21 April 2018

Every run is a negotiation game with him..

The problem every morning in Kalyani is that I do not finish off my run first thing in the morning when nobody else is awake and the temperatures are far more bearable and certainly there is no direct sunlight. Before I can get myself there, usually, my brother wakes up. That can only mean the first cup of tea will be soon to follow… And then sitting idly in the balcony, we just start having yet another cup of tea every half an hour or so. Finally, the sun would be up, it would get warm and I start regretting not having finished my run.

Today was no different. Since it had gotten hot, I decided to put in an endurance run. The heat and humidity had already conspired to make the temperatures feel like 107 deg F on the skin.

Then the negotiations began! Any which way I go for a run, I will have to get past my dad who will immediately engage me in a discussion that roughly follows the same pattern…

“Where are you going?”
“For a run”
“Why now?”
“Because it will get warmer later” (did you see how I dodged the obvious question of why I did not do it earlier? ha ha)

“How much will you run?”
“X km”
It really does not matter what X is. I have tried various variations – 10, 8, 6, 5, 2…. His inevitable question is
“Why X? X/2 is more than enough”. He immediately will halve it.
Even if I were to tell him – “Okay, I will do X/2”, he will wait for a few minutes and go “Today is a very sunny day. X/4 should be adequate for today”…

At some point I will leave the house and just go run.

First question today after I came back – as with every day – was
“How much did you run?”
“8 km”.
His response was again classic. I could have said any value and he would have said the exact same thing – “That is enough for this month. You do not need to run any more this month!!

That said, it was a 5 mile (8 km) run in rather oppressive heat and humidity at a sub-10 pace. Towards the end, I had to take a 30 second break to get my heart rate to come down from 170s. That was the penalty I paid for not carrying water with me.

19 April 2018

You know what is better than a great gin and tonic?

For a person like me who has been researching about gin production and collecting gins from different countries and experimenting with cocktails with them, very few things can beat the prospect of finding a Gin-only-bar called “Tonic” in the hotel I was staying in!

Except, of course having a gin and tonic there with a classmate of mine that I have always admired (albeit from far) – Joydeep Sengupta! When I had called him up last time to wish him a happy birthday, I had also made a promise to see him if I ever were to land in Singapore. Unfortunately, when I told him that I would be in Singapore, I realized that he would be out of the country. Joy heads up Asia for the largest and most revered Firm in management consulting in the whole world. That is a game played at a very different league. I completely understood that travel had to be crazy at that level.

What I did not expect is a message from him on my last day in Singapore that he will be coming back to Hanoi in time enough to meet me for an hour before I headed out for the airport. I am so glad that he took the effort.

I saw Joy for the first time after 1991. There were so many things we caught up on. One hour was far too less for that. One of the topics we talked a lot about is the complexity of building “trusting” organizations. We were comparing notes of how very successful organizations like McKinsey runs with virtually very little financial goal setting and my experience at a Ritz where I learnt that every employee is given a thousand dollars to spend on guests in case they see a situation unfold that might lead to customer dissatisfaction… and we realized that “trust” is something that is very difficult to democratize and certainly very difficult to build culture around in an organization unless it is done from the very top and from the very beginning.

I had great interest in his second child who has special needs and I spent a lot of time understanding how, as parents, Joy and his wife had to learn a lot of new things in life. One of the most memorable moments was when he said – and I paraphrase him – “your expectations are lesser and therefore you enjoy the smaller things more”!! We talked endlessly about what we – the able-bodied ones – have done for the ones who need special help and how much is still left to do.

I promised to see his second son next time I was anywhere nearby.

I kept the promise I made to him on his birthday. I hope I can keep this one too!

17 April 2018

Very funny cab guy!

I grabbed a cab from the hotel and headed towards a park about 15 minutes away. Once we were near the destination, he asked me:
“Which building do you want to go to”?
“Oh, drop me anywhere near the park. I am meeting a friend there”
“Are you going to run here?” (He had noticed my bright orange running clothes and had now eliminated the possibility that I was a construction worker)
“Yes. With my friend”
“Do you run here often?”
“No. I do not live in Singapore. My friend and I went to school together. I am meeting him after 27 years”

That got his attention quickly.

“27 years???”
“Yes”
“How did you keep in touch?”
“Facebook”

He was suitably impressed.
Then he added “Well, if you do not remember some of the details from 27 years Back, Facebook may be able to sell that data to you”

I think he earned that extra tip!!

16 April 2018

Hiten Varia!!!

Finally managed to beard the lion in his own den!! Flew from Kolkata to Singapore to spend a day with my erstwhile boss – Hiten Varia! Of all the managers I have had – and I certainly have been blessed with some of the best ones that I learnt a lot from (and still do), Hiten was the one I grew closest to personally. When we were both in Dallas, our kids and the wives – Shernaz and Sharmila became friends too. In fact, Hiten and I have taken our families for vacations together in some great parts of the world together.

And that is the upside when you are building a small startup. You spend so much time together, you go thru such tough times together that the lines of professional and personal relationships tend to blur. It takes a village to raise a startup and the successful startups build some great families.

The thing that made our relationship back in the ‘90s so special was that while we were very tied on core values – especially treating customers and employees, we would often be very very different in our approaches to business. There are some hilarious stories from the past with him on these things.

Sitting in the pub at the Singapore American Club, we went thru some of those moments and what we have learnt thru them. It was 1996. We were under tremendous pressure to deliver to our biggest customer. We just could not keep up with the speed of customers’ requirements and the speed of delivering solid quality, well architected code. Hiten sat me down and explained his belief on how we needed to rejig the org structure and create a new one to solve for some of this impedance mismatch. I fought tooth and nail for two weeks against that idea.

As a reward, I was asked to run the new org!

Till this date, reflecting back, almost everyone agrees that was a brilliant move. Yeah! I came around to seeing that too eventually. So much so, we used a variation of that structure in two of my next jobs!!

As I explained to Hiten last afternoon, thru those intense debates that we used to have at India Palace every late night after work, a few things have emerged in my mind that I have noted down as what I have learnt from him.

(*) The relentless focus on the customer – I truly have never seen anybody who has the customer so ingrained in his DNA. When you realize that you are a successful start up and that you are winning in the field, you can be amazed at how full of oneself one can get with one’s own ideas. While sales and development would start believing that we were better than customers and it was our job to lead the customer from darkness, this guy used to be one of the rare ones walking the corridors clarifying to us who is the cart and who is the horse. This is one learning that has deeply influenced me as a professional in future years.

(*) The ability to hold two opposing thoughts – I do not believe I am that good at it still. Faced with two opposing views, two opposing thoughts – the engineer in me will immediately try to apply logic (or perhaps rationalize) to decide what is “right”? But those days, I used to marvel – may be even get frustrated – that he would hear opposing points of views from me and my teammates or peers and after analyzing them deeply, would just leave it at that. He felt no pressure to align himself with any one view. It was like he would go “Those are pretty persuasive arguments. Each case makes a lot of sense. Good. What is the next topic?”. And I would be like “What? Can we decide first who is right? Actually, can we decide that I am right?” 🙂 You can guess what an idiot I was.

(*) Empathy – This is the single most trait of Hiten that everybody who knows him will say is his hallmark. And the one thing I will admit that I will never ever be able to copy. I have given up and concluded that I just am never going to be empathetic at this level. There are some very funny stories here too. He and I were in a meeting with a customer – ready to face the music – we were terribly behind in delivering. The customer – and this was a lady running procurement with a budget of multiple billion dollars in one of the largest multinationals in US – did not exactly beat around the bush. Hiten, then started talking. The more he talked, the more I was like “What are you doing? We need to give some logical arguments and build a case on our side”. Once he was done, I was pretty sure the customer was going to take us to the cleaners. I had not made head or tail out of what he said. And yet, the lady, looked at him and said “That is all I needed to hear from you Mr. Varia today. Please see to it that your team does its best to support my team”. And then she left after exchanging a few more pleasantries.

I was left stunned in the room, trying to make logical sense of what had just happened. Today, I realize that I was trying to use the wrong tool – logic from my cortical part of the brain – to understand empathy which comes from the limbic part of the brain.

I do remember on the flight back, sitting next to him, I tried multiple times asking “How do you do that?” and had stopped. I was starting to understand that these folks operate at a very different level.

Once in a while though, I can get them to my level – especially if I can grab them over a couple of martinis at a bar in Singapore!!