Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Riding the High Waves

This month marks the completion of 21 years for me in the technology industry. What a wonderful ride it has been! I cannot think of any other industry that has gone through so many changes and innovation in the last two decades. 

The Brain Drain: In 1990, Indian-Americans were the 14th largest migrant population and numbered less than half-a-million and have grown to be the 2nd largest migrant population in the US. A large population has moved to US for post-secondary education making Indian-Americans the best educated minority group in US. Studies say that 1.6 million US citizens and permanent residents were Indian citizens at the time of birth. I am one of many who contributed to this statistic along with many of my peers and classmates from college  I was there when this happened...
I moved to US for my graduate studies and graduated during a recession post the first Gulf war. I was hired by one of the big computer companies out of college and was very thrilled to have landed a job. All my friends and classmates were also able to get a job even with the recession.
Little did I realize then it was the beginning of an era – an era of large population migration of computer engineers to the US, an era when the computer sales surged and the era of the internet – although internet was used earlier by the military and education institutions, it was suddenly made big by the business community 

The Dot Com Stock Market Boom: In the nineties, the usage of internet became more prevalent than ever. The period was marked by the founding of new Internet companies commonly referred to as dot coms. A combination of increasing stock prices, market confidence and available venture capital created this boom. Many startups were popping up everywhere and many companies were going public. Some of us, who didn’t know much about investing, became stars in the stock market. You invested in the stock market, you made money. Home prices surged in predominantly hi-tech areas (such as the Bay Area and Austin, etc.), the US economy grew and so did our salaries.  It was a great time for computer engineers with a very healthy job market, healthy paychecks  I was there again.

CPU Changes: Having been enamored by CPU architecture in college, I eagerly joined IBM's CPU design team. Along with the internet boom came the surge in sales of computers (desktops, servers, laptops) which changed the market for CPUs.
Compaq, DELL chose to build IBM PCs in the late eighties which made the already strong Win-Tel (Windows/MSFT-Intel) more stronger. To compete against Intel, Apple, IBM and Motorola (AIM)  formed a consortium in 1991 and the birth of PowerPC. This started the war of RISC versus the CISC. Originally intended for PCs, PowerPC CPUs have since become popular as embedded and high-performance processors.

In the server space, IBM dominated with their RISC for high end CPUs, which competed against the Alpha processors from DEC and PA-RISC from HP. HP partnered with Intel in 1994 to develop the IA-64 architecture. Industry analysts predicted that IA-64 would dominate in servers, workstations, and high-end desktops. Two decades later, the IA-64 has not met the expectations of the analysts.  

In 1990s and early 2000s, frequency was considered synonymous to performance. In 2000, AMD beat Intel to 1GHz mark. Intel had been a dominant leader of high performing CPUs and Intel stock went down. IBM was working on Power4 – a CPU for servers, internally code named GP (Giga Processor) which released in 2001. Power4 was the first processor with multiple cores in a single package and the war for the number of cores packed in a single package is still on going even after a decade.

Processors simply couldn’t push for frequency without managing the power consumption. A new metric for measuring performance was established – the power performance. Power performance measures the performance for a given Power consumption. With smart phones and tablets taking over the market,  power consumption is becoming more relevant than ever.

While working for three large computer companies, I am proud to say that I was there again and in the trenches – through the RISC versus CISC war, through the frequency war, through the power performance war and through the multi-core war.

Dot Com Bust: Late 1999 and early 2000 had multiple increases in interest rate and the US economy began to lose speed. The stock market crash of 2000–2002 caused the loss of $5 trillion. Many dot coms ran out of capital and were acquired or liquidated.  Sadly, many companies misreported finances and/or misused shareholders' money and their executives were rightly convicted of fraud. Enjoying the success of investing in the early nineties, many people continued to heavily invest in technology stocks. Many of them took a huge loss during the bust  I was there again but I wish I wasn't...

The India IT industry growth: Starting at around the same time, the Emerging Markets was going through a boom. In early 2000s, about 35,000 Indians returned to India from the United States. Being closer to family, the prospect of job opportunities and exposing our kids to Indian culture was very appealing. My family decided to move to Bangalore – the IT hub of India. Many companies were expanding to India and I was able to take a transfer through my company. There was even an article about my family moving to India in a US Newspaper. Again, we saw the housing prices go up in Bangalore, IT salaries increase and the number of jobs increase in services, software and hardware product companies.
My own CPU world also expanded with Intel, ARM, AMD, and IBM having set up shop in India. It was not easy to start a CPU team in India and after some failures, Intel released a couple of CPUs which were designed and validated in India and I am proud to say I was there again.

I am excited to be part of this generation who has ridden the high wave not once but twice. Many of us have seen good financial and career success during these years. But what I would like to measure our generation is the legacy we leave behind. What are the technological, cultural, educational values we are leaving behind for the upcoming next generation of engineers? We still have time to do something about it.

I also wonder what wave I am going to be riding in the next twenty years. A dream where there are  pervasive computers, wearable computers, technology in medical areas solving the world's problems, visualization such as 3D, virtual reality, big data problems solved with innovative networking and storage solutions, semi-conductor fabs and market growth in India, content easily ported across all platforms and forms, computers in homes across the world and information revolution, growth of women in technology... And being able to say to my grandkids that I was there too.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Bevu-Bella: Bitter and Sweet

Many regions in India celebrate the New Year in the March-April timeframe. It is called Ugadi – literally meaning the beginning of age. It is customary to eat a traditional mixture called “Bevu-Bella” during this festival. Bevu-Bella literally translates to Neem and Jaggery. Neem is very bitter and Jaggery is sweet.  This mixture symbolizes the fact that life is a mixture of bitter and Sweet. In fact, one asks for a good mix of the good and the bad, sweet and the bitter in the coming year.

New Year is a happy occasion – isn’t it? So, why would people look for bitterness? Why not ask for only sweetness? Why shouldn’t life be just all good? As I gave it more thought, I believe that you need to have some difficulties only then will you appreciate the sweetness more. 

I can think of many examples in my recent past:  I have had a minor surgery and haven’t been feeling well for the last 2 months. It is now that I realize how health is so important. I used to enjoy my Badminton game with my family on weekday nights. Due to poor health I haven’t played for a while and the whole family is missing it. I realized through this down time how much I have missed it and how much fun it has been for the  whole family. Sadly, I also realized that the family badminton days are limited since we will soon have to send our child away to college. I plan to get back to it as soon as I recover and make the best use of time while he is still at home.

When you want something in life and you eventually achieve or get it with a lot of hard work, it is a great feeling. It feels so good and you know it was worth the wait.While the hard work is not exactly bitterness, it isn’t sweet either. I do not think you will able to appreciate the wins as much if it came too easily.

In Steve Jobs' famous speech at Stanford, he mentions that being fired from Apple was the best thing that could have happened to him. He says, "It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick." He eventually made it back to Apple and took it through the second high wave.  I had been working in a company for many years. I was very content with my job and wouldn’t have looked for anything better. I was very disappointed when I needed to quit that role  but it made me realize how much I love what I do and that the possibilities are endless post that.

Yes. You do need the bitterness in life also – to introspect, to look out for the possibilities, to push yourself. As for the sweetness in my life, I have plenty of it.

Happy Ugadi!!! May this year bring you health, wealth, happiness and some bitterness too!

Related Links:

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Top 5 Reasons Why We Don’t Retain Women in the Technology Industry

I was at an annual spelling bee contest held in Bangalore. There were almost 1000 participants at the spelling bee – all of them short-listed students from various schools across the city. My son was one of the short listed students from his school and I was one of the many proud parents in the audience. When the top 10 finalists (the top 1%) were announced, I was pleasantly surprised to see that 9 were girls.

I recently attended a parent teacher meeting at my son’s school. There were many girls from my son’s class helping the parents and teachers through the process. I got to talking to the teacher later and asked her why none of the boys were among the helpers. She told me that only the girls volunteered and none of the boys had.

So, at a young age, girls are competitive and signing up for opportunities. Why is then we don’t hire equal number of women at work? Why is that of the fewer women who do join work, quit mid-way? Why are there hardly any women in senior positions? How do companies claim they have the best work force when they have neglected to hire and retain from 51% of the world’s population? Can we really afford to ignore this disparity in the workforce?

Most women who enter and remain in the IT industry do so in tough conditions. Many a time these situations are culturally biased.

Cultural Stereotypes: When I graduated out of school, I was not short listed for a job interview for a position with one of the big companies. I happened to talk to a recruiter on why I was not short listed since I was one of the top students in the class. He told me that if he hired a female and needed to send them on a business trip, he would need to spend on a companion whereas a male hire could travel by himself. At the age of 21, I had travelled to US from India 4 times and 3 of them were by just by myself. The recruiter never asked me about my travel experience and I never told him.  For a 21-year old that was looking to join the corporate world, this was a huge shock. This is an example of the cultural stereotypes I have had to fight against throughout my career.  Women have to learn to have a thick skin and not quit work due to such attitudes.

Married Women Syndrome: Another widespread assumption is that women cannot fully participate at work. Many a time, women are not considered for top opportunities because they have to take care of the family. Most times, women have to prove and explain to their seniors on how they can do the job even with their family obligation. In fact, women have to spend more energy convincing that they can do the job even with their family obligations than convincing about their skill-set and capability.  Sometimes these women are explaining this to their male boss who has younger children and has more family obligations.

The worst part is that many women also do not believe that they can take up the top jobs. What hurts women most is what I call the “Married Women Syndrome”. They do not push themselves during the early years. They end up doing non interesting work and then get bored. Married women usually have a husband who is bringing in the salary for a living. They have kids at home – a kid who looks up to his Mama and thinks the world of her.  She is faced with the situation where her boss is not so supportive, kid looks up to her and thinks the world of her, a job that is not so interesting and she really does not need the money to make a living. Given this situation, choice seems easy – women quit work. Instead, women in these positions can take those opportunities that their male counterparts deem too risky to take. These risky opportunities come with huge rewards and also make the job interesting.

I had a female manager who was reporting to me and I believed she had potential. The team was not readily accepting her as a manager and I talked to her about few improvements that she had to work on. Her immediate response was that this job was not so important to her and she would want to quit. I was baffled by her response but asked her to think about it and that I would support her through these tough times. A year later she had been accepted by her team and she and her team are doing very well. We need our leaders to be supportive during the tough times.

Penetrating the Old Boys Club: The main issue of being a minority in any situation is that you are considered different from others. Since we have more men at work than women, women automatically become the black sheep. Very few women are able to penetrate the old boys club. This excludes women from the informal networks (either at coffee or after work while playing tennis, etc.). Many discussions and subsequently decisions are made during these informal meetings and they help in enhancing skills, getting insights into the politics and power balance inside the groups and organizations. So as a senior manager if you are taking a male employee out for an informal drink, make sure you would do the same with your female employee too. Also encourage the teams to be inclusive in their informal get togethers. Women do not bring up issues with their peers and managers until they are ready to quit because managers and managers' manager are perceived to be part of the old boys club.

Performance Measurement: Another stereotype that hurts women is the measurement of their performance. Women are rated lower, leading to lower promotions and lower salary. Performance metrics are set by senior management – mostly men.  We do not create a work environment that enables people to be measured and promoted by performance but base it on whether they walk the walk and talk the talk like their senior management.

While communicating a decision and getting a buy in from the team, I usually go and explain the problems, issues and reasons that led to the decision first. I let my team ask their questions and arrive at the same conclusion so they are part of the decision too. While I don't have consensus-based decisions always, I try to do it most times. My male counterpart would probably go with the attitude of "I know best and this is what needs to be followed." Both work, both are effective in different circumstances but the senior leader needs to understand that both methods are effective.

One of the companies tracks indicators of women performance ratings. Every year the performance rating of women is lower than their male counterparts. This is meant to help women, but the ratings are tweaked each year after the performance review, that hurts the credibility of legitimately high performing women. Drawing a design analogy,  you put a design together to meet the performance goals.  You measure the performance at the end to verify. If the performance goals are not met, you do not tweak the indicator that shows the performance but instead you tweak the design!

Support and Sponsors: Lack of support from senior management is another reason for most women to drop out. Either the women do not realize the need for sponsors or the managers do not believe the need for women in the work place. Management cannot afford to ignore the lack of women in the work place. Companies cannot claim to have the best work force when their work force is from only half the world’s population. Somewhere amongst these women is an uncut diamond that would do wonders for the company.

It takes a change in mindset across companies, management, families and women employees themselves to nurture and grow women in the work place. We will slowly need to change the cultural bias. Women need to see more role models – women who are like them – to emulate and believe that they can strive for bigger roles.

Related Links:

Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders
Where are the Women in Information Technology?
The Tilted Playing Field: Hidden Bias in Information Technology Workplaces

Reference to this blog post in Kannada article in oneindia
Discussion on this article on "Anita Borg Institute for women and Technology"