Conquering the three big fears in enterprise sales

I can’t believe that 2018 is nearly over ! I have been checking in one folks that I mentor for the last couple of weeks to see how well everyone is doing before we all head for vacation time. Those with a sales quota that hasn’t been retired generally are on an overdrive of emotions in December – positive or negative.

Even for experienced sellers – occasionally, fear of not retiring their quota becomes a paralyzing issue . For inexperienced ones – I have noticed it to be fairly routine. I thought I will share my thoughts on this topic here

There are three big fears to overcome in enterpise sales

1. Fear of inertia

This has two flavors to this – external and internal .

Most customers hate change unless they are sitting on a burning platform. It’s not enough that you think there is value in what you are selling – you need to validate (and sometimes repeatedly) with the customer first hand that they see the value in moving to your solution.

The internal flavor can cause just as much anxiety – especially in larger companies with complex and rigid approval workflows . I have fallen victim to this when I started out – I was more afraid of our internal finance and ops reviews than about negotiating with actual client. That fear went away thanks to a mentor showing me that no reviewer knows my deal as well as I do and that if I can confidently explain it , the inspection session can be turned into a coaching session . As I gained experience – it also helped me challenge some processes and get them changed

2. Fear of competition

From my own experience as a young seller many years ago, and then later as a leader of sellers – I have data to prove that the biggest threat to your proposal not getting ink on paper is customer inaction, and not competition . Ergo – the lack of thoughtfulness in crafting your value prop , and lack of customer relationship are way more serious threats to your success than your competition . Those are both within your control to get better at !

There is one thing I insist with my team all the time – ALWAYS respect your competition , but NEVER fear them . If you don’t respect them – you just are increasing your blind spots and you won’t know what hit you. If you fear them – you will focus more on their strengths and weaknesses and not yours .

Price is a big reason why people worry about competition. A larger competitor might be able to offer a lower price than you could . Even the client might tell you that they are just looking for the lowest price . However – that doesn’t mean you will win if you have the lowest price ! There are always more parameters to differentiate and it’s your loss if you become one dimensional and fight the price war and race to the bottom. The one who wins is the one who understands the customer the most , not the one who understands competition the most !

3. Fear of the clock

Especially in December – this is the primary fear for most sellers . Will I be able to close this deal before end of the year ? Even if customer sees value and has recognized that you have a better proposal than others – they still may not choose to buy immediately.

This happens commonly when your value prop doesn’t account for the time dimension at all. If you only realize this late – you can still get a deal done by creating incentives like discounts , or asking for a favor with the relationships you have hopefully built . But those are all suboptimal in general for you and the customer . The better way to do it is to understand what is the most logical time for the customer to do the deal and then consciously (without time pressure) determine a good way to accelerate the deal closure .

Conquering the three fears

It’s absolutely possible to overcome these fears . I suggest the following as a starting point

1. Spend your energy qualifying your deals every step of the way from the moment you identify them .

2. Invest in understanding your client, your competition and your internal organization – in that order

3. Remember it’s a team sport ! Your manager and a lot of other people have a vested interest in your success – the sooner you make use of help available, the better your odds of success . Heroics should be a last resort , not your leading card

4. Never lose perspective of business cycles and luck . If 80% of deals work as planned – you should be happy

5. Never burn bridges – enterprise is a small market and you will see the same people again . The most difficult CXO I ever sold to bought from me at three different companies – and I was within an inch of yelling at him for what he did the first time I met him 🙂

6. Never lose your moral compass. There is more to life than any one deal !


For the love of dogs…and dog shows

I have loved dogs all my life. When I was born – there was a big German Shepherd in the family who was gifted to my dad by his aunt. He passed away when I was three or four. My own first puppy was “Toffee” – a Spitz – whose breeder was a student of my Grandfather, and had heard me asking my grandfather repeatedly for a puppy. I must have been seven or so at the time. Someone stole Toffee from our house – and this disaster repeated one more time a few years later with Timmy (also a spitz). The way I dealt with the trauma was by rationalizing that I will never keep a small dog ever – and thus eliminate the chance of my furry friends ever getting stolen. That strategy worked out so far – keeping fingers crossed.

Thus entered Betsy into my life, the sweetest and also perhaps the most disobedient dog that ever lived in India 🙂 . She was a yellow Labrador that my dad bought for me ( as a result of significant drama I created at home) from Bangalore. She also was my first show dog – and her very first show she won Best of Breed and CC, and placed in the BIS lineup. I was hooked to dog shows. I bred her only once (I was a mature tenth grader) – and she had one champion from that litter – a black male. Unfortunately the best puppy in that litter died at 4 months . Raising that one litter proved to me beyond any doubt that breeding is way more trouble than I can handle.

Showing in the breed ring seemed way too much fun – and I had several friends who were shy to get into the ring themselves and were happy to let me do the honors. So my handling skills improved rapidly and I won my fair share – including winning BOB at the Nationals and so on. Some of my best friends in India are folks I met in the sport – some my age, but many decades older than me. Some were real princes, senior politicians and bureaucrats, some ran some of the biggest businesses in India at the time. They all treated me like a son – and not only did I learn a lot from them about dogs, I also gained tremendous confidence in dealing with senior people at a very young age – which helped me a lot as I started my career.

I also owe sincere thanks to uncle Radhakrishnan, who is an eminent dog show Judge in India, for talking me out of dropping out of school to be with dogs full time. He was the one who told me “Go finish college and get a job – you can have any dog you want”. Just for reinforcement – he added “And if you do drop out now – I will make sure no judge in India will let you win in the ring” . He denies he ever said the second part 🙂

While breed shows were fun – my heart was always in the obedience ring. My lab was a great teacher . She was the reason I quickly figured everything about how not to train a dog 🙂 . As luck would have it – right when Besty had a litter, I got myself a male German Shepherd puppy. I called him Hitler ( Not in honor of the bad guy – but in honor of the best obedience dog in the country at that time, a male yellow lab who was a working police dog in Railway Protection Force ). We had a grand time – training every day even when I was sick. One of the smartest decisions I made was to teach him commands in Hindi – when every other dog we competed against used English commands. He had laser focus – and we beat every team in India at the time we competed against.

My proudest moment was when Abdul Khadar (the guy who trained the yellow lab Hitler after whom my kiddo was named) watched us in the ring – and told me with tears in his eye that my dog did even better than his dog (who had passed away by then). More than our wins in the obedience ring – he was my heart dog. He was also quite a star in the community . The local newspaper even came out with a Sunday supplement in his honor.

The one skill I acquired training him was that you can solve any problem by breaking it into very small problems that can be easily solved and then put it all together for a grand solution. Best example was that I trained him to pick up a grocery bag and run to the corner store and buy a packet of milk in the morning. It took several months to get there – but he was foolproof once he learned it. That is a principle that has helped me throughout my life – and not just in training dogs. Hitler was almost 10 years old by the time I moved to the US. One of my biggest regrets was that I could not find a way to get him here with me. He passed away a couple of years later – and I will never forgive myself for not being with him when he left this world.

With the first salary I got in US – I bought a German shepherd in Germany . Inka stayed with my buddy Dr. Satish in Bangalore and was his best buddy till she died. Unfortunately we could not get a puppy from her. Since then I have owned or co-owned a lot of dogs across the world. Some in India were even in the name of my little sister Lekshmi – without her knowledge 🙂 . When we got married, my wife was afraid of dogs. But the day we got a puppy in 2005 – she magically transformed to a big dog lover. And then she was instrumental in getting the next two fur kids 🙂

One thing eventually became abundantly clear to me – I could not honestly say any more whether I loved my dogs more than I enjoyed the game of dog shows. I came to the conclusion that its a lot more fulfilling to prioritize my dogs over the game. I still buy purebred pups with show potential. I give them every chance to do well in the show ring. But unlike in the past – I care nothing at all if they win or lose. They all retire from the ring early and enjoy being pampered full time. I still enjoy shows – even if I don’t show myself. I just go hangout with my friends and watch from ringside. Side benefit – I am not affected by dog show politics either 🙂 .

Now life has come full circle again. My youngest dog Ollie is not obedience trained at all – which is not good for any family dog. He is our full time hugs-and-cuddles-machine 🙂 . And I have only myself to blame for that. My 10 year old black lab Hobo could have perhaps been an obedience champion but I completely lost interest in shows and just did not move forward with him.  I recently revived connections with my old friends in the German shepherd world. I am itching to get a puppy and start IPO (working dog) training . If only I could make up my mind……and convince my family 🙂

Getting the most out of review meetings

Yesterday night, I helped a couple of colleagues prepare for reviewing their deals with their line management. And today morning I spent some time reviewing a couple of deals with my team. Perhaps the largest category of meetings in the corporate world is “reviews” – be it deals, career, special assignments or whatever. Having been a reviewee and a reviewer several times, and having been in both good and terrible reviews, I thought I should jot down a few thoughts on this topic.

group of people in a meeting

Photo by on

For the reviewee

  • Have no fear : This is absolutely the key to having a good review. Bad reviews are most often a result of fear. Reviewers often (not always) know way less about the topic at hand than you do – which is why they asked you to work on it in the first place. If they sense you have some fear, they often think that is because you have not done a good job thinking through the problem. So someone will start poking at your POV and then the herd mentality will kick in and soon they are all jumping on your throat. Don’t let that happen – walk in prepared. And call out risks and open questions explicitly. Ask for additional help as needed. Tell them what you have already done before asking for help. Do whatever you need to do up front to prepare – except pls don’t EVER resort to lies – and it will pay off in spades. Also, if you develop a reputation for coming to reviews well prepared, you will have their confidence and reviews will start getting more pleasant for you.
  • Know what a good outcome is before you walk in :  

    “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
    “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
    “I don’t much care where –”
    “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland 

    The success of a good meeting is in knowing what a good outcome looks like. It could range from you living to fight another day all the way to getting funding approved for a key project. If you don’t know what you want from the meeting and leave it to just play out – the odds are that you will end up with a result you won’t like, or at a minimum asked to come for another review . When I prepare for a review, I work backwards from what I want out of it to prepare my narrative. When you walk in prepared and without fear – you often pick up things to learn from what the reviewers tell you. That is the highest value of reviews – the learning and tweaking of what you already knew!

  • Always have options : People are unpredictable in generally, and especially so under stress. So all that prep you did might not come in handy when there is someone in the review team who is having a bad day and is hell bent on taking it out on you. In less drastic situations – they still might want to “add value” and you need to leave some room in your solution to incorporate their input. One way to solve this is to pre-determine a couple of areas where you could use some coaching, and explicitly state it in the review. Also – figure out your strategy in case the review goes south. Do you want to ask for another meeting ? Should you enlist the support of a few reviewers before the formal review?
  • Know what is important for the reviewer for the short term : The needs of reviewers change from time to time. You may be reviewing your deal which has great revenue but not the best profit. If your boss needs more profit and not revenue – you probably are not going to score an approval. It helps to know upfront what is important for the reviewers before you craft your narrative. This obviously needs work in terms of networking and homework. But it is time and energy well spent ! One of my worst reviews came in a meeting that I prepared very well for. I was the lead developer and I got ripped a new one for telling them what I did on performance optimization, when the big objective from the CIO was to have more robust testing accomplished in that quarter (which made sense, but I had no idea it suddenly trumped performance problems we were working on) !

For the reviewer

  • Do you actually need to review ? : Life in the corporate world will be infinitely better if reviewers were honest about their answers. Vast majority of such meetings are low calorie or just gamed for optics. Why bother having such meetings? This is especially true the higher you are in the pecking order. Every review you ask for has several people below the hierarchy spending time on intermediate reviews. Can some of it be automated fully or partially ? Is there a standard checklist that can be used to manage by exceptions ? Can the team be better trained and managed to minimize the times you need to review yourself? The idea is to minimize low calorie reviews – and conserve time and energy for where it is needed the most
  • Does the reviewee know what you are expecting ? :  That is not the same as the meeting having an agenda and the presentation following a published template.  It is easy to ask “gotcha” questions. It is usually low value to do so though. When you give someone a problem to solve – tell them what you expect them to come back with ? Are you just looking for information ? Do you want them to make a decision and solve it – or should they bring back options and you will pick one ? Do you want to know if this is the right problem to solve ? Are there any direct consequences to the not solving the problem that you can tell the reviewee about ? How often should they keep you posted on their progress? The more clarity you can provide and the more consistent you are – the more useful these reviews will be for you.
  • Feedback comes in many forms : Not all reviews are about giving an explicit approval to some proposal. One of the most useful things you can do as a reviewer is to also explain how you viewed the review process itself. Could the reviewee improve on something ? Will you change something about the process because you learned something new from the reviewee? Do you engage in an intellectual debate with the reviewee or do you just check boxes ? . Do you follow up on the commitments you both made during the reviews? Do you use reviews as teaching moments? If you want the next review to be great – you need to make the reviewee feel that it was a good use of their time, and not just an administrative activity.

SAP buys Qualtrics – Some quick thoughts

I saw the news on twitter yesterday night that SAP is buying Qualtrics for $8B cash – most of it financed .

I am writing this blog post strictly in my personal capacity and it doesn’t represent my employer’s opinions . I have no prior knowledge of this deal. I have worked in the SAP field for a long time and worked in SAP Labs for a short while as well.

My first reaction was “Wow – that’s an unusually bold move”. But then knowing SAP’s leadership team – I am not surprised they went with a gutsy – and perhaps unconventional- move .

I think SAP was over due for a large acquisition any way – like the BOBJ and Sybase ones. S4Hana seems to be doing very well indeed from what I see in the field, even though the ambitions about HANA itself being a leading general purpose data base by revenue didn’t exactly play out . While there is a lot of talk about Leonardo – it seems to be more of a packaging play than an actual software play. So it makes sense that SAP went for a big acquistion now.

S4Hana is mostly a defensive strategy to keep existing ERP customers within The SAP family . The real battle to be won is on customer and employee facing applications – and perhaps industry verticals .

SAP has long been a proponent of design thinking – and human centric design and all that . Their emphasis on “experience” seems to be something that their customer base seemed to appreciate too – especially with Fiori coming in . SAP obviously has significant IP on business processes as well over decades .

However – SAP has historically not taken a holistic approach to measuring experiences and more importantly the gaps in experiences . That needed custom work in projects if a customer wanted it – be it about customer , product , employee etc . So from that perspective – Qualtrics fulfills a high quality problem .

If there is one competitor out there that SAP badly wants to compete with now – that would be Salesforce. It’s a very large market and one that SAP once had a chance to rule . SAP did make some noise with C4Hana as their primary play and I don’t think that caused Benioff to lose any sleep. Qualtrics may be a useful addition from that perspective – though I doubt even that would get Benioff out of bed and worrying about next steps.

From the press release – I understand that combining experience data from Qualtrics with operational data from SAP is where the value is . I think that’s a fair statement. But for that to be a reality – the differentiation needs to come from specialized algorithms . SAP has bought some small ML companies in the past . If these XM + OM theory needs to be converted into practice – SAP probably needs to buy some more ML companies , hire more PhDs and license more IP – and maybe invest in some large university. All of it can be done and SAP has the money and brand to do it – but that will take time to materialize . I am very curious to see the next steps on this front .

When it comes to integrating existing tech with acquired tech – SAP’s track record is decent but not stellar. BOBJ gave SAP a lot of mileage as an analytics leader. But BOBJ products took a while to work on top of BW , and even today there is plenty of product overlap across their analytics portfolio . Closed loop analytics was a promise that didn’t materialize in a mainstream fashion across SAP portfolio . Sybase was bought with mobile as front and center – but eventually the database part was what proved to be more useful to SAP . SuccessFactors was a good Acquistion too and I first hand know customers who love it – but putting it all on HANA was a promise SAP couldn’t keep for a few years.

What could be different this time is that SAP has two new board members driving this – Enslin from cloud business and Mueller from Tech. If anyone knows how to get things done efficiently in SAP – it’s Rob. Mueller is an up and coming star and has Hasso’s blessings which means a lot in SAP’s engineering and product organization. So I think things may be a lot better this time .

The big question always is whether SAP paid more than it should have. They paid about 20 times the current revenue of Qualtrics. Qualtrics just started making a profit – and it is minuscule . I read they have been cash flow positive which is great of course. I also read that SAP will keep them as an independent business .

I am not exactly sure on the logic here.

It’s not a large earnings number to boost SAP’s numbers. They only have 9000 customers compared to something like half a million for SAP and my guess is that there is significant overlap of customer base . While Cross sell and up sell are always there – it’s still a small pond for SAP to fish. Independence might be needed to keep the acquired team intact, but I can’t see any reason why they won’t be folded in at the first opportunity given the relatively small size of the stand alone business .

Plus the whole value of the acquired tech is in integration with rest of SAP – which also beats the idea of keeping them separate. I don’t know enough about XM to venture a guess on how easy or difficult it will be to integrate with SAP. But that doesn’t worry me as much given the value is in data integration to begin with – and that doesn’t need integrating two platforms . But eventually for developers to get a productive experience – I would think XM seamlessly becomes a part of SAP cloud platform .

Could they have bought other companies for this money and had similar or greater impact ? XM is not unique in its category – survey monkey , Medallia etc are all good considerations too. And I also wonder if nearly the same impact could have been had by SAP buying multiple smaller companies – perhaps with deep ML capabilities , and then building extensive tech partnerships (and/or minority investments ) with the survey vendors .

A lot of assumptions go into modeling such deals and it’s hard to make a judgment from the peanut gallery on whether the price is justified or not . So while I don’t understand the logic fully from the outside – I have the highest regard for SAP leadership, and they are generally fiscally conservative – and hence I believe they arrived at what they thought was a justified price .

I look forward to learning more about this as the transaction closes and SAP makes roadmap announcements.

Sir, there are no foreigners in this apartment !

I was in midtown NY earlier this week and had a coffee with a young immigrant colleague who recently moved there. She asked me “How did you manage to survive here for so long ? I can’t seem to stop tripping over myself every step” . So I told her how my first week in this country played out – a story that might resonate with many others who came to this country at a young age.

I landed here by an Air India flight from Mumbai via London to JFK . And then I had to connect from LGA to Denver , and then by road to Colorado Springs . I must have flown at best 4 times in my life at that time – and never in an international flight. I was 24 at the time .

When I picked up my passport , Visa and $200 from TCS travel desk in India – I got some minimal instructions on what to answer the immigration officer , a warning that my connecting flight is from a different airport and so on . I was also told that if anything is hard to understand in the new place – the best people to ask are the cops in this country !

So I landed at JFK – goosebumps and all that – and the first words I hear from the immigration officer were “Is there anyone left in your village back home or is everyone here already ?”. This was directed to the guy from Guntur ( also from TCS ) who was immediately in front of me in the line . Goose bumps left me in a hurry 🙂

I got out of the airport – and the first guy I saw outside was a friendly Indian guy who told me his name is Hari. His speech went like this “I can take you to LGA – and it will cost you $200. Good thing you saw me – else someone would have cheated you”. I already knew from my research that he is quoting a high amount and decided to walk to the cop who was standing 20 yards from where we were . From the corner of my eyes – I saw Hari running like an Olympic Sprinter. The cop helped me get a cab and it only cost $30 or so to get to my connecting flight .

By the time I landed in Denver , it was really late at night . My manager who was supposed to pick me up hadn’t shown up . I had his phone number – but couldn’t figure out how to call him . Out of nowhere, a Hispanic lady showed up next to me and offered to help . She bought me a coffee, and using the change she got from the cashier – she called my manager from a pay phone , yelled at him at the top of her voice, and gave me the phone . He gave me instructions in a sleepy voice on how to get to Colorado Springs . The lady had already left by the time I turned around to thank her . I am convinced to this date that she was an angel !

In my infinite wisdom, I rented a car – only to find that it has no gear and no clutch ! And I couldn’t figure out how to roll the windows without the manual rotary control either . To make matters worse – for a few miles I drove on the left side of the road till I realized people drive here on the “wrong side”. I drove the car over a median and found my way to Colorado Springs and on to the motel 6 . One thing I vividly remember was a stretch of road where the street names were Arizona , California etc. i was quite impressed that US was so neatly organized that all it took for me to drive to California was to take this well marked street 🙂 .

The receptionist – Mr Patel – gave me a little package with the key and some paperwork and all . When I reached the room , I opened it and found no key in that package . I went back and woke up Mr Patel one more time . He patiently walked me to my room and showed me how to use the key card – which was pure magic to me ! I also couldn’t figure out how to handle the shower to get hot water – so I took bath by filling the ice bucket with hot water from the sink 🙂

The next morning I could not return the car to local Hertz location – after seeing cars whiz past me at 70 MPH. I waited till evening for lesser traffic to get to Hertz, and the manager even kindly waived the late fees . On the walk back to the motel – I waited 15 minutes to cross a Street because I didn’t know I had to press a button for the pedestrian signal to turn on .

First three days, I survived on McDonalds burgers – till a colleague who had been in Colorado for a long time took pity on me and took me home for a home cooked meal . His wife – who cooked that meal – was the second angel I met in 4 days . I don’t remember her name unfortunately, but the ONLY thing I brought back as a gift for someone on my next trip back from India was a Saree for her !

After three days I called my mom in India and told her that USA looked like India – there is no snow like we had seen in movies . It was June ! Snow did come – heavily – in August and I quickly realized it is a lot better to see snow in movies as opposed to dealing with it every day .

Thanks to my dear friend Kasi for sharing this photo of my first snow in Colorado Springs outside our apartment.

That weekend – another colleague invited me and a few other newly arrived young guys to his apartment for lunch. While we were eating, the door bell rang. His wife opened the door and it was a FedEx driver with a package for Mr Stevens . He had the wrong address – so the lady helpfully told the driver “Sir, there are no foreigners here in this apartment . Actually I don’t think there are any foreigners here in this entire community . We are all Indians here” . I will never forget the look on his face 🙂

Problem Solving – what does good look like ?

Few weeks ago, I had dinner with an old friend in India . He is not a technologist and doesn’t have any background in services . We knew each other socially through a common hobby. The last time I saw him was some 25 years ago when I was in college. He asked me what I do in my line of work and the simplest answer I could come up with was “I am a problem solver”. He quite innocently asked me “And are you any good at it?” . We had a good laugh over beers 🙂

The question has stayed on my mind since then . To know if I am any good at it – obviously I need to define what good looks like. So here is what I think what good problem solving looks like – and I would greatly appreciate it if you could add your thoughts and/or challenge my thinking

1. Picking the right problem to solve

We are not short on problems to solve and there isn’t enough time in the day to deal with every problem that comes our way. So it’s critical that we choose which ones have the most impact if we solve them . Often the challenge is to keep reframing a question till you come up with a version that can be solved meaningfully

2. Ownership (or passion?)

The acid test of ownership for me is whether the intent is to find a solution against all odds or to default to find several reasons why the problem can’t be solved . Problems generally don’t age well – so if we don’t tackle them early, we usually are just going to get more grief later. I am not sure if passion is a better term than ownership in this context . The trouble I have with passion here is that I think it often gets in the way of being objective . On the other hand – some of the best solutions happen ONLY because the problem solvers were passionate .

3. Understanding

The difficulty with understanding is not usually a lack of data – but more of our tendency to see only what we want to see. Ability to listen well, poke at it thoughtfully and transfer it to deep understanding is quite hard in practice .

4. Effective dealing with people

All problems have a people angle and people are complex beings. And most problems need multiple people to solve . Every problem gets harder to solve if the problem solver cannot bring together the right people and get them to contribute . With experience , most of us become efficient about doing this – email , conference calls , slack etc all help. But are we really effective though ?

5. Structure

While we all like one grand solution to each problem – the reality is that most problems have multiple solutions . What’s right for short term may not be right for long term for example . If we don’t have a framework ( like perhaps MECE ) to solve problems – it’s hard to know when to stop. The flip side issue is that every framework has limitations too and overlooking those can be disastrous in some cases . Net net – some framework is better than no framework

6. Knowing when to stop

At some point – all solutions have diminishing returns . This can come in many forms. A classic example is “premature optimization” – usually found in larger companies. They tend to build a sales and marketing engine , complex metrics etc before figuring out if there is market fit to begin with . It could also be that another problem with bigger impact could show up and take priority over what you are working on . The ability to stay objective is crucial here to avoid significant opportunity cost

I would really appreciate your views on this

What’s in a name ?

Romeo and Juliet is a brilliant piece of literature and every time I think of it, I remember Juliet arguing “What’s in a name . That which we call a rose. By any other name will smell as sweet” . What Juliet did not say was that when it comes to those of us with very long names – the answer is EVERYTHING !

Last name was not a big deal at all when I was growing up in Trivandrum . Till I got out of college – I did not even have a real last name . It was just an initial V that I used – and that was common practice . My name was signed Vijayasankar . V . That V stood for Vijayaraghavan – which is my dad’s first name . There were no other Vijayasankars in any of my classes – and this never was a problem . My friends called me Sankar in school and VS in college . No one called me Vijay – ever !

My parents and grand parents had decided on my name after a lot of careful consideration . It’s a combination of the names of my paternal and maternal grandmothers. And it was – and still is – kind of a unique name . Normally it would have read Vijayashankar like it’s pronounced in Malayalam – but because of this truncation and concatenation of grad mothers’ names, and in the interest of not ending up with 13 alphabets in my name , it ended up being Vijayasankar . I have my paternal grandfather to thank for that part 🙂

Then I had to apply for my passport while I was in business school . That was the turning point. The dude at the counter insisted that initials are no good on a passport and that I should expand it to Vijayaraghavan. I was in a hurry and I agreed . What he did in the actual passport was that he made that my first name and my own name became my last name . For good measure he also had me convinced that this is how it was done for EVERYONE:)

The dude was not a total liar , as it turns out . I now know several Indian men whose names were butchered by the passport office . Several from Kerala have their dad’s first name as their first name in their passport 🙂

When I started in TCS – most of my fellow trainees were from the North (North of Kerala at least if not North of India ). They were the ones who started calling me Vijay instead of Sankar. It stuck and in a few months I started introducing myself as Vijay too 🙂

Finally came the time when I had to travel to USA. I remember the frustration of the CBP officer at JFK who let me in – she couldn’t make out which was my first name and which was my last name . Passports were not machine readable at that point . I nearly thought she won’t let me into the country 🙂

The next shock came in Starbucks in Denver, CO . My manager there told the barrista that my name was John – which always resulted in a big frown on her face ! I eventually started using VJ as my “Starbucks name”. I hadn’t known most of my life that everyone needs a Starbucks name 🙂

Along came an opportunity to live and work in Liverpool, UK . There – no one had any difficulty pronouncing my name . And there was excellent Indian food available all around. Yet I was in for my next “name experience”. We were building an extension to SAP for insurance and they needed a field to hold email address . My tech lead chose mine as the test case proclaiming “in the history of mankind , there hasn’t been a longer email id and there never will be” ! He was right of course and I have personally used it as the litmus test for a dozen projects after that 🙂

After the UK , I started in Los Angeles, CA on my next job . With that came the Spanish variable of my name problem . We had a lot of Hispanics in the team and they would call me VIHAYA ! Some would call me VIHAYA VIHAYA shortening my first and last names . Took me ages to find out that’s how they pronounce J

Finally there is the TSA . I swear I speak to them the most outside my own family given the amount of flying I do. Every week , they stare at the long string of letters on my ID at the airport for a couple of minutes . I am convinced they don’t read – they just count letters and verify it they way . Some tell me in an exasperated voice “it’s a very long name , sir”.

I respond “I blame the passport officer in Trivandrum”, and walk away enjoying their confused look 🙂

PS : hardly a week goes by without someone asking me about my looooong name . I wrote the whole story down so that the next person asking will just get a short link to it 🙂