Monthly Archives: November 2011

Paratha Rage – The insanity of winning

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I had just returned from my morning jog and my daily bonding with the pensioners who run a laughter club in the locality. Scanning through the morning newspaper, I stopped short. A 27 year old MBA grad has been murdered at a Delhi Dhaba by a computer engineer and his friend over who will be served a paratha first. I recoiled as I read the details of the gory attack. Sympathetized with the hapless father who, only a few hours back, had met his son who had told him that he intended to make the city his home. And felt extremely angry about the pointlessness of it all. A brawl over who would get the first paratha. In any other context, this would have been hilarious. Here it was tragic.

The most disturbing aspect of the incident is it is not an isolated one. Not a freak murder you can pass off as the doing of a psychopath. These are well-to-do kids with foreign education and ‘good’ upbringing. Yet they run over pedestrians in trying to outrace a car, sabotage their friend’s work to come first, cheat, lie, bribe and even kill their way to the top. Blame it on a fiercely competitive nation of a billion plus people. Blame it on parents who scare you saying you either top your class or the new bicycle will be given to your brother. Blame it on a society which plays an unnaturally high premium on winning and a correspondingly high penalty on losing. And worst of all a messy system of justice which lets you get away with a ‘hook or a crook’. The result is a generation high on competiveness but not on the spirit of fair play that a competition has to come with. A generation which will rather cheat than fail, or hit rather than fall.

Long back I had read Abraham Lincoln’s letters to his son’s tutor where he asked the gentleman to teach his son that it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat. That it is more important to stop and help a fellow-runner who has fallen down than to win the race. I have seldom come across more profound thoughts on personal integrity and leadership. That humanity scores over all podium finishes. Yes it is important to win and it is what you should strive for. Two points of caution however. Winning on a less than clear conscience is a heavier burden than a loss. And second, pick your battles. Stop this madness of winning every race. If you have to race your way to the toilet and be the first to relieve yourself, your next stop should be with a counselor. Aggression is best left to the boxing ring and there too you have to play by the rules of the game.

A few words of advice for the parents as well. Stop eulogizing the champ culture. Punish instances of bullying and cheating. Tell your kids, assure them that it is absolutely ok to be not finish at the top of every race. The real race after all is only with the self.

The Personal Cloud

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Everyone has been talking cloud. And when I say everyone, I do not mean the elite group of techies or their CIO. Cloud has transcended mere techno-speak to emerge as a full-fledged business term. The powerful imagery behind a cloud and the infinite benefits it professes has made it a hugely sellable concept. Ofcourse with that has come the hyped up marketing literature making the cloud to be more than it is. And the gullible shopper who will buy anything sold packaged within fluffy clouds. For instance I was told about a gentleman who is paying a service provider a premium to get his blog hosted on the cloud. With no ostensible benefit. The fact is there remains a lot of confusion about what cloud means for the individual end-user. The same is true for business but then they hopefully have intelligent CIO’s who can cut through the cloud fluff. So I decided to look at cloud from the individual user point of a view. Look at the benefits it offers us. And hopefully make a case against paying a premium for a blog in the cloud.

Let’s do a bit of time travel. Say about 10/ 15 years back. You used Hot Mail or Yahoo mail to keep in touch or conduct your business. Rediff et al also offered emails with your business domain. You used Yahoo briefcase to store and share documents online. You took your diaries to the web when Blogger was launched in 1999. You bought, sold, auctioned on the web and an invisible hand ensured you can order and receive, from the comforts of your home, a curio available at the other end of the world. As the web evolved you started putting your photos online, asked it to calculate your insurance, shared your videos and so on. In essence you had the ability to access information, share materials, use services such as a photo upload from anywhere in the world. So you have been on the cloud atleast a decade before you knew it.

Cloud in very simple terms refers to a service model which allows you to distribute and access information, applications, resources over a network. And as I have explained in the previous paragraph you have been doing most of these things for a long time. Honestly the cloud is not a path-breaking new technology. What it is old wine in a very smart and useful new bottle which has increased many times over the value of the wine. Cloud is a smart business model which has taken the software out of the CD and the documents out of the hard-drive. It has fed off the power of the internet, the rise and rise of 3G and 4G, advancement in storage and virtualization solutions to create the equivalent of the water supply and tap in IT. You turn on the tap and use as much IT as you need. You shut off the tap and pay for as much IT you have used.

For example take computer games. Computer games evolve at a neck-breaking speed. And very soon you are stuck with stacks of CDs you do not like to play with anymore. Imagine if on the other hand you had a virtual library which lets you access your favourite games for a selected number of hours in exchange for a nominal fee. Or the other example where you run a small magazine and work with a group of freelancers, have no dedicated office and you do not want to invest in costly MS Office license for the staff. You have an alternative. Use a cloud based solution which lets you create, edit and distribute documents online. Add to it a mix of collaboration tools which lets you stay in touch. All at a fraction of a full-fledged licensing cost. The Microsoft Office 365 comes at a fee of $6 per user per month while the Google suite of productivity apps is priced at $5 per user per month.

The Cloud of Possibilities

So the cloud has obvious benefits for an end user. The next time you want to procure a costly software you will do well to check if there are equivalent services over the internet which does it. Carefully read the fine print and the billing rules and do a quick calculation. Cloud bill rates apply on a per month per user or on a more granular level on a per hour basis. See where you are making the cutoff using the simple formula

Then analyse whether and how soon you are likely to reach the cut off period. Your cloud or not to cloud decision will depend on the answer.

A few words of caution before you jump on the cloud. Cloud comes with its fair share of performance, security and operational issues. If you are going to work off the cloud, you need a reliable connectivity to the internet. If you are on patchy broadband, playing games on the cloud may not be such fun. Needless to say your documents are usually safer with you than on a public server which may be prone to hacking, spamming, etc. So do check out the security credentials of the service provider you are entrusting your collaterals with. And to reiterate do not fall for a service because it comes with a cloud tag. WordPress, Blogger, Youtube, Flickr all operate on the cloud pattern without them being exclusively branded as cloud services. And these offer most of the utilities at no charge. So if someone is charging you to put your blog on the cloud, you are being taken for a ride. Do not, as I put it, fall for the cloud-trap.

Shorn of the frills, cloud computing does help the individual user. There is also secondary benefit that cloud offers in form of lower enterprise IT costs- a benefit that a business can then pass on to end users. But cloud-gazers need to get real and see things in perspective without all the fancy rain and monsoon metaphors. Make the most of cloud without being deluged.

Volunteer to save your soul

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Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
I touched your life
You healed my scar

The year was 2006. I was going through a rather rough patch. Relationship blues, a career which suddenly seemed to have stalled and a sagging morale. I had reached the wallows of depression and my gloomy forebodings did nothing to help me. What did help me was or rather were the children of an NGO I had volunteered to teach at. I used to go to this place every weekend to teach Mathematics to the children there. Well I ended up being an English, a History and a drawing teacher too. Those couple of hours I spent with the children used to have a tremendous uplifting effect. On a day I was feeling particularly guilty and blaming myself for everything that went wrong, a kid came up to me said – ‘You are so nice didi. I love coming to your classes.’ Magic words! I started spending more time with the children and buoyed by the positive energy crawled back to take charge of my life. People spend a fortune on various forms of therapy. I recommend children-therapy. And it costs nothing but love.

Yes volunteering can really change your life. The way we generally look at volunteering is from the give-perspective. Giving a portion of your time, resources, and abilities for generally a good cause. There’s nothing wrong with this definition. But it overlooks a very significant part of volunteering – what you as a volunteer get out of it. Because you get so much more than you give. And I am talking about some very objective benefits here – improved people skills, developing a strong network, a symbiotic relationship with the community, valuable life skills, and practical bankable experience. All of which are critical to your success in any aspect of life. Whether you are applying for a MBA program or being called upon to manage a difficult team. You have the right experience and skills from your volunteering work to give you a clear edge over your peers.

Volunteers at a school function

So how do you go about it? What is the right age to start? What are the volunteering options? Which opportunities should you take up? Are there any things you should watch out for when you take up a volunteer role? Pertinent questions. Some of which keep people from taking the volunteering leap. So let’s answer them and simplify volunteering for you.

Volunteering actually is pretty simple. Some of us are regular good Samaritans who go about helping the elderly lady cross the road or rescuing a stranded kitten. These are ‘volunteering’ in its most rudimentary form. The next step is to put a more structured framework round it. So go ahead and join a community group. Or an organization such as a Rotary club. If you think there is no club or organization where you can do your kind of work, create one. I had met a retired cop in Crawley, a small suburb of London. She had formed a group of high-school students who manned the traffic in front of a primary school. The lady was not only using her ex-cop skills to render a valuable community service, she was also passing on invaluable skills to the students who worked with her.

When do you start? Earlier the better. Parents will be doing a great favour to their children if they actively encourage them to volunteer. Unfortunately parenting especially in India seems to be all about pushing children to finish on top of everything. Leaving them with very little time to bond with their siblings leave alone the community. However volunteering can teach them to be winners for life. Volunteer at the local library, church or animal shelter. Volunteer to paint the walls or plant saplings. Bond with nature, with people with the world at large. Some schools have in-house volunteer programs and the students are required to take classes for underprivileged children, clean up roads, etc. Thus building up good, conscientious citizens of tomorrow while instilling attributes such as patience, kindness, discipline confidence which parents spend years to teach.

Next- what are the volunteering options? Infinite. And there are choices matching each type of skill set and inclination. Love to teach? Volunteer at a free school. Love music? Volunteer at a rock concert- need I tell you the obvious benefit. Love sports. Volunteer at the Olympics or a sporting event nearer to your home. Infact there are probably volunteering opportunities right under your nose. Join the local housing committee and volunteer to organize the next cultural programme. Some forms of volunteering can even be done from the comforts of your desk. Edit the newsletter for a local NGO. Most organizations reimburse your travel and other daily expenses you incur while volunteering. Some even pay a stipend. A case in point is the Vodafone Foundation. Check with the organization on the specifics of reimbursement or stipend.

Artist?Teach a kid to draw

As a volunteer you are putting in a lot of sincere effort to improve the community. So do you need to be cautious to ensure your hard work is actually relevant? Yes you do. Always check the credentials of the organization before you join it. Talk to existing members. Research on the net if the organization is likely to be there. Make sure the organization is what it claims to be. The second point you need to be cautious about is your own commitment. Because of its nature, volunteering does not come with a job contract. Which makes it very easy for you to walk you when you want to; not only leaving some people in lurch but also raising big question marks about your sense of responsibility. Do not volunteer unless you are sure you will be able to stick to your commitments. Third – maintain the highest level of personal integrity in your volunteering work. The beneficiaries in most cases are people at the bottom of the pyramid who are often a vulnerable lot. Deal with them with sincerity, empathy and integrity. And take back countless blessings and valuable lessons which will help you throughout your life.

There- you now have a list of ready reckoners for volunteering. So go on. And lend a helping hand. You will see a thousand feet walking with you. And a thousand prayers lighting up your world.

Where are the tech ladies?

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Two things prompted this article. Two very significant events. Gini Rometty being appointed as the first woman CEO of IBM. And the UNDP report ranking India as 134th on the gender inequality scale. Having been born in a well-off, liberal upper middle class family I have been fairly insulated from most of the anti-women practices or mindsets which have pushed India down the female development scale. Infact I was not aware of any disadvantage posed by my gender unless I had left my nest to pursue higher education and then ofcourse entered the sanctum of the Indian IT industry. And so when between Gini and Meg, women controlled two of the largest IT firms by revenue I decided to look at gender inequality in a different context –the Indian IT sector. And try to answer why there are so few women in leadership roles in the industry here.

For all the flak India is drawing for finishing below Pakistan and Bangladesh on the gender scale, we know that the employment scenario for women in white-collar jobs has been changing. There are more women in media, banking, advertisement, hospitality than a decade ago. And many of them in prominent leadership positions. When you shift to the highly successful IT industry on the other hand it is difficult to rattle off the names of 10 women leaders. Put aside the stray Neelam Dhawan. The leadership vacuum for women stares starkly in your face. Women seem to be falling off the edge while trying to transition to senior management or even middle management. Organizations meet their diversity goals by recruiting a number of women in start-up positions. And then give them little support or scope to grow into effective leaders. If you plot women across the organization hierarchies in IT, you are more likely to end up with a funnel. With a wide base and a severely constricted pipe through only a few bubble over to the top.

So where does the problem lie? Where does the leak in the pipeline occur? It actually starts much before girls and boys enter the workforce. Imagine you have had a birthday bash for your twin babies- a boy and a girl. The boy has been showered with blocks,jig-saw puzzles and hi-tech toys. And the girl with dolls. There is a certain amount of symbolism here. Women geeks are a rare, much-despised, much-avoided tribe. This is true to some extent all over the world. But it is particularly truer in India where such stereotypes are strongly etched. Women geeks are not good marriage materials! So they are inadvertently pushed to the ‘gentler’ art steams. Or are bullied out of science by their male peers or professors. So here is where the first leak occurs. Fewer women engineers. You have possibly lost some very good technology brains there.

Female engineering graduates are also routinely discouraged from entering the corporate corridors perceived largely as a man’s world. Women are ‘eased’ into academics or research. Which should have seen more women-driven technology research but for the fact that women are largely compelled to treat them as roosting grounds which they often abandon once marriage or motherhood takes over.

Even after all these leaks there are quite a many women graduates entering the IT behemoths. Once inside the grinds of the industry kick in. Longer working hours, night-shifts, frequent travels, long stints abroad. And a certain amount of drudgery in work. Everything that works against women specially once they are married and/ or become moms. And then they slowly get left out. She cannot stay late because she has to go home and cook. Night-shifts are a no-no. She cannot take that stint abroad because she would not get a nanny abroad. She cannot travel because her child is sick. If she has a supportive spouse, she can make many of these difficult choices. If she hasn’t, she has to stay contended to see men she joined with sail past her.

Lack of women in senior positions - The contributing factors

I did a survey with the IT girls Read the rest of this entry