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


https://youtu.be/yz30WT04nWc

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 .

Ten tips on working from home


There is a high chance that the Corona virus issue will force more of us to work from home – or at least remotely from wherever you regularly work . It is not an easy transition for people who are not used to doing it often and for what it’s worth – I thought I will share what works for me and maybe some tweaks will make it work for you too .

1. Upgrade to the best internet plan you can afford for your home office

It’s the equivalent of wearing comfy shoes when you have to walk a long time . You can thank me later 🙂

Goes without saying – make sure your VPN etc work fine on remote networks before you start working from home . Know the help desk number upfront and write it down somewhere easy to see .

2. Learn to walk and talk

Sitting for long periods of time is not easy on many levels . Get yourself good headsets and start walking and talking any chance you get . I often take calls from my backyard and just pace back and forth hundreds of times .

3. Let people know when you are available and when you are not

Unlike in a traditional office – working from home will need changes for schedule . You maybe able to get work done that you might otherwise we driving . So change the hours as needed and let people know explicitly via calendar , email etc . For the first few times – when mention it on your calls .

Similarly your break times maybe different . Since you start work early for example – you may take a longer break at lunch and then catchup again at normal commute hours . As long as everyone knows your schedule , you can minimize frustration

Remember – if you don’t draw boundaries around work , work will draw boundaries around you and it may not be pleasant

4. De-clutter like a maniac

You don’t need a lot of stuff around you to be productive . Keep your computer , notebook, phone , spare pens , beverage and snacks handy . Ask hard questions if you feel tempted to put anything extra near you and your default answer should be no . Again – you can thank me later 🙂

I also try to keep the printer at home away from my sight whenever possible . That has helped reduce the number of prints I take significantly .

You don’t need to work from the same location every time either . I often work from three or four different places within my home depending on what I am working on . The less things you need to be productive , the better your chances of changing the scenery . This helps me stay focused a lot longer .

5. Have a plan B and C for alternate locations

Distractions happen and you will need to work from elsewhere from time to time . Scout a few places and keep that list handy – and make sure you know how to access wifi from those locations and any limitations like whether you can talk freely , how long you can hang out there , what $$ you need to spend there etc

6. Gain agreement with your family – and neighbors too, if needed

You are still working and they need to know that you being there in person doesn’t mean that they have your attention . Develop a short hand and be consistent . Trust me – this is a lot harder than you may think at first .

7. Video is your friend when used wisely

Impersonal calls become a lot more personal when people can see you . But if you think video is a distraction – don’t switch it on . For early morning calls where you haven’t shaved and showered , just leave the video off . Similarly , don’t feel pressured to dress up for every single meeting . Remember you don’t need to switch on the video if you don’t want to

8. Work extra hard in the beginning

New environments come with new distractions . Compensate by working a bit harder till you find your balance . Your team shouldn’t have to compensate for your distractions . Get the job done and soon everyone will have faith that work from home actually is effective and efficient

Try to do some 1:1 type meetings in person even when you are primarily working from home . As much as collaboration tools are great – real face time helps !

9. Eat right and exercise

You should be doing it anyway – but it’s one of those things that easily falls apart when you are home more than you are used to . If needed , break the exercise time to two or three .

10. Careful when you drive

Work often tends to spill over to driving time . Nothing wrong with it unless it becomes a distraction and you keep glancing at your phone to see charts while someone is talking and you are driving . Pls don’t be stupid on this front .

Rest In Peace, Acha


Feb 23rd evening in Chandler, my phone buzzed with a WhatsApp call . It was the first time ever that my father called on WhatsApp . He had only started with WhatsApp about a month ago or so and have been taking baby steps with forwards and so on . I immediately answered .

He called primarily to console me on losing our beloved Hobo a few days ago .

He insisted that I buy a new puppy quickly . I told him I needed some time to grieve but I am definitely planning to get a new pup soon . He took it literally when I said “soon” and asked if I planned to get a puppy in the two weeks before I left for India 🙂

Till I left home after college , he used to indulge me a lot when it came to my love for dogs . My grandfather bought me my first fully and acha bought me everyone who came after .

He asked about our plans for our daughter’s 15th birthday and I told him about stepping out for dinner with her in a few minutes given the next day was a school day .

And then he asked me what only he considers a perfectly normal question – “How are your cars?” !

Achan was the biggest connoisseur of cars that I ever knew . Three years ago, when we needed a second car – I chose a Toyota over a Merc . And a month or two later , my parents visited at us Chandler for a vacation . Achan and I sat in our backyard and for hours we discussed pros and cons of engine design and the future of cars . Amma took this photo from behind us and later shared with me 🙂

Achan was a genuine mechanical engineer – someone who intuitively understood how machines worked . I became a mechanical engineer – not even half as good – because I wanted to be like him ! He taught me how to drive a car when I was 14 , over a summer vacation . He would park the car uphill , switch seats with me , and as I struggled to keep the car from rolling downward – he would ask me “tell me how a rack and pinion system works in the steering” or “explain how the clutch engages”. Needless to say , a few years later when I had to study automobile engineering in college – I aced it 🙂 .

He was a passionate driver , as is his maternal uncle who is only three years older than him . Between the two of them, it was common to go on 18 hour drives with Achan doing 9 hours of driving during day time and Maman doing 9 hours after sunset .

One of my fondest memories of childhood is sitting in the backseat of his white Fiat car and asking him to overtake a random car in front of us – and he would always oblige me !

When I was a little kid , he would often take me to the local vegetarian restaurants and we would have Dosa . Those were our dad-son bonding moments . And that’s a tradition we have continued over the years – with me taking him out for Dosa when he visited me in US or I visited him in Trivandrum . I enjoy Sambar with Dosa and he enjoys chutney with Dosa . So every time we eat Dosa outside – I take his bowl of sambar and he would take my chutney bowl . And we would always order two cups of filter coffee each – one before the dosas and one to eat with the Dosa . Those are habits that have stuck with me all these years .

It turned out that my daughter and my nephew – his darling grand children – both enjoy Dosa , and I think he has trained them both on the art of eating Dosa the same way as he did with me 🙂

When I was five years old, I learned to play cards from my paternal grandparents . But it was Achan who taught my little sister and I (and some of our cousins as well) to take up playing rummy as a competitive sport 🙂 . Perhaps playing rummy was the only aspect of his life where he played to win !

He had a very special fondness for my sister Lekshmi , and her husband Ravi was like a son for him, much like my wife Dhanya was a daughter for him .

Any time I visited him and left – I knew he felt bad . But when it was she – he would be downright depressed and his eyes would well up .

She was his favorite baby girl throughout !

Achan never met a stranger in his life . With his humor and humility and sense of fair play – he put everyone at ease immediately. He was one of those very few people that had no enemies and he never thought ill of anyone – even those that didn’t do right by him . While he got along splendidly with everyone – there were two cohorts of friends that he absolutely adored . The first were his pals from the 1970 class of College Of Engineering, TRIVANDRUM . And the other was his family of colleagues from ALIND where he worked most of his career .

I believe to this day that the best thing Acha ever did was to marry amma . They were inseparable for nearly 46 years through thick and thin . They never made a lot of money but they had an incredible life together through their (often comic and some times tragic) ups and downs . They gifted us kids the wealth of a great education and taught us their values .

He was an only child and absolutely was the eye of the apple for my grand parents . We all used to tease my grand parents for rushing to grab extra towels for him when he came out after a shower even when he was in his thirties 🙂 . When they passed away, he took it really hard and used to say “Now I am an orphan”.

His dad was an award winning historian and his mom was a trained classical musician . Achan probably inherited his love for reading and Carnatic music from his parents and he dutifully passed it to me .

I introduced him to the music of Sreevalsan Menon some years ago and he became a die hard fan . As he lay unconscious in the critical care unit of SK Hospital last week for several days, I played his favorite songs for him via the pink headset that my daughter had gifted him and I hope that he enjoyed it as he always did .

As it turned out, that 8 minutes and 31 seconds WhatsApp call on Feb 23 evening was the last time I spoke with him . And the last thing I told him was that my cars are doing fine 🙂 .

Yesterday night, I held his hand while he went into his final sleep peacefully . As the flames took his earthly remains today afternoon , I couldn’t help imagining his parents were waiting with open arms – and extra towels – in heaven for their favorite son !

We will miss you for ever, Acha – but you left us with such great memories for a life time that will keep us all going . I am sure you will be driving your favorite cars in heaven , and blasting your favorite songs !

Post Script

Many thanks to all our friends and family for all the kind words and prayers . A special shout out to Malu chechi and Hemachandran Chettan for going way above and beyond . And a lot of gratitude to the doctors (especially Dr Ravi , Dr Remya and Dr Renju) and nurses at SK a hospital for taking such good care of Acha and for answering all our questions honestly .

Hobo Vijayasankar – 12/31/2009 to 2/21/2020


Hobo joined our family on our daughter Shreya’s fourth birthday when he was about 8 weeks old .

We picked him up after her birthday party from his breeder Marci Sale’s house in Gilbert . He rode back home on Dhanya’s lap and I remember him squirming the entire way back. Sitting still was not his thing 🙂

Boss was five years old at the time and immediately took Hobo under his wings

Some of my most favorite moments those days were the time I spent with Shreya, Boss and Hobo in the backyard and in the pool at our old house.

They were inseparable – and so different . Boss was all brain and Hobo was all brawn . If I tossed an orange into the pool for them to fetch , Hobo would do a spectacular dive to get it back – and then at the last minute Boss will take it from him and deliver it to me 🙂

The only thing Boss really didn’t share very much with Hobo was me . It was clear to Hobo that Boss didn’t like him to be right next to me if he was around . He had to wait his turn . If I pet Hobo first – Boss would immediately sulk 🙂

But everything else was fine – Boss had no trouble letting Hobo share toys , treats , bedding etc . And unlike Boss , Hobo was not destructive when it came to toys – he just liked to carry them around .

Hobo didn’t like dog shows one bit . That was not his idea of fun . I am convinced he could have also been an obedience champion like my German Shepherd – and he was proofed on everything up to CDX when we gave up . I had no interest left in competing to win – so when o realized he didn’t like it, we stopped training .

He was the ultimate retriever . And fetching oranges from our pool was the one thing he didn’t mind doing a thousand times .

Eventually, I had to stop allowing him to swim after he started hurting and crying the next day.

Just as Boss did to him , when Ollie joined our family – it was Hobo’s turn to be the four year old big brother to the seven week old young gun . To be fair , Boss did his fair share in raising the kid as well .

I think what Hobo taught him first was to sit next to me and stare at me till I shared whatever was on my plate with them .

I am sure it was Boss who taught Hobo that it’s a foolproof strategy that works every single time .

When Boss left us for the rainbow bridge three years ago, Hobo took over immediately as my shadow . He was just there right next to me, checking on me from time to time and making sure I knew he was there for me .

Being a New Year’s Eve baby – Hobo’s birthday was the easiest to remember . And ice cream was his favorite birthday treat . We returned from Europe the day before his birthday last year to make sure we can celebrate with him .

He loved riding shot gun with me in the car .

We would have our silly conversations and he wouldn’t take his eyes off me throughout the drive.

When we celebrated his tenth birthday, he was still a bouncy young puppy . I don’t think he ever mentally grew up much beyond six months or so . It took very little to make him excited and jump around barking . Dhanya used to tease him with a new trash bag before putting it in the kitchen bin and he would go nuts .

Hobo enjoyed going for walks . Showing him the leash was a shire shot way of raising his excitement through the roof

Past his tenth birthday though, he started slowing down . He preferred sunbathing in the back lawn to playing fetch

He started having some trouble getting up , and he needed supplements for his joints and for his liver . But apart from a week or so where he lost appetite – he had almost returned to normal .

While I realized we didn’t have a lot of time left with him, I didn’t realize that it will come so soon . I had to fly to NY on Wednesday afternoon . As usual, before leaving I let him and Ollie our for a potty break .

Hobo was the first to come back in and we shared a banana . That was the last meal we shared . Today as I am flying back home, Dhanya messaged me mid air that he passed away in his sleep .

I am sure Boss is waiting at the Rainbow bridge for you dear Ojo-Bojo – May there be plenty of oranges for you to fetch and pools for you to swim . Till we meet again buddy !

Are Finance and Operations people evil and clueless ?


There are probably very few people in the corporate world who haven’t had this thought at some point in their careers – and it probably is the primary belief system of many line executives . I used to be one of them – and from time to time, I still slip into that mindset – and then snap out of it .

So before I say anything else – let me say the answer is a resounding NO ! And they certainly are no more evil or clueless as the rest of us . I will go on to add that when we make use of their expertise the right way – life becomes significantly more productive !

As always – everything on this blog is strictly my personal opinion !

A lot of people I mentor have told me some version of “I could be doing a much better job if only Finance and Ops would let me” . There is some truth in that statement – and I have said it many times myself . I have also since learned there are larger truths that perhaps will change our perspective a little bit . That’s why I am attempting a blog to explain my point of view .

Finance and Ops colleagues have a very hard job to begin with – and we often don’t appreciate it. It’s not a job that many of us have the skill, aptitude or interest to do. I majored in finance in business school – and yet I don’t think I ever want to do a CFO role . Thanks to the nature of their job – most of us in line jobs don’t take the time and effort to understand why they operate the way they do , or how their analysis was done to reach the conclusion we disagree with .

Let’s use an example to put this in context . Revenue and profit are generally easy measures to understand . Cash flow and time value of money are less natural measures for many of us . So when a finance leader questions a deal that shows a high revenue and profit profile – it could be because the projected cash flow is poor , and there is debt that can’t be serviced . Another common occurrence is arguments about “expense vs cost” which both look similar to people without training in accounting, but have completely different accounting treatments . You don’t need a three year degree to understand the basics – but if you don’t take the time to do get it right , you will constantly talk past your finance colleagues and get frustrated .

Most people are familiar with how P&L statements work because their metrics are correlated to it . However there is also the Balance sheet and the cash flow statement that hold significance in a business – and till we understand how it all works together, we will never extrapolate our own reality to the company’s reality .

The reverse is also true that often the world looks different when you abstract it to a spreadsheet or PPT . So an Ops leader might tell every VP to cut 10% of their staff as a solution to save money – and it will make perfect sense at the highest level . And yet , for obvious reasons it is hardly ever a good solution . Another classic problem is resource fungibility looks infinite (Why hire a manager for AI in west coast now when we have two managers in IOT in Midwest and East who both have bandwidth to stretch?) on a spreadsheet when translated to headcount and dollars – but ridiculous when it is translated to skills and location and so on .

Essentially – a little bit of active empathy and trust building via training, job rotations etc will go a long way in reducing friction in decision making .

A CFO – now retired – that I respect a lot once told me this . “When a business is run well, my job is to make sure I record everything and provide insights to where we may have opportunities to grow. When it’s not running well , my job is to get it back to a shape where it can be run well again”. My appreciation for that statement was admittedly low when I first heard it , but it has improved over time 🙂

A lot of frustration happens when finance and operations policies are created by people who don’t have sufficient appreciation for what happens on the ground. All business needs a happy middle of “let’s not take any risk and let’s not trust anyone” vs “let’s take every risk and let’s trust everyone” . Similarly there is the tension on what’s the best way to generate profit – where should be the happy middle of “let’s increase revenue by any means possible” and “let’s cut costs to the bone” . The manifestation of this is best seen in how companies operate their budgets .

Budgets assume that almost everything is known upfront for the year in front of us and we can optimize resources to get a certain goal . It’s all good except that things do change all the time ! And this is where business reasoning should prevail over broad policies and processes .

When a leader says “sorry – no budget” to a proposal , what that translates to usually is “this is my first filter to see if you have the conviction to prove that my budgetary assumptions were wrong” . There is always budget to make more money for a company if you can prove the risk-return trade off works . But that needs you to ask questions to understand why your request is denied , have a relationship with all the stakeholders so that you even have a chance to ask in the first place , and a lot of effort to make the case in a way it makes sense . And in reverse – it needs finance and Ops to be flexible enough to change assumptions when there is proof that it’s the right thing to do .

The easy path – the one often taken by many of us – is to shrug and give up with “these bean counters don’t get it” and “These utopian ideas are why we are in trouble and why we need to tighten policies some more” 🙂

I am consciously staying away from a discussion on metrics as the driving force for some or all of corporate dysfunction. That needs a deeper discussion by itself 🙂

Balancing the focus on outcomes and enjoying the process


I have been a coffee drinker from the time I was a five year old . I grew up with my paternal grandparents ( Dad and mom stayed in a distant town where the factory he worked for was situated and that place didn’t have good schools ) who were both coffee drinkers and I would get a small cup too when they had theirs . Kerala is famous for tea – and strangely I don’t like tea . Everyone else in my family enjoys tea except me 🙂

The very first trip to US – the ONLY food item I packed was a big bottle of BRU instant coffee . I also remember my excitement and relief finding BRU in the local Indian store in Colorado Springs !

I value efficiency a lot – and BRU instant coffee with milk was the easiest solution at home . A mug of milk takes 90 seconds in the microwave to heat up and another ten seconds , I can have a great tasting coffee . Outside my home – Starbucks cappuccino is where I end up spending all my disposable income .

I have always had great espresso makers . But the time it takes to get a coffee and the clean up afterwards essentially meant they stayed in the garage shelf more than on kitchen counter . Few years back – I shifted to a Nespresso machine . While definitely more expensive and not very sustainable – it was a great solution to having high quality coffee in thirty seconds .

A little while ago, I stopped having milk altogether . And this posed a problem – if I drank big mugs of coffee throughout the day, the acidity in my tummy took away the pleasure of coffee . So I switched almost exclusively to espressos . I really needed a small quantity of intense flavor and it will last me several hours . Two a day is plenty for most days . But for that – Nespresso wasn’t cutting it .

So with great reluctance – I dusted off the espresso machine and researched good beans and started grinding and making my own from scratch . It does take a lot more than 2 mins to get a perfect shot – and some days the magic doesn’t happen and I try experimenting some more .

The process – to my utter surprise – proved to be rather therapeutic . I no longer know what I enjoy more – the process of making a great espresso and the experiments to make it a little better the next time , or the resulting drink itself !

It is an interesting parallel to how my views on work have evolved similarly over time as well .

I used to compete in Dog shows actively while I was in college . It was not easy to find time to train my dog and also not let my grades drop – so I micro optimized both the study routine and the training routine . I was fairly successful from an outcome point of view – my dog won regularly and I had decent grades . But honestly I can’t look back and say I enjoyed the learning experience very much on either side .

As a young engineer – I only cared about making sure I could deliver high quality code within time and budget . My enjoyment was more about typing a few hundred lines of code and see it compile the first time itself . Someone created the rules and I improved my skills at optimizing within those boundaries and delivering what I was asked to .

By the time I was a senior manager – I had a little bit more confidence in redefining problems before solving them . The one I remember the most is convincing a finance leader at my client that she didn’t need 150 reports that her team scoped about and can get everything she needs with just 70 by redefining the problem to a certain business outcome that will “move the needle” . And then I had to convince my boss that we will make a lot less money doing the lesser scope of work. Both worked out fine and over a long period of time we earned good business from that client .

Looking back, I think the next evolution was in encouraging my team to redefine the problems and then optimizing the solutions while I try to spend more of my own time trying to gaze a little farther into future and preparing for what is yet to come . I minimize my intervention to what business schools call “management by exception” – and even then only to the extent of helping them think through. I guess that’s where I am now – with of course plenty to improve on finding the right balance .

My biggest learning from all this is the importance of operational excellence . If the routine blocking and tackling is not well taken care of – your ability to expand your horizon becomes rather limited . I have done more than my fair share of whining on operational aspects of executive roles – but I no longer do it with the kind of zeal I used to 🙂 .

This is why I call coffee as “liquid wisdom” 🙂

Watching the second CEO transition at IBM


Yesterday evening I had just finished a conference call when my phone lit up with slack messages , WhatsApp messages and calls all together about Arvind Krishna being appointed as our new CEO . Obviously a big moment for all of us . This is the second time I have watched a CEO transition here, and there are some good lessons I learned watching our leaders in action – albeit from considerable distance .

I was an account partner at a semiconductor client in Northern California in GBS in 2012 when Ginni became CEO of IBM . There are three things I remember from that time .

1. The CIO of the company telling me “this is the best CEO transition I have seen anywhere”

2. IBM stock price was around $210 or so . I had put 10% of my paycheck every month since I joined (when stock was around $70) in ESPP to buy the stock and I sold everything I had and paid off the mortgage of our home

3. My mentor, John Leffler, telling me about how accessible Ginni is to line leadership

I did not know Ginni at all when she became our CEO . Nevertheless, I sent her a short congratulatory email about 10 minutes after I saw the announcement email . To my utter surprise – she responded in about 2 mins thanking me . I showed that to everyone in the team and we were all thrilled that we have a new leader who would respond so fast to someone a hundred levels below her in the hierarchy 🙂

John later told me that Ginni actually knew a little about me from the SAP CEOs McDermott and Snabe ( they knew me from the SAP Mentor and blogger programs ) , and had asked him about me .

In any case – this one real time response to my note had a big impact on me. I am very prompt in my email and phone responses as well and a lot of that can be traced back to me thinking “If Ginni who has a thousand times harder job than me can be so responsive, I have no excuse to slack” . I have to add that Bill McDermott , CEO of ServiceNow ( and ex-SAP CEO ) is exactly this way too . Every email and call gets returned quickly .

It certainly couldn’t have been easy for Ginni being the CEO for 8 years facing constant criticism from all around . I absolutely admire how Ginni stayed so positive throughout this time and continued to make big bold bets for the future on research , cloud, quantum etc . The largest business I have ever run is a tiny fraction of what Ginni runs . Even at this tiny level – it’s hard to balance short term vs long term and it’s easy to get criticized whatever trade off you make . I can only imagine – barely – what she must go through routinely at the scale of IBM and with constant comparisons to others. I can’t honestly say I handle pressure with her level of ease – but seeing how she does it has certainly helped me learn how to handle it better .

I have only met her directly very few times . One thing I have always noticed is that she zooms into what is important very quickly without wasting any time. She also doesn’t hold back on feedback – good or bad . In one CEO level meeting at a client – she took me aside and asked about my family and what my daughter was learning at school these days . She was happy to hear about her interest in math and computer programming and asked me about how I thought IBM was helping shape the next generation of technical talent in schools . And an hour later she gave my boss and me some pretty hard hitting feedback on what we should improve on . Again, this was something I could learn from on the balance a leader needs to develop .

From time to time, I would get the pleasure of some quick feedback from her on my blog as well – which of course is major bragging rights . This one was about the future of software on New Year’s Eve .

And as of yesterday we have a new CEO-elect in Arvind Krishna , and a new President in Jim Whitehurst .

Right off the bat – I (and many others) cheered loudly when I heard a hard core technologist was chosen as our new leader (and especially sweet for immigrants like me to see it’s a person of Indian origin) .

When I joined IBM in 2006 , Arvind was already quite well known as a visionary technologist and he has been taking on progressively more senior and impactful roles . I have interacted with him only a handful of times – mostly when I led the consulting business in NA for AI, analytics and IOT . He is the most down to earth leader one can meet – and totally stays away from hype and yet communicates the value of technology so effectively. Something I admire and want to get better at myself !

Twenty years ago or so when I landed in USA as a young engineer, there were not a lot of people of Indian origin in senior leadership roles in tech companies that I could look up to . And now we have immigrant engineers from India as CEOs of IBM, Google , Microsoft , Adobe ! It is a great moment of pride as an American of Indian origin (and an engineer) myself – especially since not that long ago I couldn’t have even dreamt of such a scenario . I was not the only one going through this emotion – so many of us were calling and messaging each other well into the night . What a great testament to the education system in India , and what a great example of America promoting top talent with no bias based on the country they were born !

When I saw the news yesterday on a slack channel, I sent a quick note to Ginni – and the only request I had was for her to write a book on her time in IBM . I sure hope she does and there will be a lot for us to learn from it !

Good luck Arvind and Jim ! All of us are cheering for you as you lead us into the future .

Usual disclaimer : As always, these are purely my personal thoughts and not that of IBM . I am not an IBM spokesperson . I do own IBM stock .

What the heck is strategy ?


I don’t know what is more difficult to get consensus on a definition – “meaning of life” or “strategy” . And I am only partly kidding here 🙂

Vast majority of the literature and talks on strategy are about what it is not , as opposed to what it really is . This was true when I was in business school a couple of decades ago , and it’s still true in the work place debates today . Recently I attended some leadership training at HBS and apparently Professors still love to debate what it is not !

I don’t deny that I enjoy these debates – but with a business to run, I also need simple definitions to do something with it . The reason I am thinking about it one more time is because I have an “all hands” call coming up with my global team in a few days and as it happens every year – I am challenging everything one more time just to make sure I set the team on a good path to success .

So here is how I look at strategy

1. Strategy is a way to get to a set of goals under uncertain conditions and limited resources within a certain period of time

2. It can only be defined at a high level given the uncertainty , and there needs to be a plan for known trade offs

3. The plan to execute on it consequently need to be constantly refined as you learn more over time

4. It needs to be defined at the highest level of an organization since a good strategy needs a lot of decisions on allocation of scarce resources , the goals itself will need to be questioned , and the result of those decisions has to serve as a compass (as opposed to a map) for the rest of the team as they execute on it

5. It should leave plenty of room to improvise during execution.

The goals are fairly straight forward for the business I lead . Where I need to temper my enthusiasm is how many of those goals can I map to a bottoms up plan . It’s very easy to make too many assumptions and become over confident in attaining those goals – but that would be ignoring the simple idea that there is no strategy if there is no uncertainty ! The trick is to minimize uncertainty instead of eliminating it .

Then there is the constraint of limited resources . I have swung on either extremes of “constraints are good” VS “unconstrained is good” over the years . These days I am a believer that it’s best to acknowledge constraints right upfront – but then start challenging them from first principles to see if they are as real as they appear . When we don’t acknowledge real constraints , we end up saying ridiculous things like “it was a great strategy, but execution failed us”.

All strategies have an expiration date and I realize that over time – the shelf life is becoming shorter . What seems to work for me is an annual overhaul with quarterly tweaks . If operational results trend the wrong way – I don’t wait for the next year to overhaul the strategy though 🙂

The easiest way to communicate a strategy for me is in the form of a plan . Too high level and it gives the feeling of a “slogan on a banner” which gets you not a lot more than eye rolls . Too much detail and it gets tedious for everyone . So I run it by a few people to iterate and get it to a decent enough shape . No magic bullets have been found so far !

Iterations come in all sizes and are triggered by multiple factors . The most common reason is the variance during execution. But there could be really big factors like the economy going into a recession . The key here is to keep an eye for detail on operations, while also scanning the environment for changes .

Zooming in and out constantly takes a lot of time and energy – and this is one of the many reasons why you should constantly grow more leaders in your team. The more (and better) leaders you groom – the more you can focus yourself on fewer high impact decisions .

The last point I want to make here is on leaving room for everyone to make decisions during execution . There is no creativity in following explicit and prescriptive directions all the time . This is why I like to think of my job as providing a compass and not a map . Unless your team develops skills to make their own plans – and intelligently change them as required along the way – they will not develop as leaders !

When you are powered by good espresso !


Some of you may know that I am a big dog lover . I also used to compete actively in dog shows with German shepherds , labs and goldens . As career started taking more and more of my time – I gave up on dog shows . I actually don’t care very much about winning a show any more – I don’t miss that thrill anymore . But I terribly miss the fun of training a puppy from scratch and competing and the constant problem solving .

When you compete seriously – you need a puppy or young adult who is suitable for your specific needs and that needs a lot of research to find one. I haven’t been at the big shows or following pedigrees closely for a long time – so I had to make a fresh start . I have several friends who are active in the field and I will get plenty of good advice from them . But for me to follow along their advice intelligently, I need to do some homework first .

So during the vacation period, I decided to start my research. Seeing several people walking their beautiful and well trained dogs in the streets of London and Paris added to my motivation 🙂

First step of any good research is of course to stock up on coffee . And we had just returned from Europe and the Parisian cafes had set a very high bar . Thanks to Amazon prime – it only took a couple of days to get a few different coffee bean packs . For good measure I brought out the old Espresso machines from their boxes so that I have enough options to find the perfect match .

Then I opened up YouTube and started watching clips from the big german Shepherd shows in Germany . About ten videos in – and probably 2 double shot espressos – I realized there is an unaddressed problem . I am in no shape physically to train a dog at the level I need to . I need strength , endurance , flexibility and things of that nature .

Two years ago – I had lost a lot of weight by signing up with a personal trainer and working out at the gym . Well that ended up with muscle tears in both arms and that kept me away from the gym for a year . I still lost some weight but it was negligible . At that pace – I wouldn’t get to the physical state I need to be anytime soon . Darn !

I love outdoors – and I hate doing cardio at the gym with a passion . Thanks to our mild winter in Chandler – I put on tennis shoes , and started walking . About 45 mins later – I couldn’t figure out how much distance I covered or how many calories I burned . This is the curse of being an analytics guy at work – I get this intense urge to measure ! Thankfully there are plenty of apps that can do it all – and I dutifully downloaded the requisite apps and started measuring weight , exercise , food , water etc .

I started at around 2 miles and can now do 5 miles of brisk walk . And in the first week I lost about 3 pounds . I hope I can continue the good habits and get into the right shape by the time I get the pup .

Thanks to the insistence of my teenage daughter who has been using AirPods for a while – I had bought a set for myself too but never used them . It’s one of those things – I always felt like a total idiot talking with Bluetooth headsets and generally have avoided using them . But the daily walks proved to be a turning point – I am now a big fan , using them for work calls as well as music from the phone .

Anyways – back to my research on dogs. So I read through the breed standard again – and surprisingly could more or less recite it verbatim from memory . I started looking at my favorite dogs from 80s and 90s to get my eye tuned to the ideal version . And then I started watching the videos and pictures of the more recent dogs .

I did not like most dogs . I started saying things in my mind like “great head but too long in the body” and “great movement but don’t like the tail set” . Highly frustrating to say the least !

And then came some sad news – my mentor in dog shows passed away and a dear friend from India sent me a message about it . I was so terribly sad and spent a lot of time thinking about the times I have spent with him when I was in college . And then the light bulb went on – I was doing a cardinal sin of evaluation of dogs called “fault judging”. My mentor – Nawab Nazeer – had warned me about it several times .

Purebred dogs have a written standard . Everyone knows the standard is for an ideal dog and no dog is ideal . So the principle of judging is to figure out how close a given dog comes to the ideal . However it is a lot easier for less experienced and lesser skilled people to judge all the faults and compare that way . That’s what fault judging means – and it’s a bad idea . I knew that from before – and yet I was doing it with full enthusiasm . Go figure !

Any way – I have some unlearning and resetting to do before I continue my research to find my puppy . Probably that gives me a bit more time to lose the weight 🙂

Today, I am typing this from the plane to NY – the first business trip of the year . And as I am slowly getting back to the normal work routine, I started thinking about how much fault judging happens in the work place . It’s much more easy for many of us to spot weaknesses and criticize people about it than recognize strengths and give them credit for it .

It’s funny how one thing leads to another when you are powered by great espresso ! For good measure , I just ordered some more espresso beans 🙂

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