The path to partnership in big consulting firms 


Having gone through this process successfully and in somewhat of a fast track manner , I have often been asked by several people on what does it take to make partner in a consulting firm (or principal, VP, MD or any of the other terms that are equal to a partner).  I have asked several of my seniors on their experiences of the process to prepare myself when I went through the drill myself. Given this is still the primary aspiration for many big firm consultants, and I continue to get asked about this topic a lot  – I thought I will share my personal views for what they are worth.

Warning : It is a VERY long post – and if you are not a big firm consultant considering going through the process – you will be bored to tears. Still with me ? Lets get started with how you become the top dog :)

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1. Decide if you REALLY want it 

On the good side – Partners usually make more money and have better perks than others in a firm , and have a lot of power . On the bad side – they have a really hard job (at least till they are sufficiently tenured) . Trust me – it is not as beautiful as it looks from the outside .  It takes a toll on you to make partner . Crazy work hours , extreme multi tasking , globe trotting in cramped economy seating and living with uncertainty for years all take a big toll on you . Only you can decide if it is worth the trouble for you . Think long and hard and then think some more . It takes a lot of commitment and drive to push through the process

If you want to make partner, it is 100% on you to make it work. Don’t expect your firm or your manager or your counsellor to own it. They won’t own it. They can only facilitate it to some degree. There will be hundreds of obstacles and excuses on how the deck is stacked unfavorably for you. If you constantly find yourself in that negative zone – you probably are not ready for the big job.

2. Start selling early in your career

At a minimum you need to have sold a few big multi million deals and managed a few big projects . It takes time to get the sales skill . So start really early in your career to sell – even if all you get to do at first is fetch coffee for the proposal team . Find the best sellers in your firm and watch them in action closely . Delivery skills are something hat you will pick up organically . However, Sales does not come naturally to some people (like me ). You have to work at it

Also – find out early on how credit splits work in your firm . Some times partners share credit , some times you have to split with a partner . Learn the rules before you put in the effort to sell or manage revenue . I have lost count of how many people I know of who played without knowing the rules and then ended up in extreme frustration

3. Do something useful to existing partners and get noticed

End of the day, even if you have all the sales and revenue numbers in the world – if enough number of partners don’t know about you, you will not make partner. At most big firms – you need explicit support from 15 or 20 partners for your case to go through the vote. If you try to do something useful for 15 partners one at a time linearly, you will waste a lot of time. So find out who are the powerful ones and get access to them. Contribute to their projects , ask them for advice, learn from them. If they think you add value – they will help get you the support of other partners.

There is a certain hierarchy of partners in all firms. People who are not partners do not always know this. Not all partners have the same clout. And most firms will try to give an impression to employees that they are all partners of same stature. That is NOT true. Find the ones who have tenure (in firms where tenure matters), or ones in more senior bands and build great working relationships with them.

Don’t wait till you are a senior manager to start this process. Start as soon as you decide if this partnership route is the one you want to take

4. Find three coaches and start taking their advice on next steps

a. Someone who made partner the previous cycle and remembers the drill well enough to guide you

b. Someone who has run the process as co-ordinator in the past ( partners typically take turns)

c. Someone who runs an industry or service line , or if that is not possible – then one of their direct reports

Whatever you do – try not to get one of the recent direct admit partners as one of the three coaches if you can help it. People who made partner in another firm might not know all the rules of the game you are about to play.

The key to make partner is to be part of a group that needs more new leaders. If the ERP business of your firm is declining, even if you check every box – you still might not make it through the process because the firm has no use for one more ERP partner. You should immediately move to a group where there is growth for at least next 5 years. This is critical information your coaches can tell you about. Don’t kill yourself through the grind in a group that has no future in the firm, even if it was once a darling and created a lot of partner jobs.

5. Enlist the support of some customers – ideally at CXO levels

Firms like to see positive feedback from customers. Their reason to promote you to partner is essentially in hopes that you can convince customers to buy from you. Nothing gives confidence like a customer who says good things about you. If you build good relationships with customers, then take them to a dinner or social event that one or more of existing partners are present. Make those introductions proactively – once you make partner, you will need a hundred favors from your peers to survive.

Also get some partners involved in the deals you run. Let them watch you in action and take their feedback . Your goal is to get a bunch of partners really confident that you can do work at their level, and take feedback like an adult.

6. Enlist the support of ISVs and IHVs

Consulting in IT works only if the consulting firm has excellent relationships with software and hardware vendors. Unlike with customers, it is a LOT more easy to build relationships with ISVs and IHVs. Work with them, develop a good professional relationship, get them into some of your deals . They will reciprocate and that will get the attention of the panel evaluating your case. Again – it is one of those things that takes lot of time. So start early.

7. Develop your drafting skills and keep fine tuning it

There are two things you need to be good at – writing really aggressive sales documents ( RFP responses, proposal decks etc) and really conservative contracts . Some partners coach their senior managers on these things – but not all do. Take the initiative to learn from good proposals and SOWs. This will get noticed and is one of the best ways to get the attention of partners who will then pull you into sales pursuits and projects. The one mis-step that a lot of candidates make is that they get good at drafting but fail miserably when presenting it internally or to the customer. If you need to brush up on this – join toast masters. Ideally you should be able to do a solid presentation if you have made it to senior manager. But it is not universally true. A bad presentation can reverse your chances – so please work on your presentation skills.

8. Act like a partner before you get the job

For the most part, as a senior manager or Associate partner, you are already running most of the projects and sales pursuits. Now is the time to act like a partner would. Try hard to look beyond the day to day project plan, and get into advising customers on long term topics. Find out from your peers on what they are seeing in their gigs and clue in your customers on important trends. At some point – you will start operating in a different level and you will know it. While it does sound vain – and it is vain – dress matters too. If the partners in your firm typically wear a suit to work, wear one yourself too. And start coaching your junior colleagues and help them get to your level. That is a skill you will need in plenty once you make partner. You will be a coach or counsellor to many people in future – and the firm needs to see you have that in your DNA.

The one thing you should NOT do is jerk around your team in your assumed role as partner. That would be a terrible thing to do.

9. Don’t do anything stupid or unethical

I can’t stress this enough. It should be the most obvious thing but some occasionally screw up on this front. For example – Don’t try to do a bad deal to up your sales numbers in time for your partner process. Most likely someone will find out and then you probably have shut the door on your chances for good. if someone in the panel even remotely suspects a lack of ethics or inappropriate behavior – they won’t go through with your case. No firm will risk that.

10. Now the easy part – just show up for interviews and know your lines

The easiest part of the process is the actual partnership interviews and case reviews. Panel already has opinions about you before they call you for the discussion (you have done all the hard work already). You are in good shape if you made it this far. You need to be confident ( not cocky and you should know the difference) when facing them. They need to feel that you will be a great peer. They need to see something more than they have seen in you as a senior manager. They need to see someone who thinks about the big picture, opportunities for the firm, potential pitfalls etc.  But those are all things you would have already picked up from one of your three coaches.

What if you fail to make it ?

Not everyone who starts the process ends up as a partner . You need to have a plan ready on how to deal with the rejection. Some firms only let you try two or three times at most. Get a realistic view from your coaches on whether you have a fair shot at making it next time. If there are specific things to work on – like getting more references from customers , it is manageable by the time the next cycle starts. Vague reasons like “poor communication skills” are usually red signals. You need to decide if you are happy to not make partner (you still can make a lot of money in non partner jobs, and hopefully a better work life balance). You can also decide that you want to move to another consulting company and try your luck there (all the prep work you did will help – but you will need to build a network there and that will take time). Take a break and think through it before you start the process a second time.

Organizational Culture – please don’t get too wound up over it


If you listen to certain VCs and CEOs active on social media – you might come to a conclusion that the existential threat to their companies is “culture” ( or lack there of). It’s also largely silly.

Most touristy places I have visited have some kind of “cultural immersion” program – where you are exposed to their food , music , dress etc in a short time . At the end of which – you get a glimpse of some things that may entertain you , but you still don’t know much about that culture . Eating spaghetti doesn’t make me Italian , even if expertly cooked by Mario Battali. Recently at a sales training event , the trainer confidently  exclaimed “I know how you Europeans feel – I lived there for 5 years”. There was a collective groan from my European colleagues in response which amused me to no end.

Culture is extremely complex – and if you are not an anthropology major , you probably have not spent sufficient time understanding what constitutes it . I spent some time reading about it – and it gave me a headache .

It takes a significant amount of time and effort to be part of a culture . Seeing it from outside and living it from the inside are two vastly different things . I have lived in USA for 15 years – but it would be outrageously wrong if I claimed to have a full grip of American culture . Similarly I am amused when I hear American friends say “I love India and Indian food – your chicken tikka masala and garlic nan is the yummiest meal I ever had . And I was stunned by the beauty of Taj Mahal” .  ( Chicken tikka masala is mostly a dish invented by North Indian chefs who moved to the Western Hemisphere , and designed for western taste buds – we don’t eat it in India . And I have not seen a garlic nan in India at any house . Finally – Taj is amazing , but it also stands out because there are many unsightly things around it that you might find hard to deal with if you lived there ) . 

The first time I heard a serious discussion of culture at work was only a few years ago . I was never too interested in a detailed look at it when I was in the earlier stages of my career . That particular discussion was along the lines of “we need to work on the culture – it looks rather different from the awesome culture we grew up in” .  

They were referring to a time 15 – 20 years ago, where it was a young team of mostly males , all whites , all MBAs with engineering degrees . Their managers were quite similar to them – just older and wealthier for the most part.  The team we were worried about was diverse , not all MBAs and not looking anywhere similar to the managers on any aspect . Why exactly were they worried ? I didn’t know then – and I still can’t put my finger on it today .

And then there was this CEO I know who said “let’s spend part of our next offsite defining our culture . I keep hearing that the company culture has changed quite a bit”. He was leading a young company that was doubling in size every year – which meant 

1. It is hard to put a finger on a culture that has only existed for few years . Too young to have a specific culture to begin with.

2. Half the team is new at any given point . Culture – in a company or country – evolves by mixing new with old  . It’s not static . I can barely recognize the my hometown in India these days . They drink capouccino and lattes today ( there was only coffee – regular “kappi” – when I lived there ). 

3. Can you define and implement culture top down ?  No – and you can’t do it by hanging slogan filled banners either . Was Roman culture created by the Ceasar and his senate by a royal decree ? 

What about the big companies that have been around for decades like GE or IBM ? Well – they probably have had good times and bad times in those decades . Which means they also had employees and managers who worried about culture changes periodically as market transitions happened . 

Does all this mean that culture is unimportant ? No certainly not – it is part of our identity as corporate citizens, and hence is important . All I am saying is – just don’t get too wound up about it . 

Embrace the idea that despite your strong desire to direct it in a centralized and top down way, it will grow in largely unpredictable ways. A culture has subcultures – even a small state like Kerala (where I was born and raised ) have three or four distinct sub cultures. So why do we expect that a one size fits all culture will ever exist that covers the existing fairly stable engineering team and the fairly new and fast changing sales team ? 

Culture is built on people . Treat people well and give them the freedom to do their jobs , and be transparent to the extent you can . And change your approach as you learn what is working and what is not . Maybe if you do those little things – you will have a culture that you are comfortable with. It’s a “maybe” – don’t waste your energy trying to design something that was never meant to be designed . 

Oh those corporate titles


  
We were a bunch of trainees listening to Mr FC Kohli at TCS in 1999. He asked if we had questions – and one of my friends asked “Our title now is Assistant Systems Engineer trainee. Our competitors give way nicer titles at our level. Why can’t we be called consultants?”. Mr Kohli’s response was “The guy who takes photocopies in one of our young competitors is called VP of corporate communications. Would you want to be a VP too , young man?”. I think he also added that “what they call as revenue is less than what we call as profit every year”. I have not seen Mr Kohli since then – but I will never forget his view on titles in the work place. It essentially formed my habit of making fun of titles at every opportunity I get :)

There was one company I worked in – Novasoft – where there was absolutely no hierarchy. There was an MD and the rest of us were all senior consultants. In every other company I have worked in, there has been a hierachy – and some had ridiculous number of layers.

The confusion that titles generate is unbelievable. Every time I have a discussion on careers with one of my team members or mentees – I see this first hand. And now as I try to evaluate various offers for my own employment, I find myself confused quite often too in this regard.

Contrary to popular opinion, size of the company is clearly not correlated to titles. One of the smaller sized companies I considered as a potential employer told me that they are very lean and flat, and that everyone is treated equally and that they don’t cater to ego titles. After meeting the executive team, I realized the head of sales alone is an EVP and everyone else reporting to their CEO is an SVP. Another startup has a CEO who is also the president, although for a long time to come there is no reason to think they will have more than one division. Yet another startup has a VP working for a VP who works for another VP.  These are not companies that have thousands of employees – the three examples above don’t even have 500 employees I think.

The big companies are almost all terrible about titles and levels. VPs working for VPs and managing partners working for managing partners are common.There are General Managers in many such companies who don’t have a team or budget .And since a lot of people get involved in every interesting initiative in these companies – folks at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder spend a lot of time looking at the org chart to figure out who has real clout and who is wasting their time. At least at one of my prior employers, “who do you work for?” was asked of me routinely before someone granted me a bit of their time.

At some point – HR would introduce a concept of job bands into the mix. This is supposed to decrease confusion – but ironically I have only ever seen it increase confusion. Now people get looked upon by both their internal and external titles. Although the theory is that no one should know another person’s internal title – it is rarely a secret. So now this becomes 2X as bad in the confusion it creates and loss of efficiency that it results in.

Then there is title inflation. Because titles are cheap and money is expensive – many managers generously give titles without any thought, usually in lieu of compensation or to hire someone away from competition. I have worked at a company where you cannot walk across a floor without literally running into a VP or SVP.

What is the question that I spend the most time answering as a manager ? it is “how can I get promoted?”. As I speak with them more and dig a bit deeper – many times they are not even really asking for a promotion. They just need an increase in base pay or bonus or they want more stock. Sometimes they really are indeed asking about moving to the next level and need just advice on skill gaps . In many cases the root of this conversation is something like “Dick in marketing is a VP, and I do way more than he does in product management – so why I am I just a director?”. In many cases – this is a genuine question, which makes honest answers very difficult for the managers. I know one executive who promoted someone to a bigger title because this person was better than everyone else in the team. What he did not realize was that the team was a bunch of poor performers to begin with and it was a low bar to promote someone compared to them. These things happen every day and frustrates many of us endlessly. I certainly have been frustrated an awful lot both as an employee and as a manager.

Not everyone gets “life is not fair in corporate world” quickly. Every manager who generously gives away undeserving titles to their employees is doing significant harm to other employees and managers. It is not that HR and upline managers are ignorant of this. Its just that no one ever gets around to fixing it for the long term.

From an org design point of view – you only really need a manager, a director and a VP in a hierarchy. Maybe at more than 500 people or so – it makes sense to have 2 divisions at each level (like a director and senior director) . At executive level – the sole criteria should be whether the person can form a plan to align with corporate strategy, get it approved and execute to deliver results with practically no supervision. With this lens – how many people truly deserve to be VP, SVP, EVP, GM etc ?

Does all of this mean that you as an employee or candidate should not ask for as good a title as you can get ? No – absolutely you should ask for as good a title as you can get if you are in a company that has all these issues I talked about above. When a lot of employees bring up these conversations, hopefully people in positions of power will wake up and do something about this topic. Till then – you are welcome to join me in making good natured fun of titles, including my own :)

SAPPHIRENOW 2015 Day 1 – Bill McDermott and The Run Simple Keynote


This is the first Sapphire I am missing in a very long time – probably in a decade or so. But thanks to the high quality live streaming video provided by SAP, and twitter – I felt I did not miss much . I woke up early, fed my dogs, brewed some coffee and sat down by the kitchen table to watch Bill McDermott’s keynote. Bill did not wear a tie – and I nearly fell off my chair !

Now, Bill is one of the best speakers amongst enterprise SW CEOs. And the settings, videos etc are totally world class. But despite having those two HUGE advantages – I finished watching the keynote feeling that SAP failed to capitalize the opportunity to seize customer imagination fully.

SAP’s biggest strength and biggest weakness is its huge and varied portfolio. There might not even be anyone employed by SAP who can talk intelligently on all those products, even at a high level.  From the keynote’s perspective – it was a bit all over the place. I think Bill had a lot to cover, but in the process could not spend enough time to meaningfully cover anything . But that said – I give him huge credit for keeping a 90 minute keynote to 60 minutes. And when I suggested on twitter that he should aim for 30 minutes next year – he agreed ! For a speaker of his caliber – I doubt it will take more than thirty minutes to make an impact.

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The concur demo was great. The User experience part is truly a breath of fresh air for people who are used to SAP GUI. It could have been a whole lot nicer if Bill could also point out how predictive analytics on hana could make it even better, or how it integrates with other SAP solutions.

S4Hana part was on the underwhelming side. This is a product that is close to SAP’s heart and for the most part – its success is what the company apparently is counting on. It was mentioned briefly in the middle of the presentation. There wasn’t a customer case study – not even SAP IT as a customer – to make the point. For the most part – the big ding on the keynote was that the only customer conversation was the under armor story, which SAP has told many times over in the past. I was honestly disappointed to not see a big cross section of customers showcased. I am hopeful that SAP will make amends in the following keynotes.

On the partnership front – SAP had two big names. Google and Facebook both add to the coolness factor of SAP and those two companies would probably benefit a lot from SAP’s enterprise credentials. That said, it was not clear what the Facebook announcement was all about. It sounded like someone read some prepared notes. I am looking forward to details on that. Facebook has a LOT of capabilities to mine data – and uses an assortment of technologies for its big data use cases. Very curious to see where SAP fits in.

I loved the emphasis on data driven enterprise using Hana. Makes total sense – assuming a few things. Hana should be more affordable and less exotic – Not many enterprises will put a petabyte of data in main memory today. So pricing model for Hana should probably get off its “champagne” level to more of a “budlight” level, and automated dynamic tiering of data (making use of less expensive tech to store data infrequently used) should be available . All those hadoop/spark type partnerships and SAP’s own Sybase technologies can help. From twitter conversation with Hana product boss Mike Eacrett, it looks like all those things are on their way.

Bill did call out Hana Cloud Platform. I honestly think that HCP should have been the theme this year at SAPPHIRE. It could totally be the unifying layer for all the ideas he explained today. Again, I am hopeful that one of the next keynotes will go into that in more detail.

Looking forward to see what else SAP has on offer this week. Congratulations to Bill and team for a great start to the conference and good luck !

So long MongoDB, and thanks for all the fish !


April 15, 2015 proved to have quite a trifecta effect on me

1. Tax day – As always, IRS have taken their annual pound of flesh from my checking account

2. Vishu – a traditional festival of my home state of Kerala, marking the start of zodiac calendar

3. Announcement that I will be leaving MongoDB by the end of April

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MongoDB is an amazing technology – and it is of course a successful company with a lot of money in the bank and a lot of customers and users. But none of that is its secret sauce – it is the people in this company that makes it a very special place. We have an extraordinary high quality of talent in the employee base. That is also the part that makes leaving MongoDB quite painful for me.

Max Schireson, who was the CEO at the time, hired me into MongoDB on April fool’s day last year – and it has been quite the ride since then.

I started here as the VP of Global Channels (even played a prank on last April 1st that I am joining as VP of social media, and some folks believed it too ). A couple of months later, I also took over business development function as well and then Global services got added to my portfolio when Dev Ittycheria took over as CEO . Each one was a unique challenge, but I was fortunate to have a team that considered no mountain high enough for us to take. Long story short – we had a blast and the results speak for themselves . I am proud of what the channels and services teams have accomplished and I will be cheering for them as they meet and exceed even bigger goals in future.

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I have no doubts that MongoDB will be a hugely successful product and company. There are many possible routes to that success – and Dev and I have two rather different approaches we feel are best for the company to get there. We discussed this at length, and eventually we mutually agreed that it makes sense for me to leave by end of this month after finishing our first quarter. I wish Dev, the leadership team and the board the very best, and look forward to celebrating their success .

The biggest thanks I owe today is to my executive assistant , Kaila Hecht. Without Kaila’s skills managing my schedule (and travel, expenses and a hundred other things) – I would honestly not have done very much productively in my time at MongoDB. I don’t know how she does it given my insane schedule – but she is a wizard (and its her first time being an EA ) and she is the most pleasant person one could meet. Thanks for everything Kaila. I will be blessed to find another assistant like you . You will go places. I should also say a big thanks to Eimear McVeigh who has always found me time with Dev any time I asked.

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One of the things that make me super thrilled on my way out is that the person taking over the leadership of Global Services is my dear friend Richard Kreuter. He is a consultant’s consultant and is one of the most fun people in MongoDB. If anyone can beat me in competitive sarcasm, that would be him too. Services at MongoDB is just getting started – Richard will take it to much greater heights. Not only does he have an amazing team of consultants ( it will be a challenge to keep recruiting A+ players like we have been doing – but I am sure that is how it will happen going forward too) , he has a world class ops team with Ozge, Andrea, Jackie and Chuen. The only way for services team is upward !

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One of the things that I have not done very well in past jobs is having strong women leaders in my team – and I am incredibly lucky to have two amazing women leaders in my team now as my direct reports. Ozge Tuncel is our director of business operations, and Sheena Badani is our director of tech alliances. Ozge is a Wharton MBA and Sheena is a Harvard MBA – and both schools should be incredibly proud of these two young ladies as their alumni. Now I am firmly convinced that I will recruit and develop more women leaders in my team in future.

When I think about our channel leaders, the word that comes to mind is “variety”. There is nothing in common at first glance between Ravi, Robert, Gullaume and Rajiv. Each is a unique character with high level of skills – and yet magically they all work together to consistently nurture the vast ecosystem of partners. I would be remiss if I did not thank the colleagues who left the team – Luca, Koby, JP, Adam, Brendan, Heather and many others who all played a part in getting the team to where it is today.

Then there are our technology magicians – the partner tech services engineers who made things actually happen on the system and explained concepts clearly to our partners. Edouard, Joe, Buzz, Tug , Aveek – you guys are awesome and I owe you a lot of beer still !

There are way too many teams and individuals to thank by taking names – so I am not going to try doing that. You know who you are – and please know that its been my honor and such a privilege knowing you. I will gladly go to battle any day with you on my side .

Last but not certainly not the least – a special thanks to all the partners and customers that make MongoDB successful. Many of them are folks I have done business with in past – and I hope to continue the relationship in future too.

So what is next for me ?

I honestly do not know. Once Dev and I took the decision, I reached out to a handful of my friends and mentors to let them know . And that has resulted in a few good conversations with potential employers these past few days. I must admit that the thought of starting something on my own – within IT, or may be something more fun like my dream Indian Restaurant – has also crossed my mind. Only time will tell how all this will play out and where I will end up with my next adventure.

But first I have a couple of weeks left at MongoDB to wrap things up. And then hopefully I can get a bit of a time out before starting the next chapter of my career. There is a lot of sleep, family time, reading and music to catchup – and hopefully I can personally show my young dog in person at a dog show finally.  I will keep you posted .  Wish me luck !

 

Recruitment Does Not Have To Suck


Many of you know that I hold a strong view that nothing is as broken in HR like recruiting ( close call with performance appraisals for the cake) . I am not talking about the technology behind it – just the process and people that are involved . But it doesn’t have to be that way – And having been recruited the right and wrong way, and having recruited several folks over the years I have led teams , I thought I will share some thoughts .

I have no problems confessing that I mess up with this all the time – but it is also one of the areas where I consciously try to improve every time.

1. Own it – no excuses 

If you are the one who needs people in your team , then it is your responsibility to find them, evaluate them and bring them onboard in a way that makes it pleasant . This is one job where delegation is generally a bad idea .

At executive level – this takes even more importance and has personal impact. When MongoDB recruited me – Max Schireson who was the CEO, did the entire process himself and that played a big part in me forming a good impression about the company. Our current CEO Dev is also very deeply involved in recruitment.

I always like peer interviews. In most jobs, people need to work across teams where the only lever you have is your ability to influence. if you don’t feel comfortable with your peers, you will struggle and do a sub par job. When managers don’t use peer interviews, I encourage candidates to ask for it.

2. Recruitment never ends

Always be recruiting and encourage your team to be recruiting and reward them for doing it well (goes without saying – potential for carrots also mean sticks for doing a bad job) . There is always a tactical part of a head count plan – how many can you afford in a period of time . News flash – Screw that ! You always need a pipeline of candidates kept warm.

Time will pass , someone will leave your team , requirements will change and there is always budget to make more money for the company . If you aren’t constantly recruiting – you will miss out on a lot of opportunities .

3. You own the recruitment for managers directly working for you too

If you are a regional VP and have sales directors under you who in turn hire reps that actually sell – guess what , you own responsibility for hiring the best reps too . You need to do it in a way that your directors feel that you are helping and not getting in their way . As you become a third line manager – this becomes harder – but you should absolutely involve yourself in key hiring decisions. The vision is yours and so is the responsibility for execution. It frustrates me endlessly when executives forget about the execution part and only care about strategy/vision. And recruitment usually proves that point one way or other.

4. Talk about money early

Money may not be everything – but in general, good people cost good money . And if you drag them through a process only to tell them at the end that you can’t afford them – you will piss them off totally and you have lost them for good . You might need these people in future for another role . Get a ball park amount upfront and don’t drag candidates to a brick wall if you can’t make it work . I wish more candidates were upfront too about this too early in the process.

Recruitment is mostly about cost today – shift the conversation to value (same as in sales) and then both sides will make an easier and better decision .

5. Recruiters are invaluable – use them well

Recruiters get a bad reputation when hiring managers are lazy or incompetent – that is unfair. Good recruiters push back on managers to get a lot of information upfront . They won’t post generic job descriptions to begin with . Spend time with recruiters and explain your vision for your business and what the new candidates are supposed to do when they join . Let them listen in when you talk to a few candidates so that they see first hand how to pitch the job themselves to the next candidate . Take recruiter’s help in fine tuning the hiring process – just don’t delegate responsibility to them and be hands off.

That said – there are plenty of bad recruiters out there too . Many treat it as a chore and focus on developing skills only for volume recruiting . Avoid them – and you can thank me later. Money spent on a good external recruiter is totally a great investment. Choose them wisely.

6. Recruitment is not about gotcha questions 

The easiest thing to do in an interview is to make a candidate sweat and irritated . Some will take it well but many will tune out and think you are a jerk . Remember that the good candidates treat these sessions as their own evaluation of the company – and if you fail them , you are the loser . Ask hard questions by all means, but help provide context and evaluate how they think through it . The thought process is more important than the final answer. And always thank people for taking the time to consider your team. Remember that they form lasting impressions with every such interaction.

Just for kicks, I just remembered a job interview as a young engineer. I once interviewed for a consulting job where a really hard math problem was given to me to solve. I knew the answer and told the interviewer that I know the answer from before. She gave me an even harder one that I could not solve and she just kicked me out without even a thank you or an acknowledgement of me being honest . That same company later tried to recruit me multiple times as an executive, and I won’t even answer their calls. I totally know that I am not being very mature about it – but that is what happens when you get imprinted with these things at a young age :)

7. Do at least some of the reference checks yourself 

The one hour you spend with candidates in person doesn’t really prove anything much  . You need to be better at reference checks for that. This is especially important for senior hires . Also, your chance of getting specific answers is a lot higher if you call them directly as opposed to a recruiter calling on your behalf . If a recruiter is calling – make sure you have given the recruiter enough ammo for the conversation .

8. Be flexible in job requirements

Front line people almost always need deep and specific skills , but managers need versatility . Hire accordingly .

A rep who has closed 200% of her quota every year doesn’t always make a great sales manager . And a rep who barely managed to beat quota might make a fantastic sales manager . As a rep, it is good to be selfish and treat all available resources in a company as yours to close your deal. This same trait is absolutely horrible in a manager who should be balancing all resource needs across the patch.

Focusing on their last job too much is a fault  that I have made myself a lot when I recruited earlier in my career . Now I have no hesitation hiring atypical candidates for managerial roles as long as I know there is a support system in place for providing specific skills they lack . I value utility players  – as your team grows , you need your leaders to pinch hit in a variety of roles . Don’t hire a lot of people with no potential to grow laterally .

In very large companies – you could craft a new role for what a unique candidate brings to the table . That is harder in a small company – but in any team , you can have some flexibility to switch around requirements when you find awesome talent.

9. Differentiate between long term and short term hires

Some times you only need someone for a short amount of time . Say you are a startup that needs someone to run finance. You should set up the expectation while recruiting that you are looking for a VP and not a CFO. Don’t let it become a scenario where the person who hire assumes that he will be CFO automatically in two years. Sounds simple – but I have seen tens of horror stories in last year alone . This is how leaders earn a bad reputation for a long time – when everyone in the industry gets to hear about you as “bait and switch” person.

You don’t have to assume that good people won’t come to your team unless you give them a life time career . World has changed – deal with it.

10. Treat internal candidates fairly when recruiting 

This one is really hard -you know their skill gaps more than you know the gaps of your external candidates . Resist the temptation as much as you can to amplify the virtues of external candidates and minimize internal candidates . It needs a very honest conversation – and it is really hard to not reduce the motivation of existing team if you don’t communicate well. I have failed this aspect many times myself . It is easy to know when you have messed this up – performance of the internal candidates drop , or they will leave your team. Some times it cascades to others in your team too in the process. Guess who lost ? You did !

11. Do your homework on the job and the candidate

A simple google search will tell you a lot about the candidate. Yet – I first hand know many managers who do not know anything about the candidate when they interview them. This might be a good thing for the candidate who has done their research on the company and the interviewer – the side with more information tends to have advantages. There are also people who have not read the job description before interviewing candidates. If I am a candidate, it will take a lot to convince me that this is a company I want to work for if the interviewer appears clueless about the position. So if you are enlisting the help of others to interview someone – please take the time to brief with them before the interview, and not just afterwards.

12. Parting thoughts…use of analytics

I do think these days that using analytics to help recruit is a great way to do it. Plenty has been said about it by HR Technology vendors and analysts – and it has captured my imagination in a really big way. However, I very rarely see it happen in a significant and scalable way in real life. For that matter even rudimentary reporting is a struggle in HR. I grew up in BI – and it has always amazed me that the people who have given me the least complex requirements are the HR managers. I am counting on this getting solved real soon, given some of the sharpest brains I know are working on making this work.

Big data opportunities and challenges are getting a bit clearer


From time to time, I take a few days off work to reflect on things I don’t get to think about in “regulation time” . Its a bit of spring cleaning of my mind.

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I am in the middle of one such break today. Other than sleeping a lot, and recovering from India’s loss to Australia last week in cricket world cup – I have been busy reading, listening to Ilayaraja songs non-stop, installing a new patio door, following the progress of my dog who is on a dogshow circuit in midwest with his handler (probably the closest to a good training for me and my wife for when our kiddo leaves for college) , catching up with my friends/mentors/old customers/school mates etc.

Yesterday night, I finally put an end to my month long misery of not being able to crack the 2048 game ( it is a super addictive game – my advice is to not start on it unless you don’t mind spending every spare minute on your phone playing it, and it is a big culprit on the battery drain front). The first thing I did after getting the 2048 tile was to take a screenshot to show my daughter who challenged me to do it, and the next thing I did was to delete the game on my phone. All of today, I have been fighting the withdrawal . As of 5 PM PST, I can report that I could resist the temptation of not downloading the game again and playing it all over again :)

Spending the time talking shop with all the peeps I managed to get a hold of these last few days – one thing hit me immediately. Customers and vendors who have started on their big data journey in the last year or two have a new appreciation for the opportunities and challenges in front of them. The opportunity part is pretty straightforward – customers are recognizing that some of the hype around big data is justified, and that real verifiable customer stories are now available. Of course they also know the koolaid firehose is still running full :)

Here are some recurring themes on the challenges.

1. Talent shortage

Vendors need technical pre-sales people and developers the most. Customers need developers and ops people either in house or from consulting companies. And such people are apparently in unicorn category. And when these people are available – the employers just don’t know how to evaluate their skills.

Another issue that customers seem to be running into is breadth vs depth. They can usually find an expert in one technology for the right money. But a project typically needs more than one new technology – like maybe hive, mongodb and say elastic search. People who can integrate all of them in real life are rarer than unicorns in rainbow color.

2. How exactly does open source work ?

The people who understand the nuances of open source are overwhelmingly on the vendor side of the house. This includes legal experts. Some customers are also finding their trusted buyer’s agents are not yet smart on open source models. There is some silver lining though – Subscription models are better understood compared to a year or two ago.

3. Procurement cannot figure out what motivates sales people any more.

This one made me smile quite a bit. A good part of my grey hair can be attributed directly to wrestling with procurement folks over the years. Here is how one guy explained it to me ” It was pretty simple in the past – the larger the check I could write, the more benefits I could extract from the salesman. It no longer seems to be the case across the board. Sales reps selling BI and big data things to me all seem to have incentives that are rather unique. Some don’t even want big checks anymore. Some like cloud and some others talk me out of it . I feel like I need to take classes on dealing with them”.

And an IT director buddy – someone who has planned and executed 100s of millions of dollars worth of projects in his career told me “I have a hard time with financial models for projects now given the mix of perpetual and subscription models for all the different software I need. I can barely understand all the pricing and terms nuances , let alone explain the full picture to the controllers and other stakeholders”.  The impact is a weird situation – he takes more time planning a project than actual execution, and he hates it.

4. Development is not the big worry anymore – maintenance is 

They all unanimously agree that these new technologies all reduce development time significantly and give great flexibility to make changes relatively quickly. However, they all have the same worry on maintenance – especially my friends who work in consulting/outsourcing companies. These new technologies all have different security models, different ways to backup and restore and different ways to provision new instances. Each one is built individually to be maintainable and scalable – their worry is how to do all of them together with tight SLAs.

5. Minimal vertical messaging 

I never thought I would hear customers ask for more marketing – but that did happen!  What is the world coming to ? :)

These folks have all heard it loud and clear that data is big and bad these days and these new technologies can all help them to tame the bad ass big data beast. But they are looking for specific examples of how it helps customers in their industry. On the bright side most of them are not hesitant to try proof of concepts for new use cases.

I did not offer any solutions to these challenges – my intention was just to listen and get a feel for where we are headed at a big picture level. But now that I have thought about it a little bit, I have some rough initial thoughts on things that can help make life easier on this front. When these thoughts are a little better formed, I will make an attempt to scribble them and share.

I am very curious to hear from all of you on whether these themes are showing up in your big data journey. Let me know !