2 Jan

This post has nothing to do with the Indian Railways. Why would you think this has something with that? Because in its infinite wisdom the Railways has created a class of bogeys called “2 Jan Chair Car”! How did that materialize? Because a few years back they started this service called “Jan Shatabdi” which are all-seater trains with comfortable seating but no air conditioning. Essentially, a low-cost version of the Shatabdi. And they realized none of their existing bogeys fit this description, so they created a new class and called it “2 Jan Chair Car”.

So if not about the railways, what is it about? it is about the date 2nd January. The authorities at IIT Madras, I believe, have long known that students (most of them at least) don’t really have a social life, and not many of them are likely to celebrate new year in a big way (unless they are already on campus). Hence, every year the “even semester” would begin on 2nd January. The odd semester began at different times – sometimes in mid-July, sometimes in end-August. But the starting date of the even semester was fixed – 2nd January!

For people like me from nearby places such as Bangalore, it meant spending four consecutive New Years Days catching an overnight train. For people from farther away, especially closer to the north, it meant ushering in the new year on a train, for they had to start on the 31st (or earlier) to make it in time for classes on the 2nd.

Our “odd semester” results would have come out in the vacations and typically someone who had stayed back on campus would have had the responsibility of checking and informing everyone’s grades. On 2 Jan, we would go up to the notice boards and check our grades for ourselves. And occasionally we would go to professors who had taught us in the previous term seeking revaluation and a better grade. However, considering that final exam transcripts were “closed” (i.e. not available to the students) not much would come out of it.

Then we had this strange ritual called “registration” which we had to do every term. Administrative officials would be sitting in classrooms and we had to go fill up a form and sign on what courses we were going to take that semester. It was normally a pretty meaningless ritual, for we would have selected and been granted the courses the previous semester itself. But I suppose it served some administrative purpose.

The good thing about the start of the even semester was that this was the time of the year when Madras was at its coolest (relatively speaking, of course!). And then there would be Saarang (formerly Mardi Gras), the IIT Madras cultural festival to look forward to, and those that would be involved in organizing it (which I was in my latter two years at IIT) would spend pretty much all of January doing that.

Us people from Bangalore had another ritual – we would try and travel together to Chennai in the same train at the start of every semester. Sometime in the preceding holidays we would appoint a date when we would all meet at the Indian Railway booking counter in Jayanagar (most of us were from the south) and book tickets. Once, since we were booking in bulk, we were asked to fill a separate form. We had been asked what the purpose of our travel to Chennai was. We filled it as “pilgrimage”!

PS: some of you might have seen this blog post via Twitter. However, I’m taking a break from twitter (I’d gotten addicted, this is my version of a “quit smoking” new year resolution). So if you want to respond, please leave a comment here rather than replying on twitter.

Wasting Youth

Nowadays everyone seems to be preparing for JEE. It is almost as if it is a logical progression to join some JEE coaching factory once you are done with 10th standard. Yeah, the numbers were quite large in my time (~10 yrs back) itself. But they are humongous now, and it is not funny.

Yeah, awareness about IIT and people feeling good about themselves and wanting to go study at India’s best undergraduate institutions is great. It is brilliant. Fantastic. What is not so great, brilliant and fantastic is that tens of thousands of youth are wasting two years of their prime youth trying to mug for an entrance exam in which they stand little chance of doing well.

I just hope I’m not sounding condescending here, but it intrigues me that so many people who have very little chances of making it through the JEE slog so much for it. I think it is due toe the unhealthy equilibrium that has been reached with respect to the exam, which makes everyone waste so much time. Let me explain.

So over the years the JEE has got the reputation of being a “tough” exam. And over the years, maybe due to the way papers are structured or the way factories train people, people have figured out that hard work and extra hours of preparation helps. I could get into studsandfighters mode here but in line with my promise let me try and explain without invoking the framework. And you need to remember that the JEE uses “relative grading” – how well you have done is dependent on how badly others have done.

So if everyone has put in that much extra hard work, you are likely to lose out by not putting in that extra work. And so you increase your effort. And so does everyone else. Yeah this is a single iteration game but still looking at the competition and peer pressure eveyone is forced to raise their effort. Everyone is forced to, to quote the Director of my JEE factory, “work up to human limit”.

Yeah, a few hundred people every year manage to “crack” the system and get through without putting in that much effort. But then their numbers are small compared to the number of people who get admitted, so people who get through based on sheer hard work do tend to get noticed more, and spur other aspirants to work even harder. And so forth.

Yes, there is a problem with a system. Something is not right when a large proportion of youth in the country is wasting away two years of prime youth in preparing for some entrance exam. It is easy to see the fundamental problem – shortage of “really good quality” engineering colleges (I argue that this mad fight for IIT seats shows the gap between IITs and the next level of engineering colleges – at least in terms of public perception). But considering that as given I wonder what we could change. I wonder what we could do in order to save our youth.

As an aside, one thing I’ve noticed about several JEE aspirants is that they don’t give up. I don’t know if this is necessarily a good thing – to carry on with the mad fight even if you know that your chances of making it are remote. Yeah I’m sure there is peer pressure and status issues with respect to giving up. But then I suppose I would have a lot more respect for someone who would give up and enjoy life rather than continue the mad fight knowing fully well that his chances are remote.

Looking back, I do regret wasting those two years in mad JEE mugging. Ok I must admit I did have my share of fun back then but still looking back I would have definitely preferred to have not worked so hard back then. And of course I count myself lucky that I got through the JEE and my hard work in those two years wasn’t in vain.

Discrete and continuous jobs

Earlier today, while contributing to a spectacular discussion about ambition on a mailing list that I’m part of, I realized that my CV basically translates to spectacular performance in entrance exams and certain other competitive exams, and not much otherwise. This made me think of the concept of a “discrete job” – where you are evaluated based on work that you do at certain discrete points in time, as opposed to a continuous job where you are evaluated based on all the work that you do all the time.

A good example of a discrete job is that of a sportsman. Yes, a sportsman needs to work hard all the time and train well and all that, but the point is that his performance is essentially evaluated based on his performance on the day of the game. His performance on these “big days” matter significantly more than his performance on non-match days. So you can have people like Ledley King who are unable to train (because of weak knees) but are still highly valued because they can play a damn good game when it matters.

In fact any performing artist does a “discrete” job. If you are an actor, you need to do well on the day of your play, and off-days during non-performing days can be easily forgiven. Similarly for a musician and so forth.

Now the advantage of a “discrete” job is that you can conserve your energies for the big occasion. You can afford the occasional slip-up during non-performing days but as long as you do a good job on the performing days you are fine. On the other hand, if you are in a continuous job, off-days cost so much more, and you will need to divide your energies across each day.

If you are of the types that builds up a frenzy and thulps for short period of time and then goes back to “sleep” (I think I fall under this category), doing a continuous job is extremely difficult. The only way that it can be managed is through aggregation – never giving close deadlines so that you can compensate for the off-day by having a high-work day somewhere close to it. But not every job allows you the luxury of aggregation, so problem are there.

Now, my challenge is to find a discrete job in the kind of stuff that I want to do (broadly quant analysis). And maybe give that a shot. So far I’ve been mostly involved in continuous jobs, and am clearly not doing very well in that. And given my track record in important examinaitons, it is likely I’ll do better in a discrete job. Now to find one of those..

Weddings

I’m trying to understand the significance of attending another person’s wedding. It is very unlikely that you are going to add any significant value to the process, since the person who invited you is likely to be extremely busy with the process. Unless you know one of the main people involved in the wedding really well, there is a finite probability that your attendance might not be noted also (just in case the photographer is not diligent enough).

Of course, weddings give you the opportunity to network. Especially if it is a noisy south indian setting (I’ve attended one north indian wedding so far, and what put me off was the requirement to stay silent during the proceedings) or a reception. It is a good excuse for you to catch up with all those people who belonged to the same affiliation group as you and the person who invited you. It is a good opportunity to expand your social circle.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid, one of the great attractions of weddings was the food. Bisibelebath was a special item back then, as were the various “wedding special” sweets. Some of the more affluent folk would also offer ice cream for dessert (that has become a common thing now, especially for receptions). The food on its own was enough to make me look forward to weddings. Over time, the general quality of wedding food has dropped. And the general quality of food in restaurants has increased well at a faster rate. So you don’t need to go to a wedding for the food anymore.

Historically, I’ve been fairly social. I’ve usually attended all functions that I’ve been invited to, especially if it’s in the same city. I admit I haven’t really travelled too many times to attend weddings but done short trips (such as Bangalore-Mysore) occasionally. I’ve always calculated that the cost (time, travel, etc.) of attending a wedding is not much in terms of potential benefits in terms of networking, catching up, expanding circle, etc. Of course, I need to admit that over the last couple of years, NED has been part of the equation, and there have been a few occasions when I’ve worn a nice shirt and then backed off from going.

It is all fine when travel is local, where NED is perhaps the only thing that can tilt the balance in favour of not attending the wedding. When you live away, the whole equation changes. The cost of travelling goes up dramatically (in terms of time, money and inconvenience). The climb is especially steep if you live a flight away, rather than just a train journey away. What used to be borderline cases when the distance was small now dussenly become absolute noes. The obvious ayes become borderline cases. And in some cases obvious ayes become obvious noes. It is only when a wedding happens in your new city that what were obvious noes become obvious ayes.

Four months ago, my cousin (father’s brother’s daughter) got married in Bangalore. If I were in Bangalore, it would have been an emphatic aye. In fact, it’s likely that I’d’ve volunteered to take up a significant number of duties at that wedding. However, the way things turned out (my being in Gurgaon), it wasn’t tough to declare that as a noe. The work that I would’ve otherwise volunteered for suddenly became “work”, became a “cost”. Combined with a couple of other factors, it turned out to be a fairly obvious noe. And I don’t think anyone really minded.

It seems to be the season for friends to get married, especially juniors from IIMB. Two of them who have just got married to each other are having their reception tonight 100m away from my Bangalore house. A case that would have been an overwhelming yes, now become borderline. Remember that NED to travel varies with the travel-cost in a super-linear fashion, and I think it is that which has turned today’s case into a no. There have already been a few other weddings in the season for which I’ve convinced myself with a similar reason. And there are more.

So I ask myself once again – why should I attend someone’s wedding? I have so far been putting the obvious variables into my calculation – netwroking opportunity, goodwill, opportunity to catch up with people, side effects (a wedding in Bangalore is a good excuse for me to visit Bangalore, etc.), travel costs, chance of occurrence of NED, how much ‘work’ it will be, etc. and have been trying to base my decision on these.

Is there something I’ve missed out? Is there something else that I need to consider which might change the costs and benefits of going? Coming back to the more fundamental¬† question, why should I attend someone’s wedding?

Process

A couple of days back, I was debugging some code. And yes, for those of you who didn’t know, coding is a part of my job. I used to have this theory that whatever job you take, there is some part of it that is going to be boring. Or to put it in the immortal words of a brilliant co-intern at JP Morgan “chootiya kaam”. And in my job, the chootiya part of the kaam is coding. That doesn’t mean that I’m not enjoying it, though. In fact, for the first time in nine years (note that this takes me to a time before I’d started my BTech in Computer Science) I’m enjoying coding.

Coming back, I was debugging my code yesterday. It was one of those impossible bugs. One of those cases where you had no clue why things were going wrong. So I started off by looking at the log files. All clean, and no bugs located. While I was going through them, I got this idea that the strategy sheet might offer some clue as to why things aren’t doing well. Half the problem got diagnosed when I was looking at the strategy sheet. Some problem with cash management.

And when I thought looking at the trades might help. The bug was presently discovered. And then it hit me – that I’d unwittingly followed what seems like a “process”. Everything that I did had been guided by insight and instinct. Yet, the steps that I followed – 1. look at the logs; 2. look at the strategy sheet ; 3. look at the trades – seemed so much a preset process. It seemed to be like one of those things that I’d just ended up reading in some manual and following.

I realize that most “standard processes” that are followed by¬† various people in various places are stuff that were initially not meant to be processes. They were just an imprint of somone’s train of insights. It was as if someone had a series of insights that led to a solution to whta might have been a difficult problem. And then, he realized that this kind of a process could be followed to deal with all such similar problems. And so he wrote down the process in a book and taught a set of people to implement them. The field thus got “fighterized“.

The argument I’m trying to make here is that a large number of so-called “standard processes” are just an imprint of someone’s insight. They just happened to get into place because the inventor noticed this pattern in a bunch of things that he was doing. They need not be the best way of doing what is supposed to be done. Maybe there isn’t even a single best way of doing it that might work every time.

People who are likely to have worked on processes later in their life cycle are likely to have been people who are process-oriented themselves, and given how these kind of people work, it would have been likely that they would have resisted changes that could make the process worse in the short term. They are more likely to have been incremental in their approach. With a succession of such people working on improving the process, the process of refining the process would’ve ended up taking a hill-climbing algorithm and is likely to have ended up in a local maximum.

Once again, the large changes to the process would’ve happened when someone who was willing to take a large step backward worked on them, and it is again likely that such a person would be driven more by insight rather than by process.

My hypothesis is that most processes are likely to have been largely defined by people who are themselves not very process-oriented, and who thus will expect a certain level of insight and discretion on the part of the person implementing the process. And one needs to keep this in mind while following processes. That it would be good if one were to take a critical view of every process being used, and not be afraid to take a backward step or two in process development in order to achieve large-scale improvements.