I have a “good feeling” about this !

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

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

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

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

2. I understand it from first principles

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

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

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

The time dimension

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

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

What is the net net ?

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

What’s the weakest link here ?

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

The “Stupid me” loop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I learned about work from cooking

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

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

Let’s please NOT over communicate !

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for letting me vent !

Keeping burnout at bay

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

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

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

1. I am no longer extra hard on myself

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

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

2. I built some time every day for myself

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

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

3. Maximized the time spent with my daughter

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

4. Increased focus on making myself useful to others

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

My litmus test 🙂

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

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

My struggles with “looking the part”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Account Planning

What is it ?

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

Why bother having an account plan ?

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

Macro to Micro

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

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

It is a jungle out there

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

Business is done between people and not between companies

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

Level of detail

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

Balancing Outside-In vs Inside-out

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

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

Plan the solution for the client, not just your part

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

Involve the client throughout

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

Operationalizing the plan

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

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

An amateur cook’s guide to get started on Indian cooking

I have zero knowledge of formal cooking . I admire people who do . I have wanted to start a restaurant many times in my life and have either chickened out or been talked out by friends . That said – I absolutely enjoy cooking Indian food (especially from Kerala where I was born and raised) . Since people routinely ask me about how to make Indian food – here is a post to help you get started over the holiday season . My apologies to my vegetarian friends – I will try to do one on vegetarian dishes later .

You need a few basic utensils

1. The best knife set you can afford . At a minimum see if you can invest in a good chef’s knife . At holiday time , you can get one for little over $100 . Pick up a large cutting board as well . A good knife makes cooking enjoyable and a bad one makes you order delivery .

2. At least one each of good quality non stick pan , a cast iron skillet and a non stick pressure cooker . When it comes to frying fish or egg plants – I prefer cast iron .

3. Cooking over gas is infinitely better for the dishes I routinely make . When we moved from our first house – we wouldn’t buy really good houses only because they had electric cook tops 🙂 .

4. You will need two blenders – what we call “mixie” in India . A large one for blending curry bases and a small one for grinding the spice mixes

It’s mostly about the spices

To the best I can say from my 45 years of eating it – Indian cooking doesn’t care for things like the actual taste of meat or fish . I am only half joking here . Smell , taste , color etc that we think of as great all come from judicious use of spices . When we say “this chicken curry tastes good” – it means the poultry is well done and we love all the other things that went into it . If what you remember is the chicken itself – the chef has generally failed . You get the idea 🙂

Also – all meat is well done . Rare and medium rare largely don’t exist for Indian cuisine .

The exception to preference for spice dominance is mostly when it comes to vegetables . They get a lot more care and attention than the meat and is generally considered a first class citizen like spices .

Let’s just say I cook much less vegetables than meat dishes . I don’t have the level of skill to make them as well as I could cook meat and fish .

Basic shopping list

1. Onions and tomatoes – vast majority of dishes use both . Don’t worry about expensive versions – you will cook them so much that it won’t retain much of original flavor when used in meat dishes . It’s for texture and body largely – with a few exceptions

2. Ginger and garlic . Tastes infinitely better when used fresh . But you can get a 25% as good version in bottles at groceries

3. Green chilies , lemon, curry leaves , cilantro and mint . Most cooking will need at least two . Many of us grow all of them in our yard

4. Yoghurt . Again – if you can make at home that’s awesome . But unlike with ginger and garlic , what you buy from stores is fine in this case

5. Cooking oil . Regular canola is fine . For regional cuisine – you will need coconut oil , peanut oil and so on . A small bottle of ghee is a nice to have addition

6. Mustard seeds , cumin seeds , dry red chillies

Optional : Coconut milk , cashew , peanuts , almonds

Minimum spices

1. The holy trinity – Chili powder , coriander powder and turmeric powder . Kashmiri chili powder gives color more than heat . Buy these from Indian stores – the one you get from Walmart doesn’t stand up to Indian cooking

2. Whole Garam masala – a whole mix of assorted spices like bay leaves , cardamom , cloves , pepper corns , coriander seeds etc . Take the help of an Indian friend (ideally become friends with their moms to get a home made mix ) to source this . You can make a small batch of powdered garam masala by lightly roasting the mix and then grinding it . Again – in a pinch you can use the prepackaged version which doesn’t pack even half the punch

Spices don’t last a long time . So buy in small quantities, keep them in airtight containers and throw away what doesn’t give a great aroma when you open the pack .

Remember that dried spices pack more punch than fresh ones . A little goes a long way . You only need half of less of dried spice if you are substituting for fresh ones . If you are new to Indian cooking – err on the side of using less and work your way up .

As you gain experience with spices – you will learn to categorize them such as earthy , medium and aromatic . This doesn’t matter till you gain mastery .

The basic meat dish in ten steps

1. Marinate the meat/poultry in the holy trinity (turmeric, coriander, chili powder) , salt, ginger garlic paste and some acid – lemon juice is my favorite . Yoghurt is great too . Longer you do it the better . Aim for a minimum thirty mins though .

2. Except for beef – cooking with bones is the best way to get maximum flavor . You can pressure cook the meat to gain efficiency – so a cheaper cut of meat is totally fine for most regular dishes . Low and slow gets you lot more flavor – but that only works when you have time .

3. Most normal cooking is easily accomplished in a non stick pan with a lid . When temperature nuances come into play – you may need cast iron .

4. Add two spoons of cooking oil to the pan and put some mustard seeds into it . When it splutters , you know it’s time to start adding the rest . You generally should avoid the max flame setting when cooking with non stick pans

5. Add green chilies , and ginger garlic paste first . Optionally add some curry leaves if you like the Kerala version . Do it on low flame – if you burn things it will taste really bad . This is where you can add some whole garam masala .

6. Then add chopped onions . How you slice is totally up to you . Don’t worry about knife skills if you are going to blend the gravy anyway . A bit of salt at this stage will help draw out the moisture from the onions . Don’t brown the onions – you only need them to change from their original color to a translucent level .

7. Now comes the holy trinity – which all should be added with low heat . Start with a very small amount of turmeric . Cook it for less than a minute . Then hit it with coriander powder – which is what really gives the curry flavor . For a whole chicken of three pounds , the most you will need is about three teaspoons . Cook it down . The mix will turn brown at this point . The last part is where you add red chili powder . If you cook it for long – your dish will be largely brown in color . The later you add the Kashmiri chili , the redder the end result . If you need more heat – don’t bet of Kashmiri chili to bring it . Use the hot version first and then add the Kashmiri chili

8. At this point – add the chopped tomatoes . Tomatoes bring a sour note to balance out the heat .

Judging the water content – you may want to add a half cup of water to the mix at this point . Close the lid and let it simmer till the whole thing is a red liquid with cleared oil on top – which will take maybe less than ten mins . Depending on whether you like the gravy smooth or with more texture – you can decide to blend it at this point . With red meat – I also add some chopped mint at this point . Now will be a good time to add more salt as needed .

9. To this mix – add the marinated meat . If you have the time – you can brown the marinated meat for a few mins before adding the red liquid you created for gravy . Now cover and cook till meat is done . Again, if the meat is a tough cut – you can pressure cook the marinated meat before you add it to the liquid . Finally add a little bit of freshly roasted and ground garam masala and stir it in .

Your basic curry is ready at this point !

10. Now you have a few options for “value add” to your basic curry . You can thicken the gravy with coconut milk . If you prefer a richer flavor – you can soak some cashew and/or almonds and blend it to a paste in water or milk and add it to the finished curry and cook for a few mins . The third option is adding heavy cream . Always remember that these things all bring down the heat level as well . So if you like it spicy – you may want it extra spicy to begin with then bring it down a notch with the cashew paste or cream . If you like a bit more of sweetness – soak raisins and blend it with cream and add to the dish .

If the heat level went down a bit – don’t try to add chili powder again . You will ruin it . Switch to crushed pepper . Pepper used early in cooking tends to burn – so if at all I am using it , I use it at the end .

Now comes the magical finishing touch . Warm up a little ghee – add some cumin seeds to it (optional additions – curry leaves and red whole chillies in those cases where you don’t add cream etc ). When it splutters , put it on the curry . The aroma goes through the roof ! Chopped cilantro on top is a nice garnish for all dishes . Adds to the aroma too !

A simple pilaf to go with it

1. Warm up some ghee , add some cumin seeds, whole garam masala and sauté some frozen green peas and carrots . You can pick up a bag of mixed peas/carrots/corn from the local grocery .

2. Add left over rice to it . I prefer basmati but any rice is fine really . The point is that it shouldn’t be freshly made or hot . Add some salt and pepper to taste . I do this at high flame for a few mins

3. Optional : dump a small can of coconut milk into it and stir it in . Also from the value add category – add lightly roasted cashew on top , fried onions and chopped cilantro

The whole thing takes ten minutes and smells and tastes heavenly .

Give it a try and let me know how it turned out . Happy holidays !

Living and working with perfectionists

There are only two things in my life where I am even remotely a perfectionist – when it comes to writing clean code , and training dogs for competition . And those things can be traced back to specific instances .

As a young developer I once was asked to add some extra logic to an application which was mostly written by me – and had a very short time to get it done before it had to be deployed . The code base was dirty to put it mildly and I had to struggle with it to an extreme to fit in something new . I was pretty sure I will get fired for the mess – but with some heroics (and a good friend who did QA on the fly with me ) I ended up living to fight another day . It was enough of a painful experience that it made me obsessed about writing clean code from that day .

I was quite good in training dogs from a young age . My German Shepherd and I were a formidable team in my college days and we won a lot of competitions . And then we ran into a better team and lost a very prestigious show by a small margin of points . The judge took me aside later that evening and explained why the lack of perfection is why I didn’t win – and I agreed with him that it’s not my dog that was at fault . It was me . Those days I took winning dog shows way too seriously and became obsessed about even minute things about how I worked with my dog . I no longer compete – but I still enjoy training my puppy and I am still obsessed with precision .

Outside these two things – I never really cared about perfection all that much . I could bring it on when it mattered – an important assignment in college , a critical must-win deal , daddy-daughter dance at my daughter’s school and so on .

I live my life on what I call “appropriate approximations” .

Vast majority of things don’t need precision . If I am forecasting the next quarter in the middle of current quarter – I don’t worry about a 10% variance . I will progressively get closer to the pin over time . Since my boss knows this – there is no issue . If I am folding shirts to put in the rack , I don’t need them perfectly stacked . These are reversible issues – in the worst case , I can change to a higher level of precision on the fly with minimum trouble . Another good example is this blog . I don’t proof read or even do a spell check on what I write here . My readers are generally quite forgiving and I appreciate it a lot !

If I am hiring for my team – that’s something where I will take the time and attention to get it right . That’s not easily reversible without pain if I get it wrong . If it’s the first time I am explaining a valuable idea to a client – I don’t care for precise assumptions . But if we have general agreement and are trying to get a legal contract done , then I insist on dotting every i and crossing every t .

So what’s the big deal with all this ? As you would have guessed from the title of this blog – you don’t live and work alone . People around you could very well have different views on the need for perfection . If you don’t figure out a way to harmonize , everyone could get frustrated in a hurry . This is true in personal life and at work .

Here is how I deal with the perfectionists in my life

1. Mind my own business

If someone cares to neatly arrange everything on their desk , let them . If they want to do it for my desk too – I usually let them . Basically if it doesn’t truly cause a problem for me , I ignore it – and occasionally even indulge them . Don’t make it a big deal as much as I can . Live and let live !

2. Delegate to them appropriately

I don’t enjoy ensuring spacing in documents is perfect and consistent . I don’t get distracted by two random sentences being two font sizes larger . But I have colleagues who like to do it and they do it well and with passion . If the overall solution comes across better as a result – use that passion instead of fighting it .

3. Provide clarity on time and scope

If you don’t – then perfectionists will generally go for more scope than is useful , and might not do it in reasonable . My favorite QA colleague was very very good at finding bugs – but when we struggled to get new functionality into production in one day , I often would remind him “dude – if a bug stops deployment , or will make the company lose money – tell me and I will code again . If it’s a corner case that we can fix next week , pls just raise it as a lower priority issue that we can fix in next release” .

As a development manager, I learned to assign problems with perfection requirements like compliance , reconciliation etc to developers who thrived on perfection and give them clear timelines to plan and execute . I also learned to use them judiciously for QA on code that people like we delivered 🙂

When you bring them in is a make or break issue . Perfectionists don’t often like constraints on time . If you bring them in too early – you need to restrict scope . If you bring them in with little time left on the clock – aggressively restrict scope . My general principle is to not leave a lot of room to negotiate in the context of a near term deliverable . Instead I take the ownership of any potential failure arising from the constraints I place on them .

4. Teach, learn and evolve

One of my big lessons on this as a young partner came from a client who told me “I was quite distracted by the pictures in your slide deck – but since you drew the picture for me on the white board, I am onboard now and will award you this project”. I had no one to blame but me for that deck . A perfectionist team member did warn me a million times that the graphics on the deck should be redrawn . I said NO and went with what we had thinking he was being paranoid . He was right and I was wrong .

Similarly, in reverse – at least a few times I have been successful in debating with my perfectionist friends on the idea that there is a point of diminishing returns to being perfectionists . When there is no immediate stress of a near term action – such debates can be done in a healthy way . We can then point to what we agreed on when we are in crunch time .

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