Spreadsheet slaying is futile in enterprises


It would not be the first time that a friendly banter with my pal Dennis Howlett leads me to post a blog. This time it is about spreadsheets . I have a (not so) slightly difference of opinion with Den on the topic of use of spreadsheets in enterprises . The short version is Den thinks spreadsheets are evil, and I don’t :) OK that is dramatizing it a bit…but here is my (strictly personal) defense of spreadsheets for whatever little it is worth

1. If past performance is indicative, spreadsheets will thrive

Spreadsheets provided continuity for business users from early 80s till now. In this time frame, a lot of BI and EPM tools came and went away. Lotus 123 faded out, but its users just moved on to MS Excel . I don’t see this changing in near future either. Today there are more BI and EPM tools than ever before – and all the more reason for FP&A types to hold excel near to their chest to resist change.

2. BI and EPM companies use excel internally – a lot !

I know – I have worked in some of those companies, and partnered closely with others. They all use excel for BI and EPM alongside their own tools. They all market their wares as “excel killers” when it suits them – but can’t seem to convince their own planners and analysts to let go of excel.

The smart vendors all integrate excel into their products. Despite marketing hype they create, they all know that the product management rationale is solid that excel won’t go away, and recreating excel functionality elsewhere is not a good use of resources.

3. Analysts and Executives use Excel all the time too !

Not naming names – but every analyst I know who cover BI and EPM have excel on their laptops, and have an assortment of files with complex versioning schemes via naming conventions. The more modern ones use google docs instead of excel – but that is not exactly too different.

Similarly I have often seen data loaded in spreadsheets used by vendor executives in their demos . They just don’t say the backend is excel ! I am not saying this is what everyone does – just that I have seen it multiple times. I don’t blame the execs either – rarely do they know what happens behind the scenes of the demos they have on their iPads :)

What is the most common data source used by the new generation BI tools ? Excel ! People dump data from other systems to excel , add formulas etc, and put a nice visualization on top via the slick BI tool. Just that they don’t talk about excel in the scenario explicitly.

4. Convenience trumps functionality almost always – except for legal reasons.

World changes faster than BI and EPM tools can keep up with. The ability to change formulas on the fly and and rows and columns means that analysts can keep up with the changing world without waiting for the tool vendors to catchup. The only time they stick with tools 100% is if there are legal reasons to do so – like final copies of financial documents that need to be kept in a proper system of record.

I know top reference customers of pretty much every EPM vendor I know of that do plenty of work offline in excel and just upload the final copy to the tool for safe keeping. Or, they will do high level planning in the tool and then do finer details in excel. For example – they might allocate expenses to the head of a department and then let her manage it offline as long as she does not shoot over budget. How does she do it ? she uses excel !.

Den asked me if enterprises will use manual invoice processing if they have ERP. I have implemented SAP in a lot of Fortune 500 customers – and every single one of them have had a mass upload of invoices from excel !

5. Licenses, maintenance and training favors excel 

Even if someone creates a magic tool that does everything – it is still hard to beat excel . Why ? because excel is a general purpose tool needs very little additional training , and it does not need constant network uptime for usage across the company.  The incremental cost of keeping it running over time may not “appear” to be that high. True cost might be high – but as with everything else in enterprise land – perception is reality.

6. Does that mean all is good with excel and you should not use EPM and BI tools ?

No – Excel can, and does, cause grief in a lot of companies every year. A cursory internet search will provide you several horror stories. What the internet won’t tell you is that vast majority of the time, spreadsheets are a life saver in enterprises. But then, good news has no value in press . If my house gets water damage just once in 30 years , would anyone write an article called “House has not had single issue with water damage in 29 years and 11 months” ?

The goodness of spreadsheet is only apparent by first hand observation of its users. This is the same kind of shit that happens with ERP too . How many “ERP is dead” articles have we read ? And how many companies actually took out their ERP ?

When you see customers who say “we have displaced excel” , at best it means one department for one use case has been using a new tool instead of excel . What would be great to know is if there are entire companies who have completely gotten rid of spreadsheets as a BI, EPM and ETL tool. I have not seen any in the nearly twenty years I have spent in this field.

The smart thing in my opinion is to find the best co-existence strategy for excel and all the other tools. Spreadsheets are invaluable when used reasonably – please just don’t paint it evil with broad strokes.

That is it . Defense rests, your honor !

 

Thoughts on international Yoga day


India has contributed a lot to the civilized world – and Yoga is definitely in “top 10″ category . In a world where everyone seems to be stressed out , celebrating a day in honor of the ancient practice of yoga makes a lot of sense to me . Plus – it is a huge honor for India. 

I am not a practitioner of yoga – but my mom, my father in law and several others in my extended family , as well as several friends and colleagues are yoga practitioners . I would resist the temptation to call them yogis , given I grew up listening to tales of yogis who have moved on to a different plane of mind . These folks I know – to the extend I know – are kind of early in that journey , and do it today mostly in lieu of daily exercise . I definitely am planning to start learning yoga asap. 

I saw some folks resisting international yoga day by attaching religious reasons for that . This makes very little sense to me, who grew up celebrating Christmas and Eid just as much as Onam and Vishu . For those folks – I hope they are tolerant enough to view it as a way to honor their country and a good way to get some exercise . Diseases of body and mind don’t descriminate between Hindu and Muslim . 

It would be naive to think there is no religious aspect to BJP government pushing for yoga day . There are many hardliners in the ruling party who think India is for Hindus , and they may look at yoga as a Hindu tradition . But that is misguided . It’s hard to correct these people – so let them be .

That is all the good stuff . Now about some things that bother me about yoga day . 

Amongst the most pressing problems that need attention , yoga is not a top ten item for India . A good number of people cannot eat three meals a day in this country . Similarly the health care situation is pretty pathetic for a large section of society . Those are all things that need a lot of time and resources to fix . A hungry man would choose food over yoga every day of the week , how much ever it is advertised . 

Then there is the issue of pollution . Between the increase in number of cars , the felling of trees , the number of houses and offices that use air conditioning and so on – air pollution is significant in pretty much every big city in India . Practioners of yoga – especially those that do it outdoors – are going to deeply inhale highly polluted air . I have to wonder if there is any point to this exercise , including the spectacle of Guinness record winning crowd in Delhi doing it in public . 

Talking of pollution – water and food are also subjected to poisonous stuff to a great degree . In the last three weeks here on vacation , I saw three separate programs on local TV showing heavy use of chemicals on fruits and vegetables . Several people I know are now growing their own vegetables because they can’t trust the stuff they buy in open markets . What exactly is the point of doing yoga and then eating and drinking such polluted food and water ?

Hopefully there will be great planning and execution by the government to make India holistically healthy , and that this yoga day is just a good first step .

Open source Hana – some random thoughts 


Dennis Howlett penned his thoughts on open sourcing SAP Hana http://diginomica.com/2015/06/17/should-sap-open-source-hana/ that  led to a fairly good debate on Facebook , and I thought I will share some thoughts on the topic here on my blog

Hana is a great piece of software which is a full fledged database , and have some lightweight app server capabilities . While it could very well be a general purpose database – historically it’s been used mostly under SAP business suite and business warehouse , and some data mart type use cases . It’s a well crafted piece of software and of course I am a bit partial to it . So what about open sourcing it ? 

I was a big proponent of open sourcing Hana when it first came out . I no longer think it is a great idea . Here are six random reasons why 

1. By now , there are way too many open source databases optimized for many different things . No first mover advantage remains for sap 

2. These open source databases all have large community following . SAP has a very large (larger than most open source databases) and loyal community who need to be nurtured on to Hana . That is a much more pragmatic approach than getting say Hadoop developers to switch to Hana 

3. Hana is rather limited on drivers . If widespread adoption by community is needed , SAP will need to support drivers for many languages on Hana . I don’t see the need for that investment given the heavy focus on S4Hana for near future . River was not the right approach in my opinion – that is not how real life developers build apps . That is an academic view of the world . 

4. Developers need software they can play with quickly and decide if their use case is a good fit . The trial needs to be quick to install , learn and tweak . People are happy to pay for support and enterprise grade features . Don’t confuse between open source licensing and open source business model . SAP can keep Hana commercial and just focus on making Hana extremely developer friendly for unlimited trials to get to the same results

5. What is really different between an open source database company that employs all (or most) of its commiters and SAP ? In both cases the company controls product direction – with of course some input from company . This is not a valid reason for SAP to open source Hana in my opinion . Of course not all open source companies employ all their commiters – but many successful ones do exactly that . Essentially that negates the argument that no one has all answers to a problem . The better solution is in vendors working together to make interoperability work better – consistentcy in driver support , security , provisioning , HA/DR etc 

6. Hana is not the only game for SAP. For SAP business model – till cloud can pick up significantly in net new business , it makes more sense to have Hana as high ASP , lower volume as sales model . That is the opposite of typical open source subscription model by other database vendors . SAP already sells Hana as a subscription I think – but doing it at scale , at a comparable price point to say MongoDB , Cassandra etc is just too disruptive in my mind . They might get there at some point – and to do a subscription business , software doesn’t need to be open source licensed necessarily .

Incredibly Beautiful India


Over the last couple of weeks of vacation , I have made two fairly long road trips across South India. First I drove with my friend from Bangalore to Ooty and back . Next I drove with my family from Trivandrum to Rameswaram and back . 

The first thing I noticed was the quality of roads – they are quite good . Gone are the potholes I remember from childhood . There are long stretches of good quality highways which are well maintained . This is one area where Kerala could do a lot better .  The slowest stretch on my way back to Trivandrum was from Kerala border to my home in Vellayambalam . That is rather embarrassing . Most stretches were toll roads – and that is one thing Kerala could do better . It is high time to let go of the resistance to toll roads and couple it with a strong will to hold the toll collectors responsible for quality of roads .

The shade of blue that colors Bay of Bengal at Rameswaram was the most beautiful I have ever seen an ocean . And the drive back through coconut groves , organic salt farms , mountains with thousands of wind mills and so on was breath taking .

   
   

  
The two things that need attention along the scenic route are food and bathrooms . Actually the food is pretty tasty – there just aren’t enough signs on the road to direct you to the restaurants on the service roads . Bathrooms need urgent attention – there just aren’t enough of them along the highway and most are not kept clean . It’s high time we fixed that .

I was also pretty amazed that google maps proved to be totally accurate on these roads . They estimated time to drive almost to the minute and many a time , saved us from taking wrong turns . But I should add that big signs along the highway are a must have in these national highways . Highway signs are smaller than the street signs in most of western world today .

The trip to Ooty was the first time I stayed in Masinagudi , in the thick Neelgiris forests bordering Karnataka , Tamilnadu and Kerala . 

  
This land is home to 7000 wild elephants , as well as large populations of Tigers ,leopards etc.  I spotted maybe 500 deer , and a few wild boars . No elephants or leopards were sighted unfortunately despite hearing the warning cries from langurs early in the morning indicating that big cats are nearby. 

  
This picture was taken from a watch tower in our forest lodge . The bamboo trees form a thick canopy over trails that the tribals take to cross the forest . My friend warned me that it is also the place where lone tuskers take the most lives .

     

The lodge had two beautiful dogs – I suspect they are a mix of Great Danes and dogue de Bordeaux. They were quite friendly and partially filled the void of leaving my own three fur kids back in U.S. 

   

The road on Karnataka side of the forest is a lot wider and better maintained than the one on Tamil Nadu side . However , as I saw some idiots drive recklessly on the good roads , I started wondering whether it is such a good thing to make good roads in the forest .

I also saw a spectacular sight of four monkeys beautifully timing a jump through open windows of a moving car in front of us , and jumping back with a packet of cookies . It was even more funny to see the guy get out of car , chase the monkeys and take it back . I wonder if he actually ate those cookies after all

Ooty was great in terms of meeting old buddies and their beautiful dogs . 

   

  
The best part of driving to Ooty is negotiating the thirty six hair pin bends on the hills 

  
But it broke my heart to see tasteless construction making the sleepy old town a concrete jungle . I have been to Ooty several times – but this was the first time I remember sweating profusely there . It was hot – not the Ooty I knew growing up . I hope they rein in the development to responsible levels . Local government should also spend more attention to preserving historic buildings . It was sad to see the iconic old Spencer building near collapse . 
Just one foodie picture this time – in case you need one more reason to visit India . This is the traditional Kerala feast called Sadya , with thirty odd dishes spread across several courses . The fried “karimeen” is not part of traditional Sadya , but it’s my mom’s special dish :)

   
   

A day in TRIVANDRUM , the capital of god’s own country 


I was born and raised here – and lived here for 25 years before moving to US . I am in Trivandrum for a vacation – and loving every minute . This is the first time I have come on a vacation here without a laptop or tablet . And being unemployed , there are no work calls to attend to either . In short , it’s nothing but rest and relaxation – the type I haven’t had in as long as I remember .

The best way to start the day here is with a strong cup of coffee 

 
Today morning , I accompanied my mom to Palayam market to buy some vegetables , meat and fish . This is a place I have gone most weekends as a kid with her . The Connemara market was established by the King of Travancore about 200 years ago , and named after an erstwhile Governor of Madras Presidency. 

  
The market has not changed much in the last 40 years – except may be a couple of extra concrete structures where they sell fish now . It was fun to watch the vendors compete for my business – and the seller in me appreciated it a lot . 

  
The fish is caught daily and sold here . Prices are a lot higher than I remember from childhood . Inflation is alive and well . Just to compare – a pound of king fish is about $6 in Phoenix and it is $7 today in Trivandrum !

One thing I miss in U.S. Is the variety of bananas . There were at least 20 different kinds for me to choose from today . I just need the time to taste them all 

  

There was a butcher that my family has been buying mutton from for decades – from my grand father’s time . I was sad to hear the old man is no more , but the shop still carries his name . Of course I had to buy some . He slaughters 50 goats on a slow day apparently .

  

Chicken – well , you just choose the birds from a pen and pay . By the time you come back – they would have a packet ready for you, cut to spec . It doesn’t get any fresher than that – assuming you don’t get grossed out by seeing the process . As a kid I have slaughtered chicken many times , so this is not a problem for me . But I doubt my wife or daughter will eat the meat after seeing the process :)

 
On to veggies – it is a one stop shop . There isn’t a veritable you can’t find here . I was spoilt for choice . It was all organic when I lived here – but I am told that is not the case any more , and that there is heavy usage of pesticides . That was a bummer 

  

Palayam market interests me for another reason altogether . Facing the market is an ancient Ganapathi temple . I am not sure if there is another place in the world where this is true 

  

On one side of the temple is the oldest Mosque in Trivandrum , the Juma Masjid . It was built in the 1800s . 

  
On the opposite side of the road is the  beautiful St Joseph’s cathedral which is also from the 1800s , with its three bells imported from Belgium . Pope John Paul had conducted mass in this church when I was in high school . 

  
And sandwiched between the Mosque and the Church is the war memorial honoring the martyrs . Chandrasekaran Nair stadium seems all spruced up – I remember organizing the first Trivandrum kennel club dog show there , and watching India play Russia in soccer as a kid .

Despite vested interests trying their hardest to create a lack of trust between religions , Trivandrum has always lived in perfect harmony . Long may it continue .

On the way back, I passed by the old CSI church . Such a grand old building – probably older than the Palayam pally

  

It’s amazing that I never paused to enjoy the beauty of these buildings while I lived here . And now I can’t get enough of them . Definitely planning to venture out tomorrow and catch up the other parts of town . My resolve to spend my retirement in my hometown is all the more stronger today :)

Time to chill – with a mango milkshake , which amma made from fresh ripe mangos that a family friend sent over with a note that said “no pesticides” :)

  
It’s almost lunch time – wonder what my aunt is cooking for me .  More later – it’s a hard life :)  

Kerala has put the FUN in dysFUNctional engineering education . High time we fixed it


Kerala has 14 districts . It barely has any significant industry or agriculture any more. Outside IT and some government owned companies – there really isn’t much demand for engineers . Yet we have more than a hundred engineering colleges churning out thousands of engineering grads every year . How does this compute ?

I was born and raised in this system that put a premium on engineering education as a big accomplishment . My dad is an engineer too and the sole reason I chose mechanical engineering as my major was because my dad is a mechanical engineer . The big difference is that he is a really good engineer and I am terrible at mechanical engineering . For all intents and purposes – I should not have been a mechanical engineer . I should have studied computer science instead as that is where my talents were .  

 When my batch graduated – the top 5 students in my class got real mechanical engineering jobs . The rest of us struggled to find any job immediately . Some including me went and did our masters , some others found their calling in IT . Few others chose to start non engineering businesses . Only a few did anything relevant to engineering . And of those five top students – to the  best of my knowledge only one chose to remain in a pure engineering job . The other four moved to IT for better career prospects . 

That was in 1992 that I went to engineering college . 23 years later – nothing has changed . Plenty of mechanical engineers come out of colleges every year with supply exceeding demand by a factor of probably 100 or more . There is not any real counseling done to help students pick the right choices in college . Those that do counsel usually have no relevant experience themselves and hence lack credibility , even though their intentions are pure and noble.

It is high time supply and demand found an equilibrium in engineering education.

Quality and content of education needs a big revision – my dad and I learned more or less the same text books . The Automobile engineering I learned in college had no relation to the cars coming out into the market in the 90s. Sadly – that is still mostly the case in 2015 too . A good portion of engineering education is irrelevant or incomplete to be useful in actual work environments . I found it first hand in my first job when I could not read a complex engineering drawing of a machine quickly . Why ? Because the most complex drawing I ever did in college was of a piston or a valve . Students are not prepared for real life scenarios in engineering colleges – the onus is on first employers to teach them the basics . It is unbelievable that we send out engineers into the field without a formal apprenticeship . Will you go to a doctor who did not complete apprenticeship ?

Which brings me to teachers . When there are hundreds of new engineering colleges , how do you find teachers ? You essentially hire new college grads as teachers and let them teach subjects that they barely know themselves . It is a huge injustice to a few generations of engineering grads that they will get taught by incompetent and inexperienced teachers . Sure those teachers will gain experience over time – but the damage this practice created will not be undone for the students . Outside the top few colleges , I am not aware of teachers working closely with industry . So their chances of being exposed to latest developments and challenges in their field is minimal or non existent .

If vast majority of demand for engineers is in IT field , why can’t colleges have more IT options available ? Why continue to churn out mechanical and electrical engineers who then turn into programmers ? Why not just teach them what the market wants and needs ? By all means let’s have mechanical engineering seats available for kids who have the interest and aptitude for that . But please stop the factory model for engineering education for fields where demand is low.

There is an argument to be made that the rigor of engineering education prepares students to analyze problems better in later life . That is true and fair . However , there are other things that an engineer needs to succeed – like the ability to make a presentation , file a status report , run a team meeting , create a budget etc . Our engineering educations ignores this aspect completely and transfers the responsibility to employers to act as finishing schools . Innumerable career disasters have happened because colleges do not take care of anything more than theoretical aspects of pure engineering . 

While we learned how to use a lathe and milling machine , we never learned how to use a wrench or a screw driver to repair something . There is zero emphasis on maintenance in engineering education . And in real life , engineers spend most time in maintaining existing stuff than creating new stuff . Professors don’t know this or they don’t care – and probably because they rarely visit a real shop floor . 

It is time to hit the reset button . Incremental changes have happened and they are not sufficient to make Kerala competitive in the global economy . This needs serious disruptive thinking and execution . It needs people from several backgrounds to come together – ideally led by a combination of academics and industrial experts . Time is passing us by and if we don’t act now – it maybe too late to stop this man made disaster . Those of us who have been through the system and have seen its effects owe it to the next generation to help change the system .

Hello IBM, I am home !


Earlier today , I accepted IBM’s offer to join them as a VP & Partner in the Strategy and Business Analytics Group . My primary focus will be in helping IBM customers take their business to its next level using modern big data and analytics solutions . It is a technology agnostic role – which makes it very flexible to craft unique solutions and also makes it great fun . Maybe there is even an opportunity to partner with my old gang at MongoDB !

  
First I am off to India to visit my folks and have a nice vacation before starting at IBM . In many ways , joining IBM is like going home . For all intents and purposes – I “grew up” professionally in IBM . Almost everything I know about leadership , customer success, sales , high quality delivery  etc are all skills I picked up while at IBM . There is a lot more to learn and I am sure this second innings is going to give me an opportunity for exactly that . 

When I decided to leave MongoDB , I certainly knew that IBM would be one of the places I might find a job . I kept my options open and cast a rather wide net . I was talked out of opening a restaurant by some friends (both using data and emotions) . But that still left a bunch of questions on what size of a company , what role ( serious identity crisis having done a lot of different things at work in past ) , location and so on . It was downright confusing – and I took some of my own advice . I started calling my friends and mentors to talk this through . I can’t thank these folks enough for taking my countless calls . Some of them opened doors at places I otherwise wouldn’t have opened on my own  . They are truly my guardian angels .

Those of you that read my blog regularly know my less than gracious thoughts about the broken process of recruiting . Those thoughts are all the more amplified now in my mind . Suffice it to say – more than half the opportunities I stopped exploring happened so because of god awful recruiting processes . Eventually I shortlisted to five companies as potential employers . Four big companies and one startup . 

The recruitment process with IBM was super fast compared to what I expected . Every one from my hiring manager Jerry Kurtz to the GM of North America Lori Steele took the time to meet with me and answer my every question . It was also kind of fun that the executive recruiter Jennette was the technical recruiter a decade ago that originally recruited me into IBM . And last but not least – I owe a lot to my long time friend , mentor and former boss Ken Englund for all his encouragement and support . The extremely high quality of leadership talent that IBM has is a big reason for me to join them . 

My wife did not put any pressure to pick one offer over another . But my ten year old daughter Shreya made it crystal clear that she would like to see me back at IBM . In her first grade – she wrote this inner journal , and it is still her dream job to be a globe trotting IBM engineer. I am glad she won’t be disappointed :) . Turns out my father in law was also rooting for IBM behind the scenes – although he did not explicitly tell me so while I was going through the process . 

  
It is an exciting time for me to get started again at IBM . The company is in the middle of a significant transformation and I am excited to be part of the journey . Wish me luck !