Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford - Review

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, by Martin Ford

"I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're small. I'm right; you're wrong. And there's nothing you can do about it."

Thus spake Harry Wormwood in the movie "Matilda". This well could be the message that robots will have for us in the not too distant future. The dramatic improvements in the speed, the accuracy, and the areas in which computers have begun to comprehensively outperform humans leads one to believe that while a so-called singularity may well be some ways off, the more immediate effects of this automation are already being felt in permanent job losses. In a country like India, which has used digital technologies quite effectively in the last decade and a half to grow a $150 billion IT-BPM industry, the impact could be devastating - especially where an estimated 10 million people are employed.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Infosys, NRN, Sikka - No one is smelling of roses here


C
orporate sagas seem to come in twos. The mega-fracas that erupted in 2016 between Cyrus Mistry, then Chairman of Tata Sons, and the iconic Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus at Tata Sons,  was starting to come to a close by the second half of 2017 (though I fear the last words have yet to be written). Ratan Tata had annointed N Chandrasekaran, CEO of TCS, as thew Chairman of Tata Sons, and re-asserted his complete control over the sprawling Tata empire. Now comes the rather unexpected news that Vishal Sikka (@vsikka), CEO and MD of Indian IT behemoth Infosys, had tendered in his resignation, apparently unable to tolerate any longer the constant "drumbeat of distractions" from co-founder Mr. NRN Murthy, and, some speculated, a lack of support from some members of the Infosys Board itself.
In particular, this is what Vishal Sikka wrote in his letter to the Board:
"Over the last many months and quarters, we have all been besieged by false, baseless, malicious and increasingly personal attacks. Allegations that have been repeatedly proven false and baseless by multiple, independent investigations. But despite this, the attacks continue, and worse still, amplified by the very people from whom we all expected the most steadfast support in this great transformation." [link]
In this perhaps altogether avoidable saga, no one has come out smelling of roses - not the Infosys board, not Vishal Sikka, and not Mr Murthy.

A Retrospect for Vishal Sikka

image credit: pexels.com
Let me start off by revisiting what I had written in 2014 - "A 'Vishal' opportunity awaits Infosys" - at the time of Mr Sikka's appointment as CEO and MD of Infosys.To summarize, I had made the following points:

Was Sikka a "trophy CEO"? I had written, "There will be more than one voice heard whispering that Sikka's appointment is more of a publicity gimmick meant to save face for its iconic co-founder, Narayan Murthy, who has been unable to right the floundering ship of the software services giant." This is still a pertinent question. Once the excitement of the "trophy CEO" wore out, did Mr Murthy's interest in Vishal Sikka also wane? Conversely, once the excitement of the CEO's crown wore off for Mr Sikka, did the thorns of leading and growing a company, with close to two-hundred thousand employees, in a difficult business environment, start to prick?

Mr Murthy's return to Infosys had brought with it a controversy and questions of corporate governance as a result of his son Rohan Murthy's inclusion in the Chairman's office - "The presence of his son Rohan Murthy was seen to grate on several senior executives, and also did not go down too well with corporate governance experts." More on this later, because there is enough mud of poor corporate governance to be thrown at all parties here.

Products-vs-services. I wrote "...there is no company, with the arguable exception of IBM, that has achieved excellence in both services and products. Not Microsoft, not Oracle, not SAP." Infosys, under Vishal Sikka, had a decidedly uninspiring record in this area. Infosys, in early 2014, carved out EdgeVerve, a subsidiary, to focus on building "products and platforms." This continued with Vishal Sikka, and SAP veterans like Michael Reh, Anirban (Andy) Dey, Venkatesh Vaidyanathan, and others were brought in to. Even though EdgeVerve claimed to pay salaries on par with Google (and this link), it was however staffed at the middle-management layers mostly with veterans from the services side of its parent company, Infosys. The results were unsurprising - Michael Reh resigned in March 2016, Andy quit in July 2017, Venky in August 2017. EdgeVerve is rumoured to have cut its staff by as much as a fourth. Clearly, this was an area where Vishal Sikka was expected to make a substantial impact, but failed.

Vishal Sikka also had a tough time retaining talent. His record was decidedly mixed in this regard also. First, he hired as many as sixteen executives from SAP after joining Infosys. Several of them were hired at million-dollar salaries, prompting a similar raise for some of the senior executives at Infosys. Second, several Infosys veterans left, or were asked to leave, during Sikka's tenure. Eventually, several of Sikka's hires from SAP also quit, whether for personal, performance-related, or cultural-misfit reasons is not clearly known. Wherever Vishal Sikka lands next - and it is clear he is too talented, too bright a star to fade away into semi-retirement at some marquee VC firm in Silicon Valley - he will find it at least somewhat difficult to get the best and brightest to follow him.

The Board Games

[image credit: pexels]
The Infosys board will go, sooner or later. It has failed its shareholders - utterly and completely. It failed to retain its CEO. It failed to address the concerns of an angry co-founder. It failed to adequately address in time the cloud of corporate governance hanging over the company.

If the board believed in Sikka, if they had investigated the corporate governance issues (more on this later) and found everything to be above board, then why were they unable to predict or prevent Vishal's resignation? Clearly, the Infosys board was a house divided against itself, with some members rooting for Mr Murthy, and some for Vishal Sikka.

At the root of this corporate governance fracas is Infosys' decision to acquire Israeli startup, Panaya, in 2015, for $200 million (it paid $230 million, but Panaya had $30 million in cash; the net cost of the acquisition therefore was $200 million). Panaya is (or was) an Israeli start-up founded in 2010 as a cloud-based quality management service provider to enterprise applications. In the years leading to its acquisition, Panaya had "laid off more than 25% of the company. In 2016, Panaya shut down their Israeli-based sales development and moved them to Boston and the United Kingdom and replaced their CEO." [link] More pertinently, in 2013, Panaya's 4th funding round included an investment from HPV - Hasso Plattner Ventures. Hasso Plattner is a co-founder and currently Chairman of SAP. Hasso Plattner had been a friend and mentor to Vishal Sikka. This was most likely the reason for a whistleblower's letter in Feb 2017, which alleged that the deal was overpriced, that the then-CFO, Bansal, had walked out of the board meeting convened to vote on the acquisition, that there had been conflicts of interest since SAP owned a 7% stake in Panaya, and so on. The Infosys board got the allegations investigated by its internal Audit Committee as well as by Gibson Dunn and Control Risks and no issues were found. Yet the board did not make public this report.

Some basic questions remain unanswered. When Panaya emerged as a potential acquisition, the board should have asked Vishal Sikka to recuse himself from all further dealings on the matter. Neither the board nor Sikka did.

When Rajiv Bansal, then CFO of Infosys, allegedly walked out of the board meeting convened to vote on the Panaya acquisition, the board should immediately have convened a committee to look into the matter. It did not.

When co-founder Mr N.R.N. Murthy started to make allegations of corporate governance lapses at Infosys, the board should have engaged with him and put an end to the matter. It did not. The board allowed the matter to fester.

Even the letter the board released to the public after Vishal Sikka's resignation comes off as immature. It reads like a rant, a peevish outburst.

A substantial number of members of the Infosys board will go. They are on borrowed time. Who stays and who goes will be determined by who is the most astute politician.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mr. Murthy?

Having broken eggs, what is the omelette Mr Murthy has in mind
[image credit: Pexels.com]
Mr N.R.N. Murthy is a legend of the Indian software industry. He has been called one of India's most influentials, one of the 12-greatest entrepreneurs of our times, and a recipient of India's second-highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan.

It was Mr Murthy who came out of retirement to head Infosys as its Chairman in 2013, and in an almost magical act lured Vishal Sikka to becomes Infosys' first non-founder CEO and MD, in 2014.

Mr Murthy's ire at Infosys has been directed mostly at the board, but also, indirectly, at Vishal Sikka also. It were partly his public criticisms that prompted the board to investigate the alleged lapses in the Panaya acquisition? What makes this saga curious is that, as per the Infosys board's letter, "Mr. Murthy was interviewed as part of the investigation by Gibson Dunn and Crutcher LLP in pursuance of the investigation in the Panaya acquisition, and was invited and welcomed to provide any information or evidence he believed would support the allegations being investigated. He did not provide any evidence since none exists."

Since corporate governance lapses are what have pained Mr Murthy, it would remiss to not remind people of two incidents where Mr Murthy's judgment in matters related to corporate governance seems to have erred.

First, Mr Murthy was an independent director at media house NDTV till Sep 2009. NDTV, as may be known to people, has been in the news on account of allegations of tax fraud. Most recently, in July 2017, the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) upheld the Income Tax department's finding that "NDTV used their own shell companies to round-trip investments of Rs 642 crore during 2009-10, making them liable for recovery of tax and penalty." [source] NDTV's founder, Prannoy Roy, and others, were charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act as far back as 1998. It may be an inconvenient but certainly a pertinent question if Mr Murthy were to be asked what he did, or not do, as an independent director on the board of NDTV, around these allegations and issues of corporate governance.

Second, closer to home, when Mr Murthy came back to head Infosys a second time as Chairman, in June 2013, his son, Rohan Murthy joined his father in the newly-formed Chairman's office as Executive Assistant to the Chairman. At that point Mr Murthy had emphatically stated that his son would have no leadership role in the company. Less than three months later, Mr Rohan Murthy was designated Vice President, a title that few people usually earn, and that too after fifteen or more years in the industry.

Mr Murthy's concern over corporate governance seems to be somewhat newfound. It seems conveniently expedient.

A question that does need to be asked is this - has Mr Narayan Murthy become the obsessive mother-in-law that cannot bring herself to step back? After all, Mr Murthy's once described Infosys as his "middle child". Taking that analogy one step further, Vishal Sikka was like the bride he brought home for his child. Like the stereotypical "saas" (mother-in-law) in Indian movies, Mr Murthy however could not step back and allow the "child" and "bride" to find their own way.

Mr Murthy has a legion of admirers in the industry. This battle is far from over. In this battle between Mr Murthy and Infosys - its board and ex-CEO - it is only the Infosys brand that will suffer. It would be a tragedy if Mr Murthy lets his legacy end on this sour note.

This post first appeared in LinkedIn on Aug 22, 2017.


© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Between Strategy and Success Lies Execution


Why Do We Undervalue Competent Management?

T
his one comes from the Sep-Oct, 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Between strategy and success lies the minor matter of execution. Execution in turn is dependent on the managers tasked with implementing the strategy.  After all, if a firm can’t get the operational basics right, it doesn’t matter how brilliant its strategy is. Execution is about figuring out the right way to do things, and then doing those things right, time after time.

Therein lies the rub. "Managerial competence takes effort, though: It requires sizable investments in people and processes throughout good times and bad. These investments, we argue, represent a major barrier to imitation."

Sep-Oct 2017 issue of
Harvard Business Review
The authors of the article use their research of "management practices across more than 12,000 firms and 34 countries." They rated companies' "18 practices in four areas: operations management,
performance monitoring, target setting, and talent management." These four areas, they believe are good-enough "proxies for general operational excellence."

The authors found clear laggards and clear "superstars" in their rankings. Not surprising, given the number of companies and the geographic spread of their survey. The laggards, for example, tended to have "promotions and rewards based on tenure or family connections." This begs the question, do companies where senior management has strong family connections are also more likely to be laggards? In either case, the authors found that family-run businesses had the weakest governance structures and lowest management scores on the survey. Lower scores translated to poorer financial outcomes.

Since this was also a longitudinal study in some ways, lasting several years, it also highlights the fact that changing management practices is not easy. The costs are high, and which may therefore also explain why so many companies pay only lip-service to improving management practices.

This is a useful and informative article. Leaders at companies, small and large, would do well to pay attention to the basics of management. The successful ones will be the ones who get these right. The ones who do not will die.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Inside Chanakya’s Mind: Aanvikshiki and the Art of Thinking - Review

Inside Chanakya’s Mind: Aanvikshiki and the Art of Thinking, by Radhakrishnan Pillai

T
he relevance of Chanakya to today's world has only recently received the kind of attention it deserves. The author's 2014 book, "Chanakya's 7 Secrets of Leadership", co-authored with D Sivanandhan, was perhaps the first mainstream bestseller in this genre. The author's latest book in the series, "Inside Chanakya's Mind", provides many more insights into the mind and thinking of the greatest strategist in the last two thousand years and more.

First off, let's get the meaning of this word - Aanvikshiki - out of the way. I say "out of the way" because beyond the word is the book itself. It is therefore important to understand what it means. This will allow the reader to understand the book better.

Aanvikshiki is the combination of two words - "anu" and "ikshiki". "Anu" means atom, while "ikshiki" means "a person who wants to know."

The author calls it "the science of thinking" and the book is centered on exactly that - the science of thinking. It is, however, not a dry philosophical or scientific text. It is a management book. It is also a psychology book. It is, as the sub-title of the book itself says, about the Art of Thinking.

Interestingly enough, the author also tells us that Aanvikshiki was one of the names of Droupadi.

The very first chapter of Kautilya's Arthashastra is called "Aanvikshiki Sthapana". This should give you an idea of the importance Chanakya placed on Aanvikshiki. Chanakya (or Kautilya), was a "master of many sciences, and the master of many kings." If the wisest and shrewdest-ever practitioner of statecraft since Krishna thought it fit to place so much emphasis on Aanvikshiki, it stands to reason what he had to say on the topic should be of immense interest and relevance even today. It is around this concept and Chanakya's writings that the author, Radhakrishnan Pillai, has built the book.

Per the author, practicing Aanvikshiki requires one to consider three things:
  1. Good and evil (according to Vedic tradition - trai)
  1. Material gain or loss (according to economics - vaarta)
  1. Good policy and bad policy (according to the science of politics - dandaniti)
Dr Pillai then gets the reader started on the path of building these thinking skills, each chapter focusing on a different aspect of thinking - "Types of Thinking," "The Different Models of Thinking," "The Seven Dimensions of Thinking," "The Eighth Dimension of Thinking," and so on.

Let's take an example. In the chapter, "Types of Thinking", Dr Pillai starts off with one type -  "Both-side Thinking". This may be obvious enough to most, but Chanakya sought to deliver this insight through the opening prayer of the Arthashastra itself:
"Om Namah Shukra Brihaspati Abhyam"
(Salutations to Shukra and Brihaspati)
Why is this insightful? If you know your Hindu texts, then you would know that Shukra was the guru of the Asuras, while Brihaspati the preceptor of the devas. So not only did Chanakya exhort readers to look at both sides of an issue, he also went ahead and named Shukra first - a call to first examine the "counter view first and then the good side." This was the sage, practical, timeless advice from a master two-and-a-half thousand years ago! Take an example. If you, as the CEO, are contemplating a merger, think of how the target company would look at the acquisition. Consider how your biggest competitor would view this acquisition. Would they tacitly encourage it - a bad sign. Would they go after the target company themselves? What are the arguments against the acquisition? Only then consider the reasons in favor of the acquisition.

Similarly, there can be more than one solution to a problem. Of course! you may think. Even here, what was Chanakya's advice? "Sama, Dana, Bheda, Danda" (साम, दान, दंड, भेद ), sometimes also referred to as "Sama, Daama, Danda, Bheda". Basically, Chanakya writes in 11.1.3:
"He should win over those pf them who are friendly with conciliation (sama) and gifts (dana), those hostile through dissension (bheda) and force (danda)."
In the same vein, how do you ascertain the integrity of your trusted employees? Chanakya prescribed four tests - the test of loyalty, the test of lust, the test of fear, and the test of material gain. Yes, loyalty is indeed an important facet of business strategy. For some leaders, loyalty is sometimes the overriding and only aspect that matters. That is possibly a mistake. The four tests however would be relevant to almost any modern-day organization.

If you are talking of strategy and Chanakya, then talk of chess cannot be far behind. Sure enough, Chanakya, in book ten of the Arthashastra, talks of chess in the context of war. Business is war by another name, and while war in ancient times had chariots, horses, elephants, and soldiers, if you consider these as metaphors for resources in today's world, then business strategy is all about the optimal utilization of these resources. I felt this section was worthy of a lengthier exposition. In fact, there is a whole book lurking in this metaphor. For instance, what do you take elephants to represent - your cash reserves, your most profitable business unit, your patents, or something else? How do you position these "elephants" against an adversary? How did a Microsoft position its elephants against a Google? How did Maruti position its resources when faced with a resurgent Hyundai a decade ago? Perhaps this is an idea for a future book that Dr. Pillai may write!

In closing, I liked the book, and I will recommend it. I want this book to become a success, to be read by as many people as possible. It is an important book, on an important topic, and with a very Indian context. All these should make it an automatic selection for almost every manager. But, I will also say that I felt the book missed at least two ingredients required for making the book successful and "sticky". Sticky - as in making the book "understandable, memorable, and effective in changing thought or behavior." The Heath brothers outlined the formula for stickiness as one that followed SUCCESs in their blockbuster bestseller, 'Made to Stick' - Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Unexpected, and Stories.  Most of all, the "Stories" part was missing. Anecdotes, concrete examples would have elevated this book from the good to great. On the other hand, the book allowed me to view Chanakya from a different perspective. It provided insights that I, or almost any other lay reader, may not have had without reading the complete Arthashastra. Even with a reading of the Arthashastra, I would probably have been unable to extract the same insights as the author did without having to spend considerable time reflecting on the text. The author, Radhakrishnan Pillai, has done all that for us.


Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Penguin Random House India (17 February 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0143427539
ISBN-13: 978-0143427537

Flipkart, Amazon IN, Amazon, Kindle, Kindle IN

Note: this review is based on a review copy I received, courtesy Creative India. This review was first published in Creative India on Aug 6th, 2017.





© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Jobs Trilogy - 1 - How to Add Skills to your LinkedIn Resume

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
Seeing the gay abandon and effortless ease with which people in today's hyper-connected world seem to acquire skills, I was impressed.
Impressed that skills that should take years to acquire and hone were now within the easy grasp of so many, and apparently with so little effort. Perhaps technology had indeed been the manna that technologists had long claimed and always known to be.

I started thinking just what exactly prompts so many people to add new skills to their resume on LinkedIn. After all, it had to be a process more deliberate than random. What if the ingredients in this heady concoction were exaggeration, hope, aspiration, bravado, and plain envy?

In the end, I decided that these rules-of-thumb, that I list below, were likely the best explanation...

How to add skills on your resume:
  1. Put "Cloud Computing" on your resume if you know how to use Gmail.
  2. Put "SaaS" on your resume if you have heard of "Salesforce.com" or "AWS".
  3. Put "Mobile" on your resume if you own a smartphone, any smartphone.
  4. Put "mobile visionary" on your resume if you ever owned a smartphone that ran Android Froyo.
  5. Put "Social" on your resume if you know how to login to Facebook. No, Orkut doesn't count.
  6. Put "Big Data" on your resume if you own a hard drive one Terabyte or larger.
  7. Put "data scientist" on your resume if you can add two numbers using a calculator.
  8. Put "unstructured data" on your resume if you can use Twitter.
  9. Put "NoSQL" on your resume if you have never written a SQL statement in your life (inspired from this cartoon)
  10. Put "local" on your resume if you graduated from a school in the town you live in.
  11. Put "Data Visualizations" on your resume if you have heard of Edward Tufte. Add "Expert" if you have heard of Stephen Few.
  12. Put "spatial" on your resume if you have ever used directions in Google Maps.
  13. Put "product management" on your resume if you have ever sent an email to anyone with the title "product manager".
  14. Put "product evangelist" on your resume if you have hired a product manager.
  15. Put "strategy" on your resume if you've heard of Michael Porter.
  16. Put "disruptive innovator" in your resume if you have heard of Clayton Christensen.
  17. Put "strategic innovation" on your resume if you have heard of David Teece.
  18. Put "leadership" on your resume if you were ever within one mile of any business school.
  19. Add "cutting edge" to "leadership" if you have looked up Stanford University on Google Maps.
  20. Put "executive leadership" if you have sat for any class in any business school.
  21. Add "global distributed management" on your resume if you've attended a conference call where the attendees were from more than two countries.
  22. Put "vision and strategy" on your resume if you have ever attended any 'off-site'.
  23. Put "visionary" on your resume if you have ever installed or used a beta product.
    And lastly....
  24. Put "bibliophile" on your resume if you have written at least one book review on Amazon.
Some Dilbert cartoons on the topic.

1234567
The second post in this trilogy is available here - The Six Plus One Types of Interviewers.

(this is a lightly-edited version of a post I wrote in 2013. This also appeared in LinkedIn in Aug, 215)
© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Jobs Trilogy - 2 - Six and One Types of Interviewers

R
emember Chuck Noland? The character in the movie Castaway, who has to use the blade of an ice-skate to extract his abscessed tooth, without anesthesia? The scene is painful to watch, yet you can't look away.

Interviews have this habit of turning up a Chuck Noland - in the interviewee or the interviewer. You willingly agree to subject yourself to the wanton abuse by random strangers who you may have to end up working for or with. Apart from the talented few whom companies are more eager to hire than they are to get hired, most are in less enviable positions.

What about interviewers? Not all are cut from the same cloth. But there are at least six types that I think we have all met in our lives, and a seventh one.

1. The Interview As an End In Itself - Hyper-excited newbie

You know this guy. You have been this person, most likely. You have a team now. You expect your team to grow. You have to build a team. You believe that you, and you alone, know what it takes to hire the absolutely best person for the opening you have. You sit down and explain to the harried hiring HR person what the role is, what qualifications you are looking for, why the job is special, why just ordinary programming skills in ordinary programming languages will simply not cut it, why you as the hiring manager are special, and how you will, with the new hire, change the product, the company, and eventually the whole wide world. The HR executive therefore needs to spend every waking minute of her time in the pursuance of this nobler than noble objective. You badger your hiring rep incessantly, by phone, by IM, by email, in person, several times a day, asking for better resumes if you are getting many, and more if you aren't getting enough. You read every single resume you get, several times over. You redline the points you don't like. You redline the points you like. You make notes on the resumes. You still talk to every single candidate. You continue interviewing, never selecting, till the economic climate changes and the vacancy is no longer available. Yes, we all know this person.

2. Knows what he is looking for and knows when he finds it

This person is a somewhat rare commodity. This person does not suffer from buyer's remorse, knows that there is no such thing as a perfect candidate, and that the best he can hope to get is a person who comes off as reasonably intelligent, hard-working, ethical, and is going to be a team player.

This person will however also suffer from blind spots. Specifically, two kinds of blindspots. The first is that he will look for and evaluate a person only on those criteria that he can assess best. The second is that he is more likely to hire candidates that are similar to other successful employees in his team, and will probably become less likely to take chances on a different type of a candidate. On the other hand, this manager also knows that conceptual skills are more important to test than specific knowledge of some arcane syntax in a geeky programming language - if you are talking of the world of software for instance. This person is a rare commodity.

3. Hire for Empire

Like our previous type of hiring manager, this hiring manager is also very clear-headed.  But, here the interviewer is hiring to add headcount to his team. Grow the empire. More people equates to more perceived power. This person understands three things, and understands them perfectly.
First, that if he is slow in hiring, then a hiring freeze may come in, and the headcount may no longer stay open.
Second, he (or she) is also unable and equally unwilling to evaluate a candidate, so just about anyone will do.
Third, and most importantly, this manager knows that every additional person reporting to him on the organization chart elevates him in importance vis-a-vis his peers, and therefore hiring is a goal noble enough to be pursued in its own right.
It's a win-win situation for everyone - except the customers, the company, and the team.

4. I have other work to do. What am I doing here? What is he doing here?

This person has little skin in the game. He has no dog in the fight. Pick your metaphor. He is there to take the interview because of someone's absence, or because in the charade of the interview "process" that exists at many companies, there exists a need to do this interview. The interviewer agrees because it is a tax that needs to be paid. You don't want to be labeled a non-team-player. Who knows when this Scarlet Letter may come to haunt you. So our interviewer sets aside half an hour or more, preferably less, of his time, and comes back wondering where thirty minutes of his life just went. That question remains unanswered.

5. Know-it-all and desperate to show it

This person perceived himself as an overachiever. This is the sort of person who will tell you with casual nonchalance that he had predicted the rise of Google in 1999  - just so you can get to know that he had heard of Google in 1999. This person knows he knows everything that there is to know, that it is his beholden duty to make you know it too, and it is your beholden duty to acknowledge this crushing sacerdotal burden he carries. This is the person who will begin the interview with a smirk, sustain a a wry smile, transform into a frown, and end with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Do not get fooled.
This person is as desperate, if not more, to interview you as you are to do well on the interview. He will in all likelihood end up talking more than the interviewee.
In every group in every department of every company there exists at least one such person. The successful companies have no more than one.

6. The rubber-stamp

The boss has decided the person who needs to be hired. The charade needs to be completed. The requisite number of people have to interview the candidate so that HR can dot the "I"s and cross the "T"s. Our interviewer here has to speak with this person. With an air of deference. He will ask all the right questions, but the answers do not matter. You sign off with a heartfelt, "Great talking to you. Thanks a ton for your time. Take care, and we really look forward to working with/for you." No, don't belittle this rubber-stamp. He could be you.

These are not mutually exclusive sets. There are overlaps that exist, sometimes in combinations that would warm Stephen King's heart.

Oh, what about the seventh type of interviewer? He is the Interviewer as Saboteur.  I will talk about him in a separate post.

This post appeared on LinkedIn on July 31st, 2017.
This is an edited version of a post I wrote on April 23rd, 2013.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Management Mantras for Startups - Waste Not, Vacate Not

Image credit: pexels.com
Waste Not, Vacate Not.

W
hen Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, started out Amazon, he, along with Shel Kaphan, programmer and a founding employee, used sixty-dollar doors from Home Depot as desks. It was the demand of frugality. More than a decade later, when Amazon was a multi-billion dollar behemoth, conference-room tables were still made of door-desks. It reflected its CEO's adamant belief in "frugality." A leadership principle at Amazon states that "Frugality breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention." In case you have been living in a world without news, you would know that Amazon's market capitalization, as of July 23rd, was a shade under US$500 billion, its trailing twelve-month revenues in excess of US$140 billion, and has been growing at an annual rate of more than 20%.

All this about Amazon's culture of frugality are captured in Brad Stone's brilliant book on the company, "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon."
"Bezos met me in an eighth-floor conference room and we sat down at a large table made of half a dozen door-desks, the same kind of blond wood that Bezos used twenty years ago when he was building Amazon from scratch in his garage. The door-desks are often held up as a symbol of the company’s enduring frugality."
...
They set up shop in the converted garage of Bezos’s house, an enclosed space without insulation and with a large, black potbellied stove at its center. Bezos built the first two desks out of sixty-dollar blond-wood doors from Home Depot, an endeavor that later carried almost biblical significance at Amazon, like Noah building the ark.
...
"Door-Desk award, given to an employee who came up with “a well-built idea that helps us to deliver lower prices to customers”—the prize was a door-desk ornament. Bezos was once again looking for ways to reinforce his values within the company."
...
"Conference-room tables are a collection of blond-wood door-desks shoved together side by side. The vending machines take credit cards, and food in the company cafeterias is not subsidized. When a new hire joins the company, he gets a backpack with a power adapter, a laptop dock, and some orientation materials. When someone resigns, he is asked to hand in all that equipment—including the backpack." [The Everything Store, by Brad Stone]

So what does this have to do with Flipkart?

Flipkart has been in business for (almost) ten years now (it was founded in October 2007). It has raised more than $4 billion dollars from investors, the most recent round of funding closing in early 2017. The Indian e-commerce pioneer however has yet to make a single new paisa in profit. In its fiscal year ending March 31st, 2016, its losses doubled to ₹2,306 crores (approximately US$350 million). Keep that in mind as you go through this post.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Natural Enmity - Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra

Natural Enmity - Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1], by Ashay Naik

A
shay Naik's book, "Natural Enmity - Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1]", is a fascinating and scholarly commentary on perhaps the most famous of all animal-tale anthologies.

The Panchatantra, like much of great Indian literature, is multi-layered. It is a fable told through animal stories. It is a brilliant exhibition of the frame-within-a-frame storytelling concept, outdone perhaps only by the Mahabharata. This style went westwards, resulting the Thousand and One Nights and later the Canterbury Tales. The Pancatantra lends itself to a simple reading and interpretation, making it ideal for children to read and enjoy when young. As one grows older, and hopefully, wiser, and if the interest should awaken itself, the same text then reveals its myriad facets to the reader. The Pancatantra is perhaps the greatest exemplar of this aspect of Indian literature.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Flipkart and the Art of Advertising Mishaps - 1


I
n the age of startups, especially in the e-commerce space, where money is plentiful - or till a a year or so back, used to be - the only metric that seems to matter for the marketing function is "spend". Not ROI, CPA, CLV, etc... Splurging money on advertising became an end in itself. Where the mantra to success is growth, unencumbered by thoughts of the bottom line, any kind of growth will do. Therefore, growth in "eyeballs", "page-views", "app downloads", and other metrics of "engagement" - any and all numbers will do. Into this heady mix of unaccountability, if you then throw in lack of experience, lack of competence, and rank immaturity, you get a series of marketing disasters of the kind that headlined Flipkart's slow descent into what seems like inevitable irrelevance. One still hopes it will recover to give a creditable account of itself in its existential battle against Amazon. Then there is Alibaba and WalMart waiting in the wings. One hopes.

In this series of short posts, I will look at just a few marketing and advertising fiascoes at the company.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Mahabharata, Book Two - Ambition, by Somdip Datta


I
s there a new way to present the Mahabharata? A story as epic and grand as the Mahabharata has inspired the great and the devoted alike, and sadly the mediocre and agenda-driven also, in finding ever new canvases to paint the story on.

Just as Amruta Patil found a graphic palette on which to paint her interpretation of a part of the Mahabharata, Somdip has adopted the graphic route, but given it a digitl avatar. The result is nothing short of stunning.

Book Two, Ambition, is the second book in a series of five planned books. The first one was Seeds of War, while the remaining titles are Riches and Rags, Hide and Seek, the Civil War, and the Uncivil War.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Usability, Product Management, and LinkedIn - a rant

L
inkedIn began as a professional networking site, has evolved into a social media behemoth, and has yet managed to maintain and sharpen its focus on the professional space. That may, in part, explain why, in 2016, Microsoft chose to put down more than $26 billion Washingtons to buy LinkedIn.
While both LinkedIn's web site and mobile app have undergone substantial changes over the years, and is a far cry from the spartan look both sported just a few years ago, I wanted to call out one peculiarity - call it eccentricity - that the site has. I would call it a glaring UX and product management miss, if you will.
Let me elaborate.
email from LinkedIn in June 2014, announcing the launch of the publish feature.
Sometime in April 2014, LinkedIn introduced a feature that allowed users - by invitation at first, and everyone later - to publish their articles on LinkedIn. This feature is now a great source of user-generated content for LinkedIn, helping drive more traffic to its website. I have written a few over the last couple of years, and it's a great way to my thoughts on relevant topics in front of a relevant audience.

But Where Are My Articles?

From the LinkedIn home page, try finding a way to navigate to your articles - published or in draft mode. Go ahead, I will wait while you wander on the home page.
You can't.
Let me show. See the screenshot below. That is the home page I see when I go to LinkedIn.
  1. The menu at the top contains no links to go to my articles.
  2. I can click the 'Write an article' button and it will take me to the LinkedIn Publishing page, and I can start penning pristine prose there.
  3. I can click the headline and view analytics on my articles or shares.

But I still cannot view a list of my articles. I can't.

  • If I go to the Publishing page, and if I click the 'More' dropdown, then voila, I can see that I have finally found what I was looking for. So will you too.
Why? Why make it so darn tough to find your own articles?
  • By design? Unlikely.
  • Oversight? Likely. A miss, from both product management and UX. Why is an important features such as this so difficult to find? It is not even available from the home page. Why is not anyone talking about discoverability? What about the scent of information? Nielsen, Cooper, Pirolli, anyone?
Solution? Fix it. Fast.

[this post first appeared in LinkedIn on June 29th, 2017]

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Quotes - Raja Dharma Parva

The Mahabharata, Vol. 8
Translated by Bibek Debroy
[Unabridged English translation of the
Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute's
 
Critical Edition of the Mahabharata]
This is a selection of quotes from the Raja Dharma Parva. This parva is one of three parvas of the Shanti Parva.
  • "There cannot be a treasury without oppression and without it, how is it possible to have an army?"
  • "When a kingdom goes into decline, the life of that king is one of shame."
  • "There is no livelihood that exists without violence. Even a solitary sage, active and roaming in the forest, cannot manage to do that." 
  • "What is said about dharma is true - it does not exist where there are no riches."
  • "Dharma is stained by jealousy. Artha is stained by secrecy. Kama is stained by excessive addiction."
  • "The foundation of the body is dharma, and artha is based on dharma. Kama is said to be the fruit of artha."
    • "Dharma must not be made to decline, but nor should one come under the subjugation of the enemy." 
    • "If the king's treasury is exhausted, his army will decline." 
    • "It is rare to find a petitioner who is satisfied with what he has got."
      • "It is rarer to find a person who does not disrespect a petitioner." 
      • "There is nothing that is as emaciated as hope."
      • "The dharma of kshatriyas is special. ... All the other dharmas are immersed in this dharma."
      • "Dharma of vaishyas - donations, studying, the performance of sacrifices, and the accumulation of wealth."
      • "If one is destroyed, one can perform no act of dharma." 

      Monday, June 5, 2017

      Quotes - Apad Dharma Parva

      These are selected quotes from the Apad Dharma Parva of the Mahabharata. The quotes are taken from Vol.8 of Bibek Debroy's unabridged English translation of the Mahabahrata. I have reviewed all ten volumes, and quotes from previous volumes are also available on my blog or on the Mahabharata blog.
      • "Progress on the journey does not take place along a single branch of dharma."

      • "If the root cannot be taken out, nothing must be dug up." 
      • "A debt that is not repaid, a fire that has not gone out and an enemy that has not been eliminated, repeatedly keep on growing." 
      • "Before striking, he must speak pleasantly. After striking, it should be even more pleasant." 
      • "He should be blind when it is best to be blind and he can even resort to being deaf." 
      • "There is a time for allying with enemies. There is a time for fighting with friends." 

      Monday, May 22, 2017

      The Dark Cloud of the H1-B Fallout for Indian Companies: Layoffs or Reduced Valuations

      India's second-largest IT company, Infosys, put out a press release on the 2nd of May, 2017 (link), that it would be hiring "10,000 American Workers Over the Next Two Years and establish four new Technology and Innovation Hubs across the country focusing on cutting-edge technology areas, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, user experience, emerging digital technologies, cloud, and big data."
      The first hub, the Infosys press release stated, was expected to open by August in Indiana, which coincidentally is also the home state of the US Vice President, and which would create 2,000 new jobs in the state.
      Infosys wasted no time in advertising for jobs in the United States, prominently linking it to its announcement. Nor was there any dearth of tweets on social media site Twitter to give this news more amplification - see this, this, this, this, or this.

      While this is certainly good news for the United States and for its President Donald Trump's goal of making American "Great Again", the impact on outsourcing companies like Infosys is likely to be less positive.

      Illustrated Mahabharata - Errors

      I
      n my review of "The Illustrated Mahabharata", I wrote that this is a magnificent coffee-table book that fills a need for a lavishly produced book on the epic.
      The only blemishes in the book are the innumerable errors that have crept into the book as a result of the editors sourcing the story of the Mahabharata from Devdutt Pattanaik's adaptation, "Jaya".

      These are just some, a small percentage, of the outright errors, distortions, and subtle misinterpretations that Devdutt's text contains:

      GANDHARI'S PREGNANCY
      What the book says - "Impatient now, Gandhari decided to force the child out of her. She ordered her maids to strike her belly with an iron bar...." See the screenshot on the left.
      What the Critical Edition says - "Unknown to Dhritarashtra, Gandhari violently struck her belly and aborted herself, fainting with the pain. A hard mass of flesh, like an iron ball, came out." [Unabridged Mahabahrata, Adi Parva, Ch 107]
      What the Gita Press says - it is more or less consistent with the Critical Edition (see the screenshot below).

      Devdutt is wrong in writing that Gandhari ordered the maids to strike her belly.
      He is wrong when he writes that Gandhari ordered the maids to do so "repeatedly."

      If Devdutt believes he is writing a new Mahabharata, then it is certainly his creative right to do so. If, on the other hand, he is talking about the Mahabharata the epic, then he has no right to take such creative liberties that border on the absurd. A scholar, or even a self-proclaimed "mythologist", should know better.
      Mahabharata, Gita Press on Gandhari's pregnancy

      Sunday, May 14, 2017

      Illustrated Mahabharata - Review

      Even with the scores of books that have been written on the Mahabharata - translations like Dr. Bibek Debroy's, abridgments like John Smith's, retellings, adaptations like Chitra B Divakaruni's or SL Bhyrappa's, commentaries, poems, criticisms, plays, children's versions, comics, satirical takes, and even parodies, there was a need for a coffee table book. Not a half-hearted "illustrated" version of a book, but a beautifully illustrated, lavishly produced, comprehensively researched, designed with this end in mind - a complete coffee table book. The "Illustrated Mahabharata" fills that need.

      How lavish? It is more than five-hundred pages long, with more than five-hundred full-color illustrations, glossy paper, hardcover, and lay-flat binding which means double-page illustrations are possible (see the two images below).


      Sunday, April 30, 2017

      Rama and Ayodhya and The Battle for Rama - Review

       

      "Rama and Ayodhya" and "The Battle for Rama", by Meenakshi Jain

      Circumstantial Evidence Preceded Archaeological Evidence

      (see my earlier review of Rama and Ayodhya and a part-review of The Battle for Rama
      This review incorporates material from both reviews as well)

      The diffusion of propaganda requires repetition. In the words of someone many leftists have secretly admired for long, repetition is what makes propaganda successful (the full quote is (bold-emphasis mine), "The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over".

      This was a strategy used to brilliant success by militant Islamists, communist historians, and Indologists of dubious integrity in the west during the Ayodhya movement in the 1980s and 90s.

      Tuesday, April 18, 2017

      Amazon Launches Prime in India. Can Flipkart Stay ‘First’?

      O
      n the 27th of June, 2016, Amazon launched the first of its first AWS (Amazon Web Services) data centers in India, in Mumbai.

      Amazon India announcing the launch of Prime (July 26, 2016) 
      Less than a month later, on the 26th of July, 2016, Amazon launched Amazon Prime in India. After a free, trial period of 60 days, customers would be able to sign up for what it calls a “special, introductory price” of ₹499 a year. Prime Video was not included in Prime at the time of launch.


      Friday, April 7, 2017

      Oracle Looking to Buy Accenture? Stranger Things Have Happened

      Image credit: pixels.com
      The Register reported that Oracle may be exploring the "feasibility of buying multi-billion dollar consultancy Accenture."

      To summarize the numbers involved here, Oracle had FY16 revenues of $37 billion, net income of $8.9 billion, and a market cap of $180 billion.

      On the other hand, Accenture had FY16 revenues of US$34.8 billion, net income of $4.1 billion, and a market cap of $77 billion.

      Some questions that come to mind:
      1. Why? Oracle buying NetSuite in 2016 made sense. Oracle buying Salesforce would make even more sense. Oracle buying a management consulting and professional services company, and that too one with more than a quarter million employees, on the face of it, makes little sense. Would it help Oracle leapfrog Amazon's AWS cloud business? Would it help Oracle go after a new market segment? The answers are not clear, at all.

      Sunday, March 26, 2017

      Kurukshetra, A Photo Yaatra - 1

      T
      he Grant Trunk Road - possibly the oldest surviving highway in the world - starts out in what is now Bangladesh, makes its way through the Gangetic plains, crosses Delhi, and moving northwards, passing the town Sonepat, the historic battlefield Panipat, the refinery at Karnal, and along the way to Ambala and beyond, if you blink you miss it - Kurukshetra. Even as recently as a decade ago, in the absence of flyovers, it was routine to get stuck in hour-long traffic jams while trying to cross the intersections of these towns. There is now an overpass that takes you right over the intersection of the national highway and the State Highway 6 that makes it way to Kurukshetra on one side and to Yamunagar on the other. So unless you are looking for the town, you are likely to miss it. But if you do remember to look left (if travelling north), you cannot miss the welcome arch over the road that leads into the city. Whether you are passing by or whether entering the city, do look at the impressive arch. If you do, you will spot the famous, immortal chariot from the Mahabharata atop the arch. Arjuna's chariot, with Krishna the charioteer. Arjuna's bow - the Gandiva - is down. As long as it stayed down, so did the Pandava's hopes of winning the dharma-yuddha. One hand of Krishna holds the reins of Arjuna's horses - literally and metaphorically - while the other hand is raised, in explanation. This arch is lit up at night, and the visage is all the more impressive, and indescribably evocative.