Victor Hugo on Enterpise Technology

I had a Sunday morning group chat with a bunch of friends who also make a living from the enterprise tech Ecosystem like I do . We were mostly talking about how our world seems to be changing even faster since Covid came along uninvited , and how each of us is coping with us .

After the call, I had a lively discussion with my daughter about Victor Hugo. She is taking an AP course on English Literature in high school and needed examples of famous writers who stood up against the powers that be of their time. So we spoke about Hugo and Napoleon . I chose the example mostly because we had vacationed in Paris last Christmas and she could relate more easily to the stories I told her at that time .

After these two conversations , I did some internet research on Hugo . I can’t help but connect Hugo’s writing to our life in enterprise technology world these days – on how we look at our life and work , how we survive and hopefully thrive , our fears and prayers and so on .

I am sure at least some of you will be amused like I was when the thought came to my mind 🙂

1. Emergencies have always been necessary for progress.

2. Hope is the word which God has written on the brow of every man.

3. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live.

4. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.

5. There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.

6. Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers

7. Be a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.

8. Be a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.

9. As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled

10. People do not lack strength; they lack will

Four simple steps to minimize analysis paralysis

Today, I was asked by a young colleague on how I avoid analysis paralysis . It took me down memory lane a bit . After the call, I figured it is a question that others might have as well and hence decided to share some thoughts here.

I am not a big risk taker by nature . I have often thought about the reasons why . My hypothesis is that there are influences from my parents and the managers I had in my formative years , and the academic system that I went through all contributed to me measuring twice or thrice before I cut .

There was a period in my career where I was a poster child for analysis paralysis . I would measure endlessly , toss and turn and lose sleep , and never make any cuts . Looking back, I understand why I was so stressed out . It was the first time that I was given a sales target . I felt the weight of the world was on my shoulders and even for very small deals I would over analyze and delay getting back to the client .

One very rainy day in Oregon, my client and her boss invited me to a coffee meeting and said something like this . “Vijay, we absolutely enjoy working with you on technology topics . You walk us through pros and cons and help us take decisions . But when we ask you for a commercial proposal , you struggle even for small things . What is causing your difficulty ? Why are you not taking the same approach as you do with tech questions ?”.

My clients came from engineering and finance background themselves . They had never sold anything in their lives either . But they gave me the best framing of the problem and almost overnight my problem with analysis paralysis was overcome .

So here is how I approach decision making in four simple steps

1. Gain clarity on my role – who is the best person to make the decision and why ? If it happens to not be me – do I have a role to play in helping that person take a decision ? If I am the decision maker , do I know who else needs to help me make the decision ?

This step helps figure out the minimum number of people required to take the decision and by itself eliminates a lot of paralysis . It is also important to make sure it is the best qualified people . Often we make decisions based on assumptions . People who are not close to the ground reality rarely make good assumptions , and that in turn makes even simple decisions really bad

2. Determine time line and consequence of inaction . How urgent is the decision ? And what will happen if a decision is not made in that time ?

Most decisions are not as urgent as they look upfront. Often we find that someone had padded time in the process and you just happened to be in a part that got squeezed and can negotiate a more realistic time line . Used to an extreme, this could have a negative effect because you just end up procrastinating because you are good at buying time 🙂

3. How important is the decision being right the first time ? Is this something I can change my mind on with minimal trouble if I got it wrong ? Or is it the kind where I absolutely have to nail it or else the consequences are more than I care to live with ?

Decisions that have big impact and are difficult to change – by all means spend the time and effort to get it right . The other kind – it’s often better that any decision is better than no decision . It takes a calm mind to determine which kind of decision we are dealing with when we face the problem for the first time . It’s only human to think most problems are big and important

4. What are the big trade offs ? Am I sweating the small stuff – things that have a low chance of going wrong , and things that could happen but have low impact ?

Here again we need the right people to make that determination . If you end up with the wrong categorization of risks , you will probably make a terrible decision. It’s like the millionth reason to surround yourself with the right people who can look at a problem from diverse perspectives . Once you know the risks and their categories, you can plan to mitigate them .

That’s it ! Just a simple four step process to help get to a good decision . For me a a good decision is one that lets me sleep better at night . I feel confident that there is a high chance that I got it right , and I also feel that in case I didn’t get it right – I know enough to mitigate .

A wish list of three for UI / UX for the casual user

Yesterday, I needed to update something fairly trivial for a certain payroll deduction . It used to be a simple form on our intranet the last time I used it (several years ago) and I searched for it . The search didn’t help me much and I asked a colleague where this form was and he told me it is now in workday, which is what we use for some HR related functionality .

So I logged on to workday and searched and eventually found out a link to do this update . The UI navigation and the workflow were so not intuitive that I had to phone a friend again to finish that update . Honestly looking at the confirmation message – I can’t say for sure whether what I intended to do and what the system did actually matched . I will have to wait for my next pay stub to confirm .

I am absolutely a causal user for HR systems . I periodically use it for goal setting and appraisals and so on . And rarely there is some other change like the one I needed to do yesterday . Consequently I have no intention of taking a tutorial to learn how to navigate an HR system myself .

HR is not the only system I use infrequently . Some times I need to use procurement system to buy something – like to buy a a phone every few years, or to order new business cards when I have a change in role . Actually I went through a few role changes and didn’t bother to get new cards since no one seems to use it any more 🙂

The only system I really use frequently is our CRM system and some financial reporting where I keep track of my business . Those apps – I take the time to learn how to navigate etc .

So what am I looking for in systems that I log in only infrequently ? Just three things really

1. Ease of discovery

I need to be able to search and find specific information from some common starting point like the intranet . Why do I need to login first and then search within each SaaS app ? They should expose search and then make me login to actually use it .

2. Ease of access

For me – this simply means it should be on my mobile . I don’t really care if it’s an app since I rarely use it . Ideally this should be a bot which works via text or voice chat , or even SMS . Everything doesn’t need a UI to provide me with a great UX

3. Simplest workflow possible

I get it that every update probably triggers some workflow in a company . The only thing I care about is if I have to provide some input , and to know when the update will take effect . If I need to take approval from someone – I want to know status and contact info . As a casual user – I don’t want to see a page full of steps the system auto approves etc .

Unfortunately – and I know this from being an ERP consultant myself in the past – workflows are designed for the most complicated use case and then forced down the throats of casual users . This really should change fundamentally . It was not a good idea then and it’s a terrible idea now . And that is putting things delicately .

If I have one update to make – I just need a one step process . I shouldn’t have to go through multiple screens to do that . If your framework needs a two step process for something like an audit trail – figure it out in the backend and don’t make it the causal user’s problem .

Ideally it should be fire and forget for the causal user and things magically happen behind the scenes . It should be possible to get status easily – ideally via a natural language question via chat or sms – when I ask it , or automatically triggered if the system is stuck for a while for any reason

That’s pretty much all I wish for .

Future Of Business Travel – A Road warrior’s personal take

Like many other professionals in my line of work, I have paid my dues in terms of million miler airline status , decades of top tier hotel loyalty and rental car loyalty status etc . I got to live and work in three continents thanks to this job – and have enjoyed getting to know different cultures and expanding my skills and my world view . I have enjoyed better vacations with my family because of the loyalty rewards as well . For more than twenty years, I have taken business travel for granted and rarely given it a second thought . I often answer “at a Friendly Airport near you” when people ask me “where are you based?” 🙂

The last time I was in a plane was in early March this year when I returned from India after my father’s funeral . The honest truth is that I don’t miss business travel today . My entire global team – more than a thousand people – took about two days to become fully remote . We have been productive and now are quite comfortable running our business with webex , mural , Trello , slack and so on .

So why did I start thinking about business travel again ? Simply because I have started to realize that meeting people on webex is not a long term sustainable strategy for growing relationships – be in personal or professional . Also, while it is possible to build on existing relationships – it’s extremely difficult to build new relationships in a remote fashion . Efficiency can be managed somehow when we are remote – but not efficacy !

What is behind my reluctance to travel ? It’s primarily the fear of getting COVID-19 . There are secondary worries of course about social unrest , cleanliness , availability of food and so on given the lack of consistency of guidelines across US and the world on reopening, access to medical facilities should I need it in a hurry etc .

1. Zero contact everywhere I go

A good start will be to make sure everything about my travel experience becomes digital .

Airlines are good about this generally with boarding passes and occasionally baggage tags . But the physical agents and kiosks are still required at the slightest deviation from the happy flow . I don’t want to be in a crowd at the customer service kiosk , or go ask a gate agent for status or anything of that nature . I would love for airlines employees and me all to have mobile to mobile communication for vast majority of the time .

Hotels are inconsistent about digital keys – many of them still don’t offer it . I would like them to hurry . Check in and checkout have no good reason for me to ever meet an agent in person .

I don’t want to swipe my credit card anywhere either . Why do we need a physical card in this day and age ?

2. Common digital identity for all my travel

I don’t want the TSA agent to pickup my passport or driver’s license . I also don’t want the hotel to need to check that in person . There should be some machine to machine way of handling this . Technology really cannot be the bottleneck here . Privacy is absolutely a concern for sure – and it should be based on an opt-in basis .

Even without the COVID concerns – why do I need to have separate profiles and identity kept with each transportation provider ? Even within One world alliance – I often have to identify myself repeatedly if I am traveling using more than one airline .

3. A “Trust and Transparency score” I can search and rank by

Some airlines do not give away their middle seats and some do . Different hotels, rental car companies have different cleaning schedules . Some hotels serve food and others don’t . I need to know all this – and probably more – before I book my travel . This needs some kind of a score or tag that I can search providers by and choose the ones I am comfortable with using .

Travel industry essentially needs to make me feel really comfortable – and earn my trust with their transparency – before I travel again . I absolutely want that industry thriving again and I think business travel returning to growth is a big part of such recovery .

4. An expert digital travel advisor that follows me around on my phone

Things are changing by the minute and I don’t have the time and energy to stay on top of it when I am on the road . I need a digital friend to stay on top of my travel for me – warning me if my risk exposure is changing based on my location at any point (is meeting at a location where overnight there was a surge in Covid cases) , helping me change travel plans (was there a curfew announced and do I need to reschedule) with low friction , answering questions (where is the closest hospital with ICU capacity open) etc . I also want my family to have access to some of this information when I am on the road .

In my current estimate – there is no great need for me to travel for rest of this year unless there is some big unknown exception that arises . But I am almost certain that I will need to travel beyond that horizon for work and probably also to visit my mother in INDIA . I truly hope the travel industry will do everything they can to transform themselves and earn my loyalty again .

Emotions at Work

Very interesting question early in the morning today from a younger colleague – “How do you keep away emotions from work ?” . I thought it is worth expanding on the point of view I explained to her on the phone.

Photo by Burst on

I have often been told that we should not be emotional and instead we should be objective at work. That is rarely possible in real life in most scenarios – at least for me. So the closest to a good option in my mind is to manage these emotions as a “portfolio” so that I can survive and thrive without unnatural tactics. Before you ask me (since my colleague asked me today morning) – I will tell you that I do not practice breathing exercises or Yoga or chanting . Those are all probably good things to do – just that I have no first hand thoughts to offer.

So here we go .

Fear ,Anger and Courage are the ones that we need to confront the most given the consequences can be terrible. I feel both at times – and the way I control it is by thinking of the worst case. Am I going to lose a deal ? Lose a talented colleague from my team ? Can I fix this now or later? etc. Almost every single time I realize that the worst case is something I can mitigate. That is how I channelize these two emotions – I often convert them to courage to act.

Sadness and Joy – I do not hide Joy. When I am happy people know it. When I am sad – which is not often – people close to me can read it. On work, I feel sad most often when someone who should know better does a less than stellar job. I feel sad more often than I feel angry. And generally when the person realizes it – it helps them course correct.

Disgust , Surprise and Anticipation – Thankfully there are only two or three incidents in my entire career where I was truly disgusted. It just taught me to not work with certain kind of people. Surprise is actually a beautiful feeling in personal life – but unfortunately I am wired in a way that I do everything to avoid surprises at work. I try hard to not surprise anyone myself. I am not sure if this is good or bad – but the dislike for surprises is something I have to live with. I do a lot of anticipation – in the form of plan A/B/C . It is an intellectual pursuit that makes me feel good most of the time.

Trust and Respect – This is the ideal state of operation in my mind. Being liked at work or being feared at work are both long term problems for a leader. Obviously between the two – being liked is the pleasant and easier alternative . The world of business is not fair and often involves decisions that are hard on the people taking those and communicating it to others. If your objective is to be liked – you will be miserable when a hard decision needs to be taken, and others will feel a big let down. If you operate with fear as primary tactic – you will never have a motivated team. So the only real option is to aim for trust and respect as your operating parameters and help everyone get to a frame of mind that you will be fair in all cases.

Kindness and cruelty – This is pretty black and white . I heavily favor kindness. But there is a certain difficulty in how you execute on it. For example – let us say there is a colleague who cannot seem to operate at the next level to earn his promotion. The kind thing to do is to give him a chance to improve and then if he does not – tell him where he stands including the potential of leaving your team. The cruel thing is to tell him he is doing well and then fire him arbitrarily. Telling him that he is doing well when he is not – that falls under cruelty and not kindness in most cases. It is a thin line for a leader to traverse. I cannot say I have mastered it fully.

Shame, Pity and Envy – I do feel shame especially when I make mistakes repeatedly when I should learn and do better. I used to pity myself and feel envy for others – for a long time. That stopped after I got a better perspective from my mentors. There are always going to be some people who are better than you , were luckier than you etc and you are never going to be totally honest about evaluating yourself objectively. Once you make peace with that – Pity and Envy vanishes. It took me a long time to get there and I have had a few lapses – but generally I think I know when to catch myself these days and reorient my thinking.

Depression , Democracy and Demagoguery – the deadly trio !

My late grandfather Prof R Easwara Pillai was an eminent historian and an amazing story teller . He had mastery over three subjects and how they connected with each other – Economics, Politics and History . I grew up listening to him telling me stories that would emphasize useful principles from these three disciplines . I would never forget his explanation of the theory of diminishing marginal utility the fourth mutton cutlet will not taste as good as the first !

I didn’t major in any of the three subjects my grandfather loved – I chose to become a mechanical engineer like my father . But thanks to the love for all three subjects (especially history) that I developed hearing those stories , I have continued to read up, listen and learn what I could .

For the last couple of months , I have been thinking about the post Covid world from many different angles and have posted some thoughts on future of IT services , the need for holistic solutions , and the impact on China .

Today morning I posted the following on FB about the economic realities that India and US are facing ,

The two major economies that I have an interest in are US and INDIA . Both need to kick back into growth but their options are rather different .

INDIA is a much smaller economy in size – both aggregate and per capita . But it has been growing at a much faster clip . Even with revised numbers – INDIA might be able to grow at around 2% when US etc might enter negative territory .

US – and many other developed countries – has been pumping money to help local businesses get through the hard times . INDIA has not done anything similar – though when it comes to taking care of citizens with food and medicine and containment, INDIA has done a magnificent job . But let’s focus on the economy angle now .

The unfortunate reality is that India can not afford to do what US does in terms of a massive influx of cash into the economy . If we look at the tax revenue assumptions in last budget – we can easily figure out that it was unrealistic to begin with . Now with income and trade both coming down , there is no way to make a lot of tax revenue in this fiscal .

US can absolutely print money – dollar is a strong reserve currency . That’s a limited option for INDIA . I have no doubts INDIA will also print some rupees but the inflationary risk is higher and may be 1% of GDP via this method is already enough to take INDIA back to a period no one cares to be in .

INDIA Government thus will need to borrow heavily at least for this year – some from within the country and some from abroad .

Government bonds are a viable strategy . But the domestic market for it will be weakened by both corporate and personal savings affected by the shut down . Still – there are still healthy and large balance sheets who might think about this favorably . And there are plenty of rich people and some NRI inflow to make this work

International borrowing is a more complicated problem . INDIA has made it easier to invest . But that means we need consistent tax policies (which doesn’t happen very well) , tight inflation management (which is quite good now but needs to continue), and consistently good credit ratings (also done decently so far). But there is one thing INDIA can not control – investors can also trigger a liquidation based on how their home country policies (and political rhetoric) changes . All that said – INDIA needs international money to get through this .

Whatever happens , I hope government doesn’t get stupid and just start taxing more on existing base like the disastrous policy of 1974 that Mrs Gandhi brought out . The irony was that MMS was the tax policy creator who then under Rao was also the bold leader to bring INDIA to the modern world .

I hope INDIA starts to take manufacturing seriously from now on – especially when there is a global will to move some out of China . That in turn might be something that US needs to look at seriously too . A lot of the pain in US was caused by letting

most of manufacturing leave our shores .

The two historic events that are used to compare and contrast the covid crisis are the Great Depression and the spanish flu . I had a chance to read up on the former a lot during the 2008 financial crisis and I brushed up on that a bit in the past few weeks .

The most chilling part of that horrible decade starting 1929 was the rise of Adolf Hitler . Just a few years ago – he tried to overthrow the government and got jailed. Strangely he wasn’t deported to his birthplace of Austria because the good judge thought Hitler thought and acted like a German and hence can stay in Germany . Nazis were not taken seriously – and eventually Bavaria even let them back into official existence . Hitler by then had realIzed that being a demagogue was a lot easier to get to his goals than the use of violence . The depression gave him the perfect platform – primarily around tackling unemployment – to consolidate power . By 1933 he was the Chancellor of Germany !

A lot of evil happened in his long tenure . It made me think about the trio of depression, demagoguery and democracy – which is the unfortunate intersection of economics , politics and history .

History – even recent history – is full of people who used demagoguery to great effect for their purposes . Senator McCArthy might be the best example that a lot of people can relate to in this context .

Demagoguery is not binary – it’s a continuum for politicians in any functioning democracy and probably cannot be avoided . So then the logical next question for me is what’s the flaw in democracy itself ?

History and politics have an intersection in the past that perhaps can provide a clue .

The great philosopher Socrates wasn’t a big fan of democracy the way it was practiced in Greece . His point of view was something like this

A ship needs a captain who knows how to navigate a ship at sea – and not just a random person who was elected to the role of captain by people who don’t know what skills a captain needs . Similarly if you let people to vote who haven’t been taught to think deeply about the role of politics and administration – then you will get bad results and rabble rousers !

Essentially Socrates put the onus on educating people before they are allowed to vote . So in his view – you can’t vote just because you are of a certain age and was born inside the country .

Given the general lack of civics education in this country , I guess what we dislike about politicians can be traced back at least partly back to us ! And if we haven’t thought through what we need in our elected representatives and administrators – and a depression hits us , the demagogues will have a field day and we may not like the results very much .

What happened to Socrates eventually ? Demagogues of the time charged him with “corruption of the youth” and by a thin majority, the 500 jurors voted him guilty . He was – quite tragically – put to death by poison .

The life of Socrates was some 2400 years ago , and Hitler’s was less than a century ago . If we haven’t yet learned the lessons from the past intersections of economics, politics and history – we better start now !

Post Corona World and China

All over the world, there is anger and frustration about how China handled the pandemic . I fully share that view – we could have all handled this disaster much better if the Chinese government did a more responsible job. And I doubt any of us believe the stats coming out of China – and we live with it only because there is no other source of good information to rely on. There are more conspiracy theories floating around now than I can keep up with – which is perhaps normal for these times.

lighted pagoda at night
Photo by Lian Rodríguez on

A lot of American politicians have already been calling for a hard break with China because of what they did with the Corona pandemic. That was my first instinct too – but as I thought through this more, I doubt this is a pragmatic solution anymore. As always, these are just my personal views.

Calling Corona Virus as China Virus is just dangerous

It is perfectly normal for nationalist feelings to surge when we feel attacked . It is also a great point that plenty of viruses were named in the past after country of origin ( including some like Spanish Flu where there are stories that it was an unfair tag ) . So when we cloak our hatred for Chinese government with an academic argument to hide our bias – we tend to forget how it affects Asian people everywhere.

I was born and raised in India. I have lived roughly half my life outside India now. No one should find it hard to guess my ethnicity if they see or hear me. And yet – when 9/11 happened, a lot of people mistakenly thought I was Arab. It is not an exaggeration to say I was afraid for my life at that time. Absurd as it might sound to people who know the difference – that is how this works. Ignorant people who also feel under attack – they react in absolutely nasty ways that you may not realize. So please resist the temptation to tag China – your words and tweets can unintentionally hurt innocent people !

Capital and Talent problems

America and other countries consciously let China become a single point of failure in their global supply chains – be it clothing, semiconductors, auto, pharma , medical equipment or any number of things we all need every day. The capital required to rebuild all of that in every country is huge. And even if governments agree to find the money to do it – in most cases, the skills are just not there in quantity and quality to make it happen in reasonable time. And it will take time and resources away from many other priorities.

Even if we just think about the world of medicine – equipment and drugs – we should be scared at how much we depend on China for our population to stay alive. Now that they have flattened the curve, and their factories are buzzing again – they have an upper hand already while rest of the world is still figuring out its response. I don’t know how much of a sustained advantage that will be – but its worth keeping it in perspective. For now, they are helping US and others ( and with it comes some complaints on poor quality)  – though perhaps not just out of just humanitarian reasons.

Realistically – even if just the rich countries like USA start bringing all this in-house we are going to have to wait decades to get it done. And given we tend to value our economy over and above other interests – the cold calculations will probably stop most private sector companies to do a total shift back to homeland.  Best case I see is that we will shift some significant manufacturing capacity to Vietnam, India etc in near term.

That is all good and much needed – but China probably will remain a single point of failure for a lot longer even in a well planned transition.

How about Tariffs as a way to keep China in line ?

US has played this hand with China already and we found that all that happens is that it is not the exporter that gets stuck with the bill, and its the importer – and that is passed on to the end customer. On top of that – we also had to take some tariffs off already because of our dependence on China to get through this pandemic.

If we look at this from a Chinese exporter’s point of view – they may also come to the conclusion that they should perhaps reduce US as a big market, and start building markets elsewhere. USA is big strong economy and can still hold some punitive power with China. But that is not the case for the smaller economies – their constraints will make them do things which US will be able to avoid.

Net-net – Tariff is not much of a magic wand to wield !

Corona might not be the last pandemic – it may just be a beginning

I don’t wish it in the least – but that is the pragmatic assumption for now. I have no doubts that we will learn a lot from handling COVID19 and hence will have a better playbook for the next time. But what is the role of China in that future playbook ?

Since the whole mess started in China – and since China has allegedly controlled it significantly now – it is quite possible that they may be the first to come out with a treatment plan and vaccine too. Don’t we want them to share it ? Not just now for the current crisis – but going forward as well.

I am not an expert on pandemics – but I do remember reading frequently about US and China co-operating in tackling past pandemics from George Bush’s term in office all the way to Obama’s time ( joint effort to help Africa). I would think that model is what works for the world – as in for common folk like you and me. Virus is not nationalist in its kinetics, and there is no good reason in my mind why the solution to prevent its spread should be nationalist.

When it comes to saving lives – China and US and everyone else should let science lead, and politics follow ! The other way around is stupid.

We need a better balance of Nationalism and Global Co-operation 

Pendulum always swings to extremes. Now it is swinging to an extreme on nationalism. But its side effects are yet to be seen.

In India – there are states closing their boundaries physically to stop people from neighboring states to enter in times of pandemic. It is not clear how the supply chains of food and health care will get affected when states do it. Will it next happen within districts within a state ? Taken to an extreme – nationalism can be quite destructive !

US may not be much different either . What happens if richer states can offer more money and take medical pros and medicines from poorer states ? I hope we won’t see it play out that way – but when we feel under attack, its normal to close in. Toilet paper hoarding is roughly the same thing at a micro level – people with money to hoard will keep doing it and people with less money will disproportionately suffer.

Although off topic here – climate change is one of those things we can look at as an example. There is no effective solution to climate change if China does not play nice. And China has limited incentive to play nice if it gets isolated globally !

Parting thoughts

It is not a comfortable position for any of us ( Certainly not for me) to think China apparently continues to hold an unfair advantage despite their mistakes. We largely brought this on ourselves with our significant focus on the economy and lesser focus on healthcare, infra, education etc. It is not as if we did not have some huge advantages – we enjoyed a prolonged bull market as a result of sending more work to China. I hope and pray we learn from this history and have a more balanced and holistic view going forward.

Should we be more targeted and holistic in tackling the Corona virus pandemic ?

I have been staying at home for the past week or so since I returned from India . All my global team is working from home too and we are all getting used to the idea of 100% work from home as the new normal . Earlier today, I heard from my mom about the 21 day shut down in India to combat the pandemic . And my cousin in Britain is dealing with their shut down . It’s all a bit overwhelming to say the least .

It has also made me think hard on what’s next for us . As always – these are strictly my personal thoughts and opinions .

Grief offers a fresh perspective

I recently lost my dad . He was in critical care for nearly two weeks before he passed away and I saw a different part of life that I hadn’t experienced before .

The first is that money cannot always buy good outcomes in health . Just to see patients on ventilators was a shock and it still gives me nightmares . No amount of money and top notch care could save my dad . Helplessness need to be felt first hand to realize how bad it can be.

The second is that lack of money almost always leads to bad health outcomes . Every day at the hospital I saw families struggle to pay bills . I helped a few folks where I could – paying a little money , buying coffees and lunches and paying for cab rides etc . And the reactions ranged from gratitude to indifference to rejection . I didn’t take any offense , nor did I feel any happiness – it’s a strange sense of camaraderie that prevails amongst families of patients admitted in a hospital , especially in critical care . Words can’t describe it . Every day – often multiple times – I saw families dealing with death of their loved ones .

In some strange way – I feel blessed about the timing of dad passing away . At least I was able to go to INDIA as soon as he was admitted to the hospital and stay with him throughout and then stay with my mom a little bit to get her settled down a bit before coming back to US . If it had happened today – I am not sure I could have lived with myself . And yet – that is exactly what must be happening all around the world with folks with elderly and/or high health risk parents .

Hunger trumps health and social responsibility

The shut down in India seems like a much needed step to contain the pandemic – and kudos to the leaders who decided and acted quickly . But how practical is such a shut down ? I was born and raised there and I just spent some time there till last week . Significant part of the population earns their wages daily and without that they can’t afford their food . When the country is shut down – how will they eat ? I hope the government – and the society at large – steps up big time to help the most vulnerable citizens and do it quickly . Even for middle class people who can afford to stock up – I don’t know anyone in India with large enough fridges and freezers to stock up for several weeks at a time . And coupled with the population density in cities like Mumbai – I am seriously questioning how this shut down will sustain three weeks – or god forbid, longer .

It’s no different in US and UK . Not everyone can afford to stock up . And even if people and government can figure out food and shelter – mental health could be another large scale challenge . It will be almost like most of humanity being put in an open jail .

It’s a tight rope walk – but the North Star is clear

Governments all over the world have an unenviable job at hand – balancing between loss of life here and now and the long term negative effects on the economy . A binary view is clearly a terrible choice and I hope no government takes a benevolent equivalent of the “final solution” as their strategy . If we need a binary choice – I fully believe the only right answer is to save lives .

We need a fine grained approach

But that’s what made me start thinking about whether there are targeted approaches possible . A lot of analysis of the pandemic is based on age as the primary risk dimension . I am starting to think that age is too coarse grained for a targeted approach . We now have data about people who lost lives all around the world – and at least those who died in hospitals should have more than age as available data . Can we further narrow down by specific things like gender, blood pressure, COPD, A1C etc ? The better we narrow down – the more our ability to isolate fewer people and have a more realistic estimate of what’s the net impact .

Social distancing, washing hands etc are excellent steps and I am glad that most people are doing the right thing finally . But just like age being a coarse grained dimension – isn’t geography a coarse grained dimension too now ? I am not a pandemic expert and will gladly stand corrected if someone can show me the fallacy in my thinking . Can we zone into high, medium and low risk amongst geographies too ? Manhattan, NY is high risk and lockdown seems to be the right solution and everyone should stay home . But should Chandler, AZ be treated the same , or can some low risk segments of people go to work there ?

Test, test , test

Lack of testing – quantity especially but also quality – is a HUGE problem throughout US and INDIA and probably other countries too except maybe China and Korea . I am still livid that when I returned from India last Monday, there was not even a temperature test for passengers in TRV, DOH, DFW or PHX . Till it’s reasonably fixed I guess segmenting people is not a realistic safe strategy to pursue . Segmenting is a two phased problem – especially for assigning risk to a geographic segment. You need to know when to put people into a segment , but also a set of specific conditions that will get them out of that segment . Otherwise the purpose is kind of defeated .

We need to think holistically

It’s great to see the ventilator shortage situation being addressed with urgency . Better late than never . This is the time for us to be on our innovative best . I also hope that whatever else needs to go with ventilators – all the other ICU apparatus needed (as well as meds for people who cannot be intubated ) are being addressed in parallel . Two weeks of watching people in critical care on a full time basis and talking to doctors three times every day has now given me more information than I ever needed on this topic – and to put it mildly I think we are vastly under estimating the holistic nature of the problem .

We need a better strategy for effectively using medical professionals

Talking about doctors – it is great that retired medical pros are being requested to come back to work all over the place . I also read that many of the older folks who came back to work died in Italy . Doctors and nurses are probably the hardest part of this fight back equation and we need to think about a long term plan to use them . Maybe one way is to tier their use – let the retired folks at higher health risk take over telemedicine channels , and form a reserve capacity when front line active personnel eventually need to take breaks . Perhaps medical students and nurses can take over some of the upfront triages (perhaps some tech can help ? ) . And active duty pros can just focus on high risk patients needing immediate attention .

Fatigue is a real big issue for these amazing frontline healthcare workers . My heart breaks when I see the pictures everyday of thoroughly exhausted people who are going above and beyond . Given all of any country is not suffering at the same levels – can we send more help to the hot spots to take care of the issues there and contain it ? I don’t know if there are legal issues with licensing etc – but hopefully those are all addressable by governors and other government bodies quickly . We have to tackle this issue without letting geographic boundaries being a problem . Sharing pharma research globally , sharing data on patients , increasing production of test kits and medical equipment all need extreme co-operation. Nationalism needs to take a back seat .

We won’t fix the economy with just more money

When governments talk about the economy – we need to interpret it in two ways . What are they doing for companies (not just big ones – but the small ones too) and what are they doing for people .

Like everyone else, I find no joy in watching my 401(k) lose a good chunk of its value these last few weeks . I even joked on twitter that now it should be called 101(k) . I am blessed to be employed and with the flexibility to work from home and not having to worry about putting food on the table for my family . I also know that even paid sick leave which people like me take for granted is not common for a lot of people . It is also high time we divorced health insurance from employment in this country . If there is a positive side to this terrible crisis – it might be that now is a great time for our elected reps to do the right thing for the citizens for once .

Similarly when we talk about helping companies stay alive – we need to make sure it comes with guard rails on exec comp , stock buy backs etc . Hopefully we remember the lessons from 2008 meltdown and bailouts . Companies also need to be held to a higher standard when it comes to taking care of their employees .

Perhaps it’s time to fundamentally redesign and recalibrate the world’s capital markets

Capital markets have been wild, to say the least . At near zero interest rates, market strangely still craves even lower interest rates . Companies that have extremely healthy balance sheets and free cash flow and rock solid business models get punished irrationally in public markets without any specific fundamental reason to attribute, and so on .

I think it’s a good time now for the important people in the global financial markets to come together and rebaseline how companies are valued all over again . If that needs the markets to stay closed for a bit or for circuit breakers to be RE-calibrated or whatever, then so be it . Capital markets are divorced from the reality on Main Street now . The dog and it’s tail have reversed who wags who – and it needs to be fixed . Let’s try to fix that imbalance as well while we are at it rather than resort singularly to throwing more money into a system that no longer seems to be capable of reflecting reality.

This is perhaps the longest blog post I have ever written . A lot of thoughts are swirling around my mind – but it’s probably best that I leave those for a future post . Stay safe everyone !

How will the IT services world look post Corona pandemic ?

It’s been a difficult few weeks for me personally . First I lost Hobo . Then I had to rush to India since my father fell critically ill and passed away . It was not clear if or when I could return to US given the Corona virus situation – and after being away for three weeks , I got home yesterday . It took me about 30 hours door to door and most of that time I was thinking about how the world around me is evolving at a break neck speed .

Obviously I have no crystal ball to gaze into the future and I have done no scientific studies on this topic either . And as always – these are purely my personal opinions and not that of my employer .

I have been thinking about whether this pandemic is a one time thing or whether this is a pattern we should expect in future . A quick poll on Twitter was the closest to a checking around I could do from TRIVANDRUM .

This is what the handful of people who responded thought . It aligns with my own thinking – we should consider the possibility that this could be a trend and evolve our personal and professional lives to deal with it .

So with that background – let me share what I think we should plan to deal with in the world of IT services . Some or all of it may apply to other industries too

1. Obviously , we will learn to work better from remote locations

I have worked from home and client locations nearly all my adult life . I offered some quick tips last week when I saw posts on social media by people who seemed to be struggling with the transition . I absolutely think any temporary loss of productivity can be mitigated with better connectivity , processes, education and tooling . I say this significant conviction because I didn’t see any serious loss of productivity when a big part of my own team and I went remote as part of invoking our business continuity plans .

2. Travel and co-location become less important

It might take a few years to be fully embraced – but the difficult times we go through now will provide enough proof points that we can function effectively and efficiently without all being in one location . Consultants flying every week to a client location (or commuting for hours every day) is a habit we have carried over from a different era (when there was no internet and remote communication was ineffective and costly) and we can finally stop doing it as a primary mode of delivery . Face time will always be important – but it will probably come at a premium in future .

The money saved from all these can either go to bottom line or even better, spent on more value generating projects . We will all be doing a greater service to the only planet we can call our own !

3. Less divorces , and more happy families

It’s a touchy topic and taboo generally to talk about – but I am going to say it anyway . I personally know several people who ended up in divorces because of the nature of our work . I think this will change for the better if the low value travel in our line of work is minimized or eliminated .

I also know several friends – and many of them women – who had to make a hard choice to not raise a family because of the constraints of work ( mostly related to travel ) . I hope they have more choices in this matter going forward.

There is a part of me that does worry that families will need some adjustment when we all work from home . But hopefully this can be worked out with relative ease if we approach it consciously . I have some thoughts – which I plan to pen eventually .

4. Different measurements

The general measurement paradigm for staff consultants is utilization and for executives it’s sales . If and when work becomes more remote – I think we will have to switch to a different set of measures than billable utilization . This is perhaps the hardest change this industry will face and we better prepare for it now .

I also think the way to measure sales will also change. Revenue in the accounting sense of the word may not be enough when cash becomes even more important for businesses . Not sure if DSO is the right measure – but some cash related metric might need to be incorporated into sales metrics . Also important will be customer retention , Client satisfaction etc . It’s not that these things are not important today – just saying that we may change what’s peripheral now to a more primary component of comp models .

5. More pressure on the bottom of the pyramid for both providers and clients

Back in the day, young consultants got into long term projects at low billing rates and learned the trade in an apprenticeship model . That’s already hard in today’s world with project sizes and time lines shrinking . Now when remote work becomes mainstream – it will be much harder to bring inexperienced new hires to the level of skills that is needed for actual projects .

This also will need some serious rethinking by the service providers along with their clients .

6. Project delivery has to evolve

Every aspect of the delivery life cycle will need to evolve and probably evolve faster than we are used to . For example – a lot of shops have already stopped splitting a work product between onsite and offshore teams . Instead they give fill autonomy to remote teams so that they are self contained . That helps minimize people needing to wake up early and sleep late everyday . That’s the kind of culture that needs to become mainstream in IT services.

I am used to globally distributed agile – but honestly it took some time getting used to it . It’s a significant change management issue for most companies – service providers and clients alike . And it might need a new kind of leader to make it happen and stick with it .

6. Automation will increase manifold

One of the biggest take always will be that people are the biggest risk to an Enterpise when the risk is biological in nature like a pandemic . So perhaps even for some wrong reasons – I expect the focus on automation to increase manifold just to decrease the dependence on humans .

But in the same breath – I have to say that what I see around me now is that automation has not replaced human decision making yet . In fact a lot of human effort and thinking is going on at the moment to mitigate the unique risks that are coming to light .

So I guess the best way to think about this is that we need highly differentiated skills to be employable in the future world of services . Again – I have way too many thoughts on this topic that I will post in another blog .

7. Security is probably the new black

Security was always important no doubt – but as we get even more distributed in terms of delivering work, I think it will become a more central issue in IT than it already is . For a long time – all consultants who were good at analytics have had a bit of an edge in the field . I think that will continue of course – but now security (specific to your domain) might be that extra skill set that will help you stand out .

8. Massive consolidation will happen

Some amount of consolidation has been happening already and I think it will pick up significant speed . The mid tier companies probably won’t have a viable way to continue and will have to merge or get acquired to stand a chance to survive in the evolving market .

Unfortunately I also think a bunch of those mid tier companies won’t make it and will just disappear . Given the gloomy nature of the topic and because I have dear friends who work there – I will resist naming any names .

Even the ones who will stay around – I don’t think they will have big pools of full time employees anymore in the middle to long term . I fully expect vast majority of these firms to depend on gig workers to get things done for their clients . And commodity skills will probably become a mainstream online platform business where clients and providers can both buy .

9. Systems integration business will grow

I know it’s a hot button topic for several people I know and respect , who believe cloud will kill SI business . That’s not how I see it . I do think SaaS and other cloud models will continue to grow . And as it grows , integration and analytics challenges will grow as well . Consequently I think the SI market will continue to be a good employer for a long time to come . The kind of work will shift over time – but the effort to integrate will continue to grow for a long time .

I am not sure yet on whether in-sourcing of IT will get affected or not in future . I will be keenly observing and if I see any visible common trends , I will share in a future blog .

10. Redundant collaboration tooling

As we increase our dependence on webex , zoom , teams etc – those services going down will have significant issues for our businesses . I am sure those companies will become very good at providing highly resilient services – but I can’t imagine any company risking their business with just one tool anymore . Maybe they will when SLA from these providers are that good – and I am keen to see how this evolves .

I am very interested in your views on this topic . Please leave your comments and I look forward to learning from you .

Post Script : here is a little video Dennis Howlett did with me on March 23, 2020 on this topic

Managing Top Talent – Lessons from Indian Politics

I have now been in India for the last couple of weeks. Even though I am a US citizen now, I have followed Indian politics with great interest all my life . I have always stayed away from political party affiliations all my life – both when I lived in India as well as when I moved to USA .

Needless to say , all these thoughts are expressed purely in my personal capacity , while looking at the world through the eyes of a management consultant . I make no judgement of what these parties stand for etc in this commentary .

When I read the news of Jyotoraditya Scindia leaving INC and joining BJP, I couldn’t help thinking about the parallels with classic top talent management in the corporate jungle I am familiar with .

The common factor you see in top talent in any field is Ambition – be it for the pure thrill of winning , be it for money , titles , social status or whatever else . When channeled carefully , ambition works in favor of the organization . When ignored overtly or covertly, the effects could range from extremely low value add to outright sabotage .

1. You can’t act if you don’t know what they want

When you spot such high talent – you should take the time to understand their ambitions and then keep up with it over time since people evolve their ambitions . I have personally been confused many times about my own team when someone asks for promotion when what they really need is a raise – but can’t separate the two without an honest conversation . If I reject the promotion because that’s all I heard directly (and I think the person is not ready to operate at a higher level yet) – I might lose the talent from my team . If I had the conversation and understood the real ask is more money – I might have a chance to retain the talent . But few years later – money might not be the big motivator for the same person – it might be the title , or public recognition or something else . As a leader – you need to know what is the ambition of your top talent at all times !

It’s not clear to me what Scindia Jr wanted ( I can speculate) – and it’s not clear if Sonia Gandhi knew exactly either . But clearly he ran out of patience after a while and walked away . His resignation letter that I saw on twitter was pretty straightforward .

2. There are always organizational antibodies , and top leaders might unwittingly enable them

Tenure is a double edged sword in every organization. Once people get comfortable being kings or kingmakers , they may find it harder to let anyone else too close to power that they don’t care for personally . Merit and potential all tend go for a toss . If the top leaders surround themselves with the same advisors for a long time – it’s inevitable that their ability to spot top talent (or know details of their plans ) will start diminishing .

When top talent sees a leadership vacuum above them, their instinct often is to see if they can fill that vacuum . They enjoy strong leaders they can learn from . It’s one of the difficulties with matrix management systems that talented people might find it odd to see inconsistent quality of leadership . When it gets to a degree they are not comfortable with – they start planning their exit .

In MP politics – it’s possible that Digvijay Singh and Kamalnath perhaps acted as the antibodies preventing Scindia’s growth . They both enjoy the support of the first family .

From the outside, I cannot divine who holds power in INC anymore . In theory it has to be Sonia Gandhi and her two kids . But Rahul has clearly said he is not in charge . So I am guessing it’s some combination of the old guard war horses like Ahmed Patel and AK Anthony who are holding the fort together . That might have at least partly convinced Scindia that the juice is perhaps not worth the squeeze to hang on much longer

3. Top talent might not even make a big fuss when they don’t get what they want

This is a big problem – a lot of high caliber people do their work and wait for their leaders to reward them for it . They may very gently raise it with their leaders from time to time – but generally stay away from getting a reputation of being aggressive . They have the confidence that they can easily get what they need outside their current organization and that is why they don’t create the fuss .

Leaders who ignore this aspect usually realize their folly only after the proverbial horse has bolted from the barn . These are not the type of people who will stay for a last minute counter offer – unless perhaps it’s earth shatteringly good !

Scindia did everything he was asked for but never got a proportionate reward . And when he left – perhaps the only offer to make him stay would have been to offer INC president’s job . And that’s unimaginable in INC – considering an ailing Sonia Gandhi has to take up the role when Rahul Gandhi walked away !

4. They build strong knit teams and take those teams with them

There is an exponential effect when you can’t retain top talent . They are natural leaders for whom their teams love to work . And when such people leave – their teams tend to be quite demotivated and will try to leave with them as well . You cannot hold people against their will for very long – and the price to pay is high . I have often seen this with sales leaders in corporate world where the best sellers generally follow the VP from company to company .

Scindia has a loyal team in MP and will naturally take his people with him to BJP .

5. While you are ignoring, competitors are watching

This is one of those strange things in life . You have extremely talented homegrown people that get taken for granted at a certain point . You might salivate looking at the talent at your competitors and worry about how you can poach them . At that point – the competitors are also plotting strategies on how to get your best people . It’s very very hard to get senior people to move when they are happy and content . But when they feel continually overlooked – it’s relatively easy to convince them to jump ship . Most competitors keep contacts warm with top talent in the industry for this reason . They wait for the right timing to make their case and force a decision in their favor .

BJP – even on a foggy day – could have seen from a mile that Scindia was not getting his due from INC . His own aunt is a senior BJP leader and CM . So they made it work and INC should have totally seen it coming .

6. Reputations are hard to win and easy to lose

Organizations that can’t hold their good people lose their reputation steadily . Then it evolves over time into a self feeding frenzy where the remaining top talent starts to wonder whether they are being stupid to hang around any longer , and start jumping ship . This is hard even when times are good . But when times are bad – this could become a real nasty problem .

That’s why in both good times and bad , organizations need to make room for people to grow . This often needs removing some from the top to make it work especially when times are bad . Those are hard decisions without a doubt . But if that’s not done systematically – the old guard will stay and not add additional value , while the up and comers will find a low ceiling and they leave .

INC (also other parties) has a long history of their leaders leaving them because they run out of runway – Scindia Sr ( who once even best Mr Vajpayee in Gwalior ) , Sangma , Pawar … there are lots of examples from the past . But when the party was in power, they could live with it . Now INC is in trouble and they can’t handle attrition that easily . If they don’t mend their ways – others like Sachin Pilot maybe the next to look for greener pastures .

So who is doing good talent management in Indian politics ?

Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi both come to mind upfront . Rao brought it talent like Manmohan Singh as his FM and that was brilliant for INDIA and INC . Rajiv brought in young talent of the time like Gehlot , Pilot and Scindia to prominence and largely those moves worked well too . But somehow INC lost that muscle after Rajiv’s and Rao’s time .

BJP seems to be doing a fine job now ( of course like INC , they also deserve some criticism on a few choices ) in building talent from the ground up . Modi , Naidu , Rajnath Singh etc all grew up the ranks and gained valuable experience before getting their current jobs . Some (though not Modi himself) were party presidents for a bit before getting cabinet postings . That investment in systematic and long term talent management seems to help them grow their influence over time .

I hope INC addresses its talent problem pretty soon in a comprehensive fashion. India needs at least two strong national parties to be an effective democracy . A democratic INDIA is an absolute must for its citizens and for the world at large .

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