Monday, August 28, 2006

Implicit biases in MBA entrance exams

It is that time of the year when MBA hopefuls apply for various entrace exams - CAT, XAT, our own JMET, and god-alone-knows-what-else. I've got some pretty strong reservations against our system.

A lot of b-schools (SJMSOM included) prefer people with workex. A person with workex can apply a lot of concepts to what he/she had experienced before. However, the entrance exams are designed to be for freshers.

It takes a few months of preparation to face CAT if you are serious about MBA. If you are working, and you enjoy your work, and the work is good, and you are sincere in doing your work, how much effort can you put into preparing for CAT ? I assume that I meet all the above criteria, and I'll tell you the answer: Not much.

If the job pays well, your motivation to do MBA suffers too. A lot of my ex-colleagues really wanted to do MBA, but could never take the risk of loss of big income for 2 whole years. And as you put in more and more years in the industry, you become less and less inclined towards preparing for higher studies.

So, the best strategy is to rely on your strengths and pray. I could not crack CAT because I was not prepared for quant, and hence could not clear the section cut-offs. And that is why I cracked JMET. Because of lack of section cut-offs, my strategy was simple and executed perfectly - no preparation, relying only on my strengths: I maxed out the verbal and logical section in 1 hour, and spent the rest of the time with Data analysis and quant. It worked, and I got a good rank, good enough to get a call from SJMSOM.

So, in essence, to get into a b-school, all the soft skills and experience really don't matter. An MBA entrance exam is inherently biased against experienced people and against those who work hard. It is inherently biased towards hard skills and against soft skills.

Is this what we want ?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ethics and b-schools

There have been well publicised ethical failures in the industry that have been attributed to b-schools. There is a big discussion in the United States, and it appears as if the infection might be spreading to India also.

There is a feeling that MBAs are unethical. Let us ignore my personal indignation at such a sweeping stereotyping. Logically it means that a) people became unethical after going to b-schools; and b) b-schools take in unethical people and fail to make them ethical.

It is my firm opinion that the priority that people give to ethics is intrinsic to them, and the external environment is only incidental. Ethics, values and morality are the things that should be taught at home and before you enter college. Therefore, by the time people come to b-schools, their ethicality is written into their DNA, their mind is already corrupted (or not).

It is very surprising that people expect that b-schools can somehow make people ethical. As mentioned before, when people join their b-school, their mind is closed and there is very little that b-school can do in changing their mentality. The only exception is if they practice a spiritual system that cleans them at a very low level inside out, in which case they become more ethical. And this happens very rarely.

But, b-schools and most of the universities and companies, can be accused of taking in unethical people. That is the problem that probably can be addressed to a certain extent by psychometric tests, essays, etc. I don't see anybody following them.

Therefore, MBAs are as ethical or unethical as just about any person. But, why is the fact about unethicality of MBAs highlighted ? Frequently, their work is at a level where it will have high impact on others. An IT services company employee billing the customer for an hour of work that wasn't done, is as unethical as plagiarism is. CV embellishment happens quite a lot. People have brazenly lied in my face when I was taking their interviews.

Another interesting hypothesis is that people who are attracted to the power and control and who are smart enough to use all sorts of tricks to get to the top. They think of MBA as a means of getting to the top. This means that many MBAs are attracted to power. This is probably true, but that in no way, excuses the stereotyping of all or a majority of MBAs as unethical.

Why I don't want to consult

Consulting is touted as the hot place to get in during campus placements. I didn't know much about it, until today, when some people from BCG visited IIT Bombay, and pitched their line about why people must join management consulting and that too at BCG, etc etc. Though it was aimed at under-grads, the session was enlightening in that for the first time ever, I sort of understood what a consultant does. And I still don't like it.

One of the guys was boasting about how he was advising the CEO, the board; how he was advising the in-charge of the entire western sector of a leading cement manufacturer. The overwhelming feeling I got was that these people enjoyed having a sense of power, since they were close to the people of such high positions of respected and reputed companies. I don't subscribe to that philosophy.

I understood the IT sector from the "production" aka development perspective. I'm now learning the other aspects of the business. Would it be moral if I start advising CEOs of banks about how to run their business, without experiencing and appreciating the business at their lowest level ?

I like, and indeed, my strength is to get things done, to drive things. I'm good at selling my ideas to people. I'm good at innovating and thinking laterally. I want to take ownership of what I do, and I want to do it. I want to get in at the bottom, work my way to the top. I want to get my hands dirty. I want to screw up. I want to fail, and understand the value of success.

I don't think consulting can offer that.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Social engineering in internet security

CAPTCHA is a system to verify that an entity interacting with a system is a human or not. The main application of this system is when creating email accounts of major service providers. Because they are prone to misuse by spammers using automated scripts to create throwaway accounts, the CAPTCHA is used to control the spam accounts.

Simply put, it displays an image with letters and numbers embedded in it, along with optical distractions. The user is expected to type in the letters and numbers in the text box and the servers verifies if it is the same.
The assumption is that a computer program would not be able to make out precisely what the picture consists of and hence, the system can distinguish between humans and computer programs.

Sounds perfect, eh ? Let us see how indeed might a spammer break this. Advanced AI programs ? Too obvious and too complex. You can always increase the complexity in the image that renders a program useless. And then, you have to build a program that uses even more advanced neural networks to crack it, and so on. So, how to break this ?

Someone smart-ass with lot of time on his hands thought of an ingenious way of getting around these blocks. The solution is so amazing simple and blindingly obvious. Quoting from the slashdot story ...
"Spammers are now usings a new technique to circumvent the 'captchas,' the distorted text in graphics, that users must input to receive the free email account. The spammers have cracked the system by displaying the 'captchas' on free porn sites in real time. Since there are always a large number of people signing up for free porn, they do the work of decripting the 'captchas' which is then replayed back into the spammers program to create a new email account. Who thought that porn could be a hacking technique!"

This is just an example of a high technology being defeated by simple innovation. This goes for password security too - you can use 256-bit encryption to transmit passwords, MD5 or SHA hashing to store passwords, you can force people to remember passwords that are atleast 15 characters long and contain letters, number and special characters, and force users to change it every other week ... but all these can be defeated by the simplest methods by attacking the weakest link in the chain - people. Nothing (including a ban) can stop them from writing passwords down. Nothing can stop them from making it easy for them to remember (and others to guess).
There have been reports of biometric security being broken. RFID detectors can be fooled by wrapping RFID-tagged items in metal foils. Complex mechanisms can be defeated by the simplest techniques.
Bottomline: Most of so-called security measures are useless.

Office politics in knowledge economy

We are studying an elective course called "New Business Models in Knowledge Economy", looking at the new opportunities and barriers for business in the information age. That is just one perspective. My experience in academia as a student, as an employee in a software company, and finally as an intern in another software/services company, gives the experience to offer a insights into power equations and office politics in knowledge economy. I think, but can't prove off-hand, that academia is probably more vicious than corporate life.

The problem in a knowledge organization (including b-schools) is simple: the intelligence is usually present at the bottom of the chain. People are usually much much brighter than their bosses. It is indeed, difficult to call them subordinates, since they are not and to call bosses as a superior, since they are not. The old military style heirarchy was no longer valid. So, something had to be done to impose control. So, they invented "need to know" (let me call that NTK). Or maybe adapted a similar concept from military.

Office politics would be nothing if people didn't feel insecure. One of the main reasons that people want to impose control is because they are afraid they'd be criticized, and all the skeletons in the closet would tumble out. Not that it matters, people usually know who the bozos are.

Information is the oxygen in a knowledge organization. So, some wise guy decided that the best way to impose control is to restrict information access down the chain. Starved of their oxygen and choking on the carbon dioxide of unwanted and garbage data, the chain would dance to the tunes from the top. And it does. I know the kick that this NTK addiction gives - it feels really good when I have information that others don't have "need to know". The charm is quite seductive :)

There have been lots of times that I have been at the receiving end. I used to feel frustrated because someone at the top of the chain figured out that some document was "sensitive data". Sensitive, indeed, when I had unfettered access to all of the source code !

So, whenever I spoke to someone regarding an information that I had a NTK and I didn't have it yet, I used to be "out of the loop" (let us call that OOTL). It is regarded as a big blow to the prestige and ego, if you are sufficiently advanced in an organization but yet OOTL for some irrelevant thing.

Another tactic in this information warfare is "miscommunication". I've seen so many times when sheer incompetence was meant to be hidden, and any problem that arose was explained away with "miscommunication". It is a smart tactic, because now, the responsibility of failure is spread over 3 factors - the initiator, the receiver and the medium. One would say "I just assumed that you knew this", "I didn't want to spam you with something you aren't interested in", etc. Note to the HR of such companies: no amount of communication courses help with deliberate miscommunication ... you may as well save on your budget.

Incidentally, I figured out how to work this system to my advantage: claim that I have a NTK for some data and start bugging people. Come up with any excuse I want and pester them. They'll give me access just to get me off their back. And, claim that I can't attend a meeting or decide on something, because I was left OOTL, and therefore, since I'm responsible, and doing my bounden-duty, but lack the required background, it is not possible to do anything about it. A lazy person would create another level of bureaucracy just by this tactic.

Some people can't hit back. They are either incompetent or have been brainwashed in their upbringing that elders must be obeyed. They do everything they are asked to do and never ask questions. They don't even question why they are supposed to code in a particular way or how a particular feature is going to help the product. As they gain experience and move up the ladder, they become the new enforcers of the knowledge embargo.

As they say, a sucker is born every minute.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Cuba, democracy and communism

For me, Cuba = Fidel Castro. So, as the news of his temporary inability to continue got highlighted in the media, I was wondering, as most people probably are, what next ? I don't know.

If I listen to US Government spokesperson, Castro is just Saddam in a different country. He is evil, people are just waiting to get out, and so on. Sounds familiar. Just about the only thing missing is an American foreign secretary showing satellite photographs to UN Security Council.

If I listen to the Cuban (and friendly media), Castro is God in human form, a person who really cares about Cuban people, etc. Sounds very familiar too.

Obviously, both of them can't be right. Or can they ? I wish world was black and white that I can identify who is lying and who is not. I guess the truth lies somewhere well in between.

Here in India in the pre-1991 days, we had socialism of a sort. It had its bad points: though officially there was no political control, there was only one DD channel, and that telecast mostly crap and propaganda throughout the day; if you apply for a telephone, you need to wait for 3 years; if the phone goes dead, it might take a month or so, to get repaired; to buy a Bajaj scooter, there was a waiting queue of 5 years. On the other hand, if you were having the right job (bureaucrat, politician), you could get things easily and probably freely too, paid for by tax payer. So, everything was made artificially scarce to most, and available in hands of few. Result was inefficient Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) and corruption.

But, we existed. We survived. We changed when we had to change. Now, we are ready to take on the world.

So, what is the beef with the US that it can't tolerate communism in Cuba. There is a dictum that "people get the government that they deserve". If Cubans are ok with it, then what is the harm ?

I just had a Market Research class and there we looked at the importance of objectivity when conducting a study. I think the US should not listen too seriously to the people who emigrated (escaped, ran away) - they are biased, and with an axe to grind. You cannot say you support the people of Cuba, and at the same time, impose sanctions, travel restrictions and business restrictions.

I perceive it to be the arrogance of US that it tries to sanctimoniously preach to other countries over democratic values, human rights, and respecting international opinions that it itself can't follow. Democracy must come bottom up, and I still believe that the miracle of the past century has been India becoming democratic and staying democratic. Imposing democracy when people are not willing to take responsibility for their own actions like in Iraq, Palestinian Authority, and other places will backfire. You cannot do that unless there is a popular support.
It is time for the US to get its priorities in order.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Israel-Lebanon conflict

I'm keenly watching the current Middle-East war, and I'm extremely disturbed because people are dying in a totally unnecessary war. The war has thrown up a lot of questions, that I hope to address in this and following blog posts, starting with the core problem: why the hell can't the Israelis and Palestinians live together ? Other questions that need to addressed being - What is the ideal solution ? How are we going to achieve it ? What is the point in having UN ? Can war-crimes be committed only by the losers ? What do you do about terrorism ?

So, what if they belong to different religions ? Even if all citizens of a country are of a single religion, people somehow find enough excuses to fight among themselves. Casteism in Hinduism (India) though it can be argued that casteism is a social and not a religious disease, Shias and Sunnis in Islam (Iran/Iraq etc), Catholics and Protestants in Christianity (Ireland) ... I don't know much about Buddhism or Judaism, so can't comment on them. But, anyway, the point being that Jews and Muslims can't live together is rubbish. It is an excuse.

I've always rebelled against the rigid rituals of religion. But, I do think that religion has never caused violence, per se. The root cause for all so-called "religious conflicts" has been the struggle for power - power to control others, exercised using deliberate mis-interpretations of religion. So, don't blame religion, blame the power-brokers.

There are some other practical aspects of this two-nation theory concept. From whatever I remember from macro-economics, I wonder how will Palestine (or Lebanon or Syria or Jordan) ever going to be a developed country ? Can they generate enough to maintain a good balance-of-payments position ? What will their main income be ? Can they sustain themselves ?

It can be argued that the past of Jews and Arabs has been so bloody that peace is unthinkable. Ok, accepted. But, what crime did the children do that they should suffer because we can't forget the past. Past is dead ... if there is no forgiveness then we will meet the past in the future, which is what is happening. Then there is the fact that Israeli Arabs are considered 2nd-class citizens of the country, despite the fact that Israel promises no discrimination. Ok, change the constitution. South Africa had a bigger mess with apartheid. They did a great job with Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

South Africa and more importantly, India, have demostrated to the world that diverse people can indeed live together, and it is possible to forgive the past. Are Israelis and Palestinians courageous enough to learn to tolerate their differences ?

I think it is time for all the players to step back and see where Middle-East should be some 50 years from now, and how we are going to achieve it.

So, I'm not advocating a cease-fire. That is too short-term. I'm advocating a single-nation theory. One secular and democratic where Arabs and Jews live with each other and as first class citizens. Perhaps unified with Lebanon and Syria (heh, if I can dream, I can dream big enough). That would be a country with a future.

Is it impossible ? No, if Berlin Wall can fall, and Germany can reunite, then this is also possible. But, it is going to be difficult. Because this is something that can't be dictated from outside. Do the Israelis and Palestinians want peace desperately enough ? Or are they still going to kill each other for next 2-3 generations ? In other words, how can they deserve peace ? But, ultimately, however long it takes, this is going to happen. I hope they are going to realize this soon enough.