Let me answer the first question that pops up in your head.
Question : Where the hell have you been the last one year?
Answer : I was lost rediscovering myself. Cryptic huh? I can assure you, once you reach the end of this blog post, you will find the meaning to that answer.
From my previous blog posts, you already know that I was an ordinary adolescent ceaselessly rambling about a zillion passions I wished to pursue. Trust me, the uncertainty continues even through my early 20′s. Despite the uncertainty, in due course of time, I have experienced the nature of work in two tech giants of varied origins and goals – Cognizant, a technology services company and eBay, a product company. This blog post summarizes what I have learnt in my brief stint in the corporate world.
Firstly, let me answer the question “Why did I choose eBay?”. To be honest, I did not choose eBay. I was not that laser-focused pro-active hyper-determined foresighted teenager you would find in college. When I sat for the eBay interview, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do in my life. My placement officer said its a dream offer. DREAM – that’s the word that pushed me. If getting into eBay is the dream of 500 odd students in my own campus, then its definitely worth a shot. So I attended the recruitment drive and I was in. And I must say that it was one of the best decisions I had taken then.
What followed after getting into the corporate life is what I would like to highlight in this blog post. Just bullet points (Though each point deserves a separate blog post on its own). Here we go.
Lesson 1 : “Its OK” to make mistakes
The initial tasks I was assigned as a fresher were dashboard/reporting tasks – to define in a nutshell, the kind of tasks that won’t bring ebay.com down if I mess up. I totally understood the rationale and I loved the work and learnt a hell lot about web technologies and project management in general. In a few days, I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on some core frameworks in eBay platform. One fine day, my very first change to eBay’s web service framework was about to go live and I made a tweeny blunder in the development to release process. Once I realized it, I was horrified. I thought there will be an outage. Consequently, eBay might lose a good number of customers and I am fired for sure. However, my manager comforted me with the words “Its OK to make mistakes in the initial stages”. That was an invaluable advice that came at the right time. I came back home thinking about it and eventually it seeped in deep into my character. In the days that followed, it helped me to learn things much faster and get myself up to speed with the other developers in my team. With a bit of self-retrospection, it occurred to me that I had feared to make mistakes my entire life. I did not cultivate that much-needed courage. Why? Interestingly, it has its roots in my primary education. I had been a bright student right from my primary school. Whenever I gave an exam, I made sure I don’t make a single mistake. Because, if I do, the chain of events would be like – make mistakes in exam – red ink marks on answer sheet – “You failed to score high marks” – teacher thrashes me – next exam – I don’t want to make mistakes because I don’t to “fail” and get beaten up. And sadly, I have been through this for over 15 years of my school life. So, my brain had taught itself to equate making mistakes to failure and punishment.
Now, I am better. I learnt that asking forgiveness for a mistake is easier and consumes lesser time than asking permission before doing anything new.
Lesson 2 : There is no box!
My team members love having healthy arguments and discussions. The topics ranged from machine learning to the pronunciation of the word “air”. During one of the technical discussions I had with my teammate, he mentioned that my thoughts were outside the box. That was the first time I heard someone use that phrase – ”outside the box”. It directly means ‘thinking from a new perspective’. But I was haunted with a different question – what the hell is this “box” anyway? Why do you visualize “perspectives” to a “box”. After running this question over and over again inside my head, I eventually realized that the box directly meant ossification that happens in the corporate world. You can easily tell engineers apart with reference to this simple criteria – if they are ready to challenge the status quo and innovate, or they just settle with what is just “there and working”.
What creates this difference? As time progresses, whenever we find that a problem is solved with a sub-optimal solution, say X, a few among us ask “why X?”, then, with a few email exchanges, they get the justification on why the solution is sub-optimal and live with it. They forget the next step – asking the question “why not Y?” where Y is the optimum solution. Keeping this mentality of “Why not?” alive will ensure we don’t confine ourselves in this virtual “box” of perspectives. This attitude alone can motivate us to get the big picture and innovate consistently. So we should remember – ask why, at the same time, think why not.
Lesson 3 : Scoping – Breaking a top level idea into achievable chunks, supported by a well-defined timeline
Scoping is one place where I have been failing miserably, but it went unnoticed since most of the tasks in school and college did not expect me to give a timeline for completion. In corporate life, since the projects in my team followed SCRUM model of development, I had numerous opportunities to test myself in scoping. Then, I realized that my timelines for a task X are generally based on two assumptions :
- I was the only person alive in office.
- X was going to be the only task I was going to work on. There would be no interruptions.
A 5-month experience in SCRUM model helped me to greatly improve upon my scoping skills which is a very important asset to any software engineer. Now, given a task X, I can comfortably break it down into a set of achievable chunks with a clearly defined timeline accommodating all kinds of possible interruptions. If not the best, I can definitely do it much better than what I would have done a year ago.
Lesson 4 : Importance of evaluating myself regularly
It is very important to evaluate ourselves against our end goals, regularly and religiously. In corporate life, in the constant stream of external noise that comes in the form of email, meetings and phone calls, we might end up in a vicious illusion of “important stuff”, clearly losing sight of our goals. We should keep asking ourselves the question “Am I inching towards my end goal with each passing day?” If the answer to this question is “No” for a considerable number of days, then its high time we take a drastic step to reset our priorities and get back on track. For this to happen, its very important that we set up some fixed chunk of time each week, where we go over our long term goals in corporate life and cross-check our current activities with the career trajectory we have projected for ourselves. In my case, I generally go missing from my desk from 3 pm to 4 pm every friday That is my self-evaluation time. I stuck to the schedule religiously and it really helped me a lot.
I combine this weekly schedule with occasional micro-retirements of 2-3 days. During micro-retirements, I go home, lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. Nothing else. It helps me to completely stay away from the external noise, allowing my inner voice to take control. Sounds strange and impossible to do. But once you do it, you will like it.
Lesson 5 : Importance and urgency are two different things
While at office, I used to compete with my team lead in literally everything work-related – requirements gathering, planning, scheduling, coding, usage of cutting-edge technologies, execution time, speed in which emails are replied.. well, you name it. Very soon, I realized that I was not as productive as he was. Apparently, I put in an equal effort (often much more) than he does, but still my productivity was no match to what he gets done in the same time. I initially doubted my execution skills, but later understood that the actual problem was in a different phase – Prioritization. It dawned upon me that I was mixing up urgency and importance. Most of the times, tasks come in the form of emails. In that context, when someone starts sending reminders on top of an actionable email, the corresponding task automagically climbs up my priority ladder. So, whenever I get a bunch of actionable emails, I prioritized them according to urgency ALONE, and that was a mistake. As usual, I was experimenting with different ways of prioritizing tasks. On a nice friday morning, I read about the famous Covey’s Time Management Grid. And (many would agree) fridays are the best days for experiments. So i tried it out. The beauty of Covey’s system is that its so simple that I started applying it to my experiments, and found visible results immediately. I am still evolving it to suit my needs. With this, I make sure that I am not just busy, but productive.
Additional point : I combine the time management grid with a rule called the 2-minute rule proposed by David Allen. It says “If you determine an action can be done in two minutes, you actually should do it right then because it’ll take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it.”. It helped me a lot. If you had not tried it earlier, I’d suggest that you give it a shot.
Lesson 6 : Time Management
Firstly, let me talk on buying time. The most lucrative source of time is meetings. Frankly 80% of the meetings can be eliminated by converting them to emails (Yes, I love Pareto’s 80-20 rule). Its true mainly because most of the meetings don’t have a strong discussion point. This leads to discussion on tangential topics without really coming to the problem under investigation.
I was able to convert a few meetings into emails which bought a good amount of time in office. There is a simple communication preference I follow – handle most of the queries through email, next step is phone call, finally resort to setting up meetings. Luckily, I did not have too many meetings. But, as anyone goes up the organizational hierarchy, there will be a need to present oneself and add value in multiple meetings. Having a clear communication preference will help then.
Secondly, its about saving time. I learnt that I work well when I set really hard deadlines to myself. If a task can be completed in 2 hours, I give it no more than 3 hours (including interruptions and coffee breaks). Because, I have a feeling that the task will swell in perceived importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. As Parkinson famously stated in a 1955 edition of The Economist, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. If we don’t limit it, it will limit our overall productivity and lay its hands on our peaceful work-life balance!
Thats all folks! Having spent an invaluable one year in the industry, I am taking these well learnt lessons to my next step in life – Masters in Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego.