the question to ask is, would it still be your life’s calling if you had to do it 24 by 7 while earning a substantially lower income? Would you not be more happy earning a good salary, enjoying the material comforts that your day to day job provides and travelling once in a while to break the routine?

In most of these offshoot jobs, the number of slots where you can be comfortable with the income is limited and the aspirants for these slots are unlimited. Also, in a majority of these, you have to be at the pinnacle to earn really well. We all love to think that if we are talented, success naturally follows, but I call this specious. There is more to success than just talent, success is mostly a factor of being in the right place at the right time and luck, not to say that talent and other factors do not help, but it is for sure not only talent. Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman expounds a bit on this.

The melancholy that sets in with a day to day job is our own making. If you are really interested in spicing up your work, there are innumerable ways to do it, it is just that effecting change is boring while cribbing about it is romantic.

Poor cannot eat roads

Rahul Gandhi allegedly made this statement. It is sad that an armchair, untrained economist like me understands the significance of good roads while someone who is poised to lead India does not. Check out this vice documentary on truckers in West Africa to get the connection between roads and economy. Jim Rogers, author of the excellent book Investment Biker also alludes to how Africa is rendered poor due to bad road connectivity. In spite of so much evidence suggesting good road connectivity being essential for a healthy vibrant economy, Rahul Gandhi makes this asinine statement and our so called independent media is busy discussing his dimples and his charm working up pubescent teenage girls.

A road is something that transcends socio economic, caste and religious boundaries. A road does not discriminate between a rich man driving his BMW or a poor milk seller riding his bicycle or a pandit riding his Luna or a moulvi riding his scooter. I do not for a second doubt the ingenuity of our so called secular politicians to come up with statement on the lines of Minorities have the first right to our roads, but until that happens, for all purposes, we can take rest in the fact that a road is a great unifier. 

How do good roads benefit the poor? Good connectivity makes the transportation of goods efficient there by negating the cost that would be introduced due to transportation inefficiencies. This is an indirect benefit that is enjoyed by everyone not just the poor, but let us take a specific case of how good roads will make the life of a poor auto driver better. If an auto driver drives his auto on pot holed roads all day long, imagine the toll it takes on his auto. This will directly reflect in the efficiency of the auto as well as the money he has to spend on maintenance, not to mention the umpteenth lost opportunity to make more money by ferrying more customers due to the reduced travel time. All in all, an auto driver has to gain a lot with smooth roads. Instead of working on these, our government is hell bent on extending the economic black hole of NREGA to urban poor and our media is a silent spectator to this theater of absurd.

 

Moving up the value chain

In the gym that I go to, there is a guy whose job is to sanitize(spray, clean, rub etc) the equipment after each person uses them. I always pity him and think how boring his job is. How can this person move up the value chain?

The other day, people at the gym were opening up the machines and lubricating and tuning them. This guy was taking a keen interest in the job and helping them out. This sparked a wave of thoughts in my mind where I put myself in his shoes and thought how I could move up the value chain if I were him. I would learn how to tune and lubricate these machines properly. If the norm is to do this activity once a month, I would volunteer to do this every week. Everyone wins, the machines are smoother to be used by the members on a regular basis and I get a good opportunity to hone by skills. Once I am adept at doing this, I would go to the other gyms and offer my services to them. There are a lot many gyms in Indiranagar that I know of and probably some more that I do not know of. I am sure all these people are looking for someone who knows his way around the equipment because such people are usually scarce these days. Once I have a good number of gyms under my belt, I would probably bring more people from my native village and teach them the job so that I can build a team and expand my operations throughout Bangalore. In this way, I am not only bettering my life, but also providing employment opportunities to the people of my village. Once I have Bangalore under my belt, you know the drift, expand more etc.

This is a very hypothetical scenario, but a belief that I very much hold on to, if you try hard enough, there is always a way to move up the value chain.

Suckers for simplicity

Let me lay it out straight in the beginning, we Indians are big time suckers for simplicity in others. It is not that we ourselves aspire to be simple but attribute unnecessary importance to it in others. Just that virtue is enough for us to weave magical stories around a person and see him as a messiah who will emancipate us from all evils. In this child like wide eyed innocent chase of simplicity, we forget the qualities that are really necessary to do someone’s job.

Case in point, Arvind Kejriwal and AAP. Folklores were weaved around AK’s simplicity and his party’s candidates, on a daily basis we were bombarded with their spartan lifestyle stories. How come it occurred to no one to ask the questions that really mattered? Is being a simpleton really enough to be an effective administrator? How well did these people perform in their previous jobs? What extraordinary achievements did they unlock in their past endeavors? Do they have the skills to govern and deliver? Instead of asking these pertinent questions we were wallowing in their hallowed simplicity.

A simpleton(aam admi) should not try to be a leader. Leadership is not for the faint hearted, it is a game of thrones. A leader is someone who tries to move a collective group of people towards a single goal and when there is a group of people there will always be mismatches, heart burns and politics. An effective leader should know how to deal with this and make the right calls most of the time, an aam admi is not suited for this role. If someone plays this role well, he is not an aam admi because not everyone is born a leader nor has the leadership skills.

Yes, leading a simplistic lifestyle trumps a hedonistic one governed by avarice any day but put the full stop there, it does not translate into one being an able administrator or being at the top of one’s job. I would any day prefer a Ferrari driving, Armani wearing, Gucci slipping chief minister who has a vision and track record than a slipper wearing one who has absolutely no idea how to govern and deliver.

Government regulation of muliplexes

Recently I read in the newspaper that Karnataka government is planning to regulate multiplex movie ticket prices. This sounds like sweet music to ears right? Why would someone not be happy to pay a lower price for anything?

I feel this move smacks of licence raj. First of all, government has absolutely no role in regulating non essential private businesses over what/how much they charge. This throttles innovation and hinders entrepreneurship. Government should foster free market rather than be the antithesis of it. If the general public decide that movie ticket prices are exorbitant, either they will stop watching movies at multiplexes or some enterprising chap will come up with a plan to provide them this service at a sweet price point. By introducing artificial constraints, government is strangling the entrepreneurial spirit and hurling us back to the hey days of socialism where having a phone connection was considered a privilege. More the constraints in a market, lesser the participants, fewer innovations, lesser economic activity, fewer jobs and capital movement.

Secondly, does it look like our government has less tasks on it’s plate that it wants to add one more, trivial, non impacting regulation to it’s todo list? What do you think is more important, providing basic education, health and security to it’s people or investing time and energy in regulating ticket prices in multiplexes? Would not the government be more wise in exerting it’s authority on bettering our public health system or libraries?

As soon as government starts meddling in the affairs of a private business, it is not those who excel at innovation that triumph but people who kick ass in playing politics and boot licking. With all it’s flaws, a free market economy trumps a regulated one any day.

AAP, an Indian e-com startup

There have been multitude of blog posts/tweets comparing AAP to a startup. I am not sure about the comparison in general but there are eerie similarities between AAP and the Indian e-commerce(e-com) startups of the yesteryear.

1. A lot of Indian e-com startups where founded by IITians and just this IIT tag was used by them to secure irrational funding. AAP supporters do not shy away from touting Arvind Kejriwal(Ak)’s IIT credential.

2. Majority of Indian e-com startups secured funding from foreign VCs. Recently, there have been allegations that this was a way for foreign players to gain foothold in the Indian retail scene which was insulated from FDI. AK is alleged to have got financial boost from Ford Foundation. Questions have been raised by rival political parties around this.

3. Indian e-com stood on the shoulders of urban middle class for it’s growth. AAP’s core supporters tend to be from this demography.

4. There have been claims of Indian e-com founders raking in exorbitant salaries/benefits. AAP’s SUV cavalcade bears some resemblance.

5. Indian e-com was the darling child of everyone a few years back. As of today, AAP is the poster child of Indian/international media.

6. People who called the bluff on Indian e-com a few years back were ridiculed. The same treatment is meted out today to anyone who does not believe that AK is the second coming of Jesus Christ.

7. There have been some nasty internal feuds in Indian e-com and AAP is not left behind in this.

8. The most poignant of all, Indian e-com propelled itself with freebies(free delivery, discounts, selling below MRP, buy today pay later, etc etc). AAP rode to power with free/low priced electricity and water(There might be more freebies, I have not read their manifesto).

Indian e-com companies which defied the basic laws of economics have been either forced to shutdown or secure more rounds of funding or to course correct their former splurging ways. In the case of AAP, it is the tax paying, law abiding citizen who will have to bear the burnt of their irrational populism. Indian e-com made a fool out of it’s investors, AAP is making a fool out of the gullible Indian citizens.

What can one person do?

Someone posted a mail to a mailing list that I am part of asking us to enroll in the electoral list and vote for Narendra Modi. As expected, there were a deluge of “I am smart ass” replies like “What can one person do”, “I voted in the last election, but what has changed” etc.

Our mass media and intelligentsia has subjugated us to state of stasis from which it is difficult to come out of. On a daily basis, we are bombarded with news that proclaim our politicians are useless, our government is useless, there is no hope, etc. Even if a politician does something good once in a while, the media tries it’s best to highlight what is wrong with it rather than praising that person. This has caused a state of apathy among the educated class which does not vote and hence cannot influence any policy making process. Due to this, policy making process has been hijacked by incoherent small term vision which hurts the country. The poor people who vote for these policies are not educated enough to figure out that the short term gains they see in the special statutes crafted for them will hurt them in the long run.

Once in a while a politician comes along who has an impressive track record of able and clean administration in his state, who has embraced technology to better the livelihood of his people, who has made sure that every corner of his state has electric power, good roads; who talks of a vision of India based on ideas and not rhetoric and still we sing the same old tune of “what can this guy do”?

Majority of the educated class want a quick fix to everything, they want a revolution which warms the cockles of their heart rather than slow credible methodical improvements, hence they lean towards anarchist movements like Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal etc. One poignant observation is that poor people are usually filled with hope about change, improvements, making the country a better place etc while the educated well to do just eloquently preach that nothing is going to change no matter what. Why does this happen? A lot of people of the present yuppie generation who are the most vocal have never experienced poverty first hand. Soon out of college they landed in plush high paying jobs, had all the material comforts that their parents had to work their asses off for 25 years in a year, never had to stand in line at public taps to fill water at 4 in the morning, never had to skip a bus stand and move to the next one to save few paisas. The poor of the country still do that and when once in a while a person comes along who has vision for the country, they latch on to him, while the rich educated are apathetic to the cause and continue to romanticise poverty in their own small make believe world.

Sure, even if Narendra Modi comes to power which in itself is a big “IF”, nothing is going to change dramatically overnight. It is next to impossible to change something that is rotten at the core in a short period of time but the confident demeanor and able administration of a strong leader trickles down to the bottom, you can only be as good as your boss lets you to be. Energy and enthusiasm of such leaders is infectious, it gives you hope and when you have an army of hopeful motivated young people, future looks bright.

Be Vocal

Fresh out of college, in my first company GXS, after our training, me and another guy were put into a legacy maintenance project. It was atrociously boring. A couple of weeks into it, I told my colleague that I am going to talk to the manager regarding this.  It was a pretty bold step going by the fact that it was my first job, I was very new to the software industry. I talked to my immediate team lead who was in charge of the project regarding my decision and he was very supportive of it. I talked to my manager and and in a few weeks I was in a new team doing exciting work. That one move shaped my whole career, if I had just accepted the status quo and stayed put, I do not know whether I would be doing all the cool things I am doing today. What I am trying to convey is that, if you are not happy about something, talk to people. Usually, higher ups understand the problem and are ready to help you. But, when you do something like this, do it with decorum. Do not try to do things hideously. I first talked to my immediate team lead and only after appraising him of my decision, I talked to my manager.  I did not break the chain of command.

In any situation, being vocal about something has always helped me. For example, recently, when Pavi and me were in Thailand, we had booked our room in Phuket city while the happening night life was in Patong, which is an hour’s ride from the city. We try to use as much public transportation as possible in our sojourns, but our hotel manager informed us that we would not get a ride back from Patong to city in the night. The last bus was at around 7 in the evening. We would have to pay at least 600 to 700 Baht for a ride back. To give an idea, the bus ticket was 20 Baht. This was reaffirmed by the fare board put by Thai tourism in Patong beach, the same fare was listed to the city during night. Even, the Indian restaurant manager where we had our dinner confirmed this. After having shit loads of fun in Patong, it was time to go back. We tried a couple of tuk tuks and all were quoting the same price of 600 to 700 Baht but that did not stop us from trying and talking with the tuk tuk drivers for a lesser price. Finally, one tuk tuk guy agreed to take us back for 300 Baht and that driver became our friend too. On the next day too we took his tuk tuk back to city and tipped him generously on our last ride back.  If we had just accepted what others said and did not try to talk the price down, we would have been poorer by around 600 Baht in two days. Also, as a silver lining, we made a good friend and had a lovely conversation with the driver on our rides back.

I am not saying it always works, there are many instances in my life where being vocal did not bear any fruits. For example, in Zynga, I put very bluntly in my appraisal form that I was not very happy with the quality of work I was doing. I expected the HR to talk to me regarding this, but that did not happen. Even though, when I appraised them of my decision to move to FreeCharge, Zynga tried to talk me into moving to a team where I wanted to work, but it was too late by then, but still, being vocal did not achieve it’s goal here. But what the heck, I did not loose anything. I had the personal satisfaction of having tried my best, but somehow it did not work out. Now that I am responsible for FreeCharge, I encourage my team members to be vocal about their problems and talk to me in case of any issues however small it might look.

The bottom line is, if you see something is not right or you are not happy in a situation, talk to people, usually it works for the better, even if it does not, no pandas will be killed during the process :).

Work from home

Recently, there has been a brouhaha in the tech community over Mairssa Mayer’s views on work from home. As an individual tech worker, it is very appealing to side with work from home and going by the reactions in the community, I would say that I am not in the least surprised. But, when you look at it from a company’s perspective, things change, it is no longer as black and white as the tech community makes it look like. There are a lot of nuances to work from home which predictably makes it difficult for large organizations to effectively adopt it.

As someone who has worked from home for a good one and half years and also now being responsible for FreeCharge, I can objectively look at this from both sides. Let me first talk about my personal experience while working from home. I used to love it, the biggest factor that used to work for me was the time saved on commute, the gained one hour in a day used to do wonders for me. Whenever I used to tell my friends that I work from home, I used to get the usual question, how do you manage to do it? I am not someone who needs motivation to work, I would be writing code even if no one paid me for it, pay is the icing on the cake. I love building stuff, accruing knowledge and bringing things to life and my profession as a software engineer lets me do all these. Without digressing, what I am trying to convey here is that, to work from home, you need to be highly self motivated. If you are in your job only for the pay check, then work from home will result in anarchy at your company. The usual reaction in big organizations when someone sends the WFH(work from home) mail is a snigger.

Even though everyone in your organization might be supremely dedicated, there are two more prerequisites that are essential to making work from home successful in your organization. The first question that you have to ask is, are all my employees roughly on the same productivity and experience plane? Junior developers need a lot of mentoring and collaboration to create quality software irrespective of how motivated they might be. It is a herculean task to bring this sort of collaboration and guidance when the guru and acolyte are not physically present in the same location.

The seconds question is, is the entire team remote or is it only a small minority? If you are in a situation where only a sparse population of the team works from home, then again it is going be difficult to pull this off. What usually happens in such a situation is fences are created, on one side, you have the remote workers and on the other, you have the office goers. Whey you have this asymmetry, information flow is one of the biggest concerns, as people who work in office find it easy to proliferate information through word of mouth and this does not reach the employees who work from home. In such a situation you have to engineer a cultural shift in the way people communicate and document in your organisation. It is difficult to engender this as those who are physically present in the office do not see a point in many of the processes that you will have to accommodate to benefit the remote workers and as you know, when people do not believe in something, it is next to impossible to get them to do it.

The above are difficult to pull off in an organization of the size of yahoo!, so, no wonder, while it works for 37Signals, it does not work for yahoo!,  Mayer took the most sensible way out. When do you make special provisions in your organization to let people work from home? I would say that it would be only on super critical projects where a person/team is working in a silo, detached from the rest of the organization and you are one hundred percent sure that this team/individual would not abuse the freedom that comes with work from home.