Thursday, August 27, 2009

Life is a soap opera

Ever get that nagging feeling that your life runs like one of those cheesy afternoon soap operas? The story starts with a bunch of friends. We get a peek into their everyday lives - from the monday morning blues to the weekend parties, from the tentative dating scene to the desperate 'bharat matrimonial' obsession, from job changes to MBA aspirations, etc. etc. Throughout all this, the changes are so slow to be almost imperceptible. Since the entire group still hangs out and does the same things (clubs, birthday parties, volleyball games), you would think nothing much is changing. But you would be wrong. Slowly but surely, change is creeping up.

Before you know it, two friends within the group decide to get married. A couple others get engaged. A few more start their MBAs. A few others move away to other cities. Although you promise to stay in touch with each other, you know that those phone calls and e-mails will slow down and stop eventually. Very soon, there are a few more weddings and a few more welcome additions to the group. The weekend jaunts to downtown have all but stopped. Clubs have been replaced with home parties. Takeout pizzas have given way to multi-course home-cooked meals. Then the first baby arrives with much fanfare. A couple more are on their way.

Life and years have such a surreal way of creeping up on you. Very soon, you start saying things like the "thirties are the new twenties"... You attend birthday parties of 20 somethings and wonder who are these people? I was 20 something not too long ago. How did things change so fast? And what do I have to show for my advancing years apart from a receding hairline, slowing metabolism and muscle aches that just refuse to go away?

And you hope you are a better person now than you were 10 years ago. You are thankful for a core group of friends that still enjoy the company of each other, and you know you can rely on when in need. You look at yourself from someone else's eyes and realize you have it good. You are with the person you love the most, you've walked through the hallowed halls of top schools, you are excited about your impending fatherhood.

You finally get it - soap operas are not all that bad. Some lives are full of changes, and some run a steady course punctuated by a few life-changing events. While it might not be absorbing viewing every day of every week of every year, you know you would not have it any other way. You are thankful for what you have.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Profile of an oomai kusumban

As you all know, the Memorial Day long weekend is coming up. And my wife and I are off to visit my friend Praveen in Denver. Praveen and I go a long way, 1993 to be exact. Its always amazing to me that we know each other for 15 years now. How time seems to fly! It feels like yesterday, when we shared the back benches in class XI C of the Santhome Hr. Sec School, both having moved from other schools. At the outset, Praveen appeared to be this sweet quiet chap, who couldn't bite into a banana even if it were peeled and placed in his mouth (I realize this is a pretty bad metaphor!). But he is what you might call an "oomai kusumban"! And I was this boisterous, rebellious kid in class, always challenging the teacher, class leader and constantly getting admonished. Praveen is one of the funniest guys I've met to this day, and he does this without any apparent effort. He would have these constant barrage of really funny comments and snide remarks to everything that went on in class, and whenever I laughed or tried to retort, I would be caught. Of course, we knew early not to squeal on anyone. So I would take my punishment, while he sat there like a saint with a halo around his head. So, long story short, we hit it off very soon and became very tight friends along with SP and Balaji. The foursome were as different from each other as possible, but this group helped me get through school. While Balaji fell off the radar somewhere along, the rest three have been the best of friends ever since.
Since I'm going to be meeting him in a couple of days, I thought I'd take this opportunity to tarnish his 'reputation' a bit here. While there are plenty of experiences to recount, there are always a few key moments in any relationship that stand out. And we can never forget them for the rest of our lives, even if we tried. So here are my top Praveen moments...
The Mylapore bakery incident: There was this iyengaar bakery on kutchery road, where the veggie puffs seemed to have fallen from heaven. Every once so often, we would stop here for a bite and then cross the road for a fruit shake at 'Senthil Softie'. Usually, I was the one who picked up the tab. On this particular day, Praveen strutted up to me and said "machan! I'll treat you to a puff and a shake", and I couldn't believe my ears. Not wanting to postpone this auspicious and scarcely believable development, we immediately set off to our favorite haunt. We both picked up a puff and bit into them, enjoying the rich flavor and aroma and the heavenly spice. When we were done eating and cleaned our hands on our shirts, it was time to pay the bill. I stood aside and let Praveen do the honors. He digged into his pocket, then the other pocket, his back pocket and everything in between! After what seemed an eternity, he slowly turned to me and said "machan! I think I forgot my wallet". I could literally hear glass shattering in the background like that old Nokia ad. Luckily, I had some money on me. So muttering pretty damaging expletives under my breath and paid up. When we were done, he had the gall to ask me for a fruit shake, knowing fully well I had to pay for that as well. And of course, I had to buy him the damned shake across the street. While he has more than made up for this by way of many treats, I still haven't let him forgot his generous 'treat' incident to this day...
The cricket runout incident: We were playing the inter-section cricket tournament in Santhome. From the start of the tournament, I was in outstandig form. I would walk in to open the batting, and would finish off games before you could say "over-a scene vidatha!". We moved to the finals where we ran into the over-thadi favorites, Section A, consisting of the biology students, apparently the best and the brightest in school and the toast of the teachers and principal. We were chasing a steep total, and I was again in very good form. But I was losing partners quickly on the other end. Soon, Praveen joined me in the middle. Because we had won the other games with ease, the middle and lower orders hadn't got much practice and this was Praveen's first foray into the middle. I nudged a wicked delivery to the leg side, and started running for a single while watching the ball. Midway down the pitch, I turned to the non-striker's side and saw Praveen still rooted to his spot, panick in his eyes. I literally pleaded with him to run. At this point, Praveen fully knew one of us was going to be run out. I could hear the wheels in his brain churning - one of the few times it has - and after what seemed like eternity, he reluctantly started jogging down the pitch. And yes, he was run out without facing a ball. It was a supreme act of self-sacrifice, and would have remained so, if he didn't keep bringing this up frequently in our conversations to this day, especially when he needs a favor...
Introduction to thanni: Years after this, we both came to the US for our Masters - me in Chicago and Praveen in God-forsaken Oklahoma. We were both busy with settling into our new lives, and it was about a year later that we decided to meet up. Praveen drove in his rickety old car from Oklahoma to Chicago without a single break I think. After a day of sight-seeing, we decided to chill out in my apartment that evening. Praveen had never touched alcohol in his life. And so I took it upon myself to upon the doors to heaven for him. Somehow he agreed to try. Instead of starting with a traditional beer, I brought out a bottle of Absolut vodka. I poured a generous portion with a bit of sprite, and he chugged it up while making a face. I was surprised when he asked for a second round two seconds later. We went on for hours, and I was surprised with how easily he could handle his drink. These days, he is walking the streets of Denver a drunken monkey, drinking alone and hugging strangers. I guess I can take credit for that.
There are many more incidents - sad, poignant, life-changing - that I can remember, but I prefer to stick with the happy ones for now. So here's to life-long friends and unforgettable moments...

Friday, May 02, 2008

Kellogg Diary - Entry #1

Dear Diary,
The last couple of days have been pretty eventful. On Wednesday, I helped out with the Manufacturing Business Conference (MBC) organized by the MMM class at Kellogg. The topic for the event was 'Differentiation by Design'. We had a great list of keynote speakers and panelists from IDEO, HP, Private Equity Firms, Consulting firms etc. However, the highlight of the conference was undoubtedly the opening keynote by Jim McNerney, the President, Chairman and CEO of the Boeing Company. As far as CEO's go, you can't get bigger than that, can you? Apparently, his nephew is a fellow Kellogg student, his daughter goes to Northwestern, his dad taught at Northwestern, and Jim himself is on the board of trustees for Northwestern. I never get amazed at the elite company I suddenly find myself in.
Following the conference, I went to my 'Managerial Leadership' class taught by Harry Kraemer, the former CEO of Baxter International, a $40+ billion global healthcare company. He is a former Kellogg grad and now is an adjunct professor. This class is one of the most popular ones in Kellogg. Every week, he also invites a guest speaker from the industry. This week was the turn of Chris Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, and another Kellogg alum. The topic of the class was value-based leadership. Mr. Galvin also gave us a blow by blow account of the events that led to his ouster from Motorola by his board, and did not forget to point out the firm's downward trend ever since.
It was a long day. After a few drinks and some pool with a friend, I called it a night. I had to wake up at 6AM the next day to follow a lawn care truck. Yeah, you heard me right! As part of our design course, we have taken on a project to redesign the trucks operated by TruGreen lawncare. The project sort of fell into our hands since these trucks are designed and supplied to them by Wanner Engineering, a privately held firm that belongs to the family of a fellow classmate. What we were doing is called 'shadowing' and is an integral part of the modern design process. It helps to get the customer's perspective, some felt and some unfelt. We had a ton of ideas within a few hours, from redesigning the hose mechanism and spray gun to advertising better on their van to incorporating advanced GPS systems.
Today, a friday, is usually an offday. But I had to drive in to Chicago downtown to meet the clients for a project-based course we are doing. This course is called Management Lab, and is part of the 'experiential' learning most business schools advertise. My project team is helping the Chicago 2016, a non-profit organization set up by the city to bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, to look at sustainability of their venues after the Olympics. Some of the questions we would address are - can this venue be a sustainable and profitable business post-Olympics? what could be other sources of revenue add-ons? what is the market size, demand and revenue model? etc. I can't tell you much more than that, even to you diary, since we signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement with 2016. So how did we get this project? Well, you've probably figured it by now. The man hand-picked by the mayor for the Olympic effort is Pat Ryan, executive chairman and founder of Aon Corporation and a director of the Chicago Bears. Apparently, he is also the chairman of the board of trustees for Northwestern University. So he's leveraged this connection to get Kellogg on board in the 2016 effort, and our project is part of this effort.
Well, its friday evening, and I'm probably going to check out looptopia with my wife and a bunch of friends. After a hectic week, I do need some R&R.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Is Hillary taking down the Democratic party with her?

I've never aspired to be a political commentator. In fact, I would be one of the least qualified to talk about the American electoral process, and its repurcussions. But I do follow the general trend. And who are we kidding? This year's presidential elections promises to be one of the most interesting in recent memory. So with that in mind, I wanted to explore something that's been nagging at me for a while now.
Is Hillary taking down the Democratic party with her?
Consider what's been happening so far. From all accounts, Hillary has as much chances of getting the Democratic party nomination as Tim Henman has of winning the Wimbledon. That is, in theory, she can still win. And she has the right to fight it out till there is no theoretical chance of winning. This could take a while to prove. But the more she fights, the longer the democratic primary circus rolls along. And the more it rolls along, the more energy that is sapped out of Obama and Hillary, and the more dirt that is being dug up and thrown by each on the other.
Hillary makes some interesting arguments. She says Obama is outspending her 4:1 or whatever the ratio is, and still not able to take her out. She has a point. However, what she's not telling us is that, in places like Pennsylvania, she had a much bigger lead, that Obama has whittled down in the past few months. Also, if Obama can raise four times as much money as Hillary, it only speaks of his popularity and efficient fund-raising machinery. Both these abilities will serve him very well in the actual elections.
So now the question is where does Hillary draw the line between being selfish and exercising her rights, and doing what's right for the party and its greater good?

This is a hard question, and as a business school student, I find this a very interesting predicament. When books like Jim Collin's 'Good to Great' and Bill George's 'Authentic Leadership' define a true leader of an organization, they talk about someone who puts the greater good of his/her company before his/her own interests. A main ingredient of this quality is when to recognize that you are getting to be a liability for your own firm, instead of being an asset. Great leaders also innately make themselves redundant. That is, they put such capable people and processes in place that the company should never rely on one charismatic CEO.
It appears to me that Hillary is doing the exact opposite of this. Her campaign has pushed the limits of Obama's patience, and taunted him so much that he has had to step down from the lofty perch of dignified politics he had envisioned. They have tested his endurance and made a huge brouhaha on comments taken out of context. In effect, they have prolonged the democratic nomination so much that whoever gets the ticket might not have enough time to fight a well-prepared McCain in the presidential race. All this would be fine if Hillary stood a 50-50 chance. But from all accounts, she doesn't. If she were a truly selfless leader, this is the point she would step aside and stand behind Obama.
A different way of looking at this is that Hillary has transformed Obama, from an idealist to a pragmatist, who is now well-positioned to take on anything the GOP can dish out. Again in a business context, fierce competition provides focus and vision to a firm. And a monopoly, as in the case of McCain, can lead to lethargy. From that context, I do think Obama would be a stronger opponent to McCain now than 3 months ago. That is, if someone tells Hillary that its time now to call off the dogs and stand behind the party. Interesting times are ahead...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Kellogg's 2008 India Business Conference

Kellogg is hosting its annual India Business Conference on May 10th. This is apparently the longest running event of its kind (among BSchools). The theme this year is 'Brand India' and where we see it going in the future. The event is promising to be bigger and better than ever, with an outstanding list of keynote speakers and panelists. Its been fun playing my part in organizing this event. This year, for the first time, we are also putting together a new publication called India@Kellogg, that will contain interviews/thoughts/articles about India from our panelists, industry experts, faculty and students. Click on the image below to enlage it.

Announcing the 2008 India Business Conference
May 10, 2008 - Owen L. Coon Auditorium
Kellogg School of Management, Evanston, IL

Register at:
Register now! Past conferences have sold out early.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Recruiting and the aftermath (Kellogg Winter Quarter 08)

Howdy there! Just when you all think I'm all but done, I just pop up out of the blue, don't I? Yeah, its a very carefully cultivated talent. And not to mention years of non-committal behavior. Anyways, for those of you waiting with bated breath to know what happened in my winter quarter, here's a quick run through!
Recruiting Process:

  • The winter quarter is in some ways the most stressful one for most BSchool students. It is when companies land up on campus in hordes to pick out the best and the brightest for their summer internship programs. This is huge because most companies are also looking to extend full-time offers to those who really impress them during the summer. When school starts the second week of jan, it is usually a whirlwind of last minute networking, meeting company on-campus reps and attending coffee chats, finalizing your resume and writing millions of cover letters and making them unique to each firm you are applying to. The Kellogg Career Management Center (CMC) does a phenomenal job of getting a diverse range of companies, prioritizing them etc. They also have a great web-site. However, the process could be slightly confusing even before you get to the interview stage. So let me see if I can explain this better.
There is a concept of 'Open Lists' and 'Closed Lists'. Once you customize your resume and cover letter and click on the 'apply' button for a particular firm, your information is made available to the firm. Then these companies wade through these profiles and pick out the most 'promising' ones or with the best fit. These candidates get added on their 'closed list'. This is when your networking might come in handy. The recruiter might remember your name and decide to add you to the closed list. The less fortunate ones that are interested in the firm but cannot get on the closed list then have to go through a bidding process. You start with a certain number of points that you have to use effectively to bid for multiple firms. The number of slots on the 'open list' are always equal to the number on the closed list'. The system is designed this way to put some element of control in the hands of the students so they get a chance to interview with their top choice companies. Firms who wish to come and interview on campus will have to abide by these rules. Some large firms - most notably McKinsey - not wanting to be restricted thus, decide to interview off-campus.

Once you get on any of these lists, you are informed via e-mail, and the CMC schedules the interview using a smart algorithm to avoid conflicts with your current class schedule or with other interviews. But this is not always possible. The actual recruiting process varies with the industry and job function you are getting into. One-third of Kellogg (abour 150-200) gives Consulting a shot, and about another one-third goes for Investment Banking. Since the kind of preparation required for these 2 streams are entirely different, you should be making up your mind about what you would like to pursue, before the quarter starts. Kellogg also has a reputation of having very diverse job interests. What this means is that while 80% of Wharton students might go into 20 companies, 80% of Kellogg students will go into 50-60 firms. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but this does make things interesting. Anyways, the remaining one-third go into a variety of roles like Marketing/Brand management, Technology, PE/VC/Sales & Trading, General Management etc.


Consulting typically has 2 rounds of personal interviews. The first one will usually be on-campus and will involve 2 back-to-back 45-minute interviews, each involving an element of fit and 'case' interviews. You will probably get a phone call within a couple of days informing you whether you have been shortlisted for the final round or if you have been "dinged". You better hope the call does not start off with something like "We enjoyed meeting you...". This is a sure sign of a ding and you might as well zone out for the rest of the conversation. The second round might be in their office or in a hotel, and involves another 2-3 interviews with senior folks from the firm (principals and partners). Then you wait for the fateful phone call once again.
'Case' interviews for me was a new concept. What happens is that the recruiter/consultant gives you a business case scenario and some limited information/data and asks you for your thoughts and recommendations (so what should the firm do to increase its profit margin or market share?) Case interviews vary widely from the very structured to the highly vague. They are designed to test both your analytical/problem-solving skills as well as your facility with public math. Its not always about getting to the right answer. You have to be thinking on your feet, asking the right questions and taking charge of the interview.
Cases can usually be put into a few buckets (profitability, M&As, marketing etc.). Practice definitely makes you better since you start developing the frameworks you are most comfortable with, and you are half-way into your analysis (in your mind) even before the interviewer finishes explaining the case. Since most students are quite good at cases by the time interviews come around, you can differentiate yourself only by being outstandingly sharp and insightful - quick with math, out of the box solutions etc.
My Recruiting experience:

Now that we have set the context, let's run over my experience. I started off case preps when the quarter started, giving me about 3 weeks of prep time before the first interview. I practiced with my consulting buddy group, with seniors and other mates, and even with my wife. I was by no means very good when my interviews started, but I saw myself getting better through the first week. I got a bunch of dings in the first as well as second rounds. This is the time when you are doing a lot of self-introspection, and start doubting your abilities - Am I really good enough? What the hell am I doing here? You also start looking at Plan B, and for me, this was technology (product manager, operations etc.). Consulting firms are usually done within the first 2 weeks of recruiting, so you know you are running out of options after the first few dings.

These interviews (especially back-to-back) can be long and tiring and leave you flat. I remember one friday when I interviewed for 3 firms in a row, about 4 hrs in all. My jaws were hurting at the end of it and I couldn't think straight. You are also constantly wondering how you could have done better and what you screwed up, and then start dreading the phone call informing you of the result.
I even had to miss my first wedding anniversary as well as Valentine's day since I had to attend some company event/dinner. The wife was not happy but she understood what I was going through and was extremely supportive. I hope I made it up to her.

Eventually, luck smiled upon me, and I managed to get an offer from a big consulting firm. What made this more surprising was that this firm had never been on my radar, and I had done no sort of networking with them. But when I finally met the people there, I really liked them - completely down to earth and without the stuffy air and suits. I also got the location of my choice - Chicago of course. Since the firm is involved in a variety of industries, I will have a variety of projects to choose from. Most importantly, I was not branded as a technology/IT specialist, and will get to try out different strategy projects. So this was a no-brainer for me, and I even canceled a Google second round invite to Mountainview, much to the changrin of my friends.

Once you get an offer, you are given some time to make your decision. Consulting firms have a "sell" weekend when they wine and dine you to influence your decision. We (my wife and I) were put up at the classy 'W' hotel in Chicago, and were taken to the best restaurants and bars over the weekend. This also included spending a day at the office. It was nice to get pampered, although I had already made my decision.

Rest of the Quarter:

While recruiting was on, courses took a backseat. Classes were half-empty and professors do understand the strain on students and take it easy during the first half. That said, mid-terms were on us before we could recover, and it was back to the books. Group projects were usually done over e-mail since it was next to impossible to schedule a time that agrees with the entire group. When the bulk of the recruiting is over (50% of students with offers), we were already more than half way into the quarter, and it was a mad scramble after that. Add to this our other club and extra-curricular involvements, and things get really complicated.

But once I signed my offer, it was a huge weight of my shoulders and I breezed through the rest of the quarter. Compared to the Fall quarter, I felt I did not get much out of the coursework in winter. But this was because I did not put in enough time and effort. Luckily, I had pretty easy/manageable courses and did reasonably well.

I was also part of a Kellogg team that competed in a Strategy War competition in Boston, against Harvard, MIT Sloan and Chicago GSB. And guess what, we won! There was some media coverage about this competition that I have given below if you are into this sort of stuff!

Here, here, here and here. And yes, some Kellogg coverage as well...

Spring break:

And the quarter ended and spring break was upon us, not a minute too soon. While a lot of Kellogg students embark on GIM (Global Initiatives in Management) trips around the world, I had decided to skip this, and had instead substituted this with another course during the quarter. I wanted a much needed break when I could just lounge aorund doing nothing and spend quality time with my wife and dog. This was exactly what I did, and am back this Spring Quarter with my batteries recharged and a spring in my step.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Enough is Enough

This is what I have to say to you Praveen, for subjecting me to such torture without mercy.

un kadhal tholviyaal adi pattavar irandu per...
un bimbam kaattum kannaadi
un rambam padikkum naan