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 🙂

Nuking code and starting over – revisited

I had an extensive debate recently on why monoliths are not universally such a terrible idea, where a young developer told me “Most of the code you would have written in your time as a developer is now what we call legacy code” .

I don’t blame the young man for thinking “legacy = bad”. I believed it too when I had his role many years ago . And then my thinking evolved over time and I am sure his will too.

I wrote this blog “Nuke that code, lets start over” nearly a decade ago, and I think many of the points discussed in there still hold true . There is a lot of wisdom in the comments section under the blog that I just finished reading again .

The young man’s comment made me think a bit about all the code I have written – from games in BASIC that I have sold to others for 50 rupees on cassettes while in high school to C/C++ , ABAP and java Programs that did more “Enterpisey” stuff for big companies across the world .

“Most” of the code I wrote probably have not lasted very long at all !

Some of the best code I wrote never made it to production – because priorities changed, projects were shelved , acquistion happened and a host of other reasons .

Most of the code I wrote has been refactored – some times by me , but mostly by developers who owned those repos after my tenure . I know of a couple of places where a bit of my code still runs in production – but it’s a tiny fraction of what I have written in total .

Legacy code survives because of many reasons – some good and some bad

1. It does something exceedingly well and it’s hard to make a case to replace II

2. It is way too complex for anyone in the team to rewrite now – usually due to poor knowledge management , not because the code itself is bad . Even with sophisticated tooling – it’s hard to understand logic completely from code, DB schemas and logs .

3. Refactoring is a routine activity in good tech shops . But the truth is that vast majority of large enterprise shops have ignored the importance of refactoring for a long time . They paint themselves to a corner and then need massive modernization projects to get out of the mess and cater to the business needs of today’s and tomorrow’s market . It also shocks me that some shops after finishing the modernization, they still refuse to follow any structured process to refactor along the way !

4. Another common pattern I have seen is that modernization is attempted purely for “tech fashion” – and usually with tragic results . I was quite amused once to watch the code of MRP process be rewritten to a new technology only to realize that even though the results now showed up in a fraction of the time of the old system, it was all wrong and hence useless !

Being honest about the need to rewrite is a good starting point in all modernization projects . There is only limited time, effort and money available and there is never a good reason to waste it by doing a project for the wrong reasons .

“we need to modernize because mainframe is dead” or “we need to move to NoSQL because RDBMS is dead” or “Our code base is a big monolith and we need to be serverless for our future” . It’s very common to hear these kinds of reasons being touted as the reason to start a modernization project . These are not bad reasons by themselves !

These statements are all good starting points to explore what is the real issue – do you take more time to deliver a new feature that business wants , and is that leading to less than optimal business results ? If the answer is yes – is it a tech problem or a process problem primarily that causes it ? Can you quantify the value of changing to a new system and prove that it is greater than the estimated cost ? What happens if the modernization project fails – how much risk can you take ?

Bottom line – you need an honest case for why you want to modernize . This case will then serve as your North Star in your modernization journey . It also will serve as a dose of reality check – which we will all need from time to time . The case itself has a shelf life – so it’s important to revisit periodically to check what changes are needed .

Big Bang vs Incremental changes – how do you decide which is the best way to go ? I will share some thoughts on that in another post . For now , I need to get back to my day job 🙂

Three snippets from my year end conversations

As 2019 is heading to its last few weeks, I had a chance to catch up with a lot of friends, mentees and my own mentors and also take some time to reflect how things worked out for me this year . The consultant in me immediately started grouping and classifying the common themes, apply MECE , and map it all to a 2 X 2 . Don’t worry – I somehow resisted the temptation and stopped at just grouping 🙂

I thought three repeated themes were worth sharing here on my blog .

1. You need to tell some managers what they want to hear

So there is this guy who comes from a non tech background and does a good job managing a team of developers to hit milestones ahead of schedule (mostly by overworking them) . He is a flight risk, and the only way to keep him is to promote him to an executive rank . If he flees, his manager probably won’t earn his own promotion any time soon – so there is plenty of motivation to make this happen.

The only trouble is that this promotion needs the blessing of a very senior tech exec . There is no way this non tech dude is going to pass that level of tech scrutiny . That’s when the manager has a flash of brilliance in his thinking . The senior techie is somewhat of a philosopher and his current pet topic is “culture”. He coaches the up and comer to focus heavily of culture when the interview happens – which he masterfully does and gets promoted .

About half the people I caught up with had a similar story where promotions or raises were secured by telling their bosses what they wanted to hear .

2. Diversity seems to be a bit easier than inclusion

While it’s still a long ways to go, a lot of managers have been acting on improving diversity in their teams . There is a lot more awareness and training at all levels . In many cases there are top down directives like “by end of the year there needs to be X% women in your team , Y% URM in your team” etc . In a some of these cases, these are KPIs tied to the manager’s bonus too . All of these are great of course – and I hope it’s not just a one time exercise .

Then comes the question of inclusion . Are these “new” members of the team supported and set up for success ? Are their voices considered with the same importance as when your team was homogenous ? I was a bit surprised that even the people who actively champion the need for diverse teams haven’t done as much thinking on how to make inclusion happen in their day to day work.

That said – I was quite happy to hear that almost everyone I spoke to had done something good about making sure people doing similar roles are paid the same.

3. Being a newly promoted executive continues to be really hard

Before I made Partner , I had attended an exceptional internal training course in IBM called “Cornerstone”. And that’s where it was drilled into me that “what got you here won’t get you there”. Excellent advice which helped me and many others who attended that course . It is also very hard to put it into practice !

Everyone wants to make an immediate impact as an exec . Most have someone else they treat as their role model and want to be like him or her. Nothing wrong with any of it – just that what works for one exec in one context might not translate 1:1 to you in your context . Almost every single story I heard from the newly promoted folks made me say in my inner voice “oh no – I did that too” .

Here is one story I heard from someone who got promoted and took over a new team as its leader in January 2019. All six direct reports were asked to make 1 hr presentation to the new boss . The first one made a less than stellar presentation in the new manager’s opinion and the next day it was announced that this person will have a new role to be announced soon . Long story short – we are in December now and that position is still not filled , and two of the key next-in-line leaders quit because they couldn’t stand the ongoing chaos.

I asked them what were the words of wisdom they got from their leaders after their promotion and it was the usual list of “Have a bias to action”, “Lead with courage”, “Make your voice heard” etc . Those are all invaluable in their own rights – but perhaps we should add “slow down a bit now to speed up later” to the list .

Three disastrous interview stories

A young engineer I met last week asked me “Sir, you have had an impressive career since the time you left college . Did you always ace every job interview? ”

That question took me back a couple of decades and I realized I only aced one from the first four interviews – which was when TCS hired me from Business School as one of their first SAP consultants.

The three I failed were all painful at the time – but funny enough in hindsight . So I will share those three here – just for some fun 🙂


It must have been 1996 or 97 . Infy was THE place to be – hot young company where all the cool kids got hired . They did not visit our college – but they had an open hiring day where we could apply and go through their evaluation process .

If I remember right – it was a three step process . Step 1 was a multiple choice test on math etc . Step 2 was a problem solving round where they gave a puzzle and you have to solve it and walk the interviewer through your solution . And the third – I am told – would have been an interview with a senior exec and an HR partner .

I had no trouble with the written test and was asked to appear for the problem solving round . The interviewer was a young lady not much older than me. She gave me a printed sheet of paper which explained the question . Funny enough – I had once solved this exact question and in full honesty I told her that I already knew the answer . No problem – she found me another sheet with a different question . And she sat across me , crossed her legs and started reading a copy of CHIP magazine . Well – I couldn’t solve the problem at all and I gave up . She promptly kicked me out of the process and said I can apply in 6 months again .

I never got around to applying again 🙂

2. IBS

When I was in Business School in 1998 , IBS was just getting started at Technopark in Trivandrum . Our Dean , Dr M.N.V Nair , asked me and few others to check it out . A bunch of us took him up on it . I remember a very fancy office and some well dressed people conducting the test .

The written test was on logic and quantitative ability – I aced it . The very pleasant HR lady told me that I only got one question wrong and that I was the highest scorer she had seen till then . So at this point my confidence was sky high and I had no doubts that I am going to kill it in the interview as well .

There were four interviewers in the panel – including the company CEO and the CEO of Technopark . Right off the bat they congratulated me on the high test score and asked me what was my strategy for the test . I said I solved the easy ones first , then the medium complexity ones next and finally attacked the hard problems for which I had conserved time .

That was the end of the interview . One of the panel members cut me short and said “You won’t be a good engineer for us . We are looking for people who tend to attack the hardest problems first” .

Uh oh !

Never tried to get a job there after that . When I reported back to the Dean – he said “everyone makes mistakes”. I didn’t quite understand whether he was referring to me or my interviewers 🙂

3. SAP

While I was working as an ABAP programmer at TCS in Colorado Springs, I interviewed for a programmer role in Washington D.C with SAP in their public sector development team . I did fine in the phone interview and the in-person HR round . Then a Dev manager did a technical interview with me – and asked me to write some code on the white board . We had a great discussion on optimizing performance of the code I wrote on the board .

Pretty soon the interviewer and I were furiously writing and editing code on the board and then at a random point he shook his head and declared “I can’t hire you man . You got the syntax of FOR ALL ENTRIES in ITAB wrong . I cannot look past that . Sorry – you can leave now” .

This was painful ! I knew the syntax since I used that construct quite often in daily work . Somehow I messed it up that day and if it was done on a computer – obviously I would have fixed it in a second . But it was not to be !

Several years later – I did get hired by SAP . And I recently read somewhere that “for all entries” is no longer cool in ABAP once ERP moved to HANA . Oh well 🙂

That is just how I like it !

This weekend I ran into an unusual problem – I did not have a single book to read . To the best of my recollection, I have never had this situation in my adult life . Now – the rational thing to do would be to get a book on kindle . But that’s not my thing . I need a physical book – I don’t like to read on kindle .

I don’t even own a kindle . My preferred way of getting a book is to order on amazon prime on my mobile and get it delivered to where ever I am . This way I don’t need to carry more than two books in my bag when I travel . If I particularly like a book – I give my copy as a gift to someone that I think will find it useful , and buy a couple more .

I do miss the experience of walking into the local library, chatting with the librarian , browsing the shelves and driving back with a half dozen books . I might do it today after a few years gap . Amazon with its large collection of books and easy access to reviews have helped me not miss the physical library experience to a large extent – but that strangely has not translated to reading books electronically .

There is a contradiction here that I find weird . I rarely print anything at work to read . I read big documents on my MacBook and redline them as needed . And yet when it comes to books I need to hold it in my hand or else I feel I can’t get past the first page . I have tried and I have failed .

As much as I love reading work related stuff on my laptop – I rarely use my laptop to take notes . I need to write it in my notebook with a pen myself . And consequently I love great pens to write with . Those pens are as expensive today as it was when I entered the workforce – and never once have I thought they are a luxury item . I can’t rationalize an expensive pen that gives me pleasure to write with – because I barely write 5% of all the content I create . Other 95% is electronic – including this blog that I am typing on an iPhone using the WordPress app . I run most of my business from my phone . There is literally no business case for me to justify an expensive pen other than “that’s how I like it” 🙂

Talking about writing – and expensive pens – I have my name engraved in cursive on the pen I use frequently . A young kid recently looked at it and could not make out that it is written in English . I realized – with some shock – that not all schools teach cursive writing now – which of course makes all practical sense . I have horrible hand writing myself – and often write in block letters if someone else needs to read it . But I have always been a big fan of beautiful cursive writing – and I think my dad is one of best in that craft . It is painful to note that cursive writing will become a lost art in my life time .

Times are of course changing fast and ideally we have to change with it . Talking about time – I like the old school watches to put on my wrist every day and not glance at my phone for time , or use a modern electronic one line an Apple Watch that can also tell me that I haven’t walked enough steps today .

The old school watch – as much as I admire the excellent craftsmanship – is not super practical for a guy like me who travels across time zones frequently . I have to check time on my phone when the plane lands to correct my analog watch . Rationally – there is no reason to keep doing this for the millions of air miles I have travelled , but again never once have I felt this was a pain .

In my day job, I am reasonably good at convincing my clients to let go of their past ( that we lovingly refer to as LEGACY ) and move to cutting edge new solutions . A big part of that is building a rational case on why change is good – and try to get their head to over rule their heart . But everyone – literally everyone – has an emotional connection with their past that they won’t let go .

I fondly remember my very first client who let me automate two complex reports – and then looked at them both to manually prepare a third report . Why ? Because – he said with a genuine smile – “That is just how I like it” .

As a consultant, I have learned over my career that my clients all have a unique mix of a genuine fascination for the new and a tendency to hang on to the old – and I can’t push for all the change in one step .The trick is to know how much to push and when to stop and agree this is as far we can go for now .

This is a big reason why transformations are always journeys – and not destinations !

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