I know this is a sensitive topic to write on, but I decided to write on it anyway after due deliberation. The opinions expressed are my own and are based upon what I have observed in corporate life.
I was recently conducting an interview to fill the position of a Senior Business Analyst. The resume of the potential candidate looked impressive:
- Straight A’s (distinctions) in all the major examinations of her academic career
- 11 years of experience in the field with 3 promotions
- She was currently managing a high degree of responsibility in her current organization
I never take the recruitment process lightly and always put in maximum effort to choose the right candidate. More often than not, a bad recruitment decision really hurts you in the long run and haste is definitely not an option here. I asked the candidate a few probing questions to get to know her better.
In terms of on job experience, she had worked only on migration projects and did not have any experience in mapping out business processes and writing detailed requirements for core operational processes i.e. front office processes.
On agile, scrum and user stories – the candidate was clueless.
When asked about the requirement document structure required to set up a Requirements Traceability Matrix (RTM) the candidate’s answer was – “We don’t do it this way”
When asked about challenges faces while handling business users during the final UAT (User Acceptance Testing) closure, the point of using UAT test cases effectively, scoping the UAT properly and smartly navigating the project towards closure never came up. This was a red alert for me.
I probed further, “So what do you do when stakeholders change and folks performing UAT are different from folks who gave the requirements in the first place?”,I asked. The answer was another eye opener for me, “We usually end up forcing our developers to include the new requirements in scope.”
As the interview went on, I felt pained and de-motivated. I could only wring my hands in despair, much as I knew the candidate sitting in front of me was intelligent, I could not list even a single convincing reason to bring her on board. Eventually I ended the interview.
Following this, I began to ponder, “What does a working professional in the current Internet Age need to do consistently to avoid landing into this kind of a situation.”
“Knowledge cannot be taken away by anyone except by obsolescence.”
- Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India
Few thoughts emerged, and they are shared below:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
1. Become uncomfortable when you get too comfortable in your current job
This is a kind of reverse psychology, so to speak. Let’s assume you are a Project Manager and have really excelled in your role over a span of 3-4 years. This leads to some interesting things happening:
- You understand the domain so well now that you are considered a domain expert
- You have understood operational business processes so well that you are considered a process expert
- You have developed an excellent working relationship with key stakeholders
- Your overall understanding is so strong that it is now your personal fiefdom and, to be honest, no one in the organization can now challenge your breadth and depth of domain knowledge.
When this happens, some interesting things take place:
- You become indispensable for your immediate line of reporting managers. If they happen to be part of senior management or C level executive leadership and are usually inundated with management discussions, they will simply not have the time to really probe into the low level execution details which you are handling.
If you have indeed reached this exalted position, then it is time to do some serious introspection.
If you are in the profession of software delivery, then ideally, achieving excellence in software delivery should be your goal. Being an excellent software delivery manager would essentially mean:
- Being an excellent leader
- Being excellent at mentoring future leaders in your team
- Casting vision for the project’s future
- Having industry accepted, best practice based solutions to whatever problems are presented before you. For e.g. If it’s a quality problem, how does it need to be addressed? Is it unit testing, QA betterment, code coverage improvement, having unit tests in code, what is the best way to tackle this?
If there is a mutiny in one of the teams and general distrust and lack of teamwork, is it a leadership issue? Does the team leader need to be replaced?
Basically, you need to be equipped well to come up with the best solutions. This is your core responsibility; this is your industry accepted and industry standard role profile.
Hold the mirror to your face and ask yourself:
- How does being a process expert or a domain expert contribute to the above role?
It does to some extent. But it cannot be the basis of your success and it cannot replace expertise in the core delivery management responsibility.
2. Designations or job titles are a dime a dozen, what really matters is the role
If indeed you have achieved the level mentioned in point 1, you may end up becoming a point of dependency in your organization, perhaps unwittingly and for no fault of yours. Your reporting line may now resort to smart strategies to retain you by way of offering higher designations or job titles to boost your ego.
Look outside, you will see many innovative job titles in the market :
“AVP – Associate Vice President”
“Chief Enterprise Architect”
“Head of Delivery”
Now, I am not against having a good designation, in many cases, particularly in the West, designations match roles and are indeed hard to achieve and have to be usually earned on merit. But in many organizations, it has become a gimmick.
Introspect deeply and ask yourself:
“Do I really deserve this or is it being given to buy my loyalty, rather continuity in the organization?”
Indeed, if the new designation does not come with a well written job description and clearly defined roles and responsibilities, it should be eyed with reservation.
The questions you really need to ask are:
“What’s my role?”
“How can I define my role?” (If it’s not defined already)
“Are my current work assignments making me stretch?”
Remember, if you are not stretching, you’re not growing. It’s resistance that builds you up. The path of least resistance is the tried and tested path to mediocrity.
“Are the problems which I am solving today bigger than the ones I was solving 6 months back?”
These are the type of questions which will help clear the fog of confusion and make you see things as they really are.
I recently came across some live industry examples wherein some individuals had their job titles change rapidly over a span of 3-4 years.
Manager -> Senior Manager -> Associate Director -> Director
Meteoric rise – so to speak. Now, the truth is, it is an accursed state of affairs to be in a very high position when you are not ready for it. True to expectations, these individuals lost their jobs due to errors of judgement and eventually had to settle for lower designations as per their current level of expertise. One rule is – the market is always right. The universe is unbiased. If you really grow on the inside, build a strong foundation of real character, you are beginning to upset the equilibrium and the universe will eventually place you in your rightfully earned position. But it works the other way as well. If you are sitting in a high position in the corporate hierarchy which you were never really ready for, your eventual downfall is imminent and it is just a matter of time. The universe is unbiased and always ensures that equilibrium is maintained either way.
3. Evaluate your income against your real market value
Your true market value in monetary terms is basically the average income any person with your level of skills is earning in the open market. If your income is significantly higher than your true market value, realize that this is the outcome of a retention policy intentionally designed to fence you in. It’s an artificial wall designed to ensure that your continuity in the organization is assured.
4. Keep your ego under check
With a high salary on one hand and a fancy designation to go with it, there is a very high chance that the ego boost which it gives will now begin to veil your thinking and blunt your intellectual sharpness. This is natural, we are only human.
To avoid being in this mental state, consistently benchmark yourself against the very best in your industry. Ask yourself,
“Am I anywhere close to Martin Fowler when it comes to understanding architecture?”
“Am I anywhere close to Kent Beck when it comes to understanding TDD?”
“Am I anywhere close to Steve Mcconnell when it comes to understanding how to write clean code and software estimation correctly?”
“Am I anywhere close to Mike Cohn or Ken Schwaber when it comes to understanding Agile software development?”
There are many more industry thought leaders against whom you can benchmark yourself.
If this is also not enough check out www.infoQ.com
and compare your level of understanding with some of the articles and videos posted over there.
It can be a truly humbling experience. It will help clear the ego fog and allow you to see things as they really are. Humility automatically sets in when you know what you don’t know. And being truly humble, in my opinion, is the starting point of all learning.
5. Don’t be a big frog in a small well
When you become the “Go to” person in your organization, you may get into a position where your opinion is regularly sought and you are frequently consulted. This is not a bad position to be in. But the problem is, too much of anything is not good. If this kind of frequent acknowledgement is leading to a situation where your ego gets bloated progressively then it’s a dangerous position to be in.
“Pride cometh before a fall.” – William Shakespeare
Remember, no matter how loud or how long you croak, it is still a small pond. Look outside – you will realize that your voice may not even be heard in the open market place where only stalwarts who have achieved their pride of place on sheer merit are honoured and valued. The earlier you realize this, the better it is.
6. Get back to the drawing board – prepare yourself
Networking guru Bob Andrews says, “Spectacular achievement is always preceded by less spectacular preparation.”
“The will to win is not nearly so important as the will to prepare to win.” – Football coach Vince Lombardi
Put together a training program in place to train yourself. Do an honest inventory of your current skills. Identify the gaps. Identify the weakest skill and get to work on improving it immediately. Lifelong commitment to training will pay you rich dividends in the long run.
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” – 3 time World Heavyweight Boxing champion Muhammad Ali
7. Benchmark yourself with the best in your chosen field
As mentioned in point 4, when you benchmark yourself with the very best, you will automatically realize your gaps and shortcomings. You will eventually embark on a learning adventure. There are enough truly great teachers out there – and most of them have published so much great stuff on the internet and the print media, probably one life is not sufficient to grasp all of it. Adopting the lifelong student attitude will ensure that you find the right teachers at every stage.
An extract from the autobiography of the great Indian industrialist J.R.D. Tata says it all.
“Soon after his father’s death J.R.D. had attacks of typhoid and paratyphoid. His sister Rodabeh remembers seeing J.R.D. return from work, throw himself onto his bed at the Taj and pick up financial and business magazines. When she suggested he should rest he would refuse.’ I want to be worthy of Tatas.’ So saying he would read on.”
8. Pursue excellence
Please check the paragraph heading again, I have deliberately used the word “Pursue”. I didn’t say go after excellence, or move towards excellence. I have deliberately said “Pursue excellence”.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” - Martin Luther King
Make sure you have genuine passion for your field – you should be truly passionate about creating world class software which helps in solving real world problems. Now, I do understand that it is probably not possible to be passionate about all the tasks that you do in your job every day. That’s probably unrealistic. But if 50% of the daily work which you do stokes your passion, you are probably in the right field. Keep going. If you do not have passion for your field, then you should reconsider your decision to be in the field itself.
When you have passion, commitment becomes easy.
When you have passion, self-discipline becomes easy.
“If you are passionate about something then you don’t feel the workload, but if you feel the burden of something then you realise it is not your passion and you must look at something else.” - Batting maestro Sachin Tendulkar
9. Sacrifice – prepare to give up in order to go up
Success over the long haul will demand that you give up many things which consume your most valuable resource – Time. You may feel that you are multi-talented, and look forward to truly enjoying all aspects of life, but look around, any significant success required razor sharp focus on a limited set of goals. This could effectively mean limiting the usage of your time spent in:
- Social gatherings
- Aimlessly watching TV
- Spending time in activities that do not contribute to your goals
Now, I am not recommending that you become a monk and alienate yourself from the mainstream of life. What I am saying is – put a high premium on your time. Realize the true worth of your time and use it accordingly.
“You have to be willing to give up a lot of the less important things in your life for the opportunity to do that one big thing.” - Dr.John Maxwell
A good way to look at it is – either you are investing time or you are spending time. Make sure that you ensure that a high percentage of your time is getting invested rather than getting spent.
“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”
- Benjamin Franklin
When the people you know see your extraordinary commitment towards success and excellence, they will definitely react and try to bring you back into the status quo. Following the masses is the sure road to mediocrity. As personal development trainer Bob Proctor says, “Each person is following the guy next door who in turn is the following the guy next door and so we are all running round in circles.”
Don’t allow yourself to get into this situation.
“You can’t fly with the eagles if you keep scratching with the chickens.” - Anonyous
“Racing is all I know. I have no plan B.” - Champion racing car driver Mario Andretti
10. Use your down time effectively
I can’t emphasize this enough. It is unbelievable how many slots of time are gifted to us every day. Some prime examples are given below:
- Travelling time – Ensure that you are not driving or better still use public transport. Use your travelling time creatively - to read stuff, to research new technologies, to jot down ideas for a new presentation or to write an article.
- Time spent at the doctor’s clinic
- Time spent at the airport waiting for a flight
You see, when you are consistently pursuing excellence, you will eventually realize that one life is too short to master it all – the encyclopaedia of success is too huge. And you will realize the value of time.
If you are like how I was previously, and are caught thinking, “Oh! How should I kill my time? I am not sure how long I need to wait” then you need to take 2 steps back and revisit your goals. If your goals are clear, the implied actions you need to take will also be clear to you. Don’t be caught napping – always have some reading material with you so you can use your downtime effectively.
11. Build your leadership skills
For most people, especially in the field of Information Technology, this is their Achilles heel. I am surprised at the number of people I meet everyday who truly lack leadership skills and are probably not even aware of it. There is a very small percentage of people who are “intentional” about building their leadership skills. This is a no-brainer.
For those who are truly committed towards building themselves, there is a veritable treasure trove of information out there. The starting point, in my opinion, should be reading the great books written by Dr.John Maxwell. To name a few:
“The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership.”
“Right to lead.”
“Developing the leader within you.”
....... and many more.
By far the greatest leadership expert in the world today, following Dr.Maxwell’s teachings will save you years of trial and error. And please do not expect overnight results. Leadership development is a process and takes time. The closest example I can think of is the Chinese bamboo tree. The Chinese bamboo tree has to be watered and nurtured for four years and on the visible surface, nothing happens. But in the fifth year, something amazing takes place. The bamboo tree shoots up to more than 80 feet in just one growing season. So does that mean that for 4 long years nothing happened? Not really. You see, for 4 years the strong underground root system was getting developed – it is only after the root system has become strong enough that the Chinese bamboo tree can shoot up to 80 feet and sustain it’s growth. Leadership development is also like that – you have to build a strong foundation first.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
- Sir Isaac Newton
“Remember, you are the same today as you will be in five years, except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read. Choose both carefully.”
12. Learn the art of goal setting
This was a tough one for me, but thankfully there are great teachers out there. When it comes to goal setting, Brian Tracy is the person you should follow. Reading his book “Goals” and listening to his audio CD series “The ultimate goals program” will help you a long way in honing your skills in this important area.
“Success is goals, all else is commentary.” - Brian Tracy
This is indeed the master skill of success. Without learning this, you won’t go very far.
13. Experience creative dissatisfaction
At specific points in your career, you should be bothered with questions like,
“What am I doing?”
“Am I on track?”
“Am I doing complete justice to my potential?”
“Am I growing consistently or have I begun to stagnate?”
All these questions are sure signs that your thinking is in order. These are the kind of questions which will force you to think at critical junctures, and the decisions you take at these junctures will eventually determine the course of your career and your life.
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” - William Ernest Henley
14. Know yourself
As you continue traversing on this journey, there will be a point when you truly start knowing and understanding yourself.
The ancient Greek philosopher said “Know thyself.”
This is easier said than done. This is one question to which the answer will also change as you keep growing.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” - Greek philosopher Socrates
Don’t allow yourself to fall into the situation which the Business Analyst had gotten into.
Remember, King Mufasa’s sage advice to his son Simba in the Lion King.
“You are more than what you have become.”
What a thought! And what happens next is even more significant. Simba faces his fears, listens to his inner voice, challenges his uncle and defeats him in combat and regains his rightful place as King of the Pride Lands.
Remember, the universe is neutral. The day you were born, the universe has created your unique place in the entire scheme of things. It is up to you to consistently challenge and break through your comfort zone, face your fears and eventually occupy your rightful place. Don’t allow the beast of time or obsolescence to creep on you slowly and completely overpower you one fine day. Rather, strive to grow continuously and attain your true destiny.
Wish you all success!