Yesterday morning, I woke up to see a mail that said I was given a “Thought leader” badge by IBM – which is our highest level of competence in consulting . We have switched a few different HR frameworks in my time here and this badge was a retrospective of the level I had achieved more than a decade ago as a senior manager .
It just reminded me of my shift in career direction and I posted it on LinkedIn . That led to a lot of people reaching out asking me about how they should think about a career transition between Engineering and Sales .
I am a mechanical engineer by training and a software engineer by profession . I chose engineering as my line of work strictly because I saw how much my father enjoyed being one . This is also why I chose a career in IT after my business school instead of Finance which was what I largely focused on while doing my MBA.
I am an introvert by nature . It takes a lot of effort for me to not let that hold me back and occasionally it still exhausts me trying to do that . This probably was the root cause of me hating sales with a passion when I started working . When I looked at sales as an engineer – I felt it is all about telling half truths and lies , wining and dining clients , speaking a lot of jargon and using fancy vocabulary , having a good golf game , taking credit for engineer’s work and so on . Net net – I couldn’t think of sales as an honorable way of making a living . The reality – which I know now but didn’t know at the time – was that I didn’t have the confidence to do any of the things sellers did every day .
I was a reasonably good developer , mostly thanks to an early start . I learned BASIC when I was in seventh grade and C when I was in ninth grade . My favorite uncle gave me his old PC when he left for his masters in US . Other than training dogs, and playing cricket – the only other thing that I had real interest in was in creating silly video games .
A big attraction for me to work in IBM was that this company had an iconic status in tech . I felt I can thrive in that environment . So when I joined and learned about career options , the most attractive option was to become a distinguished engineer – which is the executive rank for our technologists , much like a partner in consulting . I started getting all the certifications and other credentials needed and was generally progressing fine towards becoming a DE . The stretch goal – more like winning the lottery really – would be to make IBM fellow .
That is when my boss and I had an interesting discussion . He said something like this – “You will probably make DE in a few years and it doesn’t look like there is any big risk that will stop it . So why don’t you take a year trying to carry a sales and revenue target and see how you like it. If it doesn’t pan out – go back to your tech career” . A few discussions with my mentors made me realize there is no risk in trying this and I took on a sales target as an associate partner .
To my shock and surprise, I realized that pretty much everything I thought of sales – all the negative stuff – was purely my own ignorance and fear . I needed some training – and my boss signed me up for training in negotiations , executive presentations etc when I made those requests . I cannot emphasize how much that training helped me .
Here is what I figured out . There is a big similarity between good sellers and good engineers – they are good problem solvers . Engineering gave me two skills that proved very useful in sales
1. The ability to analyze problems systematically and finding solutions to the components
2. The ability to then combine the components to a cohesive solution for my client
All problem solving needs assumptions . And that exposed a weakness I had . As a programmer, I rarely needed a lot of help from my team to analyze problems . When I needed that help – I knew how best to ask that question and who is best positioned to give me a good answer . That was not how it worked in sales .
The unknowns are many in sales and often no one person knows all the answers . What’s worse – you often can’t even ask the right questions . That was the hardest challenge for me personally to overcome . Learning to ask for help early and often , and trusting others to build a solution with me . Doing trade offs on tech with people who think like me and doing it on a solution where everyone thinks differently – it is an acquired taste . Interestingly, once I acquired the taste – I think it made me a much better engineer too !
Then there is the idea of how you move from good to great . In engineering – tech changes from time to time , but if you are used to solving problems from first principles – you will thrive despite the massive changes around you . Sales can make use of the same idea – except that it is about people . Moving from being good to being great (or in my case aspiring to be great ) is all about your ability to understand people and their motivations – which is quite a bit harder than reading legacy code and figuring out a modernization strategy .
People do business with people – not with companies . We talk more about what is good for the company – but the truth is that sales is about what is good for people in that company . That needs relationships , that needs the ability to understand what makes people successful and motivated to work with you and so on . And when I say people – it’s not just people at your client . It’s people in your own company too ! The more deep our understanding of people – the better the sales process all around , even if no transaction happens in short term .
And that brings me to story telling . No one really likes to change – including and especially me . And yet – sales is all about making change happen . Of all the tools in sales – the ability to tell a story is what I find the most powerful . Stories are magical when told well – they get people to focus , helps them switch contexts and feel inspired . Numbers and facts don’t have the same effect on people . That was a hard switch for me as my basic DNA is mostly quantitative in nature . It took me a lot of effort to blend facts and figures into stories to make it work . But post facto – I can assure you that the juice is worth the squeeze .
Now that I have covered a lot on being effective , I will make a couple of points about efficient selling .
As programmers , we learn about code hygiene and why that is useful . That concept readily extends to sales too . Keeping pipeline updated , having people QA our pitch stories etc are all great things . Also just like with coding – your ability to say No is what eventually makes you most successful . Qualifying every step of the way – ruthlessly – is your key to being successful in sales . When I look at my old code , I have often wondered why I typed up thousands of lines of code that never executed . Similarly when I look at my old deals – I have often wondered why I bothered to do all the things that don’t matter to the client very much . Learn from my mistake and ask yourself frequently if your opportunity is more or leas qualified today than yesterday . And don’t keep the info with you – share it with your team and your boss . There is always someone with a fresh perspective on what can be done to make it better . Share it with your client too and ask if you are still headed in the right direction.
And then there is the time dimension . As engineers, we write code to ship and that usually comes with firm dates that look unreasonable . Sales is that way too . It’s not a deal unless there is a predictable date to go with it . Learning to estimate the time it takes to close a deal is just as much an art as it is to estimate a finish date to coding . Eventually you will have to pick a date and make it work on both fronts – with the associated cursing , coffee and late nights . There are always dependencies that we only learn about late in the process . Good engineers figure out a model to thrive in that stressful environment and it’s something you can figure out just as well in sales too .
I will conclude with this . For me – engineering and sales are co-mingled parts of my job . I switch from largely sales oriented to largely tech oriented roles every few years to keep it interesting . But there is never a case where I ignore one in favor of the other . It is a model that works for me and it probably will work fine for all of you engineers too who want to expand into sales roles .
I still need to learn to play golf better , improve my vocabulary, develop a fancy accent and develop a taste for fine wine 🙂
I had a Sunday morning group chat with a bunch of friends who also make a living from the enterprise tech Ecosystem like I do . We were mostly talking about how our world seems to be changing even faster since Covid came along uninvited , and how each of us is coping with us .
After the call, I had a lively discussion with my daughter about Victor Hugo. She is taking an AP course on English Literature in high school and needed examples of famous writers who stood up against the powers that be of their time. So we spoke about Hugo and Napoleon . I chose the example mostly because we had vacationed in Paris last Christmas and she could relate more easily to the stories I told her at that time .
After these two conversations , I did some internet research on Hugo . I can’t help but connect Hugo’s writing to our life in enterprise technology world these days – on how we look at our life and work , how we survive and hopefully thrive , our fears and prayers and so on .
I am sure at least some of you will be amused like I was when the thought came to my mind 🙂
1. Emergencies have always been necessary for progress.
2. Hope is the word which God has written on the brow of every man.
3. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live.
4. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.
5. There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.
6. Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers
7. Be a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.
8. Be a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.
9. As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled
10. People do not lack strength; they lack will
Today, I was asked by a young colleague on how I avoid analysis paralysis . It took me down memory lane a bit . After the call, I figured it is a question that others might have as well and hence decided to share some thoughts here.
I am not a big risk taker by nature . I have often thought about the reasons why . My hypothesis is that there are influences from my parents and the managers I had in my formative years , and the academic system that I went through all contributed to me measuring twice or thrice before I cut .
There was a period in my career where I was a poster child for analysis paralysis . I would measure endlessly , toss and turn and lose sleep , and never make any cuts . Looking back, I understand why I was so stressed out . It was the first time that I was given a sales target . I felt the weight of the world was on my shoulders and even for very small deals I would over analyze and delay getting back to the client .
One very rainy day in Oregon, my client and her boss invited me to a coffee meeting and said something like this . “Vijay, we absolutely enjoy working with you on technology topics . You walk us through pros and cons and help us take decisions . But when we ask you for a commercial proposal , you struggle even for small things . What is causing your difficulty ? Why are you not taking the same approach as you do with tech questions ?”.
My clients came from engineering and finance background themselves . They had never sold anything in their lives either . But they gave me the best framing of the problem and almost overnight my problem with analysis paralysis was overcome .
So here is how I approach decision making in four simple steps
1. Gain clarity on my role – who is the best person to make the decision and why ? If it happens to not be me – do I have a role to play in helping that person take a decision ? If I am the decision maker , do I know who else needs to help me make the decision ?
This step helps figure out the minimum number of people required to take the decision and by itself eliminates a lot of paralysis . It is also important to make sure it is the best qualified people . Often we make decisions based on assumptions . People who are not close to the ground reality rarely make good assumptions , and that in turn makes even simple decisions really bad
2. Determine time line and consequence of inaction . How urgent is the decision ? And what will happen if a decision is not made in that time ?
Most decisions are not as urgent as they look upfront. Often we find that someone had padded time in the process and you just happened to be in a part that got squeezed and can negotiate a more realistic time line . Used to an extreme, this could have a negative effect because you just end up procrastinating because you are good at buying time 🙂
3. How important is the decision being right the first time ? Is this something I can change my mind on with minimal trouble if I got it wrong ? Or is it the kind where I absolutely have to nail it or else the consequences are more than I care to live with ?
Decisions that have big impact and are difficult to change – by all means spend the time and effort to get it right . The other kind – it’s often better that any decision is better than no decision . It takes a calm mind to determine which kind of decision we are dealing with when we face the problem for the first time . It’s only human to think most problems are big and important
4. What are the big trade offs ? Am I sweating the small stuff – things that have a low chance of going wrong , and things that could happen but have low impact ?
Here again we need the right people to make that determination . If you end up with the wrong categorization of risks , you will probably make a terrible decision. It’s like the millionth reason to surround yourself with the right people who can look at a problem from diverse perspectives . Once you know the risks and their categories, you can plan to mitigate them .
That’s it ! Just a simple four step process to help get to a good decision . For me a a good decision is one that lets me sleep better at night . I feel confident that there is a high chance that I got it right , and I also feel that in case I didn’t get it right – I know enough to mitigate .
Yesterday, I needed to update something fairly trivial for a certain payroll deduction . It used to be a simple form on our intranet the last time I used it (several years ago) and I searched for it . The search didn’t help me much and I asked a colleague where this form was and he told me it is now in workday, which is what we use for some HR related functionality .
So I logged on to workday and searched and eventually found out a link to do this update . The UI navigation and the workflow were so not intuitive that I had to phone a friend again to finish that update . Honestly looking at the confirmation message – I can’t say for sure whether what I intended to do and what the system did actually matched . I will have to wait for my next pay stub to confirm .
I am absolutely a causal user for HR systems . I periodically use it for goal setting and appraisals and so on . And rarely there is some other change like the one I needed to do yesterday . Consequently I have no intention of taking a tutorial to learn how to navigate an HR system myself .
HR is not the only system I use infrequently . Some times I need to use procurement system to buy something – like to buy a a phone every few years, or to order new business cards when I have a change in role . Actually I went through a few role changes and didn’t bother to get new cards since no one seems to use it any more 🙂
The only system I really use frequently is our CRM system and some financial reporting where I keep track of my business . Those apps – I take the time to learn how to navigate etc .
So what am I looking for in systems that I log in only infrequently ? Just three things really
1. Ease of discovery
I need to be able to search and find specific information from some common starting point like the intranet . Why do I need to login first and then search within each SaaS app ? They should expose search and then make me login to actually use it .
2. Ease of access
For me – this simply means it should be on my mobile . I don’t really care if it’s an app since I rarely use it . Ideally this should be a bot which works via text or voice chat , or even SMS . Everything doesn’t need a UI to provide me with a great UX
3. Simplest workflow possible
I get it that every update probably triggers some workflow in a company . The only thing I care about is if I have to provide some input , and to know when the update will take effect . If I need to take approval from someone – I want to know status and contact info . As a casual user – I don’t want to see a page full of steps the system auto approves etc .
Unfortunately – and I know this from being an ERP consultant myself in the past – workflows are designed for the most complicated use case and then forced down the throats of casual users . This really should change fundamentally . It was not a good idea then and it’s a terrible idea now . And that is putting things delicately .
If I have one update to make – I just need a one step process . I shouldn’t have to go through multiple screens to do that . If your framework needs a two step process for something like an audit trail – figure it out in the backend and don’t make it the causal user’s problem .
Ideally it should be fire and forget for the causal user and things magically happen behind the scenes . It should be possible to get status easily – ideally via a natural language question via chat or sms – when I ask it , or automatically triggered if the system is stuck for a while for any reason
That’s pretty much all I wish for .
Like many other professionals in my line of work, I have paid my dues in terms of million miler airline status , decades of top tier hotel loyalty and rental car loyalty status etc . I got to live and work in three continents thanks to this job – and have enjoyed getting to know different cultures and expanding my skills and my world view . I have enjoyed better vacations with my family because of the loyalty rewards as well . For more than twenty years, I have taken business travel for granted and rarely given it a second thought . I often answer “at a Friendly Airport near you” when people ask me “where are you based?” 🙂
The last time I was in a plane was in early March this year when I returned from India after my father’s funeral . The honest truth is that I don’t miss business travel today . My entire global team – more than a thousand people – took about two days to become fully remote . We have been productive and now are quite comfortable running our business with webex , mural , Trello , slack and so on .
So why did I start thinking about business travel again ? Simply because I have started to realize that meeting people on webex is not a long term sustainable strategy for growing relationships – be in personal or professional . Also, while it is possible to build on existing relationships – it’s extremely difficult to build new relationships in a remote fashion . Efficiency can be managed somehow when we are remote – but not efficacy !
What is behind my reluctance to travel ? It’s primarily the fear of getting COVID-19 . There are secondary worries of course about social unrest , cleanliness , availability of food and so on given the lack of consistency of guidelines across US and the world on reopening, access to medical facilities should I need it in a hurry etc .
1. Zero contact everywhere I go
A good start will be to make sure everything about my travel experience becomes digital .
Airlines are good about this generally with boarding passes and occasionally baggage tags . But the physical agents and kiosks are still required at the slightest deviation from the happy flow . I don’t want to be in a crowd at the customer service kiosk , or go ask a gate agent for status or anything of that nature . I would love for airlines employees and me all to have mobile to mobile communication for vast majority of the time .
Hotels are inconsistent about digital keys – many of them still don’t offer it . I would like them to hurry . Check in and checkout have no good reason for me to ever meet an agent in person .
I don’t want to swipe my credit card anywhere either . Why do we need a physical card in this day and age ?
2. Common digital identity for all my travel
I don’t want the TSA agent to pickup my passport or driver’s license . I also don’t want the hotel to need to check that in person . There should be some machine to machine way of handling this . Technology really cannot be the bottleneck here . Privacy is absolutely a concern for sure – and it should be based on an opt-in basis .
Even without the COVID concerns – why do I need to have separate profiles and identity kept with each transportation provider ? Even within One world alliance – I often have to identify myself repeatedly if I am traveling using more than one airline .
3. A “Trust and Transparency score” I can search and rank by
Some airlines do not give away their middle seats and some do . Different hotels, rental car companies have different cleaning schedules . Some hotels serve food and others don’t . I need to know all this – and probably more – before I book my travel . This needs some kind of a score or tag that I can search providers by and choose the ones I am comfortable with using .
Travel industry essentially needs to make me feel really comfortable – and earn my trust with their transparency – before I travel again . I absolutely want that industry thriving again and I think business travel returning to growth is a big part of such recovery .
4. An expert digital travel advisor that follows me around on my phone
Things are changing by the minute and I don’t have the time and energy to stay on top of it when I am on the road . I need a digital friend to stay on top of my travel for me – warning me if my risk exposure is changing based on my location at any point (is meeting at a location where overnight there was a surge in Covid cases) , helping me change travel plans (was there a curfew announced and do I need to reschedule) with low friction , answering questions (where is the closest hospital with ICU capacity open) etc . I also want my family to have access to some of this information when I am on the road .
In my current estimate – there is no great need for me to travel for rest of this year unless there is some big unknown exception that arises . But I am almost certain that I will need to travel beyond that horizon for work and probably also to visit my mother in INDIA . I truly hope the travel industry will do everything they can to transform themselves and earn my loyalty again .
Very interesting question early in the morning today from a younger colleague – “How do you keep away emotions from work ?” . I thought it is worth expanding on the point of view I explained to her on the phone.
I have often been told that we should not be emotional and instead we should be objective at work. That is rarely possible in real life in most scenarios – at least for me. So the closest to a good option in my mind is to manage these emotions as a “portfolio” so that I can survive and thrive without unnatural tactics. Before you ask me (since my colleague asked me today morning) – I will tell you that I do not practice breathing exercises or Yoga or chanting . Those are all probably good things to do – just that I have no first hand thoughts to offer.
So here we go .
Fear ,Anger and Courage are the ones that we need to confront the most given the consequences can be terrible. I feel both at times – and the way I control it is by thinking of the worst case. Am I going to lose a deal ? Lose a talented colleague from my team ? Can I fix this now or later? etc. Almost every single time I realize that the worst case is something I can mitigate. That is how I channelize these two emotions – I often convert them to courage to act.
Sadness and Joy – I do not hide Joy. When I am happy people know it. When I am sad – which is not often – people close to me can read it. On work, I feel sad most often when someone who should know better does a less than stellar job. I feel sad more often than I feel angry. And generally when the person realizes it – it helps them course correct.
Disgust , Surprise and Anticipation – Thankfully there are only two or three incidents in my entire career where I was truly disgusted. It just taught me to not work with certain kind of people. Surprise is actually a beautiful feeling in personal life – but unfortunately I am wired in a way that I do everything to avoid surprises at work. I try hard to not surprise anyone myself. I am not sure if this is good or bad – but the dislike for surprises is something I have to live with. I do a lot of anticipation – in the form of plan A/B/C . It is an intellectual pursuit that makes me feel good most of the time.
Trust and Respect – This is the ideal state of operation in my mind. Being liked at work or being feared at work are both long term problems for a leader. Obviously between the two – being liked is the pleasant and easier alternative . The world of business is not fair and often involves decisions that are hard on the people taking those and communicating it to others. If your objective is to be liked – you will be miserable when a hard decision needs to be taken, and others will feel a big let down. If you operate with fear as primary tactic – you will never have a motivated team. So the only real option is to aim for trust and respect as your operating parameters and help everyone get to a frame of mind that you will be fair in all cases.
Kindness and cruelty – This is pretty black and white . I heavily favor kindness. But there is a certain difficulty in how you execute on it. For example – let us say there is a colleague who cannot seem to operate at the next level to earn his promotion. The kind thing to do is to give him a chance to improve and then if he does not – tell him where he stands including the potential of leaving your team. The cruel thing is to tell him he is doing well and then fire him arbitrarily. Telling him that he is doing well when he is not – that falls under cruelty and not kindness in most cases. It is a thin line for a leader to traverse. I cannot say I have mastered it fully.
Shame, Pity and Envy – I do feel shame especially when I make mistakes repeatedly when I should learn and do better. I used to pity myself and feel envy for others – for a long time. That stopped after I got a better perspective from my mentors. There are always going to be some people who are better than you , were luckier than you etc and you are never going to be totally honest about evaluating yourself objectively. Once you make peace with that – Pity and Envy vanishes. It took me a long time to get there and I have had a few lapses – but generally I think I know when to catch myself these days and reorient my thinking.
My late grandfather Prof R Easwara Pillai was an eminent historian and an amazing story teller . He had mastery over three subjects and how they connected with each other – Economics, Politics and History . I grew up listening to him telling me stories that would emphasize useful principles from these three disciplines . I would never forget his explanation of the theory of diminishing marginal utility – the fourth mutton cutlet will not taste as good as the first !
I didn’t major in any of the three subjects my grandfather loved – I chose to become a mechanical engineer like my father . But thanks to the love for all three subjects (especially history) that I developed hearing those stories , I have continued to read up, listen and learn what I could .
For the last couple of months , I have been thinking about the post Covid world from many different angles and have posted some thoughts on future of IT services , the need for holistic solutions , and the impact on China .
Today morning I posted the following on FB about the economic realities that India and US are facing ,
The two major economies that I have an interest in are US and INDIA . Both need to kick back into growth but their options are rather different .
INDIA is a much smaller economy in size – both aggregate and per capita . But it has been growing at a much faster clip . Even with revised numbers – INDIA might be able to grow at around 2% when US etc might enter negative territory .
US – and many other developed countries – has been pumping money to help local businesses get through the hard times . INDIA has not done anything similar – though when it comes to taking care of citizens with food and medicine and containment, INDIA has done a magnificent job . But let’s focus on the economy angle now .
The unfortunate reality is that India can not afford to do what US does in terms of a massive influx of cash into the economy . If we look at the tax revenue assumptions in last budget – we can easily figure out that it was unrealistic to begin with . Now with income and trade both coming down , there is no way to make a lot of tax revenue in this fiscal .
US can absolutely print money – dollar is a strong reserve currency . That’s a limited option for INDIA . I have no doubts INDIA will also print some rupees but the inflationary risk is higher and may be 1% of GDP via this method is already enough to take INDIA back to a period no one cares to be in .
INDIA Government thus will need to borrow heavily at least for this year – some from within the country and some from abroad .
Government bonds are a viable strategy . But the domestic market for it will be weakened by both corporate and personal savings affected by the shut down . Still – there are still healthy and large balance sheets who might think about this favorably . And there are plenty of rich people and some NRI inflow to make this work
International borrowing is a more complicated problem . INDIA has made it easier to invest . But that means we need consistent tax policies (which doesn’t happen very well) , tight inflation management (which is quite good now but needs to continue), and consistently good credit ratings (also done decently so far). But there is one thing INDIA can not control – investors can also trigger a liquidation based on how their home country policies (and political rhetoric) changes . All that said – INDIA needs international money to get through this .
Whatever happens , I hope government doesn’t get stupid and just start taxing more on existing base like the disastrous policy of 1974 that Mrs Gandhi brought out . The irony was that MMS was the tax policy creator who then under Rao was also the bold leader to bring INDIA to the modern world .
I hope INDIA starts to take manufacturing seriously from now on – especially when there is a global will to move some out of China . That in turn might be something that US needs to look at seriously too . A lot of the pain in US was caused by letting
most of manufacturing leave our shores .
The two historic events that are used to compare and contrast the covid crisis are the Great Depression and the spanish flu . I had a chance to read up on the former a lot during the 2008 financial crisis and I brushed up on that a bit in the past few weeks .
The most chilling part of that horrible decade starting 1929 was the rise of Adolf Hitler . Just a few years ago – he tried to overthrow the government and got jailed. Strangely he wasn’t deported to his birthplace of Austria because the good judge thought Hitler thought and acted like a German and hence can stay in Germany . Nazis were not taken seriously – and eventually Bavaria even let them back into official existence . Hitler by then had realIzed that being a demagogue was a lot easier to get to his goals than the use of violence . The depression gave him the perfect platform – primarily around tackling unemployment – to consolidate power . By 1933 he was the Chancellor of Germany !
A lot of evil happened in his long tenure . It made me think about the trio of depression, demagoguery and democracy – which is the unfortunate intersection of economics , politics and history .
History – even recent history – is full of people who used demagoguery to great effect for their purposes . Senator McCArthy might be the best example that a lot of people can relate to in this context .
Demagoguery is not binary – it’s a continuum for politicians in any functioning democracy and probably cannot be avoided . So then the logical next question for me is what’s the flaw in democracy itself ?
History and politics have an intersection in the past that perhaps can provide a clue .
The great philosopher Socrates wasn’t a big fan of democracy the way it was practiced in Greece . His point of view was something like this
A ship needs a captain who knows how to navigate a ship at sea – and not just a random person who was elected to the role of captain by people who don’t know what skills a captain needs . Similarly if you let people to vote who haven’t been taught to think deeply about the role of politics and administration – then you will get bad results and rabble rousers !
Essentially Socrates put the onus on educating people before they are allowed to vote . So in his view – you can’t vote just because you are of a certain age and was born inside the country .
Given the general lack of civics education in this country , I guess what we dislike about politicians can be traced back at least partly back to us ! And if we haven’t thought through what we need in our elected representatives and administrators – and a depression hits us , the demagogues will have a field day and we may not like the results very much .
What happened to Socrates eventually ? Demagogues of the time charged him with “corruption of the youth” and by a thin majority, the 500 jurors voted him guilty . He was – quite tragically – put to death by poison .
The life of Socrates was some 2400 years ago , and Hitler’s was less than a century ago . If we haven’t yet learned the lessons from the past intersections of economics, politics and history – we better start now !
All over the world, there is anger and frustration about how China handled the pandemic . I fully share that view – we could have all handled this disaster much better if the Chinese government did a more responsible job. And I doubt any of us believe the stats coming out of China – and we live with it only because there is no other source of good information to rely on. There are more conspiracy theories floating around now than I can keep up with – which is perhaps normal for these times.
A lot of American politicians have already been calling for a hard break with China because of what they did with the Corona pandemic. That was my first instinct too – but as I thought through this more, I doubt this is a pragmatic solution anymore. As always, these are just my personal views.
Calling Corona Virus as China Virus is just dangerous
It is perfectly normal for nationalist feelings to surge when we feel attacked . It is also a great point that plenty of viruses were named in the past after country of origin ( including some like Spanish Flu where there are stories that it was an unfair tag ) . So when we cloak our hatred for Chinese government with an academic argument to hide our bias – we tend to forget how it affects Asian people everywhere.
I was born and raised in India. I have lived roughly half my life outside India now. No one should find it hard to guess my ethnicity if they see or hear me. And yet – when 9/11 happened, a lot of people mistakenly thought I was Arab. It is not an exaggeration to say I was afraid for my life at that time. Absurd as it might sound to people who know the difference – that is how this works. Ignorant people who also feel under attack – they react in absolutely nasty ways that you may not realize. So please resist the temptation to tag China – your words and tweets can unintentionally hurt innocent people !
Capital and Talent problems
America and other countries consciously let China become a single point of failure in their global supply chains – be it clothing, semiconductors, auto, pharma , medical equipment or any number of things we all need every day. The capital required to rebuild all of that in every country is huge. And even if governments agree to find the money to do it – in most cases, the skills are just not there in quantity and quality to make it happen in reasonable time. And it will take time and resources away from many other priorities.
Even if we just think about the world of medicine – equipment and drugs – we should be scared at how much we depend on China for our population to stay alive. Now that they have flattened the curve, and their factories are buzzing again – they have an upper hand already while rest of the world is still figuring out its response. I don’t know how much of a sustained advantage that will be – but its worth keeping it in perspective. For now, they are helping US and others ( and with it comes some complaints on poor quality) – though perhaps not just out of just humanitarian reasons.
Realistically – even if just the rich countries like USA start bringing all this in-house we are going to have to wait decades to get it done. And given we tend to value our economy over and above other interests – the cold calculations will probably stop most private sector companies to do a total shift back to homeland. Best case I see is that we will shift some significant manufacturing capacity to Vietnam, India etc in near term.
That is all good and much needed – but China probably will remain a single point of failure for a lot longer even in a well planned transition.
How about Tariffs as a way to keep China in line ?
US has played this hand with China already and we found that all that happens is that it is not the exporter that gets stuck with the bill, and its the importer – and that is passed on to the end customer. On top of that – we also had to take some tariffs off already because of our dependence on China to get through this pandemic.
If we look at this from a Chinese exporter’s point of view – they may also come to the conclusion that they should perhaps reduce US as a big market, and start building markets elsewhere. USA is big strong economy and can still hold some punitive power with China. But that is not the case for the smaller economies – their constraints will make them do things which US will be able to avoid.
Net-net – Tariff is not much of a magic wand to wield !
Corona might not be the last pandemic – it may just be a beginning
I don’t wish it in the least – but that is the pragmatic assumption for now. I have no doubts that we will learn a lot from handling COVID19 and hence will have a better playbook for the next time. But what is the role of China in that future playbook ?
Since the whole mess started in China – and since China has allegedly controlled it significantly now – it is quite possible that they may be the first to come out with a treatment plan and vaccine too. Don’t we want them to share it ? Not just now for the current crisis – but going forward as well.
I am not an expert on pandemics – but I do remember reading frequently about US and China co-operating in tackling past pandemics from George Bush’s term in office all the way to Obama’s time ( joint effort to help Africa). I would think that model is what works for the world – as in for common folk like you and me. Virus is not nationalist in its kinetics, and there is no good reason in my mind why the solution to prevent its spread should be nationalist.
When it comes to saving lives – China and US and everyone else should let science lead, and politics follow ! The other way around is stupid.
We need a better balance of Nationalism and Global Co-operation
Pendulum always swings to extremes. Now it is swinging to an extreme on nationalism. But its side effects are yet to be seen.
In India – there are states closing their boundaries physically to stop people from neighboring states to enter in times of pandemic. It is not clear how the supply chains of food and health care will get affected when states do it. Will it next happen within districts within a state ? Taken to an extreme – nationalism can be quite destructive !
US may not be much different either . What happens if richer states can offer more money and take medical pros and medicines from poorer states ? I hope we won’t see it play out that way – but when we feel under attack, its normal to close in. Toilet paper hoarding is roughly the same thing at a micro level – people with money to hoard will keep doing it and people with less money will disproportionately suffer.
Although off topic here – climate change is one of those things we can look at as an example. There is no effective solution to climate change if China does not play nice. And China has limited incentive to play nice if it gets isolated globally !
It is not a comfortable position for any of us ( Certainly not for me) to think China apparently continues to hold an unfair advantage despite their mistakes. We largely brought this on ourselves with our significant focus on the economy and lesser focus on healthcare, infra, education etc. It is not as if we did not have some huge advantages – we enjoyed a prolonged bull market as a result of sending more work to China. I hope and pray we learn from this history and have a more balanced and holistic view going forward.
I have been staying at home for the past week or so since I returned from India . All my global team is working from home too and we are all getting used to the idea of 100% work from home as the new normal . Earlier today, I heard from my mom about the 21 day shut down in India to combat the pandemic . And my cousin in Britain is dealing with their shut down . It’s all a bit overwhelming to say the least .
It has also made me think hard on what’s next for us . As always – these are strictly my personal thoughts and opinions .
Grief offers a fresh perspective
I recently lost my dad . He was in critical care for nearly two weeks before he passed away and I saw a different part of life that I hadn’t experienced before .
The first is that money cannot always buy good outcomes in health . Just to see patients on ventilators was a shock and it still gives me nightmares . No amount of money and top notch care could save my dad . Helplessness need to be felt first hand to realize how bad it can be.
The second is that lack of money almost always leads to bad health outcomes . Every day at the hospital I saw families struggle to pay bills . I helped a few folks where I could – paying a little money , buying coffees and lunches and paying for cab rides etc . And the reactions ranged from gratitude to indifference to rejection . I didn’t take any offense , nor did I feel any happiness – it’s a strange sense of camaraderie that prevails amongst families of patients admitted in a hospital , especially in critical care . Words can’t describe it . Every day – often multiple times – I saw families dealing with death of their loved ones .
In some strange way – I feel blessed about the timing of dad passing away . At least I was able to go to INDIA as soon as he was admitted to the hospital and stay with him throughout and then stay with my mom a little bit to get her settled down a bit before coming back to US . If it had happened today – I am not sure I could have lived with myself . And yet – that is exactly what must be happening all around the world with folks with elderly and/or high health risk parents .
Hunger trumps health and social responsibility
The shut down in India seems like a much needed step to contain the pandemic – and kudos to the leaders who decided and acted quickly . But how practical is such a shut down ? I was born and raised there and I just spent some time there till last week . Significant part of the population earns their wages daily and without that they can’t afford their food . When the country is shut down – how will they eat ? I hope the government – and the society at large – steps up big time to help the most vulnerable citizens and do it quickly . Even for middle class people who can afford to stock up – I don’t know anyone in India with large enough fridges and freezers to stock up for several weeks at a time . And coupled with the population density in cities like Mumbai – I am seriously questioning how this shut down will sustain three weeks – or god forbid, longer .
It’s no different in US and UK . Not everyone can afford to stock up . And even if people and government can figure out food and shelter – mental health could be another large scale challenge . It will be almost like most of humanity being put in an open jail .
It’s a tight rope walk – but the North Star is clear
Governments all over the world have an unenviable job at hand – balancing between loss of life here and now and the long term negative effects on the economy . A binary view is clearly a terrible choice and I hope no government takes a benevolent equivalent of the “final solution” as their strategy . If we need a binary choice – I fully believe the only right answer is to save lives .
We need a fine grained approach
But that’s what made me start thinking about whether there are targeted approaches possible . A lot of analysis of the pandemic is based on age as the primary risk dimension . I am starting to think that age is too coarse grained for a targeted approach . We now have data about people who lost lives all around the world – and at least those who died in hospitals should have more than age as available data . Can we further narrow down by specific things like gender, blood pressure, COPD, A1C etc ? The better we narrow down – the more our ability to isolate fewer people and have a more realistic estimate of what’s the net impact .
Social distancing, washing hands etc are excellent steps and I am glad that most people are doing the right thing finally . But just like age being a coarse grained dimension – isn’t geography a coarse grained dimension too now ? I am not a pandemic expert and will gladly stand corrected if someone can show me the fallacy in my thinking . Can we zone into high, medium and low risk amongst geographies too ? Manhattan, NY is high risk and lockdown seems to be the right solution and everyone should stay home . But should Chandler, AZ be treated the same , or can some low risk segments of people go to work there ?
Test, test , test
Lack of testing – quantity especially but also quality – is a HUGE problem throughout US and INDIA and probably other countries too except maybe China and Korea . I am still livid that when I returned from India last Monday, there was not even a temperature test for passengers in TRV, DOH, DFW or PHX . Till it’s reasonably fixed I guess segmenting people is not a realistic safe strategy to pursue . Segmenting is a two phased problem – especially for assigning risk to a geographic segment. You need to know when to put people into a segment , but also a set of specific conditions that will get them out of that segment . Otherwise the purpose is kind of defeated .
We need to think holistically
It’s great to see the ventilator shortage situation being addressed with urgency . Better late than never . This is the time for us to be on our innovative best . I also hope that whatever else needs to go with ventilators – all the other ICU apparatus needed (as well as meds for people who cannot be intubated ) are being addressed in parallel . Two weeks of watching people in critical care on a full time basis and talking to doctors three times every day has now given me more information than I ever needed on this topic – and to put it mildly I think we are vastly under estimating the holistic nature of the problem .
We need a better strategy for effectively using medical professionals
Talking about doctors – it is great that retired medical pros are being requested to come back to work all over the place . I also read that many of the older folks who came back to work died in Italy . Doctors and nurses are probably the hardest part of this fight back equation and we need to think about a long term plan to use them . Maybe one way is to tier their use – let the retired folks at higher health risk take over telemedicine channels , and form a reserve capacity when front line active personnel eventually need to take breaks . Perhaps medical students and nurses can take over some of the upfront triages (perhaps some tech can help ? ) . And active duty pros can just focus on high risk patients needing immediate attention .
Fatigue is a real big issue for these amazing frontline healthcare workers . My heart breaks when I see the pictures everyday of thoroughly exhausted people who are going above and beyond . Given all of any country is not suffering at the same levels – can we send more help to the hot spots to take care of the issues there and contain it ? I don’t know if there are legal issues with licensing etc – but hopefully those are all addressable by governors and other government bodies quickly . We have to tackle this issue without letting geographic boundaries being a problem . Sharing pharma research globally , sharing data on patients , increasing production of test kits and medical equipment all need extreme co-operation. Nationalism needs to take a back seat .
We won’t fix the economy with just more money
When governments talk about the economy – we need to interpret it in two ways . What are they doing for companies (not just big ones – but the small ones too) and what are they doing for people .
Like everyone else, I find no joy in watching my 401(k) lose a good chunk of its value these last few weeks . I even joked on twitter that now it should be called 101(k) . I am blessed to be employed and with the flexibility to work from home and not having to worry about putting food on the table for my family . I also know that even paid sick leave which people like me take for granted is not common for a lot of people . It is also high time we divorced health insurance from employment in this country . If there is a positive side to this terrible crisis – it might be that now is a great time for our elected reps to do the right thing for the citizens for once .
Similarly when we talk about helping companies stay alive – we need to make sure it comes with guard rails on exec comp , stock buy backs etc . Hopefully we remember the lessons from 2008 meltdown and bailouts . Companies also need to be held to a higher standard when it comes to taking care of their employees .
Perhaps it’s time to fundamentally redesign and recalibrate the world’s capital markets
Capital markets have been wild, to say the least . At near zero interest rates, market strangely still craves even lower interest rates . Companies that have extremely healthy balance sheets and free cash flow and rock solid business models get punished irrationally in public markets without any specific fundamental reason to attribute, and so on .
I think it’s a good time now for the important people in the global financial markets to come together and rebaseline how companies are valued all over again . If that needs the markets to stay closed for a bit or for circuit breakers to be RE-calibrated or whatever, then so be it . Capital markets are divorced from the reality on Main Street now . The dog and it’s tail have reversed who wags who – and it needs to be fixed . Let’s try to fix that imbalance as well while we are at it rather than resort singularly to throwing more money into a system that no longer seems to be capable of reflecting reality.
This is perhaps the longest blog post I have ever written . A lot of thoughts are swirling around my mind – but it’s probably best that I leave those for a future post . Stay safe everyone !