Not-working events – IIMB alumni edition

So yet another event that was supposedly for networking purposes turned out to be so badly designed that little networking was possible. The culprit in this case was the IIM Bangalore Alumni Association which organised the London edition of Anusmaran, the annual meet-up of IIMB Alumni which is held in different cities across the world.

Now, I must mention that I had been warned. Several friends from IIMB who have lived in London for a while told me that they had stopped going to this event since the events were generally badly organised. I myself hadn’t gone to one of these events since 2006 (when I’d just graduated, and found a lot of just-graduated classmates at the Mumbai edition).

So while I didn’t have particularly high expectations, I went with the hope that it “couldn’t be that bad”, and that I might get to meet some interesting people there. At the end of the event, I wasn’t sure if anyone interesting attended, because the format didn’t allow me to discover the other attendees.

Soon after I entered, and chatted briefly with the two professors there, and one guy from the batch before mine, one of the organisers requested everyone present to “form a huddle”. And then the talks started.

For some reason, the IIMB Alumni Association seems to have suddenly started to take itself too seriously in the last few years. The last few editions of the Bangalore edition of Anusmaran, for example, have featured panel discussions, and that has been a major reason for my not attending. The idea of an alumni event, after all, is to meet other alumni, and when most of you are forced to turn in one direction and listen to a small number of people, little networking can happen.

And that is exactly what happened at the London event today – the talks started, unannounced (there had been no prior communication that such talks would be there – I’d assumed it would be like the 2005 event in London that I’d helped organise where people just got together and talked). Some two or three alumni spoke, mostly to promote their businesses. And they were long talks, full of the kind of gyaan and globe that people with long careers in management can be expected to give.

So it went on, for an hour and half, with people speaking one after other and everyone else being expected to listen to the person speaking, rather than talk to one another. The class participation reminded me of the worst of the class participation from my business school days – people trying to sound self-important and noble rather than asking “real” questions.

When the organiser asked everyone to introduce themselves in a “few seconds each” (name, graduating batch, company), most people elected to give speeches. I exited soon after.

Based on the last data point (of people giving long speeches while introducing themselves), it is possible that even if I had the opportunity to network I may not have met too many interesting people. Yet, the format of the event, with lots of speeches by people mainly trying to promote themselves, was rather jarring.

This is not the first time I’ve attended a networking event where little networking is possible. I remember this “get together” organised by a distant relative a few years back where everyone was expected to listen to the music they’d arranged for rather than talking. There was this public policy conference some years ago which got together plenty of interesting people, but gave such short tea breaks that people could hardly meet each other (and organisers ushering people who overstayed their tea breaks into the sessions didn’t help matters).

Sometimes it might be necessary to have an anchor, to give people a reason apart from networking to attend the event. But when the anchor ends up being the entirety of the event, the event is unlikely to serve its purpose.

I’d written about Anusmaran once before. Thankfully the organisers of today’s event had got the pricing bit right – the event was at a pub, and you had to get your own drinks from the bar, and pay for them.

I’d also written about the importance of giving an opportunity for networking at random events.

 

What makes a Gencu successful?

Last evening I participated in a gencu with Cueballs and Zulu. First of all, let me explain what “gencu” is. It’s a term coined by the wife, and is short for “general catch up”. The reason she coined it was that for a while I was meeting so many people without any real agenda (I still do. Did four such meetings yesterday including the aforementioned) that she felt it deserves its own coinage.

So she would ask “what are you doing today?”. “Meeting this person”, I would respond. “Why?” would be the obvious next question. “No specific reason. Gen catch up”, I would respond.

I ended up saying “Gen catch up” so many times that she decided to shorten it to “gencu”, and we use the term fairly often now. This is the first attempt at publicising it, though. And no, unlike me, she still doesn’t do too many gencus.

So the thing with gencus is that you have no specific agenda, so if you don’t have anything to talk about, or don’t find each other particularly interesting, the meeting can quickly unravel. You can soon run out of things to talk about, and quickly you will start discussing who you are in touch with. So in that sense, gencus can have a high chance of failure (especially if you are meeting the counterparty for the first time or after a long time), and this is one of the reasons why the wife doesn’t do gencus.

One way of insuring against gencus going bad is to have more players. When you have three people, the chances of the gencu going bad are reduced (can’t be ruled out, but the probability decreases). In that sense, you get to meet two people at the same time with the insurance that you will not get bored. On the downside, if there is something specific that two of you want to talk about, you either have to shelve it or let the third person get bored.

While riding to another gencu after the one with Cueballs and Zulu (I must mention that none of the three of us felt the need for a third person to “insure” the gencu. Those two were planning a gencu openly on twitter and since I wanted to meet them both, I invited myself, that’s all!), I was thinking of what can make a multiparty (> 2) gencu successful. I was thinking of my recent multiparty gencus, and most of them had been pleasant and enjoyable, and never boring for any party.

The key to making a multiparty gencu successful, I realised, is mutual respect (ok I’m globing now, I admit). I’ve been through bad 3-way gencus too, and the problem with those has been that two of the three dominate, and don’t let the third person speak (a group discussion like atmosphere). Or two of three have a common interest or connection and speak too much about that, excluding the third person. Such meetings might be okay for one or two parties (among those that are dominating) but definitely uncomfortable for the third.

The above point had two people dominating the gencu at the cost of the third being a problem. Sometimes you don’t even need two people for that. One of the three people can simply hijack the whole thing by talking about themselves, or their pet topic, at the exclusion of the other two people (such people don’t really need counterparties for conversation, but still choose to attend multiparty gencus).

The network structure before the meeting is also important. In our case yesterday, we knew each other “pair-wise”, so it was a complete graph at the beginning of the meeting itself. Not all three-party gencus are like this, and it is possible for two people at one such gencu to not know each other before. This can occasionally be troublesome, since the law of transitivity doesn’t hold for people getting along with or liking people, so if A knows B and B knows C, there is no guarantee that A will get along with C. It can also happen that B will give more importance to talking to A than to talking to C (been affected by this from all three sides in the past). It might be hard to find stuff that everyone finds interesting, resulting in leaving out people. And so forth.

What about larger groups? Groups of five or bigger I’ve seen usually devolving into smaller groups (a notable exception was this one drinking session in late January, where we were 7 people and still had only one (excellent) conversation going), so they need not be analysed separately. Groups of 4 can work, but I prefer groups of 3 (maybe I’ll do a more rigorous analysis of this in a later post).

So what’s your experience with Gencus? What is the ideal number, and how do you go about it?

On tea being served before a talk

Later this evening I’m planning to go for this talk on Temples of the Badami Chalukyas, being held at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Indiranagar.

The text of the invite (not present in the picture above) says that “tea will be served before the talk”. Now you might think that it’s no big deal – but in my opinion that’s one marker that sets apart what can be a high-quality fulfilling event for the audience member than one that is merely good.

There are two reasons that people go to talks like this one – one is for the talk itself. For example, the topic of today’s talk looks extremely promising and exciting, and inherent interest in the topic itself is likely to spur audience participation. The other reason people like to go for such talks is that they are good places to meet with other like-minded people, and that is where the tea before the talk comes into the picture.

At the Pratap Bhanu Mehta lecture at IISc two weekends back, there was no tea being served prior to the talk. As a consequence, everyone who arrived walked straight into the hall and took their seats. When I arrived there there seemed to be no conversation whatsoever taking place, and so I went and quietly took my seat. Looking around, however, I noticed a number of acquaintances, and people I wanted to get to connect to (people who could connect me to these people were also in the audience). However, there was no chance of going up and talking to them and indulging in what some people uncharitably call as “networking”. And after the event was over everyone was in a hurry to get home and there was no chance to talk!

This is where tea before the talk comes into the picture. When tea is being served, people usually stand around the service area (not to be confused with Cervezaria) and mill around talking. It’s a great occasion to catch up with old acquaintances who happen to be there, make new acquaintances (that both of you have come for the same (usually esoteric) lecture indicates that you have some common interests) and generally talk to people. And meeting interesting people (new or old) at an event is always a good thing and attendees go home much more satisfied than they would had they only consumed the lecture!

Hence it is of paramount importance that tea (or coffee or milk or water or beer) be served before the talk, for it gives an opportunity for people to talk to each other, to network and to get more out of other attendees than they would from the talk itself. And if you are the antisocial type who doesn’t want to meet other attendees, you can quietly go take your seat while others are having tea – they won’t even notice you!

The Goa Project

The last three days I was in Goa, attending the second edition of the Goa Project. Considering how stressed out I was with work last week, it was a good three-day break, and I had a good time meeting new ! people, getting to know them, generally hanging out and drinking (though I must admit I got sick of beer).

The Goa Project is an interesting concept. The basic idea, as one of the organizers put it, is to get a bunch of interesting people together and put them in one place for two days and let the network effect take over. There is no particular objective in terms of immediate outcomes from the workshop – it is simply about connecting people! Talks are scheduled through the days and at any point of time one typically has three sessions to choose from, but like in any good conference, most of the “useful stuff” happens outside the lecture halls – where participants meet each other and just “hang out”.

I took an overnight bus to Goa (first time I used VRL – was pretty good), and so reached the venue only at 11:30 am. The first pair of keynote lectures (those that don’t have any “competitors” and thus don’t give you a choice to not attend) had just got over and people were moving around. The first set of “real sessions” were starting, and I realized there were few people I knew. But then, the point of an event such as this is lost if you end up knowing a lot of people there, and don’t make any effort to expand your network.

In ten minutes I was in and out of all three simultaneous sessions – all of which I found rather uninteresting. Then began my quest for what I called the “white noise space”. The problem was that the microphones at all three venues had been turned up, and it was impossible to have a conversation without any of those lectures disturbing you. Finally I reached what is possibly the “weighted centroid” of all the loudspeakers, where sounds from each of the three lectures could be heard equally loudly, so that they cancelled one another out, allowing us to have a conversation.

Two or three weekends back, I was reading this book on networking called “Never Eat Alone” (on Gandhi’s recommendation), which for a “management book” was a really good read and rather insightful. It was while I was in the middle of that book that I got an invite to speak at the Goa Project. So it can be said that my visit to the Project was an attempt to put what I read in that book to practice.

During the course of the two days of the workshop I don’t think I talked to more than twenty people (there were over two hundred there). My wife had made twenty five or so new business cards for me to give out at the workshop, and I gave out less than ten. I collected three of four business cards. There was this small group of people (some of whom I knew earlier, but not too well, and most of whom I had never met earlier) that I met, and this group expanded during the course of the Project. So while I didn’t expand my network wide, I did manage to get to know a few people well.

The irrepressible Krish Ashok (with whom I hung out for a large part of Day One) gave an absolutely kickass talk on day one about mixing and making music. Fittingly, it was heavily attended, despite it eating into lunch time (inevitably, I must say, there were delays and the schedule got badly mangled). There were only two other sessions on day one that I sat through till the end, though, with most of the others being rather underwhelming.

When we got married, my wife and I had decided that we would not have live music for the reception, for if you keep it too soft, the artists will get offended, and if you keep it too loud, it can interfere with conversation. The live music at the end of day one had the second of these effects, and with some people who I’d hung out with that day, I went to a far corner of the venue (where the music was actually enjoyable) to eat my dinner.

I was talking about the economics of auto rickshaws – perhaps a part two of the talk on Chennai auto rickshaws I’d delivered in Chennai in 2011. I got slotted into a track called “society”, where interestingly I was perhaps the only speaker who was not an activist. In some senses that made me a bit of a misfit with the rest of the track speakers. Sample this interaction during my talk:

Audience member: Given that the auto driver is under privileged ..
Me (cutting her short): Policies should not be framed based on who is under privileged and who is over privileged. They should be based on sound economic reasoning.

The audience member was a bit stunned and took a while to recover to continue the question I had cut short.

Anyway, the lady who was managing my track had sent an email asking us to rehearse our talks and also sent Amanda Palmer’s TED talk to tell us how we should structure our sessions. She had asked us to script our talks, and rehearse it a few times. While my experience on day one indicated that few other speakers had bothered to actually rehearse, early on Day Two, I thought I should rehearse at least once before the talk.

And talking in front of the mirror as I made coffee and dressed myself, I over-exerted myself and promptly lost my voice.

The rest of the morning, before my talk, I decided to “conserve my voice”, and thus not being able to speak, I decided to attend some talks. I sat in the front row when Lucia director Pawan Kumar talked about how he crowd-funded and made the movie. I listened to this guy (who I know via a “secret society” but had never met before) talk about his experience of being a cop in London. In between, I walked about, talking in a low voice, with people I had met the earlier day.

Mangled schedules meant that my 12:40 talk started only around 1:50, when lunch was underway. It didn’t help matters that it was scheduled in the arena farthest from the cafeteria. Calling it “economics of local for-hire public transport” also didn’t help. But that there were less than twenty people in the audience meant that I could settle down on the stage and deliver my talk.

And so I delivered. Mic in hand, low voice didn’t matter. Small crowd meant I could take questions through my talk. Hanging out with a few people through the length of the workshop meant they helped enhance my audience (a favour I returned). And a lunch-time talk meant that when I started getting too many questions, the track manager declared “lunch break” and I slipped away.

I was wearing a white shirt with sleeves rolled up, over khaki cargo shorts. Sitting on stage cross-legged (which meant that the fact that my shirt was untucked or that the shorts were cargo didn’t show), with a microphone in my left hand and waving a pointed right forefinger, I think the only thing that separated me from an RSS pramukh was a black cap on my head!

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The rest of the day went well. I attended some excellent talks through the afternoon and evening, though not too many others did, for the schedule had played havoc again. Dinner time saw a nice band playing, though I stopped drinking since I got sick of beer. I met a few more people, gave out a few more cards, “watched” Liverpool massacre Arsenal via Guardian minute-by-minute commentary, and returned to my hotel a happy man.

The Goa Project continued into its unofficial third day today, as I met a few of the other attendees for breakfast (we were all at the same hotel), a few others for lunch, and some more at the waiting area of the impossibly tiny and congested Dabolim airport as I waited to fly back to Bangalore.

I’ll be back next year.

 

Networking eatings

Given that I’m a freelancer and do several things to earn my money, and that there is no consistency in my income flow, I need to do a lot of “networking”. Essentially, this is about generally catching up with someone over an informal chat, discussing what we do, and exploring if there were any synergies to exploit. I think this is great option value, for meeting people and getting their perspectives makes you think different, and that can give you ideas which you can potentially make money out of at a later point in time.

The point of this post about the venues for such networking meetings. I don’t have an office – I work from home, and my home office is not particularly suited for meetings, so I prefer to do my meetings outside. Sometimes, when the person I’m meeting has an office, we end up doing the meeting there. I’ll leave out those meetings from this discussion, since there is nothing really to be described about the venue. Most other occasions, though, meetings happen over food and drink, more likely the latter. This post is about good and bad places for networking meetings.

Most of my “networking meetings” so far have happened at the trusty old Cafe Coffee Day. The city is littered with several of these outlets, and for the price of two cappuccinos, they offer excellent place to sit and talk for hours together. The problem, though, is that they have now (for a couple of years or so) gone pre-paid. You need to order at the counter before you settle down at a table, and each time you want something more you need to go up and order again. There are two problems this poses.

Firstly, if you reach before the other person (chances of both reaching at the same instant are infinitesimal), you will need to wait. And in the time when you’re occupying a table and haven’t ordered you have to deal with strange glares from the cafe staff. You need to keep telling them “I’m waiting for a friend”. The next problem is with payment dynamics. It is so much easier to split the bill when you’re paying at the table. It gets complicated when you’re paying at the counter, with the effect that more often than not one of you will end up paying for both of you. That’s not exactly a problem, but starting a meeting with discussions on who will pay is not exactly the best way to go.

My initial meetings with the person who has turned out to be my biggest client so far happened in the coffee shop of a five star hotel. I must mention here that in most five star hotels in Bangalore, you get remarkably good filter coffee nowadays. Coffee shops of five star hotels are good places for these meetings, for they are usually quiet and you are served at your desk. They come at a cost, however – though you might argue that paying two hundred rupees for filter coffee at Vivanta is not so much more than paying a hundred rupees for a cappuccino at Cafe Coffee Day.

Breakfast at a five star hotel, however, isn’t that great for networking. Recently, I did a breakfast meeting at a five star hotel. As you might expect, we had the buffet. However, the problem with doing a meeting over a breakfast buffet in a five star hotel is that you simply can’t do justice to the spread! You can’t keep going for refills, and you would want to stick to things you can eat without creating much of a mess. And when you’re doing a professional meeting you don’t want to be eating too much also.

Then there are South Indian restaurants. I’ve done some meetings in those, also. The problem, however, is that such restaurants rely on quick table turnover and even if you go in off-peak times you get strange looks if you stay too long. This has to be mitigated with staggered orders through the course of your meeting. The advantage is that these places are cheap and the food is great.

I don’t usually do networking meetings over drinks. It has nothing to do with my capacity – it is just that most pubs are loud and not particularly conducive for conversation. And you don’t want to be screaming at the top of your voice in a professional meeting. That doesn’t mean I haven’t done meetings in pubs, though, but it’s usually after a certain degree of familiarity has been established.

Finally let us come to the lunch meetings. Here, it is important that you choose a cuisine that is high density. Again you don’t want to spend too much time eating, so you should prefer food that you can eat little of but will still fill you up. Also, you need to choose a cuisine that’s not messy. On both counts, North Indian is NOT ideal – it’s not very high density, and you need to eat with your hands which can become messy and that’s not something you want at a meeting. A further problem is that North Indian food in most restaurants comes in shared portions – and when you’re meeting someone professionally it can get a little uncomfortable.

These problems are there in East Asian also. South Indian restaurants (in Bangalore) are mostly quick service and thus not great for networking lunches (and south indian food is low density). So the ideal choice in this case is European – portions are small, the food is filling, you can eat it all with a knife and fork and it comes in individual portions.

I’ll put more fundaes on this matter as I get more experienced in the matter of networking eatings. I’m off now – need to rush to a lunch meeting!

 

Missing the Obvious

It was a year and a half back that I bought this desktop that I’m writing this post on. Given that the desktop was to be placed in my study, and the modem is in the drawing room, the most intuitive thing for me to connect up this desktop was to buy a USB wi-fi adapter, which cost me in excess of a thousand rupees. While it worked well in general, it gave problems once in a while, requiring reinstallation of the software and setting some random settings.

Last week, when I got some data from a client, I realized that my computer was wholly unsuited for big data operations, and I needed to upgrade, big time. I’ve now got myself a badass Intel I7 processor, with 8GB RAM and a 64 bit OS which will hopefully enable me to run my business successfully. The downside of this is that my old USB Adapter doesn’t work on a 64bit processor (it can be made to work, but the process is long and tedious). After getting my wife to dirty her hands on this (she is the in-house hands-on engineer), I realized that it wasn’t possible to get the USB Adapter to work, and thought of complicated options such as using this computer purely for analysis and using my laptop and a Pen Drive for the networking. Half a day of working thus told me it was way too inefficient. Then I thought of shifting the entire modem to the room, drawing a line from the telephone jack in the drawing room all around the house,  a process that is not painless.

Finally, for two hundred and sixty rupees (less than a fourth of what I had paid for the USB Adapter) I got myself a 20 meter long LAN cable, and have simply connected my computer with that. Beautiful, intuitive, simple. The question, though, is about why I had never thought of this beautiful, simple, intuitive solution for so long! It turns out that I had never really taken this option into consideration at all, for had I done it there would have been no grounds to reject it at any point in time.

I have recently embarked on a career in consulting, and I believe that a significant proportion of my insights are going to be beautiful, intuitive, simple solutions which for whatever reason the client hadn’t particularly thought of. Why do such low hanging fruit exist at all?

What is it about our thinking that we get so tied up in complications and completely miss out the obvious? Is it a fallout of our spending large amounts of time trying to solve complicated (and in the larger context inconsequential) problems? Or is it that these simple obvious solutions have to “hit us” sometime (in the form of an insight) and when we sometimes approach the problem in too structured a manner we tend to miss out on these insights? What do you think?

While I’m happy that I’m connected again, and in such simple a manner, I’m cross with myself that a simple soluti0n as this didn’t strike for such an extended period of time.

Arranged Scissors 8: Culture fit with parents

That you are in the arranged marriage process means that your parents now have full veto power over whom you marry. Given that you don’t generally want them to veto someone whom you have liked, the most common protocol as I understand is for parents to evaluate the counterparty first, and the “candidate” to get only the people who have passed the parental filter. Then the “candidates” proceed, and maybe meet, and maybe talk, and maybe flirt and maybe decide to get married.

Hypothesis: The chance of your success in the arranged marriage market is directly proportional to the the culture fit that you have wtih your parents.

Explanation: Given that parents have veto power in the process, and given the general protocol that most people follow (which I have described in the first para above; however, it can be shown that this result is independent of the protocol), there are two levels of “culture fit” that an interested counterparty has to pass. First, she has to pass the candidate’s parents’ culture fit test. Only after she has passed the test does she come in contact with the candidate (in most cases, not literally).

Then, she will have to pass the candidate’s culture fit test. By the symmetry argument, there are two more such tests (girl’s parents’ filter for boy and girl’s filter for boy). And then in the arranged marriage setting, people tend to evaluate their “beegaru” (don’t think english has a nice phrase for this – basically kids’ parents-in-law). So you have the boy’s parents evaluating the girl’s parents for culture fit, and vice versa.

So right at the beginning, the arranged marriage process has six layers of culture fit. And even if all these tests are passed, one gets only to the level of the CMP. (given that very few filter down to this level, i suppose a lot of people put NED at this stage and settle for the CMP).

Without loss of generality, let us now ignore the process of boy’s parents evaluating girl’s parents and vice versa (the problem is complex enough without this). So there are basically four evaluations, made by two pairs of evaluators (let us consider parents as one entity – they might have difference in opinion between each other occasionally but to the world they display a united front). Now for each side it comes down to the correlation of expectations between the side’s pair of evaluators.

The higher the “culture fit” you possess with your parents, the higher the chance that you will agree with them with regard to a particular counterparty’s culture fit. And this chance of agreement about culture fit of counterparty is directly proportional to the chance of getting married through the arranged marriage process (basically this culture fit thing can be assumed to be independent of all other processes that go into the arranged marriage decision; so take out all of those and the relationship is linear). Hence proved.

Now what if you are very different from your parents? It is very unlikely that you will approve of anyone that they will approve of, and vice versa. In such a situation it is going to be very hard for you to find someone through the arranged marriage process, and you are well advised to look outside (of course the problem of convincing parents doesn’t go away, but their veto power does).

So the moral of the story is that you should enter the arranged marriage market only if you possess a reasonable degree of culture fit with your parents.

(i have this other theory that in every family, there is a knee-jerk generation – one whose “culture” is markedly different compared to that of its previous generation. and after each knee-jerk, cultural differences between this generation and the following few generations will be low. maybe i’ll elaborate on it some other time)

Arranged Scissors 1 – The Common Minimum Programme

Arranged Scissors 2

Arranged Scissors 3 – Due Diligence

Arranged Scissors 4 – Dear Cesare

Arranged Scissors 5 – Finding the Right Exchange

Arranged Scissors 6: Due Diligence Networks

Arranged Scissors 7: Foreign boys