What do I do ?

It’s interesting when you ask this question to managers, many respond with “I am so and so” <fill-in-your-title>.  At best, that might be a good start to answering the question. I guess, the  answer  - in some sense depends on the setting in which the question is asked (in some situations, spitting out your title might be good-enough).

Most importantly, to me – as a leader, one needs to ask this question to oneself, every so often. So I asked myself “How will I really define what I do“. And, it was NOT easy to answer this question satisfactorily. I started with – well, I manage people. I go to boss’s staff. I run all these meetings. Those are tasks-that-you-do to fullfill some higher level goals.  So I set on a mission to try to answer this question more  crisply.  I read blogs, read  leadership books and listened to some talks etc (am still doing that). I quite liked the talk given by Arun Sarin (ex-CEO of Vodafone) at the  Haas School of Business, Berkeley. The talk is on youtube  here.  Arun is a fascinating speaker. I wanted to map the things-that-I-do into some set of Categories to derive a big-picture.  And his talk helped with that a lot.  So, in essence, according to Arun – leadership has the following 3 high level facets:

  1. People
  2. Strategic
  3. Operational

Depending on your role in the organization and your organizational structure, different weight-age may be assigned to each one of the above.  How much time you spend focusing on each of these areas – also depends on the day of the week, the week of the year and really – on what’s going on.  But great leaders need to be strong in all 3 of the above areas. Anyway, I started to observe my day and tried to map my day to these 3 categories. There are items that straddle these categories for sure. E.g. Communication – some is about people, other is strategic and other is more operational (this day, this week etc). Hiring – is about people, but also requires strategic thinking and operational execution. So, many tasks that you do require expertise in all 3 areas.

Its obvious that people form the basis of all other things. If you are in a leadership role, you are not doing most things yourself. You need people to do them. So, without people, there is NOTHING. Next, Strategic: you have the people and you believe they are exceptional and talented, but if  the efforts and focus is not in the right direction strategically, you will not WIN.  So, I place Strategy ahead of Operations. And finally, Operational Excellence is what makes-things-happen, what keeps you competitive in the marketplace, what keeps people happy, motivated and productive, in summary: what moves the needle forward.

None of this is groundbreaking or even  new – but it’s something to remember at the back of your mind as you wade through your days and weeks and try to understand “What is it that you do”. This understanding helps provide a big picture and helped me  with self-introspection.

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Lets say it one more time …

Data, data and more data.  It’s fairly obvious but probably could be said  one more time: the growth of the internet means – more and more data to be stored and mined, every single second.  Companies that are able to intelligently figure out ways to effectively mine their data will be the winners.  This means many different things : you need to efficiently store and serve data so that you

  • keep your costs low
  • keep your availability high

This is just the beginning though.  Data not only needs to be stored, processed and transported effectively, reliably and efficiently but the real value comes when we are able to figure out how to use the data you have to construct valuable information. Information that you can directly or indirectly monetize and create value out of.  With data being generated at ballistic speeds, all of the above tasks are an increasing challenge.

Data can be mined to learn and even predict user behavior, target ads,  figure out what people like so we redesign our sites and lay them out differently,  derive macro level trends etc. etc and etc. Simply speaking – there are a bazillion use cases.

All of this can be captured in one word: FASCINATING

Update: I am not sure why I wrote this one. There is a LOT more on the topic of data  that I’d like to write about.. another day.  Everything about data fascinates me. Ranging from: efficient ways to store it to how to mine it to generate information.

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It’s all about the Winning Team !

A few weeks ago  – in the middle of a conversation, I was referring that such and such is a really smart engineer. A friend made a comment that Silicon Valley is full of smart people.  They are not that easy to find but it’s not that hard either. What seems to be harder to find is smart people who are easy to work with. How true  !  The more I think about it – the more I can recount scenarios where smart-egos came in the way of teams being able to deliver, startups being able to execute. Many times things failed since it was mine vs. his. Decisions weren’t made because of lack of trust.   Humility is a not a very commonly found trait around here. Generally speaking – if you can build a team which gels together, has low ego, and create an environment where everyone  has trust in respect for each other, success usually follows.  There are some epic successes that I have seen – that have come from teams that worked together for many many years.

Building such a Winning Team should be  P1 task of any and every leader.  Once that is done, the right product usually follows.

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What’s this all about ?

I am hoping to jot down some notes and thoughts about the very interesting interplay between technology and management. In particular – I am very intrigued by the variety of different roles that leadership plays  in technology companies – startups, mid-level and big ones. I am also very interested in understanding trade-offs  among various organizational structures in technology companies and how it impacts productivity and happiness.  One might be tempted to ask – what’s so special about technology industry  that warrants a special treatment from a leadership perspective. Don’t all leaders need to motivate their employees, track their work and so on.. Its my belief that technology is special. First and foremost – Engineers are the biggest Intellectual Property for a technology company. Therefore, more than anyone else – leadership must  continuously work to nurture engineering talent. Secondly, at-least in Silicon Valley (and perhaps other parts of the country and the globe), for companies (startups or otherwise) – access to venture capital is easier than access to human capital. I don’t mean to undermine the herculean task of raising money but if you compare that against building a winning team, most people will believe that latter is harder. In other words, winning teams can usually get access to capital.  It must be mentioned that in the software world, the amount of upfront capital needed is quite small compared to many other industries. Thirdly – Technology workers are knowledge workers.  It’s a common understanding that after working for many years on a given product,  many software engineers become indisposable to the company. Therefore, many begin to *coast* or VIP (Vest In Peace), fixing a bug here and adding a featurette there.   This aspect, though not unique to technology companies, is much more important and relevant to technology companies. Technology is also a very fast-changing world – faster than anything anyone has witnessed before. This has some interesting implications on technology leadership.

One of my big motivations to write this blog came from the following observation:  its a widespread understanding that the technology boom in late nineties led to lots of engineers turning into middle managers because that was the growth path they saw. And in some sense, what was seen was not very different from what existed. Many organizations, at the time, did not create an appropriate growth ladder for the so-called individual-contributor.  Many technology companies experienced such a hypergrowth  that organizations were forced to convert engineers into managers/leaders without necessarily paying due attention to their skill sets or providing them adequate training. As a result, many thousands of engineers found themselves rudderless in the  vast ocean of leadership. Many many were able to grow into it and learn along the way. But perhaps for every one that did, many others continued to struggle with it.  The most common mistake the smart engineers make is assuming that  their excellent engineering and programming skills auto-magically carryover to excellent leadership and managerial skills. Many get frustrated and disappointed. Many continue to try to make it work.  Who hasn’t  witnessed groups of engineers muttering about inadequacy of their leadership teams.  Its a common scene that managers are being derided at by their engineers.   Management is often referred to as “the darker side” among groups of programmers. I have been very curious as to how this came to being.  As I write this blog, I hope to explore the dark side and perhaps how it came into being. I have myself lived on the lighter side for 10 years or so and I am currently a member of the darker side.  Therefore, I hope to bring to light (pun intended) some of the interesting phenomenon behind this and perhaps be able to attract other folks (both on the light and dark side)  to contribute in the discussions. 

And finally, a big hope out of writing this is that I hope to continue to develop and share my perspective on how and where leadership in technology could focus on – to get the maximum bang for the buck.

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