There is always something new to learn


First things first – jet lag sucks more as I grow older . Not that long ago , I was able to function just fine with a different time zone every day as I flew around the world .

This time in India – it was quite hard to shake it off , and it was twice as bad this week in NY fighting the reverse lag. I can’t wait to get a good night’s sleep on my own bed after three weeks on the road.

I was in the IBM learning center in Armonk, NY this week for a leadership training class called RISE .

IBM training events are usually quite good – and I have taken and taught at many of them over the years.

But this one was quite special – and I learned a few things that I perhaps haven’t paid enough attention so far .

1. Simulations are such a great learning tool !

We worked in teams of six making decisions about a certain problem . The case study was about 80 pages long that we had to glean info from in an hour . And then every day we got new information and had to tweak our decisions and make new ones. Case studies of course are not new to me and I did my fair share in business school and also in many later training sessions. I have also worked with simulation based systems in past a couple of times . But a three day session – competing against three other teams – and seeing the results of our decisions quickly ( sometimes painfully ) was an exceptional learning experience.

For those keeping score – our team “aurora” won ๐Ÿ™‚

2. The power of the Balance sheet !

I had taken the role of CFO for my team . Good thing that the course had a Pre-req to brush up on Finance fundamentals – and I had plenty of time to do it because of the jet lag keeping me awake at night ๐Ÿ™‚

In my day job – I worry about P&L every day and cash flow fairly frequently too . It’s very rare that I even have to think about balance sheet . But as we worked through the course of the three days – I quickly realized what a powerful tool Balance sheet can be .

Let’s just say a lot of lessons from my Finance management professors flashed across my mind in rapid fashion ๐Ÿ™‚

I think one of the reasons we won the “game” was that we used Balance sheet more productively than other teams. And we strategically kept quiet about that till the end of course ๐Ÿ™‚

3. The incredible value of diverse opinions

We had four ladies in the team and two gents . Two from US , one from Hongkong , one from Australia , one from India and one from Belgium . In short – a fairly diverse team .

One decision we had to take quickly in the simulation was to pick a sales channel for a scenario amongst three choices . Five of us chose one channel and my Belgian friend Sonia chose another – and she gave a darn good logical reason . We went with the majority decision and painfully realized as we saw the results that we were dead wrong and she was right !

Good lesson learned to listen more closely and watch for group think kicking in !

I still can’t believe we passed on her perfectly good and rational argument – and I was one of the first to dismiss it . On the bright side – we quickly realized our folly and started listening to each other more intensely since that moment !

4. Hearing the views of multiple senior leaders on the same issues is enlightening

We were incredibly fortunate to have a half dozen senior leaders engage with our class – including my own boss Marianne and my ex-boss Mark ! It’s not often that we get several of them to give their opinions on any given topic . It was an eye opening – and thoroughly enjoyable – experience as they patiently explained their unique views on the questions we raised .

5. “Collabagility” is a thing ๐Ÿ™‚

We had some fun with the word – a combination of collaboration and agility . We even created some rap music on it yesterday ๐Ÿ™‚

We all thrive on problem solving – and usually that is all from scratch . Over the last four days over meals and drinks together with my new friends from around the globe – one thing became quite clear . Many things that I have encountered as unique problems have already been faced and solved by others across the world. And no one has any issue discussing how they solved those problems either .

I thought I was a well networked guy – but I clearly haven’t done nearly enough in making use of it productively . Now that we all know each other better – I look forward to more “collabagility” ๐Ÿ™‚

6. Good decision making needs food , sleep and exercise

Ok – so this I knew very well before I landed in Armonk ๐Ÿ™‚ . But for good measure – the faculty reminded me of this any way during the coursework as well .

Just that I first hand experienced what happens when Jetlag plays spoil sport . Day 1 – slept 3 hours . Day 2 – slept 10 hours . Day 3 – slept 4 hours . Day 4 – slept 9 hours . The only good thing that happened with insomnia is that I took some long walks early in the morning – and in biting cold – along the West Chester woods .

There used to be a time when I could run SAP go-lives for 36 hour shifts across several sites. Clearly I won’t be a good release manger any more ๐Ÿ™‚

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Incredibly Inspiring India !


About 5 months ago, I took a new role in IBM as the Senior Partner for IBM services for our relationship with American Express. Since then, I have been busy getting to know the leadership team at my client , as well as my own team in AZ, NY and FL . The relationship between our two companies is 105 years old and thriving !

After being on the saddle for my first full quarter, the next logical step was to visit the Amex leadership team in India, as well as my own team spread across Bangalore , Delhi , Pune and Kolkata . So I jumped on a plane and headed east.

Qatar Airways rocks

I have flown almost every imaginable combo of airlines to get to India in my life . After a couple of million air miles, I have very little joy left for flying. But Qatar showed me that flying can still be fun. Comfort , safety , food , service, timeliness , beautiful lounge – there is nothing I could ask more of . How I wish American Airways learned all this from Qatar !

On the domestic front in India, I flew Jet airways , Air India and Indigo . Jet was amazing and came very close to Qatar . Air India surprisingly wasn’t too bad like my past experience. Indigo – the only good thing I can say about them is that they were on time.

I saw what digital transformation at scale looks like

One of the biggest problems flying in to India used to be the long immigration and customs lines in the airports and multiple forms to fill . And this time – there were no forms to fill and from flight to picking up my bag from baggage claim to getting into the cab (which I booked in the prepaid counter on my way out) barely took 10 minutes . The whole experience was smooth and frictionless – and the cabbies generally use google maps on their smart phones to find their way . Cabbies also take mobile payments !

The domestic checkin process still has room for improvement – especially in the older airports like Pune . Delhi , Bangalore and Kolkata etc are all quite impressive airports and of international standards.

Lot of faces from the past !

In every city I visited, there were old friends to catchup . I hadn’t met many of them for as long as 25 years in some cases ! It was tiring to take 15 flights in 10 days – but these reunions totally made up for it.

Nandu and Rajesh – both live in US – and we hadn’t met in 22 years and finally caught up over hot filter coffee ๐Ÿ™‚

My engineering college class mates Vinod ( he is a real rocket scientist) , Regin and Renjith ( Both entrepreneurs)

My dear friend from high school Sojan, who lives in Netherlands, but happened to be visiting his folks in India . Only took 20 years for this reunion ๐Ÿ™‚

Nikhil , with whom I worked shoulder to shoulder on SAP projects – including a particularly great one in Dresden. Almost ten years since we last met in San Jose

There are five of us from the same engineering class in IBM . Hemant is one – and was so great to run into him in our Pune office

I had recruited Vikas to our SAP team in 2002 . Our families were very close and were neighbors. Pure serendipity that let us meet in Pune since he had just moved there from UK

This young lady Amrita – my wife’s young cousin – was a little girl when I last met her , which was on my wedding day . I still can’t think she is all grown up now and a busy professional

No trip to Bangalore is complete without a beer with my two buddies Maheshan and Arvind . They were my most trusted colleagues in one of the best teams I had the honor to lead and we have been friends for more than ten years. I still remember the day I recruited Arvind from SAP Labs to IBM ๐Ÿ™‚

And thanks to Ajith, a number of our engineering college class mates had a mini reunion in Bangalore in a pub . It was amazing to catchup with each other after a couple of decades

Indian IT services are evolving fast

Indian IT services scene grew into its current status based on two things – the factory model that FC Kohli and TCS team started , and cost arbitrage with other high cost geographies. Those days are over – now what I see here is that two other dimensions are where India differentiates . One is talent and the other is intellectual property . This is heartening for me to see – and seriously makes me think of taking a tour of duty to work in India for a few years .

On the flip side – the growth of IT services in the big metros is not sustainable. It can take two hours to travel 5KM in Bangalore for example . We need to solve this quickly !

My gang !

I couldn’t be more thrilled ! Super smart peeps – and so dedicated to making our client successful . Several of them have spent 15+ years serving the same client and know their business cold .

Plenty of IP is being generated from our India team and the highlight of the trip was to geek out with them on ML , Cloud native development and so on . Not only is the IP great – it’s amazing to see how much importance is given to immersive experiences in the client centers . Absolutely world class

Diversity

One thing that captured my attention quickly in this trip is the number of women in the workforce . I think at entry level – perhaps more than half the incoming employees are women .

I spoke with several colleagues about this and generally got the impression that while there is definitely some women who drop off the tech field when they start a family , there are still more women who build a career in technology compared to what we typically see in US . I first hand know several senior women leaders in IBM India as well as in Amex India . I did hear that the ratio is not as even outside the big metros – but definitely got the impression that India is on the right side of diversity and inclusion in tech and that is awesome !

Guests are still Gods in India !

A core tenet of Indian philosophy is “Aditi Devo Bhava” which translates to “guests are Gods” .

I had a traditional Kerala Sadya at a restaurant on the last day of this trip . The lady who served me called me son , and she nearly was in tears when I told her I can’t have four types of payasam . My cab driver in Kolkata called me and woke me up at 2.45 AM for a 4.40 AM flight because he felt it’s his duty that I have a stress free experience while I was his client . The chef in the hotel in Pune sent me filter coffee when he heard me speak Tamil on phone – and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I am from Kerala and not Tamilnadu ๐Ÿ™‚ . The list goes on and on .

That’s a level of customer service I don’t often see elsewhere as I trot around the globe . It has completely changed my view on what world class customer service feels like. And to think this happened in the analog world without customer surveys !

I am leaving back to US with my heart full of gratitude – and I will be back !

It’s time to re-think life time appointment of Supreme Court Judges !


The whole drama around the process of confirmation of Kavanaugh as a judge in the SCOTUS is a wake up call for the citizens of USA to address the underlying problem – the life time appointments of judges to the highest court. I want to share a few of my thoughts on this topic

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Does life time appointment make judges impartial and reduce pressure on them ?

I think our reflex is to say “of course, it does”. I don’t think that is true actually. Life time tenure gives them job security and prestige obviously, but their fundamental political and economic leanings do stay with them as we have seen from predictable judgements time and again. As long as they know exactly how long they have the job – there is no reason why they should feel extra pressure to make impartial decisions in their tenure.

USA is probably the only democracy with this issue

As far as I can find out, there is either a mandatory retirement age or a term limit for judges in the highest courts of other countries. Some countries seem to have a combination of both . If you know of exceptions, I will gladly stand corrected. But if we are unique like I think we are – at least we can look at countries who have solved this problem in the past and get some ideas. It may be interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson was against the idea of life time appointments . And as far as I can find out – Rhode Island is the only state in this country that allows life time tenure for their judges. Should that not make us sit up and think harder about the federal system ?

Age – both too young and too old – is a real problem

When it comes to being the highest court, age comes as a problem in two flavors. Presidents like young judges because their party’s interests will be taken care for a very long time. Too young judges being appointed unfortunately means that judges with more to offer than the young ones get overlooked all the time strictly because of age. The second flavor of the problem is that we no longer know if the very old judges have the ability to make high quality decisions, or whether they are just the face of what their law clerks decide. With medical science improving – the chance of longer life of judges is the trend we should bet on. There is a reason why most professions have a retirement age !

Unhealthy confirmations need to be avoidedย 

SCOTUS is too important in a democratic setup to have judge appointments turned into political drama. But since the confirmations only come at random points – both parties have all the incentive to push for extremes. Also, it is impossible to plan adequately for the next judge if we don’t know when the next vacancy will come. Should we not develop the top legal talent in a planned way for this top job, as opposed to rush through the process in short order ?

There are several implementation issues to work through

There is practically no way to make any overnight changes – any change will need to be phased in over a long period of time. For the younger judges, there will be always a question of what can they do after retirement. Pension plans will need to be revisited. There needs to be a debate on how long should the tenure be – but if we go by history, it converges naturally around 15-18 years on average. We will need a constitutional amendment probably to get this done – but that is not something we have shied away from in the past. 22nd Amendment to limit Presidents to serve only two terms is a good example – and that was in 1951.

An honor system could work just fine tooย 

Before FDR, Presidents just left office by themselves after 8 years by themselves (or nudged to do so). Our judges could follow such an honor code too – that they just choose to leave the bench after a certain number of years, say 15. That would be an awesome precedent to set – and will probably make it a lot less frictionless process than a constitutional amendment. The 22nd Amendment was passed by Congress in 1947 – but it took till 1951 to get states to ratify it. All of that can be avoided if the current Supreme Court judges set a great example themselves.

Finding time


If there is one sentence I have heard the most as an excuse in my career, it would be “I didn’t have the time to get to it”. This would be totally fine if it came from someone who had to do multiple jobs to take care of their family, or something along similar lines. But no – I am talking about people with one job that pays reasonably well. They are truly sorry about it most of the time too – they wanted it done and perhaps even wanted to do more tasks than the one they are referring to at the moment. Corporate world is full of them – and I was one of them .

To add to their woes – since they can’t find time to do everything on their plate, then they start worrying that this is detrimental to their family life, their career progression and general sanity . All of which may be true too in many cases.

Heroics do get rewarded in the corporate world – some of these folks get promoted to senior roles and the time crunch becomes even more acute for them. Eventually some find the way out of this , and unfortunately several just burn out or at least hit their Peter principle limits.

I want to share some thoughts on how to find the time that appears so elusive

I work under two constraints – 1. Big and small decisions both tax the brain 2. Brain only has finite capacity to make quality decisions

Picking the right shoes to wear, deciding what to order at Starbucks, deciding who to promote in your team, deciding how to message bad news to your client – these are all decisions that we need to make, sometimes on the same day. And we need some reserve capacity to deal with the inevitable surprises ( like Starbucks is out of green tea , your favorite promotion candidate has taken another job at your competitor ) that need quick thinking.

So the way I approach this is to minimize new decisions I need to make. Have a process with default values for routine decision making (For me – If I have a standard simple order for Starbucks , and a go to pair of shoes ).

Next, I tier decisions into A,B,C .

A level problems – the ones that move he needle, and ones I am uniquely qualified to solve – needs high quality thinking . These are like deciding on the next promotion candidate, or what school to enroll your kid . That needs focus without distraction , and probably a lot of data collection when time permits. Thankfully this is the minority of all decisions you need to take . So all the surplus thinking/doing capacity you make by having good strategies on B and C can be used for A.

B level problems are ones you can take the help of someone else to decide, and your value add is in quality assurance . The solutions are not unique, and are minor variations of things we already know how to do. In my world, a routine proposal response doesn’t need my time to draft – that can be delegated to my team. My value add is in the review process and providing guard rails.

For this to work – What is a B decision for me must be an A decision for who I delegate to . If it’s a B problem for me , and it’s a B problem for the team I pass it on to – then it will just keep getting delegated till someone who looks at it as an A problem gets it. When this happens – the right question to ask and solve for is why I was the one to be asked to solve it in the first place.

Then there are the C decisions – low risk and low reward types. Here I run on autopilot as my default option. If the Starbucks line is long, I am happy to get a Diet Coke from a vending machine and move on. But if I can’t find anything at all – I am happy to move on with no beverage too. FYI emails that have no explicit request for you to act is a C problem. Ignore it (or glance at it ) and move on .

Know your available time so that you can optimize it . For me – that means I decide upfront all the personal activities I won’t compromise on like picking my kiddo from school when I am not traveling, sleeping 7-8 hours every day, tending to my garden on weekends , reading a book etc . Those are explicitly marked as blocked time on my calendar . So I know exactly how much time I have left to tackle the problems I know of . I also block some time every day for potential A level problems . If none seem to appear by previous night, I will release the block to do something else.

Convert as many A problems to B problems to give yourself even more capacity . It’s an A problem because you are uniquely qualified to solve it. Start involving your team in those decisions so that they know how to do it too and then you can make it a B problem for you and an A problem for them. When most of your erstwhile A problems become B problems, and your boss agrees that is the case – then you are ready for your next role!

In your quest to optimize your life and career, please don’t overlook what’s on your team’s plate. If you delegate more than they have skills and capacity for – you still have the same problem as before , but now instead of just your boss hating you – your team hates you too ๐Ÿ™‚

Control what gets into your plate . Since in most cases we can’t choose who our bosses are – it’s not unusual to get a lot more work than we can reasonably do with quality. Over time – and it takes significant time and effort – you need to cultivate the ability to say NO to things you know clearly that you can’t add value to.

A few things that have worked well for me here

1. Give my boss clear visibility on what my team is capable of . So some jobs that come to you , can go to your team instead without the boss thinking you are delegating mindlessly

2. Do an extraordinary job of A level problems so that you accumulate goodwill that can be used for when you say NO

3. Have absolute mastery over routine blocking and tackling so that it does not appear that you are spending a lot of non value adding time . Use delegation , automation, default values etc to your advantage

4. When unforeseen priority comes up – give a quick heads up to the boss on what you are reprioritizing. This gives a chance for the boss to rearrange it for you and have clear expectations on the trade off.

What do you do with all the extra capacity you hopefully created ?

1. Spend it on making more A problems converted to B problems and eventually C problems

2. Sleep more . Take your significant other out for something fun . Go for a walk with your puppy . Meet people . Unplug from the digital world. Give your brain a break

3. Learn something new . Teach something you know

4. When you are ready – and only then, take on the next A level problem new into your plate !

Parting shot

Even with all the best strategies and intentions, not every day and week will feel the same about having time. So you need to be ready for the unknowns life throws at you. But if 80% of the time you have a structure to solve the problems – you hopefully have enough capacity left in your brain to tackle the 20% that comes from left field .

Reflections


I woke up early on Saturday – and sat with a cup of coffee in our backyard, and saw this beautiful reflection. Of course I had to take a photo ๐Ÿ™‚

Friday was an incredibly busy day. I had to wake up at 4AM EST in NY to catch a flight home. I hadn’t slept much the night before due to some logistics issues getting back from US Open to my hotel . And I had some work to finish in the plane – so couldn’t sleep there either. US Open itself of course was great (thanks IBM for the great seats)ย  – and I won’t forget how authoritatively Serena Williams won the semifinal.

By the time my work day finished – it was already 7PM. I spent rest of my evening catching up on photos, videos and stories from the German Shepherd “world championship” that just kicked off in Germany . I have been meaning to go to that dog show for a decade now and haven’t found the time – which of course is a lousy excuse ๐Ÿ™‚

So there I was – sitting with both my feet in water – watching the lovely reflection, and clicking photos. Outside vacation time, I don’t generally find myself reflecting all that much.

My big goal in life when I got out of college was to be able to live in a house that had a pool. There I lucked out – living in AZ, having a pool is not a luxury like it was in India when I grew up. My daughter , our dogs, and I enjoyed being in the pool a lot over the years. The last two years however – none of us had really jumped in often . Kiddo and the dogs were all in the house sleeping – so I left the coffee and the phone on the patio table and jumped right in and swam a few laps . Loved it – and my mood improved a few orders of magnitude ๐Ÿ™‚

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I have a dear friend who owns an amazing collection of guitars, and he tells me that most weekends he watches the guitars in their fancy cases while listening to Clapton. He does not get around to playing himself. We live in a golf course community, and yet I have hit the greens at best twice in two years. We both make fun of each other every time we catchup – but neither of us have gotten better at doing what we promise each other. But there is always tomorrow to take care of that, right ? ๐Ÿ™‚

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Which of course led me to think about what else I wanted to achieve in life . Next goal I had was traveling frequently in planes and staying in good hotels and eating at great restaurants . Thanks to becoming a consultant, I have done millions of miles of air travel and thousands of nights at hotels around the world. The truth is that I stopped enjoying it a while ago – at some point I just learned to do it on autopilot and learned to not let it get on my nerves too much. A lot of people I know want to travel when they retire – I want to travel as little as possible. All the miles I have will come handy to fly to watch cricket matches and dog shows ๐Ÿ™‚

Two things always worry me about retirement . 1. My dad was pretty miserable after retirement – his work was a big part of his identity, and stopping one day was not a pleasant experience for him . I don’t think he is over it even today, and I have a strong feeling it will be worse for me when it is my turn 2. Like everyone elseย  I know, I too worry whether I can ever afford to retire in purely financial terms.

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After I got out of the pool and had a shower – I sat down with another cup of coffee to refresh all the “assets and liabilities” to see if I can ever retire. I found that I am still nowhere close to being able to retire despite the magic of compoundingย  – but it strangely gave me great pleasure to know exactly why that is, in quantitative terms. And it forced me to take some decisions on personal finance that I had put on the tail end of my to-do list . I could not help but smile – I have told my clients a million times that they will have a whole new perspective on their business if they clean up their data and looked at the total picture it shows. I think I need to hire a consultant too . On second thoughts – there is a high chance that it was the excess coffee that helped bring the clarity more than the data ๐Ÿ™‚

I like to solve big hairy problems on the work front as much as the next person – but I have also come to realize that solving a lot of small problems along the way gets me closer to the big goals than taking one giant swing once in a while. This year, I put that principle to use in losing some weight. No more crash diets etc – I took it slow with small weekly goals. And 8 months into the year, I have lost about 25 lbs. At this rate, I might even get to shape and manage to handle a German shepherd in competition again ๐Ÿ™‚

Enough with reflections. Time to get another coffee and drive to home depot. My little vegetable garden needs some work.

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Why doesn’t anyone act on your ideas?


One of the top reasons people get frustrated at work – and sometimes leave their current role – is that they have bright ideas on what their company should do, and yet no one in their leadership does anything about it. I have been on several sides of this problem over my career – I have been deeply frustrated myself with my ideas getting rejected, I have left good roles because of it, I have been the manager who did not act on good recommendations, I have been the manager of managers who did not act on recommendations, and I have watched people my team leave frustrated , and many more.

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

It is tiring , both physically and mentally, when this happens , it and leaves a lot of people bitter for long periods of time . I also know a few folks who took bitter feelings from their work to their graves. I don’t have a perfect solution to this – but I can offer a framework that might be of some use to think through the problem and reach your own conclusion.

  • It may not be such an original idea after all

While we, who had the idea that we took up the chain, have every reason to think our idea is original, it may not be the first time the bosses have heard it. And if it is an idea they have heard for a long time – they probably will tune out really quick and not even bother to tell you why they think it won’t work. If you don’t have a relationship with the decision makers – or don’t have a mentor who can fill you in on why your idea was dismissed – you are bound to go through some frustration.

  • In the long term, every one is dead

While every leader likes to talk about the long term, very few have the luxury to make every move with long term interests in mind. Any idea that potentially negatively impacts near future , even though it has long term merit – has a high chance of getting shot down. Other than the very top execs, usually no leader stays in their job for several years to see through long term ideas. So to save their compensation, reduce stress or whatever – they favor short term gains. Its not your fault – but you should know what motivates your boss to make a decision.ย  I have often had success taking multiple ideas together to my bosses as a portfolio to show there are ways to mitigate short term issues while still investing for the future.

  • What is a priority today for your boss may be different from what you think it is

You may be stunned to see your boss quickly turn down your no brainer idea of improving profit by 20%. You might not have known that she already had a line of sight to get 20% or more profit (that obviously you dit=d not know), and was just trying to see how she can increase revenue too . If you knew – you may have changed your pitch, but you did not. Ideally she should have told you – but in her defense, she also only has the same number of hours in a day as you do.

  • How is your track record on execution ?

For every ten people with bright ideas, there is usually only one person who is capable of flawless execution. When you take an idea to the boss, and you don’t say who should run with this idea (perhaps thinking its not your place to say so) – the default assumption (usually because most decisions unfortunately get made with limited thinking time)ย  is that you meant to run with this yourself or the boss should run with it. If your own track record on execution is limited, and the boss cannot think of who can make it work – the chances are that your idea won’t move forward.

  • Timing is everything

If you think your idea has all the merit in the world, you may still not get anywhere with it if your timing is bad. This is often the last hurdle, and the hardest. In many cases, you will need to do your homework extensively – and even then it could be that the boss is irritated with something else and you need some luck on your side. One time not very long ago, I was about to walk into a CIO’s office to make the final presentation on a large project . As I was sitting in the sofa in the waiting room outside his office, his EA (who used to support a friend of mine for a long time) whispered to me that he had just heard that the CIO’s son had run into a utility pole on the street with a new car , and the dad was pretty upset. As I walked into the office a couple of minutes later, I offered to reschedule the meeting to the following week which he quickly and gratefully accepted. And we won the project. I have lost several deals in my career where I don’t quite know exactly why I lost. But it did teach me to do my homework better – and it has helped.

  • The decision makers are not always qualified to make the decision

This should only be considered after you have ruled out all the things you potentially could do differently, and not as the default assumption.to begin with!

Not everyone that sits in the fancy office may be qualified to take a decision on your idea. Some managers have not kept up with the latest advances in their fields. Some may not have skills to analyze a business case presented to them. Some may be too insecure to let you take credit for a good idea. And yet – strangely to you perhaps – they may still have the skills to be very good at their job. This may be because their own leadership have not done a good job at developing them. This may be because they never prioritized up-skilling periodically. It could be due to a lot of reasons – but irrespective of the cause, it happens a lot. This is a hard challenge to over come for the people who want to present ideas to them. I usually start with offering an education session to give them some background on what is new, what is the opportunity in the market etc – and then give them some time to assimilate that before I pitch the idea. Another strategy that has worked for me is to offer to go with them up the chain to make the case, so that they can defer to me for finer details of the case. And when I have extreme conviction in my idea – and after I fail convincing the immediate decision makers, I go to their managers. Its not an easy decision to make – and I try hard to not do it till I have exhausted every other option. I have paid the price for jumping hierarchy multiple times in my career – but I only do this with my eyes open and not irrationally.

Dealing with the frustration

Whatever you do, I hope you don’t try to take it out on your family, your dog or your friends. I have seen that happen too many times – and it is terrible.

First thing to realize is that it is not the end of the world in most cases. I have often been advised by my mentors to ignore/forget and move on. If you can take that advice – its perhaps the best case and you should do it.ย  Unfortunately for me , I cannot forget that easily. So I brood for some time, and then start vigorously analyzing what happened.

Most often I figure this is something I could have done better – usually along the lines of developing better relationships, improving my skills, etc. If I cannot make this determination myself – I run it by my mentors and explain my analysis to them. They often can help clarify my thinking very quickly since they are not emotionally attached to this as much as I am. Some times (only after some time passes, and only if I know I have a trusted relationship with them) – I take it back to the people who rejected the idea to make requests on helping me understand why they took the decision they took.

Some parting thoughts

  1. For my own ideas, I put them through a lot more scrutiny and preparation before pitching it to people who need to act. Generally I have more success than I have had in the past by choosing to chase fewer ideas with higher conviction.
  2. When my team comes to me with their ideas, if I don’t think it is worth implementing – I now take a lot more time to explain why I think it does not have the merit they thought it had. And I have become a bit better at getting more input from experts to evaluate an idea since I know my limitations .
  3. While I have always known that developing a network is super important, the appreciation for that has obviously improved over time. You need to know more people than you think you will ever need, have depth in those relationships, and you need to pay it forward all the time without taking a transactional view of the world
  4. You need a plan B. If you have terrific conviction in your idea and it is not going anywhere – you cannot give up. But you will live with frustration if you don’t have good choices to fall back on. In an extreme case – do you know enough people in your network and have enough skills to find another place to see your idea thrive? . Having the network, skills etc improves your confidence and that helps you see more of your ideas thrive !

AI in Cancer care and managing the great expectations around it


I woke up on Saturday morning and read this WSJ article IBM has a Watson Dilemmaย . As always when such articles get published, this was followed by a lot of criticism on twitter, linkedin etc – and I read most of them. And today morning, I saw this article on IBM blog site from Dr John Kelly titledย Watson Health : Setting the record state .

I am very hesitant about expressing my personal opinion

Especially when my employer is the one being criticized. I am not an impartial party here at all – I am an executive at IBM ( Not a very senior one by any stretch – there are a couple of levels between me and the CEO) , I hold IBM stock , I am not a company spokes person, and till recently I managed a business of which Watson and Watson Health consulting services were a part of. Also, Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about my opinions on IBM Watsonย after an analyst wrote an article that I thought I should weigh in, in a personal capacity.

On the other hand, AI is a topic I have great interest and some expertise in (Again, I am not a hands on ML developer or anything like that today – though that might potentially be one option in future given my passion).

I lost my dear Aunt Geetha to cancer a few years ago – she was a second mom to me. I was at the hospital with her when she fought the deadly disease for her last few days (I was on vacation in Trivandrum) , and I spoke with several folks at the hospital whose dear ones were going through the same battle. So anything that helps fight cancer is a topic I have a deep interest in, and one where I will happily donate my time and money.

So for what little it is worth, here is my take and I am just going to address two specific issues

Is Marketing Hype the big culprit ?

I am not a marketer by trade, though I appreciate high quality professional marketing. When I am in a sales role, I prefer a soft selling approach – and that might be because I am an engineer first and foremost. So, I totally get it when IBM Marketing gets accused of going overboard by someone on social media. I have also been in this industry long enough to know that without massive awareness created by marketing, no young technology gets the air cover it needs to mature. I personally know of no client who has made an enterprise purchase only because they saw awesome vendor marketing. Marketing opens doors no doubt – but clients subject their purchasing decisions to an array or dimensions ( proof of concepts, risk management, analyst reports , references etc)ย  before someone signs a check.

What I readily agree is that marketing does contribute to setting big expectations for new technologies. And big expectations are good – as long as everyone gets the nuances that go with it. When it comes to finding good solutions for deadly diseases cancer, I doubt it helps to not have bold goals. I always encourage folks to ask good questions – and proceed with eyes open.

Is it bad that Watson agrees with doctors most of the time ?

To state the obvious, it would be terrible if Watson and doctors disagreed all the time. But is it bad if they agreed most of the time ? The WSJ article implies that since human doctors agree with Watson most of the time, they stop using it or at least limit its use.

There are commercial use cases that follow the same pattern as cancer diagnostics. For example, Watson can ingest training manuals of several machines and can have a Q&A with a mechanic or a customer who is faced with a live problem. An experienced mechanic usually agrees with Watson most of the time, and probably does not see much value. But think about the less experienced mechanic, or a customer who is not technical. The solution is of high value to them. The ideal situation is that the experienced mechanic continues to train Watson (via agreeing and correcting when wrong) and Watson helps several lesser experienced mechanics and customers from what it has learned. That is the incentive to have the experienced mechanic continue to use Watson.

Sitting outside the room where my Aunt was struggling with her fight, one thing was abundantly clear to me. In USA, we have several oncologists and specialist hospitals that are the envy of the world. That is not universally true. Even in the hospital I was at with my aunt in India, there were plenty of oncologists – but nowhere close the number that is needed to cover the sheer number of patients. They have very little time to keep up with the latest in cancer care – or to even spend enough time with one of their patients. They deal with patients who flock there (and several of them thankfully don’t have cancer and was sent there because of poor diagnosis where they initially went to ), and even if that process can be streamlined – they can save more lives.

Now think of all the hospitals in a country with a billion people – and several of the people not diagnosed or treated just because of poor access to specialists !

I also vividly remember the line in front of the radiologist’s office there in India – one very tired lady trying her best to read images and make notes while highly stressed out patients and their relatives started shouting around her. I felt terrible for the doctor and the people around her.ย  With advances in computer vision, this scenario can be improved exponentially.

It it bad that Watson cannot figure out great solutions for rare cases ?

Ideally, I would love for AI to help us solve cases where humans have very limited options. I don’t think tech will solve this in near term. But that is not to say there is nothing tech can do today. It still can find useful information more quickly for a doctor than they can find manually, and WSJ article does talk about that.

There are several obstacles to getting AI to work as we need it to – and getting data organized for Ai to learn from is one big one. Even in areas where we have been at it for decades – like loading legacy data into a new ERP system, it takes a lot of effort . You can only imagine the additional complexity included in getting data in the form that an AI model needs to learn from. It is not an insurmountable problem, and newer approaches keep coming up and at some point it will become mainstream, and easy to estimate the effort.

That is where I see the true potential of AI , including Watson ! It helps take expertise from people and institutions that have it and move it places where no such thing exists. And if we can save one more life, or reduce the pain for one more patient, or reduce the grief of one more family who will lose a dear one- I think it is totally worthwhile. I sure hope we don’t give up on this journey !