Monday, 26 December 2011

Why I Continue to Work in the Technology Industry

One common question that I get asked is, “Why are you still working?”  I don’t understand that question because there is still so much more for me to accomplish and give to the technology industry.
It all started for me in high school. My high school was next to an Engineering college and I would ride my bicycle past the college every day. I always assumed I would go to the Engineering College next to my high school. This was an easy decision since there is precedence in my family with both my dad and brother having studied Engineering. I also had a good aptitude for Math and Science. 
In college, I was surprised to find that the female-to-male ratio was skewed. Although I live in a country which has a skewed gender population ratio, I still found it surprising. I come from a family where it is very much accepted to be a daughter, a wife, a mom, and a working woman at the same time. I now know that it was atypical of Indian families. When I started working, I found that the female to male ratio was again skewed across the industry and across countries. As years passed by more and more female peers dropped out (that is a topic for another blog). Their approach to problems, solutions, communication and leadership style may have been different but I still found them being very effective. Is it possible that some senior managers did not recognize this difference in approach and effectiveness?

I have had the luxury of having some of the best managers to work with who have helped me build my career. Having said that, some people have made it uncomfortable for me to work but overall it has been a positive and rewarding experience. Companies want “out-of-the-box thinkers” – the very fact that I have stayed in this industry for over 20 years and plan to continue, should make me an out-of-the-box thinker, shouldn’t it?! But at the end of the day, I still don’t see myself very different from others. I want the same things (impact, growth, recognition, job satisfaction, etc.) in my career as most other people.
With each year passing, I realize that there are so many more things to learn. Even with over 20 years, I have never done a boring repetitive job. I enjoy having ownership – whether it is a project, a product or a team. I enjoy coming up with goals that are very challenging and then convincing everybody to go after those goals. I celebrate my successes and feel sad about my failures. I enjoy working with and observing my seniors and learning from them. I enjoy hearing from my teams and not just their experiences at work but also their experiences outside of work. I enjoy spending time with the young folks in the industry and understanding them – makes me feel closer to my kids. I enjoy looking at the history of companies, products and teams.
In my twenties, when I was based in the US, I believed in the all-American dream of working hard when you are young and retiring rich early. In my early thirties I realized it is not only financial reasons that make me come to work, it is also about being part of something big and meaningful, and yes, the glory and satisfaction of doing something BIG – whether it was building the first Giga Hertz CPU or the first Indian CPU design, it was always something that I believed in and wanted to be part of.
I am in my forties now.  I would like to continue in the tech industry and keep looking for the next big thing to be a part of. My kids are grown up. For those young moms and dads who are finding it hard to do the balancing act, my only advice is to continue working; it gets easier as the kids get older. You will even find time to write a blog!
So, why do I continue to work – because this is my industry; this is one place where I can make an impact, a difference to the industry, community, company, team and to myself. Why would I not continue to be here for another 20 years? I wish though, that most of my female peers didn’t have to opt out and could reach their potential – there is so much they can give to the industry…

Sunday, 11 December 2011

If Life Offers you Lemons, Make the best Lemonade

I was a panelist at a conference last year and one of the concerns from the audience was, “My manager always asks me to do unappealing jobs and I am not able to say no. Hence I always end up with those types of jobs”. Having managed large teams, I believe that there are all kinds of jobs and all of them need to get done. It is true that some jobs are considered more appealing than others by some folks. However, it is possible to make a difference with any job you have.
A few years ago, I was asked by my manager to take up a Verification Management job. I had worked on all aspects of CPU design and was interested in continuing with design. But the available job was in verification. Typically verification teams are very large teams and the management had confidence in me to pull this through. For some reason, the company had lost most of the senior verification members. It was considered a suicide mission to take over at that point in time. I was open to taking such risks and I decided to take this new challenge in my life.
As I took over the verification job, the management changed. I knew the new management was very anxious and concerned if I could pull this off.  I started the team with a handful of people and we were clearly the underdogs. The goal of the verification team is to certify the quality of the product.  Having just moved from a failed project, there was huge pressure in ensuring that this new project was successfully completed. The team morale and confidence was very low. In addition, there were multiple reasons why verification was not considered THE career choice – scope of verification, lack of process, lack of stake holder management, perception of  being a support organization, etc… - I needed to fix this as well.
I approached the verification management job just like I approached any other problem solution. I split up the problem into multiple pieces, prioritized them and started working on each of them. As I got more involved, I found that Verification Management very difficult and challenging compared to managing the design team. As a Verification Manager you have impact on the product quality, features, feature development and implementation, schedule, people management and cost. Every bug that is not found pre-manufacturing has a direct impact on cost and schedule. In CPU chip design, cost is on the order of millions of dollars and schedule impact of a quarter or more. Without going into more details and cutting straight to the results, we had a very successful product at end of the year. The quality was so good that it was productized a quarter earlier than planned. You get quality by design not by chance. The quest for quality should come from within each engineer and I had the satisfaction of having inculcated this culture.

At this point I knew that my job was only half-done. I still needed to make verification THE career choice for an engineer. I asked to continue as a verification manager for the next project too and I was given additional responsibilities of handling multiple projects.  At the end of the five year journey as a verification manager, we had completed our second product and it was as successful as the first product and again a quarter ahead of plan. The verification team had grown from a handful of people to over 100+ people and we had helped many other programs in the company in addition to our own projects. The team morale and the confidence were at its highest and I knew the team would be able to deliver to any challenges that it faced in the future.
Few months later, when we were very short of designers, I had to ask one of my best verification engineers to move to design from verification. Five years earlier he had moved to verification from design along with me.  He declined!!  He had made verification THE career choice for himself. At that point, I knew I had done my job well.
I believe in giving my best shot in everything I do – on the job, on the field, as a parent. It is what you make out of that job that matters. You need to look for new opportunities, look for the next step up, but don't forget what you already have. For those who don’t believe that they have had the opportunity, see what you can do with the current opportunity you have. It worked for me…

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Why Should a Fish Climb a Tree?

 “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will go its whole life believing it is stupid.”  This is so true. Over the years I have received feedback from my managers, parents and mentors. Some of the feedback has been very useful and some has been totally useless. 
One of the most important roles of a manager is to give the right feedback at the right time. I have seen managers giving feedback only when they are forced due to company policy, say at the annual review. I like to get feedback from a person who is observing me on a daily basis and giving me pointers. Pointing out how to make things better with the right examples and right time would make feedback very useful. I have had my “A-ha” moments with feedback given this way.
The feedback has to be meaningful to the employee.  The idea of giving feedback is to help your employees improve themselves. Calling names such as “Bully” or “Stupid” do not give any insight to the employee unless good examples are given. Even worse is when the feedback is contradictory. As an employee getting such feedback, you are left wondering what your manager meant.
A common mistake that I have seen managers make (I am also guilty of this and I see parents making it too) is to try to make their employee someone they are not – making them fit to a preset mold. This brings me to the starting point of this blog – why do we make the fish climb a tree? Why do we try to turn the fish into a monkey? Even if it tried its whole life, it would not excel. Instead, if we believed that each of our employees is a genius and brings a special value to the team and then make full use of their talents, the team will benefit.
I learnt this the hard way when my son was 4 years old. Wanting to make him a math genius, I signed him up for Kumon classes which emphasizes learning math through repetitive activities. I learnt that it is impossible to make my son do repetitive jobs. He is good at math but he cannot learn it the Kumon way. Each person has an inherent personality and talent. I have had to be very creative in recognizing and bringing out his talents.
One piece of feedback I have recently received  is that my English is bad. At 40+ years of age, it is going to be very difficult to fix this. I agree that my English isn’t the best, but the bigger question is - is it good enough? I seem to be able to connect to hundreds of people with the language I have. One of the best speakers I know mixes languages almost every other sentence but boy, is she a good speaker!! She kept the 400 people crowd engrossed in her speech. One of the authors I like is Chetan Bhagat. He has very vibrant characters in his stories – he mentions that his language is not technically the best and would never win a Bookers award but his books sell.
As a manager, as a parent you need to get the best out of people. Focus on enhancing people’s positive points. Reiterating what they are incapable of doing is not going to achieve results. If you notice that the feedback to your employee is the same year after year, probably the feedback is not being meaningful to the employee. Make a fish flip and do a somersault in the water but don’t make it a clumsy tree climber. Don’t make the fish think it is stupid because it is a clumsy tree climber. Make it believe it is a great swimmer and can do even better.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Contagious Leadership

Microprocessor design was a passion that began in college and has stayed with me even after 23-24 years. In our 3rd year of Engineering, I was introduced to the 8085 Intel microprocessor as part of the curriculum. Professor V. was very friendly and gave the students a lot of room to try out the different experiments and projects. I was enamored by the Architecture, Assembly level language and the SDK kit that we could do all our experiments on. I literally spent my 3rd and 4th year in the microprocessor lab. I was hooked on CPUs and microprocessors.  I ended up taking many architecture courses in my graduate school and many more after I joined work.
When I was about 2 years into my career, I got a job at IBM in the CPU design team.  The team was very large and we were working on a CPU that was at least 4x in performance compared to the best performing CPU available in the market at that time. I was very excited to have landed a job in a CPU design team and finally I had my dream job.

Few months into my job at IBM is when I met the Mr. R, our design manager of the project . He was a very good people manager and he would walk into people’s offices, sit down with them and have casual talks. He made it so comfortable, that I could talk to him very openly. Here was a senior manager who led a 200+ people team – not just any team, a hardcore CPU design team, took the time to talk to a junior person like me and would discuss issues that I am facing.  This is when I decided that I wanted to be a design manager – not just any design manager but one like Mr. R. who could lead a cutting edge technology team and also relate to the people.
This is what I mean by contagious leadership. You just want to be like them. This was how the journey began for me; this is how I set my goals. These goals drove me through all the difficult times of work-life balance and kept me going through 20+ years of my career. Simple efforts by leaders make a big impression on people.  The leaders probably do not realize the impact they have but it takes people through a long way.
I met many more leaders that I want to emulate post IBM. It reminds me of the Jungle Book song “I wanna be like you. I wanna talk like you. Walk like you, too. You'll see it's true. Someone like me. Can learn to be
Over time, your goals do change.  I have moved on from the CPU design teams. But, what has remained constant is that I want to have positive impact on others. I want to be a contagious leader too...

Who am I and Why do I want to Blog

I am putting this site together to jot down my thoughts and learn from others. I want to make blogging a way to make the tech industry a close knit community. I think it is wonderful that people share their thoughts and one can learn many things from bloggers all over the world.
I have been in the hardware industry for over 20 years and have now recently started working on software products also. I went to graduate school at Georgia Tech and worked in multiple companies (most of them global) as an individual contributor, technical lead, architect, and as a manager of large organizations (100+). I have worked in some of the largest computer companies and small companies. I have worked in US and in India and equally appreciate both the cultures.
I have had the most interesting experiences – some great successes, some dismal failures. I have met the most interesting people, most humane people and some difficult people!  I have met some of my best friends here.  I have had many wonderful managers and mentors that have helped me grow and learn a lot over the past 20 years.  I am going to share and question some insights and observations.
I am married to a techie for over 20 years. We have two lovely boys. I learn a lot about people management by parenting my kids and handling my husband. I take with me a lot of learning from my work to home and vice-versa.
This is my industry, this is what I chose, and it’s my home away from home. I want to make it a better place for us and our future generations.