Friday, June 27, 2008

History in the making

What would I do if a friend from school asked me to drop my career and join his startup? What would I do if I had a vision that I really believed in? Not just a great idea, but a vision of how the world would be 20 years from now. And the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat and make it happen. Do I leave everything and go after it? Or do I sigh and get back to my life and let somebody else grab the opportunity? I doubt if I’d have the courage to leave everything and follow a dream. But this man, and his friends, had the courage and conviction to act on a vision so far out that, at the time, even they could not imagine the enormity of it.

Yes, I’m talking about Bill Gates. Today is his last day as a full time employee of the company he founded. In an employee town hall a couple of hours back, he and Steve Ballmer talked about how they met and became friends. About the time the two of them went out to watch 'A Clockwork Orange'. How Bill convinced Steve to drop out of his MBA to join Microsoft. About how in spite of its size, Microsoft is a lean and agile company; and how they expect things to be down the road. And the foundation and the work it’s doing. But the most memorable moment would be the time when, towards the end of the brief talk, Steve became overwhelmed with emotion as he talked about his gratitude to Bill; and Bill who had managed to remain composed until then was seen wiping away tears.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Monsoons

For all it was hyped up to be, the Y2K bug turned out to be a damp squib. The world didn’t come to an end, computer everywhere didn’t crash and IT was going full steam ahead. But the turn of the millennium was jinxed anyway. Within a year, the dotcom bubble burst washing away billions in tech stocks and thousands of jobs. It was my 3rd year in college. That year, freshers wouldn’t touch a Computer Science degree with a flagpole. Students opted out of Comp Sc departments for of civil engineering, something unthinkable only a year back. Seats in the best Comp Sc programs were available to almost anyone with a decent score. Such opportunities come very rarely, and often at great cost. A lot of tech companies had put job offers on hold. Some withdrew offers and cut headcount. Some gain, some loose, nobody gets credit. By the time I graduated, the industry was beginning to show signs of improvement but I decided to play it safe and stay in university. Oddly enough, the competition for Masters Programs in CS was at an all time high because of all the people leaving, or not entering, the workforce. A year later, by 2004, the clouds had passed and hiring was again in full swing.

Everybody didn’t live happily ever after though, because that happens only in fairy tales. Early 2006, Motorola stocks started sliding down as earnings failed expectations. This week it is down to a five year low and I’m left with a few costly lesson in finance. Lesson one, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Try not to invest in the company you work for, infact avoid the sector entirely unless you know exactly what you are doing. Lesson two, don’t overlook brokerages and expenses because they can take away a good part of your investment. Three, learn from experience, particularly other peoples experience (Y2K anyone?). Four, low returns do not imply low risk. In 2005, MOT shares were expected to grow at 12% which is not much compared to the Sensex at that time. Instead, MOT share have since fallen by over 60%. Five, have a stop loss mechanism in place. Irrational optimism doesn’t pay any bills.

Meanwhile, we are somewhat back to where we started. It seems the US economic crisis might extend into 2009 dragging the rest of the world with it. Housing prices in the US have fallen 15% over the last one year. It is not entirely inconceivable that something similar might happen in India. On the employment front, it is the finance sector taking most of the cuts so far. Tech seems to be in fair weather. Except for MOT. And Symbian, because news has it that Nokia plans to buy the whole of Symbian and set it free. UIQ, which is now half owned by MOT, will also be joining Symbian at the Symbian Foundation. Not as romantic as it sounds. Free doesn’t pay any bills either.

The Monsoons are here. Its fun to watch the rain. Getting drenched may also be fun. Even catching a cold may not be so bad. But soon I'll miss the mangoes.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Church 2.0

One afternoon some 7 years ago, I was casually going over the notice boards in the main building at MA College of Engg in Kothamangalam. It must have been my third year at MACE. My attention was drawn to a small notice about a mailing list on yahoogroups. So out of curiosity and a desire to know what going on in the community, I subscribed to from the college internet centre. Over the years ICON, as it later came to be known, has grown to over 6000 members from around the world (including a few bishops and many priests) and matured into a forum for serious discussion.

In grad school (yes, at CUSAT we call them schools), I started playing around with social networks. The following year I got an invite to Orkut from one of my fellow trainees at Motorola, where I was doing a rather long internship. Someone had just started an Indian Orthodox community in Orkut and I too joined in, though I rarely went through any of the posts. Recently, somewhat to my surprise, the community crossed the 10,000 member mark to be one of the largest communities of its kind on any social networking site. Although there is no way to know for sure, the vast majority of members must be in their teens or twenties.

A couple of months back I moved to Hyderabad and it was the week before Pasha. The move happened a few weeks earlier than I had planned and in the rush of things I didn’t get the chance to ask anyone for the address of an Orthodox church in Hyderabad. So now I was in a city that I barely knew, I need to find a church and I didn’t have the faintest clue whom to ask. So I turned to the internet, which had over the years gone from mailing lists to Web 2.0 - clouds, SNS, wikis et al. I started with a search on Live which gave me a rough idea of what I was looking for. I grabbed whatever info I could find and switched over to Orkut where I found three Orthodox churches with full addresses and alternate names of localities, but unfortunately there was no data on service timings. So now I had the address of 3 churches in Hyderabad, I had to figure out which was nearest and how to get there. So I go to Wikimapia, zoom in to Hyderabad, and search for the street or locality of each of the three churches. A few minutes of zooming and panning later, I locate the nearest church on a map of Hyderabad superimposed on a composite high resolution satellite image of the city. Someone I will probably never know had taken the time and effort to locate and mark the small church on the outskirts if the city. I then do my bit by adding some more details to the wiki tag. I then take a print out of the map, mark the location with an X and hand it over to my cab driver. Next morning, I reach St. Mary’s Orthodox Church at Ramachandrapuram just in time for the Hosanna service.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Dark Brew

The other day I was having breakfast with a colleague in the office cafeteria. The conversation went something like this:
Hey! What’s that you have there? (Pointing at my coffee)
Coffee. With chocolate. LOTS of chocolate.
Coffee and chocolate??? (Coffee and chocolate don't mix too well in the resident Indian psyche)
Really! It’s a great combination. (With that - you gotta try it - look)
Could you make me some of that? (Politically correct what!)
Yeah! Sure. Come on, I'll show you how it’s done.

So we walk over to the coffee machine and I go like:
3 sachets chocolate powder (150g)
2 sachets Bru instant 70-30 coffee-chicory mix (Pure instant coffee isn't as good)
2 sachets sugar substitute (Have to stay within the calorie quota - Sedentary Male, South Asian)
200ml hot milk
Mix well. There you go.

We return to breakfast. I half-jokingly tell him that I moved to Microsoft for the complimentary chocolate. But seriously, you can always judge an office by its cafeteria. I guess it was Napoleon who said that an army marches on its stomach. Things haven't changed all that much in the last 300 years.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Chicken soup for the job-hunter's soul

Another long silence ends. Whoever said that silence speaks louder than words knew what he was talking about. Yes, I was busy. Busy attending interviews and making a career change.

As with most things that would keep one busy, this too was a learning experience. After close to four years of working on code that runs the most heavily used applications on hundreds of millions of handsets around world, I didn't expect to have much trouble answering a few technical interview questions. My first interview changed all that. It is a sad story so I’d rather not go into the details now. Maybe later.

It is said that a wise man is he who learns from the mistakes of others. So, for those who would be wise and learn from my mistakes, here is distilled wisdom.

1. First get your basics right. Read Programming Interviews Exposed.

2. I'm a big fan of CareerCup founder Gayle Laakmann. So I'll strongly recommend both her books - Cracking the Coding Interview and The Google Resume.

3. Read the C FAQ at And the C++ FAQs at

4. Read the Gang of Four, or better still Head First Design Patterns for Design Patterns.

5. And some more advanced stuff on Operating System Concepts and Data Structures and Algorithms

6. Check out resources on the internet. Examples follow:
7. Research pay scales at or so that you know what to expect if all goes well.

8. Research each company you plan to interview with. Get the big picture from Wikipedia. Then Google News for latest happenings; Google Finance, to see if they have the money to pay you. Visit the company website. Search and for previous interview questions asked at that company.

Do some introspection. Why are you doing this? First, is there a way to achieve the same goal without changing jobs? Which companies and roles can offer you want you want? Is what you want actually good for you in the long run or is it just a passing fancy? Talk to people - friends, mentors, family. Be clear about what all you want. No company or role can give you all that you wish for. Being clear about your priorities goes a long way in taking the right decision under pressure, when you have to decide between three good offers.

Invest some serious effort into your interview preparation. It is better to prepare 14x7 for a few weeks to get a job that you enjoy doing and pays well, than to work 14x7 for the next few years at something less satisfying.

Research shows that most interviewers take a decision in the first 30 seconds after they meet a candidate. And the deciding factors in those 30 seconds are speaking clearly and smiling, part of the PRESS technique (Posture straight, Relax, Eye contact, Speak clearly & Smile). The idea is to present yourself as confident and warm, the kind of person almost everyone wants to hire. Happy hunting!