Learning Philosophy : Between N-1 and N+1

In 1997, I was an apprentice engineer in a Tire company in India after finishing my degree in mechanical engineering . One evening, a machine broke down in the line and I quickly figured out that it’s just a broken spindle that needs to be replaced . I did some quick calculations and figured a 10.2 mm diameter is what the replacement should have . I could see the confusion in the eyes of everyone around me . Someone quietly went to the store and got the replacement and work progressed . The next day – my boss took me back to the machine , and showed me there was a panel with clear instructions there on parts – and the standard size replacement was 10mm . There is no such thing as a 10.2mm . He was sympathetic – he coached me that 90% of the time , you don’t need to worry about actual calculations and have to just follow the manual . He never gave me an example of the 10% when I will need to know the calculations 🙂

The next episode happened in Colorado in 2000 . I was a young programmer struggling with a massive old C program that started misbehaving after I added some functionality needed for my project . I didn’t change any existing code – and my code would compile without error and execute when I did it as a stand alone program. I went to the team leader – a long time veteran of HP-UX and probably the best programmer I have seen in my life . He casually asked me “Anything odd with the assembler code?” . I am not a CS major – and while I thought I was a really good programmer in C and a few higher level languages , I didn’t have the faintest idea on how a compiler actually worked or even how to read assembler code . Well, I was given a 30 mins tutorial and a manual for instruction set architecture . I struggled for weeks and eventually figured out what was wrong . I will spare you the details – but I walked away thinking that all mission critical code should be compiled without Optimisations turned on . I also learned to my horror that compilers can actually have bugs . Till today I don’t know if the compiler I used had an issue – but to be honest , I have never felt confident enough to blame a compiler even once when my code fails .

I wrote my first BASIC program in 1986 and first C program in 1989 . Till this episode in Colorado in 2000, I had never thought about the need for understanding what happens at a level below (N-1) what I needed to learn for everyday use . And in general I would say I had spent more thought on higher level abstractions (N+1) from where I am operating from .

My father was a very talented mechanical engineer . He used to tell me when I was in college that an engineer’s job is to make sure that whoever used the output of an engineer’s creation should be able to take it for granted – a lamp should switch on , a car should run when ignition is turned on and so on – without the operator knowing how it happens . And when it doesn’t work – most of the time the operator should know what’s wrong , and quickly decide if it needs expert help . By his definition – I wonder if he would have agreed that software is a real engineering discipline 🙂

If the episode in 2000 with Assembler had not happened – I doubt I would have developed an interest in N-1 thinking as my learning philosophy at all . It did help me quite a bit as moved into more business leadership roles later in my career . As I wrote recently about scaling a business , the ability to go to N-1 is critical when rethinking the building blocks . Otherwise we routinely get stuck in status quo and at best some incremental progress . Equally important is the fact that the moment you have solved things at N-1 , you need to zoom out to N+1 to pick up speed .

Keeps life interesting , doesn’t it ?

Scaling a business during the Covid pandemic – a dozen lessons I learned

2021 has been quite an interesting year and I have alternated between “will this year ever end?” and “Whoa – are we in December already?” . Both from a business perspective as well as from a personal perspective – I had to learn new things and act differently . I thought I will share what I learned , with the hopes that perhaps some of it will be useful to others

1. Every step-change will break things where you least expect it

I was very proud that we were able to shift thousands of people in the team to work from home last year with zero difficulties because we have a strong business continuity plan that we trained for and implemented efficiently . So I had a false sense of confidence that it will be equally smooth when adding more people to the team . I was wrong – everything from courier service to background checks to laptop availability failed to scale at a certain threshold . These are all things I took for granted all my career . Thankfully we have such a great team that they sorted it out extremely fast !

2. Over communication is mostly a bad idea

When we started remote work, the instinct was to checkin with all the teams frequently . But very soon – the teams adapted to the new norms of working , and we didn’t tweak the “checking in” frequency. It became a diminishing returns investment of effort and leaders started burning out faster with the extra time spent on an activity that could have used a different cadence . Same with mass emails , all hands calls etc . Less is definitely more !

3. But you do have to over communicate some times

What works with people who have been in the team for a long time doesn’t work for people who are new to the team . That was true in the past too – but scale puts a spotlight on it quickly ! Questions that would get asked to someone sitting next to you in office would now often need a manager to explain the answer . Mentoring younger colleagues coming from university online is not the same as mentoring an experienced hire online . We had to learn to segment and tune our approach every time we detected a pattern . Again , we also need to learn when to ease off with the new team . I do wonder if these problems will get addressed by HR Tech at some point

4. Free form feedback is way more useful in uncertain times

As an analytics guy by training, I measure everything . That didn’t change during the pandemic times either . But I did learn after a couple of quarters that standardized questions are very limited in these times to address issues and opportunities with the client or my team . Free form feedback is where the useful information was mostly available . I read every comment that my team and client make in the surveys – and we talk about addressing them in our leadership meetings . I also use sentiment and tone analysis with ML to get a gauge of the aggregate as well

5. Invest in leadership ranks ahead of scale

I am a firm believer in leaders at every level making fewer but higher impact decisions compared to their team if they have to be effective . In uncertain times , there are hundreds of more decisions to be made even if the business is steady . There are thousands of more decisions to be made if the business is growing . If you don’t have enough good leaders – you will sink faster than you can imagine . Good teams grow because of strong culture . It’s very easy for the culture to go south if scale happens in an unmanaged fashion . That’s another reason why having good leaders are vital .

6. Invest in operations

A highly efficient operations team ( finance , HR, bizOps ….) is the reason why most business leaders don’t die of panic attacks . When they are very good – leaders occasionally take it for granted that they have infinite capacity . Operations have people and processes . Both parts will stretch only to a limit and they they will break . Relook at literally everything that is needed to keep the business growing and invest in operations and redesign workflows .

7. Relook at all communication channels

I hope there is a massive series of studies done on this topic . Slack has been a life saver for me. I over estimated the effectiveness of video . And I rediscovered how effective good old phone calls are . A great example of the change in effectiveness are the quarterly all hands calls . I don’t see a tenth of interaction in those massive webex events that I get on a slack based ask me anything session with my global team .

8. Business Relationship building has evolved

A pleasant surprise for me this year was that unlike 2020 – it is now totally effective to build new business relationships online via webex and email and calls , without face to face meetings . It’s incredible how long established norms of shaking hands and breaking bread as first steps in a new relationship got replaced by talking about children and pets on webex ! No business scales without scaling relationships vertically and horizontally – so this is a very good change in my view

9. Take good care of people – that is one thing that has NOT changed

All business is ultimately about people on all sides . That’s the one constant that did not change in pandemic times . The great resignation is something we need to learn from and act on quickly . Money , flexibility , interesting work – there are lots of reasons why people quit their jobs . You can’t fight the forces of market – you have to adapt quickly and find your own equilibrium . My fundamental view has not changed in pandemic times – I think the key to attracting and retaining good people is to make sure that leaders and their teams feel comfortable in discussing everything openly and being fair to each other . If I look at where I spend most of my time – I think it’s probably 50% on helping my team , 30% with assisting my clients , and 20% on all other things taken together .

10. Increase the focus on learning

Pandemic has caused a lot of grief in the world . I lost friends and family – and I don’t deny I have an amount of fear in my mind at all times . But for business – it has largely created more opportunities . But to tackle these opportunities effectively – you have to be an aggressive learner , and encourage everyone around to do that . On the technology side – I spent my time learning more on Redhat openshift , Ansible and GCP . I also have been reading up a lot about the tech behind crypto currencies . On the non tech side – I have been reading more about WW2 and life during Great Recession

11. Take some time off – don’t make the mistake I did

I am generally good at taking some vacation every year to reset . I did not do that this year and it certainly is proving to be a bad idea . I know I am not alone – and it’s not going well for others who didn’t take the time off either . Almost everyone I know in my team and in my network who has taken the time off are more productive than I am .

12. Do something else outside work

Last year, it was mostly playing cards online daily with my friends . That has come down a lot this year . But 4 days a week, I take my puppy to training for IGP competition which we hope to start competing next year . I try hard to block that time off from all work – and it literally has been the best decision I made this year . It brings a much needed balance . I am sure that if I hadn’t decided on that – and also not taken vacations – I would have completely burnt out half way through the year . I am fascinated by the range of hobbies my friends have picked up new this year- Ironman , wood carving , singing , equestrian etc . In every case their experience mirrors mine – and their businesses have had a positive impact .

I have a “good feeling” about this !

Staring at data is a big part of my job – but it’s very rare that data alone gives me direction on what to do next . Data needs to be put into the context of what I feel (and what others feel) and then some decision gets made . So in reality – I am not really data driven , I am more “data enabled” when it comes to my decision making process .

What I feel – perhaps what can be called my intuition – is based on my past experience . So I often wonder how useful it will be to depend on intuition when it comes to decisions about future . That led me to think about my feelings a little more – and that led me to three (overlapping) possibilities on why I decide to go forward with some decision

1. I like and trust the people who will execute on it

This doesn’t happen unless I know them really well . And amongst the people I know – only a few fall into this category when I think about it more . With such people , I feel strongly that they are so driven that they will make it happen irrespective of challenges I can anticipate . The reality unfortunately is that my success rate is only that of a coin toss . While some data comes into play – it’s really not data driven or data enabled if I am honest about it . I will however add that when everything else is “iffy” – I trust my judgement of people and make bets on it . In such cases – at least so far – it’s been better than coin toss odds for success .

2. I understand it from first principles

These usually turn out to be my best decisions – I understand the problem well from the ground up , and consequently I have a framework to evaluate solutions . All the examples I can think of have ended well – but I am sure there is some bias in my thinking, so let’s say 80% success rate . I can use data to validate my assumptions and mental models – so these are data enabled decisions .

3. I can see the potential tweaks needed to make it work

These are usually things like redesigning the process , having a different leader for the team , resetting the business case etc . I think this is where experience comes in handy – because it’s essentially pattern recognition that is helping me . To increase my odds, I also tap into my network for their experience once I figure out the pattern . Interestingly , this is the category where historic data comes in handy . Quite often – it’s staring at data that gives me a starting hypothesis on what needs to be tweaked .

The time dimension

I try hard to be thoughtful about the decisions I make that have large and/or long term impact . That needs time to deliberate . I conserve my time, energy and brainpower to make such decisions by routinely delegating whatever I can to my team . But even then – a third of the time , I will have to make snap judgments with limited time to deliberate .

As I look back at examples of such decisions – I see an interesting trend . When I have delegated and conserved my time and energy – my snap judgments generally turn out to be ok more often than not .

What is the net net ?

I am convinced that we don’t really need human decision making if it’s purely data driven – such decisions should be automated ( with manual over rides and other precautions on ethics/security etc taken care of ) . Humans (generally) should only have to care about data enabled decisions .

What’s the weakest link here ?

There are two ways to think about data enabled decision making . One is using data to find answers to questions you defined . The other is defining questions based on data . The former is largely a solved problem already . The latter is what keeps us employed 🙂

The “Stupid me” loop

My mornings start early with a ten minute training session with the (not so) little Archie . For the last few sessions, I have been having some trouble getting a certain specific result and yesterday I went into a familiar loop of “Stupid technique – Stupid dog – Stupid me” .

The familiarity is not from training dogs – it is from my past life as a programmer 😆

When I used to get stuck with a difficult problem – and a few attempts wouldn’t solve it , I would get into this spiral of self doubt . I remember the horror on a fellow engineer’s face when I told her “That’s it – I am done – I am switching to sales or management”. My appreciation for source code version control grew manifold those days because I invariably would destroy perfectly good code trying to fix one problem .

In the case of training Archie, it’s just a hobby . There is no real impact if he doesn’t win all the big titles . So it seems illogical that self doubt would even come up like it used to for actual work .

Thankfully the approach to break out of this problem is something I can borrow from my engineering experience . Every time I have run into the “stupidity loop”, the problem eventually got solved by me or another colleague in the team . The problem was never the person really – it was always the technique or approach . I am trusting that the problem I am facing with Archie is not that he or I are stupid – it’s some stupidity in our technique and I just need to figure out a way to diagnose it and then fix it .

A seasoned manager once told our team – I know you guys don’t care about managers like me . But someone needs to be mature enough to know which problems are perfectly fine to leave for support tickets . The man had a point – so after all it might still be “stupid me” behind all my current grief. The common factor in all my disasters is … ME !

For now , we are just going to visit the neighborhood Starbucks and attack some emails .

What I learned about work from cooking

Some of you already know that I enjoy cooking . A long time ago, I landed in Colorado without knowing how to make a cup of coffee or an omelette. But since that time, I have picked up some “hobby” level skills . Talking about cooking with a friend, we realized there are some life lessons – and perhaps some “work” lessons – that can be gleaned . I thought it will be fun to share .

  1. Scale is VERY difficult : I can make a near perfect Biriyani for 6 people . I have failed miserably trying to make it for 20 – and also the one time I tried to make it for just my daughter and me . Much like business – every step change needs a rethink !
  2. The real skill is making a great dish with what you have available : We all want A players to work with , perfectly defined requirements and so on . The reality is you often have to make do with the cards you are dealt .
  3. Solid technique and first principles matter : life is easier and more fun in the kitchen when you have good knife skills , and know the basics of temperature control , how “less is more” and have good tools . Knowing the basics of people/process/tech helps work through new problems at work easier too
  4. Hygiene and organization is your best friend : I clean as I go and try to minimize number of utensils for any dish . I also prep everything I need at hand before I start cooking . At work – there is no compromise on effient ops , and I try hard to reuse what’s already available as information and process
  5. Proof of the pudding : is of course in the eating , but also in the cooking . If I didn’t enjoy the process – I would have just eaten out and left cooking to real chefs . Outcomes absolutely matter , but if you don’t enjoy the sausage making too – you won’t do it well for long . Who you do it with matters too . My daughter is usually my sous chef and chief taster 🙂
  6. Experiment, learn and share : That’s how cooking got better for me . It’s also how work gets better . Mistakes are a given . It’s good to learn from mistakes – but even better if you share with others on how to avoid and mitigate . Share the outcome too – both your finished dishes as well as any goodness from your life and work !

Let’s please NOT over communicate !

It’s been nearly a year and a half since I started working remotely . If there is one lesson I can take away from this time – it s this . It’s a myth that over communication is a good thing !

People are stressed as is – you , me and everyone else around us . I don’t know anyone who has started working less hours since remote work started , compared to before the pandemic . Why do we work longer and feel drained ? I think the number one culprit is the bucket of activities I will call “Over communication”.

Initially the wisdom was that we need to checkin frequently with everyone in the team . After the first couple of times – it became a pain for all parties involved . When you live in a small apartment with your family and pets – and have to context switch frequently from helping your kid with homework , feeding your cat , filling the time sheet and taking back to back calls on video – there isn’t a lot of brainpower to spare . It’s physically exhausting too !

Corporations love meetings . We generally think more meetings lead to better outcomes . This has been the case for ever – it’s not an outcome because of the pandemic . What did change was that the corporations went into an over drive of communications – more all hands meetings , more sales reviews , more performance inspections , more emails , more slack messages , more zoom calls … more of everything . Net result – more exhaustion !

It’s high time we stop this madness . We need to right size communication instead of switching to over communication . I have a friend who is having a bit of a hard time in his business . He holds lengthy meetings with his team frequently to see what all can be done to improve it . When I heard about it – I suggested a couple of great books and two videos for him to checkout . Unfortunately his (very genuine) response was “if only I could find time”. When I insisted that he at least check out the videos while he was on the treadmill , it turned out that he couldn’t focus for more than 5 mins and switched to email . This is just one example of what an over dose of emails does to even high caliber leaders !

For the last few years, I have had a simple rule that I will only have one recurring meeting that I host . In my current role that is a one hour call with my team every other Friday morning . My boss has a weekly team call that I participate in as well . Other than that – I only attend meetings where I have something to add to the discussion. I am happy to live with offline updates on everything else if I can use that time to do something else that is of more value .

Every other communication is ad-hoc and works on a pull basis . If my team needs me – they can get a hold of me at any point in day or night . We don’t need a scheduled meeting unless it needs multiple people whose synchronous input is needed to solve a problem . We just hold each other accountable – and we leave time and resource management to individuals . We respect boundaries each of us set for our personal times and violate it only in extreme emergencies . When I assign work, I assign the authority to get it done too – and a promise to remove roadblocks . Similarly when I sign up for a goal – I check to make sure I am truly empowered to make it happen . If that’s not clear, I am secure enough to push back and get a mutually agreeable solution .

Mistakes happen – but over communication only works as a solution in a handful of cases . One area where I have seen it work well is security and compliance . A good example is awareness about phishing . Complacently often creeps is unless you get a periodic reminder .

In other cases , it is better to spend some time to incorporate the specific feedback on the root cause of mistakes into your standard processes instead of resorting to more emails, videos and blogs .

Parting thought – if you spend quality time recruiting and developing your team , you can save time and trouble “managing” them with long emails and multiple meetings .

Thanks for letting me vent !

Keeping burnout at bay

If there is one word I could pick to explain the last 18 months of my life – I would choose STRESS . I am sure I won’t be alone in that assessment .

I lost my father , a dog that was practically a son for my wife and me , multiple friends, colleagues and relatives . I haven’t met my clients or my team in person in a long time – nor have I seen my mother , my sister or my mother in law in the last year and a half . We have not traveled anywhere for vacation and so on . And yet, when I am asked if I am burnt out – I can honestly say I am not . I have come close for sure, but have somehow always found a way to find a way to cope .

For what little it is worth, I will explain what has helped me – in the hopes that it might help someone who reads figure out a way to help themselves .

1. I am no longer extra hard on myself

I think losing people who I care for deeply was what started making me rethink my priorities . No one stresses me out more than myself – it has always been the case from my school days . It just took me a very long time to realize it . The good part is that I also don’t need anyone else to help me stop the problem . I can’t say I am fully there – but I forgive myself readily these days if I don’t beat my own expectations . I think I have a greater appreciation now of what I am good at and what I am terrible at – and that helps me have more realistic expectations .

PS: I also switched to more old school phone calls instead of video calls – and I think that is far more enjoyable now than being on camera .

2. I built some time every day for myself

Every day I train Archie, my german shepherd puppy – 4 times a week in a class , and other days by myself .

Unlike in the past where I worried about competition – I don’t actually care anymore whether we will ever compete . Just spending quality time and learning together is all I care for now . And almost every evening I play cards online with friends – where the conversation is ten times more fun than the game . Even if work or some personal issue stresses me out that day – the time with Archie and the card game takes off the edge quickly .

3. Maximized the time spent with my daughter

I missed some quality time when she was little – thanks to relentless focus on my career . That was dumb and I did not realize it then. These last 18 months are the first time where she and I could hang out every day – sharing jokes , debating learnings from history , discussing topics for her college application essay , watching movies together and swimming . Knowing that she will be off to college next year does stress me out a little if I am totally honest 🙂

4. Increased focus on making myself useful to others

All things considered, I really don’t have a lot to complain when I look around . I am grateful for my blessings . Whether it is about writing more checks to help the causes I care about (childhood hunger being one of the top causes ), lending my voice to speak up for those who can’t , switching from just mentoring to actively sponsoring more of my junior colleagues , and so on – I find it more satisfying to spend my time, money and energy a bit more on others than on myself and my immediate family . There is a side benefit – it has certainly improved my empathy

My litmus test 🙂

Right from the time I had to prepare for exams as a kid, I am used to making plans and evaluating my progress against it . That habit has stayed with me through my life at work too. What is usually does is that improvement plans – meant to make life less stressful – usually ends up stressing me out a lot . So now that’s my litmus test on things I do to prevent burnout – I stop immediately if I feel I am only adding fuel to fire .

The latest casualty is reading . I like reading a book in one or two sittings , irrespective of size . Somehow I cannot do that anymore – it takes me sometimes ten sittings to get through 300ish pages these days . It started stressing me out significantly and took away from the enjoyment . So I have taken a break from reading . Strangely , I haven’t stopped buying books – so now I have a pile of books on my shelf that I need to read . I will stop buying when that pile starts stressing me out – which so far has not happened . It’s a strange life 🙂

My struggles with “looking the part”

My paternal grandfather was a professor and an author . His favorite gift to me always used to be a nice pen – a Hero fountain pen . Unfortunately and to his significant disappointment I also have lost all of them as quickly as I got them . In any case, he would often tell me that a good fountain pen is the lone “must have” item for any learned man .

My father also loved pens – Cross pens – ball points – were his favorite . I had a bunch of hand me down cross pens from him – which again I lost fairly quickly . Unlike my grandfather , my dad realized quickly that I don’t value pens as much and stopped giving them to me 🙂

Eventually I got my first job and I wondered if I should get a fancy pen for myself . It didn’t take me more than a minute to decide that would be a waste – and I stuck with cheap ball point pens . My handwriting is pretty horrible – and no pen is capable of making it look good . Easy decision and never had to agonise over it very much .

Some years later, I became an Associate Partner . I never wore a suit – not even a blazer – to work . I still used cheap ball point pens . Did not wear a fancy watch either – and would carry around an old backpack with an SAP logo on it . It didn’t take long for me to be coached by the good people watching out for me that I should “look the part” if I were to be considered for an executive promotion .

Their advice was solid – and I spoke with several people senior to me and they all confirmed this was a big deal and that I should not fight it . I had no intention to fight it either – just that I was too lazy to comply . My family had urged me to work on “the looks” too . The compromise in my mind was that I will switch to looking like an executive the moment I became one . Long story short – not having the right accessories didn’t hurt my chances and I did get that promotion .

Well, I was not going to wear a suit and tie regularly . The backpack was just way too convenient and I couldn’t bring myself to switch to a leather bag either . So that left me with two options to upgrade – Watch and pen . I made the leap and spent some serious $$ getting myself a nice watch and pen each . And then about ten days later, I had a chance to gently move my shirt sleeve to glance at the date on my watch , and sign my name on a contract with my fancy monogrammed pen in a conference room at my client’s office . It felt really good ! That feeling lasted till two hours later when I realized , sitting inside a plane ready to take off , that I had left my pen in that conference room 🙂

So that was that – I didn’t want to buy another nice pen ever again and switched back to the cheap ball points .

I am not exactly sure whether not looking the part conventionally has hurt my career – may be it has – but not sufficiently for me to make an active effort .

Then came a weak moment two years ago where my family convinced me that I needed to upgrade – mostly by making the case along the lines of “age appropriate accessories”. I caved and I got myself a leather bag, a monogrammed pen and a fancy watch . I signed a contract with it in a client conference room again – and then remembered to put the pen back in my pocket . With age comes wisdom – and more value for hard earned money 🙂 .

I even got some lovely compliments on my “taste” from colleagues and clients who actually have good taste in these things unlike me . I was too vain to tell them that my mother in law selected the bag, my wife selected my watch and my daughter selected my pen . Even my mom was impressed that I didn’t complain about wasting money on all these things .

That lasted about six months at best . Along came Covid and that meant no more reason to wear a watch or lug a leather bag on a flight . I honestly don’t know where the watch or the bag are kept today – I am sure it’s safe somewhere in the house but I don’t know where exactly . The fancy pen is my every day pen now for note taking – and I actually like writing with it . It’s certainly not doing anything to make me read any better when I glance at the notes I take – but I like how it feels in my hand when I scribble notes .

I will finish with a short story on “looking the part”. About two years ago, I walked into a meeting a few mins late – wearing jeans and with a backpack over my shoulder . During the lunch break, an older gentleman from Europe walked up to me and offered me this friendly advice “I liked your presentation and I think if you wore formal clothing and got rid of that backpack – you may be able to get promoted to an executive” . I thanked him profusely and told him my wife agreed with him too !

My little Covid story – it’s not “just like the flu”

Usually around 20th of December, we take a couple of weeks off and go some place to celebrate the holiday season . By fall of 2020, I was sure that our tradition needs to take a gap year . One idea we had as a consolation prize was to drive up to Flagstaff and enjoy the mountains and the snow for a few days . I stocked up wine and coffee , and had a pile of about a dozen books to read . My daughter – who has been my helper in the kitchen since she was a toddler – and I went around getting all the stuff we need for our culinary adventures . I even had plans to tune up my golf game a bit . For good measure I took a flu vaccine as well 🙂

Then came Christmas Eve . I woke up a bit of a runny nose . That is not unusual when it turns cold in Chandler . By mid morning I started coughing bad . And by night my hands and legs started hurting a bit .

Stupid flu ! That was of course my thought as I went to bed on Xmas eve . There was no way this was Covid . I had been paranoid crazy about masks , distancing and hand washing .

By next morning – I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed . It took about ten seconds in my mind to decide to scrap the special Xmas meal I had planned to cook . For good measure I confined myself to our master bed to minimize the chance of transmitting whatever bug I had to my family .

My wife got me a vicks inhaler and some cough medicine . I decided to wait a day before testing for Covid given it was Xmas day . I figured I could just read a book and pass the day sipping coffee . As I started sipping on the coffee – I knew something was wrong . Took a little bit to realize my brain was confused because there was no aroma ! I could sense the heat and the taste – but no smell . I couldn’t finish the cup and threw it away . I put the inhaler into my nostril and drew a breath – nothing ! I tried running a little bit of Vick’s vaporub under my nose – I could sense the familiar light burn , but no smell . I had completely lost the sense of smell !

I had no fever or headache . Just the coughing and sinus congestion . And a bit after losing my sense of smell , I lost all appetite . Over the next week I would lose ten pounds of weight . But the absolute worst part was the fatigue . I had to dig deep to walk twenty feet to the bathroom !

Next day I got myself tested at our neighborhood urgent care . My wife bought me a extra big cup of some mixed berry smoothie – which became practically my only food for the next few days , delivered every morning .

Just as I thought this can’t get any worse, I started experiencing shortness of breath . This I don’t wish on anyone ! Just turning in my bed to get a bit more comfortable was enough to make me gasp for breath . It’s hard to explain how confusing this feeling is – just turning from one side to the other would make me gasp like I was scaling a steep mountain or something . The strange thing was the pulse oxymeter never showed less than 95 throughout all this .

So while I was convinced I was about to pass out – clinically I wasn’t bad enough to be admitted to a hospital . It was of course a blessing – just that I had no appreciation for how lucky I was while I was experiencing the symptoms .

Couple of days after I tested positive – my wife and daughter both tested positive for Covid as well . No amount of precautions proved sufficient to stop that . Thankfully it didn’t hit them as hard as it hit me .

The fatigue was quite something . I didn’t have the energy to even read a book . Forget the book – I didn’t even want to listen to music . I can’t remember another time in my whole life where I haven’t wanted to do either !

Little Archie took over as my second blanket during day time . He just put his front half of his body over me as I was on my bed – and he stayed that way till I would ask him to get down . In evenings , Ollie took over the duty of watching over me 🙂

I regained my sense of smell in about 4 days . The cough lasted a good couple of weeks . The body aches lasted only a few days . But the fatigue – it took till the middle of January before I felt I could do normal things . By then I was able to take Archie and Ollie for a mile walk around the neighborhood.

Yesterday I tried to do a longer walk – about 4 miles – and it took me about 19 mins per mile on average . That’s nearly twice the time I used to need pre-Covid . It was a beautiful experience though to get out and enjoy some fresh air after a couple of months . Baby steps for now and I am sure I can be back to a better version of normal soon .

I am not particularly optimistic that people who strongly believe that Covid is trivial and that it is just a minor nuisance are going to change their mind because I shared my experience . I chose to write this in the hopes that at least the folks who know me personally would rethink their stance on Covid once more .

Last but most certainly not the least – I couldn’t have survived this without the love and care of my wife and kiddo . Also a special thanks to a lot of friends and colleagues who checked in electronically and kept my spirits up . Finally – I am so very grateful to my team for keeping everything running so smooth at work . I didn’t have to worry about work at all while recovering .

Account Planning

What is it ?

Account planning simply is a process of continuously identifying, analyzing and documenting how you as a solution provider can add value to your client, and balancing that with a sustainable business for your own firm. It is a strategic initiative that serves as a north star for the account over time.

Why bother having an account plan ?

  1. Retaining a client is always a better strategy than finding a new one – less CAC, faster deal cycles, better customer sat etc
  2. Clients prefer working with people who understand their strategy and problems. Higher NPS drives even more business
  3. It helps position “what is on the truck” in the client context
  4. It helps bring new team members up to speed on the account
  5. Helps up-line sales managers plan investment, coverage, revenue etc better for their patch…etc

Macro to Micro

No company exists in a vacuum. You need to understand the environment in which it operates. This is trickier than we might think when we look at companies buying each other across industries (say a Telco company buying a media company), or a Bank operating like a consumer tech company etc. Needless to say, COVID proved to be one of those instances where the macro environment changed quickly for most companies and all micro levels had to be reset.

Equally important is the time dimension. If what you want is a long term relationship, then you need an account plan that spans a longer horizon than your current fiscal year. But when account teams are not stable, or when short term goals are all that sales management worries about – it is hard to look farther into the horizon. Good account planning depends on how well you are scanning the environment along the way. For my fellow cricket enthusiasts – a good batsman knows where each fielder is when a bowler delivers a ball.

It is a jungle out there

And you are not the only hunter ! A good account plan needs an understanding of your competition. The ideal way to look at competition during account planning is with healthy respect. When you are trying to win a deal, it is quite ok to take a confident stance like “Only we can do this” . But in account planning stage – we need a more balanced approach to understand what they are good and how to mitigate the challenge.

Business is done between people and not between companies

For sustained profitable growth, it is not enough that we have “product market fit” with the client. We also need trusted relationships. That is why relationship maps are critical . We need to be honest about what relationships are strong. “She will take a meeting” is not enough to mark it as “strong”. The long term aspect of relationship building is equally key. A good account plan not only analyzes who are the key decision makers, it also identifies who are the up and comers and how you plan to build relationships with them.

Level of detail

An account plan serves as a north star – not as a turn by turn road map. The reason is quite simple – account plan is a strategy document based on what you know at a point in time. As you pursue each aspect of the plan, you will need to evolve the details and mitigate risks. Remember – if there is no risk, it was not strategic to begin with. Do not get trapped into the thinking that an account plan is a collection of pursuit plans. Each pursuit needs to be qualified, planned ,executed and evolved based on learnings on its own merits.

Balancing Outside-In vs Inside-out

The easiest way to add value to a client is by matching a client problem (which could be anywhere from a burning platform to a wish list) to what you have in the truck. It obviously needs you to understand the plans the client already has in place, which in turn needs a lot of homework and a good ability to listen and assimilate.

Similarly, it is also true that the client often does not know what options exist for their plans to be realized. In some cases they don’t know they have a problem till you show it to them in their context. So what you have in the truck will often have some interest from the client – but only if you can put it in the context of their business. For example – “We can help you in your digital transformation journey” means very little to a client , where as “Can I show you a few options on how digital onboarding can cut your acquisition cost by 80%?” will usually lead to a good meeting. Goes without seeing – this needs you to know what you have in the truck in some detail 🙂

Plan the solution for the client, not just your part

Clients need solutions. What you can help with might only be a part of that solution. In that case, you need to widen your thinking and take an ecosystem based approach to the solution. In the technology world it might often mean building a coalition that might include your competitors. For example – If what you bring to the table is integration expertise , perhaps you can also help with figuring out software selection , release planning and post production maintenance . It might not translate immediately to commercial success – but it does help add value to the client and over time it always pays in spades.

Involve the client throughout

There is very little point in creating a plan without talking the client and taking their input along the way. My preferred way is to create a straw-man internally with my team, and then take it to the client to validate. Often it results in rewriting the plan from scratch. Then along the way, I like to do “listen only” sessions with clients to understand their goals and objectives – where I pitch nothing from my side, other than follow ups in case I think I can help with something after the meeting.

Operationalizing the plan

Now that you have a north star – it needs to translate into execution. I use a straightforward method for this

  1. Make sure there is buy in from client and my team and address those concerns
  2. Map the account plan to leads in the lead tracking system and assign timeline, sales stage, potential value etc. Then it becomes part of your regular execution cadence, and saves you from additional meetings and processes
  3. Map the account plan to sales/revenue/cash flow etc to make sure you have headlights into the future in tangible terms
  4. Adjust the plan every quarter with input from all stakeholders in a business review meeting. A plan is always a work in progress
  5. Reset the plan mid year to incorporate whatever you have learned . If you do not incorporate learnings along the way, the plan is useless
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