Design of Business

Business, Culture & Entrepreneurship

Category: Columns (page 3 of 7)

Design for Dummies, Mummies & Others

“How do I get the word count on this document? In the past when I selected a paragraph, I’d get a count of the words in it, right here at the bottom left.” A colleague was struggling to get Microsoft Word to do what she wanted.

Design of Every Day Things

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The next time you take a short trip on an aeroplane, take a look around yourself. It’s almost certain that anyone who’s travelling for business and working on a laptop is using a spreadsheet or working on a presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote. With these tools playing such an integral part of our everyday lives, you’d think they’d be easy to use. Yet people, including the colleague I wrote of earlier, have to call on their co-workers, spouses and nephews of neighbours to get some specific function done, often one they’d used before. If this were a matter of software alone or particularly inept computer users, we’d likely be able to deal with it a whole lot easily. But, alas, this lack of usability or user-friendliness is not confined to software or even computers alone.

The Design of Everyday Things
Even the simplest of office equipment, starting with the copier, overhead projector or network printer (poor you, if it includes a scanner) require instructions to operate, as evidenced by hand-scribbled notes and printed instructions from other users, stuck on and around them. When all that fails, we then rely on the admin expert to make these do what we’d like them to. Before you figure that I’m an inept luddite, these usability problems are by no means unique to electronic equipment.

From the faucets in airport toilets to the glass doors in our office, you can see fellow travellers struggling to operate them, often requiring multiple attempts before getting water to flow (lift, press or twist) or doors to open (push, pull or slide).
In a world that deified Steve Jobs even when he was alive and the name of Jonathan Ive is known to more folks than you’d think is possible, why is good design so hard to come by? Before we try to answer that question, let’s do an experiment.

Try this at work today. Get four of your colleagues, hand them a piece of paper and ask them to make aeroplanes. After 10 minutes of flying those aeroplanes, give them a blank piece of paper and ask them to write a six- or eight-step process to make paper aeroplanes without illustrations. Now hand these instructions to other colleagues or use them yourself to see if you can make an aeroplane at all, let alone one that flies. Now why is it that folks, even ones that have multiple college degrees, who almost without thought can make pretty darn good paper planes, can’t write a set of easy-to-follow instructions on how to build such a plane?

In his book The Design of Everyday Things, cognitive psychologist Donald A Norman answers these and a whole lot of other questions about why design—particularly user-friendly design—is not easy. Norman, whom Newsweek called “The Guru of Workable Technology”, begins with how people interact with everyday things. The three critical elements to using things successfully are, in his words, visibility, appropriate clues and feedback of one’s actions. So whether a hot and cold water faucet or the turn signals in your car, if they are visible so you can locate them easily (in front of you rather than by your foot), provide visible clues or affordances (lift, press or turn) and provide feedback (flowing water, blinking direction indicator) upon being operated, we have the makings of usable design.
Norman also provides numerous examples of good and excellent user-centred design, whether in felt pens or floppy drives, and explains why many of them never get a chance to go through the five or six attempts required to get a design right.
Businesses and each of us individuals will find our lives more productive and a whole lot less stressful if we understand the psychology of everyday things. So, the next time you see a handwritten instruction sign resolve to evangelizing user-centred design.

This article originally appeared in the Book Beginnings column in Mint in Dec 2011

Test the waters – Lessons from my Dad

Buddhist meditation in Wat Khung Taphao,Ban Kh...

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“I think I’ll just study the scriptures, meditate and focus on things spiritual.” My dad must have been in his late thirties or mid-forties when he said this to his father-in-law. To the latter’s credit, he did not tumble out of his wheel chair nor sputter and scream at my dad. “That’s a very good aspiration, Kuppuswamy,” was his response.

My dad was recounting how he went through a phase, when he was just plain tired of the rat race— all the traveling, business headaches, dealing with debtors and I suspect a fair amount of family drama—given our joint family, truant nephews and nieces and all the financial responsibilities that came with it.

My grandfather continued, “I’m happy to hear that you are thinking of studying the scriptures and focusing on matters spiritual. Let me help you. Why don’t I arrange a teacher to come to your house, early in the morning, so that before you leave for work you can begin studying the scriptures. Once you’ve done it for six months, you can quit your job and do this full time.”

My dad was greatly overjoyed. I’m not sure if he expected his father-in-law to accept what he was contemplating, let alone to actually help him with it. So indeed as my grandfather had promised, the purohit, a Brahmin teacher complete with shaved head and bare upper body showed up at 5AM the following Monday at my father’s place.

That first day they began with a simple recital of the sloka to the guru (hymn to the teacher). The following day they started with the Purusha Suktam, from the Rig Veda which seeks to explain the origin of the Universe. And on to the third morning. On the fourth morning my father had to leave for Nagpur on an unplanned business trip for several days. The following week, I think he managed to squeeze in two classes before another trip to Delhi. The week after he had to head out on a week long trip overseas. So the classes got fewer and farther. The purohit was persistent but polite. By month two my dad’s travel schedule pretty much precluded any classes. At the beginning of month three, my grandfather let my father know that when his schedule permitted more time, the purohit would return. Nothing further was said and my father never raised the matter of giving up things material and focusing on the spiritual!

For both my dad and me, there were two lessons packed into this one story. When he first approached my grandfather, he was clear in his mind what he wanted to do and was convinced that he should do it immediately and wholeheartedly. My grandfather of course convinced him to test the waters first – which obviously was a good thing. It was not my dad’s travel schedule that kept him from the lessons and his onward spiritual journey – it was that his desire to give up on everything was a passing fancy, a possible reaction to a stressful period, rather than a deeply felt life goal. And thanks to my grandfather he had neither burnt his bridges by resigning his job or caused immense worry to his family by seemingly losing interest in matters of the world.

The more useful lesson, particularly as a parent, was not to react to anything, however insane sounding, with visceral opposition as sometimes my wife and I do with our teen daughters, but to listen, even agree and demonstrate through action that what’s contemplated might not be the best course of action.

My grandfather despite being wheelchair-bound was a jujitsu master par excellence, pulling when pushed and pushing when pulled.

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The Only Business Book You’d Ever Have to Read

A quick glance at a typical entrepreneurs’ nightstand will show at least two or three books piled up waiting to be read. Despite their best intentions, entrepreneurs and other business folks often don’t get around to reading all the books they plan to. The fact that they are frequently gifted many “must-read” books only adds to the problem. If you thought things were bad before, our friends and sundry experts on Twitter and Facebook who’ve begun showering all of us with even more recommendations are making matters worse.

Effective Executive image (c) MintLast night when the pile of books on my bedside table tumbled over, I was finally spurred to action. I set out on a quest – to find that one book that must be read – after which it wouldn’t matter if I read any  others. I’d have to admit that my thus-far forbearing spouse probably had as much to do with my wanting just one book on my nightstand. It is this journey I share with you in this week’s column.

The preamble of the US Declaration of Independence, first adopted on July 4, 1776, states “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  Scholars agree that the authors of the Declaration of Independence were greatly influenced by the work of English philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704). That his ideas have held sway for over three hundred years speaks to the foresight and genius of John Locke. If there is such a philosopher in business, who has not only  influenced multiple generations of business leaders but continues to stay relevant today, it is Peter Drucker.

Whether you are a new employee starting out on your first job or an experienced CEO and particularly if are an entrepreneur, Peter Drucker has something of lasting value to impart to you. The challenge in getting acquainted with Peter Drucker and his work is the sheer prodigiousness of his written output. He’s Shakespearean in the number of volumes (nearly forty) he has authored and the breadth of subjects he’s covered. The utter clarity of thought and simplicity of his communication style have earned Drucker, in my opinion, the right to be termed the Bard of Business.

And much like getting acquainted with the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon through a Minerva or Cliff Notes guide, the first time reader might wish there was a quick and easy guide to Drucker. Luckily Drucker’s own “The Effective Executive” first published in 1966 (subsequently revised as The Effective Executive Revised in 2002 and The Effective Executive in Action in 2005) is such a guide.  The book distills the wisdom needed for a professional lifetime in Drucker’s trademark lucid style within its slim 174 pages. It is the volume I’d choose, if I had to pick only one of his books.

The charm of the book lies in Drucker’s simple assertion that effectiveness can be learned. Never one to mince words, he asserts in the very first chapter,“Intelligence, imagination, and knowledge are essential resources, but only effectiveness converts them into results.” He then quickly spells out five simple steps to learn and practice effectiveness.

Drucker’s frequent use of compelling anecdotes from his own wide-ranging consulting career and history makes reading the book not only pleasurable but memorable as well.  My own favorite story is the one about President Abraham Lincoln’s response when he’s told about his new commander-in-chief’ General Grant’s fondness for the bottle. “If I knew his brand, I’d send a barrel or so to some other generals.” Drucker goes on to say, Grant’s appointment was effective because he was chosen for his strength of winning battles and “not for his sobriety, that is, for the absence of a weakness.”

My roommate in college would read the Bible each night before he went to bed. Many a times, as brash 18-year-olds are wont to do, I’d ask him “Haven’t you read it before? How come you are reading it again?” To his credit he never lost his cool and would mostly give me an indulgent smile before returning to his book. It was only much later that I came to appreciate the value of returning to a book I’d read many times and discovering new things each time. The Effective Executive is such a book, one that I find myself returning to each year and it has never disappointed.

Get yourself a copy today and you wouldn’t even have to clear out any space, given the slim volume it is.


Effective executives

  • Manage their time through explicit choices about what’s important
  • Focus on what they can contribute themselves
  • Build on people’s strengths rather than try to mitigate their weaknesses
  • Set and drive the long-term business priorities
  • Understand and make effective decisions and
  • Know that effectiveness can be learned


An edited version of this article first appeared in my Book Beginnings column in the Mint.

Be Generous – Lessons from my dad

As in my worst fears, the call came early in the morning, just before 3AM California time. When the phone rang the first time, I rejected the call, reckoning it was a colleague in India, who’d lost track of time. When the phone rang again within minutes, this time with caller ID showing another colleague’s name, I knew something was amiss.

“Sri, I am sorry to inform you your father has passed away!” At first, I was not sure I had heard right. My first thought strangely was for my colleague who had the unpleasant task of having to call me with bad news. I almost felt apologetic that I had put him in such a position. Maybe it was shock and I was not ready to hear that my father was no more.

Rushed calls to my travel agent, wondering what to tell the kids sleeping in the next room – the next thirty-six hours were a blur – neither Icelandic volcanoes spewing ash, nor delayed flights and uncooperative flight supervisors would get in the way of our making it back to India. The nearly two hour trip from the tarmac to my father’s home felt longer than the whole journey.

“Your father paid for me to go to college and then got me started on my Chartered Accountancy apprenticeship,” said the stranger, who’d come to the funeral. He looked to be about 40 years old. “Your dad was also the one who helped my brother go the United States,” he continued. There were nearly 150 people at home when I got in from the airport, most of them extended family and a good many folks that I didn’t know. Much of the afternoon, was spent recounting tales of how my father had helped someone buy a house, another furnish one and still another get a compound wall put in.

Second cousins who’d grown up in my house abounded and had their own tales of getting jobs with my dad’s help. I recall when I was a young teen, some relative admiring my father’s watch. I was aghast when my father removed it and insisted that the relative have the watch.

That evening I recall my sister and I arguing with my dad, that if he just gives away stuff, we’d probably not have anything – not that we knew what we had. My dad just laughed at first. Then when he saw how serious we were, he said “There’s great pleasure in giving – I’d say more so than even receiving.” My sister, ever the smart alec quickly retorted, “Then you’ll be happy to give and I will be happy to receive.”

It was only many years later that I learnt about my father’s journey to the city as an impoverished young man with three rupees in his pocket. While he became a successful man over the years, he never stopped giving regardless of his own financial status. His life itself was one critical lesson – “Be Generous”

My father Dr. K. Kuppuswamy passed away on the 24th of May 2011.

4 Degrees of Separation – The Indian Network

Photo: marfis75 via Compfight

Photo: marfis75 via Compfight

As with many profound discoveries it began innocuously enough.

“I don’t believe that there are truly a billion Indians,” my friend Marcel has remarked more than once to me. Of course, when he first made this statement as a graduate student, maybe because it was after a late night party at Ms. Chan’s, I didn’t take him seriously. However, the events of the past few years, particularly each time I meet someone new, have convinced me that he’s probably on to something: There don’t seem to be a billion of us.

“Please meet my partner Habib, he’s coming down to the entrepreneur’s meet next week in Bangalore.”

Jaideep, a classmate who now was living in the U.S., and I had reconnected last Christmas at our 25th reunion. Despite, or more likely because of, the amount of libations consumed, he figured I must know a thing or two and asked me to share it with his Mumbai-based business partner.

Habib and I did connect over the phone soon after at a startup event and agreed to meet outside the auditorium just before lunch. When I made my way out of the hall a few minutes before midday, I found small clumps of people discussing the morning presentations and their own businesses. After several “Hail-fellow-well-met” intercepts, I heard my phone ring. It was Habib. As we exchanged “Where are you ats?” I spotted a bearded gentleman with a phone to his ear, standing next to my friend Dhruv just outside the gate.

“Habib?” I asked tentatively and the gentleman stuck out his hand

“You are Srikrishna?”

Inevitably, the discussion of “How do you know…” ensued between Dhruv (with whom Habib had worked for several years at an ad agency) and me. The longer we spoke, the more folks we found we knew in common.

Scientists in the U.S. as many as 50 years ago began exploring what they then termed “chains of acquaintances.” In fact, Stanley Milgram, then a young social psychologist (apparently you can study practically anything at Harvard) did his famous package-mailing experiment to see how short these chains of acquaintances were.

He mailed packages to 296 people asking them to post them on to a “final recipient.” None of them was told where the final recipient actually lived; just his name, occupation and some personal details (these were pre-Internet and pre-Google days, of course).

The folks who received the package were supposed get it delivered by passing it on to someone with whom they were on a first-name basis and who might have a better chance of finding the final recipient. Astonishingly, even without any Indians or Chinese being involved, the packages made it to their destinations in less than five hops.

Hollywood got in on the act with “Six Degrees of Separation,” based on the play of the same name by John Guare.

Before you know it, folks studying crickets and how diseases spread started working on this “Small World” theory. While the folks at the University of Virginia, in an urge to create something useful, released the Kevin Bacon game (look it up), Duncan Watts at Cornell published the first compendium of all key Small World theories.

What however was missing in all these studies is what my friend Dr. Sluiter, keen scientist that he is, formulated as Sluiter’s Lemma on Indian Connectedness or SLIC. I feel like Harrison Ford finding the Ark of the Covenant when I present these lemmas. If only these other folks had stumbled upon it sooner, the Small World theory would have made a whole lot more progress much earlier. But as the old saw goes: Better late than never.

Lemma 1: Any two Indians went to school with each other. Given the average Delhi Public School class has probably 300 kids in five sections, and every kid raised by a self-respecting, card-carrying Indian parent needs to become a doctor or an engineer, it’s almost inevitable that between 12 years of schooling and at least three years of college a good many of us have gone to school with one another. And this does not even count graduate school where a few more links can be forged. I can hear the mathematicians among you stating that the average IIT had only a class size of 400 to 600 and medical schools even less and that those are pretty small numbers. Fear not, Lemma 2 comes to the rescue.

Lemma 2: Or their siblings/friends went to school with each other. Regardless of what you may have read in this paper or other publications about the rise of nuclear families in urban India, we are blessed with a large number of siblings and cousins. When you now factor in all the other kids with whom we played on the street with marbles, tops, gilli-danda, cricket and numerous other sports, it quickly adds up.

Lemma 3: They are related to each other. In the unlikely event two Indians or their siblings or friends did not go to school together, they are usually related. “Oh, he’s my mother’s brother’s wife’s cousin’s son.” (In my case this person also happened to be my classmate in college.) In my brother-in-law’s case, he has found a good part of Tamil Nadu is related by blood — not that surprising when grandparents on either side have 12 siblings.

Lemma 4: If all of the above fail, they are married to each other. Drum roll on this one. Just when you felt that you’ve actually met a couple of Indians who are not connected, you’ll find, as Dr. Sluiter did, that they are married, either to each other or into each other’s families. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference in India, but that’s a story for another day.

This article first appeared in the India Real Time of the Wall Street Journal.

Giving this Diwali

The diwali diyas at Diwali Celebrations at Ban...

Admiration, respect, possibly adulation or envy are the emotions that pop to mind when people talk of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who are not just among the world’s richest men but among the most philanthropic.

Yet fear or trepidation seems to have been the emotion stirred, if we are to believe the media, by these two men when they took their message of giving to China and are rumored to be bringing it to India.

Even before the Joy of Giving week rolled out at the end of September, newspapers in India and elsewhere were talking about “…concern among some of China’s wealthy that they would be pressured into contributions” and of Gates and Buffett’s dinner plans in India.

Other Op-ed pieces discussed everything from the high-rise “apartment” that Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani is building to what philanthropy India’s wealthiest are doing, if at all, and how much.

It is nice that, despite the never-ending stream of scams (Mumbai high-rise, Commonwealth Games, iron-ore mining) the mainstream media is also discussing philanthropy, particularly in the private sector. However, their starry-eyed view of it as something solely the domain of uber-rich would be depressing but for the fact that a million “little men and women” are toiling away in India each day, giving well beyond their means.

As anyone who’s tried to support a charity knows, it is easy to give a little money of your own, harder to give your time and hardest to get others to give their money or time — and it is this giving that I’d like to celebrate this Diwali.

Certainly, the wealthy in India have contributed enormously to philanthropy, be it the Tatas with their charities and institution building or Azim Premji’s eponymous foundation. Their giving, even when they’ve sought to keep it quiet, has gotten the rightful recognition and coverage.

However, most Indians who are giving each day — disproportionate amounts of their time and money — rarely have their story told. Their story needs to be told, if only to inspire others to celebrate them by following in their footsteps. I share the story of two such unheralded givers, so that giving becomes as much a second nature to all of us, as taking seems to be to a large swath of our politicians and bureaucrats.

“Why me?” is a question I hear often as the father of two teens. It is hard to explain even seemingly simple life lessons to kids. So when the “Why me?” question is posed by a teen, both orphaned and HIV positive, it is particularly hard.

Krishnagiri is a town on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border just an hour outside Bangalore. Its location on the cross roads of four national highways and as a main trucking route connecting Chennai, Hosur and Bangalore make it a hotspot for HIV/AIDS infections.

This has led to a number of children within the Krishnagiri district being orphaned and many are HIV-infected at birth. Many children were taken in by grandparents, relatives and in some cases by neighbors. Most of these foster parents are themselves poor and face economic challenges even before having to care for these orphaned or infected children.

The Association for Rural Community Development is an NGO that has taken up the cause of these children. Founded in 1998, ARCOD is focused on the empowerment of rural poor, particularly women and children. From the initial days of helping rural poor women form self-help groups in one district, they have grown to four districts of Tamil Nadu and their initiatives span micro-finance, rural housing, and health with emphasis on sexual and reproductive health rights.

Their most recent initiative has been to ensure that these orphaned or HIV-infected children get the nutrition that can ensure them a reasonable quality of life — and so, too, the foster families.

As in any human situation, the numbers rarely paint as clear a picture as individual stories. One 13-year-old girl’s father died of AIDS and even while her mother tries to earn a living as a day laborer, the teenager has to take care of her three younger siblings. Another girl is 11 and HIV positive; she has lost both her parents and is being raised by her grandmother who works as a coolie.

A contribution of 500 rupees a month per child enables the provision of such nutrition. With their volunteer teams on the ground, their counseling and training services for families, ARCOD is directly impacting the lives of hundreds of children. All this with little or no fanfare and even lower overhead.

Pasha is a gifted painter and, like many kids his age, likes playing computer games. However, growing up with muscular dystrophy in a family that lived in the slums of South Bangalore, he’d have never been able to pursue his dreams but for the Foundation for Action, Motivation and Empowerment India.

Founded in 2001, FAME is a Bangalore-based NGO that supports rehabilitation and empowerment of children and young adults with neuro-muscular and intellectual development disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, mental retardation and muscular dystrophy.

“Most poor parents who work had to leave their mentally or physically challenged children locked at home,” says Janaki Vishwanath, managing trustee of FAME India. “They could not put their kids in regular schools nor necessarily afford the special education or schooling.”

It is this gap that FAME India has stepped in to bridge. While admitting students of every economic group, the fees it charges for the school is based solely on parents’ ability to pay. The school bus service at FAME is as important as the special education teachers, the dedicated volunteers, the wheelchair friendly building and in-school lunches as it allows both the children and their parents to pursue an empowering course.

Now, as some of their students approach or cross into adulthood, FAME has stepped up to face the challenge of helping them seek gainful employment that offers a modicum of income and immeasurable confidence to face the world. Opportunities they have created include those in their in-house production facility for cloth and paper gift bags, paper cups, painted clay lamps or diyas for festivals or through mail room or copying and courier jobs with local companies.

Although in a relatively nascent stage from a job creation standpoint and constantly challenged by the financial needs of a growing student body, FAME India is yet another instance of unsung heroes who are changing lives each day one child at a time.

There are yet more organizations such as Gift-a-Future, who are attempting to remove economic impediments that come in the way of education, particularly for high school students. Even if we featured one a week, or better yet one a day, our lives would be that much the richer. Join me in getting their stories told.

This story first appeared online at the Wall Street Journal’s India Journal.

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Are you a pushy Asian parent?

“How can I help you?”

The principal was polite, but somewhat reserved. This was our first meeting with her. Contrary to what my wife and I had heard from other parents, she was neither fire-breathing nor scary. Sure, with her hair in a tight bun, a somewhat conservative raised-collar white shirt and severely cut skirt, she looked more like an up-and-coming corporate marketing executive than the principal of an elementary school. Her reputation was as a no-nonsense disciplinarian.

Report Card

Photo Credit: pjern via Compfight cc

Sometime early in our meeting, the atmosphere turned from the formal and somewhat frigid start to a whole lot warmer and practically collegial. We realized this had happened once the principal knew we were not there to discuss our older daughter who was already in the school but that we’d had asked for the meeting as a prelude to admitting our younger one. In fact things got comfortable enough that somewhere in there she alluded to the fact that she always gets tremendous pressure from “Asian” parents.

Of course, in California and much of the U.S., the word Asian, particularly in an educational context, is used to refer to the arc of peoples from Japan through Indo-China to China itself. Rarely are South Asians, including Indians or West Asians, referred to as Asians.

In this instance, the principal referred to the preponderance of Indian and Chinese parents who wanted their kids to start earlier at school, get more homework, have even more activities for their kids — in other words these parents were COMPETITIVE. Her relief was palpable that we’d merely come to discuss our child’s admission.

I could certainly empathize with her and did not want to be in her shoes at a parent teacher meeting. Hah, but little did I know that I’d soon be stepping into the proverbial fire from the frying pan when my family and I relocated to Bangalore.

“Excuse me, excuse me!” the lady was persistent. About 40 of us, all parents of tenth-graders were in a meeting with the principal, this time at a school in Bangalore. The family and I have been back in India for nearly five years and our older child is in the 10th grade. The principal, this time in a starched saree but just as businesslike and no-nonsense as her Californian counterpart, was trying to address all the questions the parents had — and they had a few!

The Central Board of Secondary Education earlier this year announced its most significant reforms since the current “10 plus 2″ system of secondary education was rolled out in 1977. They were doing away with the “Board Exams.”

Across 11,500-plus schools in India each year, nearly 1.5 millions students appear for these examinations. For three decades, this single exam, taken at the end of the 10th grade, has determined what educational streams Indian kids can pursue in grades 10 and 11. Science, Commerce or the Arts are the most common choices. This choice, in turn, determines what college majors they can apply for.

No prizes for guessing the two popular choices — medicine or engineering, both of which require science and math in 10th and 11th grades.

Our children’s school was one of the few CBSE “senior secondary” schools in our city, meaning they offered 11th and 12th grades while most others only went to tenth. So if you wanted your kid to stay in high school for 11th and 12th grades, they had to compete with not just their classmates, but kids graduating from tenth grade in other schools.

“What if my child does not get admission in the science stream in 11th class at your school?” said the persistent parent. I could feel the collective nods of nearly every other parent in the room as they strained to hear the principal’s answer.

“Shouldn’t you give preference for your own students first?” pressed another parent before the principal could respond.

Like an angry town hall or shareholder meeting, the mood in the room was tense as parents tried to determine if their kid would get into the Science section.

“As long as your kids score A grade or better (80% or more) in science and math, they will be given admission in our own school,” the principal tried to assure the gathering.

“And if we are transferred or have to move, would other schools accept the grades the school gives out?” a couple from the front row asked in tandem.

“Let me speak plainly,” piped in a dad. “Your school exams have been a lot tougher than the Board exams in the past. Wouldn’t it be better if our children took the Boards? Wouldn’t that allow them to compete on a level playing field with kids from other schools?”

To her credit, the principal kept her cool as the parents continued to pepper her with questions.

While my wife, and at times one of my children, had regaled me with tales of moms who showed up at school wanting to know why a teacher had knocked off a mark or two from their child’s class test, I had not encountered this face of the anxious — at times angry — Indian school parent.

Even as the buzz of parents talking to one another grew, I put my hand up. Once I caught the principal’s eye, I asked: “Is the discussion so far pertaining only to admission for Science majors? What about Arts major?”

You could have cut the shocked silence with a knife.

“If 25 parents are prepared to commit in writing that they will send their child to an Arts major, I am prepared to offer one,” the principal said. “Otherwise anything other than Science doesn’t have enough takers.”

That evening, I took a poll of about 20 people — colleagues at work, neighbors and college mates — nearly all of whom had trained formally as engineers. Most hadn’t practiced engineering in two decades. One had become a restaurateur, several were real estate developers, others run businesses ranging from an adventure outfit to advertising agencies. Several were in teaching, general management and consulting. Many were still considering career changes. And these were the successful ones.

So why do we as parents expect our children to make up their minds at 15 or 16 and, worse yet, determine that they should all be mindlessly studying for professional courses? At the end of the eighth grade, many kids take a test to be admitted to a coaching class for taking engineering or medical entrance exams four years later!

From the ninth through 12th grades, their evenings and Saturdays are spent boning up for entrance exams. Each year, we read of ever more kids killing themselves after their 10th or 12th grade exams unable to take the pressure.

Only when we win an elusive gold at the Olympics (can we name two Indians in the last four years) or an even rarer Nobel Prize, as happened with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in 2009, do we as Indians seem to think that there are worthwhile pursuits outside of being a doctor or an engineer.

But I am rambling. I had better stop here and rush to get into the queue for admitting my child in the special prep class for her tenth grade exam!

This article first appeared online in the Wall Street Journal in October 2010.

Be Grateful – Lessons from my dad

“I was in 9th grade – nearly 15 years old, when my father passed away.” I could see that my father was already in the past living through those first few traumatic months after his father’s death. “We continued in the same village where my father hand been the karnam – the village accountant.” My older brother was still in high school, two younger brothers and a sister in middle and primary schools. My mother did not know how she was going to put us through school – which she was clear we should complete at all costs.”

“At one end of our village lived the Mirasdar – there were two brothers, the peria (elder) and chinna (younger) mirasdar. I remember their house being a big pukka house. A family friend approached the younger mirasdar for help, when he learned that my mother could pay for only my elder brother to go to school. The mirasdar offered to pay my school fees. The amount of money involved, though small by today’s standards, was a huge boon and put me through high school. I don’t think I thought about it much at that time, besides being grateful for their support. After all in our eyes the mirasdars were the richest family in our village.”

My father after graduating from high school left his village for the “city” – Chennai and then onwards to Delhi seeking his fortune. After three years of being away, my father returned to his village for a visit. He was now employed as an accounting apprentice in Delhi earning a princely 300 rupees. In the meantime he had his share of adventures with his uncle declining to support his college education, running away to Delhi and landing a job, travelling to Shimla and other towns on his job. Wanting to share his good fortune and to thank his first benefactors he visited the mirasdar family.

“I was shocked to discover that the mirasdar family was not at all well-to-do.  They lived in a dilapidated house and in talking to others in the village I realized that they had probably been living in genteel poverty for the last decade or more. My youth and naivete, when I still lived in the village, was probably what lead me to believe that they were wealthy. I was all the more grateful and overwhelmed by their act of kindness and charity in paying for my education, when they could probably ill afford it themselves.” My father’s eyes were no longer dry as he recounted this tale of magnanimity.

His story did have a good ending, in that the children of the mirasdar family themselves went out to seek their fortunes and did well – which my father attributes, at least in part, to the good deeds of their parents.

“Things are not always what they seem,” was my father’s advice to me. “Keep an open mind and recognize that we often see what we want – which may be far from reality.”

“Be grateful for what you have and strive to help other people whenever you can.”

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Do you know more about your TV than about your doctor?”

Image“Are you a doctor?”

I am never sure how best to answer this question. My first, unvoiced response is a curt “no.” But I then settle for a more ambiguous, “No, I am not a medical doctor.”

In India, where politicians insist on being addressed as Dr. A or B, usually having been bestowed an honorary degree — deserved or not — by admiring vice-chancellors, it was not uncommon a generation ago to see folks append a BE or MA (English) as my grandfather did, after their name.

I have always assumed that this is a left-over from when the Brits ruled us — of having to wear one’s qualification on one’s name, if not on one’s sleeve exactly. Guess saying you are a summa cum laude from Harvard in your bio is not that different.

While a PhD does stand for Doctor of Philosophy (in my case, in materials science and engineering), I have always been uncomfortable being addressed as Dr. Srikrishna — somewhat misleading and a bit pompous, I felt. If I had any momentary doubts it was quickly cured after my travel agent booked me on a couple of flights as Dr. Srikrishna and I had to explain to the crew that I was not a medical doctor when they called upon me to attend to a unwell fellow flyer. Talk about truth in advertising!

Yet, I am asked this question each time I take someone to the hospital. For the record, I must admit that on more than one occasion, the word “assertive” has been used in conjunction with my public behavior.

For those of you who have not been in the emergency room of a major hospital in India, assertive is not necessarily bad, in fact it may be a necessary condition to get proper and timely care. Sure, emergency rooms (or as we insist on calling them in India, “casualty wards”) are filled with emergencies, small and large, but even when they are having the occasional slow night, doctors appear to work on a need-to-know basis.

More importantly, your need to know seems to be directly related to your social standing in the doctor’s eyes. Granted, the internet and Google have made every patient “an expert,” complicating an overworked doctor’s job.

For those of us who’d like to believe that class and other atavistic divisions are a thing of the past, experiencing an information triage in a seemingly uncaring doctor’s hands is the clearest indication of how class as a social arbiter not merely lives but thrives.

“You did what?” was the first reaction of my wife’s best friend when I recounted the story of the birth of my second child. The scene was the birthing room in a small nursing home that my wife’s obstetrician ran in South Bangalore.

The room had unfortunately been painted all too recently and the fumes were not helping matters, as the midwife encouraged my wife to push. The good wife was gritting her teeth and the doctor waltzed in to declare that she might give my wife a shot to move labor along.

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

The question popped out of my mouth even as I gritted my teeth wondering where my wife got the power to squeeze my hand so. The doctor, to her credit, didn’t freeze in shock – nor did she ask me “And in which college did you get your medical degree?”

Instead she briefly tried to explain to my wife and me why she thought it was a good idea. The mid-wife and orderly were as bug-eyed as my wife’s best friend was upon hearing about my “questioning the doctor” and at that in the middle of child birth. Luckily our second child had other ideas and chose that very moment to put in her appearance without waiting for further inducement, chemical or otherwise.

I’ve found that this doctor, like many others, was prepared to listen and willing to explain her thought process, and therefore treatment options, patiently to me. But the very same doctors make snap judgments, often unfavorable in nature, about their patients’ educational and financial status — based on whether they spoke English, how they were attired (in western or traditional garb), how old they were. And they routinely choose to play God with little or no explanation.

As a scientist and engineer, I set out to test this hypothesis by appearing only in traditional white dhoti, speaking only in Tamil or Hindi, and my relatives and friends cooperated by having a variety of medical challenges with great regularity. Concussion from a fall for a 12-year old; appendicitis for a nine-year-old; dengue-like viral fever; clavicle fracture in an 80-year old; uterine fibroids for middle-aged cousin; possible tail bone compression soccer injury; all topped off with prostrate surgery and a urinary tract infection. The local nursing home, regular hospital and super-specialty hospitals – government- and private-owned — all figured in this multi-year experiment.

Repeatedly, whether it was an in-law having hip replacement done (“old”), a parent having a parathyroid surgery(“traditional”) or a chauffeur’s child being treated for inhaling toxic fumes (“blue-collar, uneducated”), the doctors’ explanation of the problem, prognosis and its treatment was governed by their perceptions of the patient.

So these folks and I as their “traditional” attendant got, at best, a sketchy overview. When my wife or I, dressed in our best, demanded in English that we be educated about the issues and choices, we were given the low down, usually starting with the “Are you a doctor?” question.

A close friend was a cardiac care nurse in California and I have heard my share of horror stories of how doctors talked down at and treated nurses shabbily. It almost seems an occupational hazard. So this doesn’t seem to be a problem uniquely confined to Indian doctors.

However patients, who are the paying customers, and especially those who require a detailed explanation of their situation and choices, seem to get the short end of the stick if they don’t speak the right language, wear the right clothes or otherwise belong to the “right” group even as doctors are making life-or-limb decisions on their behalf.

It’s disheartening when we are able to get more information and options about a 30,000-rupee flat screen LCD television from a high school-educated salesman than from a physician about to perform a procedure that not only costs more but needs to last a life time.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online on Jul 9, 2010

Be Self-aware – Lessons from my dad

Image by sowri via Flickr

“Just tell me what I should do!” My 15-year old was filling out an application for an international student exchange program. One of the questions was “What are your goals in life?” She’d of course asked this same question a week before, when she felt all her friends already knew what they wanted to do in life. As I couldn’t think of any excuse, I had to embark on a discussion with her.

“Think about what you like doing. What you truly enjoy. And what you think you are good at.” In her case, we figured she enjoyed drawing & painting, playing sports and working with young kids – and she was really good at all three. Ah yes, she enjoyed traveling too.”

The discussion set me thinking about a conversation my dad and I had many years ago. I can’t recall what triggered the conversation, but distinctly recall my father telling me “You are a Hanuman!”

For those not up on Hindu mythology, Hanuman is the monkey demi-god who is cited as the ideal devotee for his major-domo role to the eponymous hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana.

I didn’t reckon that my dad was alluding to my physical appearance when he said I was like the monkey [even if a] God. Nothing I had done thus far, could allow me to be termed a devotee of anything other than good food. My perplexed expression must have given me away, when he continued “Like Hanuman, you don’t know your own strength!”

While knowing one’s strengths is good in general – it is a particularly critical skill for entrepreneurs. Most successful entrepreneurs, when observed from arms length, may come across as manic- depressive.  Maniacal in pursuing what they believe is the right path and optimistic to a fault and then when that critical deal doesn’t happen or funding falls through or a key employee leaves, lost in the dumps – even if only for a short time.

Knowing your strengths may not do away with the ups and downs but certainly will help dampen the amplitude and help you make decisions with greater confidence. Knowing your strengths is just as much about recognizing stuff that you are not good at and surrounding yourself with folks who’s strengths complement your own.

Unlike my daughter who’s just fifteen as of this writing, I was on the wrong side of thirty when my father made his comparison to Hanuman. So don’t wait – get to know your strengths today. Ask your colleagues, your ex-boss, your staff and if your bold enough, your spouse or significant other. And once a year take stock to understand what new strengths you have acquired and what has atropied and been lost.

Be a self-aware Hanuman!

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