Thursday, March 30, 2006

Morarjee Files - Parallel run

Morarjee Goculdas spg and wvg co ltd. no longer exists. But for a brief period of 11/2 yers, that was my school, my home and my everything in mumbai. I finished my MBA from IMDR, Pune and like any other MBA passing out was full of energy an almost imatient drive to go and prove myself.

The first two months only added onto that fire as I sat in the head office twiddling thumbs and playing "dave". Piramal systems technology head office was one huge adda (hang out) where people pontificated on new softwares. Enveloped in a completely IT environment complete with AC, swanky cubicles, lounge music and internet connectivity, I sat for two months increasingly frustrated of my life. No real work was happening and my legs were twitching to get into a place where I did something purposeful. I smelt my first opportunity to get to field when my boss (vikram) asked me Shoba and sudhir to go on a field tour of all the group companies. Shoba was the typical MBA from goa with a huge chip in her shoulder and a mouthfull of jargons. Prescriptive, criticising and totally out of touch. Her most repeated statement was "This is not the way things are done in GE". She might be right in saying that statement, but she lacked a few grey hairs to appear more credible.

Sudhir and I were increasingly frustrated about the head office culture and were totally unhappy. First stop was Morarjee. Sudhir is a smart chap schooled in the MBA culture of symbiosis. Jump-and-get-ahead-of-life whichever way you see good. He quit piramal to join another company within 3 months of joining. "Got to be in USA within one year" was his mantra. I was an idealist with similar drives but determined to learn along the way. "Learning to learn", is a hallowed concept discovered, perfected and passionately taught in IMDR. IMDR is a management school with a difference. High on idealistic principles of Deccan educational society (DES) which ran institutions since the late 19th century like Fergusson college, Pune. Through DES institution's hallowed halls have passed many a great Indian leaders. Afterall a society patronised by Balagangadhar Tilak could be no less principled (The beginings of DES). IMDR is the newest child of this society and the first management institute in Maharashtra. Started in the 70s by Sumatilal Shah and Joshi, it is today lost in the cacophony of four letter acronymed MBA institutes. People often confuse IMDR for one of the high cost, high rhetoric (all-fart-and-no-shit) MBA institute. To the irkied up students frustrated by the lack of proper recognition, Dr. Bhupatkar, the smiling director would say "We are in the education of business and not in the business of education".

I was smitten by IMDR like my first crush. IMDR is a small environment with less than 150-200 living up to its stance of atonomy. Rebellious and idealistic, IMDR wanted to prove a point to the outside world. Like a bee to nectar, all of us were (should say are still) attached to IMDR. IMDR was a community.

Having said all this, we still had a little chip on our shoulder. A stunted chip. But one thing was clear, none of us ever shirked or eweeeed at digging our hands dirty getting things done.

So there we were at morarjee. Morarjee's IT was a mess a mossaic of arcane computer systems which needed a major surgery every 2 days and we were trying to implement the latest ERP. The textiles business is as old as business itself and no one would change their practices for any ERP software. The average user age was 45 plus and one can make a slab of granite move, but not these guys. Totally unaware of all this I was accepted into Morarjee's young but battlewary team of IT staff.

I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and legs. Atlast I have something purposeful to do.

Sunil was the project manager. Tough as the users were, realistic as the broken chimneys dotting the factories. Morarjee was like entering into a time wrap. And there we were trying to implement a cutting edge software to streamline operations. The operations which has changed very little in 60 years.

"Give me something more to do, I have completed all the sales orders entries", I demanded gruffly. Sunil responded, "Ok. Can you finish these vucher entries ?". Another fortnight later the same routine followed "Give me more to do". This time sunil was convinced that I am out to grab the most mundane of works with full vigour. "Come with me to the meeting", he said. Like a schoolboy I took my notebook and pen eager to pen down the notes.

The Meeting

The CEO, CIO, Head marketing, CEO-Psytech and all the hallowed gods were present. Mamya, Sunil, Phanish, Andy and me were there from the user side. "Dont talk unless asked a irect question", advised sunil. I nodded vigorously in my newly elevated role. I was in a fully listening mode. The meeting started off with pleasantries and tea. That was the nicest part. Within a few minutes it deteriorated to accusitions and counter accusitions about problems. There was a departmental turf war and I was getting agitated. "A team of 15 professionals in the IT department are trying to better things and these guys were totally disrespectful, How can sunil take it lying down ?", My mind was screaming. Sunil was quiet and obeservant and finally the chairman Ajay, walked in and all democracy ended.

Ajay : "Are you guys done with the usual passing the buck thing ? "He asked.
The room was ominously silent. I was just controlling my temper. Ajay continued,"I dont want any more excuses. This implementation should be completed within a month. Otherwise all of you are canned." More silence followed and this time the silence spoke a lot. The language of fear.

As we trodded back. Sunil spoke for the first time "Guys so here we are. We need to do this within a month.". Paneesh's first words were "Thats impossible". I couldnt contain myself and opened my mouth for the first time, "sunil why were you silent when the other department folks were blaming our team.". All the others joined in, demanding an explaination. Sunil took his time and replied, "Guys that is morarjee's politics and I dont want to be a part of it. Look all that is of little concern now. Lets get this job done within a month. The top management has one brief. Finish it in a month or look for a new job".

Andy responded, "sunil I cant deal with kini anymore. He doesent cooperate atall".
Sunil looks on. "Ok Andy, you work in the finance module now. under paneesh. Who is going to work with kini and train him to take over ?". this was my opportunity and I jumped in and said "I will do it".

There was laughter everywhere. "Arre bache... kini will eat you alive", sneered Andy. Sunil was observing this closely and that was my last straw. I spoke up exasperatedly, "Look guys, no one wanted to enter sales orders. I did it. No one wanted to enter the backdated vouchers, I did it. No one wants to train kini and work with him. I will do it. If I dont do it, this whole thing will fail and we all will have to find another job".

Sunil broke the impasse and declared authoritatively. "Andy will work with paneesh and Vasu you and mamya will handle sales. I need this thing wrapped up within a month. Comeon guys, lets do it and get out of here".

The whole team was galvanised and I dove into the work like a dolphin chasing fish.


D-Day dawned and I was in Kini's cabin trying to talk him into getting trained onto the new system for sales orders and getting backdated sales orders entered into the system. The new system was longer and tougher to learn initially and the new system lagged the old system by two days. The theory is simple in implementation. You carry on with the old system and parallelly run the new system till the point where all issues in the new system are ironed out. In implementation parlance, this is called parallell run. Its tougher on people, longer working hours and harder to train. Its generally done for a month before pulling the plug on the old system and continuing on the new. We were 2 days of transactions lagging in the new system and kini was the only salesman with the knowledge of computers and fast enough to achieve this.

Vasu : "Kini saab, lets do this training and finish the back orders. We have to complete everything in a month."

Kini : "Abhe computer gadhe (computer fools in reference to our department), what do you think I am ? Thera rakhel ? (your mistress ?). Bahar nikhal ja, nahi tho maar kayega (get out of here or I will thrash you.)

Vasu : "kini saab, please this is not nice. Lets do this and finish strong. We need to get this implementation done and the CEO has given us this responsibility. If you need help, I will help you too."

Kini :"Who are you to help me (annoyed at being viewed as helpworthy), you are a kid and what do you know ? my experience in this company is bigger than your age ? Are you trying to challenge me ? "

Thats how the whole day went. In Kini's defence, he was old and nearing retirement and he has been overworked by everyone around. Worse he felt extremely insecure and suspicious of the computer system. Afterall when you are 60, it not exactly a great thing to be told to work under a 22 year old green horn who is a raring bull unmindful of how change affects human psyche. But for my IMDR grooming of humanistic management, I would have thrown up my hands and quit. I decided to work with what I had and that whole day was spent in argument bordering on conflict.

Quiet a few times, Kini's face was an inch away from mine. Close enough to hear our thoughts. But we were on full decibels loud enough to alarm the whole factory. Yet no one bothered as it is the work culture of a 100 year old cotton mill.

Kini : "Thum kya ek dhin me, sab badhal dalega ? jhaant bhi ukaad nahi saktha. (Can you change things in one day ? you cant even pluch a pubic hair). For my MBA schooled jargon receiveing ears, this was blasphemy. But then work situations involving the livelyhood of many people are bound to be full of such preaures. Passionately defending his territory, I realised that this fullthroated venture was leading us nowhere.

I walked out of his cabin at around 2.00 mainly to cool down, but also to eat some food and rejuvenate my spirits. Andy walks by with a beaming smile going from ear to ear and a face that said I-Know-What-happened-last-hour.

I tried avoiding him and go about my lunch in silence. The whole canteen was in whispers, chuckles and glances in my direction. the simple dal, roti and rice was bitter and jokes were on of how I became the bakhra in the computer department.

"Woh naya chokra hain na ? Madrasi ? Usko Kini ne masth gaand maar dhiya ?". (Kini took the new guy's ass. The madrasi) I gobbled up my lunch as soon as I could swallow and tried to get out of the place. Sunil was silent and kind of understood what I am going through. He just let me be. Later when the episode would be over, he said that day is the day I grew up.

Next to Morarjee is an old Dutta temple which used to be solace on some of the stressfull days in my life. I walked in and sat in a corner dampening all thoughts inside. A full 5 minutes of blank brain felt like red bull.

That day, I decided i will turn things around. Post lunch Kini was sitting in his cabin and I walked in acting as if nothing ever happened.

Kini : Exasperatedly. "Thum kya chahthe ho ? (what do you want ?)"
Vasu : "Kini saab, I understand what you are going through. But we need to do this thing. I will help you in whatever way you want. But I need you to devote some time to this. there is no point fighting like this. Everyday we will fight on and on and within a fortnight I will get fired."
Kini : Ok... we will do this. But dont be like the other computer gadhes (fools). They didnt do their job well the first time and we had to re-enter the sales orders again. I am not a machine you understand ?

An hour from there, I guided Kini through his first sales order entry. Every single query as to "why this, why that, this is more work than old system" was tackled without losing temper.

By 5 p.m., we were not in talking terms. We were in typing terms and with two computers we started entering the first of the 5000 pending sales orders. I decided I will finish it before end of day. Kini left the day at 9.00 p.m. finishing 500 sales orders. I had some vadapaavs for dinner and ploughed on.

It was close 2.00 a.m. when I wound up with the last of the pending orders and as I reached the railway station just missed the last train home. I hung around the station for a while and it was close to 4.00 a.m. that day as the firset train of the new day chugged in. As I wandered into my apartment and slumped on my bed it was 5.00 a.m.

The clock struck 10.00 a.m. as I entered office and picked up my cup of sick and lousy coffee. Ever wondered why office coffee is always lousy ? Sunil, looked at me in stock astonishment.

"The sales report as on yesterday is tallying", he announced.

"What about today ?", I asked irritatedly not wanting to sit with kini for another day.

"Kini is entering sales order in both the systems. Good job Vasu", quipped sunil quiet apparently surprised on seeing a cooperative Kini. He proudly turned and anounced "The parallel run is on folks!!!".

The team suddenly showed some new found respect for me. This kid can get things done. I went to kini's cabin and checked out if everything was fine. He looked at me and said, "The two reports are tallying. Kaisa ? (how). I had done only 500 pending sales orders and atleast 4000 was left, yesterday". "I did it saab", I said and I could see a astonishment in his eyes. "Dont worry, I will take care of every sales order from today", he voulenteered. Now the two systems were level and tallied. We needed 15 days of parallel run to uncover all issues and to fix them. I thanked him and as I was leaving. "Aapka naam kya hai ?", kini asked. "Vasu", I replied.
"Ha Vasu!!!!.. Like Vasu (Kamal) and Sapna (Sridevi) in Ek duje Ke liye ?", he said with booming laughter.

I just smiled. Ever since that day, I was known as "Vasu Sapna". Like there existed a physical sapna and like it was my surname. It opened doors in the packing section for our packing implementation. In the dyeing section, In the yarn section. "Vasu Where is your Sapna ?", became the smart cool statement to say whenever all these old warriors came across me. It helped me get work done for the implementation. It eased language and other departmental gaps. With one stroke kini gave me the weapon to disarm all resistance and subversion by disgruntled workers to the new system.

Though I sound elitist when I say that, It was a deadline and we had to make it in time.

A tinge of sadness enveloped me when I learnt that Morarjee is no more. The company was shut down after a fire and in all probability would be sold off, developed into some gaudy mall burrying with it a history of 100 years.

In its dieing years, Morarjee taught me a lot and was the perfect platform to learn human behaviour. Wonder what happened to Kini, Pande and Dalvi the numerous friends I made while in Morarjee. They were old, but witty and extremely generous folks. I visited their ganesh pandal in 1999, met their families, enjoyed their hospitality, their loud and dry sense of humour.

"Sapna, Raath ko aathi hai kya ?" (Does Sapna come in the night ? pun on the word sapna which also means dreams in hindi).

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Fly on the wall

A major fan of Asimov like me had to figure it out some time. Despite my obviously slow clump of clay in my head, I realised soon enough that Asimov is not a science fiction writer. He did write about the future as he foresaw it, but it was quiet apparent that Asimov was more an explorer of human psyche than the future. The future, robots, transmutation et. al were the right context, the right distraction for him to dwell deeper into the human mind. Two stories would remain in my mind for eternity. The Jokester and The billiard ball . Every tenth knowing smile, I smile is more because of the instant recall of these two amazing stories rathar than the inherant comedey in the context.

It was one such smile. An old uncle who came back from the USA and was regealling all the natives with stories of the promised land. He drawled on pausing stratigically to very very good effect.

"We Indians are extremely intelligent. You know when I was a student in caltech, I had a friend coming fom India for the first time. He joined Princeton to persue his doctorate in physics. Now as students we had to save a lot of money. What did this friend do ? He places a collect call to my number. The phone rang and I picked it up. A sweet voice anounced to me saying, 'A collect call from Ramesh Aagaya. Would you like to accept it ?'. No I replied and she went on to inform Ramesh Aagaya how his collect call had been denied. See without spending any money he informed me of his arrival".

The whole living room burst into laughter applauding the intelligence of Desi Americans and ridiculing the hole ridden system in America. The message was simple. Indians are too intelligent. Give them any system, they will work with it and even twist the system right on its head. That living room was thich with pride and I have to admit, I was the first one to roar with laughter allbeit an entirely different reason. Uncontrollable laughter. Everyone else took the cue and dint want to be left behind.

Why did I laugh ? Is it a unique joke ? Definitely not. Its not even original. I have personally heard ten different people tell me the same joke in ten different versions. Each one claiming with ferocity that he/she/, his/her friend was the original inventor of this great Desi discovery. I laughed that day of the wonderous beauty of Asimov and how mis-understood his stories were. I laughed at the joy of my own discovery of what Asimov really was. A writer of human psyche, letting us have a sneak peek as to why people do what they do. This post is about that.

Asimov's theme in Jokester was simple. Jokes are small little experiments performed by aliens on humans to understand their psyche. To find out why they do what they do. Its not quiet important weather the alien experiment theory is true or not. But for argument sake, lets say it is true. Then why did the old uncle repeat the sadofied (stale) joke ? Why did he expect a laugh ? Why did I laugh ? Why did all the others laugh ?

That uncle was returning back to India after dog years and like every Indian it is central to his life what people of his community think of himself. His sense of success is directly dependant on what his earstwhile peers think of it. His accomplishment is directly co-related to how accomplished he feels out here. In all this there is a fear too. The fear of retaining his Indian ness. Even the most outgoing and liberal person in India, when confronted with the stark reality of a western society steps back to his identity and wants to retain that at any cost. This protective nature is what makes him go to "Bridgewater temple", Learn vedas, look upon carnatic music as some holy grail to be preserved, become more of a hindu than he would ever be in his lifetime. This sense of who you are is so starkly visible in the general American landscape it turns the most outgoing person into a recluse.

If you happen to live in middle America, it is difficult to just become friends with anyone in town. The kind of culture and style an American society brings about is entirely alien to the sometimes intrusive and curiosity ridden Indian way of life.
This uncle, was trying to get back into his old setup at a higher rank than when he left. I was just helping him to ease back into the community as soon as possible and I couldnt help laughing with disbelief of how many different claimants are there for this joke. Each claimant using it for his own unique purpose displaying his own unique psyche. And for perhaps the first time, I wasnt too critical of the fakeness in tihs narration. It was just too funny and I was screaming to myself "I cant believe he was telling me this old sadofied (stale) joke". There was no condescention but it was purely amazing.

Very soon the others who saw this, realised that they all should laugh. Why did they laugh ? Two main reasons.

1) Epidemics
2) Tipping point.

Read Tipping point for a detailed analysis of this.

Anyways in brief we laugh because laughter is a huge social ice-breaker. Its a peek into informality and a certain bonhomie between people. Once you laugh at an other person's joke, you are accepting him into your inner circle and telling him he is accepted and vice-versa. Its a kind of low stakes approach. Instead of openly asking "I want to be friend's with you" (Not the amorous kind megha encounteres often), if you crack a joke and people laugh at it, its apparent that your company is liked and both of you do want to engage in that social interraction. The problem with openly asking that question "I want to be friends with you" or any other social interraction question like "Can we have a cup of coffee ?" (the oft used dating opener) is the fear of rejection.

"How would it be, if I am rejected ?". Well instantly any human would feel bad being rejected because everyone genuinely wants to be liked. A joke is a face saving way of testing that acceptance/rejection theory.

Jokes are also an amazing way to alter the stakes in a relationship. I was told by an old school friend Neetha "that one of the reasons you are funny or try to be funny is because you want to alter the stakes in your relationship and bring it to the zone where you can handle. You can entertain people and often you think that all people want is entertainment. So if someone wants something deep and meaningfull and you cant give it to them, you lighten up the conversation, make them laugh, entertain them and even hope that this can distract them from their real need." I dont really believe this sweaping statement by Neetha, but there is a little truth to it. When can one actually think beyond the rut one is in ? When can you get creative and innovative ? When can those amazing brainwave solutions to your problems appear ? When will you go to your happy place ?

Only when you laugh and lighten up isnt it ? Laughter is nothing but an externally induced natural mood elevator. When your mood changes and your brain processes some puzzles and enjoys the victory of figuring something out, it gets creative and you would find easy ways to untie some really difficult knots. I am built that way actually trying to figure out how knots are opened. Jokes and laughter actually alters many of the assumptions in our brain without us having to be confronted by our set positions in an open way. If someone tells me "Vasu you have to change". Hell there is no way I will change. But if the environment is non-threatening and easy, I will change even without being let know of the fact that I need to change.

Jokes and humour help to generate that non-threatening environment where we all have face savers to not injure our pride.

Whats the connection between the title and the post ? Through and through this whole experience of mine, talking to the old uncle, seeing through the smokes and mirrors of human behaviour, sifting through the tons of crap Neetha told just to find out the odd precious stone, I was a fly on the wall. Non-participative, alert, overworked in my mind and figuring out new relationships between evensts and elements in my environment. If I had involved myself I would never have understood many things. Never would have recalled Asimov and certainly wouldnt have laughed so hard at the "Rames Aagaya" joke.

I was just a fly on the wall.

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