My most bizarre work experiences

This forced Work from Home seems to induce philosophical ruminations in me. Here I talk about some of my most bizarre work experiences.

I was a young, naive intern.

My boss had asked me to present two sets of data from my project on the same slide so that they can be compared.

I did that. But he completely flipped while I was presenting. “What is this? I can’t make any sense out of this. Don’t waste everybody’s time with presentations like these. Hadn’t I told you how to present the data?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. It was exactly the data I had already shown to him, and which he had wanted to be presented.

Quite baffled, I thought hard. Then I remembered a little something. He had said – “Present the data on the same slide. One below the other.” I had used the default PowerPoint template and put the two graphs side by side. Hoping against hope, I started with an empty slide and put exactly the same graphs stacked up on the slide, instead of side by side (It would have fitted better side by side). For good measure, I also asked someone at the office if there was a company presentation template I could use. I got that, applied it, and the colors changed on my presentation.

The next day, my boss was ecstatic. “This is exactly what I wanted! See, the data makes sense now.”

It is anyone’s guess if it was the graphs stacked up, or the company’s presentation template. But since then, in any new job, I do enquire about whether there is a company presentation template I could use.

Boss is the king!

I was a young product manager. Not so naive by then. So, I recognized that it is a problem for me that the product head and the engineering head have two totally divergent ideas about my project. So, I did the best I could think. I got them in a room together (one was on the video conferencing, I think, but the connection was pretty good). The meeting seemed to go very well. They agreed on everything. Once we came out of the meeting, the product head told me something to the effect that we can’t really be doing what the engineering head wanted. How long do you think I had to pat myself on the back before the world shattered?

One can’t win with the bosses, can one?

On a work call, the project leader announced. “We can’t be gathering so much data. Then the statistics stops working and we don’t know what to do with it.” I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from objecting that statistics works only when we have large amounts of data. Thankfully, it was an audio call, and they couldn’t see my body language and the literal biting of my tongue!

They weren’t my reporting manager (small mercies!), but I still had a dotted line reporting to them.

One can’t correct the bosses, can one?

I was neither young nor naive by this time. I totally believed in not just irrationality, but complete insanity of the world. I still have to admit that I didn’t see this one coming.

A colleague who was tasked with getting OKRs done for every team, “gave” me my OKRs. In a Google sheet. It had 100+ rows. With six columns in front of each. For about 4-5 odd projects I had for the quarter! And they refused to give me edit rights to “my” OKRs. Because it was for “their” reference. Yep, boss! That’s how OKRs work. Long story short, this person had done nothing wrong, it was all a problem because we didn’t have a “personal rapport” and I was the one solely responsible for that state of affairs. That “personal rapport” can’t be an excuse for not doing your job? And that little something called professionalism? Or that the OKRs aren’t “given” to people? Bah! Who cares? I could either suck up to this or have “no long term prospect” in the company. That wasn’t much of a choice, was it? No headmaster I have ever known has behaved in more headmaster-like fashion. Trying to keep the little kids disciplined through strict monitoring of homework. Must use ruled paper! Must submit to 100-rows OKRs.

Dealing with pseudo bosses with arbitrary power, utter incompetence, and huge, brittle egos is even more difficult than dealing with statistics-challenged bosses!

Howsoever, old, wizened, wise, skeptical, or cynical I grow, the world (and the corporate world, in particular) will keep baffling and surprising me.

Business & Entrepreneurship

A Managerial Success

In my latest stint at Meesho, I worked on some fantastic projects about which I will probably talk from time to time. But while taking leave from my team, which was an incredibly difficult task, I realized that there was something else I should be more proud of than my projects. It was the fact that I had managed and partially built a vertical (org) with diverse teams to be absolutely aligned to the org’s objectives. It was a motivated, engaged and committed team that would take ownership, and not just carry out the tasks. This was a team that looked forward to coming to work every day. And it is when the team members spoke that I consciously realized what were the things I had done right. Even if it feels like bragging I am going to record them for my own reference as well as for anyone who finds these useful. Most of these things are not extraordinary or out of the world. Any advice on managerial effectiveness you get would perhaps list them. So much so that they almost sound mundane or cliched. But their power is that they work.

I had direct reports, some of them with teams of their own, and also folks with a dotted line reporting – mostly in tech. My org included product, marketing, content, design, community, and ops folks.

Practices that worked

  1. Monthly 1:1s with direct reports: The company had not put this formally in place, but I started this practice nevertheless. I scheduled only 15 minutes for each conversation. Some people may find that too short, but that was mostly enough. And if in any 1:1, we realized that there was more stuff to be discussed, we scheduled it separately. Many a time nothing new comes out in these meetings, but just setting aside time for one builds trust and gives assurance to the team that their concerns and long-term aspirations would not be lost in the day-to-day grind of work. And then sometimes important things come out. I got to know things that were bothering people, things they would like to happen differently, or the direction they would like their career to go in. Most of the time, these things were addressable. Even when they were not, it made things a whole lot better to just explain to them why something can’t happen the way they want. Finally, this was the opportunity for me to give them ongoing feedback instead of piling it up for the yearly appraisal. It is super important to explicitly tell people what they are doing right. It can do wonders for their motivation and confidence. It is also important to give negative feedback on an ongoing basis and not pile them up for the time when it becomes so bad that it is unresolvable. If somebody’s performance does eventually become a problem, it should not come as a surprise to them. And the way to ensure that is having that feedback included regularly in 1:1s, which also gives them an opportunity to work on it.
  2. Weekly sync-up with a twist: There was a weekly sync-up with direct and dotted line reports. But the most important agenda here was not for me to get updates from the team (which also happened), but to give updates from my side to them. Almost everything I discussed with the leadership group or with my manager which could impact any of the team’s work at any point in time, I presented to the team in these meetings. It also included updates on the initiatives taken or launched by the different teams in the org. The team members usually explained the work that was done, but what I tried to ensure was that every other team understood what was being done and why. This means that developers, marketers, and ops folks were explained how A/B worked and why we did that, product people and developers were told how events were conducted and what determines the turnout, and developers and content people got to know how Facebook ads worked. It felt odd sometimes, but people do really want to know and they appreciate someone making an effort to help them do that.

    There was an organization-wide exercise that was carried out, where everybody was supposed to call two users each and get feedback from them. In one of the weekly sync-ups, everyone shared what they had learned from the users. I used that opportunity to talk about the most prominent issues raised by the users and what other orgs in the company were doing about it. While the calling exercise was meant to inculcate user empathy in everyone, this discussion and information on what we are doing about the issues raised were important to give people confidence in the company they were working for.

    General team updates were also provided in these weekly sync-ups, but anything that needed detailed discussion was scheduled separately.

  3. Ongoing communication: The communication did not wait for weekly sync-up. I used the org chat group to regularly update people on org’s activities, especially the outcomes of any recently launched projects and regular summaries of any ongoing problem we were working on.
  4. Monthly sync-up with the entire team: I started a monthly sync-up for people who were not my direct reports. The format and purpose were similar to the weekly sync-up with direct and dotted line reports. To keep everyone aligned to the org’s objectives as well as the company’s direction and to clearly communicate why things were done the way they were being done. A review of the user-calling exercise was done in one of these monthly meetings too with a similar conversation about what the company and other orgs were doing about the issues raised.
  5. Educate: Wherever possible, I tried to take time to answer *any* questions anyone in the team had and help them learn anything they wanted to learn. This resulted in explaining funnels and charts to the content and education team, explaining tech to the product team and explaining the concept of contribution margin to everyone who was interested. And wherever I didn’t have an answer, I communicated that and if possible pointed them to the right sources. Over time, this was expected to evolve in different team members taking up the responsibility of educating others in their areas of expertise.

One of the things that I hadn’t yet implemented, but would have liked to do was to keep some open 1:1 slots for anybody in the org to book, primarily for those who were not direct reports and hence didn’t have regular 1:1s with me. In G-Suite’s business accounts Google Calendar has this nifty feature which lets you designate some appointment slots in your calendar that anyone can book.

One overarching philosophy of managerial effectiveness for me is to know that each individual is different. And their differences need to be kept in mind, especially while managing the direct reports. An awareness of their unique strengths and weaknesses, or even eccentricities, can help foster a much more productive work relationship than would be possible in trying to treat everyone the same.

In my own experience, the one single biggest contributor to one’s job satisfaction is their relationship with their manager. If that relationship is good, even a mundane company and job work. If that relationship is not good, even the dream company and job won’t work. So, having succeeded in that area with at least a few people is very gratifying for me.


A name for an issue

Being able to give a name to a difficult experience or a problem can be incredibly powerful. It helps you make sense of the situation. It may still be hurtful and the solution may still be difficult or effortful. But naming the issue, without being judgmental about it, is the huge first step towards recovery or solution.

An example would be identifying that the cloud in your head that weighs you down all the time and wouldn’t let you feel anything close to happiness as depression. Once it has been named, you know that you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are suffering from a problem, and you can reach out for professional help to resolve it.

Similarly, realizing that a person you look up to is using your regard for them in a self-centered fashion causing harm to your emotional well-being or self-esteem, and hence they are a manipulative person and you are in an abusive relationship (this isn’t applicable only to romantic relationships), is the first step towards setting your guilts and regrets aside, knowing that you will not get closure, and moving on from it.

Naming your aversion to small talk and sales-y situations as introversion means that you don’t need to think of yourself as anti-social or inept as the society is likely to make you feel. The realization here is not even about a problem. It is just identifying you for who you are. Then you can choose to withdraw from situations where it is not respected, or educate people who care to be educated, or perhaps mold your behavior where you can without distressing yourself or being unfair on yourself.

Formal support groups are a way of telling you that your issue has a name.

Apart from these technical and psychological ways of naming, there can be more informal ways of doing so. For example, reading a book or seeing a movie where a character is experiencing something similar can be therapeutic, because that is also a way of naming the issue (assuming it isn’t a trigger!).

Naming the issue is not just a powerful way to address personal problems. Even in professional settings, or in handling business issues, this is very helpful. Being able to put the right framework on a business problem can help you arrive at a solution systematically, instead of haphazardly trying out the guesswork. Being able to accurately label an issue as a communication problem, or an employee morale problem, or a capability problem, or a process problem will help in fixing the right thing. If people are not being communicated the right thing, it doesn’t matter how high their morale is they will do the wrong thing (very enthusiastically too). If the capability is the problem, the best processes in the world are unlikely to fix it.

As human knowledge has accumulated, a lot of issues have received valid names. Whether mental health issues or business problems, many of them didn’t have names a hundred years ago. They do now. There may be problems even now which we don’t have a good name to identify with. I hope you don’t get stuck with them. But if you do, may you find a way to unfold it into things that do have a name or understanding, so that you can address them.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash


Learning of the past decade: There is no “real world”

When I was younger, in my student days, for example, there was this dichotomy in my head (and pretty much everyone’s head around me) of there being this difference between the almost make-believe world of academics and protective family you inhabit when you are still studying and the real world out there waiting for you. The real world was supposed to be, well, the real thing. Student days were nice in many ways. But not the real test of how capable you are, how successful, and how far you would go in life.

While tweeple were busy listing their achievements of the last decade (and some were busy criticizing the trend), I realized that my biggest learning in the last decade is that there is no ultimate “real world” out there and no absolute achievements and failures. All worlds are make-believe worlds. We are always a part of some system or the other. Our successes and failures are relative to that system. Whether we are capable or not depends on the system we are evaluating it in. And the systems are all created by humans. If we take the system seriously, we would call it the “real world”. If we don’t, we are waiting to enter another system we can take seriously and call the “real world”.

After student life those who chose to enter academia, the same academic world became their “real world”. Those entering corporates found their “real world” in that. After all, that’s where the real stuff happens and that’ where the world is run from, right? And then some decided that the corporate world has too much nonsensical work to be meaningful and tried to find their “real world” in startups. Some academics may have decided that too. Now, some may find that the startup ecosystem, that runs on funding rather than profits, is as much of a make-believe world as an inexplicable big, fat department in a 100-year old huge company where no one knows why they are there or the good, old make-believe world of academia. Some may find their “real world” in non-profits or in public service. The jaded and the cynical may still struggle!

Then it isn’t just one system that we are a part of. There are multiple. Sometimes there are systems and sub-systems. Sometimes they are overlapping. Your company is a system in itself. And there is a super-system above it that you may call the corporate world. People you associate with in your personal life form another system. The same action can be brilliant in one system and dumb in another. Fighting with your boss makes you an idiot in the system that is your company and the corporate world. You will not succeed there if you keep doing that. The same action can make you a hero among your anarchist friends, assuming you have those. To your extended family, you may be a big failure in life for not getting married, in a feminist group you would be a hero if you stuck to that because that’s what you wanted! The tendency to take charge may make you a great startup founder, but as a young employee in a company, you may be chastised for stepping on other people’s toes.

While occasionally there may be a genius who shines in a system despite not caring for it, in general, it is difficult to do well in a system that you do not take seriously. Because irrespective of what the system is, navigating it for success takes effort. Corporate shenanigans may look comical and meaningless from outside, but they take an understanding of the system and ability to do things that the system demand of you. It would be a lot of hard work. An obscene round of funding may make a startup skeptic shrug their shoulders, but those raising it have lost nights of sleep over it. Not possible if they didn’t believe in the system and didn’t attach huge importance to succeeding in it. The same belief in the system is needed if you appreciate other people’s success. If you don’t believe in the system of exams, an exam topper is nobody extraordinary to you. They just mugged things up (and it took a lot of hard work!). If you do believe in that system, they are God! Celebrities not repeating their clothes cater to a system that some of us would find superficial and extravagant, while others live for that. The world of paparazzi and entertainment magazines is “real world” or not, depending on whether you take that system seriously or not.

There is no real “real world” out there. There is only a make-believe world, a system, that you take seriously. And as someone making a statement like that, it would be obvious that I struggle to take any system too seriously. Not being able to take any system seriously means finding most of the things meaningless. I have found that taking a very high-level view of systems makes them look more ridiculous rather than less. So, to cope, I sometimes have to deliberately narrow my view down. When changing the world feels meaningless, I stick to doing my job well. If society demands things that make me miserable to keep them happy, I focus on keeping myself or those few people happy who understand and need better things. Since there isn’t a specific definition of success I care for in my career, I would be happy if there are at least a few people around who are happy to have worked with me.

To each their own make-believe real world!

Image Credit: Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Own Poetry Hindi

हम ज़िंदा रहेंगे

(Follow up to छीन लो)

तुम एक भाषा समझते हो,
उसको बंद कर डालोगे।
हज़ार और हैं दुनिया में,
किस-किस को भला संभालोगे?

विरोध की भाषा ज़िंदा रहेगी।
कवि लिखेंगे,
और कविता ज़िंदा रहेगी।

तुम सड़कें बंद कर दोगे तो
महलों की छत गिर जाएँगी,
खुला फ़लक रह जाएगा
नीचे गलियाँ बन जाएँगी।

उम्मीद के तारे जिंदा रहेंगे।
लोग उठेंगे,
इंक़लाबी नारे ज़िंदा रहेंगे।

आज ज़हर तुम्हारा बोलता है, लेकिन
होता था शहद उनकी ज़ुबान पर।
तुम्हारे ही धोखे से स्वाद फिरेगा,
वश नहीं रहेगा तुम्हारा आवाम पर।

काट ज़हर की जिंदा रहेगी।
रस आएगा,
गुड़ की चाशनी ज़िंदा रहेगी।

कुछ मरेंगे, कुछ सालों जेल सड़ेंगे,
कुछ लोग हममें से दब जाएंगे,
कुछ रास्ते भी बदल ही लेंगे,
कुछ डरेंगे, और भग जाएंगे।

सब नहीं, भले कुछ कम जिंदा रहेंगे,
सालों बाद भी,
किसी ना किसी में हम जिंदा रहेंगे।