Studs, fighters and spikes

In a blog post yesterday I talked about the marriage and dating markets and how people with spikes which can be evaluated either highly positively or highly negatively were more likely to get dates, while in the arranged marriage market, you were better off being a solid CMP (common minimum program).

The question is how this applies for jobs. Are you better off being a solid performer or if you are someone who has a quirky CV, with some features that can either be heavily positively or heavily negatively by some people. How will the market evaluate you, and which of them is more likely for finding you a job?

The answer lies in whether the job that you are applying for is predominantly stud or fighter (apologies to those to whom I mentioned I was retiring this framework – I find it way too useful to ditch). If it is a predominantly fighter job – one that requires a steady output and little creativity or volatility, you are better off having a solid CV – being a consistent 3 rather than having lots of 5s and 1s in your rating chart. When the job is inherently fighter, what they are looking for is consistent output, and what they don’t look for is the occasional 1 – a situation where you are likely to underperform for whatever reason. Fighter jobs don’t necessarily care for the occasional spike in the CV – for there is no use of being extraordinary for such jobs. Thus, you are better off being a consistent 3.

If it is a stud job, though, one where you are likely to show some occasional creativity, you are more likely to get hired if you have a few 5s and a few 1s rather than if you have all 3s. If the job requires creativity and volatility, what the employer wants to know is that you are occasionally capable of delivering a 5 – which is what they are essentially hiring you for. Knowing that people who are good at stud jobs have the occasional off day, employers of stud jobs are okay with someone with a few 1s, as long as they have 5s.

So whether you should be looking for a stud or a fighter job depends on what kind of a professional career that you’ve had so far – if you’ve had a volatile career with a few spikes and a few troughs, you are much better off applying for stud┬ájobs. If you’ve been a steady consistent performer you are better suited for a fighter job!

Of course you need to remember that this ranking as a function of your volatility is valid only if you were to hold your “average rating” constant!

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”?).

I don’t know what to name this bias

So yet again I’m at that point in my life when I’m pondering about my career, pulling up my socks and asking myself uncomfortable questions. I’m asking myself what it is I really want to do, what it is that I really enjoy, what is the best way I can monetize my skills and the like. I’ve been pondering between radically different alternatives – from staying on in Wall Street to becoming a hippie; from becoming a professor to starting a company. I’ve been thoroughly confused and have been talking to a number of people about this.

The one common strand I extract from my conversations with all these people is that most people give you advice that is aligned with what they are doing. When I talk to the prof, he talks to me about becoming a prof, and about why I’m suited for it. When I talk to the corporate whore, he tries to convince me that there’s no way out from corporate whoredom and that I must simply embrace and accept it. When I ask the hippie, he thinks it’s no big deal if I keep switching jobs, and that I’m being dishonest with myself continuing to do something I don’t enjoy. And the entrepreneur tries his best to push me into becoming an entrepreneur.

Given my thoroughly confused state of mind, all this has been mostly adding to the confusion, but now that I’ve managed to extract this common strand, I been able to add the appropriate amount of spices to all the advice I’ve received, and making more sense of it. While I continue to figure out what’s the best course of action for me, I wonder what it is that makes people want other people to be like them.

I must mention that this is not a recent phenomenon. Back when I was in college, I remember talking to a senior who went into consulting, and he convinced me that I should do that, too. The banker talked about how banking is perfect for my skills. Till I was in 10th standard, I had no clue about the existence of IIT until a rocket scientist uncle told me about it, and about how going there would be the best thing I could do.

Of all the people who have given me career advice, perhaps the only person who didn’t clearly show this kind of bias was my father. He was an accountant, and he used to work as a regulator. And right from the beginning he made it clear to me that I should neither become an accountant nor should I work for the government.

And I’m trying to think of what kind of advice I dish out. Perhaps because I don’t have one clear “career axis”, I don’t really show this kind of a bias. Or maybe it’s hereditary.

Two kinds of immigration

There are fundamentally two kinds of immigration – local job-creators and local job-competitors. The former are primarily middle and upper middle class people, who create jobs locally in terms of employing people (directly) to provide services for them – like maids, cooks, drivers, laundrymen, etc. The latter are primarily working class people who migrate in order to provide local services. They work as maids, cooks, drivers, etc.

Already existing local service providers welcome the immigration of job-creators. That means they now have the opportunity to push up their asking prices, since there is now more competition for their services. There is little economic opposition to the immigration of job-creators. The opposition to them is usually cultural – witness the rants of middle class “native” Bangaloreans like me against “koramangala people”.

Job-competitors, on the other hand are not so welcome. While they usually don’t contribute too much to the “culture” of the city, they compete directly economically against already existing local service providers. There is a clear economic rationale for local service providers to oppose the entry of more such providers, and since the local service providers are usually numerous and politically active, it is easier to oppose the entry of such job-competitors.

In the 1960s, for example, Shiv Sena started out by targeting South Indian middle class people. However, that campaign didn’t last long, since the “masses” (mostly local service providers) realized that it was economically counterintuitive for them to target middle class people. Hence, gradually over time, the rhetoric changed and the targets are now immigrant job-competitors. So you have Shiv Sena guys beating up Bihari taxi drivers, etc. And since this targeting of immigrant job-competitors is economically advantageous to the “masses”, it is likely to be more sustainable than the targeting of immigrant middle class people.

Data Science and Software Engineering

I’m a data scientist. I’m good with numbers, and handling large and medium sized data sets (that doesn’t mean I’m bad at handling small data sets, of course). The work-related thing that gives me most kicks is to take a bunch of data and through a process of simple analysis, extract information out of it. To twist and turn the data, or to use management jargon “slice and dice”, and see things that aren’t visible to too many people. To formulate hypotheses, and use data to prove or disprove them. To represent data in simple but intuitive formats (i.e. graphs) so as to convey the information I want to convey.

I can count my last three jobs (including my current one) as being results of my quest to become better at data science and modeling. Unfortunately, none of these jobs have turned out particularly well (this includes my current one). The problem has been that in all these jobs, data science has been tightly coupled with software engineering, and I suck at software engineering.

Let me stop for a moment and tell you that I don’t mind programming. In fact, I love programming. I love writing code that makes my job easier, and automates things, and gives me data in formats that I desire. But I hate software engineering. Of writing code within a particular system, or framework. Or adhering to standards that someone else sets for “good code”. Of following processes and making my code usable by some dumbfuck somewhere else who wouldn’t get it if I wrote it the way I wanted. As I’d mentioned earlier, I like coding for myself. I don’t like coding for someone else. And so I suck at software engineering.

Now I wonder if it’s possible at all to decouple data science from software engineering. My instinct tells me that it should be possible. That I need not write production-level code in order to turn my data-based insights into commercially viable form. Unfortunately, in my search around the corporatosphere thus far, I haven’t been able to find something of the sort.

Which makes me wonder if I should create my own niche, rather than hoping for someone else to create it for me.

Why You Should Not Do An Undergrad in Computer Science at IIT Madras

I did my undergrad in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras. My parents wanted me to study Electrical Engineering, but I had liked programming back in school, and my JEE rank “normally” “implied” Computer Science and Engineering. So I just went with the flow and joined the course. In the short term, I liked some subjects, so I was happy with my decision. Moreover there was a certain aura associated with CS students back in IITM, and I was happy to be a part of it. In the medium term too, the computer science degree did open doors to a few jobs, and I’m happy for that. And I still didn’t regret my decision.

Now, a full seven years after I graduated with my Bachelors, I’m not so sure. I think I should’ve gone for a “lighter” course, but then no one told me. So the thing with a B.Tech. in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras is that it is extremely assignment incentive. Computer Science is that kind of a subject, there is very little you can learn in the classroom. The best way to learn stuff is by actually doing stuff, and “lab” is cheap (all you need is a bunch of computers) so most courses are filled with assignments. Probably from the fourth semester onwards, you spend most of your time doing assignments. Yes, you do end up getting good grades on an average, but you would’ve worked for it. And there’s no choice.

The thing with an Undergrad is that you are clueless. You have no clue what you’re interested in, what kind of a career you want to pursue, what excites you and the stuff. Yes, you have some information from school, from talking to seniors and stuff, but still it’s very difficult to KNOW when you are seventeen as to what you want to do in life. From this perspective, it is important for your to keep your options as open as they can be.

Unfortunately most universities in India don’t allow you to switch streams midway through your undergrad (most colleges are siloed into “arts” or “engineering” or “medicine” and the like). IIT Madras, in fact, is better in that respect since it allows you to choose a “minor” stream of study and courses in pure sciences and the humanities. But still, it is impossible for you to change your stream midway. So how do you signal to the market that you are actually interested in something else?

One way is by doing projects in areas that you think you are really interested in. Projects serve two purposes – first they allow you to do real work in the chosen field, and find out for yourself if it interests you. And if it does interest you, you have an automatic resume bullet point to pursue your career on that axis. Course-related projects are fine but since they’re forced, you have no way out, and they will be especially unpleasant if you happen to not like the course.

So why is CS@IITM a problem? Because it is so hectic, it doesn’t give you the time to pursue your other interests. It doesn’t offer you the kind of time that you need to study and take on projects in other subjects (yeah, it still offers you the 3 + 1 months of vacation per year, when you can do whatever you want, but then in the latter stages you’re so occupied with internships and course projects you’re better off having time during the term). So if you, like me, find out midway through the course that you would rather do something else, there is that much less time for you to explore around, study, and do projects in other subjects.

And there is no downside to joining a less hectic course. How hectic a course inherently is only sets a baseline. If you were to like the course, no one stops you from doing additional projects in the same subject. That way you get to do more of what you like, and get additional bullet points. All for the good, right?

After I graduated, IIT Madras reduced its credit requirement by one-twelfth. I don’t know how effective that has been in reducing the inherent workload of students but it’s a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, if you are going to get into college now, make sure you get into a less hectic course so that the cost of making a mistake in selection is not high.

Compensation Etc.

For a change I’m keeping up a promise that I’ve made on my blog – I’m actually writing a follow-up post that I’d promised. In the past, I’ve guilty several times of promising to continue something in a follow-up post and then conveniently forgetting about it.

So I had mentioned in my last post that the word “compensation” as used to describe salary is not really misplaced. There has been a lot of debate on this topic. The opponents of the word have said that you aren’t losing an arm or a leg in order to be “compensated”. They say that you are only getting paid for the value you add, and so the use of the word “compensation” is plain wrong. I must admit I haven’t really bothered to read the arguments of the people who support the use of the word.

The basic fact: you work because you need the cash flow to fund the rest of your life.

I know a lot of career-minded folks among you will jump on me for this, but I stand by this. Just get down a little deeper, and ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Maybe you don’t get the kind of questions in your head that I normally do, and described in my previous post. Maybe your jobs have put you in the kind of comfort zone where you don’t really need to ask yourself such questions (I was in a similar state not too long back, I must admit). But I encourage you to make that effort and ask yourself this uncomfortable question. And it will be down to the money.

You might say that you are doing some stuff “for the sake of career development”. Rephrase that and you will find that you are doing that in expectation of higher future earnnigs. You might say that you are doing something because you want to “achieve something”. Dig deeper and you may find that you define the fruit of your achievement in monetary terms.

So where does “quality of work”, “impact on society”, “value add”, etc. all fit in? I know that in the not-so-distant past, I’ve also talked a lot about these things. I have rejected a number of potential job offers because I don’t like the “quality of work”. This definitely needs to be incorporated into the model, right?

The next basic fact: work is inherently unpleasant.

I don’t think I’ll spend too much time elaborating this here. Maybe I’ll explain this in the comments if you want. So this is where things like “quality of work”, “value add” etc. all fit in – they make work so much less unpleasant. For example, I enjoy spreadsheet modeling. So if my work involves a lot of spreadsheet modeling, I’ll feel so much less unpleasant doing it. Of course, what I am doing remains “work” and it has to be done, in a certain way by a certain day, and so it remains unpleasant. But the fact that I enjoy the core activity makes it less unpleasant.

Similarly, if you think that the work that you are doing gives you a sense of achievement, then it is as if you are doing a part of the work for yourself, and not for someone else, and thus need to be compensated less. “Compensated less”. So this is where it fits in. You get “compensated” because work is inherently unpleasant. You need some incentive to do the stuff that is inherently unpleasant. So you get compensated.

You may have to live in a city that is not your preferred choice – you need to get compensated for that. You may face an extremely long commute where you waste your time – you need to get compensated for that. You might have to work long hours which can intrude on your personal time – you need to get compensated for that. You may have to deal with lousy colleagues or customers, you need to get compensated for that. The list goes on. And if you think about it, a large part of the money that you get out of your work is just that – compensation. Compensation for your time, your effort, your mindspace, your willpower, etc.

So why work at all, you might ask. Go to basic fact one. You work because you need the money. You are in a certain job because you believe that after compensating for all your “sacrifices” for the job, it will leave you with some more money to fund your life. If you think that the money your job leaves you if you take out the “compensation” part of it is lower than what you need to sustain life, you need to question why you are doing that job.

Investment bankers (the inside the wall type) usually end up spending a lot of their time at work, and despite the reasonable bonuses they get, they might feel they are not being compensated enough. They are doing it because they expect that when they ultimately get promoted they will make enough and more to cover for all this unpleasantness. It is basically an “investment”. If, however, you think you are in a job where you are inadequately compensated but don’t see any hopes of significantly higher compensation in the future, you are cheating yourself by not looking for another job.

This also explains why it is a bad thing to compare your salary with your peers and your old classmates and then feel good or bad about it. No two people have the same needs. No two people find the same things unpleasant to the same degree. No two people make the same trade-offs. Comparing your salary with you peer gives little information.

On a closing note (I know it’s already monstrously long) I find the phrase “work-life balance” amusing. I think it is a construct brought about by the pigs so as to con the sheep into workign harder for them. There is no “balance” between life and work. Life is the master and work is the slave.

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