Thursday, 7 March 2013

Women: A Huge Customer Base

In India and many other countries, it is common for financial planners and advisors to visit your home to discuss your overall financial portfolio and to pitch and sell specific financial products like insurance, mutual funds, etc. On one such instance, our financial advisor said that he would bring in an executive from their Singapore office to talk to us about an upcoming product. This executive from Singapore came in, started his presentation focused entirely on my husband even though I am the primary account holder on that account. It is true that many financial decisions were made by the male in many families probably because he was typically the only earning member in the household. However, the trend is changing as women have come into the work-force and have an independent opinion and point of view. Over 85% of household expenses are decided or influenced by women. This not only includes day-to-day expenses but also larger expenses like automobiles, homes, computers, medical care, vacations, and phones. Not only do companies have to pitch and sell products to women but they need to cater the products and marketing towards women.This financial executive ignored the female of the family and didn't include her in the discussion. Needless to say, we did not invest in their product.  I see this casual dismissal of women decision power everywhere. Companies are really hurting due to this attitude.

Photo by Community Eye Health
In some industries, innovation and research for problems affecting women have not kept pace – this is true in my own computer industry. For example, a large percentage of smart phones have capacitive touch screens these days.  These touch phones are very difficult to use for people with long nails especially the zoom feature using the pinch gesture.  Many women have long nails and I am sure they run into this problem.  There are very few innovations like the “conductive nail polish” to solve this problem. Is this because mobile phone handset companies do not see the potential of women as customers? Is it because we do not know that these problems exist?  I believe that fewer women in the computer industry and even fewer number of women in leadership positions during the conceptualization and definition phases of products are a cause for less marketable products and services for women.

So, why is that we do not have enough women in the industry? There are many reasons that women are not continuing to stay in the technology industry.  Studies show that 56% of the women who join the technology industry end up in other careers. IT industry has relatively higher paying jobs, flexible working hours and work from home policies. Even with all these benefits, the IT industry still continues to have trouble retaining women.  I personally know of some very good engineers, who later in life chose to be working in real estate, property development, teaching kindergarten, Human Resources.  While there is nothing wrong with the professions that they have chosen, it definitely affects the computer industry adversely. Big companies have policies, procedures and practices to ensure a work environment that is conducive for women so that they may have a productive and satisfying work life. But the execution of these policies is in the hands of a middle management. Many in middle management do not internalize this and some of the processes they implement in turn defeat the well-intentioned policies and hurt the working women in the company. 

 Image by Visio Guy
As Sharmila Rudrappa, a professor at the University of Texas puts it, “Diversity in the workplace is the key to the competitive advantage of firms, and to this end, it is imperative that the growth of every employee within the firm is facilitated.” Having fewer women in technology is adversely affecting development, marketing, and sales of products, eventually hurting the competitive edge of companies.   It is important to retain women in the industry and this will eventually lead to more innovative products. Companies cannot afford to lose out on this large population as customers. They should start by seeing women as a very large potential pool of untapped customers, having women involved in conceptualizing, defining and marketing the products the right way to women.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

One year later -- Outside my Comfort Zone

“Nobody ever died of discomfort, yet living in the name of comfort has killed more ideas, more opportunities, more actions, and more growth than everything else combined.” - T. Harv Eker 

It has been a year since I started blogging.  Fifteen articles later, I am proud that this blog has a very diverse audience from all continents and comments from some remarkable people.

Growing up, I did not like to write much. I wrote essays and papers for my class work when I was forced to. Beyond that I was not interested in poetry or writing. Mathematics and Physics were my favourite subjects and not English literature. I would occasionally read blogs and was always interested in the writer’s point of view. After over twenty years in the industry, I have developed strong opinions and have a point of view about dos and don’ts across technology, management, leadership, and yes, parenting. One of my ex-colleagues was rated incorrectly and I felt that the rating process had to change. I was between jobs at this time and I wrote an article to express my feelings. I mailed it to some of my friends and my husband encouraged me to start writing blogs. This got me into blogging.

What amazes me about blogging is the reach and influence one can have! I depend on the power of social media -- people sharing my blogs among their colleagues, friends, and family which increases the readership.  Thanks to all my readers for their support. Readers have come from all continents across the world.  I have to look up the map sometimes to find some of the nations. The readers are across all ages – previous, present and next generation. Some of my blogs have been published in online magazines. One of the first women to get a BS in Computer Science commented on my blog. It was so nice to hear from a person who has been in the industry and paved the way for many of us.  When I write about my team’s accomplishments and they acknowledge that I have put their efforts in the right light, it puts a smile on my face and warms my heart.  Someone who met me socially told me that she continues to work after reading one of my blogs.  My mom heard about my blog from her friend. She was so thrilled to have seen an article from me and thought the content was so appropriate. When my son quoted a line from my blog in his college application essay, it made my day, no… the whole year, my life…

Awkward - Move out of your comfort zone
Move out of your comfort zone -- Credits: Brian Tracy, DreamThisDay
I actually enjoy writing my blogs now. I constantly think of the next topics to write. When I started however, it was not easy.  I am always one to push myself out of my comfort zone to do new things. At the age of 35, I started learning the Piano. I am not naturally gifted towards music or the black and white keys, but that made it challenging enough for me to put in the effort. Writing was definitely out of my comfort zone, something I had not done before but I have so many strong opinions to share.  You never know what you will enjoy until you try it and that does not happen unless you force yourself out of your comfort zone. The biggest effect of blogging is that it has enhanced my own ability to observe. I have learned a lot from blogging, both about myself and the world.  I think deeply about and ponder over issues more than ever.  For a person from a small town with big dreams, a person in a minority in my industry even after twenty years, the opportunity to share my opinions and having my own voice is a huge asset. I am glad to be in this age of the social media. While trying to help myself by expressing my opinions, getting out of my comfort zone and standing up against wrong, I hope I have made a small difference to the community in my own way.

Comfort Zone – author Unknown

I used to have a comfort zone where I knew I wouldn't fail.
The same four walls and busywork were really more like jail.
I longed so much to do the things I'd never done before,
But stayed inside my comfort zone and paced the same old floor. 

I said it didn't matter that I wasn't doing much.
I said I didn't care for things like commission checks and such.
I claimed to be so busy with the things inside the zone,
But deep inside I longed for something special of my own.

I couldn't let my life go by just watching others win.
I held my breath; I stepped outside and let the change begin.
I took a step and with new strength I'd never felt before,
I kissed my comfort zone goodbye and closed and locked the door.

If you're in a comfort zone, afraid to venture out,
Remember that all winners were at one time filled with doubt.
A step or two and words of praise can make your dreams come true.
Reach for your future with a smile; success is there for you!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint

I have been talking to young folks who are planning to go to college or just finishing their undergraduate degrees and getting ready for graduate school.  Most of their questions have been around what area they need to choose or pursue.

Marathon photo
Photo by Luiz Eduardo, available under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
In India, the conventional, traditional thought process has always been to pursue being a Doctor or an Engineer. Although I am an engineer and chose the traditional path, I don’t necessarily agree with that thought process. One can be successful in any field provided one has passion, dedication and discipline to achieve it.

One has a 40-year career and I understand that it is very difficult for an 18-year old to visualise or think ahead that many years. Typical careers span from your twenties till your early sixties. Do you have to work that many years? Not necessarily, but for those fortunate people who enjoy their work and have a fulfilling career would stick to their career for that many years. In those 40 years, business models, technologies, markets and interests will change, and one has to be ready to adapt to these changes.  For instance, on the product front, mobile phones have replaced pagers, and while PCs have been selling since the 80s, the market is slowly shifting from PCs to tablets and mobile devices. From a geographical point of view, the number of jobs in Emerging Markets is growing and the markets are also growing in these countries at a rapid rate. From a people point of view, the buying power of women is increasing and micro-transactions are increasing. Products need to cater to different sets of people. 

We are already in the middle of globalisation. The world is only going to get smaller. Young folks need to be more aware of the problems and the solutions across the world now more than ever. Their products will need to cater to worldwide customers. They also need to be able to work with people of different cultures and different backgrounds. I would encourage them to study and/or work in a different country. Living and working with people of a different culture is an education by itself.

Finally, and definitely most importantly is to choose a field that you are passionate about. I was watching the Mars Curiosity rover land on Mars on TV. The celebration at the successful landing of the rover from the NASA engineers caught my eye. Their celebration and cheer came from their heart and  their passion to see the Rover through a successful landing.

One of the biggest regrets I have is that I hurried through college. Make the best of the opportunities the university has to offer.You make friends for life and you start developing your network at the university. Even today, the learnings from playing team sports in school help me to resolve people conflicts at work. It also taught me to have the perseverance, to hustle to get the work done. Sadly, many people choose the best colleges, not because they like the curriculum, the subject, the professors, but to get the top paying jobs. In a few years, they become disillusioned with work. Whether you choose to be an Engineer, a doctor, a musician, a painter or anything else you have to really give it your all and be passionate about your chosen field. Only then will you be successful. The definition of Successful is different for different people. For some it could be money, for some it could be the impact you make, for some the enjoyment on a daily basis, for some it could be about helping others, and for some it could be about creativity and learning.  For most people it is likely some or all of the reasons above.

My advice to young people getting out of college would be that they need to get their fundamentals right with a wide base so that they can quickly adapt to new technologies and market. Your career is like a maze. Every time you think you have hit a dead end, you turn around and check if the next path will take you to your goal. Don't give up... It is a marathon; it is about having determination and the willpower to make it to the end goal against all odds. Be ready to run the marathon and not just the sprint. Pace your career and enjoy every minute of it...

Thursday, 30 August 2012

To trust or not to trust

You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you will live in torment unless you trust enough.” -- Frank Crane.

Trust is a matter of the heart and the mind. It is both an emotional and a rational function. It is how you feel and perceive a person based on their integrity, ethics, their intent, their words and actions, and their capabilities. 

From a personal life point of view, I believe there is a lot to gain by trusting people around you. Trusting that there is someone in your life watching your back gives you huge peace of mind.  

Trust is important in the workplace too. You need to have trust in your manager, your peers and your team. Employees will give their best if they trust their manager. Building trust in your peers is also very important and possibly the most difficult relationship. While you may be competing for the same rewards, it is also important to build that mutual respect. It’s a great work environment when peers have mutual respect and trust each other's capabilities, ethics and intent. 

Most goals and achievements are attainable through a team effort. Managers cannot sign up for goals, especially the stretch goals, if they cannot trust their team. When there is lack of trust between the manager and employees, there is lack of emotional connection and this leads to many more issues – like insecurity, taking credit for others work, trying to get visibility through incorrect ways.

Good managers usually are able to gain the trust of their team.  They stand by their teams during good times and bad times. In typical work environments many times things do not go as planned. The team needs to trust that their manager will understand and not hold it against them.

Good managers also give respect to individuals in their team. They trust the capabilities of their team members and will depend on them. The saying “give respect and then take respect” actually works well at the work place. I have developed a healthy respect for my managers who have respected me for my capabilities. This turns into trust over time. When the manager trusts the team, the team also trusts the manager over time. Clearly, trust is reciprocal.

Good managers are typically secure about their own abilities and capabilities. They are more ready to help build the careers of the individuals on their teams and help them reach their full potential. This helps the team build faith and trust in the manager. When managers are secure about their capabilities, they are also secure in showing their vulnerabilities to their team. One of my senior managers was talking to me about speaking in front of large audience.  While he did speak often to large audience he told me that his stomach always crunches before a large meeting. This put me at ease for my next talk. The fact that this manager could share his vulnerabilities to help me gained my trust in him.

While trust can build a happy life and a good environment at the work place, it can also be very risky and you can get hurt when people you trust deceive you. But being deceived does not mean one can lose faith in people around them. You cannot go on everyday thinking that people around you are out to "get" you and are ready to back stab you.  It is only with the trust of your team that you can plan big and achieve those difficult goals. Someone has to extend the hand first for the handshake -- maybe the manager/leader of the team reaches out and takes the first step towards building trust. While it may seem more emotional than rational to trust people almost blindly, I think you gain a lot and eventually gain the trust of people around you. 

I agree with Frank Crane...  For my own peace of mind, I would like to be an optimist and trust most people around me. Wouldn't you?

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Happy Team – Happy Family

I have been visiting many engineering colleges the past few months. Many of the colleges talked about collaboration between the different Engineering schools/Departments and how they encourage students to work with students from other disciplines on their under graduate projects. I visited some top schools like MIT and Stanford and they were also discussing collaboration. They select the top students from the world. These students get there because they are very competitive. In such a high powered student community how would one build and encourage a collaborative team?
The same goes to Engineering teams in the corporate world. We hire the best and promote the best among them to senior levels. By nature the senior team is competitive. How do you take this competitive senior team and expect them to be collaborative?
With true collaboration, the collective results are typically higher than what each participant could achieve individually. Collaboration cannot be coerced; it has to be part of the team’s culture. Many companies have large workforce and large teams. Each team cannot get competitive with each other; rather they need to work together towards a common goal.
Collaboration also allows for people of different background to come together and share their experience. Over the years, I have been involved in variety of teams. I was part of a team where you feel inclusive, comfortable expressing your opinion, brainstorming to come up with good ideas. Even activities with co-workers outside of work place feel comfortable and I have tried water skiing something I had never done before. However, there are teams where you feel disconnected and not included and just going out for a team lunch feels awkward.
The review process in most companies actually promotes competition between peers rather than collaboration. Many companies end up rewarding managers and employees who compete with each other. This sets a wrong precedent and promotes unwanted behavior. I have seen managers/employees take credit for others’ work and peers being at war. Managers even are competitive with their own employees.
Collaboration is most important in companies going global. Being in India for a few years now and have always been considered an underdog to other more experienced geographical locations. If the more experienced teams start competing and not collaborating with the underdogs, the new teams will never grow. Studies have shown that it is more beneficial for companies having multiple development centers across the globe. It is not only for cost benefit but also because the markets are shifting.
I believe collaboration is a culture that has to be nurtured and even pushed by leadership. It may not come naturally. Collaboration requires team work, mutual respect and trust amongst the team members. It is up to the leader to set a collaborative culture in the team. A few things that the leader can do are: Set a common goal which compels the team to work together; Set up clear roles and responsibilities; Reward employees who help their peers and who truly collaborate.
Even companies are getting together to collaborate on standards. Open source development promotes collaboration across developers around the world. We have Wikipedia – a source for information, a collaborative effort to organize information. The Information technology world is moving towards collaboration. Can we afford to have non-collaborative teams within the company in these modern days?
A collaborative team is a happy family and “Happy Family is but an earlier Heaven” according to George Bernard Shaw. I want to be part of a happy team and a happy family. Don’t we all?

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Technology - A vehicle for work-life balance

With companies going global, it is almost unrealistic to expect teams to be at the same site or in the same time zone.  I moved to India over 8 years ago and since then my project teams have been spread across the world.  This also means that there are more co-ordination meetings at odd times. Work is no more a 9am to 5pm job. There is really no separation between office hours and time for life outside of work. So how do we balance work and life?

For about 6 months I have had 8:30pm to 9:00pm meetings every night. I have had to co-ordinate projects across 3 time zones. It has been a balancing act during the weekends to ensure that I attend these meetings and also be there for my family, be it a birthday party, Friday night family dinner, a music concert with my spouse or an outing with my friends.

One weekend we decided to visit family who live a few hours away from us. We needed to drive on a Friday evening so that we could spend the weekend with them. But I have a regular 8:30pm to 9:00pm meeting which I have to run. I took this meeting on the highway with Internet and global conference call connectivity. I was able to run the meeting effectively and nobody on the call realized that I was on the road. I enjoyed the rest of the weekend with family.

A month ago, we had a software release which had already been running late. A couple of bug fixes needed to be made and post that the software had to go through Quality Assurance and then released with proper notification to all stake holders. My job was to co-ordinate between the various teams, ensure all work was done and approve the release on a Saturday night. As most typical projects, this did not happen on time during the day and was postponed to the evening. I had already bought tickets and was looking forward to a music concert with my friends. On most days, I would have chosen to stay with the team and follow up on the project but this time, I chose to go along with my friends and still follow up on the project. Thanks to my Blackberry, I was in touch with the team and was able to effectively make a decision for the release with SMS, Chat, emails and phone calls. While it took time away from the concert I was still able to enjoy 95% of the concert. I would rather enjoy 95% of a concert than missing it completely.

While I generally advocate working on one specific thing at a time and giving it your full attention, these exceptions have helped me be around family for the fun stuff. I have participated in meetings in hotel lobbies, restaurant parking lots, stairwells outside movie theatres and while driving my kid and his friends from a birthday party. We did not have chat software, messenger communications, SMS, mobile phones and mobile Internet connectivity technology about 2 decades ago and it is simply great that all these innovations have come up in the recent years. I also need to thank my industry for accepting all these innovations as part of regular work.

Most people believe issues with work life balance is for women only. I disagree. Work life balance is required for everyone - men, women and children. One has to have a good balance to be productive at work, to enjoy life and to keep good health.

As I have thought about it some more, I am amazed at the technology we have today that helps us make our life so much better. It has helped me merge my work life and life outside of work so well. One also has to make sure that these technologies do not get in the way of quality time with family and friends. You always have the option of turning off or ignoring these gadgets at your will. And where there is a will there is a way – a will to balance between work and home.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Living on the Jagged Edge!

"Indecision becomes decision with time". Instead of taking control of the situation, sometimes we let the situation take control of us.  Decision making  - an essential leadership skill - is identifying and choosing alternatives based on the needs and demands of a given situation. Timely, well considered decisions can lead the team to success.

Decision making is part of every ones life. On a daily basis, we make decisions on what time we get up to what we eat. We consciously make some of the decisions , some we let others make a decision for us and some we let the situation make the decision for us. When we have people depending on us, when we are in a position of control such as being a parent, being a professional where company depends on you, you cannot always let the situation control you. While Decision Making is a complete science of its own, I have found the “Jagged Edge” decision making technique very useful. This was taught to me informally by my senior manager about 10 years ago and has always come in handy while making decisions. I fondly named it the “Jagged Edge” decision making technique.

Decision making does not necessarily need for the decision maker (DM) to be an expert in the domain. You need to be able to ask the right questions and be able to judge the people giving the answers. The decision maker needs to evaluate all the information he/she has and base the decision on it. DMs typically fail because they do not choose the right advisers, or don’t listen to them when they should.
If you are working on cutting edge technology, most times all the data necessary to make the decision is not available. Consider the following graph, where an activity A has to be completed. It would take an estimated duration of T and effort E if done in absolutely the most efficient way. But typical projects would take the jagged route shown in the graph. At the point O, the DM would not have all the information necessary, but makes a decision to follow the path OC. If all the data was available to the DM, the decision would have been OB – the most efficient way. The DM has to keep in mind that he/she didn’t have all the data and is taking some risks. The risks have to be well understood, documented and have a time line to reevaluate. The team starts working along the path OC, when the trigger for the risk time line is up (at C), the DM reevaluates the decision and needs to readjust to CD and DF and sets a checkpoint at F.

Assume at point O, the DM didn’t make a decision because all the data is not available. No progress would have been made. But instead the team was able to make progress towards their goal of activity A. There was some wasted effort but large percentage was towards activity A. Seasoned leaders make quick decisions and re-planning such that the jagged edges look smoother. Sometimes, the teams under such leaders don’t even feel the readjustments.
You need to be aware that the decision is not taking the team in a completely different direction and eventually end up with 100% wasted work. Most times, with experience and Gut Feel, you will be able to drive the team in the right direction, if not the most efficient path.
Some things overlooked by DMs are to not set a trigger point based on the availability of next set of data, not understand the risks due to non-availability of data, and to re-evaluate at the trigger point. Another important item often overlooked in implementation is the need for buy in from the implementers. There is a need to not only explaining the benefits but to also explain the risks and drawbacks involved. Implementers will only support your decision if they understand both the risks and benefits and DMs commitment towards the decision.
Going back to the blog starting point - "Indecision becomes decision with time" - don't let the situation take control of you, take control of the situation. Even with lack of complete data you will be able to make progress most times.  If you delay the decision making, eventually the situation takes over and you are only left with very few alternatives.