Diminishing returns of smart phones and social media

Fair warning – this is a rant ! You should probably stop reading now .

Every year, I read 15 to 20 non fiction books. For last 5 years or so, the trend is exactly the same. I get to about 5 books by end of September…and then pick up speed and read 3 times as more in one third of the time. Also, I only read physical books – I don’t use an electronic book reader. Its an “old world” habit I am incapable of kicking. Its one of those things for which I have no rational explanation 🙂


Any way – this year I also noticed one more thing making reading harder for me. I started reading Satya Nadella’s auto biography and its not really a long read. I should have finished it in one day. Instead it took a week or so. The reason – every time I settle down to read, I want to put a song on my phone, check email, see the cricket score, play 2048 on my phone or something. It was ridiculously bad – and it took me a week to realize I can’t read a full book if my phone is anywhere close to me. So I started switching it off and leaving it on a charger in a room as far away as possible to where I was sitting. In planes, I started putting the phone into a bag that I shove into over head space. Pure magic – every book again returned to a one day adventure !

And then I realized the second problem. I have no patience left for long form prose. Thanks to micro blogs, blogs  and bulleted emails that I deal with all the time, beautifully written prose no longer looked beautiful and I was getting irritated. Thankfully couple more books in, life returned to normal and I started enjoying the good prose like usual.

Twitter does not take much time for me – I scan it about three times a day and very rarely have quality conversations on it. Thanks to carefully choosing who I follow, twitter has become a great news feed for topics I like. Any time there is an election, I mute a bunch of handles to keep the noise down. In general, I have no complaints. And strangely, the number of followers keep increasing all the time.

Similarly, I have no big issues with Facebook. I have a lot of friends and family connected on FB. Quality of conversation is extremely high and a lot of topics which used to get debated on twitter has moved on to FB now – and not really to linkedin which is what I expected.

Linkedin on the other hand has become a major pain in the rear for me. For a while, it was a nice place to use as my address book, and even more importantly – it surfaced some amazing content for me to read every day. There are two primary annoyances for me these days on linkedin – 1. God awful job recommendations ( including Catering, Truck driving, divorce attorney etc )and reading list recommendations and 2. People typing up double spaced single line sentences ad nauseam on HR and sales topics.

The double spaced thing looks like this

I interviewed a young man today.

He had no experience.

Looked like he had not showered in a week.

He never went to school.

He was not getting hired anywhere.

I skipped the interview process and hired him on the spot.

Because that is what leaders do.

Now he is the Chairman of a $20B business

My coping mechanism is straight forward – I block the people who post it, and also the people who share/like/comment such things and makes the linkedin algorithm put it on my feed.

And then there is whatsapp – which is supremely useful except for the flood of forwards and “good morning” messages from friends and family. Again the solution is simple – warn the folks who do it, and block repeat offenders. I think half my contacts are now blocked and I am guessing I won’t be invited to several Xmas parties this year 🙂

Every year I have taken social media sabbaticals for a month or two from multiple channels. That has been plenty to keep me sane these last ten years. But clearly that is not enough today. These channels are quite useful for many things – and filtering only goes so far. For now, I am planning to take longer social media sabbaticals . I also need to find/read about the latest greatest tips on how to not get overwhelmed by my social channels and phone. If you have good tips – pls do share.

End of rant !


Objection, your honor !

Although I have spent a lot of time with lawyers reviewing contracts and stuff, I have never set foot in a court room in my life.  But, I have always loved court room drama in movies. I love the debate between opposing sides, with a judge providing guard rails and taking a decision based on evidence, laws and consistency.


The first line I picked up as a child from the Malayalam movies I grew up with was  “Objection, your honor !”.  This usually involves one lawyer jumping up dramatically from his seat to register his objection to what the opposing side is saying. The judge would then make a determination via “Objection sustained” or “Objection overruled”. The beauty of the system – at least as shown in movies – is that all sides agree and move on once the judge makes a determination. Worst case, one side presses on after the judge ruled, and a strict warning gets issued which returns the situation to an equilibrium.

I have not seen a movie yet where the lawyer who is asked to stand down then throws a fit and leaves the court, and sends in his resignation from his phone :).

For a long time, I consulted to a client who had this culture in their DNA. They called it “Disagree and commit” and practiced it religiously.


Literally anyone in the meeting can – respectfully – challenge any prevailing wisdom that is  being discussed. As long as the eventual decision was not opposed to company values, and did not have ethical/legal type issues – people who originally disagreed with the decision also commit to make it successful. Decisions were not always democratic – sometimes it was just a leader taking a judgement call . Having watched it play out for a long time – they largely followed through on that promise. That company went from strength to strength. It also helped shape my philosophy early on about stellar team performance in a big way.

“Disagree and commit” is EXTREMELY HARD ! . And it only gets harder as you take on more senior roles . A lot of things need to fall in to place for this to work well.

To begin with, you need some conviction that the rest of the team is at least as smart as you – if not smarter. If you consistently think the rest of team are dumb asses who just don’t get it, you will only ever disagree – you will never commit ! .

Boring Presentation

The resolution varies from you getting coaching to get a fresh perspective, the team getting redesigned (perhaps by excluding you) , or you finding a team where you fit better and trust and respect the folks around to you.

Since decision making needs to happen frequently in any team – its usually too late to resolve this dilemma post facto. The smart thing to do (whenever you can) is to be very careful where you choose to work, and who you work for.

It is quite possible that you are the smartest person in the team and the rest of them truly don’t get it. This is a true test of leadership. The make or break here is empathy – whether you can put yourself in their shoes, and reframe your point of view to change their thinking. Its also a test of your own ability to make trade offs. Can you live with yourself if the mission fails ? Is it better to not rock the boat and risk losing your job with a mortgage to pay and two kids in school ? Can the team course correct if you succeed to show them half way through that the original idea was not the best ?

One tactic I have used with better than modest success, to commit to something I have disagreed with, is to get the team to set up a few early milestones as check points.


This is not always possible – some times they are “all or nothing” commitments . Yet, whenever possible, it helps to minimize potential damage. I readily admit that some times such check points have proved me wrong ( so much for my strong belief that I was the one who was smartest in the gang) .

What if you truly can’t live with yourself with the decision that the team agreed on ? You wholeheartedly disagree – but you just can’t commit. Hopefully these are few and far between scenarios (If they are not, most certainly you should quickly take help from your coaches and mentors).

The first thing to do here is to make a determination whether you can let the team do what they agreed to do without causing any additional roadblocks yourself actively or passively. When we are experts in an area – we tend to think in extremes. Everything that could go wrong, we will assume they will go wrong, and horribly so.


The truth is that only very few risks have high probability to occur and high impact if they actually do occur. So perhaps you can help the team identify those, and provide ideas to mitigate – as opposed to just dismiss the whole idea summarily.

There is also the idea to resort to “policy by lapse”. The idea is like “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a bit and it will change”.


This could also work, if used occasionally. Unfortunately I have known many who choose this as first and only way – and they become a boat anchor on their team’s neck. The first chance they get, the team will get rid of you from their midst. Ergo – use with extreme caution !

If none of that work,  the next thing to explore is to find something else to do – in your current team, or elsewhere. While you are searching, you need to find a way to minimize spreading negativity. By spreading negativity, you will continue to be miserable, make others miserable, and earn the kind of reputation that will be hard to shake off.

It is never easy to go find another team if you just realized you need to do it and you have only 3 days to do it. Unless you are on par with Elon Musk – You should assume throughout that you need Plan B and Plan C at all points, and keep them refreshed periodically.


All those things like having an active network, keeping your skills sharp, letting the world know of what makes you special etc – they are essentials in your career for a reason !

I will make one last point before I sign off. If you are miserable and are looking for your next adventure, don’t just go looking for what open opportunities exist in your network. A focused “This is what I would like to do, and here is why. Can you help?” ( being careful to not come across as arrogant) will trump the generic “Here are my skills and experience, is there anything open that suits me?” most days.



Harmony, thy name is Tokyo !

There are very few things I hate like long flights – I am the biggest baby when it comes to complaining about plane rides. Don’t blame me – blame the last couple of decades of weekly air travel 🙂 . I was hopeful that 2017 was going to be the first year without international travel in my career. It had even taken me till November to make exec platinum in AA – as opposed to the usual May/June time frame.


But then came this 3 day meeting in Tokyo, Japan that I really had to attend. Grudgingly I told my admin Thelma to figure out my travel plans. Turns out, on the outbound from LA to Tokyo, I could not get upgraded. Given I am vertically and horizontally not a fit for the smaller seats in back of the plane, it started hurting even before I left home !

Finally – after what seemed like 700 hours – the plane landed in Tokyo . I was already dreading the long immigration line seeing literally hundreds of people walking along with me from other planes. Then came the first surprise – it barely took 5 minutes to get through immigration and customs and into the cab to go to the hotel. Japanese efficiency – not that I did not know this earlier – is breath taking every single time you encounter it.


The same goes for cleanliness aesthetics. Every square inch is spotless everywhere – including construction sites. And everyone – without exception – is super polite, almost to a fault. It is not superficial – they just go out of their way to make sure you are happy.  As I walked into the lobby of the Royal Park hotel , I saw everyone including the manager helping set up this flower arrangement. They kept rearranging till everyone there felt 100% happy about it – that’s how they roll !

Jet lag played spoil sport every night this trip – but on the bright side (?), I knew exactly what time I will wake up ( 3 AM sharp) before going to bed. All the experience of suffering from it for two decades does come in handy this way 🙂

The meeting was in IBM Japan office, a short walk away from the hotel. It houses several IBM teams – from research, engineering, GBS, Sales….and some of the coolest research on Watson happens in the TRL ( Tokyo Research Lab).


I got to tour the THINK Lab here and got a demo on their cutting edge “Galaxy” platform ( not Samsung…just a code name). I don’t think I have been this geeked out in ages. Just as with everyone else I met this trip, the Japanese colleagues who hosted us this week were the nicest and most professional people I have ever met. They set the bar really high !

Monday night, we had a team dinner. It is a cultural experience I will never get tired of. Thanks to Nagayama San, I also now am a fan of schochu, the local spirit distilled from potatoes or sweet potatoes. A cultural nuance I picked up was that the common practice is to pour beverages for the next person and have them return you the favor. I thought that is such a beautiful way to bond.

The food (and shochu) just keeps coming – perfectly presented – and the wait staff just goes out of their way to make sure they explain everything to you and make sure you can enjoy your meal to the fullest. No one rushes a meal here – which I also admire about Spain.

One of my colleagues, Al,  is gluten intolerant. One of the waiters practically adopted him as her son for the evening and got everything specially made for him. . And seeing Al using chopsticks like a pro, our Japanese friends were telling us that they regret that a lot of kids in Japan can’t use them properly these days.


The second night, Al and I went to the famous Nobu restaurant for some sushi. I have already eaten at their restaurants before – but nothing comes close to Sushi in Japan. The Otoro (fatty tuna belly that melts in your mouth) is addictive. And the other one I loved was the Octopus – which they serve completely raw, unlike the lightly boiled version usually served elsewhere. As I was singing its praises later that night to the bar tender at our hotel, he said “I won’t go to Nobu till they become a real sushi place again – They serve California rolls, and that is not sushi”. Looking at how busy the restaurant was, I am guessing Nobu would take that risk 🙂

Third day, I had some time to kill before my (upgraded, thank you god) flight back home. So I took the subway to check out the Tokyo Skytree.


Skytree is  a magnificent piece of architecture and an engineering Marvel. It was fascinating to get a 360 degree view from the observation decks on top of it. Tokyo is densely packed with high rises, but within that concrete jungle – they have little patches of trees, sports facilities, pools and so on all neatly arranged around water ways.


Skytree is very close to the Senso-ji temple, which is the oldest of its kind in Tokyo . It was built in the 7th century.


The similarity with Indian temples is remarkable. Even some of the rituals seem rather similar to what is practiced in India. Its amazing how they keep such serenity in the middle of a very busy modern city.

It also houses an old market that sells pastries, and kimonos and a bunch of souvenirs. I also obliged a bunch of young students, who looked to be my daughter’s age in taking their pictures ( some 200 times to make sure every angle is covered. Each kid who asked me for a photo wore a kimono and spoke perfect English, and had earplugs on 🙂


On the way back, I got lost with direction and ended up walking the wrong way for a couple of minutes trying to figure out which way is the train station. I did not find the train station, but when I looked up I saw an Andhra restaurant right in front of me.


Despite my love for Japanese food – I HAD to try this. Nothing spectacular but pretty decent Andhra thali and fairly inexpensive for Tokyo. It was also fun to talk to owner in Hindi for a while . That dude speaks fluent Japanese and I was the only Indian in the joint – apparently Japanese folks like Indian food a lot. Who knew 🙂


The harmony of old and new co-existing was driven home as I looked at the skyline. There was the big skytree and the smaller but eye catching tower of the temple both in one frame.


It made me think about IBM and other companies that have been transforming . I also thought about my own life and realized the struggle of how much of the old do I need to retain while embracing the new. It is extremely hard to find harmony between the old and the new. But when it happens, its beautiful – like Tokyo.

I will be back with my wife and daughter soon !