Leadership – 10 rules of operating at extremes

Disclaimer: I don’t associate “leadership” exclusively with people management. If, however, you have ever been managing people or their work, you may find the following more relevant.

Phrases like “diving deep”, “getting hands dirty” and “rolling up sleeves” along with ones like “hand holding”, “spoon feeding” et. al.,  are cliches that each leader has experienced. At times, at the receiving end and other times, doling it out. But how do you know when to jump in? How do you know when your team must wade through on their own? Or as a leader should you even strive for any kind of equilibrium?

In my experience, the way a leader conducts herself is a function of what’s her “nature” and what qualities she has “nurtured“. Thankfully, the solution to a lot of people management problems, lies in the later bucket. I believe this is something that can and must be nurtured. Having said that, lets dive straight into a set of rules that I personally like to follow –

  • Rule 1: Being a people’s manager doesn’t give you the right to be nosey all the time.
  • Rule 2: Your primary responsibility is not to drive your team. Most often, you should be busy laying the road ahead for them.
  • Rule 3: You must let your team learn. At times, this involves letting them experience minor setbacks. Even when you see those coming.
  • Rule 4: Your time as a leader is precious. So pick the right battles and help individuals make progress when timely results are critical.
  • Rule 5: Golden hammers don’t work with people. Your team is a set of very different individuals and hence you must approach them differently, too.
  • Rule 6: Learn how to have difficult one-to-one conversations with individuals. Use these seldom but with great conviction and mutual respect.
  • Rule 7: Everyone in your team may not approach you with their problems. Spot them and help them out of soup.
  • Rule 8: You are not necessarily the alpha dog for all your team’s goals. Learn with them and use your breadth of experience to achieve those.
  • Rule 9: Creating noise is not feedback. Learn to give constructive and actionable feedback.
  • Rule 10: Learn to take feedback. You are what your team thinks of you. They can hold the true mirror for you, all the time.

Remember that it is difficult to find the right equilibrium when working with different individuals. What matters, however, is trying.

Advertisements

Rise and Shine of Technology Consulting in India

christmas-angel-480677_1280

Evolution

Rewind the clock back to December, 1999. The world was abuzz with Y2K monster and grappling with all sorts of doomsday banter. It was a watershed moment in India’s tryst with information technology world. The entire world was waiting for engineering workforce in Hyderabad and Bangalore to get them out of the mess.

While the IT scene in India began primarily as an outsourcing destination which specialized in taking up the “lower-end” back-office work and turning it around at one-tenth of the cost, it has come a long way since those humble beginnings. And one of its significant by-products was a whole new consulting industry. Demographic dividend played its role and today India’s appetite for technology consultants has boomed to dizzying heights. From BPOs to KPOs to off-shore development centers to cutting edge R&D centers, consultants serve them all. This specialized work force ranges from freelancers to mid-sized companies, serving at times, hundreds of customers. These firms switch between Fortune 50 customers to fast paced chaotic startups with equal ease. Most importantly, these are firms who put a premium on their services. Unlike how it all began, today they are far from an overzealous bunch of body-shops selling discounted labour.

Importance

Result Driven

It was summer of 2006 when around fifteen of us, backend engineers at Amazon Bangalore, huddled into a conference room. We were trying to learn our first lessons on Javascript development tutored by an external consultant. The idea was simple, convert us all into full-stack developers by giving us lectures on the hottest browser side technology. Result though, was far from encouraging. My Javascript skills are as good as my German. Danke!

Technology consultants today have greater focus on the final value add. They have stopped lecturing clients and instead started engaging with customers.

Whether you are a company with multi-billion dollar topline or a startup with one month runway left, there is always that pressing need that can be better served by external help. Everyone loves the flexibility of getting specialized consultants with lower, longer term commitments. Moreover, engagement rules have undergone a metamorphosis so that consultants fit right into the design and development cycles up until the final delivery.

Build or buy? Err…no, tailor-made!

When it comes to finding software solutions, build vs. buy is the philosophical question that faces almost every other technology (or technology driven) company. Depending on a multitude of factors, organizations were either forced to build something on their own, which meant higher turnaround times or they bought something off the shelf, which potentially was less than satisfactory. With the advent of high-end technology consulting, we are blessed with yet another option: getting solutions tailor-made. AtMoveInSync, we are trying to solve daily commute problems of employees working for all kinds of organizations. Being a niche market player, it required a heads-down focus on solving domain specific problems and we could ill-afford reinventing technological wheels. Consequently, on different occasions, there was a need to seek external help on very specific subsets of the problem. We made sure we started with a crisp problem statement. Once done, there was always enough consulting prowess in the market to deliver high quality results in a time bound manner.

Capability Spectrum

From artificial intelligence to virtual reality to high frequency trading, technology is disrupting everything around us at mach speed. But more importantly, technology is cannibalizing itself at even greater pace. Given organizations can’t cook up quick skill curries in their fancy pantries, consulting has fast become the panacea for a wide range of problems. Mobile applications and web 2.0 interfaces can now be bought like over the counter pills. Consultants can help you build your entire backend architecture which scales horizontally and can integrate vertically, endlessly. There are specialized information security consultants who will ensure your applications comply with PCI DSS, HIPPA et. al., which can earn you bragging rights of another kind.

Bottom line is, you cannot build everything in-house and you should not. Seek help when it makes sense.

Future

While time might have finally caught up with Moore’s Law, the growth in data generation and processing speeds over the last couple of decades has just been unfathomable. Technology consulting in this era therefore, must keep abreast with these changes. Consulting firms will have to evolve their delivery models to make them more pluggable. That would in turn require making delivery very replicable.

Quantifying results, successes and failures alike, will be another key area of development for technology consultants. Thankfully, there are enough tools and information in public domain that should help them define measurable goals and showcase results to prospective customers. For instance, if you developed a mobile application with 4-star rating and above a million downloads for a customer, that just sells its own sweet self.

It may be impossible to predict future but understanding prophecies may not be difficult. One learning from my Amazon days is nothing short of a prophecy by Jeff Bezos. He told us, that even decades in future, customers will always want two things –

  1. Lower prices
  2. Faster delivery

Applicable to technology consultants too? You tell me.

Postcards from Hampi

DSC_0179

Sunset shot at Vitthala temple which is biggest complex out of all the Hampi ruins.

 

DSC_0119

Tungabhadra river bank provides a vivid contrast to the other rocky terrain of the region. Its flanked on either sides by architectural masterpieces and flocked by masses carrying on with their usual rituals.

DSC_0140

Morning shot at Krishna temple. Like many other temples, this one is a majestic reminder of Krishnadevaraya’s victory in Orissa.

 

DSC_0159

Another shot of the front compound of Krishna temple. It is adorned with intricately carved pillars with divine figurines all over.

 

DSC_0172

Rear backyard of Vitthala temple showing main building and its ruined tower.

DSC_0123

Imposing Nandi at Virupaksha temple which draws the biggest of local crowds from Hampi and nearby towns.

10580738_10153406107538261_5100003042783382594_o

Top of Virupaksha temple visible from one of the nearby hills.

Why is it hard to scale a database, in layman’s terms?

Answer by Vishwastam Shukla:

Okay, this might be the lamest analogy but I will go ahead anyways.

Scaling databases can be very similar to effectively using wardrobes at home.

Initial/Happy state:
My wife and I used to make do with 2 wardrobes in our house initially. All our clothes used to fit in those even when the space in wardrobes was shared and our clothes could be present in either one of them. Moving clothes in and out was easy too.

More clothes ( 2-4x scale):
By now, we needed more than two wardrobes. Luckily in our house, we had space to put an additional pair of those. So we happily bought and started stuffing the new wardrobes with our stuff. This is akin to adding one more database for additional data (loosely speaking).

Higher look-up/search time
We started taking more time to find our stuff since now we had 4 different places to look for it. Often times, we would return empty handed from one wardrobe and go looking for our stuff in another one. Hence, higher search times.

Concurrency
Given lack of order, we would also bump into each other at times trying to look for our stuff in the same wardrobe. Imagine 1000s of user transactions in a real database.

Consistency
At times, my wife would go and move a pile of clothes from one place to other. This would upset my ability to recall which stuff lies where. This often lead to me finding a pair of shorts at the place where I was really looking for a formal shirt.

Vertical Partitioning (again, loosely so)
To solve higher search/look up times, my wife and I decided to cleanly partition our clothes. As a result, she ended up with 3 out of 4 wardrobes. Guess what, it was a fair deal for my cloth search queries. I had considerably lesser clothes and hence I took much lesser time to find them by shooting straight for my wardrobe.

Horizontal Partitioning
My wife had in the meantime figured out that within her 3 wardrobes, she would further subdivide and arrange clothes in a certain manner. She decided to keep split them in latest, not so old and old set of clothes. Not the most optimal strategy I thought, but worked for her. Of course, this only works till she she buys more clothes and needs a fourth wardrobe for her latest stuff. You see?

Replication
I love to wear t-shirts but all of them are actually stored in just one wardrobe. Assume I lock that one and lose the key. How do I find another t-shirt to wear? As a safety net for this hypothetical situation, I setup a small closet and store another set of my t-shirts. This is akin to replicating your most crucial data so that you can retrieve it even if one of your databases becomes unavailable.

Now imagine adding even more clothes and may be planning for a few more members in the family. I could on and on, but I guess you get the drift by now :).

PS – I use caching for my favorite pair of jeans by throwing them on the couch. It super easy to find them out there :)

Why is it hard to scale a database, in layman’s terms?

Realagile

Every software development team on this planet wants to –

  • Deliver high quality output
  • Be predictable
  • Handle ambiguity (obviously, no body calls that out)
  • Consistently do above 3.

Now put all of the above in a highly agile environment where you deal with –

  • Existing customers breathing down your neck
  • New features that must be rolled out “yesterday” when they are going to be defined “tomorrow”
  • Strategic initiatives to double your revenue stream

While your team tries to juggle with the norm above, invariably there’s that P0 stuff that comes your way like a gush of wind threatening to dislodge your team’s house of cards. It catches you completely off guard. It threatens your team’s clockwork efficiency. It throws their sprint planning exercises off track. “Grooming? What grooming?”, you say. You slice stories while writing code while design takes care of its own sweet self. You couple QA with demos and push the baby out. With repeated prioritization and re-prioritization it becomes increasingly difficult to measure and track velocities. And when all the ash and dust settles, you realize it was your burn down charts that were set to flame.

While some of the above may sound like exaggeration, most of us do go through this some time or the other. This is what I would term as “Realagile” (Real Agile). Just like realpolitik, this is based on “practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises”. It is not good. It is not even bad. It is just real.

In my experience, agile development model provides a very good framework to identify and define different pieces of the puzzle. It lets you organize and run your teams in a certain way. It makes you strive for customer gratification by faster roll outs. Most importantly, it forces you to brainstorm and plan better.

Most businesses, however, are not built around any single model. In fact, great businesses are built with far more subjective ideas like passion. Their growth is tied to impact they create. It is critical that we not only adapt to but also appreciate the rapidly changing macro landscape in which businesses are run today. It would need real gurus to propose a development model that can be defined as a function of passion and impact. But till that time, let us not be constrained by just definitions. Let us not be obsessed with our plans. While it is critical to have definitions and plans in place, let us be guided more by our instincts.

Cyclone Phailin – critical information

Putting together this page with all the important information I found on Phailin to make it accessible at one place. I’ll continue to update this as and when more useful information is available.

What is Phailin? – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclone_Phailin

Google People Finder – A page to find and report report missing people, setup by Google. http://google.org/personfinder/2013-phailin

Google’s crisis response page – http://www.google.org/crisisresponse/2013-phailin.html

Official NDMA website to track latest updates – http://ndma.gov.in/ndma/index.htm

List of DOs and DONTs during cyclone, as suggested by NDMA – http://ndma.gov.in/ndma/pdf/cyclones.pdf

Impact – Phailin will have a 24 hour impact. First 6hrs – very severe cyclone, Next 6 hrs – severe cyclonic storm, Next 12 hrs – depression.

Map of areas potentially under impact –

MapOfImpactedAreas

MapOfImpactedAreas

Below is a list of emergency numbers for different impacted districts in Orissa.

AP has set up a round-the-clock control room for assistance  040-23456005/23451043.

Odisha –  0674-2534177

Orissa Emergency Operation Center - contact numbers

Orissa Emergency Operation Center – contact numbers

Orissa Control Room Numbers

Orissa Control Room Numbers

LIVE UPDATES

Oct 12 16:29 (IST) – Over 4.25 lakh people in Odisha and one lakh in Andhra Pradesh have been evacuated, says Home Secretary Anil Goswami

Oct 12 11:40 (IST) – Cyclone Phailin won’t weaken before landfall, says IMD Cyclone Centre DG, Rathore. Wind speed during the first six hours of the storm will be betern 210 to 220 km/ph and can even go up to 240 km/ph. After that its intensity will go down in the next six hours and it will erode by 24 hours. After landfall, the wave could go to the height of three metres and the seawater will enter 300 to 600 meters into coastal area of Ganjjam district in Odisha

Oct 12 11:37 (IST) – Approximately 3,00,000 people evacuated across Orissa and North Andhra Pradesh in last 24 hours.

Oct 12 11:05am (IST) – Center of Cyclone #Phailin is now 200kms away from Gopalpur, Odisha.

Oct 12 11:00 (IST) – Air assets kept on standby include two C130J aircraft, 18 helicopters, and 2 AN-32s.Eastern Air Command has also been asked to help.

Oct 12, 10:00am (IST) – The wind speed could be 215-220 km/hr. Cyclone #Phailin will reach Gopalpur coast by evening-Shashidhar Reddy,NDMA