Perspectives from the *other side* on Software, Management and Life

Monday, January 19, 2009

For Humility




I recently came across the following blog post: http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771, which had the following concluding paragraph:
"Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries."

To me the importance of being humble just cannot be overstated, to understand that at no point in our lives do we stop learning, implying that at no point in our lives are we the "know all".

A personel story of mine relates to this, that being that once I found myself working with bodyshop contractors in the US during the 2000 dot com boom. These guys were real knuckleheads ...the kind of developers who need guidance in writing a simple regular expression parser etc. Working with them had the strange effect on me where I became extremely overconfident. There was no problem I thought I couldnt do and no issue where I could ever be wrong. I learnt the least during this phase of my career. Then I jumped boats and joined one of the leading tech firms in the US, and was I in for a surprise. I suddenly found myself surrounded with the best minds in tech, and my confidence completely shattered. And I loved it ...it was liberating to know that there is so much to learn and so much to do.

And that experience keeps me going today too, whereby I have a large body of techy's reporting to me, when most engineers do not argue against my point of view, I know its either because I havent done my job in hiring the best minds or that I've set the wrong precedence for anticipations in such meetings.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Emotional Emails

When I get emotional I can almost feel my brain shutting down (the thinking part of it). Its a pity that strong emotions force me in a primate like state and throw away all the effort the human race spent in its evolution. However, it gives me some comfort to see I'm not the only one who has this issue, and so here's my tip to responding to an email in the morning that gets you all emotional and angry:

Steps to take after reading an extreme email that gets steam coming out of your ears:

1. Cool off before doing anything - walk around if required for a few seconds
2. Re-read assuming you're someone else
3. Write a respond but do NOT send
4. Cool off for another few seconds, walk around etc
5. Read other emails to make sure there isnt a followup to it or another response
6. Reread your draft response. If it doesnt sound too emotional (business communications should be void of there), then hit the send button!

Happy mornings to you!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Number Juggling


Satyam's in the news for carrying out a whooping 1 BILLION USD fraud, in a company with revenue of approx 2 billion USD ie 50% of the revenue amount now being reported off the cash reserves! Guess who their financial auditors are, none other than PWC!
The problems of financial misreporting are not new, neither in developed or emerging markets. Whats concerning to me is why a CEO was allowed so much power to have reported these numbers without anyone of his VP's stepping up to stop him. Are companies so blind to the CEO's acts that such illegalities are done without fear.

On a personal note, I've always erred towards caution to avoid getting caught up in such misreporting (not that I havent ever fallen trap in one of these though). The golden rule of "if it sounds too good to be true, then its likely not true", the one I like and have been saved from the following scams using this principle:
  1. Investing in the summer home scam - the one where you were shown videos of the high life and asked to invest a few thousand dollars to avail residence in a million dollar home during your summer vacations.
  2. Getting membership to Quixtar/Amway/MLM - they sell dreams to the "business partners", not a compelling business strategy. There is no such thing as a get rich quick scheme, specially when its being sold to a huge number of individuals.
  3. Futures - CMC markets (UK) or others out there that get individuals to invest around 10K USD in futures by leveraging the said amount on price differentials. Yes, the possibility of becoming a millionaire looks to be a reality, but the likelihood of getting a quick loss of your invested amount seems more likely.
  4. You've just won a million billion dollars - calls/voicemails/emails/sms's etc. Need i say more on this!
That said, there are times when an opportunity comes knocking, and a certain risk has to be taken. But all in all, one's brain must assess if real value is being created without breaking laws. (assuming both explicit and the unlegislated rules of ethics). The key being short term artificial gains are easy to make while long term it's nearly impossible to keep the castle standing if its built on quick sand.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Employee Reviews and Grading Medians




I've been reviewing employees using a certain grading system for some time now. I belong to the school of thought that ascribes to "tough love", ie grading systems should be anything but lenient. So for a grading system that rates out 5, the following is the criteria:

  1. (1)Very poor job: Need to be caught sleeping more than once on the job to get this!
  2. (2)Poor job: Not satisfied with the performance
  3. (3)Meets job requirements: Typical grade for a ok job done
  4. (4)Above Average: When there is something really good about how the job was done (expect around 10% of the employee base to be here)
  5. (5)Exceptional: If I somehow hired James Gosling who rewrote the whole corporate strategy! (extra credit - dont expect anyone to be here unless they're a class apart)

So during December's review cycle, I got hit by a thought - why must I always have to argue with employees who claim they've earned a "4" when I'm giving them a "3.5" or so. To me a number like 3.5 is good, but to a majority its poor and they walk away from a review demoralized. Since I've worked in larger organizations where a standard is followed and any issues are to be taken up with HR, I've never thought on this much. But now, working in a smaller organization gives a whole new meaning when I see a majority thats demoralized.

Thought: Should grading be lenient
Advantages
1. Everyone comes out as a winner - We live in a society where every other parent has a "proud parent of an honor student" sticker on their car's bumper (not in Pakistan as yet, but the mindset is the same). Its not possible for all students to have become smart, lowering of the grading system and instilling this thought in the masses is a far more likely cause. Why swim against the tide?
2. Motivated employee base - the purpose of a review is to improve employee productivity IMHO. It requires that we identify the shortcomings and highlight the positives. However if the end grade is considered demeaning we can forget about a motivated and hence a productive employee base (outside of the 10% employees who get 4 or over).
3. Easier time for the grader - we too are human beings and arguing takes out our positive energy. Trying to argue with someone on why its not a low grade but how its a decent grade leaving room for improvements until the next review sometimes feels like a bad hair day!

Cons:
1. Incorrect messaging - It is important for individuals to understand they have shortcomings. A high grade may misguide an employee into a comfort zone where only larger trouble lays ahead, either for the employer or the employee.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether my grading system should be changed such that a 5 stands for a very good job rather than exceptional with appropriate adjustments to the other numbers.