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!

 

On writing a book

While I look for publishers for the manuscript that I’ve just finished (it’s in “alpha testing” now), I think it’s a good time to write about what it was like to write the book. Now, I should ideally be writing this after it has been published and declared a grand success.

But there are two problems with that. Firstly, the book may not be a success of any kind. Secondly, it will be way too long after having finished it to remember what it was like to write it. In fact, a week after the first draft, I’ve almost already forgotten what it was like. So I’m writing this now.

  1. Writing is a full-time job. I got this idea for the book in October 2014 when I was visiting Barcelona for the first time. I wrote the outline in November 2014. Despite several attempts to write, nothing came out of it.

    During a break from work in October 2015 I managed to get started, but I’ve re-written all that I wrote then. Part-time effort doesn’t just cut it. It wasn’t until I came to Barcelona in February that I could focus completely on the book and write it.

  2. You need discipline. This probably doesn’t need to be explicitly stated, but writing a book, unlike writing a blog post, is a fighter process, and you need a whole load of discipline and focus. After a week or two of preparing the outline, I prepared fairly strict deadline regarding when I would finish the book. I had to reset the deadline a couple of times, but finally managed it.
  3. There is no feedback. I think I wrote about this a few days back. The big problem with writing a book is that you spend a significant amount of effort before even a small fraction of your customers have seen the product. So you soldier on without any feedback, and it can occasionally be damn frustrating.
  4. You feel useless. Writing a book can introduce tremendous amounts of self-doubt. One day you think you’ve completely cracked it, and your book will change the world. The next day you start wondering if there’s any substance at all to what you’re writing, and there’s any point in going ahead with it. On several occasions, I’ve had thoughts on abandoning it.
  5. Getting away helps. The only reason I didn’t abandon the book when I had my bouts of self-doubt was that I was away in Barcelona with nothing else to do. It wasn’t as if I could ditch the book and find some work to do the next day. Being away meant that the TINA factor pushed me on. There was no alternative but to write the book.
  6. Getting in a draft is important. You are likely to have bad days when you’re writing. On those days you feel like giving up. On putting things off for another day. Reams have been written about great writers stalling their books for several days because they couldn’t find the “right word”. I don’t buy that.

    Found that when I’m in a rut, it’s better I simply push through and finish the chapter. Editing it later on is far easier than writing it again from scratch.

  7. There is a limit to how much you can write. When I said it’s a full time job you might think I spent 8 hours a day on the book. I took around 70 days to write it (including a 10-day vacation), and the draft weighs in at 75,000 words (I intend to cut it before publication). So it’s less than 1200 words per day on an average.

    That doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me, writing on a continuous basis is quite hard. A lot of time goes in fact checks and in getting links (I don’t think I still have all the footnotes and endnotes I need for the book). Writing a book is far more complex than writing a blog post.

  8. Writing is tiring. This isn’t something I figured out while writing the 2000 odd posts I’ve put on this blog. When you’re writing a book, and for an audience, you realise that you get tired pretty quickly. I don’t think I was able to work more than four hours a day on any of my “writing days”. And four hour-days would leave me a zombie.
  9. You need a schedule, and a workplace. I did the pseud romantic thing. The entire book was written at this WiFi enabled cafe near my place in Barcelona. Pseud value apart, the point of having the workplace was that it brought a schedule and some discipline to my days. I would go there every morning on writing days (exact time varied), get a coffee and sit down to write. And not rise until I had finished my target for the session.

    Two days back I went there to work on something else. I figured I couldn’t – that cafe is now forever tied to my writing the book. The kind of focus required there was of a different kind.

I’ll stop for now. I hope to republish this blog post once the book has hit the stands!

The problem with Slack, and why it’s inferior to DBabble

When two of the organisations I’m associated with introduced me to the chatting app Slack, it reminded me of the chatting app DBabble (known to us in IIMB as BRacket) that was popular back when I was in college.

There were two primary reasons because of which Slack reminded me of DBabble. The first was the presence of forums/groups. There was a “General” that everyone in the organisation was part of, and then were other groups that you could choose to join and be a conversation in. The second was that you could not only converse on the fora, but also send personal messages to each other – something DBabble also enabled.

There are several reasons why Slack is superior to DBabble. Most importantly, you can tag people in your messages on forums and they get notified, so that they can respond – this is a critical feature for using it for work purposes.

Secondly, Slack integrates well with other tools that people use for work – such as email and a lot of development tools, for example (which one of the organisations I’m associated with uses heavily, but I’ve never got into that loop). Slack also has a very nice search feature that allows you to pull up discussions based on keywords, etc.

What Slack sorely lacks, which makes me miss DBabble like crazy, however, is threaded conversations. The conversation structure in each channel in Slack is linear – which means you can effectively have only one thread of conversation at a time.

When you have a large number of people on the channel, however, people might initiate several different threads of conversation. As things are, however, a Darwinian process means that all but one of them get unceremoniously cut out, and we end up having only one conversation.

It is also a function of whether Slack is used for synchronous or asynchronous messaging (former implies everyone replies immediately, latter means conversations can take their own time and there’s no urgency to participate immediately, like email, for example). My understanding is that the way it’s built, it can be used in both ways. My attempts to use it as an asynchronous messenger, however, have failed because some of the conversations I’ve tried to initiate have gotten buried above other conversations others on the channel have tried to start.

The problem with Slack is that it assumes that each forum will have only one active conversation at a time. Instead, if (like DBabble) it allows us to have different conversation threads, things can become a lot more efficient.

One of the nice features of forums on DBabble was that everytime you went to the forum, it would show you all the active threads by showing them in bold. DBabble allowed infinite levels of threading, and only messages that were unread (irrespective of which branch of which thread they were in) would be in bold, meaning you could follow all threads of conversation (this also proved problematic for some as we developed an OCD to “unbold” – read every single message on every forum we were part of).

Imagine how powerful threaded conversations can be at the corporate level especially when you can tag people in them – so you go to a forum, and can see all open discussions and see where your attention has been called, and contribute. Threading also means that you can carry out several different personal (1-to-1) conversations at a time without losing track of any.

It’s interesting that after DBabble (which also died after a later edition gave the option of “chat mode” which did away with threaded conversations) there has been no decent chat app that has come up that allows threaded conversations. Apart from possible bandwidth issues (which can happen when each message is suffixed with the full thread below it), I don’t see any reason this can’t be implemented!

I want my BRacket (DBabble) back. But then, chat has powerful network effects and there’s no use of me wanting a particular technology if sufficient number of other people don’t!

Matt Levine describes my business idea

When I was leaving the big bank I was working for (I keep forgetting whether this blog is anonymous or not, but considering that I’ve now mentioned it on my LinkedIn profile (and had people congratulate me “on the new job”), I suppose it’s not anonymous any more) in 2011, I didn’t bother looking for a new job.

I was going into business, I declared. The philosophy (that’s a word I’ve learnt to use in this context by talking to Venture Capitalists) was that while Quant in investment banking was already fairly saturated, there was virgin territory in other industries, and I’d use my bank-honed quant skills to improve the level of reasoning in these other industries.

Since then things have more or less gone well. I’ve worked in several sectors, and done a lot of interesting work. While a lot of it has been fairly challenging, very little of it has technically been of a level that would be considered challenging by an investment banking quant. And all this is by design.

I’ve long admired Matt Levine for the way in which he clearly explains fairly complicated finance stuff in his daily newsletter (that you can get delivered to your inbox for free),  and more or less talking about finance in an entertaining model. I’ve sometimes mentioned that I’ve wanted to grow up to be like him, to write like him, to analyse like him and all that.

And I find that in yesterday’s newsletter he clearly encapsulates the idea with which I started off when I quit banking in 2011. He writes:

A good trick is, find an industry where the words “Monte Carlo model” make you sound brilliant and mysterious, then go to town.

This is exactly what I set out to do in 2011, and have continued to do since then. And you’d be amazed to find the number of industries where “Monte Carlo model” makes you sound brilliant and mysterious.

Considering the difficulties I’ve occasionally had in communicating to people what exactly I do, I think I should adopt Levine’s line to describe my work. I clearly can’t go wrong that way.

 

Letters to my wife

As I turned Thirty Three yesterday, my wife dug up some letters (emails to be precise) I’d written to her over the years and compiled them for me, urging me to create at “Project Thirty Four” (on the lines of my Project Thirty). What is pleasantly surprising is that I’ve actually managed to make a life plan for myself, and execute it (surprising considering I don’t consider myself to be too good a planner in general).

In February 2011, after having returned from a rather strenuous work trip to New York, this is what I had to say (emphasis added later, typos as in original):

For me steady state is when I’ll be doing lots of part-time jobs, consulting gigs, where I’m mostly owrking from home, getting out only to meet people, getting to meet a lot of people (somethign taht doesn’t happen in this job), having fun in the evenings and all that

I wrote this six months before I exited my last job, and it is interesting that it almost perfectly reflects my life nowadays (except for the “have fun in the evenings” bit, but that can be put down to being long distance).

I’ve just started a part time job. I have a couple of consulting gigs going. I write for a newspaper (and get paid for it). I mostly work from home. I’ve had one “general catch up” a day on an average (this data is from this Quantified Life sheet my wife set up for me).

A week later I had already started planning what I wanted to do next. Some excerpts from a letter I wrote in March 2011:

Ok so I plan to start a business. I don’t know when I’ll start, but I’m targeting sometime mid 2012.

I want to offer data consultancy services.

Basically companies will have shitloads of data that they can’t make sense of. They need someone who is well-versed in working with and looking at data, who can help them make sense of all that they’ve got. And I’m going to be that person.

Too many people think of data analysis as a science and just through at data all the analytical and statistical weapons that they’ve got. I believe that is the wrong approach and leads to spurious results that can be harmful for the client’s business.

However, I think it is an art. Making sense of data is like taming a pet dog. There is a way you communicate with it. There is a way you make it do tricks (give you the required information). And one needs to proceed slowly and cautiously in order to get the desired results.

I think of myself as a “semi-quant”. While I am well-versed in all the quantitative techniques in data analysis and financial modeling, I’m also deeply aware that using quantitative tools indiscriminately can lead to mismanagement of risks, which can be harmful to the client. I believe in limited and “sustainable” use of quantitative tools, so that it can lead without misleading.

 

My past experience with working with data is that data analysis can be disruptive. I don’t promise results that will be of particular liking for the client – but I promise that what I diagnose is good for the client’s business. When you dig through mountains of data, you are bound to get some bitter pills. I expect my clients to handle the bad news professionally and not shoot the messenger.

I don’t promise to find a “signal” in every data set that I’m given. There are chances that what I’m working with is pure noise, and in case I find that, I’ll make efforts to prove that to the client (I think that is also valuable information).

And these paragraphs, written a full year before I started out doing what I’m doing now, pretty much encapsulate what I’m doing now. Very little has changed over nearly five years! I feel rather proud of myself!

And a thousand thanks to my wife for picking out these emails I had sent her and showing me that I can work to a plan.

Now on to making Project Thirty Four, which I hope to publish by the end of today, and hope to execute by the end of next year.

The Chamrajpet model of leadership

When you are doing a group assignment (assuming you’re in college) and you get assigned your share of the work, the assumption is that the allocation of work across team members has been fair. Good group leaders try to ensure this, and also to split work according to the relative interests and strengths of different team members.

Except that there are times when team members get the sneaking suspicion that the group leader is pulling a fast one on them, by following the “Chamrajpet model” of leadership. To understand what the Chamrajpet model is, watch this video, from the beginning of the Kannada movie Gowri Ganesha (the video below has the full movie. Watch it if you can. It’s fantastic).

For those who couldn’t understand, Lambodar (played by Anant Nag) needs to get to Chamrajpet but doesn’t have the money. He befriends two guys (who also want to get to Chamrajpet) and convinces them to share an auto rickshaw with him. He convinces each of them that the “other” guy is his (Lambodar’s) friend, and that they should split the fare equally. This way, he collects the full fare (and a bit more ) from them put together.

It is a fairly common occurrence in group assignments for one of your teammates to tell you “you do part 1. This guy and I will do part 2”. There are times when this is a fair allocation (when part 2 requires twice the effort as part 1). If the teammate is a Lambodar, however, he might have pulled a similar allocation with the third teammate (telling him “you do part 1. I’ll do part 1 with this guy”).

In a way, these are the perks that sometimes come with leadership.

The only way you can deal with it is to follow the advice at the end of the movie – “Beware of Lambodars”.