Saturday, February 28, 2015

Build skills, young woman

The title is a play on Go East, Young Man - as applied to people in the Indian IT industry. As Karthink observes in his very perspicacious post, it is the End of Experience.

As someone who has been in this industry doing various roles including Leading Java modules without knowing to code to searching nonexistent flex fields in Oracle applications so that I could satisfy business needs (this role, was indeed quite satisfying) to Implementing a useless ERP for a firm that couldn't care less on the supply side to a firm which was not interested in the system anyway to Leading a testing team to charge down whatever the developers coded (how I loved this role) to  Chief Form filling administrative officer in a multitude of useless sytems that measure useless metrics to be viewed by no-one in particular. And then I was the chief form filling officer for an entire business unit where I got a hapless team to fill out complex excel sheets without using a single formula but using all the colors offered by Microsoft.

The last two in particular were eye opening experiences. Till then, I was learning something each day and I was into solving problems one way or other. I tried. I even gained myself a worthless certification on how to be chief form filling administrative officer. However, I realized that this was not going to take me much further. Apart from the sub plot that I did not enjoy coming to work every day and that I gave myself a designation one step from CEO to DEO - Data Entry Officer and kept myself busy while coordinating a million presentations to important visitors who paid our bills.

At one point, I realized that as the delivery manager I had no idea what my team did. To my credit, I did add value to the team, developed a couple of fine individuals, honed good talent that is doing well in the industry today, discovered ideas to make those ideas faster and saved the company good money. All said and done, I still was not building any skill. And that made me think.

One thing led to another and I eventually discovered that my skill was in problem solving, training, learning and development among other things.

But along the way, the IT industry had also changed. And today, if you don't have skills, people don't want to hire you.

So, if you are a young professional seeking a job in the Indian IT industry (whose death knell is being sounded today - and I don't believe it), build skills, young woman and you will never regret it!

Train like Malcolm Gladwell

Or Atul Gawande. Or your favorite writer (mostly, except the repetitive kinds and I dont count pulp authors. Other exceptions are random and arbitrary).

So, cut to the chase.

When you read Malcolm Gladwell (or your favorite writer) they make you think - first. Then, just as you begin to think - they have hooked you. Now you want to know more. And they take you through that journey. They tease you, make you wait and you tag along, like that fish snagged to the bait. You float, you whizz (its not as bad as it is for the fish) and then the writer reels you into the final. And repeat that, over plots, sub plots like in Harry Potter.

Or if it is a Malcolm Gladwell, the number of aha moments you get when you are exposed to new concepts (I had no idea umami was a taste) and new connections.

Or if it is Atul Gawande  - who writes on something as droll as 'The Checklist Manifesto'  and healthcare and yet manages to fill you with a-ha moments.

Or if it is Michael Lewis - who can take something as boring as the Financial Crash and brings out stories in them that the regular mainstream journalist does not have the patience to uncover and report. (The report on the Vatopaidi monastery - that blew my mind).

Or like a Devdutt Pattanaik who brings a beautiful layer to every mythology we have ever heard, read or learnt and make it accessible and yet retains a lot of the richness of the original and still makes you sit back and go, wow.

And I don't know who such an author is - but I know a friend of mine who picks up something you thought you knew, but can ferret out new information that is right under your nose and you had no idea about it.

Or someone who can pick something seemingly mundane and gives a twist to it. Like someone took a regular upma and made it into something heavenly - like the SLV restaurant.

Imagine if a training did that to you. Correction - imagine if a learning experience did that to you. Showed you a concept, taught you layers in them, gave you a-ha moments, new concepts that you can take, play, spin it in the air - that you go home, as happy as a cat that has found a new cow for milk. And then having found it, know how to use it, make you better and make it for a lifetime of learning.

That was a little too much, but well, why not try!

(Concept credit to my better half who had many such a-ha moments while reading a Gladwell book that she promptly stopped midway. Hopefully our training will have a better result.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Telling Stories

Story is the new black. Everybody wants to tell stories. Every marketeer, every technologist, every HR person - everyone.

(However when the finance guy tells you stories, you know something wrong is happening - but leave that.)

Is there is a danger with stories. Like everything overdoing stories may not help. But my theory (trademark alert) is about two things. One, a story being used as part of an initiative at work - cannot just be a story - it must leave the listener with a 'how to'. Otherwise, it is just a story.

And the second danger with that is that if it is a story about person x in an organization by person y who the audience knows about - the audience, most likely, knows the story and the story behind the story and every member in the audience already has their perspective of your story.

So let us say, you shared the story of a great project that was led from the front by person x. And this is told by person y. But I already know what person x did in that project and have a viewpoint (not necessarily all good). Ditto about person y.

So, before the feel good and the connect about the story happens, the authenticity of the story is in doubt.

So, when you do tell a story, like all other stories, the story has to be authentic. But if the story is too close to me - I may have my own 'insider' or 'grapevine' version of the story.

And almost coincidentally as I was thinking about stories, this article popped up on my linked in page.

Say stories by all means, but let no one doubt the credibility of your stories...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What makes an amazing learning experience?

This is just from my personal experience. So, your experience may vary. Here are the key snippets from some of my most amazing learning experiences:

Professor: Metallurgy, at college: Passion for subject, deep knowledge. Ability to transmit that passion to students. No rigid rules, but a firm belief that passionate students will get it - and by the way, most of the class did. Being far and strict as far as work was concerned. No patience with those who wanted to crack the exam, but a lot of patience with those who wanted to learn.

There were a couple of other teachers - notably one in Marketing, Operations research, International Business, a couple at classes we went to who taught Calculus, Organic Chemistry. Each of them had a distinct style. But what was common was deep knowledge and an ability to get students 'hooked' onto the subject.

Teacher: Martial Arts: Passion. Crazy passion. Dedication. A great performer himself - the man was amazing. He taught everybody with equal passion. Favorite sentence: "If you walk out of the gym, you aren't doing enough - you need to crawl out of it." Repeating steps till students got it right. Walking the path with students. No air of superiority at all. Never ever.

Learning on the go: One fine day the vice president calls me, a management trainee and says, now you go handle the 3 crore banking funds yourself from tomorrow. And you have your mentor there who will handle accounts and help you. That was something. Working fast, really fast - managing funds in a company that had almost no funds with production dependent on funds from us, supplies screaming at us and finally at one point, the banker calls us up and asks for the rules that he is supposed to know. His logic, "You guys do this everyday, you probably know more than us."

Swimming with the sharks: Many of my earlier assignments were the kind where the learning was live. Crazy clients, new software, tricky business, experienced partners and a lot of crazy learning. I wish these could be taught, but  mostly the learning here was the hard fall (the fails, if you will) kinds. You fall, you rise, and then rinse, repeat and by the time the project is done, you are a changed person. 48 hours working nonstop, weekends spent at work, trying to crack an unsolvable problem - that eureka moment, things going wrong, being held responsible but ultimately being able to deliver. The testing team that I had set up, grew up from being at the receiving end of developers to taking the lead by figuring out how to crack the code.

Many such examples, but the best learning happens on the go - and they are far more powerful. Doesn't mean that is the only way to do it, but if there is a way to replicate 80% of it, you have got it. But human survival instinct knows that  a simulation is a simulation and reality is reality. Which is why the army trains its people so much in simulated environments that reality is actually easier than the simulated environment (that is overstated for the bullets are real in reality).

Learning from other life experiences, learning from elders, learning what to do from good managers, learning what not to do from is full of them.

And that is interesting, none of them are trainings (the metallurgy was a class, the teachers were all in classroom trainings and mostly about preparation for exams - the martial arts was a learn/do, learn/do sequence and of course, very effective)! That is food for thought for us learning experience developers eh? But that is not surprising is it. Because a training is not about getting everything done.

So, what does a training do? A training can only give you the tools. What you do with it is what makes a learning experience and a reality. The training given at the right time can take you to a different level. But there are certain situations where training cannot be given that way - because reality is way too fast to take a training break. Trainings can be good and fun too.

So, what is a training? It can give you the practice, the help, the tools, the coaching before the big match (or exam or project or sale). Ultimately the big match has to be played by the participant and the learning experience has to be measured there.

(Training) I can only show you the door, you have to walk through it.

So, how to make those practice, the tools, the coaching stick? Work well? Isn't that our job!

So, where does that leave training? Is there no value for training at all? Not all. Each of these swimming with the sharks experience could have been made smoother with some training. That is the value of training. Every realtime mistake costs the company time and money, not to mention stress. And that is the ultimate takeaway for us in the learning profession. What is the business problem you are trying to solve?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Mani Sir

Mani Sir was no ordinary teacher.

Indeed he was no teacher at all.

Flowing silken white beard. Ash on his forehead. Flowing hair. Wore a kurta and a dhoti - sometimes saffron, mostly white. And he wore actual wooden slippers (I thought that was cool and wanted to try how that held on the feet). And came to school on a rickety bicycle (with those wooden slippers).

He was old, I don't know how old. Whatever his age was, he was active and always full of energy. He was different from the other teachers with his glowing visage and gentle demeanor. He was tall and stood with great command.

As gentle as he was, he commanded the students attention. And in his class, never did the students ever create a ruckus - I wonder why. Perhaps he knew how to channel energy or perhaps he just let them be. I remember him asking us to make noise, but keep it under control - which no other teacher ever told us. I don't remember him raising his voice.

He was not a regular teacher - though I suspect he could teach any student anything. He would turn up when there was a need for a substitute teacher.  Perhaps he lived nearby and came in at short notice. We never knew.

But when he came in, we were happy - because that meant the regular subject teacher was not there. As children, that meant fun rather than studies. So, I guess all classes welcomed him.

I remember how he most shared stories in his soft. Interesting stories. Stories that made us think. Made us play a game or two. A quiz. Some questions. Or let us be.

I still remember myself swelling with pride when I answered 'rickshaw' for some question he asked. And he added it by saying that it was 'jinrickshaw' in some parts of the world. And once, I learnt that tuition had that extra i in it (that shocked me, I had no idea).

We knew nothing more about him. He came gently and went away gently. But as learning experiences go, he remains imprinted in my mind.

The teacher without a title perhaps! Thank you Mani Sir, wherever you are. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Into the mindset of a Learning Professional

We are lucky. We have as careers, this amazing job, and passion of being in the learning world.

Our jobs (and passion) involve designing learning experiences for people. Children, adults, teams, professionals - whatever our audiences - our jobs are to make learning experiences amazing. (And just what does that mean - topic for another post).

(Conundrum: On the one hand if you have passion, you will learn, however, wherever - think Ekalavya - but on the other hand, a beautifully designed learning experience will take the learner to heights faster and might even light a fire of passion in them.)

What does it take for a person to be in this profession? What do you know about? What do you care about? How do you do that? Here are some of my thoughts:

Oodles of passion for one. If you are not passionate, you cannot be in the learning business. Unless you wake up excited each day imagining the possibilities of learning, this is not for you. What are you passionate about, ask them. And ask for an answer other than their job.

A lot of knowledge for another. And yet, an ability to step out of the traps of carefully laid learning paths that claim superiority of all other paths. (Holds true for much of life as well).

An open mind. Imagine a learning professional, who seeks to open minds, having a closed mindset herself.

Curiosity. A desire to experiment. After all this is human minds one is talking about. And unless you have those basic instincts how do you build those into your learning experiences.

A reasonable knowledge of behavior. Theoretical or Practical, this is very very important. Many of our experiences seek to reinforce or redirect behavior, so yes, a knowledge of behavior is invaluable.

A great understanding of what your customer wants. Stated. Unstated. Real. Imagined. Problem behind the problem. And so on and so forth. What they say and what they mean. So, knowledge of the behavior of those who enlist your help as well.

A learning attitude. Isn't that simple enough?

And once you have all of this, you want the person to know science, arts, commerce, engineering, medicine, psychology, technology, philospophy, dance, music, sports and then some. Ok, atleast a few of them. And there you have it, a complete learning professional.

Yes, each one of us is a learning professional, but there is no right definition. They come in many shapes and sizes, but yes, all of those listed above are good guiding principles. Has worked for me. YMMV.