Saturday, January 27, 2007

The most misunderstood brand - The IIT

It surprises me as globally the IIT brand is picking up faster and faster, how less we understand it in our own country. The typical industry considers IITs as a supply of brains that can be given any technical challenge and they can solve it. May be one of the reasons in the software companies there are ample opportunities to IITians as such. But then I find many managers complaining IITians hard to manage, never stick longer and many a times demotivated. I agree to many of these facts. In fact to a great extent it's all true. After all I give a lot of respect to our management for identifying the metrics, but I feel they miss the true problem identification.

Belonging to the instant heroics of an IITian gang is a big cultural shock. It may not be as shocking as being a part of a MENSA club but quite similar I would say. Being local heroes in their respective localities they suddenly realize they are a bunch of mediocres in a group of geniuses around them. There is a bit of show down that goes in the initial days but soon everyone realizes all their smarts are purely situational and not quite relevant in a complete scale. The true cultural development happens within the walls of the IITs. People excel in various fields but they all know that the guy next to him is equally good in some field he chooses for himself. A meritocratic society where leadership of any individual is purely situational. Everyone in an IIT has been part of some leadership activity of her own. Being a residential campus and apolitical atmosphere makes many people highly creative in their own ways.

The next comes to many IITians is when they leave the environment and come to the real world of the job market. The first realization of a system that is not necessarily a meritocratic culture is a sheer shock to many IITians. The appreciation of credible achievement is again another factor that adds to these. A typical IITian is exposed to quite a large facts of research in the field quite early in life. Although not many of them have publications to their names the understanding and appreciation of published literature is quite high among these people. Appreciating the obvious undermine the nature of many IITians. For many IITians even awards of kinds may not even matter. Hence their expectation from award winning performance is very high. If you look at the companies the awards are fairly high in number, recognition systems are subjective and many a times driven by appeasing an employee than truely recognizing credible performance.

The second part is about difficulty or depth of the problem area. Surface level stories are considered a sheer time waste in most IITs (called as gyaan and phatta - means gas). This again means many organizational events for moral boosting may seem to many IITians pure placeholder for inactivity. The discussion levels at many IITs have high decibels strong sentiments and full of facts from various relevant literature. Many a times the thoughts are quite deep and through. In industry for most part the discussions are mere checkboxes for MBO activity not a means to justify meritocracy.

The third part is the challenge of work. Mere understanding and repeating the same activity is not meant for high performers. I guess that is where most IITians have a view called Kachda Kaam (meaning junk work). The exposure to a larger parts of the happenings in the world make them regular stuff quite boring. I had to manage quite a few IITians. The thing that has worked best for me is to call them in one-to-one and straight away confess that the work is mundane yet someone has to do this and she is the available person right now. If there is work that interest them I will consider their names for a later project. But selling the obvious as a packaged solution never goes with many IITians.

The fourth issue is of authority. IITians are averse to authority of any kind. The process of elections in IITs are fairly apolitical. IITians never have a single leadership they worship. The president of the student union has very little exercisable power over the students. Rowdism is just not their in the culture for most part. Excercising authority to justify your claims over any IITian is just going to back fire. For most part even the presence of the greatest leaders of the society may not attract any crowd in an IIT. The collective mass acceptance is fairly weak. Leadership by example or absolute delegation are the only methods I have understood to have worked with IITians.

The people who complain about IITians not being patient have to probably understand the fundamental definition of patience. An average IITian must have spent days if not weeks in solving some of the trickiest problems many times in life before giving up on it or soliciting help from the surroundings. I guess if you ask any IITian persistence will come out as one of the greatest assets in solving a JEE paper. I guess it's all about the problem definition. I feel many IITians may get bored quickly in times of inactivity but not necessarily impatient.

This being said I feel the industry needs to identify some basic structural changes if they feel they will need to accommodate these high potential people. Mere statement of status quo and exceptations of mediocrity and group sentiments will definitely have managers complain all the time. I guess if we really need them we may need to make amends in the organization systems to provision for the relevant emotions.

Note: This article is true for most high potential employees not necessarily IITians. However I have got into discussions on IITians in specific many a times. Hence I have presented here as a specific case for the IITians.

Can India create the next Ken Thompson?

I have this strong feeling that it's not companies that bring new technology but some great people do. In the history of practical computer programming one name remains in the annals of computer science and that's Ken Thompson. But then why Ken Thompson? There are many turing awardees in computer science. Because Ken Thompson is not a scientist but in more sense an architect, a practitioner.

Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie were awarded the Turing award for their seminal work on Unix operating system. This OS is by far a parsonal effort designed to do complex things of multics simple and more so from an architectural perspective probably creating the OS that's understood most as far as kernel internals are concerned. I will describe in brief two of Ken's fundamental work here.

1. Reflections on Trusting Trust
2. The UTF-8 specification

Both are unique in some way. The first one essentially says to be able to use any basic system you have to trust at least one thing blindly that's the login code of unix or compiler or something like that. If you look at it in a higher plane this is the fundamental of the whole trust key chain concept. You are creating one blind trust. The second interpretation could be can you trust code which is hidden from you the whole open source vs. close source divide. No doubt Ken said: -

The act of breaking into a computer system has to have the same social stigma as breaking into a neighbor's house.

As it's just as much of a moral hazard than a security hazard as you will like to protect it with.

The second interpretation is adaptability. It's an answer to distinction between representation and concept. The character is a concept and representation of character as a single byte is a mere representation. And one dinner this was made clear with one of the simplest representations of character encoding.

So how should all these seem for technologists?

It's about making simple paradigms. In Ken's words:-

"I am a programmer. On my 1040 form, that is what I put down as my occupation. As a programmer, I write programs."

In my opinions the Indian software industry is yet to understand this. It's about programs silly. I have heard many managers saying: "Coding!!! Man I have grown above it. I do manage not code". I don not know what do we manage. 80 percent of software out there is about massaging strings in various forms. A problem which have been reasonably done in the past ample number of times. There will be probably a millions forms of HTML parsers sitting in every corporate source code repository doing nothing significantly better but they are there as some developer felt understanding the standard HTML parser is essentially a hard job or did not have the patience to learn HTML. Some will nicely put it as this HTML parser is suited for our kinds of applications and similar notes. I cannot blame them. After all such codes run enterprises, I do not.

What it all means to an Indian context? I think it's about creating the environment conducive to create a great programmer like Ken Thompson. This is not hard I believe. More over as managers of software technology it's our job to learn technology and not the hype of technology and have respect for the technology and technologists. It's my earnest appeal to the community at large.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

How Real is the Reality?

It's surprising that the reality TV is catching up wildfire in India. The Big Boss kind of shows are making headlines. Somewhere in the world an Indian actress is getting harassed with racial remarks. I ask this simple question. Are we really keen in the reality?

There are certain aspects of reality we just do not want to see. If reality is all we are interested in in real sense. There was a wave of reality depiction that happened through a parallel cinema industry which focused on social issues and struggle of human in India, frustration of license raj and its effects. Today we do not need those any more. The number of such parallel movies are not many but slightly milder depictions of the same with movies like Mr and Mrs. Iyer, Page 3 kind are getting audience appeal. Similarly, the news channels reporting gory crime reports and talking through the issues all the time are bringing us to realism everyday. It scares me to see sometimes how unsafe is our society today. But, I will probably not like to see the details of the realism.

As humans we want to be told the reality the stark naked truth but in a milder manner. We do not want the whole truth which is too gory to stand. Similarly is true for the reality shows. Every celebrity has a role to play in the society. Confining them to that level of reality is enough. But getting to his/her bedroom and reporting what his/her internal feelings are not something that should give us pleasure. That's just too real. After all at every level the celebrities are as human as you and I are. They have same reservations, same kind of prejudices and fears. Is there any need for us to know all that? I don't how can it be entertaining to know these. Lets keep our entertainment to fiction and not mix with reality. Let human creativity still rule masking / moderating the reality in the best possible manner.

Will love to know what you think.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Gandhigiri and Bangalore Driving

Bangalore Roads and atrociousness are no new entry to a blog. I always thought I can refrain from writing about it. But, I guess it was important. This morning as I was driving an auto-rickshaw suddenly cut into my straight path from the side without giving any indication of its negotiating a left turn. In total bewildered state I bumped into it. As luck could have it I left my vehicle and jumped away and had a perfect landing with a very minor scratch on my thumb. The driver got down and approached towards me. A normal me would have made a noise and god knows what. For a change, I asked him - "Are you ok?"

I do not know if that was a valid question to ask and walked towards him. I saw him speechless he picked up my scooter and brought it to standing. I could see a guilty feel in his eyes and a look that was downwards. A large group of passers by gathered around me. I just asked them to leave as there was nothing serious there. They were equally confused. A morning entertainment was averted.

A couple of weeks back a similar thing happened with a car. And just to avoid a collision I just switched off the engine and jumped out and my scooter fell on a side and no harm was done neither to the car nor my scooter collided with it. I saw a fuming car driver parking his car 15 meters ahead and giving me tips as how I was reckless and how could his car could have damaged beyond repair and how worried he was for me without helping me with my getting my scooter straight. I gave him a disgusted dirty look and told him how needless his tips were and started my scooter and left. I saw him cursing and making a noise for no good reason.

What was the basic difference between the two incident. It's the approach. One constructive and the other blame game. A simple question of "Are you ok?" did the trick. The simple act of helping someone in distress versus giving lectures as what a genius we have been and how the rest of the world was wrong.

In a world of competition we tend to find our competitor everywhere we go. Even when they do not exist. Showing that upmanship is too inherent to us. The bigger goal is what we are missing in life. The pathetic Bangalore roads is a menace. Rather than helping our fellow travelers we tend to show how a great driver we are in negotiating our way through. That makes our travel more of a competition. Similarly, in life we create unnecessary hierarchies and play power games. Many a times we do not see the real problem which is an inanimate project as we call it as our true enemy and get it straight. Accepting one's mistake and correct it if needed, is that so hard? I still believe the world provides ample opportunity to everyone to compete with oneself and be a better person in your own metric than comparing with the whole world or the person next to you.

I guess Gandhigiri is just a first step to that direction.