IT In India Could Use Some Help – Are You In ?

I woke up this weekend to this depressing news

I have worked at various SIs all my life before deciding to join SAP labs in January of this year . So this problem hit me hard – and in some way, I felt that I am responsible too somehow for this dismal situation that the younger generation is facing .

This is not just an HCL problem – every SI I know of has had this issue of having a big mismatch between supply and demand . The irony is that these SIs all have very capable S&OP type experts who have done fantastic work for their clients solving this exact problem . Yet they can’t seem to solve it for their own business .

The academic world in India does not work as closely with Industry as it should. I am a mechanical engineer by training – but there were hardly any good mechanical engineering jobs when I came out of college . The only decent jobs were in IT – that too in SIs . There was practically nothing that I learned in Engineering that I could directly apply to my IT job . And yet, vast number of mechanical engineering students come out of colleges every year and look for IT jobs . Why isn’t there a supply adjustment to suit demand ?

It is not as if the education is much better for core mechanical engineering needs itself. The labs in most colleges still use engines that were obsolete 40 years ago . When I went to college – auto transmission was popular outside India . I remember just passing references to it in my text book – and that was it . I am glad I did not have to do mechanical engineering for a living . I just wasn’t well prepared for it . As I talk with young students now – I think the syllabus has barely changed from when I did engineering 20 years ago.

And yet – thousands of new engineering grads are churned out every year . This cannot be good – the average quality is not good for their core discipline nor is it good for IT .

IT education is not much better . People still learn C and java and come out of school looking for software jobs . I met a recent computer science grad last week who did not know why servers use fusion I/O cards or even SSDs. They very rarely have seen good code in college , because there is very little interaction with corporates . So corporates take them, train them and few years later they are productive . If academicians took a look at what the industry wants – these unproductive years could be absolutely minimized . But most of them don’t – they just love status quo.

The VC culture in India is nascent at best . All the major VCs have presenxe here – but several people who could use their investment have no idea where they are or how to get their attention . And vast majority of people don’t understand even basics of how startups work . It pains me to see some of them fall prey to local loan sharks . This lack of awareness results in several brilliant students live a “next best life” as a programmer at an SI, and rise through its ranks to varying degrees of success . It depresses me to no end . I try to talk to as many people as I can and try to give them pointers and help them build a network – and I know several others do it too . But it is not done at a scale that matters , given the magnitude of the opportunity cost .

This should change – and every Indian who knows better should spend some time and effort in helping those who don’t . If enough people take an interest at grass roots level – I am sure this could change for the better . Actually, I am not sure any more – but I sure hope and pray that it will change !

Insecure Middle Level Managers – Help Them !

Yesterday, I was most excited to see an email from my friend and mentee Tomas Krojzl . IBM’s CEO and her senior staff chose Tomas as one of the “Best of IBM 2013” Winners. That is a huge deal in IBM – to be one of the few picked out of 430,000+ employees. No one I knew before personally have made it to that list. I, and many others I know, have made it to the “clubs” for selling more than our targets – but that is nothing compared to what Tomas got recognized for.

Way to go, Tomas – you are an inspiration to the rest of us – within and outside IBM !

As much as I like Tomas , I think there are some unsung heroes in this story – his management that put him up and supported his nomination all the way up. This is exactly what leadership is all about. They let Tomas shine bright as just reward for everything he did and continues to do – with no concern that Tomas will get more visibility and credit than they ever will. Hats off to them – I wish I had more managers like that, and I wish I acted that way more times in my own role as a manager.

At every employer I have worked for – I have had good and bad ( and sometimes terrible) managers. I am only 2 months into SAP , and so far everything is great – so I can’t say from first hand experience how it is with managers in SAP. I can certainly say I could have done a lot better as a manager than I have in the past.

Middle managers are a stressed out lot largely. They fall into a few buckets in generally – and some oscillate between these groups.

1. They see a clear career path forward and a rough time line to get to next levels.

2. They are happy where they are, and do not have a lot of growth ambitions for whatever reasons. Most often, they feel secure where they are.

3. They have no clear idea on where to go next or how to get there – although some might think they know, yet can’t stand scrutiny when pushed for an answer.

Those who know they have a path forward – I think they are of two types. One type is very secure – and will lead their team , and everyone will progress together. They will coach effectively , recruit people smarter than them, get rid of people from the team if they think coaching is not helping and so on. And they will never stand in the path of someone else’s progress. Not only that – they will go out of their way to smash obstacles in your way, and teach you how to smash the next obstacle you encounter. And when they need help – they have no shame in asking for it.

One of my mentors at IBM once told me “I can totally foresee me working for you in few years” . This is a guy I had looked up to for several years, and you can imagine my shock. But I could make out that he was proud that it was a real possibility that his mentee would forge ahead, and that he was part of the reason why that could happen. I know another senior executive at SAP who has hired and groomed several top achievers, and she now works for one of her recruits. Yet another friend of mine – whom I met last week at Bangalore – gladly introduced me to his boss, whom he helped recruit. These are all people I greatly admire. And I would love to work for them any day, or have them in my team any day. It is a privilege just to know them.

Then there is the other type – who are insecure. From the outside, they look exactly like the first type – the key difference is that they mostly care only about themselves. They “manage up” significantly better than other employees. In common parlance – they are awesome politicians. They are masters of stealing credit from their team. The best of them manipulate their teams to make them think that they are watching out for the best interests of the team. Sadly, it takes a while to know who they are . I even doubt they realize this is how they operate – I have asked some of these characters, and they seemed to have rationalized their ways somehow.

Getting stuck with an insecure middle manager is painful – and I have been unfortunate to occasionally have insecure bosses. And I constantly worry if I am (or f I will become) one of them.

It is not as if top management is free of insecurity and politics – they clearly are not. The big difference is that by the time they are in top management, most of them have a fair knowledge of what is next for their careers. So my observation is that only a handful are insecure – and they usually stick out like a sore thumb. And once you know who they are, you can work around them somehow in most cases – or you can leave. There is not a lot of guessing needed for employees, management and peers.

Every company I know think they have a talent shortage . In my opinion, before they look outside – they should evaluate their middle management layers. My bet is that there is plenty of talent usually in companies, and the only reason the top management can’t spot them is because a portion of middle management is insecure, and will hide their top performers. I readily admit that not all middle managers do it out of malice – some just have protective instincts , and like to shield their team. They don’t always think through whether the team needs that extra air cover.

Help these middle level managers – chart a course for them and help them navigate. And make sure you get to know more people up and down the org chain, so that you don’t always need a middle level manager to spot talent. And please amply reward the best of them – like the ones who saw Tomas through to his achievement . They are a big reason why good companies become awesome companies. And if you can’t coach them – move away their employees to another manager who is secure and can do them justice as a leader.

Congratulations again, Tomas – very proud of you. And I am looking forward to see a lot more stars being well recognized and not stifled.

Be Proud To Be An IT Expert – But Please Evolve !

Between Analysts, Bloggers and Software Vendors – I think a lot have been done to demoralize IT professionals already. A lot of fantastic IT people that I know have started to feel insecure and unwanted. This includes many of my friends and mentees. In the last few months – I have had innumerable conversations about this with my friends who work at customer companies, SI companies, HW companies etc. I think it is a huge mistake to downplay IT like it is done now – and just wanted to post a few thoughts here.

First – IT absolutely needs to evolve, just like every other part of the enterprise. And I think that is already happening. I don’t see any IT experts I know who live under a rock. If there are any – then yes, they should feel insecure and unwanted and all that.

But lets look at other parts of the enterprise to see how IT compares. Take HR for example – how many companies can boast of a lean super efficient HR system where talent management, career progression, complaint redressal, succession etc are all efficiently done? Many companies I know struggle with most of these functions, just like they struggled when I started my career. The big improvement has been in payroll processing – like outsourced payroll etc, which happened not only because of business model changes – but also due to great IT innovations. Or lets take sales – several large enterprises still do most of their sales like they did 20 years ago, with good sales people knocking on doors (literally and figuratively). Many of them have complicated and manual approval processeses that I did not understand in the 90s, and I still don’t get them. The parts that improved – like cloud based sales force automation, pricing optimization, etc all happened because of IT innovations. Look at engineering – machine design got a huge uplift in large part because CAD got sophisticated over years, and computers can now handle heavy duty collaborative design seamlessly.

If none of that sounds impressive – imagine the business impact if the IT systems that handle sales orders or payroll goes down ( please don’t say “that is why we should move to cloud” as your response – cloud goes down too ). Yet – the “business” side of the house doesn’t get anywhere near the criticism that IT gets. And IT gets very little credit for jobs well done.

For sure, there is some significant complacency in IT – many IT people feel entitled. Several have not kept pace with the latest and greatest. But on a relative scale – are developers and DBAs worse off in this matter compared to colleagues in HR and sales? My answer is an emphatic NO.

Software vendors and SIs do make a claim that they are all about business solutions. This is of course the right message – IT’s job is to solve business problems . However, this message is now interpreted as “We are all about business, and we don’t care about IT”. That is not how it works in real companies – even in departmental purchases (like it often happens in BI for example) , at some point – integration, security etc will come into play. Not involving IT upfront almost always results in grief and extra cost down the line. I have seen many CXOs repent that they did not involve IT upfront in their procurement decisions.

Some IT folks have morphed into procurement experts – and I am not sure of this is good or bad. Procurement skills are important – since a good part of the job involves dealing with Vendors. However, the way this has translated in many companies is that the sole focus is on price reduction. If IT and the actual procurement department both focus strictly on price – the vendor gets very little opportunity to explain the value of the solution. And this usually is behind the reason why IT vendors like to establish relationships with business side of their customers so that they can also present the value side of the equation, and not just cost. The mature IT organizations act as orchestrators – pulling in business, procurement and all other stake holders – and enabling and advising and coaching all the parties including the vendors. That is where IT adds value in “buy” decisions. I have learned a lot from such IT experts – and I am grateful for that learning.

Then there is the whole cloud argument – that cloud makes IT obsolete. Nothing could be farther from truth. Cloud definitely is the future – but it will be a very long time till everything moves to the cloud. And since the predominant pattern in cloud is for customers to buy best of breed solutions – someone needs to integrate all the disparate solutions between themselves, and also to the on-premises systems. Same holds true for security. And who will advise the business colleagues on HA/DR etc for cloud purchases? Even in the case where most of the landscape is shifted to cloud, IT jobs won’t go away. The cloud companies – hosting companies, data centers, application companies et al need the same skills that customer companies used to need.

So, my friends in IT – don’t feel that you are any less important than your colleagues in other parts of the organization. You are every bit as important – and an equal partner in making sure your company meets its goals. Stop thinking of “business and IT” as two things. “business” is not your customer – they are your partner. You both have only one customer – you know, the people who sign checks etc 🙂

But please don’t sit back and be happy with status quo – complacency is the only thing that can make you obsolete. Learn more about usability, design , organiational behavior and most importantly – learn how the business of your company really works . Adapt and evolve – ALL THE TIME !

Co-innovation – It Takes Two To Tango

People who have known me for a while know that I am a big fan of co-innovating with an ecosystem. I have worked in a number of co-innovation projects in my career with varying degrees of success. And now I am in India for 3 weeks, working with a number of ecosystem partners to explore co-innovation ideas.

Why should anyone co-innovate in the first place?

To begin with – innovation is a misused and overhyped word. I am of the firm opinion that a vendor should not claim innovation on any product or service – only a customer should. I am in two minds these days on whether analysts and bloggers are good judges of innovation. But till I get some clarity of thought, I am going to stick with customers as the sole judge.

But Vendors have to constantly try to innovate – otherwise they will not stay relevant to their customers. Relevance comes in two parts – protecting the investments customers made already, and coming up with new things that solve the ever changing needs of customers in a global economy. It is a hard balance to strike, to say the least.

One reason for this balance being hard to strike is because vendor solutions are not always outcome based. Almost every customer has budget to make more money – be it revenue increases or cost reductions. But not all vendors and customers can articulate IT solutions in the context of a business solution. It is an in-exact science to begin with – since some assumptions have to be made . And in a dynamic business world – you can never guess all the factors that affect an outcome. So vendors are naturally hesitant to tie their sales to an outcome that they don’t have control over. Not just vendors – I have also seen several customers who are hesitant to tie their purchases to a risk/reward model. I guess it will be a while before outcome based contracts become mainstream if at all.

Yet another reason is that no one vendor can provide all the solutions to a customer , although many vendors apparently want to do so. Customers also typically like a “one throat to choke” model – which these days seem to be called a more politically correct “one hand to shake”. A happy medium is where co-innovation comes in. It can have many flavors – with multiple vendors joining in , and some times (sadly not often enough)  with customers directly playing a part.

This is a scalable model – since for a given budget constraint, every vendor can get more bang out of their buck, and the customers get a comprehensive solution. But it takes a lot to make it successful. More than the legal, IP, cost etc type of issues – it is the personality of the people that actually work on these projects that make a difference. Co-innovation projects need people who work for different employers to trust each other a lot. This is easier said than done .

There is another conflict of interest in such solutions. Vendors will need a solution that they can lift and shift to other customers . That will typically mean – some features specific to the given customer they are working with might not fit a “framework” ,model. Customers on the other hand will want an out of the box solution that they don’t need to customize any more. I am sympathetic to both sides – and whether this gets resolved or not depends on the trust the people on all sides have with each other, and very seldom does it depend on the contracts that are in place. In fact if contracts have to be referred to every step of the way – I won’t hold my breath on co-innovation projects succeeding ever.

Then there are co-innovation (allegedly?) projects which have little to no customer participation. This is the beginning of the “solution looking for a problem” type scenes we have all seen. In my opinion, such projects should not be done – just scratch them off. They may succeed on occasion – but they are not scalable.

And then there are the “influencers” – analysts, bloggers, friends and family etc. They provide extremely valuable information on co-innovation projects. The hard part is to negate their bias. Every influencer has a bias – some might want you to maximize short term revenue (hi mom) , others might claim they are “buy side”, except they make vast majority of their income from vendors, yet others might only know one geography or market where you sell and so on. So unless you balance it out – there is a good chance that you might end up with a skewed solution. But all things said – I would rather have influencer input than not have it.

I have a lot of battle scars from co-innovation projects – and some of them have not ended well. But I have learned something valuable from each, and I will still be quick to say “I am in” if there is a co-innovation project I can work on . The only ones I say no to are the ones with low or no customer participation.