Scott Adams, careers and correlation

I’ve written here earlier about how much I’ve been influenced by Scott Adams’s career advice about “being in top quartile of two or more things“.  To recap, this is what Adams wrote nearly ten years back:

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

Having implemented this to various degrees of success over the last 5-6 years, I propose a small correction – basically to follow the second strategy that Adams has mentioned, you need to take correlation into account.

Basically there’s no joy in becoming very good (top 25%) at two or more correlated things. For example, if you think you’re in the top 25% in terms of “maths and physics” or “maths and computer science” there’s not so much joy because these are correlated skills. Lots of people who are very good at maths are also very good at physics or computer science. So there is nothing special in being very good at such a combination.

Why Adams succeeded was that he was very good at 2-3 things that are largely uncorrelated – drawing, telling jokes and understanding corporate politics are not very correlated to each other. So the combination of these three skills of his was rather unique to find, and their combination resulted in the wildly successful Dilbert.

So the key is this – in order to be wildly successful, you need to be very good (top 25%) at two or three things that are not positively correlated with each other (either orthogonal or negative correlation works). That ensures that if you can put them together, you can offer something that very few others can offer.

Then again, the problem there is that the market for this combination of skills will be highly illiquid – low supply means people who might demand such combinations would have adapted to make do with some easier to find substitute, so demand is lower, and so on. So in that sense, again, it’s a massive hit-or-miss!

Selling yourself for job and consulting

So for the first time in over eight years, I’m looking for a job. This was primarily prompted by my move to London earlier this year – a consulting business where you rely on networks rather than a global brand to get new business cannot be easily transplanted. Moreover, as I’d written a year back, a lot of the objectives of the “portfolio life” have been achieved, so I’m willing to let go of the optionality.

While writing a “Cover Letter” for a job application yesterday I realised what makes selling yourself for a job so much harder than selling yourself for a consulting assignment – in the former case, you need to also communicate a “larger purpose”.

For the last 5-6 years I’ve been mostly selling myself for consulting assignments, and while it hasn’t been easy, all I’ve needed to do to sell has been to convince the potential client that I’ll do a good job solving whatever problem they have, and that my fees is a worthy investment for them. And to some extent I’ve become better over the years making such arguments.

When you’re applying for a job, you not only have to convince the counterparty that you’ll be good at whatever you need to do, and that you are worth the salary that you are asking for, but also need to argue how the job will “improve your life”. You need to explain to them why the job fits in to the list of stuff you’ve already done in your life. You need to talk about where you see yourself 5/10/50 years from now. You need to actually express interest in the job, and irrespective of how mundane the job description, you need to act like it’s the most exciting job ever.

And this is a part I haven’t been good at, basically since I haven’t done any of it for a long time now. And in any case, this is a part of the cover letter that people routinely bluff about, so I don’t know if recruiters even take this part seriously. In any case, I’ve been filling most of my cover letters so far with explanations of how I’ll do an awesome job of the job, and keeping only a cursory line or two about “how the job will improve my life”!

Introverts and extroverts

I find the classification of people into introverts and extroverts to be rather simplistic. While it is bad enough that people are commonly classified into one of these, you also have metrics such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that formalise this classification, with top consulting firms actively using such classifications in their day-to-day work.

What makes introvert-extrovert thing complex is that it is not even a spectrum between introversion and extroversion – you can’t say, for example, that you’re “20% introvert and 80% extrovert”. So you can’t even convert the binary classification into a scale.

The thing is that introversion and extroversion is context sensitive. For example, I like to socialise by talking to people (I HATE “catching up” in cinema halls or loud bars, since they don’t allow conversation). In terms of work, though, I largely prefer to be left alone. Even within that, I sometimes like to talk to people when I’m ideating but wholly want to be left alone when I’m executing on something.

And with each person, there might be different contexts in which they might derive energy from people around them, and contexts where they might want to be left alone. And within each context, whether they want to be with or without people is probabilistic, without a good classifier telling when they want to be how.

So introversion or extroversion is a rather large and complex set of personality traits that people have tried to force-fit not only on one axis, but also into binary classifications. And with it being part of management theory as practiced by top strategy consulting firms, it’s simply sad.

How power(law)ful is your job?

A long time back I’d written about how different jobs are sigmoidal to different extents – the most fighter jobs, I’d argued, have linear curves – the amount you achieve is proportional to the amount of effort you put in. 

And similarly I’d argued that the studdest jobs have a near vertical line in the middle of the sigmoid – indicating the point when insight happens. 

However what I’d ignored while building that model was that different people can have different working styles – some work like Sri Lanka in 1996 – get off to a blazing start and finish most of the work in the first few days. 

Others work like Pakistan in 1992 – put ned for most of the time and then suddenly finish the job at the last minute. Assuming a sigmoid does injustice to both these strategies since both these curves cannot easily be described using a sigmoidal function. 

So I revise my definition, and in order to do so, I use a concept from the 1992 World Cup – highest scoring overs. Basically take the amount of work you’ve done in each period of time (period can be an hour or day or week or whatever) and sort it in descending order. Take the cumulative sum. 

Now make a plot with an index on the X axis and the cumulative sum on the Y axis. The curve will look like that if a Pareto (80-20) distribution. Now you can estimate the power law exponent, and curves that are steeper in the beginning (greater amount of work done in fewer days) will have a lower power law exponent. 

And this power law exponent can tell you how stud or fighter the job is – the lower the exponent the more stud the job!! 

Slavedriver sandwich

Something that happened at home earlier today reminded me of my very first full-time job, which I had ended up literally running away from barely two months after I’d started. I like to call this the “slavedriver sandwich”.

The basic problem is this – you need to get someone you normally have no influence over to do something for you, and this something is contrary to what this person needs to do. You somehow need to convince this person to do this – effectively, you need to “slave-drive” her so that what you want done is done.

The problem is that you aren’t even sure that you want this thing to be done. The only reason you are slavedriving the person you’re slavedriving is because someone else (let’s call this person “the boss”) is slavedriving you, and trying to make you get this person to do this.

The boss is very clear on what she wants done, and how she wants it done, but for reasons of her own choosing, doesn’t want to get it done directly. She wants you to do it. And you aren’t convinced that what she needs to be done is the right thing to be done – you agree with the basic principles but think there’s a better way to do it than slavedriving the person you normally have no control over.

Like I remember this time from 2006 when the then boss wanted some data, and I had to convince this client to give us the data. It seemed tractable that the data would be available in a day, and in CSV format. But the boss wanted it the same day, and in Excel format (yeah, I worked for people who considered conversion from CSV to Excel nontrivial). And so I was slavedriven, so that I could slave drive this client, and get the data to the boss in time (never mind that it was I who would ultimately use the data, and I actually preferred CSV!).

In other words, then and now, I was stuck in a “slavedriver sandwich”. Someone slavedriving you to slavedrive someone, and you are wondering what role you have to do in the whole business in the first place. And then you decide that you have nothing to do there, and you should just eliminate the middleman, which is yourself.

In that sense, the problem of 2006 was easy – eliminating the middleman simply meant resigning my job. The current circumstances (which I can’t particularly describe here) doesn’t allow for so elegant a solution! So it goes.

Scott Adams’s advice and career options

Some five years back, I took a piece of advice from Dilbert creator Scott Adams. A few years earlier, he had blogged that there are two ways in which one can be successful in a career –

 But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The post had made an immediate impression on me when I had read it back in 2007. And when I was planning to leave a full-time corporate career in 2011, it was Adams’ old advice that I turned to.

There were a number of things that I’d found myself to be good at (definitely top 25%) – mathematical modelling, data analysis, writing (based on this blog), economic reasoning, financial markets and maybe even programming (I’m a good coder but lousy software engineer). Combining these, I reasoned, I could do very well for myself.

And over the last five years I have done reasonably well for myself. I’ve built a fairly good freelance consulting practice which brings together my skills in mathematical modelling, data analysis and economic reasoning. The same skills, along with an interest in public policy, have led to me joining a think tank as a Resident Quant. Data analysis and writing together has got me a column in Mint. Yet another subset led me to become Adjunct Faculty at IIM Bangalore. And yet another led to my book, which is currently under publication.

However, now that I’ve decided I’ve achieved enough in my portfolio life, and am looking for a full time job (it was supposed to happen a while back I know, but I postponed it due to an impending location change – I’m moving to London in March), I’m not sure this strategy (of being reasonably good in multiple things rather than the best at one thing) is particularly optimal.

The problem is that the job market hasn’t evolved to sufficiently demand people who are good at several things (rather than at one thing). This is a consequence of not enough people following Adams’s second advice – they’ve chosen to strive to be the best at one thing instead.

And so, if you are like me, and consider yourself reasonably good at several things rather than the best at one thing, the job market doesn’t serve you well. Think of all the things you’re good at as dimensions, and your skillset being represented by a vector across all these dimensions. Traditional job markets tend to look at you from the point of view of one of these dimensions (the skill they’re hiring for). And so, rather than showing your potential employer your full magnitude, you end up only showing the projection of your vector along the dimension you’re optimising for.

And if you are good at several things, it means that the magnitude of the vector along any one skill is far smaller than the magnitude of your full vector. And the job market is likely to leave you frustrated!

 

In contract bridge, when you are dealt a hand that is equally strong in all suits, you bid to play a No Trump game. In this scenario, though, it seems like it’s impossible to effectively play No Trump.

Banks starting to eat FinTech’s lunch?

I’ve long maintained that the “winner” in the “battle” for payments will be the conventional banking system, rather than one of the new “wallet” or “payment service providers”. This view is driven by the advances being made by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) which is owned by a consortium of banks.

First there was the Immediate Payment System (IMPS) which allows you to make instant inter-bank transfers. While technology is great, evangelism and product management on the banks’ part has been lacking, thanks to which it has failed to take off. In the meantime NPCI has come up with an even superior protocol called Universal Payment Interface (UPI), which should launch commercially later this year.

There is hope that banks do a better job of managing this (there are positive signs of that), and if they do that, a lot of the payment systems providers might have to either partner with banks (the BookMyShow wallet is already powered by RBL (the artist formerly known as Ratnakar Bank Limited) ).

In the meantime, banks have started encroaching on FinTech territory elsewhere. One of the big promises of FinTech (and one I’ve participated in, consulting with two companies in the space) has been to ease the loans process, by cutting through the tedious procedures banks have to offer, and making it a much more hassle-free process for borrowers.

A risk in this business, of course, has been that if banks set their eye on this business, they can eat up the upstarts by doing the same thing cheaper – banks, after all, have access to far cheaper capital, and what is required is a procedural overhaul. The promise in the FinTech business is that banks are large slow-moving creatures, and it will take time for them to change their processes.

Two recent pieces of news, however, suggest that large banks may be coming at FinTech far sooner than we expected. And both these pieces of news have to do with India’s largest lender State Bank of India (SBI).

One popular method for FinTech to grow has been to finance sellers on e-commerce platforms, using non-traditional data such as rating on the platforms, sales through the platform, etc. And SBI entered this in January this year, forming a partnership with Snapdeal (one of India’s largest e-commerce stores).

Snapdeal, India’s largest online marketplace, today announced an exclusive partnership with State Bank of India to further strengthen its ecosystem for its sellers. With this association, Snapdeal sellers will be able to get approval on loans from financers solely on the basis of a unique credit scoring model. There will be no requirement of any financial statements and collaterals.

Sellers on the marketplace can apply for loans online and get immediate sanction, thereby enabling “loans at the click of a button”. This innovative product moves away from traditional lending based on financial statements like balance sheet and income tax returns. Instead, it uses proprietary platform data and surrogate information from public domain to assess the seller’s credit worthiness for sanctioning of loan.

Another popular method to expand FinTech has been to lend to customers of e-commerce stores. And in a newly announced partnership, SBI is there again, this time financing purchases on the Flipkart platform.

State Bank of India, the country’s largest bank, announced a series of digital initiatives on Friday, including a first of its kind partnership with e-commerce giant Flipkart, to offer bank customers a pre-approved EMI facility to purchase products on the retailer’s website.

The bank, which celebrates its 61st anniversary (State Bank Day) on July 1, said the objective was to provide finance to credit worthy individuals, and not just credit card holders. The EMI facility will be available in tenures of six, nine and 12 months.

Just last evening, I was telling someone that there’s no hurry to get into FinTech since it will take a decade for the industry to mature, so it’s not a problem if one enters late. However, looking at the above moves by SBI, it seems the banks are coming faster!