Book Review: Outliers – The story of Success

Two parts storytelling, one part facts and anecdotes, a pinch of twist in the tale – and Voila! Gladwell does it again – makes you think and go hmmm…that is interesting. In this installment, the topic he has chosen is “Success” and he tries to give it a perspective that is counter-intuitive and non-mainstream.

The first aspect Gladwell tries to highlight is the aspect of opportunity and timing. Starting with a peek at how arbitrary rules of the elite Canadian hockey league favor those who are born in the early calendar months, Gladwell then introduces his theory of 10,000 hrs, supposedly the minimum number of hours exceptional folks practice doing their craft before they become exceptional. Along the way he then takes us through the lives of some of those ‘outliers’ – The Beatles, Bill Joy and Bill Gates—while explaining how talent, persistence, and above all, extraordinary opportunity and luck played a big part in their success.

As we digest the stories, Gladwell, in his characteristic style, quickly introduces the factors of how the environment and cultural legacy impact a whole generation and sometimes cause generations to succeed (or fail). The journey continues as he puts his hypotheses to work explaining honor cultures, Jewish lawyers, Asian math whizzes and ends with the school system in the US.  In this ride, if there is one line that stays with us and explains the book, it is – Outliers are those who have been given opportunities– and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

A quick read, the book stands out for its provocative argument, interesting topic and variety of anecdotes told by a master story teller and writer. Gladwell is at his best when he interweaves the stories while arguing his point and introducing a new way to look at the topic itself. Be warned though – while the book is all that, what Gladwell is not also comes through – i.e. he is not a master researcher and social scientist. Some of the theories stand on a couple of research papers, and conclusions could seem to be made to fit his theories. He also does not present any evidence that may be used to actually argue against his theories.

Overall,  next time you have that long flight and want something more than the in-flight entertainment,  pick up the book, read it and ponder – success……

Green Shoots? Really?

We get different takes on the current economic situation from the media and pundits. Paul Swartz, an International economist from CFR compares the various indicators for some interesting conclusions.

Paul Swartz – CFR

Alt+Tab: Multi Tasking and Task switching

I walk to my cubicle, say hello to my neighbor and while making some inane comment about coffee in the morning , I notice my voice mail blinking. I log on to my machine and at the same time have my phone to my ear. While the PC is logging me on, I type in the voice mail password. My email is up and I scan the new ones while listening to my voice mail. Messages pop up on IM – Are we really having the portfolio planning meeting today? I notice an email that I think that needs immediate attention ; The cell phone buzzes – my boss needs some updates.

Busy – No. This is an Tech Manager on a regular day . Actually pretty normal in the corporate world of today.

Both at work and home, in today’s world of information overload and attention grabbing devices, we multi-task and task switch constantly. Research has over and again proven that constant multi-tasking is not efficient . It takes time for our mind to switch gears from one task to other. And typically quality suffers. To be clear, there are some tasks we are or become so proficient at, that we can do them without thinking, almost in some kind of auto mode – for instance, walking and chewing gum at the same time. I have also heard of accomplished surgeons who can talk about baseball or their new favorite restaurant while sealing the abdomen wall and fixing the hernia flawlessly. But in our regular world, the previous example is an exception not the rule.

I believe one of the primary factors is our own need to feel productive and more importantly on top of things. We feel a need to check email every time the alert messages prop up and glance at the feeds coming in via the RSS feeds. How many meetings have we attended with folks busy on laptops or thumbing messages on the crackberry? Juggling tasks gives one an illusion of being productive. There are also some practical reasons. The workplace of today is really interruption driven. It is normal to be working on a presentation deck and to be interrupted by an urgent client email or a team-member who needs direction.

In the end, as with most of the things, it comes down to balance – juggle things but stay sane. One of the practical tips I read about (I think it was from Tim Ferriss’ blog (author of the 2 hour week) – Time Ferriss Blog ) was to check emails only periodically. You chose the period based on your work patterns. I do it once every 1-2 hours during regular working hours. Once I do that, I resist temptation to check in-between (it is hard!) even if the “you have mail” alert comes up.

Related at useful info can be found at:
Scott Berkun essay : Attention and Sex
Multi Task research – MIT
Multi Task paper from UMich

A rose by any other name…

It is a cliche – Globalization 2.0, The World is Flat, China syndrome et al. But it is true – isn’t it? And how do we know it? Of course, you read the NYT, WSJ, see the Made in China/India/Vietnam tags – it is all over the place.

No- but how do really know that it is true.

Just look around – the everyday people you meet: Have you noticed how you struggle with the names? Wait a minute – have you noticed people struggle with your name?

In a day I go from AJ to AAA-jai and sometimes even Aja .And I have a simple 2 syllable name. In the morning trip to cafe, I run into Maria and Akele.I receive emails from clients – Cheidu and Nguyen. I practice their names before I call them back. Later that afternoon , I help the team pronounce the name “Phanindra”. Back home, my wife and I discuss the greeting card from friends Jaap and Marieke.

And now to overcome some of those challenges, here is help :
Pronounce Names

H/T: The Lifehacker blog.

Enjoy!

SUPERSIZE me!

Spread over 500 geographically dispersed areas, employing 6.5 million and conducted over 4 weeks – this project beats ‘em all : Elections in the largest democracy in the world.

As Shashi Tharoor writes, ” Elections are an enduring spectacle of a free India.” With 300 parties in the fray, there is going to be a lot of drama, politics, coercion and “errors”. In spite of all of that, pulling off this gargantuan project successfully requires mammoth effort – A huge hat tip to the Election commission of India.

More info at the Reuters coverage site: Reuters India Election coverage

“All first drafts are terrible. I don’t care if you’re Hemingway.”

In today’s world of iPhones, blackberry, twitter et al the quantity and ease of communication is not the issue but it is the quality. And here is one of my pet peeves – email usage. In my everyday work life, I see tons of emails that are written without a thought about the readers (to be fair – I have been guilty of it too). The company I work for has grown multifold over the years. So have my clients and the projects I manage. Not to mention – so has the email usage. I have had lots of situations that needed teams to re-group and have a meeting or get on to a conference call to discuss issues that were to do with confusions created by somebody’s email on a particular topic.

Dan Silvermans’s take on the topic of email abuse hits the nail on its head – How to Revise an Email So That People Will Read It

While every one will agree to the premise that good email usage increases efficiency of the project and the company, the catch is – good email usage is very closely linked to the company culture – And any change to culture is not easy.

Change begins at home; for starters, I am going to be more disciplined about emails and will try to follow tips mentioned in the Silverman article.

Is the PMP certification worth it?

As a  “PMP” certified manager (for the uninitiated – it is the Project Management Professional designation from PMI) , I get asked by my reports, peers and clients  – Is getting a PMP and maintaining it worth the effort? As with any designation, having a PMP by itself does not mean a thing ; I have worked with solid top-notch managers without PMP designation. But, I still believe that it has its uses. Here are my Letterman-esque top 5 reasons –

  • The PMBOK and other PMI resources attempt to give a framework to the various facets of Project management. Any profession general and ambiguous as project management benefits from the use of a frame of reference.
  • The pressure to maintain PDUs forces PMPs to keep in touch with latest trends and ideas in the industry via seminars and forums. My personal favs for IT Project Management – PMclinic and Construx Forums.
  • PM Seminar and forums are great opportunities for networking.
  • Hiring and HR managers use this designation as a filter for PM jobs. Enough said.
  • And finally – it sounds cool to say I am all PMPed up :-). Ok that was for laughs.