Partners and Associates

Last week I’d written this post about managing studs, and while discussing that with some colleagues the other day, I realized that I could reformulate it without touching upon the studs and fighters theory. So let us consider a consulting firm. There is a partner, whose sole job is to solicit business for the firm, and to get the lion’s share of the benefits. And there are associates, trying hard to get noticed and promoted, and working for this partner. It’s the associates who do most of the work. Let’s assume that the firm is in “steady state”, where as long as they don’t mess up, there is a steady stream of business assured.

Under this assumption, all that the partner needs to do is to ensure he and his team don’t “mess up”. He knows that he has the relationships to keep the work flowing, and given that he doesn’t really do any work himself, he doesn’t care about the nature of work, or whether his associates find the work challenging, or interesting, and stuff. As long as the tap is open, and he makes his “partner’s cut”, he’s happy.

Given this, his incentives are towards work that is hard to go wrong. “Steady” work, where expectations are likely to be high, but the downside risk is quite low suits him absolutely fine, and he seeks to find more and more of that kind of stuff. There is little chance that his relationships with his steady clients can go wrong in this kind of a situation, right? So he goes about trying to find work with a “short deep-out-of-money option” payoff.

What about the associates? There will be some of them that are already established, and known to these steady clients. They know that it’s only a matter of time before they get promoted and hit the partnership pot of gold. They’ve made their mark, at a time when they had the opportunity to do so, and now they only need to hold fort till the end of the rainbow. And they hold on, perfectly happy to do work in which things can’t go wrong.

As for the other associates, who are still looking to establish themselves? What they’d ideally like would be the opportunity for “big wins”, which will make them be seen, and noticed, and enable them to make the move up the ladder when the time is right. Given their current standing, they don’t mind taking the risk – they have little to lose in terms of lost reputation. On the other hand they have everything to gain from pulling off improbable big wins. Basically they ideally like the “long deep-out-of-money option” payoff.  But the stream of projects the partners and other associates prefer doesn’t give them the opportunity to go for this kind of payoff! So they are stuck.

So, if you are working in a consulting firm, which is in reasonably steady state, where the partners don’t take part in day-to-day work, and where you are not yet established, you need to think if you’re in the right place.

Comparative advantage and competitive advantage

So there are two reasons why you could be employed. Comparative advantage and competitive advantage. Let me explain.

In international trade, there is a concept called “law of comparative advantage“. Let me explain with the classical (and simple) example. Robinson Crusoe is marooned on an island with Friday. Now, let us assume there are two productive activities on the island – catching fish and cutting wood. Now, Crusoe can catch 10 fish an hour, while Friday can catch 5. On the other hand, Crusoe can cut 3 trees an hour, while Friday can cut 2. Clearly Crusoe “dominates” Friday, and the latter is much more inefficient. So does that mean that Crusoe can just have Friday for dinner one day?

While the intuitive answer might be a “yes”, the law of comparative advantage shows otherwise. While Friday might be inferior to Crusoe in both activities, he is “less worse off” at chopping trees than he is at catching fish. For example, let us say that if left to himself, Crusoe would spend 3 hours fishing and 2 hours chopping wood every day. That would produce 30 fish and 6 trees of wood.

Now, if Crusoe were to spend all his 5 work hours exclusively catching fish, he will have 50 fish and no wood. He can trade the extra 20 fish for 8 logs of wood from Friday (Friday demands 5 fish for every 2 logs of wood, since that’s his opportunity cost). So net-net Crusoe is better off by 2 logs of wood. The trade similarly leaves Friday also better off (compared to the situation if he were alone on the island). Now you see why Friday keeps his job.

So in a “comparative advantage” job, you keep the job only because you make it easier for one or more colleagues to do more. You are clearly inferior to these colleagues in all the “components” of your job, but you don’t get fired only because you increase their productivity. You become the Friday to their Crusoe.

On the other hand, you can keep a job for “competitive advantage“. You are paid because there are one or more skills that the job demands in which you are better than your colleagues. You have a “competitive advantage” in those skills, and that is what you are paid for. Here you can expect to be treated better than your comparative advantage colleague would. You can even expect for some of your “comparative advantage” colleagues to be assigned to you to take your load off on those tasks you don’t enjoy a competitive advantage in. And again I’m not saying you need to “dominate” your colleagues.  All you need is one “axis” along which you are clearly superior. And you’ll get the “competitive” treatment.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself why your job exists. Check if you work because you have a competitive advantage, or if it is merely because of the “comparative advantage” – that your presence frees up time for the more efficient people. If your job belongs to the latter category, I think you have reason to be more worried.

Working Hours at Work

There are some people in my office (and in every other office that exists) who believe in “face-time”. That they need to be present for a certain number of hours every day at work irrespective of whether there is work to do or not. I find this wasteful, and distasteful. I don’t see why I need to spend time in office if I don’t have any work to do, and I consider time spent in office when I’m not working to be a positive waste of time.

Yes, there are times when I do get sucked in to this face-time crap, and just sit on in office when I don’t have anything to do (either there’s nothing to do, or I’m in such a bad state of mind that I’m unproductive). Sometimes, it does make sense simply for the option value – when you’re sitting there, there’s a chance something might strike you and take you past the mental jam you’re currently caught in. But most of the time, this option is worthless.

So recently I was trying to do an analysis of how I spend time at work, and if I get rid of the unproductive stuff (like random chats with colleagues, random reading, etc.) I can divide my time at work into two important components – times when I’m actually doing work, and times when I’m simply waiting to talk to someone, for their inputs, or comments, or whatever else. And when I did further analysis, I realize that the latter took up more time than the former.

Teamwork, integrated teams, helping each other, regular feedback, all these are important. But at the cost of spending several hours in office without actually doing any work? When you could’ve spent that time at home, doing what you really like to do. Especially when you have been given a Blackberry and so can read the inputs at any point of time? And when you have a mobile phone, and have the luxury of being able to log in to work from home..

Of course, the other side of this is that if you bring your work home, the fine line between work and home disappears. You are now always on call, have to be constantly checking your Blackberry. You think twice about leaving home, and the blackberry and the mobile phone, and going off somewhere. It doesn’t make you feel all that good..

Wondering how I can balance this all out. And spend as little time as I need to in office, while still doing the amount of work that I’m expected to do. I guess I simply need to get practical about this and stop bothering about what other people think about my hours, and all such. As long as I do the work.

Last Thursday, working in one long burst, I finished the work I’d set myself for the day and dashed off an email by 4pm. And then realized that it would be at least another 2-3 hours before I could get a response. And so packed off home, since I had some work there (true to expectations, the replies came in after 7pm). I felt good about leaving office when I knew I wasn’t going to be productive. But then there was this strange guilt that the system puts on you for doing like you please, without regard to the system.

Anyways, I need to be more practical about all this, and screw signaling. And to turn around an old Hutch ad, which says “Blackberry from Hutch, to keep daddy away from office”. I say “Blackberry from Hutch, to keep daddy at work even when he’s away from office”.

Charades of obscurity

Having “played” dumb-charades (DC for short) competitively at a school and college level, I don’t particularly enjoy playing it casually. I’m prone to getting annoyed when people around me (either on a picnic, or a party) exclaim with great enthusiasm that we should play DC. Till recently I used to think it was like chess – where my enthusiasm for the game has been killed purely because I played it competitively, but now I realize there are more reasons.

The challenge with “competitive” DC is that it is a timed game. You are judged based on how fast you can act out a certain name/place/animal/thing/. Because of this the clues need not be too hard, and there is a fair degree of challenge in acting out even simple things. Apart from this, the clues are set by a neutral third party which means they can all be trusted to be of approximately similar standard, so there is some sort of a level playing field there. Then, you have teams that have practiced well together, and have clues for all the trivial stuff, and you have a game!

With casual DC, there are several problems. Firstly, the games are not timed. Secondly, the teams haven’t practiced together at all, so it takes ages to communicate even straightforward stuff (which is why the games aren’t timed). And then the clues are usually given to you by your competitor. And for some reason, casual DC always has to be movies. No books, no places, no animals, no personalities, nothing.

The f act that the games are not timed, combined with the fact that the clues are given by the competitor, means that the game usually gets into a downward spiral of obscurity. You don’t want your competitor to guess the movie easily, so you give a vague movie. And they reply with something vaguer. And so forth, until teams have to check IMDB to find out if the movies actually exist. By which time all the enthusiasm for the game is lost.

On a recent trip (with colleagues, as part of our CSR initiative. more on that in another post) we played casual DC, and after some 10 clues it had gotten so obscure that nothing was guessable. I’d lost interest when someone suggested we do Kannada movies! Now, that’s something few people would’ve played – DC with Kannada movies as clues, because of which we could give clues while not keeping them too obscure (but it was hard. I completely bulbed trying to act out “Kalasipalya”).

Still, my hatred for casual DC remains, and I try as much as possible to not play it. Maybe next time I’ll impose conditions (like timing, choice of subjects, etc.), and refuse to play if they want to do English movies with infinite time.

Pricing My Best Friend’s Wedding

Any of you remember this movie called “My Best Friend’s Wedding”? If you don’t, here is a brief description of the plot. Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney (had to look up imdb to remember his name) have this agreement that if they are both single as of her 28th birthday, they will get married to each other. As it happens, 3 weeks before that, the hero announces that he’s found a woomaan and is going to get married to her, much to the dismay of the heroine, who now puts fight to somehow spoil this new relationship.

I was thinking of this kind of arrangement as a financial product. Actually, the movie has what I call as the “European version”. More complicated is the “American version” which I describe here. Basically I give you the OPTION to marry me on any day before my 28th birthday (6th Dec 2010). That would be simple enough to “price” (or “value”, to put it in layman’s terms) – it is a standard American option. However, let me add this twist into it. I also reserve the right to withdraw this option on any day before expiry or exercise.

So basically some day before my 28th birthday I can wake up and cancel this option that I’ve given you. Now the challenge is to price this. One thing that is obvious is that the value of this is now less than the value of the pure American option. But pricing it is a challenge (though, thinking about it carefully, it shouldn’t be too hard to solve. I think we can use option-on-option fundaes in order to price it, but still it’s nontrvial).

The European option, of course (as it is done in My Best Friend’s Wedding) easier to price. Basically, there are two events that need to happen on the day of expiry for the option (ok technically it isn’t an option since if these two events happen, then the parties are forced to execute the contract) and so it can be easily modeled using a two-factor model. The American, as we discussed, is tougher (though I’m sure that if I were to present this problem to my colleagues, they’d solve it in a jiffy).

So the reason I’m writing this is that I’m planning to enter this kind of a deal with someone. And I’m wondering if it’s better to enter into a European deal or into an American. Remember that if it is the “American” deal, I’ll be giving away the option (to marry me before either my 28th birthday or I withdraw the option) for free. Considering this, under what conditions should I try to sign the European contract, and under what conditions should I give away the American?

Also, how does the pricing of the American option change if I’m allowed to give it away to more than one person (with the understanding that as soon as one person exercises the option, I withdraw the option from all the other people I’ve given it to). And typically, will I be able to get more benefit in total by giving away this American option to a number of people than if I give it away to one person (assuming I’m indiffernet between all these people with respect to marriage).

Ok it’s late in the night and it’ s my third post in the last 1 hour, so it might be a bit muddled up. Also, you might find it a bit too technical (remember that I’m a quant). Nevertheless, I hope I’ve been able to communicate what I wanted to communicate. And am looking forward to your advice on this.

Theory of comparative advantage and chutiya kaam

Suppose you and me together have to do two tasks A and B. We need to decide who does what (let’s assume that we need to pick one task each). Now I’m a stud and you are a chutiya so I’m better than you at both A and B. So how do we split? It all comes down to the degree to which I’m better than you in each of these tasks. Suppose I’m marginally better than you at A, but significantly better than you at B. Theory of comparative advantage (commonly used to describe international trade) says that I should do B and you should do A – this way, total productivity is maximized. I suppose this makes intuitive sense.

You have a number of people cribbing about what is popularly knonw as “chutiya kaam” – approximately translates to bullshit work. Work that is uninspiring for them, but which they need to do because it needs to be done. Sometimes you have otherwise fairly intelligent and efficient people assigned to chutiya kaam – with the explanation that there is no one else who is well-enough equipped to do it. And these people find that less intelligent nad less efficient people are being given better work.

The reason the more intelligent and efficient person might get the chutiya kaam is that he is better at that than his colleagues, even if he is better than his colleagues in the more intelligent stuff. So I suppose if you want to avoid chutiya kaam altogether, one of the ways of doing it is to prove yourself to be a chutiya at that. To be inefficient and incapable of doing that, and in the hope that it will then get palmed off to someone else who is perceived to be better.

But then this is a double edged sword. There are people who believe that all kinds of “chutiya kaam” are inferior to all non-chutiya kaam. And that if you are not good at chutiya kaam you cannot be good at everything else. I’m reminded of this guy in my class who was captaining the class team for a day and who refused to let me open the bowling because I’d dropped a catch. “You can’t even catch properly, and how can you expect to bowl?” he had asked.

The unfortunate thing is that a large number of people are like this. They refuse to accept that chutiya and non-chutiya kaam are not comparable, and require different skill sets, and that they will neeed to apply trade theory to figure out who does what. They look at your skills in one and use that to judge you in another. And allocate resources suboptimally. And when faced with this kind of people, the strategy of trying to be chutiya at chutiya kaam may not work.

So I suppose the key is to figure out what kind of person your boss is. Whether he appreciates that different jobs can take different skills, and no one job “dominates” another. And whether he applies trade theory when it comes to work allocation. If the former, you can’t really do anything. If the latter, you can try being chutiya at chutiya kaam.

Postscripts

“chutiiya kaam” is not a homogeneous term. Some jobs are chutiya for some people but non-chutiya for others. It varies from person to person.

I have grouped all “chutiya kaam” together just for the sake of convenience. There are differnet kidns of chutiya kaams and all of them require different skill sets.

Each non-chutiya kaam also requires its own skill set. I’ve again grouped them together for the sake of convenience of argument

I firmly believe that principles of economics that can be useful in real life (such as demand and supply, trade theory, game theory, etc.) should be part of the 10th standard economics syllabus, rather than teaching kids to mug up GDP growth rates for different states for different decades

I have resisted the temptation to bring in the studs and fighters theory into this analysis

Arranged Scissors 1 – The Common Minimum Programme

Now that I’m in the arranged marriage market, I’ll probably do a series on that. I think there has been this book that some female has written about it, but I haven’t read it. I periodically plan to write about this market, and its quirks, comparing it to the “normal louvvu market”. I’ll try my best to keep the identities of those I’m interacting with in the market secret – if not for anything else, because there is a good chance that they might be reading this.

A lot of people shudder at the thought of arranged mariage. They think it’s some kind of a failure. They say that it is a compromise. Some of them enter the market only grudgingly. If not anything else, presence in the arranged marriage market is an admission of failure to find a long-term partner without bankers’ support. Some people tend to take that personally. They think that they are failures in life because they had to request their parents to find them a partner in life.

Two years back, my good friend L Balaji (no, not the cricketer) came up with the hypothesis of a “common minimum programme job”, borrowing the phrase that our politicians are most likely to use when they form a coalition government, which is getting increasingly common nowadays. He defines a CMP job as one which “clears all cutoffs, but doesn’t perform spectacularly according to any criterion”. A CMP job offers you decent pay, keeps you in a decent city, gives you a good work-life balance, decent colleagues, etc. But you cannot really expect to get too much kick out of the job. You may not love the job, but it offers you enough to not get pained.

I think the traditional problem with the arranged marriage market is that people assume that people are in the market to find CMP spouses. Someone who looks “decent enough”, is “smart enough”, is “nice enough”, etc. Traditionally it seems like the evaluation in the arranged marriage market is a series of tickoffs – looks good? check. Can talk grammatical English? Check. I good to talk to? Check. And so forth. So what one ends up with is someone who clears all criteria, and not necessarily someone spectacular. You basicallly try to find someone you can share a house with until you are sixty four, and little else. Even that one major cutoff, I think, sometimes is given short shrift.

This boiling down of the market to CMPNess is responsible for the “compromise” label that the arranged marriage market attracts. And amazingly, a lot of people (who are lucky enough to have found someone better than CMP in the market) start talking about how one needs “to adjust”, “to compromise” etc. Definitely not the kind of stuff that the young person fresh into the market would love to hear. In fact, I think these CMP people are what gives arranged marriage a bad name.

Thinking about it, I think the CMP nature of the market doesn’t have much to do with the people who ended up choosing CMPs, or who ended up as CMPs (note that one can be both). It has structural origins. The problem, I think, lies with the structure of the market, and that all the CMP people have simply adapted to this particular market structure.

When you don’t like a set of rules, there are two ways to deal with it, or maybe three (depending upon whether you count like a mathematician or like a social scientist). First is to adapt yourself to the rules, basically to compromise. Then, you can allow the rules to stay in place, and you can work around them. Find loopholes and exploit them. This is what lawyers excel at. The final option is to bend the rules.

In my next post on this topic, I will talk about the structure of the arranged marriage market, and try to explain why it differs from the normal blading model.