Where does IBM go from here ?

As always – all of this is just my personal opinion here .

As a former IBMer, I was absolutely delighted to see that the IBM CEO finally said last week that the company is letting go of its 2015 EPS strategy. The best time to do that was the day she took over as CEO, but better late than never.

It was a ridiculous goal to begin with. The board and the previous CEO Sam Palmisano did not set Ginnie and the company up for success with this EPS of $20 by 2015 goal. I don’t know too many employees or executives in the company that truly believed this goal was achievable. IBM is like the military in many senses – it is a command and control style organization. So when the marching orders came, people shook their heads and then dutifully went out to try their best to make it happen. If there was a corporate equivalent of a death march – this would surely have made the shortlist.

There are only three ways in general to boost EPS

1. Cut cost
2. Increase revenue
3. Buy back shares

IBM tried as hard as they could on 1 and 3, but doesn’t look like they did much on 2.

For sure – IBM has a LOT of management overhead. Between all the companies I have worked for and have consulted to – I don’t think there is a more matrix management oriented company than IBM. When I had my first quota carrying role at IBM, I remember five or ten people (most of them I did not know ) would check in to see if I am on track to close a given deal. Most of them just managed spreadsheets . This is just the sales side of the equation. Similar kind of overlay functions existed in every part of IBM. So, yes – Sam absolutely was right in assuming that he can cost cut his way to EPS nirvana just by firing people if nothing else worked .

Unfortunately – that is not what happened, at least as far as I know. The top heavy organization more or less continued to exist – probably because they were the decision makers. Instead the people who got cut were the ones who were paid a lot less, and who actually had skills to do actual work. Well eventually some of the top management also got their pink slips – but more of a too little too late case.

The double whammy of a result is there for all of us to see – revenue going down all the time for last several quarters and then later profit stopping to go up .

IBM did try to buy back shares as a way to boost EPS . (IBM also pays a good dividend every quarter ). It helped for a while – but then that is the money that did not get spent on buying companies or reinvesting back in its own business . This is money that could have resulted in new revenue , but that is not the path IBM took. I don’t have the exact math – but I think IBM spent probably four or five times the money they spent on M&A on share buy backs .

So now what is next ? How will IBM regain its glory ? Here are a few thoughts that I wish IBM Management will consider

1. Minimize the management over head . There is absolutely no way to justify 10 people checking in on every deal .

2. Sell off aggressively every part of the business that is low value . I would start with hardware and consulting – both have low value parts . What is low value for IBM might actually be what another company might need to grow . Like say consulting – there are multiple indian outsourcers who might do well to buy parts of IBM services business to move up their value chain

3. Bring back “respect for the individual” as a core value . Start treating employees on par with the customers and shareholders . Employees are the ones who need the most attention now . Take care of them , and they will take care of customers better . And that will take care of shareholders a lot better over the long term than buying back shares . It’s the sustainable model unlike the last attempt

4. IBM has an amazing leadership training program – I know that first hand . And it has more leadership bench than most of its peers . What is missing is that such enablement is not there lower down the ranks . If IBM needs to be a powerhouse in IT again – the customer facing organization needs the kid of leadership training and attention that executive ranks get .

5. Put the best sales and technical teams possible on cloud , big data and Watson . There are plenty of good people in IBM who could be retrained on these areas. And there are experts who can be – and need to be – hired . For existing business, automate everything repeatable like crazy . Make delivery excellence truly mean customer success as much as profitability .

6. Set realistic expectations with employees , customers and the street . Set stretch goals – IBMers can meet and exceed stretch goals . Just don’t venture again to the realm of impossible targets .

Despite all its current troubles – I am still an optimist on IBM returning to its past glory . There are three things that make me an optimist on IBM’s future

1. IBMers – past and present – are a special breed . I have all the confidence that the good people left in the company are as good as any in the industry to make the turn around possible

2. IBM has a brand value that opens doors at customers across the globe . IBM needs that brand to sell more cloud , Watson and bigdata solutions to customers .

3. Through thick and thin, IBM has invested billions of dollars on research . The time to plant a shade tree was in the past and IBM got that right big time . That has already paid back IBM many times in past and I am fully confident that it will continue to do so .

As they say , Once and IBMer , ALWAYS an IBMer !

Logo changes

Yesterday someone mentioned that SAP changed its logo again . Dennis Howlett even posted a blog saying he loved it . http://diginomica.com/2014/10/22/digibyte-new-gold-sap-logo/

Den says the logo looks masculine , gold is an unusual color (to me it looks like an orange not gold ) and will get more attention and that the cross bar of A looks more like a smilie now . I don’t disagree with any of that

What I don’t understand is – what is the outcome SAP expects from this logo change ? Will it make more customers click on SAP digital content? Will there be more leads for SAP ? How does this change connect to Bill’s theme of simple ?

Logo does look beautiful and I want to congratulate its designer . Personally I preferred the old Blue , but that is just my taste . But I have no idea how it adds value to SAP or its customers . Would be great if a marketing expert could explain it . I am not saying this is a bad logo – just that it has picked my curiosity seriously . It’s a non trivial undertaking for a company like sap to roll out a new logo . I am just looking to understand the rationale of doing this .

Geeks , Suits and Their Database Choices

Who chooses the database for an application? how do those decisions get made in a company ? Is it a suit or a geek or both ?

Conventional wisdom says geeks are the best qualified to decide on a database, and suits are better for selecting applications – especially packaged applications. I think the conventional wisdom is still largely true – but would add that suits have a more important role to play in selecting a database today than say a decade ago.

Say, there is a conversation happening between a suit and a geek about budgeting for building a custom order management application . And to get to my point quickly (?) – lets say the last remaining question on the table is which database to buy. Since it is a technical decision, the suit is mostly looking at the geek to start the thought process.


The geek says – “well, it is a transactional application – so unfortunately we cannot consider these modern technologies like MongoDB which are not ACID. We should consider one of the traditional relational databases.”

Suit asks “what does that mean in terms of time and money?”

Geek : “Oh these things are expensive. Think big $$. We probably need to nail down schema design and put some strong change control in place for the project.  Once we start development, schema changes will set us back big time in schedule. Probably best to stick to a waterfall methodology. On the bright side – there are plenty of people who know this technology, and there are many tools and utilities to manage it”

Suit asks ” err…as you know, we don’t exactly know what to expect from customers since it is a brand new market. Can we deploy quickly and then change as we learn more?”

Geek : “I hear you – and if it was not a transactional system, I could have saved you a lot of time and money by choosing something way more agile and less expensive like MongoDB. See for order management transactions, you need this thing we geeks call ACID. We get that only with these expensive relational systems which have been around for decades. We have done a lot of these projects on relational . With some good project management discipline – we can deliver the first code drop on the date we planned even if we have to do it in a waterfall and not agile as methodology. But the iterations you want as we learn more – well that might be the thing that is not easy to accomplish. Once we nail down a schema , and we learn months later that we need to change it, it is not very easy to change in short time”

Suit : ” ok got it – not ideal, but then if you tell me there is no other way then we should go with your recommendation. Lets revise our business plan to make it realistic with what technology can do”.

Geek : “ok – looks like we have a plan. I will call a few vendors and get quotes and will work on a project plan”.


These kind of conversations happen all the time in enterprises around the world – I have participated in many of these as a suit and as a geek. Neither the suit nor the geek said anything wrong in this fictional conversation above. However what is interesting is what they DID NOT say – and those nuances could have completely changed the climax of this story, and maybe in some cases saved the business a lot of time and money.

Taking MongoDB itself as an example – it is not correct to say “its a modern NoSQL database, and it is not ACID”. MongoDB is ACID within a document . And a document can be quite rich in what data it holds. An order – something that in the relational world is made of a header table, and item table, a schedule lines table, and many master data tables for holding names and addresses and so on – can be held in one document, mapping to one object in the application program. Documents can be nested too . So while MongoDB is not ACID across an entire big sharded cluster – not many apps really need it to do so either. If the application needs multi-step complex transactions – by all means consider a relational DB for persistence, but if not – there is usually a way to make it work nicely in a non-relational DB too (often with nice side benefits like scaling horizontally and keeping data well organized for access using geo tagging, as is the case with MongoDB).

The big questions that were missed in the fictional story above are specific details around business priorities and business logic. Lets consider the simplest case of any order management system – making sure that orders match quantity of finished goods available for sale. It is totally possible that there is only one widget to sell and two customers see it on their screens and want to buy it .

The geek might want the database to make sure only that one customer gets to buy the widget – and the other customer should get an error on his screen. And hence the geek might make a recommendation that a relational DB with fully ACID functionality is the right persistence layer for this scenario.

However – the Suit might think rather differently from the geek, if only someone asked him !

Case 1:

I always want my customers to place an order, even if there is an out of stock possibility. In case I don’t have stock for that customer – I can find it from somewhere else. Or I can make it up to him with a discount for something else. By keeping the customer happy – I have higher chances of getting repeat business. Maybe he was planning to buy this widget and a necklace for his wife – if I did not let him order the widget, he might have probably been annoyed enough to not order the necklace either which is more profitable for me.

What is a big priority for me is to make sure I get this app online at the earliest and keep tweaking it till I get it right. I also want to make sure the user gets extremely good response time on his browser anywhere in the world.

Case 2:

The reconciliation effort of having 2 customers both ordering the last widget is a horrible idea for my business (say I am selling antiques where no replacement exists for a piece)  . My customers actually understand that I sell unique things and that they need some luck and not just money to buy my wares.

That is my priority – I can live with changes that take a little longer to implement, given they are few and far apart.


What we discussed above is just one of many tradeoffs in an application’s design – albeit a very common one. The devil is in the details. Those important details do not come into light without geeks and suits sitting together and understanding the business priorities and trade offs before choosing a database.

A database is a foundational component of an application. And unlike a decade ago – now there are plenty of choices of databases. If our fictional conversation happened in 80s or 90s, probably we would have picked a relational DB as the answer in either case. And since that was the case – there was not much of a reason for geeks to have any deep conversations with suits to find the best database for the job. That is also why databases are now a $30B plus market – customers did not have much choice and all applications worked on relational databases even if they were not a perfect fit.

Not any more – now a customer can choose whether to use SQL (still plenty of great use cases for SQL exist) , or they can choose a more modern database like MongoDB ( or others – there are other choices too depending on the nuances) for other requirements. But either way – to exercise the bounty of choices, it is imperative that geeks and suits both work together to find the right database.

What would be cool to see in a modernized SAP Business Suite ?

I grew up as a consultant in SAP R/3 – programming and configuring several modules , across many continents and for a lot of customers . As I see the excitement build up for SAP Teched next week , I keep thinking of what more SAP can do to make the ERP system more modern .

I know a lot of people think moving ERP to SaaS is the answer . I don’t think that needs to be a priority for SAP at all . Even if SAP had a super duper SaaS ERP today , I don’t know a lot of SAP customers in America or Europe with “wall to wall” on premises ERP who will jump in with both feet . SaaS is a good long term option – but they have a lot of time to get there for core ERP . If at all SAP builds a grand new SaaS ERP – I think they are better off selling it to net new customers and not to instal base ECC customers .

Vertical apps – given SAP has 26 or so industries they have solutions for – seem like the most logical answer . But those are also incredibly hard to build . So I am looking for what horizontal functionality could help modernize the suite .

What was the original message of ERP? In the 90s – it was to give one view of your business . SAP ECC is an incredibly complex and comprehensive system – and it has all the data anyone would ever need . But – it doesn’t give “one view of business” . SAP can create a financial statement for a company code or a profit center in ECC , but that alone does not make “one view”. It is an important view – but only a limited view . A sophisticated “one view” needs to be built custom at each customer today .

It is easy for a user to drown in data in a Buisness suite. Imagine a world where the CXOs can look at a financial statement , which shows exceptions that need attention and they can just navigate to that one transaction that caused that exception . That itself will get them drooling . Now imagine if they can also get prioritized recommendations of what can be done to fix the exception ?

Suite has all the information a business user needs – and an excellent security model to go with it . What is missing is flexibly organizing an enterprise view of a slice of the business and seeing the exceptions . There are many parts of suite that facilitate drill down today – but that is not exception based . You need to drill down endlessly to find the issues . That is when users give up , consultants make a living and MS excel becomes default answer .

What about the lay user ? The biggest problem for a lay user in ERP is searching for information . If an AR clerk knows an order number or a customer address for a shipment that wasn’t paid for – she will need to know specific search helps or reports to find related information . If you look at a standard selection screen on sapgui – you probably won’t expect a lay user to find a way to use it meaningfully . Making it html5 doesn’t solve it – it needs a new UX from scratch to make a difference . Why not give a system wide free form search that all users can use ? Suite has an extremely good data model – granted it has meaning only in ABAP dictionary and not at database . But there is a way to make it work – so why not do that ? Just for search alone – I am sure there are customers who will pay a premium .

What about less tables in data dictionary and less data footprint due to compression ? Geeks like me absolutely love it – but with storage prices going down steadily , and infrastructure getting commoditized – it doesn’t come across as a compelling message by itself for a buyer . At best – the nested tables and less data should be positioned as a way to get to better usability features in future .

While on the topic of simplification – we should also remember the reason SAP became popular was the ability to extend standard code with custom ABAP code. Back in the day it was user exits – and then many other things came in as technology improved . But there is a problem with user exits in general – most of them are at a line item level of a document . This means a database cannot help speed up the code since the logic needs to be executed in abap server in a loop for each line . Will “run simple” mean that suite will now have a lot of additional BAdIs that will understand set operations ? That would be super cool .

Technical simplification is of little to no interest to business – and SAP messaging and product strategy should reflect that .

In the same vein – when people think of a modern suite helping them close books faster , there needs to be a sensible expectation . Not all parts of suite are real time . And even when everything is optimized to be real time – there are things like depreciation that only happen periodically . So while it is correct to say close will be faster – close itself won’t be real time for near future .

Another aspect of faster close needing an expectation setting is when we think of end to end processes . When we close books – there are things like consolidations and inter company eliminations and so on that need to happen. Those don’t always happen in suite . So they need an external system talking to suite and that means that even if suite is real time , you can’t exactly have a real fast close as a business process . This is all still better than the slow closing process today – but if customers have an unreasonable expectation of real time close etc, they will be severely disappointed .

What about good old reporting ? This is the biggest miss for SAP suite today in my mind . SAP has all the knowledge and IP and technology to embed BI in suite apps . Yet we still see the same abap reports today in ECC that I have used in 90s when SAP had black and white screens . Hana live would be a whole lot more palatable to customers if there was BI content on it . I hope one day we will start seeing SAP bring these two worlds together .

What about Hana enterprise cloud for hosting ERP ? I don’t think SAP will be a great data center company and hosting margins are not comparable to software margins . A Management utilities layer built by SAP and licensed to partners who are already in infra business seem better to me than running infrastructure themselves . The IBM announcement seems to be in this direction and I liked it .

I make a lot of fun of “social” and it’s fluffiness . But I will be the first to admit that in the context of ERP , collaboration is actually the killer functionality – right after search functionality . Vast amounts of time and money is spent on rigid workflows and email and calls today and it is the epitome of inefficiency around ECC users everywhere . SAP already has Jam – they just need to sell it everywhere .

Last point – APIs . A modern suite should be able to provide a rich set of APIs to developers to build quickly around it . HCP is already a recommended approach to build extensions . The Apigee partnership provides management . ECC already has a lot of BAPIs (granted – they have God awful interfaces that only abap developers understand, and that needs to be simplified ). All the raw ingredients are already there – including BI and ETL . All that remains is a bit of engineering to make them work together and build a message around using HCP for the install base customers . SAP has a huge developer ecosystem that can make use is all this . I am betting on my friend Steve Lucas and team telling us more about this soon . There is nothing about SAP today that makes me more excited than Hana Cloud Platform .

Rant over and I wish all my pals an exciting time at Teched . Have fun ! I heard that the Keynotes are going to be run like never before :)

It’s about time we set a higher bar for analytics

First off – I have no interest in being nuanced here about data vs information , big data vs regular data , BI vs Analytics vs Reporting and so on . Use the terms you like in the following rant . If all we missed today was the nuance between these terms , we would have been in a better place already .

There might not be a more tired part of technology out there today than Analytics . It’s been a top CIO concern for as long as I can remember . It is a top concern for me personally as an executive running a business at my employer . There are very few people who are truly happy with their ability to make sense of data . And no wonder BI companies young and old are all thriving and marketing their hearts out that they are already in “next gen”.

Big data – and the Gartner 3V model – brought good focus on information management side . But it did not exactly democratize “data based decision making “.

We don’t need to get into high volume or velocity or variety of data to see the failings of today’s BI . The thought leadership in analytics is along the lines of “ask good questions to get good answers”. This is a much needed part of analytics for sure – we should have the sophistication in our systems to answer the best and most complex questions . However – that should be more of a table stakes thing in the world of data .

For analytics to take a leap into “next gen” – pretty visualization is not enough either . It is a little more along the way into future than the ability to answer complex questions . An answer is not good if the user does not understand what the system is trying to say . So yes – let’s find more and more ways to visualize data . It’s a good thing that some companies got started with it and are making progress .

Before I leave the topic of visualization – I have to say this . For a given question and its answer , computers must be able to provide a default representation that is the “theoretical best” , without a user being asked to create a representation from scratch every time . By all means – allow the user to change things around , but there is very little value in making a user guess what is the best representation visually . The type of chart , positioning in screen , scale , default filters are all things that software should be able to figure out by itself . Personalization is important – but again it should be treated as table stakes by now .

But there is a gap that still remains at the core . If the best we can do is “ask good questions to get good answers”, we are still stuck in the world of art , and refusing to move a bit closer to science .

My hope is that we start building systems that can
1. look at available data and start by
2. offering clues to what kind of questions can be asked of it ,
3. what kind of meaningful patterns the software can be seen already ,
4. and what kind of data would be great to add to currently available data set to make even better inferences .

Sure , the person who can ask better questions will still retain their edge in making better use of the data – but if the system can prompt decent questions to users , I think this whole promised land of “data driven decisions” would be a lot closer to where we are now than if we inched along the current trajectory .

This might be really hard to do as a generic horizontal platform capability in near future . But if vendors focused on taking this approach for targeted vertical apps , a lot of these challenges can be mitigated . Such learning can then be used to build horizontal general purpose solutions over time if it makes sense .

It all starts with setting a higher bar of expectations of analytics – incremental innovation won’t cut it .

Before we pelt social media stones on Satya Nadella …

Satya Nadella is a very visible technology industry leader who made a totally wrong and awful comment about women asking for wage increases .

Over the last couple of days there has been a storm in social media crying for his head . Shortly after the gaffe – he admitted publicly that he was wrong , and that women should just ask for a raise of they need it .

In my mind – that was the right first step in righting a wrong . But clearly I am in the minority in thinking so . Many people I admire and respect – like industry analysts and CXOs think saying “sorry” does not count . Some believe he should be fired . Some others don’t exactly say what they actually want him to do – except that something beyond saying “sorry” is needed .

I don’t think he should be fired at all . All leaders – all humans – make mistakes . The honorable thing to do is to admit openly when they are wrong , and do something to fix the problem and trying hard not to make the same mistake again .

In this case – he did say sorry and he agreed that women who feel they need a raise should just ask . Now it is up to Microsoft women employees to ask him for raises when they feel they deserve it and for him to give it in deserving cases . Not just women – any minority , or even any employee – should enjoy that at their place of work . Bosses should ALWAYS encourage employees to speak up .

Microsoft diversity numbers look like pretty much every other big company – gender/ethnic and all other kinds of equality still remain elusive . So it is not just Satya -every leader should be held accountable to making this right .

Also I wonder if this is a problem with male leaders alone . There are a minority of F100 companies like IBM, HP, Pepsi etc where CEOs are female – are their diversity situation much better ? If not these women leaders should be held to the same high standards too I would think .

A big problem with the fight against inequality is the lack of unity amongst Minorities . Women are a minority – physically challenged folks are a minority , Hispanics and blacks are Minorities and so on . They all fight for their right to be treated as equals – but only for themselves . Why not join forces and make the collective voices heard ?

( Example – It always has amused me when some Indians who have gained US citizenship make fun of the folks coming after them in the immigration queue on an H1B . )

It was interesting that no peer CEO of Satya defended him nor criticized him in public . And as far as I could see on social media – they were not asked for their take by the journalists and bloggers either .

The current rhetoric is mostly against Satya, not the underlying problem of inequality . Are we outraged because he sounded honest but not politically correct ?

What exactly is the priority here ? This is a country that had a president who falsely went to war claiming weapons of mass destruction , and another who lied under oath after marital indiscretion. Both seem to be popular till today , though their actions failed entire populations . Neither one even remotely made a meaningful apology but were politically correct . Even they were forgiven . What Satya did was wrong – but not as terrible as what two presidents did . If we can forgive the presidents of USA , I would think we can give a second chance for a CEO too.

I can’t speak for Satya at all – but I have a hypothesis on what made him say the awful thing he did . He is a young CEO who had a fast track career . He probably never had to ask for raise in his career . He might have assumed – wrongly – that his own experience ( or Karma ) is applicable to women employees too . Hopefully we will learn more with time .

What I would like to see happen positively out of this episode is two things

1. the world holding all leaders – at all levels – accountable to principles of equality , rather than unleashing fury on just one CEO .

2. Women – and anyone else who feels like they deserve a raise – being encouraged to speak up , and their leaders acting on it constructively

PS : Just saw the first hand commentary of the lady who interviewed Mr Nadella . Even she is surprised at the twitter fire storm


Do you need a college education to have an IT career ?

One of the most common questions I get from my younger colleagues and mentees is about the value of college education in pursuing an IT career .

In my early 20s, I had one big regret – I did not go to a big name US college to get a degree . My engineering and MBA degrees were from University of Kerala in India . A lot of my friends did take their degrees – some times a second degree even – from reputed US schools . I had some kind of an inferiority complex about that when I started out – but I got over it at some point soon.

Education in India is not as expensive as it is in the US . Four years of engineering college and two years of MBA together cost about $5K including food, travel, hostel and so on . My parents picked up that tab and within my first year of getting a job, I repaid them (They didn’t ask for it ). I got my first job from my MBA campus – and became a consultant in Tata Consultancy Services .

I have always been startled to see how much of a burden the students who take degrees from US carried on their backs as student loans . Most of them have at least $30K loans after under grad and many have $100K+ loans after MBA from a good school . There are very few who get full scholarships and even fewer cases where parents pay for education like back in India in my college days . It takes a very heavy toll on these kids to repay those loans .

To begin with – I never quite understood the rationale behind taking a big loan for a liberal arts degree , especially out of state , given the low demand in employment market . But then – people are free to take their decisions and live with the consequences . I have occasionally seen liberal arts graduates transition into fields like IT later in life , and some are great entrepreneurs . So probably there is a way to make it work .

Which leads me to think – is there a real value in a college degree anymore ?

Sure there is the fun aspect of hanging out with other students and the drinking games and so on . But that fun is negated by the first few years after college with a loan to repay . It can be argued that such fun could be had slightly later in life when you earn a salary or make money from a business .

Looking back – college did not teach me much . My first job was as a programmer – my mechanical engineering classes and financial management classes did not help me directly in writing C and ABAP code . Sure there were occasional indirect benefits like understanding finance theory helping write better code for financial users etc . But there were programmers without that background who also were able to learn it on the job .

Did my MBA help much ? Maybe it did later in my career – after I had a few promotions etc . MBA certainly did not directly help me get any of my promotions either . It is possible that if I took an MBA half way through my career , instead of getting it at the beginning – it would have helped more . But I also think that my career would not have progressed as fast as it did if I took a two year break in between at middle management levels to go back to school . So if I could go back in time – I would have not done my MBA and instead would have started working full time two years sooner .

Without a doubt – everything that helps me in my career today are things that real projects and real customers have taught me . Neither my engineering school nor B school gave me skills to even write a good status report at work .

I probably would still have done my engineering college if I could time travel back to 90s – but that is not because the course work helped me , but only because a 4 year engineering degree was minimal requirement to get a good entry level IT job back in 90s in India . That is not the case today – I have seen plenty of people who can code well get very good jobs without any formal education .

Talking about India in particular – thee is something rather stupid about hiring policies . If IT demand is so high and every branch of engineering sends its grads to IT jobs for the most part, why do they keep churning out as many mechanical and civil and electrical engineers instead of computer science engineers ? Why doesn’t demand and supply match ? It’s a lot less expensive to set up a computer lab than the type of labs traditional engineering needs . And why is it that there is demand mostly for engineers ? Why can’t commerce grads and economics grads learn to code like mechanical engineers do in the first year of their jobs ? I hope the scene has changed in India . Oh before I leave the specific topic of IT in India – why on earth do employees of some companies have to wear a tie to work every day in the hot and humid weather ? Their counterparts in other countries rarely wear a tie and most customers don’t wear a tie . What exactly is the point that their employers are trying to make ?

With broadband access not being an issue unlike when I was in college – there are a lot more options to get a degree at a lower cost today , if getting a degree is a big deal for you .

So is there any reason at all to go to college that I consider a positive ?

There are two -
1. The network you build . The relationships you establish at college will open doors for you for the rest of your life . That alone might make it worthwhile to bear the burden of a hefty college loan . But remember – that network needs work to build and sustain . Just being in a college doesn’t always lead to a good network .

2. Getting the first corporate job . There are plenty of companies who think a college campus is a great place to find entry level talent . So if you choose to go to college – it would help to put the energy into doing everything that would attract the employers who hire from there . This also means that if no one is hiring from there – spend the loan money at another college .

I am not basing this on my own case either – I am also thinking about my experience hiring people over the years . While I admit that a big name college on a CV catches my attention when I do my preliminary reviews – I have never given it a lot of weightage in my final hiring decisions . I put more trust in what they have done in their last jobs and how well their references check out . As far as I can remember , no employer has asked me about my degree or college after my first job interview .

There are always exceptions to all this stuff – but for the most part , I think your chances of getting a break in IT is higher if you do roughly the following

1. Learn to code the soonest you can ( I am partial to C and C++ – but more modern languages might work well too )

2. If coding is not your thing – learn something else around computers like networking . Or get a non IT job and come back to IT as a domain expert .

3. If you don’t have someone like your parents picking up the tab and still want to do college really bad – go In-state and try to do everything to maximize your employability in your first job ( ideally STEM, good grades , side projects etc)

4. Once you code well, get your presence felt in open source communities . Contribute code – and choose a license that works in your interests .

5. The moment you get your first job – do all you can to increase skill levels and start aiming for next level . Get a mentor or two the soonest you can – without that it is hard to know what “next level” even means . Every chance you get , do non-IT things like sales and presales and so on . Breadth matters as much if not more than depth.

6. Learn about how companies are formed and decide if you want to start your own at some point . If you have money to spare for an MBA – consider investing it first in your own venture , or in someone else’s before giving it to a business school . If you make it to the top few B schools – by all means go for it and it will probably help you . But for everything else – think really hard before spending that money .

PS : When I chose mechanical engineering to graduate in , the ONLY reason was that my dad was a mechanical engineer . If you go to college, and need to take a loan to do so – I really hope you have a better reason .

PPS : Unlike my dad who is a terrific engineer , I did not pick up any useful skills in my engineering college . I did pass in the top % of my class though . However , I am proud that one of my class mates from school is a lead engineer for India’s successful Mars Mission . Moral – it is a great university that I went to , I just did not choose my major wisely . I hope you folks choose more wisely .