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.