Monday, September 22, 2008

Good Work, Bad Work

I joined my previous company, Trilogy, at an early stage. I guess I was the 22nd employee. One of the benefits was that I got to know half of the people personally. I value people and relationships a lot, and it felt nice to know so many smart people by their first name.

One thing I've realized out of that experience, and in general otherwise, is that smart people complain a lot. They don't get satisfied easily. Call it the curse of smartness!

And guess what was the most common grudge? Good work. Lots of them had the concern that they are not doing "good" work. If you ask them what a "good" work is, you'd hear words like challenging, new product, design, architecture, development, from scratch. On the contrary, "bad" work was synonymous maintaining an existing product, testing, scripting, bug fixing etc.

While getting promotion on the basis of so called good work was always at the back of their mind, the primary concern was of job satisfaction. If you don't like what you are doing, you are not satisfied, intellectually. You need to be doing something that you enjoy, and value. That is the secret of happiness in any job.

Strangely, the world is full of "bad" work. In any job, you end up doing more routine stuff than interesting one. Interesting work comes in patches, and you can't really be sure when you'll get a truly interesting work that you'll enjoy. More often than not, you have to live with the routine work and try to find interesting stuff within that. Software is no different.

I rarely managed to get "good" work in my job. For quite some time after I joined, all I got to do was testing, scripting, bug fixing. The product I was assigned was going into beta immediately after I started. I, being the junior-most guy, was handed all the "dirty" work.

And funnily, I enjoyed that work. Maybe it was the ignorance of a fresher, but I managed to see interesting stuff in my work. I used to like scripting. I liked testing. I liked automating things. Java development was probably what I hated the most. It seemed so straightforward. And boring. Many of the my teammates and juniors were surprised to find I had written almost no product code even though I worked on the same product for more than 5 years.

I found the non-development tasks more engaging. There were unique challenges there, new learnings every day. And I loved innovating in that space. I liked versatility in the tasks. I bet we had the most efficient and best testing process when I was involved.

I always had a different definition of "good" work. For me, any work that allows you to innovate and learn new things is good. Otherwise it's bad.

What matters is the learning of the task at hand, not the task itself. It's very unlikely that you'll get the exact same task in your life again. It's always going to be a variant of that. Similar, never the same. With even a few small parameters changed, you might have to approach the problem from a completely different perspective. That's why, cherish the learnings no matter what the task.

If you are willing to learn, there's lot of scope and opportunity for innovation in the routine tasks. If you stereotype the tasks and block your mind, you are never going to see that opportunity. Just complaining about it hasn't helped anybody. Most of the times, getting a task of your choice is out of your hands. Make the best of the situation and keep learning. That's how you'll grow and gain lessons.

Life in general, and startup life in particular, is full of routine, boring tasks. Until and unless you can see the positives of those tasks, you are not going to enjoy, and by that token, not do a good job at executing it. From a entrepreneur perspective, working on your product is probably going to be the most enjoying of all experiences. But strangely, you end up spending a good chunk of your time on the plumbing tasks. And many a times, these peripheral tasks end up being make-or-break for your company. So you better pay attention to these boring tasks.

That's what separates a good entrepreneur from a good techie. I have this conjecture that unless you can bear with these uninteresting tasks, you are not going to be a successful entrepreneur. The path to creating a successful company is rough, and you have to get used to it. Those who run away from it rarely manage to create a successful startup. Enjoy every task you do, and you'll reap benefits!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Dream and Passion

When talking about startups, Dream and Passion are two words used often. Sometimes I wonder how many people truly understand the meaning of these words.

I am following upcoming US elections keenly. Obama is sometimes compared with the great Martin Luther King. I never got a chance to hear any of them personally (unfortunately!), but that got me curious about King and I stumbled upon this video of King's famous "I have a dream" speech delivered on 28th August 1963. Watching him delivering this speech, one gets a feeling of what Dream and Passion actually mean, and I felt I have been almost misusing these words so far!

Truly inspiring stuff.

You can get the full text of this speech at
(scroll down a bit)

Monday, September 01, 2008

Trilogy Connection of Startups

Sometimes I wonder what are the skills one require to "take on the world"? Can there ever be a "school" that can prepare entrepreneurs? Can entrepreneurship be taught? Or is it something that is practiced? Or is it inborn?

Let me try answering these by asking a very different question - why is there a strong connection between (ex)Trilogians and startups? A significant chunk of people leaving Trilogy either join a startup, or start one of their own. There are so many of them now that they can start an OCC of their own!

Since a majority of the folks at Trilogy join straight out of college, this really is their first interaction with the startup world. What is it at Trilogy that inspires so many of them?

Being one of the people who is part of this connection, lemme see if I can unravel this. In some sense, I am the subject of this article too! Pardon me if this seems like a personal rant.

(In case you are wondering, Trilogy is a small enterprise software company started in 1989 in Austin, US. It opened its Bangalore office in 2000. I worked there from 2002 to 2007. Some of the startups started by ex-Trilogians are LifeBlob, Chakpak, ReviewGist, Via, LifeMojo and my own Must See India.)

1. Confidence
Very much like Microsoft and Google, Trilogy encourages its employees to take larger than life roles at a very early age. People grow very fast at Trilogy. You might be surprised to see people as young as 3-4 years of experience taking charge of multi-million dollar accounts. When I went on-site on my first consulting project, my counterpart was surprised to see a 25 yr old manager. In traditional software companies, it takes years to reach to this stage. Not so here.

Handling such a large responsibility so early boosts your confidence. This is one of the first things you'll notice when you talk to any Trilogian - no matter whom you are talking to, person oozes confidence. And this confidence is very vital to make you believe that you can take on the world. The first ingredient of a startup.

2. Learn at your own risk
At Trilogy, there's hardly any hierarchy. There are very few people above you and even less to guide you. Assigning you a task is like throwing somebody to a pool to let him/her learn swimming. That, in my opinion, is the best way anybody can learn the tricks of the trade. It may not be best for the company, sometimes people make mistakes leading to big mess, but a person learns best from experience, especially from their own failures.

Taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them is a crucial part of startup cycle. Only those who are able to embrace this, survive.

3. Master of all trades
Another hallmark of job at Trilogy is that there are no specialists. Every developer is supposed to write their own test cases, be it unit tests, integrated or performance tests. If there's something wrong with the database, go and fix it yourself. You are supposed to write customer documentation on your own for your feature. Everybody knows the full process of a deployment. We actually used to take turns. Every once in a while, we used to assign a person who to checkpointed the source code, fire the build, run all test cases, certify the release, and send release email.

This process produced people who were master at everything and didn't hesitate to get their hands dirty no matter what the task. And this skill is very valuable in startup context. You are your own admin, database specialist, marketing guy, tech guy.

4. Great People, Great Ideas
Trilogy recruitment process was termed as one of the toughest in the industry. In fact, when some of the bigger names (read Amazon, Google) started their operations in India, they used Trilogy as a hunting ground for their recruitment. "Great People" used to be one of the core philosophies at Trilogy.

What this strict recruitment process did was that it created a pool of very smart people. And when you have lots of smart people around you, you learn a lot - even if you are the smartest. Some of the toughest problems in the industry get discussed and ideas flow like water in a river. Solving tough problems becomes a habit. If somebody need any ideas for a startup, get your ears to those corridors.

Also, it was a small company. Revenue per employee at Trilogy was one of the highest in industry. Nobody can afford to sit idle. It had people who got things done - one of the essential traits for anybody involved in a startup.

5. Entrepreneur Spirit
Trilogy had this unique fresher training program called Trilogy University. It was a work-hard-party-hard kind of atmosphere. One of the hallmarks of this was the TU project, where freshers used to come up with ideas around running a new business. They had to think of an idea, pitch it to the CEO, and execute it in 6 weeks time. It was very much like a startup. The whole experience was like a startup school - you learned how to come up with new ideas, evaluate them, pitch it, get customers, make money out of them. Even if many of them didn't went on to become success, you got to learn what works and what not. Now if you pitch your idea to anybody out of this "university", be prepared to answer tough questions!

Successful People, not just Successful Company
In my small career, I got to work in only one company. I never got a reason to change. I loved my life back there, it was so much fun. And perhaps this is one of the reasons it took me so much time to come out and start something of my own! I am glad I did both - got skills that prepared me for my next assignment.

I am sure there are other companies out there which have similar environment. There are more startups coming out of India and they have equally good ideas around making people successful, not just the company. After all, a company can be successful only when its people are successful.