Archive for August, 2008

“Who will take the risks?”

August 31, 2008

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Lately I got to read quite some stuff on credentialism.  I haven’t analyzed it enough to form an opinion though I firmly believe in my ability to influence, if not control, outcomes. Odds might be long, but they are rarely insuperable. The folklore of individual successes in business already confirms my thesis.  But I do have a great respect for meritocracy – that advocates crowning anyone that truly deserves – than credentialism.

 

Way back in 2005, David W Boles referred it as phony-on-the-surface and irresistible-in-the-depths separation of people by paper (degrees).

 

How about validation by the market place? Something like a true blue hands-on guy that boxed every norm and broke every tradition that beat all others to the top on just raw nerve and imagination; I would love those types.  They are so seeped in and when they start to tell, it hits you hard and shakes you up. You get your comeuppance.

 

But the system always demands more to keep out those it wishes to not welcome. As more and more people challenge the ivory tower power base with higher base degrees, the bar of perceived excellence gets higher and higher, just to keep the self-proclaimed majority elite in power; and that is accomplished by requiring more and more layers of bullshit to protect a process that is already overrun by pomposity and downward-nose-looking.

 

I see a lot of that in Investment banks and Private Equity funds. They recruit people that have expensive foreign degrees or MBAs with an added engineering background thrown in.  A few years with Wall Street I-Banks, you are THE guy.  Your level of awareness of local market systems, business laws, entrepreneurial culture and traditions hardly matter. You don’t need go far to seek why there are fewer multi-bagger exits in proportion to the sums invested. These are the guys that manufacture subprime crisis, invent alphabet soup like ABS, CDO, CLO that eventually screw up a vibrant market, bring out IPOs and later pressurize the issuer to withdraw when the sentiment thaws. When the market is at its peak, they open their treasure chests, buy minority stakes at mind boggling valuations.  Later when it slumps and valuations look realistic, they shirk even from their underwriting obligations and do fewer deals.  Small businesses like mine are beginning to feel the chill because of their frostiness.  We drive deals to these icemen and they sleep over it for weeks leaving us to face clients with no firm answers.

 

Soon they too will get their comeuppance. As James Fallows asked, “If everyone has the tenure and security that come with professional status, who will take the risks?”

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My Beijing Hero

August 22, 2008

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The Beijing Olympic games are still on. But I’ve found my hero.  It is neither Usain “Lightning” Bolt nor it is Michael Phelps.  It is the Dutchman Maarten van der Weijden.  The 27-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001, but came back stronger after his ordeal to compete at the 2003 open water world championships before he was crowned world champion over 25km in Seville earlier this year.  He said the experience of beating cancer helped him win an Olympic gold medal after victory in the men’s 10 kilometers open water marathon swim Thursday.

He compared his gold medal triumph to his personal battle against cancer as he waited patiently for the leaders to set the early pace before a late burst saw him claim gold in a time of 1 hour 51 minutes 51.6 seconds.

“The leukemia has taught me to think step-by-step…. When you are in hospital and feeling so much pain and feeling so tired, you don’t want to want to think about the next day or week – you just think about the next hour. It teaches you to be patient when you are lying in a hospital bed and that was almost the same strategy I chose here to wait for my chance in the pack.” said the brave Dutchman who raised 50,000 euros (US$74,000) in 2004 for cancer research by swimming the giant Ijsselmeer lake in Holland.

The Art of living hour by hour.  Tell that to me, a Ph D from the school of hard knocks !

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Spaghetti Junction

August 15, 2008

 

Happy Independence Day! 

 

Not for a minute think we’re free.  There are social, economic and political battles left to win. You’re not free in your own country where untold hundreds track every phone call and e-mail you make in private.  We are in a spaghetti junction where challenges come from everywhere.  I dug out a Francis Duggan poem for you.  I enjoyed reading it. 

 

The True Meaning Of Freedom
  

Many look on what constitutes freedom one might say differently
What seems free to you may not seem free to me
To be ruled by your own people to you as freedom does count
But in the true meaning of freedom that to little amount.
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To be ruled by your own people may be seen as quite okay
But if you have to be careful with the words you do say
Then you are not a free person despite about it how you may feel
Your idea of freedom to me does not appeal.
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Of love of Country you are one who brag
And your patriotism you carry in your National flag
But despite this your Government you seemingly fear
And they only tell you what you need to hear.
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Patriotic songs and ballads many like to sing
And to their admiration of freedom fighters they fervently do cling
And if that’s your idea of freedom well that suits me fine
Though your ideas on life are quite different to mine.
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 Francis Duggan
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Hope you liked it too.  Now tell me, what is your idea of independence…?

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Making sense of customer feedback

August 13, 2008

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Lately I’ve been spending some time with a startup (into interior décor design) helping them interpret customer feedback on their beta product.  The beta users gave all kinds of suggestions that ranged from “tweak-it-a-bit” to “break-it-down-and-rebuild-it”.  Many a time the customer hadn’t even used it yet felt a sense of colossal urgency to offer feedback. I asked one customer to explain what exactly he meant with the sole intention of prodding him to figure out what exactly does he want from us and will he buy if we make it for him!

 

Ah, you guessed it – he never came back.

 

 Feedback has got a flip side too.  It influences your innate creativity and dilutes your deep, original ideas with shallow and sometimes even clichéd interest of another. It applies a sudden pause to your thought streams that gives in to the advice.  When you’re clueless about something, seek advice by all means.  Trust, but verify. It’s because an advice is just that and not necessarily a masterpiece.  It just opens up a new vista, shows you another way around a knot.  You know the destination and you’ll go it alone.  Along the way you’ll falter and fall, break a few limbs but in the end, you figure things out – and that learning sticks with you.

 

Steve Yegge, has another entertaining rant in the startup context that I would use here –

 

“Self-professed experts will tell you that requirement gathering is the most critical part of the project, because if you get it wrong, then all the rest of your work goes towards building the wrong thing. This is sooooort of true, in a skewed way, but it’s not the complete picture.

 

“The problem with this view is that requirements gathering basically never works. How many times have you seen a focus group gather requirements from customers, then the product team builds the product, and you show it to your customers and they sing: ‘Joy! This is exactly what we wanted! You understood me perfectly! I’ll buy 500 of them immediately!’ And the sun shines and the grass greens and birds chirp and end-credit music plays.

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“That never happens. What really happens is this: the focus group asks a bunch of questions; the customers have no frigging clue what they want, and they say contradictory things and change the subject all the time, and the focus group argues a lot about what the customers really meant. Then the product team says, ‘We can’t build this, not on our budget,’ and a negotiation process happens during which the product mutates in various unpleasant ways. Then, assuming the project doesn’t fail, they show a demo to the original customers, who say: ‘This is utterly lame. Yuck!’ Heck, even if you build exactly what the customer asked for, they’ll say: ‘Uh, yeah, I asked for that, but now that I see it, I clearly wanted something else.”

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I’ve developed the habit of listening to all advice I can get, synthesize them with present realities and carry them out only if it’s practical and convenient.  That’s how I figured out why my trash can is overflowing!