Thursday, March 27, 2014

Malaysian Jetliner MH370 - unparalleled mystery and bigger questions ahead

It was straight out of a Alistair McLean fiction novel. A gigantic, long range, wide bodied, 300 tonne twin jet commercial airliner with 240 passengers on-board takes off towards the Chinese capital and just vanishes in the thin air within an hour, without leaving any trace whatsoever, behind. Add to it Iranian passengers with fake passports, Captain with a full-fledged customized self-assembled flight simulator at home, First officer with an 'alleged' history of allowing teenagers in the cockpit once, around twenty odd geeks on-board capable of hacking software systems, one off-duty flight engineer with an expertise in flight electronics and navigation systems. This can just be the dream plot and backdrop for an expert storyteller. Unfortunately, all of this one day decided to come alive in reality, in the form of Malaysian airlines flight MH370, which is still missing, as per the latest information on Wikipedia.
Why did the plane take a sharp turn? How did it fly virtually unnoticed for so many hours crossing so many regions after its transponder and ACARS were switched off (or disabled)? Was the deviation off intended flight path a deliberate move on someone's part in the cockpit or on the ground? Did the pilot(s) commit suicide? Was the plane hijacked? Were the pilot(s) incapacitated and plane flew on auto-pilot just like that till it ran out of fuel? Mid-air catastrophic event, perhaps an explosion or a sudden decompression or structural failure? Aliens? Bermuda triangle scenarios ? Plane lost in the 4th dimension of the planet ('hole' in the space) ?

With so many theories, some scientific, some deductive and some just plain weird, floating around in the media and aviation experts, a lot of questions, some of them mentioned above, have surfaced, but without any satisfactory explanation or even the slightest hint of it. Primary reason being the plane itself isn't found, forget about the black box and all. Not even the smallest piece that can be concretely linked with the fuselage or wings or any other parts from the cargo is found yet. How can such a big bird disappear just like that without leaving any traces in this era of ultra-modern tracking devices and communication systems? Furthermore, one question gives birth to another question rather than a possible answer. For e.g., if suicide was the motive on either pilot's part, why would it require them to fly the plane at the remotest possible location on the planet for so long? Any of them could just take off and crash it anywhere. If it was a hijack by the pilot(s) themselves, what are the demands, and where is the plane and the passengers? If the cockpit security was breached, why wasn't there a distress signal? If it was a catastrophic failure as an explosion of some sort, wreckage would have been found by now. If the pilots were incapacitated for some reason, and the plane flew on auto-pilot, it isn't possible for the transponder or the ACARS to be disabled on their own due to some electronic failures. As per some reports, the plane changed altitudes and at some stages flew as low as 5000 feet. These days everyone gets to see the flight path on the small screen in modern airliners so how come not a single passenger or a crew member could alert or call or message anyone on the ground about the happenings inside the flight? Cellular networks are supposed to be available below 6-7 thousand feet.

Air travel is widely considered as one of the safest means of transport and in that, Boeing triple seven is regarded as the safest aircraft that was ever built. Since its inception couple of decades ago, it has been involved only in two fatal accidents so far. This incident, that's why, is perhaps the most baffling of all and has invariably gathered the attention of everyone. I am not an exception either, being a vivid aviation enthusiast. Much has already been talked and discussed about the theories around what happened to the plane and its passengers and why, who could have done that and when etc. so I will not re-iterate any of that. As I think over the 'perceived' facts that have been published and sometimes confirmed by various sources and aviation experts, I have the following bigger questions that I think deserve some thought process.

* It was a new learning for me that the plane's altitude threshold is in general 42000 feet, beyond which there is an imminent danger of decompression in the cabin and the cockpit which may knock the passengers / pilots unconscious and even lead to their deaths. If that is the case, with all the technology and security mechanisms at helm, why wouldn't we restrict the altitude reach to below the threshold? Why to even leave that in the pilot's control?

* My initial thought was why would the aircraft designers even allow the pilots to manually switch off such a critical system as a transponder, but then on more reading I got some genuine reasons. What I still haven't understood is, how difficult it would be to design the system in a way when transponder or ACARS is switched off, an alter goes down to the ground ATC in one way or the other (or at least the notification of some sort)?

* In this broadband age, the airliner communication systems are still relying on age old VHFs. If Air force one can have sophisticated communication systems wherein there's always a connect with the ground for its prestigious occupants, why then, in the year 2014, we do not have even a single jet that has these or similar facilities where the passengers are connected real time to the ground?

* When satellite's maneuvers hundreds of miles above can be controlled within a small room on earth, how difficult it would be to design a system which would remote control a jet in distress from the ground which is flying just 7 to 8 miles above? This system would also help someone at the ATC override pilot controls if the pilots decide to get mischievous. Anyway ATC is a crowded and secured place where one or two psychopaths wouldn't be able to misuse such system.

* In this age of big data and storage systems capable of storing humongous amount of data, how difficult it would be to design a simple 'CCTV' like system live streaming the activities within the cockpit / cabin during the flight?

* And regarding the black-box recorders, one question that even standard 4th student would probably ask is, when we have built giant ships floating on the water surface, how difficult it would be for the great minds to design a black-box which will float on the water or perhaps, eject itself out of the flight in distress during the final moments of crash or emergency landing?

I do not have any answers or guesses myself for any of these questions and the only guess that I can make is, although aviation technology has evolved over years, the fundamental principles in the design of the aircraft and its communication systems are still of 90's era, when most of the currently used aircraft were designed and built. It would incur a huge cost to revamp. Ultimately it boils down to the economic viability.

As an afterthought, with the constant attention and published information in relation to this incident, we have had so much data available related to how commercial airliners operate, and standard procedures, I wonder some dirty minds out there trying to figure out how to explore the loopholes in the systems with nefarious intentions. Do we have enough security systems in place to deflect those?

Note - at the time of publishing this post, the official status on Wikipedia for the flight is 'missing' and I, as an author and a human being, would like to keep it at that, and hence no mention of the words 'tragic' etc. in this article or any mention of the status of the passengers at the very moment. Let's hope for the best.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Musings from an Indian wedding: Can we change these please? !!

I recently read an Accenture survey stating 'Indians are best in savings, most retirement ready', and that's true isn't it? We are taught right from the childhood to save. As a rule of thumb, almost everyone of us who has grown in this part of the world, is conservative when it comes to spending or rather splurging money on items of lesser significance. However, there is always an exception to every rule and this isn't any different. Our Indian society, irrespective of religion, region, caste, creed, language, socioeconomic status etc., has shown huge inclination towards being extravagant when it comes to planning wedding events. We are a nation where marriage isn't just another event. We are known for, and in fact are pretentiously proud of our big fat Indian weddings which span across weeks, where overindulgence into the spending on jewelry, gifts, food, and ostentatious display of each and everything in the fray right from the vehicle used to fetch the bride to the entrance gate of the marriage hall, take center-stage than the focus on the cultural or religious aspects of the traditional Indian wedding ceremonies, forget about the practicalities involved.

I am not a big fan of austerity especially when it comes to celebration and I would be the last person to advocate for the wedding money to be donated to charity. I do believe this is once in a lifetime occasion for most of us (!) which we deserve to celebrate as much as we can afford to, however, there are indeed certain things where a change is desired, especially with changing times. Fresh from the responsibilities of my beloved sister's wedding, as I reflect back on the half-a-month proceedings, here are few of the things that I believe should undergo change, in general, in our wedding events. These are not specific to any religion, region, or a specific set of population but generic, applicable to most if not all, of Indian wedding rituals and patterns.

Time-span and events: Most of our wedding events and rituals are spanned across more than a week's time frame. How impractical it is, these days where life has become super-fast, people have spread across the globe, although virtually closer but physically far apart, to be present for these events. Loads and loads of events all along these days squeeze the last drop of blood out of you for no reasons. You don't at all feel like you are actually doing a lot of productive work, or even a celebratory indulgence of some kind, and while I cannot comment on the religious rituals and customs for obvious reasons (this is not even the intention of my post for now), I do feel we can do away with a bulk of these and make the wedding lean and mean (no pun intended !).
Change- encourage registered marriage with a grand reception, just one for all (both the parties together), a matter of a couple of days logistically speaking.

Gifting: Any guesses what is the most precious thing that every newly married couple definitely needs? Photo frames, cutlery, wardrobe, clothing, electronic equipment, gadgetry, home appliances? No. If you ask 90 out of 100 about to be married couples on what would be their topmost need immediately after marriage, they would reply with 'liquid money' without batting an eyelid, and it is true isn't it? For most of us who belong to middle or upper middle class, liquid money is the topmost necessity for a newly married couple to establish a new household from the scratch. Instead that, today, they are likely to be left with all of the things mentioned above which aren't assets but ultimately liability. More than half of the things that are gifted, frankly speaking, the couple themselves wouldn't even have preferred to buy and even if the things are of their liking, the choices wouldn't just fall in place. There's an emotional attachment with the gifts as well which doesn't allow any of the stakeholder (bride or groom!) replace or exchange the gift for a better one! Try getting rid of that big showpiece which has just been a white elephant for you in your otherwise delicate showcase, which you have to clean every day to keep it shiny, especially if it has come from the spouse's side! Same is the case with home appliances, you have an affinity to a specific brand, you are stuck with the gifted one. You have a priority need of a washing machine, where you are gifted a dish-washer. What newly married couple enjoys more is shopping together for the house of their dreams. For that, they can be supported with liquid funds instead of such gifting practices. Let them choose what they want, how they want and when they want to buy. 
Change- discourage all other forms of gifts and those who really want to gift something to the couple, a nicely designed envelope with the sum enclosed is the best way forward.  

Cross-gifting and VIP treatment: In many weddings, bride and groom's sides have to cross-gift selected people from the other side as a gesture of respect. Imagine shopping stuff for a minimum of 30 folks about whom you have absolutely no idea at all, what they like to wear, what they don't, what's their lifestyle and surroundings, and again, their hierarchy in the family! pretty absurd. Imagine the kind of time one has to spend on these and the bottom-line is, you end up gifting someone something the person wouldn't even turn a second glance on. Sheer wastage of time and money. Okay here's another glitch. Wedding isn't just the union of two souls but the events associated with it are meant to bring two families together. What happens instead is, there will always be ego clashes, frictions, arguments over really small and trivial things. The mindset needs a change here. In almost all kinds of weddings, a certain hierarchy is observed, from both bride's and groom's sides. Many a times I wonder how do they really measure the closeness of the people with the bride and groom and treat them accordingly. This following of a certain undeclared hierarchy leads to the above mentioned things. People attending the events are treated differently and there will almost always be some set of folks who get offended in the process unnecessarily. Things leading to this mess can be as small as the color of the saree gifted to a certain lady being darker than the one gifted to her sibling, or the chair wasn't offered to someone whereas it was offered to someone else, or the door of the guests car wasn't opened by the host at one end, or the bouquet wasn't presented to a certain paternal relative of the bride, this and that, arghhhh.
Change- go to a shopping mall and get gift vouchers for elders, and apply the same fundamental of envelope with enclosed sum for younger ones. Within half n hour, the process will just be completed to the satisfaction of all. Additionally, no special treatment to any except bride's and groom's parents, if at all, they deserve it! Rest should be treated equally and with no specific privileges. It's all or none.

Wastage of resources: Looking at the sheer waste of food, accommodation and manpower resources in weddings, I have come to a conclusion that RSVP must be mandated from both sides in the invitation card without any botheration, and the recipients should also not be hesitant about declining in time if it is not possible for them to attend the event. Practical problem with arrangement of dinners, lunches, and accommodation is that in the absence of accurate number of people expected to attend, it is always going to be arranged optimistically, with sufficient buffer incorporated, to avoid fiasco in such large scale events. All this can be prevented to a large extent with RSVP followed diligently both by the invitee and the host. 
Change- here only a change in the mindset would do !

Name change: Today's woman is a changed lot, independent, confident and truly self-sufficient in all aspects where her own name has become her identity, but still there are rituals in some weddings where her name is supposed to be changed and not only that, she is supposed to change her surname as well to reflect her new family name, and a lot of folks are still very orthodox about it. For some, it is just fine if for the sake of rituals, and most importantly, if the bride herself wants, to change her first name for the namesake, but yet there are many cribbers, especially the elderly lot (with all due respect) who insist a change in all the formal documents as well. I find it ridiculous, something which must be changed, definitely.
Change- nothing, just ask such demanding orthodox folks to get the bride's passport, aadhar, pan card, voter id card, ration card, bank account / accounts, driving license / licenses etc. changed and our supremely efficient bureaucracy will take care of driving this change. I bet if it doesn't shut such demands with immediate effect !

Not just these but there are lot many similar other things we can get rid of, when it comes to planning wedding events and the amount of resources saved can actually be effectively and more fruitfully used for the couple to be, as they move onto the new chapter in their lives.

What are some of those things that you would want to change in the big fat Indian weddings? !!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

I wanna be the CEO of your company

"Thank you so much Sarang, just one final question and the one where I am always stuck. What is the best answer when the interviewer asks what is my long term goal in life or where do I see myself in the next 10 years?". Here it comes. This time from a 22 year old fresh college graduate sitting 13000 km away somewhere in the mid-western United States, chatting with me (via email) in his odd hours, seeking my inputs on his interview preparations. "Tell the interviewer with an induced spark in your eyes and mildly raised tone that you want to be the CEO of his company in the next 15 years" - Me replied !!

Some of my early posts related to career strategies, interviews etc. have put me in a privileged position to be able to share my inputs with a few fresh grads, students and in some cases, laterals in the engineering space spanning countries who approach me via e-mails, linkedin messages or private comments on my posts. The above conversation happened over multiple e-mail chains and finally ended up as above. It was kind of a flash-back moment for me. I remember when I had just graduated from the university and was on the hunt for a job, giving ad-hoc interviews, attending walk-ins (hey, that time my college had no campus recruitment, to their credit, they managed to get two BPOs in, but not a single student attended!), this was the most frequently asked question. During few initial 'trial and error' rounds (if you know what I mean), I used to reply "Sir, in the next 2 years I see myself contributing more and more in the design phase of the application than remaining completely invested in coding only, but I haven't really thought about 5 year, 10 year, 15 year long term goals". I have no statistical data to prove that I was selected or rejected in an interview based on this response but I could unmistakably sight the disappointment written all over their faces with my response. In fact, some of them were generous enough to tell me that I must have a long term goal without which my career is meaningless (thankfully they didn't reach till life!). On observing this pattern for quite a few instances, I started responding to this question differently and if the interview till that point was really good and in my favor, I used to reply with "Sir, in the next 15 years I see myself as the CEO of this company". Now, a human eye can perceive wrongly once, falter once or twice but not always when it sees the face of the person taking your interview suddenly gleaming, body language changed, eyes shining with admiration (more than the long term goal, sometimes I feel the confidence factor played a role!) and a wide grin. 

So when this question came, it didn't take more than a second to start typing "Tell him/her I wanna be the CEO of your company in the next 15 years" and click send!

I somehow fail to understand why would we put so much emphasis on the long term goals. Why the mettle of our goals should be measured in terms of duration in which they will be achieved? Forget interviews, after a decade in this industry, I have observed plenty of instances where similar thought process was exhibited. Most alarming part of it is that people often confuse the presence of only short term goals in a person with lack of foresight or ambition in that person. I mean, imagine if I say I see myself as a designer in the next 2 years, achieve that, come back and say now I see myself as a technology SME in the next 3 years, achieve that, come back and say in the next 3 years I want to don a techno-managerial role, so on and so forth, to finally arrive at the goal of becoming a CEO (if at all that's the goal). Wouldn't it be more realistic and compelling rather than just saying I see myself as a CEO of this company in the next 15 years? Or the interviewers really think that when I say I want to grow as a designer as my short term goal and have no long term goal, means I am going to stick to being a designer throughout my life? !

I have nothing against long term goals, and many people do have 'set' long term goals in life / career but at the same time there are many who just haven't thought or planned for that and instead have short term objectives. Methinks both are equally important. Ambitions, goals, objectives, big picture, vision etc. all these jazzy words have nothing to do with your planning of the next 10 or 15 years. If aiming for a marathon finish is an ambition, then aiming for a 100 meter sprint win is also one, and equally important. There are people who have had clear long term picture of what they wanted to do in their lives for e.g. Sachin Tendulkar, and who achieved greater heights but then there were also people who either didn't know their long term goals or the original planning didn't follow the track, and yet achieved even greater heights in the course of their lives, e.g. Winston Churchill, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. Bottom line is, you will find that history has never differentiated while showering success on the people in terms of presence of long term goals versus random / ad-hoc short term objectives in them. 

In my honest opinion, instead of measuring the merit of the person and adding adjectives such as ambitious, visionary, conceptual etc. based on the presence of long term or really big bold goals in his thought process and talks, more important is to talk about the potential of whatever the goal is, to have a positive impact on the individual and the people around him, and what are his thoughts about achieving his goal with optimal consumption of resources available efficiently. What do you say?

Digressing from the topic a bit but on a related note, people sometimes go overboard with the concept of 'positive approach' / 'positive attitude' while evaluating a person and forming perceptions. I remember when I attended preparatory course for my defense academy exam / interviews, our coach colonel Deshpande told us, Positive attitude is not when someone asks you what would you do if you are alone in the forest and suddenly there's a tiger in front of you and you reply you will fight with bravery and courage and eventually kill the animal. Positive attitude is that you reply you will gather all your senses, conquer your nerves and run as fast as you could in an attempt to save your life, coming out of the situation alive' !!!

All in all, so, my dear readers, if next time you are confronted with this question on your long term goals and where do you see yourself in the next 10 years, you know what you need to say, and that works !

Note - my new role implicitly puts some limitations in the way I post my views, thoughts, opinions on topics of interest. In a sense, I would say, 'expression of thoughts' has become a 'measured expression of thoughts' to put it mildly! While I am trying to deal with this change as effectively and quickly as I can, request my readers to go to my disclaimer page for more clarity and then mail me your feedback on areas where I can improve in order to be more responsible and inclusive in my posts. You can also post anonymous comments. Feedback is most welcome.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why the Chinese strike Gold?

A dozen years ago, when I was the new entrant into the prestigious club of internet addicted young innocent college goers who used to spend hours and hours in the cyber cafes surfing, browsing, chit chatting, playing games, searching material for study projects and what not (of course not everything can be mentioned here, it's a public domain!), I had one friend from the land of China with whom I used to play online chess for hours, and side by side, between the moves, have conversations on various topics of intellectual interests such as culture, politics, sports, tourism, socioeconomic diversity etc. which would often lead to a mini Sino-Indian war in the virtual space between the two soldiers, and irrespective of the results on the board, almost always the winner and loser was decided based on the arguments and counter-arguments!

Much water has flown under the bridge and most of those conversations and debates are now just a thing of the past, along with the friend in question, but today, in one of the coaching sessions, somehow I instinctively and spontaneously happened to refer to one of the discussions I had with my above mentioned friend on 'Why the Chinese win in the Olympics'. When I say win, it means consistently dominating many of the events, and winning a major gold haul almost always to stay at the top, or at least in the top 3 out of near 200 participating nations. The reason behind this forgotten discussion popping out of my subconscious mind during the coaching session is that after spending almost a decade in this space, I can easily relate the success factors behind exponentially grown careers in my Industry with the Chinese superstars fetching glory to their nation every four years with deadly predictability and a six-sigma-esque quality. I do have some thoughts and opinion on how they make it happen, or rather what makes it happen and will share some of the key reasons in my honest view, with you. [Now, a disclaimer, if you expect me to mention genetic advantages, favorable geographical factors, world class infrastructure, huge monetary investment, government support etc. then you are wrong. To all these I have just one counter, can we make it happen if we manage all of these? I don't think so. For me, it's the individuals and some key traits which they develop and exhibit that makes it possible for China].

Setting a Target first and then the Priorities
Just the two simple and innocuous looking words 'Winning gold' is all that it takes to set the target and the priorities right. Most often our priorities lead us to some target, not the case with the Chinese here who set the target first and weave their priorities around it. They are not content with the bronze or even the silver. For them, winning a silver is losing a gold. All that matters to them is winning a gold medal and they focus their entire energy and resources towards this one goal. Their strategies, plans, thought process and execution all aligns cohesively with this single target in mind. Similarly, in my industry, successful careers have time and again proved that setting up the right priorities at the right time around the target that's planned ahead of the priorities, and working towards them relentlessly yields greater results.

An Early Start
'Better late than never' mantra works well to avoid failures or to mitigate the impact of failures. It however never guarantees success. To me, starting early is the single-most critical factor behind Chinese all out dominance in the Olympics. Their kids start at a tender age of 3-4 and train in a specific direction, when most of us are in our nappies singing twinkle twinkle little stars. Honestly I am no advocate of this, and it's always been a matter of debate, the strategies and training fundamentals the Chinese have for their children but that's out of the scope of this post. The point I am trying to make is, once we set our goal and start believing in it, how early we start working towards it, makes the difference between the good and the extraordinary, the better and the excellent, up to the mark and the perfect, the silver and the gold. Same holds true in my field also however starting early shouldn't be mistaken for a hurried or premature start. For e.g., it would be a disaster even for the Chinese to train their pupils from the age of anything less than 12-14 for a gold in the bodybuilding contest. Similarly, in my profession, one mustn't rush towards owning up new roles and responsibilities before getting fully equipped to do full justice to it. Only a well knocked bat can send the ball out of the park without getting broken, and if it takes 15 days for the knocking-in process, the bat indeed has to go through it in totality. Not seeing the potential in something, and hence not being able to start working on it is fine. Having been shown the potential in something but not believing it and hence not starting to work on it is also fine, but either having seen or shown the potential in something, believing in it as well and yet delaying the start to work on it is a sin and a perfect recipe for either a wasted opportunity or a total loss.

Singular Focus area
Starting as a football goalkeeper and ending up as one of the finest hitters in the cricketing arena happens only in India. It doesn't win you gold in the Olympics, especially when you are competing against hard-trained athletes in the individual knockout sporting events from nearly 200 countries once in 4 years. The Chinese have nailed this totally and it can be observed in the way they train their pupils in the sports academies. Right from the beginning they identify each kid's minutest strength areas, physical abilities and winning potential along with blank spots and weaknesses. They train each one of them accordingly. For e.g., a genetically tall Chinese kid wouldn't be trained in table tennis or gymnastics. He or she would rather be trained in basketball, Volleyball, Badminton, Track and field etc. Similarly someone with unusually large palms and long limbs will be placed to train for swimming. Focus, and a consistent focus day in day out, is critical. Just a fraction of a second loss of focus in case of one of our legendary athletes had become a difference between a medal winner and a loser. Chinese would rarely encounter such scenarios because they are trained for a prolonged period of time not only to enhance and optimize their physical abilities via hard practice but also to not lose focus at any point of time, on their one shot priority. One example that's recently seen is that their top notch players don't give a damn to even the most lucrative event money wise being played elsewhere in the world (Indian badminton league had no Lin Dan, Xin Wang, Wang Yihan).

Associating Pride to the Efforts
The Chinese take their goal extremely seriously. Most of the players we have seen in the interviews claim how proud they are to represent the country, this and that. The Chinese take pride not only in representing their nation but majorly in their own years of hard work, efforts, practice, excellence, and of course, the outcome of all that. How many of us put a price tag on our failures? Most of us treat our failures as steps towards success and keep on failing and consoling ourselves with quotes of wisdom but these folks treat their failures as arrows stuck in their ribs. In my field as well, almost all of the successful careers I have seen, take enormous pride in whatever they do, however small their actions are, no matter how minuscule the impact of their action is. They put a price on their failure, and most of the times, a big price. The task can be as small as creating a presentation deck as a proxy, or working on a excel report, or nudging someone gently to produce efficient output, or as big as formulating future oriented strategies for the organizations to grow, these folks associate pride in a positive way to the efforts put behind the task, and the outcome. Forget that, I have seen some of them associating their pride with the success of their team mates or pupils or any other professional who has come to them for a career guidance. I have seen them getting hurt and disappointed much more than the recipient itself would have gotten, on his failure.

Playing to Strengths
The Chinese have by now identified the sporting events they are generally good at, and they hardly let those slip. It's next to impossible for other nations to stand a fair chance of winning medals in diving, weight-lifting (especially in women's events), badminton, table tennis, gymnastics. They also focus on events where the medal haul opportunities are in abundance. For e.g., events like swimming, track and field, gymnastics, table tennis etc. are where one great sportsperson can fetch as many as 4 to 5 gold medals via participating in different modes and forms of the sport. In other words, they reuse their strengths in multiple areas not just one, to yield higher returns from minimal resources. In our field also, coaches and managers who realize that no someone is great at everything but everyone is definitely great at something and guide the individuals in the direction where they can play to their strengths are observed to be highly successful, respected and accomplished leaders. These folks also have this peculiar knack of judging which battles are worth fighting for and which are to be left behind. They direct all their energy and resources towards the one where they can leverage their strengths, bypass their weak spots and yields maximum returns for minimal investment.

Winner's Company
And last but not the least, in my list, is that the Chinese always train with winners. They hire world class coaches who themselves were winners in their prime and know what it takes to win, and to lose. Even in our industry, we can observe a marked difference in the thought process and attitude of the winners at the lower levels and the winners at the higher levels which means being with winners at all levels wherever possible increases our chances of sharpening our attitude, focusing our energies in the right direction, staying positive and on-course of the success path despite road-blockers and challenges ahead. On the other hand, evidently, there is almost always a striking similarity in the thought process and attitude of losers at the lower levels and the losers at the higher levels in terms of the cynicism, negativity, nay-saying, cribbing and extreme pessimism and total disbelief in something constructive. There is this Chinese proverb that states 'The person who says something is impossible should not interrupt the person who is doing it'. For that to happen, we must always stay in the company of people not only brighter, smarter and more optimistic and competitive than us but also have a consistent habit of winning in their respective areas.

To summarize my opinion, the Chinese succeed in the Olympics by prioritizing the target to a simplistic level, starting as early as possible to work on the target, narrow down focus areas that would yield greater results and take them close to their target, play to their strengths to optimize their efforts in achieving the target, taking pride in even the smallest of the actions and steps that they take to realize their goal, and training / staying in winner's company throughout the course of their careers.

It's been long that I have had a discussion on this with anyone in the virtual or physical space. Feel free to share your thoughts on what's the mantra behind Chinese success in the Olympics. Also, share if you have seen some of those attributes playing a part in our industry as well.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Curious case of a shopping mall customer

"There is only one boss, the customer, and he can fire everybody in the company right from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else." - Sam Walton (founder of Walmart).

I disagree with you Sam, for the newly found Indian breed of small-time businessmen, franchisee owners, hoteliers, retailers, or even the owners of smallest of the shutters in the shopping malls, super markets and business complexes alike, haven't offered me enough data points to believe in what you say. Modern day shopping or buying experiences of some commodity / commodities or in general the experience related to receiving a service of some sort at the cost of a sum in the shopping malls, has turned me into one curious case of a perplexed customer who has had to let sink in such brutal kind of customer treatment experiences that any sane person wouldn't wish for his rivals. The situation isn't much different when it comes to the local or general markets other than the malls, these days, but for the context of this post, I will just share my 'being customer' experiences in the shopping malls.

Grocery shopping - now this is something one cannot avoid. A married person can survive without the basic necessities of living i.e. food, clothing and shelter but not without a customary weekly grocery shopping (and subsequent shopping that comes along with it!) Now, the problem with people like me who are not local to the region in terms of language and culture, is lack of a truly meaningful (and fruitful, pun intended) conversation with the local grocer about our daily needs for e.g., I haven't yet figured out the local names of some of the grams, flours, and cereals and the local unit of measurement as well, which makes the entire conversation an embarrassing form of some animated silent movie where I desperately try to show how the thing is eaten, or prepared (or even thrown to hit someone in angst) with hands and facial expressions involved, and get only a 'hain, hain, nayy, nayy' kind of weird response in return from the grocery store keeper as if an alien from another planet has come to ask for a soap and shampoo to bathe. We mitigate this by always heading to the shopping mall where we at least get to see some names in English, or Hindi and other details such as max retail price, manufacturing and expiry (or best before) dates and content (a diet conscious me) etc. but there lies another set of trouble. If you need fresh stuff, be prepared to put whole length of your hands right through the end into the storage racks and get one from the deepest possible location in the rack. These guys load all the newly arrived stuff at the back and in the process, do not even check whether the old one has surpassed its best-before or expiry date. If you successfully overcome this by maintaining vigil, next one comes in the form of that cryptic code on the goods. Bar code. If you are purchasing a lot of stuff, invariably there will be at least a couple of items with the bar code tag either removed or scratched, which means after a hectic and grueling 2 hours of wandering and carefully picking your stuff, at the cash counter, the person sends you back to get either the other pack or leave the buying option there itself! Thirdly, the person who packs your stuff in the polythene bags, shows utter disrespect for the physical and chemical state of the material and biological state of the customer. He will manhandle the pack of eggs, carelessly throw and absolutely smash the packets of biscuits, or chips or such crispy goods while packing to make sure we get a ready made recipe back home for an omelette or crunchy choco-chips with coffee. The next one is the father of all sorrows. Free card. It doesn't matter if there are scores of people lined up behind me in the queue waiting for my billing to be processed, the counter guy gives it his best shot almost always to sell off a 'free card' to me no matter how much I first politely, then straight-faced and finally annoyingly attempt to keep him at bay. Sir, do you have a so and so membership card? Sir, would you like to get one? Sir, it is totally free of cost Sir. Sir, you will get a lot of benefits and discounts Sir. Sir, please take it na Sir. All these words ring in my ear before and after visiting a shopping mall.

Eating out - in a shopping mall, eating is a nightmare, anywhere. First, in a relatively good mall with a multiplex in it, you do not get a place to sit. I have seen people starting to run with full plates in their hands on seeing you approaching some recently vacated table, just to reach there before you. Second, don't get excited over the 'variety' that you 'see' on the menu boards, or ad cards of the stalls. More than half the stuff will be non-existent, and there are lot many things that will cripple your eating excitement, for e.g., absence of Rajma or Chhola in a Punjabi food stall, absence of ice in a juice or cold coffee stall, absence of paav-bhaji in a Bombay chat center, and no vada sambhar in madras cafe ! Be prepared to face this and have your alternatives ready. If they have all of these, then in all certainly they will miss either the tissue papers, or the spoons, or straws, or other such 'accessories' and give you a sheepish smile with a trademark 'Sorry sir' disclaimer. Now, talk about being customer oriented and flexible. Check if in a combo they can replace the Lassi with cold-drink and in return you get a blunt 'No' on-your-face kind of reply. Do not attempt to convince them reasoning Lassi is supposed to be expensive than cold-drink for they will not budge. They have nothing to do with what you want, all they know is to charge you exorbitantly for what they have with them ready to be served(?). If something is amiss, feel free to go to the next counter they don't care at all.

Restrooms - in almost all the malls that I have been to, rest rooms are in reality unrest rooms. Any one of them can be seamlessly turned into a chemical lab for students studying adverse effects of Ammonia on human population. It can also be a case study for MBA aspirants on how to maximize the utilization of the resource (hand-dryers, wash-basins, napkins etc.) by keeping them permanently switched off or render them unusable for the most part, perhaps thinking that's the only way of prolonging their life.

Furniture, electronics etc. - ah, to be honest, don't expect to go there and get home anything having more than 2 legs in the furniture section the same day along with you, no matter how small the stuff is, for not only will that be the demo piece but also the only piece. Same holds true for electronics. If you think you got the weekend to finish all such shopping, you're wrong. You just order it during the weekend. Two days later (if you're lucky), the 'material' will be delivered to your home, packed and sealed. Story doesn't end there, another day or two later (again if you are lucky) the service person will come to assemble / install / demo the machine / furniture whatever, and in both instances, comes the inevitable big mouthed demand of 'tip'. Something is delivered, they ask for the tip. Something is demoed they ask for the tip. Something is installed, they ask for the tip. Something is uninstalled, they ask for the tip. I am majorly pissed off with whosoever (I have my suspicions on the foreign returned folks here !) has brought this tip culture here in India. The problem is not with the money part. The problem is that we Indians are never known for sincerity and dedication in performing our duties towards customers (or anyone other than oneself to be precise), at least when easy-money is at stake. This tip culture may be working well in countries abroad, it has surely spoiled our already deteriorating customer service habits.

Apparels, accessories etc. - Okay here's the deal. If you just observe, these guys will be so neatly groomed and 'commonly' uniformed that you will find it hard to identify them as customer service executives, for they will never come to you asking what you are looking for, instead you have to find them and call. No, but don't even think of calling them based on just the fact that they have a tagged id card, these days many professionals like us directly go to these malls with our tags on, and I personally have called such IT employees in two three instances to show me a 32" Lee-cooper jeans and a Nike sportswear of my choice much to my embarrassment and their anguish! Yeah so even if somehow you manage to identify those folks, you will soon realize they are busy talking to each other than serving the customers. You call one of them and he will give you a look which will be worse than the actual words intended 'What the hell, everything is there on the display, you know your size, just check them out, go to the trial room ,decide and buy, pay at the counter, why do you need me?Can't you see I am busy?'. So you ask if you can get a different pattern in the so and so brand and he will say 'No, this is the only pattern' without even bothering to see what's there in your hands. You ask if he can get a size you need as you aren't able to find here, he says 'It is out of stock' without an attempt to find, needless to say, and once you resign, go back merrily to the talking zone again.

You know what a customer like me, who has spent most of his childhood in small towns, and tier 2 cities, wishes for? He wishes for that Sindhi cloth store owner who, with a warm smile, greets you personally and welcomes you in, offers the mattress to sit and relax first. Then he doesn't ask but just orders tea/coffee for you while you are busy checking out the store stuff. He also has 'customer service execs' who will patiently listen to your requirements and show you almost everything that they can, and almost everything that is available. He wishes for a medical store owner who, if your listed medicine is not available in his store, sends his boy to another nearest store to get it for you while having a casual talk with you. He wishes for that Punjabi hotelier who personally comes out to hand over your egg curry parcel and tells you this has been specially prepared under his observation today as last time you said it was a bit spicy for the taste buds. He wishes for that Muslim chacha owning a shoe store where you can go empty handed (without money) but never return without getting what you want. If your requirement isn't available, he will take your measures and order the same which will be delivered to you at your doorstep. Money can be paid anytime as per your convenience, just based on the trust factor. Can his wish be fulfilled these days? What do you think !

Friday, July 19, 2013

And the passport saga continues...

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.” - Mahatma Gandhi.

[In big bold letters, this is what greets you as you enter into one of the plushest of those newly acquired/leased or built passport services facilities (Passport Seva Kendras or PSKs as popularly known)]

Bureaucracy and me have never really gotten along well (in fact, I am highly suspicious that Indian bureaucracy has never really gotten along well with any of the Indian citizens) as there have been stories famous around how Sarang waited for almost whole day from morning 8.45 to evening 6 for his turn to submit the passport renewal application of his wife, only to be told bluntly by the scrutiny officer that the form in itself is not the correct form to be filled, and then how the poor couple went berserk in scrapping off all the photos from the old form, filled up the new form and stuck those, and resubmitted with a constant eye on the wall clock, closing time fast approaching, all this after several failed attempts to convince the officer that this is the same form that was downloaded from the passport site, and there's no other form offered online for passport renewal. There have also been stories around how he received his wife's passport after 2 and half months, just 3 days before her Visa appointment, and a day before receiving reply on his RTI application. Numerous trips to HP gas to transfer the connection from one city to other, change the address intercity, two visits to some 25 km away RTO office in a span of 2 hours to submit remaining copy of some signed document to get the vehicle registered on self, just because the officer didn't deem it necessary to inform me about the missing one while I was there, and called on my phone later on in 30 minutes asking to come instantly with the same, probably something to do with the fact that I didn't offer my 'generosity' there, all these things don't even come close. I dare say in the process of acquiring these documents which are an integral part of my rights in this nation, I must definitely have run way too more than our legendary athlete, the great Milkha Singh ran in his entire career, difference being he ran from pole to finish, I ran from counter to counter without finish in sight. Sigh ! 

With that in mind, I was really gripped by anxiety when my passport recently crossed it's 'to be renewed' timeline with less than 6 months validity on paper, and although I knew there has been some change in the process of passport issuance or renewal from the past, the hounding stories of how people had to stand in the queue from 2 mid-night for the next day appointment, how they were tortured by the agents-guards-officers nexus, how there was an inordinate delay in completing the process, tracking it and finally receiving the passport, that, after a not-so-encouraging police verification experience with tips, gifts and bribes on the cards, kept playing on my mind all the time. In the end, I decided to catch the bull by its horns and prepared myself for a plunge in the sea of unprofessional-ism, red-tape-ism, incompetent civil servants, and horrendous experiences in government offices all together, none of which by the way, came close to the pleasant reality that ensued. 

First thing I began with is to gather as much information as I can, about the changed process and here one comprehensive document prepared by one of my neighbors came to my aid. I must say it really helped alleviating much of my profound fears and also prepared me for the overall process a lot in a better way. Thank you Udisha! Coming to the process, the fact that we don't need an agent or anyone, and whole process right from downloading the form, filing it either online or offline, uploading the document, making the payment and booking an appointment everything was online, was a great starting point. I went through all the online processes with utter ease and to my surprise, got an appointment of the next day afternoon itself in one of the PSKs in Hyderabad. Great as I have heard even in the new system, people faced challenges getting a slot without at least 15-20 attempts online and even those who received, the dates were some 15-20 days later. A good omen I sensed. It was a comforting thought that I had all the documents ready with me along with their self-attested copies (voter ID for address proof, e-copy of Aadhar for address and id proof, birth certificate for age proof if at all required, marriage certificate as I wanted spouse's name to be added etc.) and along with them, the next day I went to the center, parked my vehicle in the basement of Brand Factory (same complex in which this particular center is located, remember passport center doesn't offer parking facilities of its own and in majority of PSKs it is a challenge) and stood in front of the office waiting for my watch to arrange the hands in 90 degree angle (3 pm was my appointment time). 

The process began exactly 5 minutes before the mentioned reporting time on my application when the guard (well-dressed, neatly groomed and well-mannered) started checking our papers and bags and when my turn came, as anticipated, he drew first blood. "Sir, you cannot take laptop inside." I said "What? I can take my mobile, iPods etc. even Swiss knife for that matter and no laptop? there hasn't been any laptop bomb yet made. Mobiles are used as triggers in bombs but what to do with the poor laptops?". He didn't budge. I asked if they have any cloakroom or something where I can keep it locked, they said they don't. I resigned, went again to the basement area where thankfully I had my go-down (read:Honda City, during my trips to government offices, the car becomes nothing more than a go-down) , kept my laptop locked safely inside and with only the papers in hand, came back, post which I was allowed to get in. Here's the question to the sane minds in the government. What if some IT professional or a student or some other private employee decides to finish the passport office appointment mid-way and go directly to respective offices from there, and has come by a bike or a rickshaw or a public transport on his own without any accomplice which you don't allow without reasons, where is he supposed to keep the laptop? Or you want him to take a full day leave and do this process, resulting in loss of productivity for a lot of man hours daily? Anyway after this I stepped in and to my amazement, the whole facility was fully air-conditioned, extremely neat and lit, well maintained counters and uniformed employees distributing tokens on each counters. At no counter was there a commotion of any sort. Everything was very systematic which in itself was a sea of a change. In no queue were there, at any point of time, more than 5-8 people. Impressive. The counter guys checked the papers, assigned me a token with a bar code, directed me to some gate where I had to swipe in the code and enter in. From there onward it was a pretty much guided tour. You just watch the big LCD screens (!) in front of you, check your token number against the counter assigned, go there and follow what the counter guys ask. It is a workflow from A to B to C. At A counters, it begins with your documents scanning, finger prints, and your passport photo being taken and uploaded by them (yes, you don't have to carry your photograph if you are above 5). Once done, you proceed to B counters where there's a relatively longer wait depending on the people in waiting. You can spend time by ordering some tea, coffee, juice, cold drinks or snacks (of course at a cost) in the mean time and enjoy listening to your favorite playlists. You also have one of the cleanliest restrooms I have ever seen in Indian malls or multiplexes, in the passport office. Super-impressive. Nevertheless, At B counters, the officer verifies your documents, stamps, signs at some places on the forms and directs you to C. At C counter, again the verification process continues where you are given an acknowledgement along with old passport cancelled (in case of renewal) and you're done. This whole process on an average day, can take up to 2 to 3 hours maximum, provided you have all the documents ready and in order without technical glitches. In my case, I didn't have SSC certificate that day since I thought it is not required because my old passport was made when I graduated which means I must have provided those documents earlier and SSC is not something which will be recalled or deleted from my educational background in between two passports !! However, logic doesn't apply here and these robots do insist that you need to get your documents in order without trying to find reasoning. Same is the case with name difference. Now, in Maharashtra, we use father's name as middle name and my name then becomes Sarang Sharad as given name, and Date as surname, almost everywhere. However, in my voter id card, since father's name section was separate, I had provided my name as Sarang Date and father's name as Sharad Date which created the mess in passport application. They said there's a name difference in voter id and passport application and hence voter id won't work as an address proof. I tried a lot to convince them arguing that voter id worked seamlessly in the exact same scenario when I applied for Aadhar card and I got the card too where Sarang Sharad is my given name and Date is surname. They didn't budge and I had to give up again. The biggest shocker was when they said Aadhar also wont work as it is a black and white copy. It is not recognized as valid Aadhar and only color prints are valid. I said what the hell (alright, I didn't actually say that to them to be honest) what difference it makes from validity point of view if the printouts are color or black and white. I am sure if it was USA, I would have definitely sued them under racial discrimination laws. Alas. I resigned again as they asked me to come next day morning 9 AM with SSC certificate and color prints of Aadhar as well as Bank statement 1 year which I dread a lot (my bank statement is almost always a cause of embarrassment for me you see). I went the next day with all these documents, and got the process done successfully. Now think about the loopholes and ironies in the system. Government systems don't accept company letter as address proof but any bank accepts company letter to change the address and even if the address is changed a day before only, bank can issue a 1 year statement with that changed address mentioned and government systems accept bank statement !! Again, government offices accept voter id card as address proof but I didn't have to provide even a single piece of paper to get my voter id card done. Furthermore, voter id with my name as Sarang Date was accepted in Aadhar application where my name was provided as Sarang Sharad Date but the same wasn't accepted in Passport when exactly the same scenario came to fore. Also, I had a joint account where the bank statement for 1 year had account holder's name as which worked, but they see a difference in the name Sarang Date and Sarang Sharad Date where Sharad Date is clearly my father's name and mentioned the same in the voter id. Crazy stuff. My suggestion to the aspirants. Never ever try to reason the processes, you will go mad. Instead, just carry ALL the documents you have originals and copies, and go. I say carry a Times of India or a The Hindu copy also you never know they might just say from today, we are also seeking newspaper copies, huh.

Loopholes apart, I must say that if you have a passport experience 2 or more years older than today, this is going to be a huge positive change for you. Extremely organized workflow, neatly maintained facilities, absolutely no rush or commotion of any sort, streamlined processes, comfortable waiting time in a fully air-conditioned facility, special attention to the specially-abled, pregnant women, families with kids, elders etc. and very courteous people always guiding people rightly, and politely. Of course they have their own instructions which they have to follow blindly and that added to my woes but I wouldn't blame them 1%. It's the system that has to take care of this. I was very happy with the overall experience and I have heard we get the passport delivered in a week, that too, a normal passport. Fingers crossed. For Tatkal it is just two days they say. Yesterday I completed the process and today only I got a mail in my inbox saying police verification process has been initiated at so and so police station, with all the necessary details given in the mail. Wow !

This has also strengthened my belief that things can and do change for the better. I mean, who could have imagined such a herculean, earth shattering change in the passport services with customer in focus, offered in our country within just 2 years. Amazing amazing amazing.

One specific instance I want to mention. First day when they asked me to come again, at the B counter I had greeted the lady 'Good Afternoon Madam' with a smile, when I entered her cubicle for verification process. Next day when I went through the same process again, I was assigned the counter next to her. She remembered me instantly and said 'You came yesterday no, you got your certificates etc. today?' and casual talks. Later on, she said something to the person next to her who was verifying my case today, in Telugu. I was worried whether she is telling something to him about my documents discrepancies and all, so hesitantly I asked what's the matter to which he replied in English 'Sir, she was telling me happily that you were the first and the only person yesterday to have greeted 'Good afternoon' to her on entering !' Lessons learnt, no matter what, good behavior and words, never ever go unnoticed and wasted. Never.

Although the process related details and all other information is given adequately at the official passport site, here are few suggestions from my side, not specific to any scenario of renewal or fresh issue or senior citizen or kid etc. general suggestions based on my experience.

1) Carry as many documents as you can. Bare minimum are Birth certificate, if not then SSC certificate (10th), Aadhar original, Voter ID (make sure there are no name differences) if you have, else bank statement of any nationalized or scheduled bank for past 1 year, marriage certificate if you want to add spouse's name, electricity or landline bill (BSNL) of over a span of 1 year if you have, or gas connection passbook receipts, again over a span of 1 year. Also, know a bit about ECR and ECNR stuff beforehand. It will dictate the need to carry 10th certificate (basically, if you have mentioned graduate and above in your passport application, it is going to be ECNR and you will need 10th certificate for sure), if for passport renewal, carry old passport as well

2) Do not carry laptop or any big stuff which you will not be able to hold on to. If they don't allow, you will be in a fix

3) Keep at least 3 hours end to end, for the process and be prepared to come the next day as well, if something is amiss !

4) Check out the parking feasibility in the vicinity of the passport office beforehand. Passport office doesn't provide any of its own and police are mostly on the prowl in such places to tow vehicles away

5) Be courteous to the people inside and be helpful and approachable to the fellow aspirants if they need any assistance

And finally, for the passport aspirants who want to know all about the process and looking for a first hand info, I haven't included many of them since the theme of my post is different but the document which really helped me a lot is here in the following link. This is the blog post from my neighbor about whom I have mentioned earlier and her inputs and experiences were useful to me a great deal. 

In addition, you can also refer the official site for detailed information around your specific case, and there's a document adviser and other tools also available on the web site. Again, if all of that is not sufficient, drop me a mail at  on your queries and I will try to answer those which are in my capacity.