The success and failure of Coupling, this blog and the Benjarong Conference

One of the few sitcoms that has remotely managed to hold my attention is Coupling, the series on BBC. I don’t think it runs “live” any more, and even when it did, the quality of the episodes fell off sharply in season three, and even more sharply in season four. Episodes of those two seasons simply cannot compare to the episodes of the earlier seasons. In possibly related news, a number of blog readers and commentators mentioned to me that they saw a sharp fall in quality in posts on this blog sometime in late 2009. None of them have told me that the blog has made any “comeback” of sorts. And given this theory, it is unlikely to.

Back in March 2009, there was a meeting of six great minds at Benjarong Restaurant on Ulsoor Road, which has come to be known as the Benjarong Conference. The main topic of discussion that evening was about chick-hunting, and more so in the controlled environment of South Indian Brahmin arranged marriages. The conference was a grand success in terms of the quality of discussion, and left lasting impressions on the minds of the participants. Kodhi, who is going to be arranged married later this year, mentions that over two years on, it was the proceedings of this conference that helped him make his decision.

The main attraction of Coupling, for me, was the theories that the character Jeff used to propound. Starting in Episode One of Season One, where he comes up with the concept of “Unflushable” as his best friend Steve repeatedly tries to dump his girlfriend Jane, and fails. And in subsequent episodes, when the three male leads (Steve, Patrick and Jeff) meet at the bar, Jeff always has a theory to explain why things happen the way they happen. Masterful theories, at a similar intellectual level that was exhibited at the Benjarong Conference. Jeff has a theory for everything, except that he is unable to implement his own theories and get hooked up. And what happens in Season Three? He gets hooked up (to his boss, as it happens)! And starts falling off the social radar, and even when he is there at the bar, he is incapable of coming up with theories like he used to. And in Season Four, he disappears from the show altogether, thus robbing it of its main attraction.

Four of the six participants at the Benjarong conference were single, with three of those having never been in a relationship. The two that were married were married less than a month, and one of them had met his wife not too long before. The conference drew its strength from this “singularity”. Single people, especially those that have never been in a relationship, have a unique knack of being able to dispassionately talk about relationships. The problem once you get committed, as readers of this blog might have noticed, is that there is now one person that you can’t disrespect when you talk or write. So every time you concoct a theory, you have to pass it through a filter, about whether your WAG will find it distasteful (most singletons’ theories on relationships have a distasteful component, as a rule). Soon, this muddles your thinking on these theories so much that you stop coming up with them altogether.

One of the pillars of strength of this blog between 2006 and 2009 was the dispassionate treatment of relationships. Then, in late 2009, fortunately for myself and unfortunately for my readers, I met Priyanka, with whom I have subsequently established a long term gene-propagating (no we haven’t started propagating, yet) relationship. And on came the “distaste filter”. And off went the quality of my posts on relationships. A large section of the readership of this blog knew me as a gossip-monger, and they would now be sorely disappointed to not find such juicy material on this blog any more. The only good relationship posts subsequent to that, you might notice, would have been on the back of some little domestic fights, which would have led to temporary suspension of the distaste filter.

Sometimes, though not in public forums, I do get my old distasteful sense back. Not so recently, I was counselling my little sister-in-law about relationship issues. After thoroughly examining her case history and then situation (examining case history and diagnosis is her domain. She’s studying to be a doc), I recommended to her that the solution for her then relationship woes was to get herself a Petromax. While it did help that my wife and her parents weren’t around then, the tough part was to convince her that it was a serious well-researched piece of advice. Maybe I should have packaged it less distastefully. And maybe it is time to accept that the distaste filter in my case is on permanently, and I’ll never be able to spout theories like I used to. And my dear blog reader, it is time you accept that, too, and stop holding this blog against its pre-2010 standards.

US MBA Admissions

B-schools based in the US use a unique self-selecting mechanism to filter out applicants who might be a bad fit for a management job. This they achieve by making the application process more complicated, but in a way that the kind of people they hope to attract find it simple.

Let me explain. Like most other graduate programs in the US, B-schools also require applicants to get a set of letters of recommendation. Unlike other programs, though, these are not simple letters of recommendation. Rather than the recommender simply writing out one essay where he/she extols the virtue of the candidate he/she is recommending and requests the university to grant admission, here he/sh has to answer a bunch of questions that the university is asking for. These questions might range from the mundane sounding (I’m told there’s a catch, though) “How do you know the applicant?” to some high-sounding stuff like “What is your opinion of the leadership qualities of the applicant? How can that be improved?”. World limit for all questions put together comes to 1500 words.

So now, if someone comes to you asking for a recommendation, unless you are really invested in their careers you will not want to put the enthu of putting so much effort. If you like the candidate, you might be willing to put in some time into it, but you are likely to wholeheartedly produce four good essays for each school the applicant is applying (note that no two schools ask the same question) only if you feel really invested in the applicant’s career, the probability of which is really low.

By having such a complicated system of soliciting recommendations, the schools ensure that all candidates fall into one of two categories. Either they should have done so well in one of their jobs that their boss or client feels invested enough to spend a few hours of their time writing recommendations, or they should have the necessary people management skills to go to bosses and clients and professors to get them to write the recommendations. Of course, irrespective of how good your people management skills are , it is unlikely to get someone to spend so many hours on your recommendation letters. Still, the minimum you require is to convince them that you will write the recommendation yourself and they should rubber stamp it. No big deal, that.

This way, all applicants to US B-schools are people who have a knack of getting things done. The age at which application happens (mid to late twenties) also minimizes parental participation in the effort. Apart from the self-selection and filtration, the amount of time and effort required for application also helps weed out frivolous candidates (remember those that “wrote CAT just as a backup”?).

Managing self

When I look back at my early career (high school and early part of college), and wonder how I was so successful back then, I think it was primarily because back then I was pretty good at managing myself. Even at that early (!! ) age, I had a good idea of what I was good at, and was able to either take paths that were aligned to my strengths, or outsource cleverly, in order to do a good job of things.

For example, back when I was in 12th standard, I was “Maths Association President” in my school, and was in charge of organizing the Maths section of the school exhibition. The first thing I realized then was that while I was technically good, I sucked at managing people, and the first person I recruited was someone who I got along well with, and who I thought was an excellent people manager. I think together we managed to do a pretty terrific job.

Another example was when I was preparing to get into IIM. I recognized that CAT was something I was inherently good at, but wasn’t sure of my ability to do well in interviews. So I decided to prepare hard for CAT (though I thought I didn’t really need it), so as to maximize my performance there and render the interview irrelevant. Thinking back about my IIMB interview, I’m surprised they let me in at all, and I guess that was because of my CAT maximization only.

There were several other such occasions. Like when I decided not to prepare for JEE at all in my 11th standard in order to “conserve myself” for the push in 12th. Or when I spent a week doing nothing after my 12th boards, so that I could time my “big JEE push” such that I peaked at the right time. Or when I decided not to care about grades in courses that I loathed (as long as I passed, of course) so that I could spend more time and enjoy the courses I liked. In short, I loved being my own boss.

5 years of work in 4 different places has been largely unsatisfactory, as the more perceptive of you might have inferred from my posts. The biggest challenge so far has been in motivating myself to do something that I don’t just care about, only because I’m being paid a salary. And thinking more about it, it might be because I never really grasped the full import of what I was signing for every time I signed for a job. And I must admit there were times I lied, though not consciously. I tried to convince people I was good at getting things done (something I absolutely suck at). I told them I’m a decent programmer (I’m an excellent programmer but a lousy software engineer). And so forth.

In essence I realize  that over the last five to six years I’ve failed miserably at managing myself. At getting myself into things that I enjoyed, at taking routes that I enjoy rather than one professed by someone else, at doing what I really want to do rather than what someone else wants me to do, and so forth. Essentially, by mortgaging my time to someone else, in exchange for a salary four times, I’ve actually lost the right to manage myself. And for someone with unusual skills and weaknesses (as I think I am), it is no surprise that things haven’t gone too well at all.

I do hope I can make a career in a way that I don’t mortgage my time in entirety to someone else. To be able to work, and be paid for it, but to do things my way. In other words, I don’t want to take up a full time job. To paraphrase a line I read in an extract of Aman Sethi’s A Free Man I need to recognize that I need my azaadi also, and shouldn’t give it up for kamaai.

Independence and contribution at work

This is based on a discussion I had at work a few days ago. We were talking about people being able to do things out of their own initiative, come up with their own new ideas, inventing their own problems to work on (which would be useful for the firm on the whole) and stuff.

Now if you consider people’s abilities as a multi-dimensional vector (the number of dimensions will be large, since one’s abilities, capabilities, etc. can be along several dimensions), what we realized is that if someone just takes orders from other people and not work on their own ideas and intuition, then their contribution to their role is just the component of their vector along the vector of the person whose orders they are following.

And considering that the probability of their vector and the vector of the person who they’re taking orders from lying in exactly the same direction is close to zero, what this means is that by simply following someone else’s orders they are contributing an amount that is less than what they are capable of contributing (since the component of their ability orthogonal to the vector of the person whose orders they are taking isn’t on display at all).

Hence, it is important to have people in the team who are capable of independent thinking and intuition since that is the only way in which their full possible contribution can be harnessed. On a related note, in order to bring the best out of its employees, and to allow them to contribute to their full capacity, firms should allow the employee to take initiative and come up with their own ideas rather than simply taking orders, since in the latter case only the component of the abilities along the orders is contributed.

My Friend Sancho – Review

I had mentioned in my previous blog post that I’ll not be attending the My Friend Sancho launch in Delhi because it was on a weekday. I had also mentioned that since I have a huge pile of unread books I wouldn’t buy this for a while at least. My boss happened to read that blog post and mentioned to me that he was planning to drive to mainland Delhi for the launch at the end of work on Wednesday evening. Not having to drive all the way there relieved me of the NED and I went. And given that I went, and that I was planning to buy it some time, I bought it at the venue and got it signed by the author.

I just finished my dinner. I know it’s a bit late, but I started reading the book at 8pm today. And got so engrossed that I didn’t get up to cook till it was around nine thirty, when I had finished about half the book. I got up and put the rice to cook and sat down with the book again. And didn’t get up until I was done (oh yes – I got up once in the middle to turn off the pressure cooker, and to take a leak). All two hundred and seventeen pages of it. Extremely easy read, and extremely engrossing. The drop in quality of Amit’s blogging during the time he wrote this book can be forgiven.

Overall it is a nice book. But I wonder how well it will be appreciated by someone who doesn’t know Amit at all. I know that a large proportion of people who will be buying his book are regular readers of India Uncut (which finds half a dozen plugs in the book), but thing is there is so much more you can get from the book if you know Amit. Now – given that I know Amit, and not just from his blog – I’m trying to imagine how much less a person who doesn’t know Amit at all will get out of this.

One of ther more delightful sub-plots in the book is the speech given by a policeman about “the beast called the Government” – while speaking in bullet points. It is a fantastic libertarian speech, and it is even more fantastic that it is delivered by the possibly corrupt inspector. Now – the problem is that a person who hasn’t read much of Amit’s writing – either on his blog or in his erstwhile Mint column will simply gloss over this monologue as some random meaningless gibberish.

There are a few other such pieces in the book – where a prior reading of Amit’s work will make you enjoy things a lot more. So my recommenedation to you is tha tif you wnat to read MFS, you should first go over to indiauncut.com and read a few dozen of Amit’s blog posts. And then begin reading the book and you should enjoy it.

Another reason why I was initially sceptical about the book was that I was told it features a talking lizard. I inherently don’t like stories that cannot be real. So if you put in talking animals, or creatures that don’t exist, I am usually put off and lose enthu to read the book. Amit, however, does a good job of limiting the number of lines given to the lizard – he does it in a way such that it appears as if the lizard represents the narrator’s conscience.

Overall it’s a really good book, and I recommend you read it. The story is simple and gripping, and the sub-plots are also really good. It won’t take too much of your time, or too much of your money (very reasonably priced at Rs. 195).   Just make sure that you read some of Amit’s writing before you read the book.

Why MBAs do finance – a studs and fighters perspective

I don’t have sources here but enough people have cribbed that nowadays too many MBAs are going into finance, and banking, and not too many of them get into “real management” jobs, which is what the country/the world desires them to get into. I clearly remmeber a Mint column on this topic by Govind Sankaranarayanan. And that is surely not the exception. And I remember reading this article very recently (don’t know where) which says that the reason MBAs were taken into banking was to provide a business perspective to banking, and not to be hardcore finance people themselves.

Management roles can be broadly classified into two – functional management and coordination management (the latter is also known as “general” management). Functional management is more like “captaincy” – you essentially do similar work to what your team does, and you guide and direct them, and help them, and boss over them, and get paid a lot more for it. The best part of functional management is that you can outsource all the chutiya kaam to some underling. And there is enough “functional” interaction for you with your team in order to keep your mind fresh.

Coordination management, on the other hand is mostly about getting things done. You don’t necessarily need to have experrtise in what your team does, though some degree of comfort does help. Most of your work is in coordinating various things, talking to people, both inside the team and outside, both inside the company and outside, and making sure that things are done. No special studness is generally required for it – all it requires is to be able to follow standard operating procedures, and also to be able to get work done out of people.

Historically, functional managers have been “grown” from within the team. it is typically someone who was doing similar work at a lower level who gets promoted and hence takes on a leadership role. So in an engineering job, the functional manager is also an engineer. The sales manager is also typically a salesman. And so on.

Historically, MBAs have been generally staffed in “coordination management” roles. Typically these are multifunctional multiskilled areas for which it is not easy to pick someone from one of the existing departments, and hence MBAs are recruited. Historically, when people have talked about “management”, they have referred to this kind of a role.

So through my description above, and through your own observations in several places, you would have figured out that coordination management/general management is typically a fairly fighter process. It is about getting things done, about following processes, about delivering, etc.

This applies only to India – but there is a reasonably high “stud cutoff” that is required in order to get into the better B-schools in the country. This is because the dominant MBA entrance exam – CAT – is an uberstud exam (I would argue that it is even more stud than the JEE – which requires some preparation at least, and hence puts a reasonable fighter cutoff). So you have all these studs getting into IIMs, and then discovering that the typical general management job is too fighter and too less stud for them, and then looking for an escape route.

Finance provides that escape route. Finance provides that escape valve to all those MBAs who figure out that they may not do well in case they get into general management. Finance as it was in the last 5-10 years was reasonably stud. And thus attracted MBAs in reasonably large numbers.

The simple fact is that a large number of people who get into MBA won’t be able to fit into a general management kind of job. Hence there is no use of commentators cribbing about this fact.

If the IIMs decide that they would rather produce general managers rather than functional managers, they would do well to change admission requirements. To make admission less stud and more fighter. ISB, in that sense, seems to be doing a decent job – by having significantly lower stud cutoffs and putting more emphasis on work experience and other fighterly aspects. Hence, you are more likely to find an ISB alum going into general managementt as opposed to IIM alum.