On mental math and consulting careers

Sometime last week, the wife wanted to know more about management consulting, and I was trying to explain to her the kind of work that consulting firms do. I told her that the two most important skills to have in order to be a successful consultant are structured thinking and people skills, and in order to illustrate the former I put her through a “case” on the lines of those that consulting firms use in order to interview.

The importance of structured thinking, I explained, lay in the fact that not all problems that consulting firms pose have a definitive solution, and structure helps you hedge against not being able to generate a solution. In the worst case, if you follow this approach, you would have made a contribution to the client solely by putting a structure on their problem, and by enabling them to think better about similar problems that cropped up in the future. This is also the reason that consulting firms use the much-touted (and much-abused) frameworks – they are a good method of structuring the problem, I said.

I then went on to talk about how I’m not much of a structured thinker, and how I frauded my way in through that during my consulting interviews nearly six years back. On joining a consulting firm, I’d found myself thoroughly disillusioned and out of my depth, and finding that the job called for a completely different set of skills than what I possessed. The nature of problem solving, I found, was very different from the kind I’d been mostly exposed to, and enjoyed. I quit in a matter of months.

I went on to narrate a story from my B-school days. It was about the final exam of a second year course, and I’ve blogged about it. The question presented a business problem and asked us to find a solution for it. I thought for a bit, figured out the solution (with a bit of thinking it was obvious) and explained it two or three paragraphs. My friend had instead put a structure on the problem, and used all possible applicable frameworks in order to structure it. He has been working for a consulting firm since graduation, and I’m told he’s doing rather well. You know my story.

So we talked a bit more about problem solving approaches, and how I could possibly structure my business now that I’m an independent consultant (given that I’m not a particularly structured person). During the course of this conversation I happened to mention that most of my early problem solving was in terms of programming. And the wife jumped on this. “You are a mental math guy, aren’t you?”, she asked. I nodded, feeling happy inside about those days when I would do three-digit multiplications in my head while my classmates still struggled with “six in the mind, four in the hand” methods of doing addition. “And you’re an algorithms guy, always trying to find the easiest method to solve problems?”, she continued. Again I replied in the affirmative. “Then how the hell could you even think that you would do well in a job that requires structured thinking?”

She has a point there. Why didn’t I think of this earlier? The more pertinent question now is about how I’m going to structure my data modeling business since it’s clear that I won’t be able to pull off the classical consulting model.

Slashing Art and Activism

Yesterday I happened to drive all the way to Domlur to attend this “Art Slash Activism” event organized by the Center for Internet and Society and one other organization whose name I’ve forgotten. I must confess that I had set my expectations too high, for the event’s description on the website itself was a little hazy and “global” (as we would put in B-school parlance). Given it was set as a part of a series of events on “open data”, and from what I could gather from the event website, I thought there might be fundaes to be got on stuff like data representation – a topic I’m quite interested in and am looking to learn. Maybe this was too optimistic, but I expected some Hans Rosling type visualizations there.

As it turned out, I ended up walking out an hour into the event (it was supposed to last for two hours), unable to take it any more. I don’t know if “Art Slash Activism” meant that people had to speak on exactly one of the topics. Or maybe it was just that the description of the overall theme was so vague that the designated speakers simply went up and spoke on whatever they wanted to speak, giving the same kind of speeches they give elsewhere. The speeches were quite disjointed, I must mention, and none of the three that I happened to sample during an hour there were anything close to spectacular on their own legs, either.

First up was an activist, who I was to later find out, was from an organization whose representatives we had majorly trolled when they had come to IIMB to give a series of guest lectures on culture. She spoke about activism, essentially about her research, using some high-sounding terms, and trying to diss certain popular discourse. While the content of the speech might have been appropriate in another context, I soon had the feeling of what I had gotten myself into. The curious thing was that people all round me were taking notes, furiously. Like this was a lecture in their college on which they would be quizzed in their next exam. For what it was worth, I took out my fancy notebook and fountain pen, but didn’t write anything.

She was followed by an American lecturer and librarian, who gave a power point presentation on “what is a database”, again something I thought was quite trivial and not really in context. Maybe it was my fault, and I didn’t understand the context at all, but this guy seemed like one of those Americans who think that people in “third world countries such as India” know little, and need to be educated on the fundamentals.

There were supposed to be four speakers on the day which was supposed to be followed by a discussion, but I left midway through the third speech, which was by an artist, who spoke about her art. It was all so disjointed and disconnected. I don’t know, and don’t particularly care, if the last speech would have added value.

I don’t particularly regret going. The event website promised “option value” – the option that I would meet some interesting people at the event, and the option that I would get to learn something I wanted to learn. In the event, the option expired worthless. I’ll continue to go to events or meet people for the option value, and I know a lot of them might expire worthless. But I know that if I keep doing this, there might be a breakthrough somewhere. And I’m chasing those potential massive payoffs.

The moral of this story is about clarity in communications. When you try sell something to people, you need to be concise with your communication, and let them know exactly what you’re trying to sell them. If you’re vague, there is a chance they might be disappointed because they expected something completely different from what you were actually offering. And this is a major problem for me as I try set myself up as a fairly niche consultant.

Going Global

Ok the second word in the title doesn’t refer to B-school slang. It means “global” in the true sense of the word, and has nothing to do with what my father used to call as “bulldology” (derived from the kannada word “bullDe” which essentially means “globe” (in the B-school sense) )

Ok so the story goes back to 2003, when I headed my way north all the way to Delhi, to intern at IBM Research. I would be staying at the IIT Delhi hostels during the course of my visit. I traveled by Rajdhani express, and had rotis and dal makhni through the journey. And in the mornings I’d get a flask of hot water along with “chai saamagri” (tea bag, sugar, milk powder, etc.)

That was when it hit me that for the next two months I’d be in chOmland, devoid of access to South Indian food, and good filter coffee. I remember getting paneer-fatigue within two weeks of my stay in Delhi. I would salivate at the very thought of going to the nearby “hotel Karnataka” and eating “meals” for a then princely sum of Rupees Fifty. The primary reason I got bugged with my internship was that I wasn’t getting my kind of food, and coffee.

Two years later, I would travel to London, for yet another internship, this time at an investment bank. The day I landed in London, I headed out for lunch with a few friends. Picked up a sandwich, and then it hit me how far away from home I’d come. Sandwich, for lunch! And I was the types who used to say stuff like “bread is for dogs”.

I remember going to this Sri Lankan store in Eastham every two weeks, carrying back “pirated” (smuggled, actually) packets of MTR Ready to Eat food, and frozen chapatis. And every evening I would microwave chapatis and some chOm dal or sabzis. The same chom food that I had so despised two years earlier was “home food” now. Of course every time I went to Eastham I’d also go to this “Madras Restaurant” and thulp madrasi masala dosa.

I don’t know where the knee-bend/point of inflexion happened but on my recent trip to New York, I didn’t have Indian food at all. The rationale being that there are certain kinds of food available in New York that are not easily available in India, so I shouldn’t miss the opportunity of eating them.

So I ate at Turkish, Greek, Ethiopian, Italian, Thai, Israeli, Korean restaurants, quite enjoyed the food, never asked a waiter “does this dish contain meat” (the reason for my vegetarianism is more because I get grossed out by meat, rather than any religious or cultural reason) (and I didn’t feel much when I set aside what looked like an octopus from my salad and continued eating the rest of the salad), never craved sambar, and generally had a good time.

My wife may not be the happiest when she reads this but frankly when I returned I didn’t exactly crave home-cooked Indian food. Of course the Rasam last night was wonderful, but it was now for me just yet another culinary item, just like coconut milk curry, or hummus or the ethiopian dals or pizza.

I seem to have truly gone global (again no pun intended)

Two States stealing ideas from my life

Don’t ask my why I’m reading a Chetan Bhagat book. Anyway a while back I was reading the first few pages of “Two States” when I started screaming and my eyes nearly popped out. Here in these pages was an incident that was straight out of my life at IIMB (the book is set in IIMA, btw). The first thing I did, after I screamed of course, was to check the date of publication. 2009. 5 years after that incident had taken place in my life. There is a small chance it might have actually been based on me.

So in the book, the microeconomics professor is explaining utility functions and indifference curves. And he calls upon an economics graduate from Delhi University to explain the concept to the class. The student tries to give a qualitative explanation but no one understands. That is where the similarity ends. In the book, the professor ends up writing some greek alphabets on the board while the student (female) bursts into tears at the end of the class, humiliated. And the hero goes on to console her and all such.

So as I mentioned, this event closely mirrors something that happened to me. First term of B-school, check. Microeconomics, check. Indifference curves, check. Economics grad from DU asked to explain, check. Student giving qualitative explanation, check. Class not understanding head or tail of it, check.

In our class, though, something different happened. The hero had no intentions of waiting till the end of the class and consoling the DU Eco-grad (in this case, male). Up pops his arm, and he screams  “saar, saar, saar”. When the saar doesn’t respond he shouts “saar I can explain this in English”. The DU Eco-grad is at the blackboard repeating his line, which he had probably mugged up, which enabled him to top university.

Saar finally gives hero a chance to go to the blackboard. Hero puts on collar mic. Looks at the curves on the blackboard and carefully marks off points, which he decides to professorially name as A, A’ (pronounced A prime) and A” (A double prime). Class starts giving up. Hero adds more points. B and B prime. Class gives up further. Then A and A’ move to B and B’. Something probably makes sense. Soon the proof is obvious to most of the class (mostly engineers). Hero hasn’t completed the proof yet when he hears a loud thumping of desks. Math wins. It is unknown if the DU Eco-grad cried at the end of class.

My apologies if I’ve told this story earlier on this blog, but I’m not one to let go of a bragging opportunity. And I still think it was that incident in my class, Section C of IIMB, on the twenty second of July 2004 that inspired the similar scene in Bhagat’s book. No, that’s not the part I’m bragging about.