The Aditya Birla Scholarship

I spent this evening attending this year’s Aditya Birla Scholarship awards function. Prior to that, there was a networking event for earlier winners of the scholarship, where among other things we interacted with Kumaramangalam Birla. Overall it was a fun evening, with lots of networking and some nostalgia, especially when they called out the names of this year’s award winners. My mind went back to that day in 2004, as I sat confident but tense, and almost jumped when I heard my named called out only to realize it was another Kart(h)ik!

You can read more about my experiences during that award ceremony here (my second ever blog post), but in this post I plan to talk about what the scholarship means to me. During the networking event today, one of the winners of the scholarship (from the first ever batch) talked about what the scholarship meant to him. As he spoke, I started mentally composing the speech I would have delivered had I been in his place. This blog post is an attempt to document that speech which I didn’t deliver.

People talk about the impact the scholarship has on your CV, and the bond that you form with the Birla group when you receive the scholarship. But for me, looking back from where I am now, the scholarship has primarily meant two things.

Back in the day, the scholarship covered most of my IIM tuition fee. When I’d joined IIM, my parents had told me that they wouldn’t fund my education, and I had taken a bank loan. However, the scholarship covered Rs. 2.5 lakh out of the Rs. 3 lakh I needed for my tuition fee, and the loan that I had taken for the remaining amount was cleared within a couple of months after I worked.

My first job turned out to be a horror story. It was six years before my ADHD would be discovered, but I was in this job where I was to put in long hours under extremely high pressure, and deliver results at 100% accuracy. I wilted, but refused to give up and pushed myself harder, and I’m not sure if I actually burnt out or only came close to it. But it is a fact that one rainy Mumbai morning, I literally ran away from my job, purchasing a one-way ticket to Bangalore and refusing to take calls from my colleagues until my parents told me that my behaviour wasn’t appropriate.

While my parents were broadly supportive, the absence of liabilities made the decision to quit easier. Of course I still had the task of finding myself another job, but I knew I would pull through fine even if I didn’t find another job for another six months (of course, I had saved some money from my internship at an investment bank, but the lack of liabilities really helped). The Aditya Birla Group, by funding my business school education, played an important role in my being free or financial obligations, and being able to chart out my own path in terms of my career.

My six-year career has seen several lows, aided in no small amount by my ADHD and depression, both of which weren’t diagnosed till the beginning of this year. I got into this vicious cycle of low confidence and low performance, and frequently got myself to believe that I was good for nothing, that I had become useless, and that I should just take some stupid steady job so that I could at least pay the bills.

During some of these low moments, my mind would go back to that day in September 2004 when I (at the end of the day) felt at the top of the world, having been awarded the Birla scholarship. I would then reason, that if I was capable of convincing a panel consisting of N. Ram, N K Singh and Wajahat Habibullah to recommend me for the Aditya Birla scholarship, there was nothing that was really beyond me. Memories of my interview and the events of the day I got the scholarship would make me believe in myself, and get me going again. Of course on several occasions, this “going again” didn’t last too long, but on other occasions it sustained. I credit the Aditya Birla scholarship for having given me the confidence to pull myself back up during the times when I’ve been low.

These are not the only benefits of the scholarship, of course. The scholarship has helped build a relationship with the Aditya Birla group. In the short run, when I won the scholarship, it helped me consolidate my reputation on campus. And last but not the least, it was a major catalyst in reviving a friendship which had gone awry thanks to some of my earlier indiscretions. Most important, though, was the financial security that scholarship offered, which made potentially tough decisions easier, and the confidence it offered me which has carried me through tough times.

 

Wine buying

Today, for the first time ever, I went out to buy wine, and in hindsight (I’m writing it having finished half of half the bottle) I think I did a pretty good job.

I had gone to this “Not just wine and cheese” store in Jayanagar hoping to pick up some real good wine to go with our cooking experiments for the evening (we’re making pizza and pasta). Having had really bad experiences with Indian wines (Nine Hills, Grover’s, Sula), I gave them a wide berth and moved over to the international section. The selection wasn’t particularly vast, and interestingly as soon as I moved over to the international section, one of the shopkeepers came over to assist me.

He first showed me a 2009 wine from France, when i asked him to show something older. For a slightly higher price, he pulled out a 2006 wine from France. The pricing seemed suspicious to me. A six year old wine from France, one of the more sought after wine-producing countries, for just Rs. 1600 (inclusive of 110% tax, so the duty free dollar price comes to around $15)? May not be very good wine, I reasoned, and now I decided to let go of all details on production date, etc. and simply asked the shopkeeper to recommend to me a good bottle.

Maybe it was the fact that I had quickly moved over to the international section, or that I was talking about year of bottling, but the shopkeeper assumed I was a rather serious buyer, and enthusiastically recommended to me a few bottles. Now, picking wines is tougher than picking whiskeys (where it’s easy to have favourite brands. Mine, if you would ask, is Talisker). Each country has several estates, the year of bottling, weather in the country in various years and several other factors go into determining how good a bottle is. Also, there’s inverse pricing, where you perceive more expensive wines to be better. So one has to look upon raw economics skills in order to judge wine bottles and pick something that is likely to be good.

What particularly interested me was a bottle of 2010 wine from Chile. Now, at Rs. 1300, it seemed rather highly priced for its vintage (given that France 2006 went for 1600). And then, I realized that Chile is a rather unfashionable wine producer, since most people tend to prefer European wines, and that being in the temperate weather zone, it is capable of producing good wines.

The shopkeeper mentioned that the particular bottle had been procured after a customer had specifically asked for it, and that it was made of superior quality grapes. Now, given that it was a wine of recent vintage and from an unfashionable producer, that it cost almost as much as a much older wine from a much older vintage told me something. That it was likely to be good.

It’s about two hours since I got home, and the bottle is half empty. The wine has been absolutely fabulous, and I hope this is the beginning of a great wine-buying career.

Offshored

Two of the four full-time jobs that I’ve done have been “offshored”. They’ve both involved working for the Bangalore office of American firms, with both jobs having been described as being “front end” and “high quality”, while in both cases it became clear in the course of time that it was anything but front end, and the quality of work depended on what the masters in the First World chose to throw at us.

In between these two jobs, I had done a “local” job, at an India-focused hedge fund based in India, which for the most part I quite liked until certain differences cropped up and grew. While doing that job, and while searching for a job while looking to exit it, one thing I was clear about was that I would never want to do an offhshored job again. Unfortunately, there came along an offer that I couldn’t resist, and so I ended up having not one but two experiences in offshored jobs.

Firstly (this was a bigger problem in the second job), I’m a morning person. I like to be in at work early in the morning, say at eight. And I like to be back home by the time the sun in down. In fact, for some reason I can’t fathom, I can’t work efficiently after the sun is down – irrespective of when I start, my productivity starts dipping quickly from 5 pm onwards. Huge problem. People say you can take calls from home and all that but that blurs the line between work and life, and ruins the latter. You are forced to stay in office even if you don’t have anything to do. Waste of time.

Then, there is the patronizing attitude of the “onshore” office. In both my offshored jobs, it turned out that an overwhelmingly large portion of the Bangalore offices actually consisted of employees who were there because even the stated reason for their existence in the firms was labour cost arbitrage. It was simple offshoring of not-particularly-skilled work to a cheaper location. I don’t know if this was a reason, but a lot of people in the “main” offices of both firms considered Bangalore to be a “back office”. And irrespective of the work people here had done, or their credentials, or record, there was always the possibility that the person in the foreign office assumed that the person in the Bangalore office existed solely because of labour cost arbitrage.

And then you would have visits by people from the onshore office. Every visitor who was marginally senior would be honoured by being asked to give a speech (without any particular topic) to the Bangalore office. In the first offshored company I worked for, people would actually be herded by the security guard to attend such speeches. The latter company was big enough to not force people to attend these talks, but these talks would be telecast big-brother style from television sets strategically placed all over the floors.

And these onshore office people would talk, quite patronisingly, about how Bangalore was great, and the people here were great, and they were doing great work. Very few of them would add actual value ┬áby means of their lectures (some did, I must mention, talk concrete stuff). Organizing this lecture was a way for the senior “leaders” in the Bangalore office (most of whom had been transplanted from the firms’ onshore offices) to etch their names in the good books of the visitors, we reasoned.

Then there was the actual work. Turn-around time for any questions that you would ask the head office was really high, unless of course you adapted and did night shifts (which I’m incapable of). In the earlier offshored firm, there would be times when I would do nothing for two or three days altogether because the guy in the onshore office hadn’t replied! Colossal waste of billable time! Also, if your boss sat abroad, there would be that much less direction in whatever you did. In my second offshored job, there were maybe two occasions when I was on two-hour phone calls with my boss (in the onshore office), where he patiently explained to me how certain things worked and how they should be done. Those were excellent sessions, and made me feel really good. But only two of them over a two year-plus period? Apart from which, most one-to-one interaction with the boss was with respect to “global” stuff. Yeah a local boss can get on your nerves by creeping behind your back every half hour, but at least you get work done there, and can learn from the boss!

Then there is training. Because of the cost-arbitrage concept on which most offshored employees are hired, the quality of training programs in the offshore offices are abysmal. During my second offshored stint, I happened to attend one training program in Hong Kong, in common with people from onshore offices in the rest of Asia. None of the numerous training programs that I attended in the Bangalore office attained even a tenth of the quality of that program in Hong Kong. The nature of employees in Bangalore meant all programs had to start at an extremely basic level, so there was little value added.

I can go on, there is a lot more. But I’ll stop here, and let you tell me about your stories of working in an offshored environment. And I certainly won’t make the same mistake third time round – of working for an offshored entity.

Teaching Music in Schools

How many of you actually enjoyed your “songs”/music lessons in school? Not too many, I suppose. Actually I don’t think more than a tenth of the students would have ever enjoyed these lessons. And I don’t think there is too much surprise in this given the kind of stuff that is taught in schools.

At some point of time during my schooling, we used to have three (!!) “songs” classes during a week, each handled by a different teacher who would teach songs in different languages. The greying guitar-wielding fag-smelling Samson was a fixture, while the other two classes were handled by different people each year, none of whom I remember. One thing that connected all of them, irrespective of the differences in the nature of songs, was that most of the songs they taught were easily classified by us as “uncool” (back then, and even now I’d consider them uncool).

So earlier today I was trying to remember the different songs that had been taught to me in the “songs periods” in school, and the common thread was religion – irrespective of language. A disproportionately large proportion (yeah I love that phrase) of songs that were taught to us were about God, or doing good, or some such thing which could be approximated to a prayer. I remember that Samson also taught us some Christmas carols, but I would argue that even those can be classified as religious music.

There was no wonder that most of us dreaded the music lessons, and the only way we could look forward to them was to replace every significant word in a song with its opposite, or to simply replace it with moTTe (egg). No offence to any of the Gods in whose praise we were supposed to sing those songs but this was the only way we could make the lessons even remotely interesting.

I’m sure most of you would have also gone through similar experiences. And now consider this, courtesy askingfortreble:

Yeah that’s a bunch of schoolkids singing O Fortuna by Carl Orff. If you are done listening to that, then look at this – again being performed by students of the same school.

You heard right! They were singing Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters! Don’t you wish they had taught that to you in school? And made you sing it during the annual day? And if not anything else the bragging rights that would’ve given you later when you went to college? Or the coolness?

Thinking about it, Samson did teach us a couple of songs that were, in hindsight, cool. Ok we did enjoy them when he taught them to us also but they got lost in the midst of so many uncool songs that we never realized we knew such cool stuff. Harry Belafonte’s Jamaican Farewell and Dylan’s Blowing in the wind. Yeah, we learnt them in school but nobody told us they were cool.

Looking back, I wish we were taught many more such songs back then rather than having to substitute words of other songs with “motte”. For all you know, I might have actually taken up singing (ok that might be a stretch; even though I’ve learnt to play the classical violin for 6 years I hardly play it nowadays – ok that also maybe because most of the songs i know are uncool). Yeah I’m such a wannabe.