What citizenship will my great grand kids have ?

There are three things that limit extraordinary or exponential progress for mankind in my opinion .

1. Physical ability

2. Mental ability

3. Time

When you make even small improvements in each bucket, you gain some competitive advantage . For example – if you have adequate food and healthcare , you have better chances of spending time learning , hence a chance of better jobs and hence more wealth creation . If you have better mental abilities than others – you can find better opportunities to create and retain value . All of us have the same amount of time every day – so those who can spend it on higher order activities generally tend to have better results .

The people who tend to have a better combo physical / mental abilities and have more time on their hands – they tend to gravitate towards being the large scale suppliers of goods and services and everyone else becomes consumers .

Scale for suppliers is good for consumers in the short term – gives them better service and better price . Obviously this can turn bad in a hurry when there is no competition . I don’t worry about monopolies very much – I think the more realistic scenario is that there will always be a few large providers for most things consumers need .

The interesting aspect of scale is how technology will be used to make it happen . I think the suppliers will be the first to benefit – be it longer life span due to better healthcare options , better intelligence due to gene manipulation and use of powerful tech , better use of technology to predict what consumer wants , and maybe even better ability to manipulate consumer into wanting something that the providers have to sell , and perhaps the ability in future to be in multiple places at the same time and accomplish more within the same amount of time .

The fact that tech is not there today doesn’t mean it won’t get there in future – and given the tech progress is usually exponential and not linear , its only a matter of whether it takes 20 years or 200 years .

So what about consumers ? Suppliers need consumers – otherwise there is no future for them either .

I don’t expect any sudden change in global job markets . But it’s not hard to imagine that most skills that we consider useful today will become irrelevant tomorrow . We can mitigate it for some more time by changing how we learn and up-skill – but that only delays the inevitable . Eventually the majority of things that a lot of humans do today will be replaced by fewer humans and lots of automation .

So the people who don’t have the skills to do anything that adds value – how will they act as consumers ?

When automation can do stuff better/faster/cheaper than regular humans – there is no reason for suppliers to use these folks to create value . Even at no salary and “will work for food” – as in a terrible “slave labor” type scenario – there may not be any takers .

Even for the consumers who have useful skills – technology might be a good tool for them to gain efficiency in their purchasing . For example – if a personal digital shopper does all your purchases , it might be able to negotiate better prices from all available sources . The side effect is that the suppliers might be the one providing such a solution to the customers . So eventually the consumers loses value long term in that scenario too .

Then there is a possibility that the tax paid by suppliers will be enough to pay for all citizens to live comfortably – the Universal Basic Income concept in some form . This will need a complete rethink of our political and economical systems – and perhaps our religious belief systems too .

Take countries like INDIA and USA for example – which are a union of states with a federal government . Would rich states agree to pay extremely disproportionately to support the poorer states ? If they do – will Americans accept some kind of hybrid communism as a way of life ? And if they don’t – can the rich states stop mass migration from the poor states ? Will the rich states want to become independent countries at that point to retain their advantages ?

Even if no states leave the union in INDIA and USA , and the tax situation somehow works out with negotiations etc within each country – that still doesn’t solve the problem . Mexico and Pakistan might not have enough supplier taxes to cover their population adequately . Will US and INDIA send them their tax money to prevent mass immigration and its associated problems ?

The likely outcome given how government works everywhere is that they will increase the tax burden on the suppliers . It will get to a point where the supplier has no incentive to be in business any longer . Given they are already better than others with physical/mental abilities and time management – a good number of them probably will find a way to keep the advantage they have and stop contributing to the tax base .

At that point – what is the definition of “a country?” . Would physical boundaries and National flags mean much at all ?

I was born and raised in INDIA . If you look at the history of British rule in INDIA – you can easily realize that technology (ships , weapons, looms, medicine etc) gave a huge advantage to Britain – and INDIA eventually became a source of raw materials and a consumer for the finished goods. The kings who ruled INDIA at the time largely didn’t get along with each other , common people identified themselves with the territory their king ruled , and there were a lot of immediate problems to solve instead of worrying about technology . Looking back – it didn’t end well for INDIA at all for a couple of centuries .

The mistakes of the past like what happened in INDIA could repeat itself with even greater impact across the world . We will probably look back at last few decades and take a stance that automation has been a boon and not a curse – and we will be quite right in saying so . We might even look forward to say it will still be a boon for next twenty years – and that could be also quite true . But in doing so – we maybe doing our future generations quite an injustice .

It maybe ok for our grand kids to not have any nationality or religion – but we don’t have a clear idea of what will take their places as identities . And if we leave it for future generations to figure all this out from scratch and go on with our lives , we may not be doing humanity any favors . At a minimum we need to start taking small steps to define these solutions and work towards it with clarity .

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 .

%d bloggers like this: