Account Planning

What is it ?

Account planning simply is a process of continuously identifying, analyzing and documenting how you as a solution provider can add value to your client, and balancing that with a sustainable business for your own firm. It is a strategic initiative that serves as a north star for the account over time.

Why bother having an account plan ?

  1. Retaining a client is always a better strategy than finding a new one – less CAC, faster deal cycles, better customer sat etc
  2. Clients prefer working with people who understand their strategy and problems. Higher NPS drives even more business
  3. It helps position “what is on the truck” in the client context
  4. It helps bring new team members up to speed on the account
  5. Helps up-line sales managers plan investment, coverage, revenue etc better for their patch…etc

Macro to Micro

No company exists in a vacuum. You need to understand the environment in which it operates. This is trickier than we might think when we look at companies buying each other across industries (say a Telco company buying a media company), or a Bank operating like a consumer tech company etc. Needless to say, COVID proved to be one of those instances where the macro environment changed quickly for most companies and all micro levels had to be reset.

Equally important is the time dimension. If what you want is a long term relationship, then you need an account plan that spans a longer horizon than your current fiscal year. But when account teams are not stable, or when short term goals are all that sales management worries about – it is hard to look farther into the horizon. Good account planning depends on how well you are scanning the environment along the way. For my fellow cricket enthusiasts – a good batsman knows where each fielder is when a bowler delivers a ball.

It is a jungle out there

And you are not the only hunter ! A good account plan needs an understanding of your competition. The ideal way to look at competition during account planning is with healthy respect. When you are trying to win a deal, it is quite ok to take a confident stance like “Only we can do this” . But in account planning stage – we need a more balanced approach to understand what they are good and how to mitigate the challenge.

Business is done between people and not between companies

For sustained profitable growth, it is not enough that we have “product market fit” with the client. We also need trusted relationships. That is why relationship maps are critical . We need to be honest about what relationships are strong. “She will take a meeting” is not enough to mark it as “strong”. The long term aspect of relationship building is equally key. A good account plan not only analyzes who are the key decision makers, it also identifies who are the up and comers and how you plan to build relationships with them.

Level of detail

An account plan serves as a north star – not as a turn by turn road map. The reason is quite simple – account plan is a strategy document based on what you know at a point in time. As you pursue each aspect of the plan, you will need to evolve the details and mitigate risks. Remember – if there is no risk, it was not strategic to begin with. Do not get trapped into the thinking that an account plan is a collection of pursuit plans. Each pursuit needs to be qualified, planned ,executed and evolved based on learnings on its own merits.

Balancing Outside-In vs Inside-out

The easiest way to add value to a client is by matching a client problem (which could be anywhere from a burning platform to a wish list) to what you have in the truck. It obviously needs you to understand the plans the client already has in place, which in turn needs a lot of homework and a good ability to listen and assimilate.

Similarly, it is also true that the client often does not know what options exist for their plans to be realized. In some cases they don’t know they have a problem till you show it to them in their context. So what you have in the truck will often have some interest from the client – but only if you can put it in the context of their business. For example – “We can help you in your digital transformation journey” means very little to a client , where as “Can I show you a few options on how digital onboarding can cut your acquisition cost by 80%?” will usually lead to a good meeting. Goes without seeing – this needs you to know what you have in the truck in some detail 🙂

Plan the solution for the client, not just your part

Clients need solutions. What you can help with might only be a part of that solution. In that case, you need to widen your thinking and take an ecosystem based approach to the solution. In the technology world it might often mean building a coalition that might include your competitors. For example – If what you bring to the table is integration expertise , perhaps you can also help with figuring out software selection , release planning and post production maintenance . It might not translate immediately to commercial success – but it does help add value to the client and over time it always pays in spades.

Involve the client throughout

There is very little point in creating a plan without talking the client and taking their input along the way. My preferred way is to create a straw-man internally with my team, and then take it to the client to validate. Often it results in rewriting the plan from scratch. Then along the way, I like to do “listen only” sessions with clients to understand their goals and objectives – where I pitch nothing from my side, other than follow ups in case I think I can help with something after the meeting.

Operationalizing the plan

Now that you have a north star – it needs to translate into execution. I use a straightforward method for this

  1. Make sure there is buy in from client and my team and address those concerns
  2. Map the account plan to leads in the lead tracking system and assign timeline, sales stage, potential value etc. Then it becomes part of your regular execution cadence, and saves you from additional meetings and processes
  3. Map the account plan to sales/revenue/cash flow etc to make sure you have headlights into the future in tangible terms
  4. Adjust the plan every quarter with input from all stakeholders in a business review meeting. A plan is always a work in progress
  5. Reset the plan mid year to incorporate whatever you have learned . If you do not incorporate learnings along the way, the plan is useless

An amateur cook’s guide to get started on Indian cooking

I have zero knowledge of formal cooking . I admire people who do . I have wanted to start a restaurant many times in my life and have either chickened out or been talked out by friends . That said – I absolutely enjoy cooking Indian food (especially from Kerala where I was born and raised) . Since people routinely ask me about how to make Indian food – here is a post to help you get started over the holiday season . My apologies to my vegetarian friends – I will try to do one on vegetarian dishes later .

You need a few basic utensils

1. The best knife set you can afford . At a minimum see if you can invest in a good chef’s knife . At holiday time , you can get one for little over $100 . Pick up a large cutting board as well . A good knife makes cooking enjoyable and a bad one makes you order delivery .

2. At least one each of good quality non stick pan , a cast iron skillet and a non stick pressure cooker . When it comes to frying fish or egg plants – I prefer cast iron .

3. Cooking over gas is infinitely better for the dishes I routinely make . When we moved from our first house – we wouldn’t buy really good houses only because they had electric cook tops 🙂 .

4. You will need two blenders – what we call “mixie” in India . A large one for blending curry bases and a small one for grinding the spice mixes

It’s mostly about the spices

To the best I can say from my 45 years of eating it – Indian cooking doesn’t care for things like the actual taste of meat or fish . I am only half joking here . Smell , taste , color etc that we think of as great all come from judicious use of spices . When we say “this chicken curry tastes good” – it means the poultry is well done and we love all the other things that went into it . If what you remember is the chicken itself – the chef has generally failed . You get the idea 🙂

Also – all meat is well done . Rare and medium rare largely don’t exist for Indian cuisine .

The exception to preference for spice dominance is mostly when it comes to vegetables . They get a lot more care and attention than the meat and is generally considered a first class citizen like spices .

Let’s just say I cook much less vegetables than meat dishes . I don’t have the level of skill to make them as well as I could cook meat and fish .

Basic shopping list

1. Onions and tomatoes – vast majority of dishes use both . Don’t worry about expensive versions – you will cook them so much that it won’t retain much of original flavor when used in meat dishes . It’s for texture and body largely – with a few exceptions

2. Ginger and garlic . Tastes infinitely better when used fresh . But you can get a 25% as good version in bottles at groceries

3. Green chilies , lemon, curry leaves , cilantro and mint . Most cooking will need at least two . Many of us grow all of them in our yard

4. Yoghurt . Again – if you can make at home that’s awesome . But unlike with ginger and garlic , what you buy from stores is fine in this case

5. Cooking oil . Regular canola is fine . For regional cuisine – you will need coconut oil , peanut oil and so on . A small bottle of ghee is a nice to have addition

6. Mustard seeds , cumin seeds , dry red chillies

Optional : Coconut milk , cashew , peanuts , almonds

Minimum spices

1. The holy trinity – Chili powder , coriander powder and turmeric powder . Kashmiri chili powder gives color more than heat . Buy these from Indian stores – the one you get from Walmart doesn’t stand up to Indian cooking

2. Whole Garam masala – a whole mix of assorted spices like bay leaves , cardamom , cloves , pepper corns , coriander seeds etc . Take the help of an Indian friend (ideally become friends with their moms to get a home made mix ) to source this . You can make a small batch of powdered garam masala by lightly roasting the mix and then grinding it . Again – in a pinch you can use the prepackaged version which doesn’t pack even half the punch

Spices don’t last a long time . So buy in small quantities, keep them in airtight containers and throw away what doesn’t give a great aroma when you open the pack .

Remember that dried spices pack more punch than fresh ones . A little goes a long way . You only need half of less of dried spice if you are substituting for fresh ones . If you are new to Indian cooking – err on the side of using less and work your way up .

As you gain experience with spices – you will learn to categorize them such as earthy , medium and aromatic . This doesn’t matter till you gain mastery .

The basic meat dish in ten steps

1. Marinate the meat/poultry in the holy trinity (turmeric, coriander, chili powder) , salt, ginger garlic paste and some acid – lemon juice is my favorite . Yoghurt is great too . Longer you do it the better . Aim for a minimum thirty mins though .

2. Except for beef – cooking with bones is the best way to get maximum flavor . You can pressure cook the meat to gain efficiency – so a cheaper cut of meat is totally fine for most regular dishes . Low and slow gets you lot more flavor – but that only works when you have time .

3. Most normal cooking is easily accomplished in a non stick pan with a lid . When temperature nuances come into play – you may need cast iron .

4. Add two spoons of cooking oil to the pan and put some mustard seeds into it . When it splutters , you know it’s time to start adding the rest . You generally should avoid the max flame setting when cooking with non stick pans

5. Add green chilies , and ginger garlic paste first . Optionally add some curry leaves if you like the Kerala version . Do it on low flame – if you burn things it will taste really bad . This is where you can add some whole garam masala .

6. Then add chopped onions . How you slice is totally up to you . Don’t worry about knife skills if you are going to blend the gravy anyway . A bit of salt at this stage will help draw out the moisture from the onions . Don’t brown the onions – you only need them to change from their original color to a translucent level .

7. Now comes the holy trinity – which all should be added with low heat . Start with a very small amount of turmeric . Cook it for less than a minute . Then hit it with coriander powder – which is what really gives the curry flavor . For a whole chicken of three pounds , the most you will need is about three teaspoons . Cook it down . The mix will turn brown at this point . The last part is where you add red chili powder . If you cook it for long – your dish will be largely brown in color . The later you add the Kashmiri chili , the redder the end result . If you need more heat – don’t bet of Kashmiri chili to bring it . Use the hot version first and then add the Kashmiri chili

8. At this point – add the chopped tomatoes . Tomatoes bring a sour note to balance out the heat .

Judging the water content – you may want to add a half cup of water to the mix at this point . Close the lid and let it simmer till the whole thing is a red liquid with cleared oil on top – which will take maybe less than ten mins . Depending on whether you like the gravy smooth or with more texture – you can decide to blend it at this point . With red meat – I also add some chopped mint at this point . Now will be a good time to add more salt as needed .

9. To this mix – add the marinated meat . If you have the time – you can brown the marinated meat for a few mins before adding the red liquid you created for gravy . Now cover and cook till meat is done . Again, if the meat is a tough cut – you can pressure cook the marinated meat before you add it to the liquid . Finally add a little bit of freshly roasted and ground garam masala and stir it in .

Your basic curry is ready at this point !

10. Now you have a few options for “value add” to your basic curry . You can thicken the gravy with coconut milk . If you prefer a richer flavor – you can soak some cashew and/or almonds and blend it to a paste in water or milk and add it to the finished curry and cook for a few mins . The third option is adding heavy cream . Always remember that these things all bring down the heat level as well . So if you like it spicy – you may want it extra spicy to begin with then bring it down a notch with the cashew paste or cream . If you like a bit more of sweetness – soak raisins and blend it with cream and add to the dish .

If the heat level went down a bit – don’t try to add chili powder again . You will ruin it . Switch to crushed pepper . Pepper used early in cooking tends to burn – so if at all I am using it , I use it at the end .

Now comes the magical finishing touch . Warm up a little ghee – add some cumin seeds to it (optional additions – curry leaves and red whole chillies in those cases where you don’t add cream etc ). When it splutters , put it on the curry . The aroma goes through the roof ! Chopped cilantro on top is a nice garnish for all dishes . Adds to the aroma too !

A simple pilaf to go with it

1. Warm up some ghee , add some cumin seeds, whole garam masala and sauté some frozen green peas and carrots . You can pick up a bag of mixed peas/carrots/corn from the local grocery .

2. Add left over rice to it . I prefer basmati but any rice is fine really . The point is that it shouldn’t be freshly made or hot . Add some salt and pepper to taste . I do this at high flame for a few mins

3. Optional : dump a small can of coconut milk into it and stir it in . Also from the value add category – add lightly roasted cashew on top , fried onions and chopped cilantro

The whole thing takes ten minutes and smells and tastes heavenly .

Give it a try and let me know how it turned out . Happy holidays !

Living and working with perfectionists

There are only two things in my life where I am even remotely a perfectionist – when it comes to writing clean code , and training dogs for competition . And those things can be traced back to specific instances .

As a young developer I once was asked to add some extra logic to an application which was mostly written by me – and had a very short time to get it done before it had to be deployed . The code base was dirty to put it mildly and I had to struggle with it to an extreme to fit in something new . I was pretty sure I will get fired for the mess – but with some heroics (and a good friend who did QA on the fly with me ) I ended up living to fight another day . It was enough of a painful experience that it made me obsessed about writing clean code from that day .

I was quite good in training dogs from a young age . My German Shepherd and I were a formidable team in my college days and we won a lot of competitions . And then we ran into a better team and lost a very prestigious show by a small margin of points . The judge took me aside later that evening and explained why the lack of perfection is why I didn’t win – and I agreed with him that it’s not my dog that was at fault . It was me . Those days I took winning dog shows way too seriously and became obsessed about even minute things about how I worked with my dog . I no longer compete – but I still enjoy training my puppy and I am still obsessed with precision .

Outside these two things – I never really cared about perfection all that much . I could bring it on when it mattered – an important assignment in college , a critical must-win deal , daddy-daughter dance at my daughter’s school and so on .

I live my life on what I call “appropriate approximations” .

Vast majority of things don’t need precision . If I am forecasting the next quarter in the middle of current quarter – I don’t worry about a 10% variance . I will progressively get closer to the pin over time . Since my boss knows this – there is no issue . If I am folding shirts to put in the rack , I don’t need them perfectly stacked . These are reversible issues – in the worst case , I can change to a higher level of precision on the fly with minimum trouble . Another good example is this blog . I don’t proof read or even do a spell check on what I write here . My readers are generally quite forgiving and I appreciate it a lot !

If I am hiring for my team – that’s something where I will take the time and attention to get it right . That’s not easily reversible without pain if I get it wrong . If it’s the first time I am explaining a valuable idea to a client – I don’t care for precise assumptions . But if we have general agreement and are trying to get a legal contract done , then I insist on dotting every i and crossing every t .

So what’s the big deal with all this ? As you would have guessed from the title of this blog – you don’t live and work alone . People around you could very well have different views on the need for perfection . If you don’t figure out a way to harmonize , everyone could get frustrated in a hurry . This is true in personal life and at work .

Here is how I deal with the perfectionists in my life

1. Mind my own business

If someone cares to neatly arrange everything on their desk , let them . If they want to do it for my desk too – I usually let them . Basically if it doesn’t truly cause a problem for me , I ignore it – and occasionally even indulge them . Don’t make it a big deal as much as I can . Live and let live !

2. Delegate to them appropriately

I don’t enjoy ensuring spacing in documents is perfect and consistent . I don’t get distracted by two random sentences being two font sizes larger . But I have colleagues who like to do it and they do it well and with passion . If the overall solution comes across better as a result – use that passion instead of fighting it .

3. Provide clarity on time and scope

If you don’t – then perfectionists will generally go for more scope than is useful , and might not do it in reasonable . My favorite QA colleague was very very good at finding bugs – but when we struggled to get new functionality into production in one day , I often would remind him “dude – if a bug stops deployment , or will make the company lose money – tell me and I will code again . If it’s a corner case that we can fix next week , pls just raise it as a lower priority issue that we can fix in next release” .

As a development manager, I learned to assign problems with perfection requirements like compliance , reconciliation etc to developers who thrived on perfection and give them clear timelines to plan and execute . I also learned to use them judiciously for QA on code that people like we delivered 🙂

When you bring them in is a make or break issue . Perfectionists don’t often like constraints on time . If you bring them in too early – you need to restrict scope . If you bring them in with little time left on the clock – aggressively restrict scope . My general principle is to not leave a lot of room to negotiate in the context of a near term deliverable . Instead I take the ownership of any potential failure arising from the constraints I place on them .

4. Teach, learn and evolve

One of my big lessons on this as a young partner came from a client who told me “I was quite distracted by the pictures in your slide deck – but since you drew the picture for me on the white board, I am onboard now and will award you this project”. I had no one to blame but me for that deck . A perfectionist team member did warn me a million times that the graphics on the deck should be redrawn . I said NO and went with what we had thinking he was being paranoid . He was right and I was wrong .

Similarly, in reverse – at least a few times I have been successful in debating with my perfectionist friends on the idea that there is a point of diminishing returns to being perfectionists . When there is no immediate stress of a near term action – such debates can be done in a healthy way . We can then point to what we agreed on when we are in crunch time .

A quick framework on quitting the right way at work

Generally the world looks down at people who give up – they are called all kinds of derogatory things like “loser”, “quitter” and so on . We are taught from an early age on why hard work can overcome all challenges – often with stories of heroes to make that point .

I think this sets us up for failure more than success – at least for most people . There are always exceptions and by all means let us applaud them .

I started off this way too – thinking it will be a shame to quit jobs or projects or whatever and that it will all get better if I just worked harder , smarter etc . All that happened was that I became more miserable both physically and mentally . So I changed my mind .

To my horror – I realized that the hard correction I made was a terrible mistake . Quitting too quickly made everything worse . To cut a long story short – I figured out a rough framework to think through when to quit and when to double down .

Over the last couple of weeks – I had lengthy conversations on this topic with some young men and women that I mentor in India . I figured it’s a good idea to post this in my blog since it is a fairly common theme .

As always – these are strictly my personal thoughts and opinions .

1. Prevention is better than cure

The better we qualify upfront – the less our chance of facing grief later . That means you choose your employer carefully , your projects carefully , your sales pursuit carefully and so on . Easier said than done – because often we don’t have great choice in the matter . For example – you are assigned a sales patch by a manager and you have no say in it . But whenever you can – spend the time qualifying upfront . I will discuss options on what to do if you have no options later in this post .

Part of having choices is a safety net . That means having a little rainy day fund set aside , living under your means , keeping your skills and network active and relevant etc . Without a safety net you will never have good options .

2. Listen to your body and your family

Your body has a way of telling you if the stress level is getting to an extreme . For me – this used to manifest as extreme acid reflux and nausea . I would just take some OTC medicine to get over it – but my family could easily see it was stress that was causing it . Took a long time before I realized my mind was numb to the issue but my body wasn’t . Since then I have spoken with tens of people about it and it seems everyone has some physical manifestation of it – some people cry , others have heart burn or head aches … but at the height of stress everyone seems to have a physical symptom that is a clear tell . And I am yet to see a person whose family couldn’t spot the correlation fast 🙂 .

Unless you recognize you are stressed – you won’t act on it . No one deserves to be miserable for extended periods of time . This doesn’t mean you need to quit to solve it – but that might be one answer .

An easy way to test this is to take an immediate time out . If a week away from work makes you feel a LOT better – it should tell you clearly where the problem is . Irrespective of the decision to quit – it is always a great idea to take vacations whenever you can so that you can mentally and physically reset .

3. Can you make peace where you are ?

We often get miserable about absolute things in isolation – a specific salary raise , a promotion we didn’t get , a difficult manager, a less talented colleague moving up faster than us etc . When we are worked up – it is hard to put these things in context .

A few different things have helped me get through this aspect . One way is to write down on paper . For example – say it is important for me to stay rooted in technology and directly work with clients . If I get a promotion now – I might have a more internally facing role . Should I wait for another role to open up that better fits my criteria or bite the bullet and take it now ? Is the extra money worth the potential lower satisfaction ?

Another question to ask – are you looking for a promotion for more money ? If so – would you be ok with no promotion but a raise alone ? Would you be ok with a raise in variable pay instead of base pay ?

If I can’t make up my own mind – how can I convince my manager of it ?

The second way I get through this is by having an honest conversation with multiple mentors . One such conversation many years ago helped me come to grips with that fact that there will always be some people who will be better ,smarter and luckier than me in any short window of time . Another conversation clearly showed me I lacked some skills and there is no way I will move forward unless I got those skills . I don’t think I would have figured these things on my own .

Also – pls remember you need to have mentors in place to use them in a time of crisis .

4. Know where you want to go – at least roughly

As the Cheshire Cat told Alice , it doesn’t matter which way you go unless you know where you want to get to .

Till you know what is that makes you miserable and what will make you happier for a longer term , it doesn’t make a lot of sense to quit . The one exception to that is extreme stress . If my body tells me that I shouldn’t stay the course – I will quit . I only had to do it once in my career . I left with no backup plan (and left significant money on the table at that time ) and till date I feel I did the right thing .

The best time to plan your next move is when things are stable at work . Then you are in a better frame of mind to decide objectively and have no time pressure to act . Just as experienced drivers scan the horizon and the rear view mirrors even when cruising – it is smart for us to be aware of the evolution in our markets so that we are prepared to act without making it an emergency .

5. Can you change the rules to make it work for you where you are ?

Everything is negotiable at work . If you get a bad manager but the company is one you like – you could try to ask for a transfer . If you get a sales patch which has no immediate sales prospects – you can ask for a different compensation plan to make it work . If you don’t want to be an SAP consultant – ask if you can work on a UX design project .

You have to ask the question and present options before you quit . Just because the first answer is NO or because your friend heard NO when she asked – it doesn’t mean you will get the same answer .

It is also important to ask the right person who is empowered to act on it . In many companies the first line manager is not empowered to act on such matters . You as the employee should feel comfortable to find an up line manager to have this conversation before you leave . As an executive – I have often felt terrible that I could have easily made things work if only I knew what was going on . If your up lines don’t care very much for that conversation – then it’s usually pretty clear that there isn’t much of a point prolonging your departure .

6. Quit in peace

If you have gone through all the above and have had no success in resolving what makes you unhappy , then you can rationally conclude that quitting is probably the next best action .

As I mentioned above – unless your body/mind tells you otherwise strongly , try hard to have a place to go to before you quit . In most cases you can navigate the known devil a lot more than the unknown devil .

When you have made a rational decision to quit – it makes the process of leaving less traumatic . You send a very short resignation letter , give a courtesy notice and burn no bridges . It’s a small world and it pays to leave on good terms .

I personally do not accept counter offers if my employer makes one after I chose to quit . Ideally I would have thought through and negotiated such options before I made the final decision to leave . Once that decision is made thoughtfully – at a minimum , it is very unfair to your new employer to accept a counter .

What you feel after the election is what corporate leaders feel routinely

So TV channels called the election and Joe Biden is the winner . Some of us felt elated and others refuse to accept it – and a large spectrum of people in between those extremes . No value judgment from me on that in this post – I just wanted to draw some parallels with the corporate world that I am a part of .

1. We often don’t trust data

The (often unrealistic) gold standard in corporate circles is “data driven decision making” . The hard part is not about having data – it is about whether you trust the data .

Just as right leaning folks won’t trust data shown on CNN or left leaning ones doing the same with Fox News – corporate world has its issues . The search for “one source of truth” was on when I entered the workforce in the 90s and it is still on . The reality is the best case is you settle for a version of truth that you make peace with and you stop worrying about other perceptions at some point . This is why CFOs get frustrated when the CIO implements a costly data lake and fancy BI on top – and the sales leader still believes “Big Ken’s excel file” .

2. We often don’t understand what the data is trying to tell us

Election results have been coming in for five days and it was clear for the professional data scientists where this was headed . But did it make any difference to people who were watching who leaned left or right ? Hardly ! Right leaning folks looked reasons why it’s all false and left leaning ones tried to hold their breath and tried hard to contain their excitement .

This is true in corporate world too . You look at data and try to find a way to fit it to your “world view” . This is why many corporate leaders do more of the same expecting different results . We only see and hear what we like and filter out the rest . Taken to an extreme that also means we often only collect and measure what fits our narrative .

3. We tend to think in binary terms

Last election , the polling industry lost their face in a big way . They thought Clinton will win and Trump won instead . That led to Trump and Clinton supporters both stopping to believe the models from statisticians like Nate Silver . It didn’t matter that many professionals tried to explain that what the model says is the chances of each candidate to win . If Trump had only 20% chance to win on the last day of last election – that didn’t mean that Clinton was sure to win . It just meant that she had a much higher chance to win . But that’s not how we see it – we often think in very binary terms .

I run into this routinely at my clients – especially when having discussions on data science related projects . There are only a few people who instinctively understand what probability means and that it is not binary . The smart ones immediately start mitigating the risk in various ways – but often I have to nudge them in that direction .

4. We can’t easily abstract and rationalize

Data often doesn’t plot into nice line or curve . It will always have some outliers . When we know of ten votes that didn’t get counted or three dead people who seem to have voted – its natural to think that the entire election is rigged . We often cannot easily think through whether there are enough of such votes to have changed the outcome of the election .

Similarly we look at aggregated and/or filtered data and make decisions that might not be useful . So when we wonder how a red state turned blue when everyone we know is a Trump supporter in that area – we don’t often realize that there are significant variations between zip codes or even within zip codes . We also don’t quickly realize that the dozen people we know in Georgia doesn’t represent all of Georgia 🙂

This happens quite often in the corporate world . Most decisions are done using aggregated data . I will make one example from a few years ago where a sales leader decided to over invest in the west coast business because sales was booming and every director there got two extra reps . A year later – sales rose only modestly and profit dropped a lot . It was a simple case of only one small part of west coast business over performing and everyone else not seeing enough demand . When you don’t know the details – you can make terrible decisions and get confused when you don’t get results .

I will stop here – there are probably a dozen more parallels . My puppy insists I need to go play with him 🙂

Please read this BEFORE you get a puppy

Some of you might know that I got a German Shepherd puppy – Archie – a few months ago . He is about 5 months old now and is pretty much the center of attention in our house now 🙂
I have had dogs all my life and I used to compete actively in dog shows in the past . In any case, my social media posts have been a lot about Archie since he joined our family and that has been a catalyst for some friends to get their new fur babies .
At least twenty of my friends have bought pups recently as they find time to spend at home and it looks like most of them will be home for way more time than in the past . Another twenty or more have been asking me questions about this .
The benefits of having a dog are very clear to everyone . But the “costs” are generally unknown . So I am going to leave a short note here to point my friends to .
The price to buy a pup is usually where the $$ starts ringing alarm bells to people who are new to dogs . My cousin showed me the photo of what looks like a mixed breed litter and the asking price was 3000 pounds in UK . She had the good sense to not pay that . There is no way to pin point a right price – but the larger point here is that the initial price is a very small part of what you will probably spend over the life of the dog . In any case if you are curious – a puppy bred by an ethical breeder from parents who have been health screened and titled is usually in the few thousands of dollars , where as you can get one also from a pet store or a friend for perhaps a few hundred dollars . Of course you can rescue a dog from a shelter too .
Buying from an ethical breeder is about increasing your odds of getting a healthy pup with predictable temperament . Dogs are like us – there are no guarantees on how they will grow up irrespective of what their pedigree is . Also – most of the top breeders who sell pups for what might look like a huge price generally don’t make any profit overall . Some do but most don’t . I know several wealthy people who ruined their wealth because of their craze for dogs . It can easily become an addiction .
If you prefer to adopt – absolutely do that . There are plenty of great dogs in shelters who deserve a good home . Don’t get caught up in the battle of “breeder vs shelter” . You just do what you think is right . I generally buy from breeders and I donate time and money to shelters . I have friends who are breeders who are very active in rescue . If more people were responsible breeders who watched out for their pups throughout their life – there won’t be as many dogs in shelters to begin with . It’s a touchy topic with extreme views on both sides – which is why I said you do whatever you feel comfortable with .
One of the first debates when you get a dog is about dog food . That is a religious debate and in 40 years I haven’t found a solution that satisfies multiple people . I personally have been feeding proplan for the last twenty years and I am happy with it . Do your research knowing that there is very little agreement you will find amongst dog owners . Expensive kibble doesn’t mean it is better for the dog . My general view is that watching how an invidual dog is thriving is the best gauge and not just reading the label . If you have the time and money to spend on it – feeding raw food is generally considered the best option for a dog .
Then there is training and socialization . That takes a non trivial investment of time . For me it is the part I enjoy the most with my dogs . But even if you don’t enjoy it – do a little bit so that your dog behaves well and you are not worried every minute for the next decade or more . If you don’t have the time to spend with your dog – don’t get a dog . Go work in shelters , play with your friend’s dog or wherever else instead . A dog is not a toy . He doesn’t speak your language . If you don’t have the time to to give him quality mental stimulation – don’t get one !
All dogs will need veterinary care and that takes time, emotional drain and of course money . I have spent thousands of dollars on surgeries on some of my dogs . Even routine care like cleaning teeth , vaccinations and so on can cost money that will add up . There are insurance plans etc that you can take – but remember the dog a living being and you are taking full responsibility . A dog should not be a toy you toss away when it needs repairs .
Quick word on dog shows . I was hooked on showing for a long time and now I am not . I still compete from time to time – but it’s mostly to meet friends than actually winning . You will go through all kinds of emotions if you like to compete – because it is a ritual and culture that is unique and a wide variety of people are part of it . It can be very satisfying and if you want to do it , find a good mentor and take it slow . Again – it could get expensive if you want to do it seriously . Just to give you an idea – a lot of people use professional handlers to show their dogs . If that’s how you do it – it could take ten thousand dollars to make a dog a breed champion with American Kennel Club . If you do it yourself – you have to learn to train and groom your dog and it might take you longer to get that title . It will be more fun without a doubt – but those hotel bills and gas bills to go to shows all add up .
Last word – dogs only live for a relatively short time . It is harder than you think to let go – but when the time comes you have to let them go into their long sleep . You never replace the old dog with a new dog in your mind . A bit of you dies with each dog and a bit of you is born when you get a new dog . All I want to do is to make sure you understand the emotional drain could be significant when the time comes !
You need to weigh both the value and cost – tangible and not so tangible – BEFORE you get a dog . As much as I love to see my friends enjoying dogs, I am even more troubled seeing people who get a dog and then regret it and give them up to shelters etc . So please think through thoroughly before you get your dog .

From Engineering To Sales

Yesterday morning, I woke up to see a mail that said I was given a “Thought leader” badge by IBM – which is our highest level of competence in consulting . We have switched a few different HR frameworks in my time here and this badge was a retrospective of the level I had achieved more than a decade ago as a senior manager .

It just reminded me of my shift in career direction and I posted it on LinkedIn . That led to a lot of people reaching out asking me about how they should think about a career transition between Engineering and Sales .

I am a mechanical engineer by training and a software engineer by profession . I chose engineering as my line of work strictly because I saw how much my father enjoyed being one . This is also why I chose a career in IT after my business school instead of Finance which was what I largely focused on while doing my MBA.

I am an introvert by nature . It takes a lot of effort for me to not let that hold me back and occasionally it still exhausts me trying to do that . This probably was the root cause of me hating sales with a passion when I started working . When I looked at sales as an engineer – I felt it is all about telling half truths and lies , wining and dining clients , speaking a lot of jargon and using fancy vocabulary , having a good golf game , taking credit for engineer’s work and so on . Net net – I couldn’t think of sales as an honorable way of making a living . The reality – which I know now but didn’t know at the time – was that I didn’t have the confidence to do any of the things sellers did every day .

I was a reasonably good developer , mostly thanks to an early start . I learned BASIC when I was in seventh grade and C when I was in ninth grade . My favorite uncle gave me his old PC when he left for his masters in US . Other than training dogs, and playing cricket – the only other thing that I had real interest in was in creating silly video games .

A big attraction for me to work in IBM was that this company had an iconic status in tech . I felt I can thrive in that environment . So when I joined and learned about career options , the most attractive option was to become a distinguished engineer – which is the executive rank for our technologists , much like a partner in consulting . I started getting all the certifications and other credentials needed and was generally progressing fine towards becoming a DE . The stretch goal – more like winning the lottery really – would be to make IBM fellow .

That is when my boss and I had an interesting discussion . He said something like this – “You will probably make DE in a few years and it doesn’t look like there is any big risk that will stop it . So why don’t you take a year trying to carry a sales and revenue target and see how you like it. If it doesn’t pan out – go back to your tech career” . A few discussions with my mentors made me realize there is no risk in trying this and I took on a sales target as an associate partner .

To my shock and surprise, I realized that pretty much everything I thought of sales – all the negative stuff – was purely my own ignorance and fear . I needed some training – and my boss signed me up for training in negotiations , executive presentations etc when I made those requests . I cannot emphasize how much that training helped me .

Here is what I figured out . There is a big similarity between good sellers and good engineers – they are good problem solvers . Engineering gave me two skills that proved very useful in sales

1. The ability to analyze problems systematically and finding solutions to the components

2. The ability to then combine the components to a cohesive solution for my client

All problem solving needs assumptions . And that exposed a weakness I had . As a programmer, I rarely needed a lot of help from my team to analyze problems . When I needed that help – I knew how best to ask that question and who is best positioned to give me a good answer . That was not how it worked in sales .

The unknowns are many in sales and often no one person knows all the answers . What’s worse – you often can’t even ask the right questions . That was the hardest challenge for me personally to overcome . Learning to ask for help early and often , and trusting others to build a solution with me . Doing trade offs on tech with people who think like me and doing it on a solution where everyone thinks differently – it is an acquired taste . Interestingly, once I acquired the taste – I think it made me a much better engineer too !

Then there is the idea of how you move from good to great . In engineering – tech changes from time to time , but if you are used to solving problems from first principles – you will thrive despite the massive changes around you . Sales can make use of the same idea – except that it is about people . Moving from being good to being great (or in my case aspiring to be great ) is all about your ability to understand people and their motivations – which is quite a bit harder than reading legacy code and figuring out a modernization strategy .

People do business with people – not with companies . We talk more about what is good for the company – but the truth is that sales is about what is good for people in that company . That needs relationships , that needs the ability to understand what makes people successful and motivated to work with you and so on . And when I say people – it’s not just people at your client . It’s people in your own company too ! The more deep our understanding of people – the better the sales process all around , even if no transaction happens in short term .

And that brings me to story telling . No one really likes to change – including and especially me . And yet – sales is all about making change happen . Of all the tools in sales – the ability to tell a story is what I find the most powerful . Stories are magical when told well – they get people to focus , helps them switch contexts and feel inspired . Numbers and facts don’t have the same effect on people . That was a hard switch for me as my basic DNA is mostly quantitative in nature . It took me a lot of effort to blend facts and figures into stories to make it work . But post facto – I can assure you that the juice is worth the squeeze .

Now that I have covered a lot on being effective , I will make a couple of points about efficient selling .

As programmers , we learn about code hygiene and why that is useful . That concept readily extends to sales too . Keeping pipeline updated , having people QA our pitch stories etc are all great things . Also just like with coding – your ability to say No is what eventually makes you most successful . Qualifying every step of the way – ruthlessly – is your key to being successful in sales . When I look at my old code , I have often wondered why I typed up thousands of lines of code that never executed . Similarly when I look at my old deals – I have often wondered why I bothered to do all the things that don’t matter to the client very much . Learn from my mistake and ask yourself frequently if your opportunity is more or leas qualified today than yesterday . And don’t keep the info with you – share it with your team and your boss . There is always someone with a fresh perspective on what can be done to make it better . Share it with your client too and ask if you are still headed in the right direction.

And then there is the time dimension . As engineers, we write code to ship and that usually comes with firm dates that look unreasonable . Sales is that way too . It’s not a deal unless there is a predictable date to go with it . Learning to estimate the time it takes to close a deal is just as much an art as it is to estimate a finish date to coding . Eventually you will have to pick a date and make it work on both fronts – with the associated cursing , coffee and late nights . There are always dependencies that we only learn about late in the process . Good engineers figure out a model to thrive in that stressful environment and it’s something you can figure out just as well in sales too .

I will conclude with this . For me – engineering and sales are co-mingled parts of my job . I switch from largely sales oriented to largely tech oriented roles every few years to keep it interesting . But there is never a case where I ignore one in favor of the other . It is a model that works for me and it probably will work fine for all of you engineers too who want to expand into sales roles .

I still need to learn to play golf better , improve my vocabulary, develop a fancy accent and develop a taste for fine wine 🙂

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 .

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