Hello IBM, I am home !

Earlier today , I accepted IBM’s offer to join them as a VP & Partner in the Strategy and Business Analytics Group . My primary focus will be in helping IBM customers take their business to its next level using modern big data and analytics solutions . It is a technology agnostic role – which makes it very flexible to craft unique solutions and also makes it great fun . Maybe there is even an opportunity to partner with my old gang at MongoDB !

First I am off to India to visit my folks and have a nice vacation before starting at IBM . In many ways , joining IBM is like going home . For all intents and purposes – I “grew up” professionally in IBM . Almost everything I know about leadership , customer success, sales , high quality delivery  etc are all skills I picked up while at IBM . There is a lot more to learn and I am sure this second innings is going to give me an opportunity for exactly that . 

When I decided to leave MongoDB , I certainly knew that IBM would be one of the places I might find a job . I kept my options open and cast a rather wide net . I was talked out of opening a restaurant by some friends (both using data and emotions) . But that still left a bunch of questions on what size of a company , what role ( serious identity crisis having done a lot of different things at work in past ) , location and so on . It was downright confusing – and I took some of my own advice . I started calling my friends and mentors to talk this through . I can’t thank these folks enough for taking my countless calls . Some of them opened doors at places I otherwise wouldn’t have opened on my own  . They are truly my guardian angels .

Those of you that read my blog regularly know my less than gracious thoughts about the broken process of recruiting . Those thoughts are all the more amplified now in my mind . Suffice it to say – more than half the opportunities I stopped exploring happened so because of god awful recruiting processes . Eventually I shortlisted to five companies as potential employers . Four big companies and one startup . 

The recruitment process with IBM was super fast compared to what I expected . Every one from my hiring manager Jerry Kurtz to the GM of North America Lori Steele took the time to meet with me and answer my every question . It was also kind of fun that the executive recruiter Jennette was the technical recruiter a decade ago that originally recruited me into IBM . And last but not least – I owe a lot to my long time friend , mentor and former boss Ken Englund for all his encouragement and support . The extremely high quality of leadership talent that IBM has is a big reason for me to join them . 

My wife did not put any pressure to pick one offer over another . But my ten year old daughter Shreya made it crystal clear that she would like to see me back at IBM . In her first grade – she wrote this inner journal , and it is still her dream job to be a globe trotting IBM engineer. I am glad she won’t be disappointed 🙂 . Turns out my father in law was also rooting for IBM behind the scenes – although he did not explicitly tell me so while I was going through the process . 

It is an exciting time for me to get started again at IBM . The company is in the middle of a significant transformation and I am excited to be part of the journey . Wish me luck !

The path to partnership in big consulting firms 

Having gone through this process successfully and in somewhat of a fast track manner , I have often been asked by several people on what does it take to make partner in a consulting firm (or principal, VP, MD or any of the other terms that are equal to a partner).  I have asked several of my seniors on their experiences of the process to prepare myself when I went through the drill myself. Given this is still the primary aspiration for many big firm consultants, and I continue to get asked about this topic a lot  – I thought I will share my personal views for what they are worth.

Warning : It is a VERY long post – and if you are not a big firm consultant considering going through the process – you will be bored to tears. Still with me ? Lets get started with how you become the top dog 🙂


1. Decide if you REALLY want it 

On the good side – Partners usually make more money and have better perks than others in a firm , and have a lot of power . On the bad side – they have a really hard job (at least till they are sufficiently tenured) . Trust me – it is not as beautiful as it looks from the outside .  It takes a toll on you to make partner . Crazy work hours , extreme multi tasking , globe trotting in cramped economy seating and living with uncertainty for years all take a big toll on you . Only you can decide if it is worth the trouble for you . Think long and hard and then think some more . It takes a lot of commitment and drive to push through the process

If you want to make partner, it is 100% on you to make it work. Don’t expect your firm or your manager or your counsellor to own it. They won’t own it. They can only facilitate it to some degree. There will be hundreds of obstacles and excuses on how the deck is stacked unfavorably for you. If you constantly find yourself in that negative zone – you probably are not ready for the big job.

2. Start selling early in your career

At a minimum you need to have sold a few big multi million deals and managed a few big projects . It takes time to get the sales skill . So start really early in your career to sell – even if all you get to do at first is fetch coffee for the proposal team . Find the best sellers in your firm and watch them in action closely . Delivery skills are something hat you will pick up organically . However, Sales does not come naturally to some people (like me ). You have to work at it

Also – find out early on how credit splits work in your firm . Some times partners share credit , some times you have to split with a partner . Learn the rules before you put in the effort to sell or manage revenue . I have lost count of how many people I know of who played without knowing the rules and then ended up in extreme frustration

3. Do something useful to existing partners and get noticed

End of the day, even if you have all the sales and revenue numbers in the world – if enough number of partners don’t know about you, you will not make partner. At most big firms – you need explicit support from 15 or 20 partners for your case to go through the vote. If you try to do something useful for 15 partners one at a time linearly, you will waste a lot of time. So find out who are the powerful ones and get access to them. Contribute to their projects , ask them for advice, learn from them. If they think you add value – they will help get you the support of other partners.

There is a certain hierarchy of partners in all firms. People who are not partners do not always know this. Not all partners have the same clout. And most firms will try to give an impression to employees that they are all partners of same stature. That is NOT true. Find the ones who have tenure (in firms where tenure matters), or ones in more senior bands and build great working relationships with them.

Don’t wait till you are a senior manager to start this process. Start as soon as you decide if this partnership route is the one you want to take

4. Find three coaches and start taking their advice on next steps

a. Someone who made partner the previous cycle and remembers the drill well enough to guide you

b. Someone who has run the process as co-ordinator in the past ( partners typically take turns)

c. Someone who runs an industry or service line , or if that is not possible – then one of their direct reports

Whatever you do – try not to get one of the recent direct admit partners as one of the three coaches if you can help it. People who made partner in another firm might not know all the rules of the game you are about to play.

The key to make partner is to be part of a group that needs more new leaders. If the ERP business of your firm is declining, even if you check every box – you still might not make it through the process because the firm has no use for one more ERP partner. You should immediately move to a group where there is growth for at least next 5 years. This is critical information your coaches can tell you about. Don’t kill yourself through the grind in a group that has no future in the firm, even if it was once a darling and created a lot of partner jobs.

5. Enlist the support of some customers – ideally at CXO levels

Firms like to see positive feedback from customers. Their reason to promote you to partner is essentially in hopes that you can convince customers to buy from you. Nothing gives confidence like a customer who says good things about you. If you build good relationships with customers, then take them to a dinner or social event that one or more of existing partners are present. Make those introductions proactively – once you make partner, you will need a hundred favors from your peers to survive.

Also get some partners involved in the deals you run. Let them watch you in action and take their feedback . Your goal is to get a bunch of partners really confident that you can do work at their level, and take feedback like an adult.

6. Enlist the support of ISVs and IHVs

Consulting in IT works only if the consulting firm has excellent relationships with software and hardware vendors. Unlike with customers, it is a LOT more easy to build relationships with ISVs and IHVs. Work with them, develop a good professional relationship, get them into some of your deals . They will reciprocate and that will get the attention of the panel evaluating your case. Again – it is one of those things that takes lot of time. So start early.

7. Develop your drafting skills and keep fine tuning it

There are two things you need to be good at – writing really aggressive sales documents ( RFP responses, proposal decks etc) and really conservative contracts . Some partners coach their senior managers on these things – but not all do. Take the initiative to learn from good proposals and SOWs. This will get noticed and is one of the best ways to get the attention of partners who will then pull you into sales pursuits and projects. The one mis-step that a lot of candidates make is that they get good at drafting but fail miserably when presenting it internally or to the customer. If you need to brush up on this – join toast masters. Ideally you should be able to do a solid presentation if you have made it to senior manager. But it is not universally true. A bad presentation can reverse your chances – so please work on your presentation skills.

8. Act like a partner before you get the job

For the most part, as a senior manager or Associate partner, you are already running most of the projects and sales pursuits. Now is the time to act like a partner would. Try hard to look beyond the day to day project plan, and get into advising customers on long term topics. Find out from your peers on what they are seeing in their gigs and clue in your customers on important trends. At some point – you will start operating in a different level and you will know it. While it does sound vain – and it is vain – dress matters too. If the partners in your firm typically wear a suit to work, wear one yourself too. And start coaching your junior colleagues and help them get to your level. That is a skill you will need in plenty once you make partner. You will be a coach or counsellor to many people in future – and the firm needs to see you have that in your DNA.

The one thing you should NOT do is jerk around your team in your assumed role as partner. That would be a terrible thing to do.

9. Don’t do anything stupid or unethical

I can’t stress this enough. It should be the most obvious thing but some occasionally screw up on this front. For example – Don’t try to do a bad deal to up your sales numbers in time for your partner process. Most likely someone will find out and then you probably have shut the door on your chances for good. if someone in the panel even remotely suspects a lack of ethics or inappropriate behavior – they won’t go through with your case. No firm will risk that.

10. Now the easy part – just show up for interviews and know your lines

The easiest part of the process is the actual partnership interviews and case reviews. Panel already has opinions about you before they call you for the discussion (you have done all the hard work already). You are in good shape if you made it this far. You need to be confident ( not cocky and you should know the difference) when facing them. They need to feel that you will be a great peer. They need to see something more than they have seen in you as a senior manager. They need to see someone who thinks about the big picture, opportunities for the firm, potential pitfalls etc.  But those are all things you would have already picked up from one of your three coaches.

What if you fail to make it ?

Not everyone who starts the process ends up as a partner . You need to have a plan ready on how to deal with the rejection. Some firms only let you try two or three times at most. Get a realistic view from your coaches on whether you have a fair shot at making it next time. If there are specific things to work on – like getting more references from customers , it is manageable by the time the next cycle starts. Vague reasons like “poor communication skills” are usually red signals. You need to decide if you are happy to not make partner (you still can make a lot of money in non partner jobs, and hopefully a better work life balance). You can also decide that you want to move to another consulting company and try your luck there (all the prep work you did will help – but you will need to build a network there and that will take time). Take a break and think through it before you start the process a second time.

Organizational Culture – please don’t get too wound up over it

If you listen to certain VCs and CEOs active on social media – you might come to a conclusion that the existential threat to their companies is “culture” ( or lack there of). It’s also largely silly.

Most touristy places I have visited have some kind of “cultural immersion” program – where you are exposed to their food , music , dress etc in a short time . At the end of which – you get a glimpse of some things that may entertain you , but you still don’t know much about that culture . Eating spaghetti doesn’t make me Italian , even if expertly cooked by Mario Battali. Recently at a sales training event , the trainer confidently  exclaimed “I know how you Europeans feel – I lived there for 5 years”. There was a collective groan from my European colleagues in response which amused me to no end.

Culture is extremely complex – and if you are not an anthropology major , you probably have not spent sufficient time understanding what constitutes it . I spent some time reading about it – and it gave me a headache .

It takes a significant amount of time and effort to be part of a culture . Seeing it from outside and living it from the inside are two vastly different things . I have lived in USA for 15 years – but it would be outrageously wrong if I claimed to have a full grip of American culture . Similarly I am amused when I hear American friends say “I love India and Indian food – your chicken tikka masala and garlic nan is the yummiest meal I ever had . And I was stunned by the beauty of Taj Mahal” .  ( Chicken tikka masala is mostly a dish invented by North Indian chefs who moved to the Western Hemisphere , and designed for western taste buds – we don’t eat it in India . And I have not seen a garlic nan in India at any house . Finally – Taj is amazing , but it also stands out because there are many unsightly things around it that you might find hard to deal with if you lived there ) . 

The first time I heard a serious discussion of culture at work was only a few years ago . I was never too interested in a detailed look at it when I was in the earlier stages of my career . That particular discussion was along the lines of “we need to work on the culture – it looks rather different from the awesome culture we grew up in” .  

They were referring to a time 15 – 20 years ago, where it was a young team of mostly males , all whites , all MBAs with engineering degrees . Their managers were quite similar to them – just older and wealthier for the most part.  The team we were worried about was diverse , not all MBAs and not looking anywhere similar to the managers on any aspect . Why exactly were they worried ? I didn’t know then – and I still can’t put my finger on it today .

And then there was this CEO I know who said “let’s spend part of our next offsite defining our culture . I keep hearing that the company culture has changed quite a bit”. He was leading a young company that was doubling in size every year – which meant 

1. It is hard to put a finger on a culture that has only existed for few years . Too young to have a specific culture to begin with.

2. Half the team is new at any given point . Culture – in a company or country – evolves by mixing new with old  . It’s not static . I can barely recognize the my hometown in India these days . They drink capouccino and lattes today ( there was only coffee – regular “kappi” – when I lived there ). 

3. Can you define and implement culture top down ?  No – and you can’t do it by hanging slogan filled banners either . Was Roman culture created by the Ceasar and his senate by a royal decree ? 

What about the big companies that have been around for decades like GE or IBM ? Well – they probably have had good times and bad times in those decades . Which means they also had employees and managers who worried about culture changes periodically as market transitions happened . 

Does all this mean that culture is unimportant ? No certainly not – it is part of our identity as corporate citizens, and hence is important . All I am saying is – just don’t get too wound up about it . 

Embrace the idea that despite your strong desire to direct it in a centralized and top down way, it will grow in largely unpredictable ways. A culture has subcultures – even a small state like Kerala (where I was born and raised ) have three or four distinct sub cultures. So why do we expect that a one size fits all culture will ever exist that covers the existing fairly stable engineering team and the fairly new and fast changing sales team ? 

Culture is built on people . Treat people well and give them the freedom to do their jobs , and be transparent to the extent you can . And change your approach as you learn what is working and what is not . Maybe if you do those little things – you will have a culture that you are comfortable with. It’s a “maybe” – don’t waste your energy trying to design something that was never meant to be designed . 

Oh those corporate titles

We were a bunch of trainees listening to Mr FC Kohli at TCS in 1999. He asked if we had questions – and one of my friends asked “Our title now is Assistant Systems Engineer trainee. Our competitors give way nicer titles at our level. Why can’t we be called consultants?”. Mr Kohli’s response was “The guy who takes photocopies in one of our young competitors is called VP of corporate communications. Would you want to be a VP too , young man?”. I think he also added that “what they call as revenue is less than what we call as profit every year”. I have not seen Mr Kohli since then – but I will never forget his view on titles in the work place. It essentially formed my habit of making fun of titles at every opportunity I get 🙂

There was one company I worked in – Novasoft – where there was absolutely no hierarchy. There was an MD and the rest of us were all senior consultants. In every other company I have worked in, there has been a hierachy – and some had ridiculous number of layers.

The confusion that titles generate is unbelievable. Every time I have a discussion on careers with one of my team members or mentees – I see this first hand. And now as I try to evaluate various offers for my own employment, I find myself confused quite often too in this regard.

Contrary to popular opinion, size of the company is clearly not correlated to titles. One of the smaller sized companies I considered as a potential employer told me that they are very lean and flat, and that everyone is treated equally and that they don’t cater to ego titles. After meeting the executive team, I realized the head of sales alone is an EVP and everyone else reporting to their CEO is an SVP. Another startup has a CEO who is also the president, although for a long time to come there is no reason to think they will have more than one division. Yet another startup has a VP working for a VP who works for another VP.  These are not companies that have thousands of employees – the three examples above don’t even have 500 employees I think.

The big companies are almost all terrible about titles and levels. VPs working for VPs and managing partners working for managing partners are common.There are General Managers in many such companies who don’t have a team or budget .And since a lot of people get involved in every interesting initiative in these companies – folks at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder spend a lot of time looking at the org chart to figure out who has real clout and who is wasting their time. At least at one of my prior employers, “who do you work for?” was asked of me routinely before someone granted me a bit of their time.

At some point – HR would introduce a concept of job bands into the mix. This is supposed to decrease confusion – but ironically I have only ever seen it increase confusion. Now people get looked upon by both their internal and external titles. Although the theory is that no one should know another person’s internal title – it is rarely a secret. So now this becomes 2X as bad in the confusion it creates and loss of efficiency that it results in.

Then there is title inflation. Because titles are cheap and money is expensive – many managers generously give titles without any thought, usually in lieu of compensation or to hire someone away from competition. I have worked at a company where you cannot walk across a floor without literally running into a VP or SVP.

What is the question that I spend the most time answering as a manager ? it is “how can I get promoted?”. As I speak with them more and dig a bit deeper – many times they are not even really asking for a promotion. They just need an increase in base pay or bonus or they want more stock. Sometimes they really are indeed asking about moving to the next level and need just advice on skill gaps . In many cases the root of this conversation is something like “Dick in marketing is a VP, and I do way more than he does in product management – so why I am I just a director?”. In many cases – this is a genuine question, which makes honest answers very difficult for the managers. I know one executive who promoted someone to a bigger title because this person was better than everyone else in the team. What he did not realize was that the team was a bunch of poor performers to begin with and it was a low bar to promote someone compared to them. These things happen every day and frustrates many of us endlessly. I certainly have been frustrated an awful lot both as an employee and as a manager.

Not everyone gets “life is not fair in corporate world” quickly. Every manager who generously gives away undeserving titles to their employees is doing significant harm to other employees and managers. It is not that HR and upline managers are ignorant of this. Its just that no one ever gets around to fixing it for the long term.

From an org design point of view – you only really need a manager, a director and a VP in a hierarchy. Maybe at more than 500 people or so – it makes sense to have 2 divisions at each level (like a director and senior director) . At executive level – the sole criteria should be whether the person can form a plan to align with corporate strategy, get it approved and execute to deliver results with practically no supervision. With this lens – how many people truly deserve to be VP, SVP, EVP, GM etc ?

Does all of this mean that you as an employee or candidate should not ask for as good a title as you can get ? No – absolutely you should ask for as good a title as you can get if you are in a company that has all these issues I talked about above. When a lot of employees bring up these conversations, hopefully people in positions of power will wake up and do something about this topic. Till then – you are welcome to join me in making good natured fun of titles, including my own 🙂

SAPPHIRENOW 2015 Day 1 – Bill McDermott and The Run Simple Keynote

This is the first Sapphire I am missing in a very long time – probably in a decade or so. But thanks to the high quality live streaming video provided by SAP, and twitter – I felt I did not miss much . I woke up early, fed my dogs, brewed some coffee and sat down by the kitchen table to watch Bill McDermott’s keynote. Bill did not wear a tie – and I nearly fell off my chair !

Now, Bill is one of the best speakers amongst enterprise SW CEOs. And the settings, videos etc are totally world class. But despite having those two HUGE advantages – I finished watching the keynote feeling that SAP failed to capitalize the opportunity to seize customer imagination fully.

SAP’s biggest strength and biggest weakness is its huge and varied portfolio. There might not even be anyone employed by SAP who can talk intelligently on all those products, even at a high level.  From the keynote’s perspective – it was a bit all over the place. I think Bill had a lot to cover, but in the process could not spend enough time to meaningfully cover anything . But that said – I give him huge credit for keeping a 90 minute keynote to 60 minutes. And when I suggested on twitter that he should aim for 30 minutes next year – he agreed ! For a speaker of his caliber – I doubt it will take more than thirty minutes to make an impact.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 8.14.25 AM

The concur demo was great. The User experience part is truly a breath of fresh air for people who are used to SAP GUI. It could have been a whole lot nicer if Bill could also point out how predictive analytics on hana could make it even better, or how it integrates with other SAP solutions.

S4Hana part was on the underwhelming side. This is a product that is close to SAP’s heart and for the most part – its success is what the company apparently is counting on. It was mentioned briefly in the middle of the presentation. There wasn’t a customer case study – not even SAP IT as a customer – to make the point. For the most part – the big ding on the keynote was that the only customer conversation was the under armor story, which SAP has told many times over in the past. I was honestly disappointed to not see a big cross section of customers showcased. I am hopeful that SAP will make amends in the following keynotes.

On the partnership front – SAP had two big names. Google and Facebook both add to the coolness factor of SAP and those two companies would probably benefit a lot from SAP’s enterprise credentials. That said, it was not clear what the Facebook announcement was all about. It sounded like someone read some prepared notes. I am looking forward to details on that. Facebook has a LOT of capabilities to mine data – and uses an assortment of technologies for its big data use cases. Very curious to see where SAP fits in.

I loved the emphasis on data driven enterprise using Hana. Makes total sense – assuming a few things. Hana should be more affordable and less exotic – Not many enterprises will put a petabyte of data in main memory today. So pricing model for Hana should probably get off its “champagne” level to more of a “budlight” level, and automated dynamic tiering of data (making use of less expensive tech to store data infrequently used) should be available . All those hadoop/spark type partnerships and SAP’s own Sybase technologies can help. From twitter conversation with Hana product boss Mike Eacrett, it looks like all those things are on their way.

Bill did call out Hana Cloud Platform. I honestly think that HCP should have been the theme this year at SAPPHIRE. It could totally be the unifying layer for all the ideas he explained today. Again, I am hopeful that one of the next keynotes will go into that in more detail.

Looking forward to see what else SAP has on offer this week. Congratulations to Bill and team for a great start to the conference and good luck !