How do you become a great hostage negotiator in FBI ?

Train to become a project manager and if you don’t get to the top of the class , apply for the hostage negotiator role at FBI ๐Ÿ™‚

I am joking of course – but when I look back at my own career where I have managed projects, the skill that made me successful was my ability to negotiate . Since then I have moved on to other things, but the people who have my respect the most are the folks who lead successful delivery of projects . Time and again , I have seen that people who have PM roles succeed or fail depending on their negotiation skills

If there is one role that I think is even harder than that of a project manager – it’s that of a product manager . These poor souls usually have zero authority and all the responsibility to get things done . But I digress … let’s get back to project managers

The negotiation experience starts before you even win the work . There are some great PMs who are always in demand . Everyone wants them . These PMs know what is in store once they say yes to a project – and start negotiating with the sales team , top management etc to make sure they are front and center from the beginning of the sales process so that undeliverable stuff doesn’t get promised ( or god forbid get written into actual contracts ) . Not all PMs are that lucky

What is the first law of projects ?

It’s like laws of physics – you have to take it as a given. Entire discipline of project management is based on the fact that you can’t outrun Murphy’s law . Agile vs Waterfall doesn’t matter – Mr.Murphy is an equal opportunity flame thrower . You will rarely have easy decisions . You need to be ready to make “lesser evil” decisions all the time . It’s a “character building ” exercise ๐Ÿ™‚

What is the second law of projects ?

I am just going to call it Vijay’s law till someone else lays claim to it – it states “all problems are caused by people and hence all solutions also are about people” . Stack the deck in your favor with the best people for each role whenever you can . Technology , budget etc are all people problems ultimately !

What is the third law of projects ?

Bad news doesn’t get better with time . Communicate bad news earlier than later . What makes stakeholders cranky is not usually failure – it’s the thought that they could have done something to stop the problem if only they knew sooner . Try hard to not surprise people to the extent the first law of projects let you . That’s half the battle .

What is the fourth law of projects ?

Take all the help that is available when offered , and keep asking for more when you need it . Heroics are unavoidable in many projects – but do t let that be the first solution option .

What is the fifth law of projects ?

Know the contract , but don’t use it as a daily weapon in the project . Your job is to make sure everyone involved understand what is the problem to be solved and why it is a problem that needs to be solved . PMs who don’t understand the WHY usually fail . Knowing the WHY also helps frame the deviation from scope , funding and timeline in the proper context ๏ฟผ

What is the sixth law of projects ?

The current project is always the worst project ever ! It will look ok after you have moved on to the next project . In other words , remember that projects have end dates and hence don’t panic on every small thing that happens in day to day execution . I have had absolute nightmare projects – and now I can joke about it .

That’s all there is to it … don’t sweat it ๐Ÿ™‚


My 2022 reflections

Looking back at 2022 – the first question I ask is “are we really at the end of the year already?” .

My quick reflections follow – as always , this is all strictly personal and have nothing to do with my employer

First some “personal” stuff

Thrilled for our daughter – finished her high school in 3 years with summa cum laude , and finished her first semester of college being on Dean’s list . And she is having fun making new friends, traveling etc

Very grateful for the great team that I am part of . Thanks to them – I could effectively do two roles this year, and I feel confident walking into my new role as the managing partner for Financial Services (FS) next week .

Totally feel bad for Archie who didn’t get as much time with me this year thanks to me getting a little too busy with work . I have promised him I will do better next year . Ollie has no complaints – and has been holding my hand throughout webex meetings

Got to hang out with my mom a lot more this year than usual and I hope to do that next year too

Reading has been a bit of a casualty – though it is slowly getting back to normal .

And now some “work” stuff – largely my observations on the financial services industry

There are two trends in financial services that fascinate me – apps moving to public cloud a lot slower than people thought , and big data moving to cloud much faster than the original Datawarehousing wave in the past . Companies have a real challenge sweating their legacy investments and making use of all the innovation goodness available now .

There are very few clear boundaries in IT anymore – to stay relevant, we need to acquire multiple skills and keep learning . Long gone are the days when 5 days of training a year kept me on the bleeding edge of SAP . We need some serious thinking urgently on how to up skill rapidly and at scale

FS companies are getting religion on “product vs project” approaches . I am sure 2023 will see the demand for product manager type folks go through the roof

It’s very good that FS companies have strict regulations to comply with – we are all protected because of that . I am not totally sure though if the design and implementation of existing solutions can be called thoughtful . The industry can and should make use of ML and automation a whole lot more – and even more importantly take a second look at existing workflows to see if they still make sense .

Perhaps the biggest untapped opportunity in tech now is the under utilisation of junior talent . This needs urgent attention . There are very few things in tech that need everyone in the team to be highly skilled and experienced . I implemented their party logistics systems , pricing engines and so on as a junior developer – mostly by learning new stuff on the job . That was not the exception – that’s how all of us worked at the time . Today most companies won’t take you into a Dev team to do basic file handling if you don’t have a couple of years experience ! When people cry about lack of budget to do fancy projects – I often make this suggestion , and am constantly amused by the shock on their face . The irony of this situation also is that many of these folks are so excited about GPT generating code – but would not trust a young engineer to write it .

FS companies do more legacy Modernization projects than any other industry I know of . These are expensive initiatives no doubt and often very strategic . However they are not usually done in an efficient way for the times we live in. I see three broad opportunities to improve – a) better product management ( including perhaps from Agile education to business and not just IT ) b) better standardisation in coding ( for example – why does every developer have to spend time on scaffolding code ) and c) better testing (not just more automation , but also optimising coverage – and definitely making good use of synthetic data )

FS companies in US have some ways to go to embrace the fact that no one company can effectively serve all needs of their customers . It is not that this is a new idea – it’s just that culturally the industry is not fully committed yet in my opinion despite the massive disruption that the incumbents face . For sure most companies have dipped their toes in ecosystem initiatives – but very few have serious commitments with budgets to back it . I have a strong feeling that this will get serious attention in 2023

I will close with the topic on sustainability . I am absolutely thrilled that FS has largely jumped in on what is perhaps the most important thing for our planet and hence humanity . First order of business is to track, record and report . This seems to be well under way and has largely become a board level priority . But I do have a question on what happens next . If a developer raises their hand in a scrum meeting and questions if they need such heavy compute because of its negative carbon footprint consequences – will the engineering VP even consider a trade off ? Will the business live with that trade off ? That’s where the rubber hits the road . I am hopeful we will indeed get to a good place – if we replace sustainability with cyber security in this hypothetical , we know the answer is that the leaders will act on it real fast . We know that ML models are getting similar treatment as well in many companies . So I have a lot of faith that sustainability will also get there very soon !

Happy new year everyone !

Approximation is both a life saver and a potential disaster !

My first job out of engineering college was at a Tire company . One night, a spindle needed to be replaced in a machine on the line to restart it . I used my deep knowledge of mechanical engineering and figured I needed a spindle with 28.8 CM diameter . Everyone around me had a good laugh at my expense . Turns out spindles come rounded in 5CM intervals . Also I need not have done any calculations – there was a simple chart posted on the machine that indicated what size was required ๐Ÿ™‚

There is some irony in this story . I was very familiar with the theory of approximations in Mathematics while in college . Just that I was not smart enough to use the principle in real life scenarios .

My generation didn’t get to use a calculator in school – so by and large most people in my peer group can do mental math just fine . This unfortunately can’t be taken for granted any more and it pains me to watch massive confusion from cashiers and customers alike when I am waiting in line at a grocery or something . it’s not as if kids became any less smart – the educational system somehow derailed along the way .

Even amongst people who learned how to do mental math – approximating answers is not something that comes naturally when it comes to multiplication and division . This becomes a challenge both in personal life ( eg: what would I need to spend if I need new carpet for my house ) and at work ( eg: what percentage of customers might churn annually at current trajectory ) .

Say for example you need to find what is 17% of 58976 . The correct answer is 10025.92 for which most people will need a calculator to get to this precise level . But most decisions don’t need this level or precision – a close enough approximation is just fine .

One quick mental math is to round up and find 20% of 60000 . Which is 12000 – but since we have rounded up both sides , we should know how much to reduce from this to get a close enough approximation .

One possible next step is to find 15% of 60000 – which is still rounding up 58976 but rounding down 17% . That gives us 9000 .

Since 17 is closer to 15 than 20 – we can assume the final answer is closer to 9000 than to 12000 . The range between the two is still a big 3000 and we need to get somewhat closer for this approximation to be useful . How close though ? 17 is about one third the way from 15 and two thirds the way from 20 . So what does that tell us – it should be about one third the way between the answers for 15% and 20% which is 1000 (out of the range of 3000 between the two extremes we found) . Consequently the answer is 9000 + 1000 = 10000 !

The math is rarely the limiting factor in our ability to approximate . Worst case you can always go find a calculator and get the math work .

The limiting factor often is in how well we define the problem and it’s context . For example – if the math problem above was about paying taxes , IRS wouldn’t take it kindly if you approximated the math and paid less ๐Ÿ™‚

Breaking down the problem into peace parts and making sure there is minimal overlap is where we usually struggle .

Let’s say we are trying to budget for new carpet. It’s not enough to approximate square feet and multiply by a price you find online – there are other issues at play like labor and transportation , cost of removal , sales tax etc . Then there is the issue of knowing how close your budget needs to be to what you will actually spend which is very specific to your situation . As a young immigrant couple of decades ago – I needed to know within 5% . Now I only need to know within say 20-% .

At work, this takes a whole another level of complexity . At its simplest level – we tend to over engineer for the short term , and completely under engineer for the long term . I have erred on this myself countless times . As numbers get bigger and the time frame increases – it gets really hard to make good approximations .

For example – a day has 24 hours , which is 86400 seconds . That means a week has 604800 seconds . So how many years will it take to spend 1 million seconds ? How about 1 billion seconds ? You will probably be surprised at how close you will approximate million versus billion .

It’s Sunday evening now and I am staring at a massive spreadsheet figuring out plans for 2023 – and making judgments on where I absolutely need bottoms up calculations with high accuracy and where a directionally correct top down approximation is perfectly fine .

The good thing is that my two wing men are standing by to help in whatever way they can ๐Ÿ™‚

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