Thursday, November 26, 2009

An Autobiographical Note

Recently, I was asked to write a short autobiographical note, highlighting major learning experiences in life. This was an interesting exercise, as it allowed me to reflect back on what I have done so far. I reproduce my submission below. Two themes became clear to me. One, all my life has been a search. For a purpose, perhaps. And, two, my learning happened in a series of disruptions, when things fell apart or something changed dramatically. It was a worthwhile experience reflecting back.

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Growing up in Pre-liberalization India, I spent my school days with a set of rather simple goals: A job in the Government. A marriage, arranged, with a girl from a suitable family. And, bringing up kids to do exactly the same. In fact, these goals were so simple and obvious that it was stupid not to go for it. The recipe was very straightforward too: Study hard. Which meant following the teachers and memorizing the books, and write predictable answers to predictable questions.

But, then, the rules changed. I discovered computers when a few early enthusiasts brought an early PC, which only had a green flickering screen and text messages on its screen, for a day’s display in our college library. I was fascinated by how they could write a few lines of code to turn the screen into a digital clock. I must admit that since I had not seen a digital watch before, that seemed like a magic.

This, indeed, did the trick of breaking down my utterly predictable path of life. The layers of time-bound application procedure for a Government job, together with scores of multiple-choice laden competitive examinations, pointless group discussions and interviews seemed too daunting. Suddenly, there was this alternative possibility, exciting and full of adventure, of living a different life. To turn time digital, metaphorically speaking.

When I proposed to my father that I would devote a few extra hours every morning learning computers while doing day studies for a Masters in Economics, he was not exactly sure. But, he funded it regardless – this was the first time in my life I volunteered to take on any extra work.

It was a sense of purpose, after all, which kept me interested. The future, no longer predictable, seemed to be somewhat visible. Not that I learnt anything exciting: It was mostly business programming using COBOL. However, I enjoyed something on the side: Setting up computer networks and managing them using Unix. This did not matter for the exams we had to write, but this got me hooked. Most of my batchmates ended up in large companies doing data processing, and I ended up in a small, struggling, start-up as a result. One that designed and sold e-mail services to companies, and was the first one to do so in India. It was a world as far apart as possible from the predictability of a government job, or the money I could earn as a stockbroker [I flirted with that possibility too, briefly]; but it was more exciting than anything else I could imagine.

Like, countless hours of debating with senior executives why email could be better than fax. In one occasion, I was asked to draw a diagram comparing how email is sent vis-à-vis postal mail! The pace of technological change was hard to keep up with, and often, half of my working time used to go to learn new ways of doing things. It was exciting to see things change that fast. Until, one day, I had a second déjà vu moment – not unlike my first encounter with the Digital Clock – when, someone, in a seminar on Data Communication, dialled a number in Singapore and logged into a Bulletin Board, which he called the Internet.

Internet, then, was still like a Bulletin Board, where one needed to write commands to get things done. But, it had many things, including the email. Free. We were told that the government was planning to bring it to India. I almost instantly knew that my days of implementing email services were numbered.

When Internet eventually arrived in India, about 18 months later in 1995, I have already changed my job. Instead of competing with the Internet, which was a non-starter, I decided to join a training organization, which took the advantage of Internet boom and wanted to train Indian graduates to do programming. The job appealed to me for obvious reasons – I was supposed to preach to other people what I have already done in my own life. I brought a lot of passion to the job. My sales pitch was my autobiography. The connection was immediate, and I did very well.

In fact, too well, perhaps. I got carried away. I was arrogant to think I learnt it all. By 1998, I was dreaming of web-based classrooms. At work, where we only used trainer-led classes and some videos, things seemed backward. Money was plentiful then. I met an entrepreneur who recently returned from the States and was full of stories about the venture capital industry there. He liked my idea of web-based classrooms. I was full of confidence and bored with the day job. Again, I took a leap of faith, much to the disdain of my family, and walked out of the job just when I was looking, first time in my life, settled.

It ended badly. I was naïve commercially. While we got good clients and projects at hand, I did not fend off my rights with the right sort of contract. The financiers, looking at the crumbling share markets in the States, were getting nervous: They wanted to close in and sale the company before the Indian market crumbled too. I had very little to stop them from doing that. Worse, I did not even have the courage to fight. I meekly gave away all that I worked for, and left.

My decision to leave India was prompted by this failure. This is when the predictable world completely disappeared. I did not know what to do exactly. My ex-employers, a big training company, was generous: They made an offer to take me back and then allowed me to work more or less independently in extending their IT training business internationally. It seemed God-sent, as it allowed me to travel, earn good money as well as work on projects independently. So, I ended up doing this over next four years.

Starting 2000, as I left India, I was working a lot less with technology and more with commercial realities of International Business: regulatory environments, contracts, Export and Import, and nuances of cross-culture. As business expanded and I travelled to new countries, I was amazed to discover how people look differently at the same realities just because they come from different cultures. I started to believe that travel is the best form of education one can get. Every new day brought new learning, not unlike the very first days of my career and my initial fascination with TCP/IP.

So, by 2004, I wanted to see the world. When I left the job I was doing well in, no one was surprised. I was leaving for Britain as a High Skilled Migrant, which meant coming over without a job in hand. It was risky, and I was not that young anymore. My supervisor at work, who was a long-time mentor, wished me luck – said she hoped that I should find my purpose, finally. My best friend gave me a tube map, and a relative arranged a stay in a Sikh Gurudwara.

So, by July 2004, I had started living a different life. The transition from being a rich man in a poor country – I indeed enjoyed my expat life – to a poor man in a rich country was difficult. I was soon working in a warehouse, shifting materials, and queuing up for free food at the Gurudwara twice a day. It was difficult while it lasted. However, looking back, it seemed the best thing I had ever done. It took away the pretensions I grew up with, all the casteist disregard I had for manual work. If education needs to start with humility, this was my crash course in it.

Since then, I have built a career selling e-learning services to companies and public organizations. I wanted to learn the trade and studied marketing formally. My understanding of cultural differences developed – particularly from the numerous negotiations I had to engage into, with colleagues, customers and suppliers. When I was invited to join the board of my current employers, I took it as a learning opportunity: Sure enough, I was soon learning as much about myself as about others. I had a chance to observe different leadership styles, and contrast my mostly Asian clients and mostly European and North American colleagues. I felt I had a deeper, richer perspective on human behaviour and leadership, which would not have happened if I did not choose to travel.

So, that, in summary, is the story of my journey. One that was built around Globalisation in a sense. The computers wrecked my well-set future and the Internet built an alternative one. I chose to travel, taking advantage of the increasing business links among countries. And, since the, I have building a career on the platform of globalisation of knowledge and skills. This has been exciting so far. I am looking forward to the rest of it.

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