Thursday, September 28, 2006

Semi-annual pilgrimage to IIT Hospital

So, it was time for me to continue my what has become a ritual semi-annual piligrimage to the last place in IIT where I want to be - the IIT Hospital. Atleast, this time I stuck to OPD, and with only viral fever. Last time, I was there, it was end of Jan and I was actually admitted there for 5 days for measles (of all things - but I guess, it is better to be infected by "children's" disease than "adults'" disease !). And, before I forget, spending 4 days alone in the isolation ward building was no joke. But, given the amount of medicines I'm taking and the fact that I've paid exactly zilch so far (it is tax-payer funded), I suspect that their budgets might have suffered a serious setback due to me :)

The hospital building itself is old and dilapidated. It should be of no surprise to look up at the ceiling and find that the plaster for half of it has fallen off (and God alone knows, on whom and when *shudder*). There are cracks and dirt on the wall and toilets are horrible. The isolation ward is usually not used - when I was admitted in Jan, they started cleaning the isolation ward while I was waiting outside. The toilet in the isolation ward is the most horrible of all :) Not that I was in any position to complain at that time...

One of the biggest pain-points of the hospital is getting there - my hostel, Hostel 13, which is around 1.5 km away. The IIT internal bus service, "TumTum"s usually don't visit H13 unless it is class timings. Autorickshaws aren't found when I need them. Ambulance won't come unless there is emergency, and even then, it many not be available for my emergency. The only option is to get a ride on a bike from my friends. Ironically, though this is a lifesaver of sorts, maintaining a bike is not allowed for students. Tell that to H12/H13 people !

Then, I have to go and search for my file on a rack, and then stand in a queue to present it in a counter to get a receipt. And I'm supposed to do all that, when I can barely stand. The trouble doesn't end there - then I have to lookup on the notice board, and see what rooms have what doctors, and then sit (sometimes stand) on the benches in front of the cabins and wait my turn.

And, further trouble is the prescription. The doctor writes something on the receipt, and then says "Take this 3 times a day and this, every morning, and this, every evening", and I'm supposed to understand whatever he/she has written. I then go to the pharmacy, where on submitting the receipt, the guy says, "take this so and so times a day". Atleast, when he is saying I can put the tablets to be taken thrice a day into my pant's backpocket, and so on. But, you end up in further trouble - the pharmacist expects you to get your own bottle for taking the cough syrup :(

But, the saving grace is the staff. The doctors can be occasionally a bit brusque. But, I've found nothing less than courtesy and care from them. I should know - I spent some 5 days in a loony bin called isolation ward (all alone in the entire block !), but I never felt a need to ask my Mom and Dad to come here. IIT Hospital may be a government hospital, but its main (and perhaps the only) strength is people.

For a change, I'm looking forward to attending classes !

Friday, September 22, 2006

Dealing with organizational self-pity

There are times when I get to see an organization when people are seemingly sunk in self-pity. Everybody knows that there is something wrong. Everybody thinks someone else is the cause. Gossip and politics are everywhere, killing everybody's reputation behind their backs.

I think I know the recipe to recover from this tragedy. It is so obvious - one just has to look at the things from a third-person's perspective. People get so involved in their own matters that they can't look at the big picture, but anyone from outside can easily see that.

One of the most important things is action. It is absolutely imperative that people stop their endless discussion about who is wrong and what someone else can do, and instead turn to what they can contribute to the organization.

But, the most serious problem arises, when people don't even believe in themselves, when they don't believe that they can do something about the situation, when they expect somebody from outside to lift them up (fat chance). At that point, they resist even the reformers. What a tragedy, what a waste of talent.

What to do at that time ? Someone has to bite the bullet, someone has to shoulder the responsibility, someone has to take the risks, someone has to have a vision, and that someone must not be afraid of failure to act, even though his/her vision might be deficient. That someone must be courageous - and foolish - enough to believe that he/she can singlehandedly change the organization.

Now, that someone is me.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Knowing when to quit

As I covered in my previous post about retirement, I also wanted to talk about the timing of retirement. Someone said (it's been variably attributed to Gavaskar and Vijay Merchant - so I'll settle for "someone"), the best time to retire is when people ask "why ?" and not "why not ?".

It is very difficult to go out when you are on top. Sometimes, it is nice when you don't have a choice. But, when you do, you want to wait for that "one more" win, "one more" title, "one more championship". And, you get stuck there, till you are forced out.

In this sense, success breeds failure. During my years of work, I watched year after year, CAT after CAT (XAT after XAT, JMET after JMET, whatever) pass me by, and me not able to qualify because of "hectic work". Motivation was wavering, "another exam ?" syndrome rising, and it was appearing like it is time to look at my career and not just my job. And, in my mind, I had decided, if not this time, then never. Imagine my shock to get some 84 percentile in CAT ! Fortunately, I got in to SJMSOM !

As I've mentioned previously, it was very difficult for me to quit Netscaler, even after being selected to SJMSOM. It had almost everything I wanted - a wonderful work environment, amazing team and team-mates, autonomy, creativity, and a lot more things that I seem to forget now. It made my decision to quit all the more difficult. I was stuck with the question "Should I or should I not ?" for a long time. And I decided to bite the bullet - one of the most difficult decisions I had ever made.

One of the most important things that sports teaches is being on top is a temporary phenomenon. If you are on top today, nothing gaurantees that state tomorrow. Just look at Schumacher's performance in 2005 - a single win in Indianapolis Grand Prix against 5 other cars ! That was one of the more important reasons why I quit.

So, I can understand why some people, like a former Indian captain with initials SG refuse to quit. Why someone like Vinod Kambli, whose last claim to cricketing fame was consecutive double centuries against England, and whose last cricketing image is that of a cry-baby after losing the 1996 World Cup semi-finals at Eden Gardens, still believes he can make a come back.

We all want to live in our reflected past glory, don't we ?

Idolizing

Over the past fortnight, 2 sports icons have announced their retirement - Agassi and Schumacher. I didn't admire Agassi as much as I did Sampras. And, I've always been a Ferrari/Schumacher admirer since 1999 - that's quite a long time.

It has been reported that Schumacher was a flawed champion. He may have been the most successful of all, but not necessarily the greatest. Some even call him a cheat. There are no excuses for misdemeanors. But, that is all beside the point.

I like Schumacher for his driving skills. For his ability to motivate himself after seasons and seasons of wins - indeed, it is difficult to motivate yourself when you are the top ! But, to expect that he should be flawless also is asking for a bit too much. After all, he never asked for being put on a pedestal.

I think it is silly for people to look for perfection of human character outside themselves. It is silly to idolize someone. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said "My country right or wrong is like saying my mother, drunk or sober" or something to that effect. Schumacher, McEnroe, and Gary Kasparov were great in their chosen field of sports. Let us leave it at that. Let us not drag their greatness to other fields as well.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

MBA toolbox - Google Notebook

One important thing I learnt as a software developer is the importance of having a personal toolbox, consisting of utilities, scripts, and whatever might help me be more productive. And that habit has proved useful even in my MBA student life.

Since my project submissions are getting near, I thought of having a proper note-taking tool to help me collate the enormous amount of information that I come across during my Google (re)search.

One obvious way was to keep the browser tabs open, but it makes me feel I'm very inefficient - an desktop equivalent of having a cluttered desk. I tried del.icio.us - somehow, it didn't feel as if that was the proper tool. Then, last week, in our department lab, Keshav and I were randomly browsing and we stumbled up Google's website. We started looking at the Google offerings page and we came across something called Google Notepad. We were puzzled but didn't pursue it. I came to my hostel room and started looking at it. It seemed to be a very nifty tool. I immediately downloaded the Firefox extension.

Essentially it works like this: Say in the middle of a browsing session, you came across something important. You copy the text and right-click and click on "Note this" (this is provided by the Firefox extension). This and the corresponding URL get saved as a note on the Google site in your account name, so you can access them from a different computer also. You can have a notebook with many such notes, and you can have many such notebooks. You can also make your notebooks public, but I'm yet to use that feature.

I do have a couple of grouches. They need to improve the interface of http://www.google.com/notebook page - it is too ugly, bordering on unusable. Would be nice if I could access these from GMail, so that I can forward these as emails.

I recommend this heartily to any MBA and indeed to anyone, who does a majority of his work online.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Why Indians don't contribute to open source ?

Over the past few weeks, one of the questions that is being asked repeatedly is: why Indians do not contribute to open source. A variety of answers have been attempted, but I'm not at all satisfied.

One excuse that is getting a bit stale is that we don't have internet or infrastructure. While I'd have given it the benefit of doubt a few years ago, right now, especially since the advent of BSNL broadband, it is unacceptable. Another is that we are a developing country. So is Brazil and I don't see that lagging behind.

I think it has got something to do with the fact that we are all mercenaries. We work because we want money and not because we love to, not because it's fun. Looking at the attrition rate and the rising salaries in the software industry, I think my point is obvious.

A large number of students who are skilled enough to contribute (the CS grads) are not interested in the subject. They studied CS to get a high-paying job. They probably did that because their family felt CS was "in scope" like electronics was a few years ago, and Civil and Mechanical engineering were a decade or so ago. Our IITs, NITs and IIMs are employment factories. They are not institutions of higher learning - who needs learning anyway, when you can get a job without it ?

To contribute to open source requires that you take it up as a hobby, and to do that you must enjoy coding. I know a lot of CS/IT grads who hate coding ! They regard it as some form of menial labor. Programming (which includes coding) can be elevated to an art form. Linus Torvalds recently talked about taste - he was right. There should be an aesthetic sense regarding the code.

There are a lot of developers "on the bench" at any time in a software services company, like Wipro, Infy, TCS and Patni. Why aren't they doing (that I know of) any open source coding ? Why can't the companies have open source development as some sort of a CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiative ?

Looking at the original meaning of the term, mercenaries are the contract fighters - those who fight for private gain. They are regarded as scum. At the same time, a soldier can earn money as compensation for his services.

In contrast to the above principle, working for money is a socially accepted practice. Most people are confused between earning salary as a fair compensation and working for money. That is the crux of the problem.

So, that's the bottomline: We don't know why we work. Or why we should.