Corporate Diary: Rise of the versatilist

“पहले इंजीनियरिंग की , उसके बाद एमबीए किया , उसके बाद अमेरिका जाके बँक में  नौकरी कर रहा है , अगर बँक में नौकरी करनी थी तो इंजीनियरिंग कायके लिये किया ?”

(For my non-hindi readers, meaning: First they studied engineering, then MBA, and then they worked for a bank in America. If they wanted to work for a bank, why did they pursue engineering in the first place?).

If you have seen the movie – 3 idiots, you may remember this dialogue very well. However, this dialogue can come only from an ignorant person in the context of 2023. Despite of what Mr. Rancho or the writer thinks, there is nothing wrong with pursuing multiple interests/skills or experience beyond one’s traditional education. If anything, corporate world rewards it immensely. A lot of fresh graduates, mid-level managers ask me how I climbed the corporate ladder so fast, and what can they do to succeed? While luck plays some role, there are a lot of competencies you can build that are surprisingly (or not) lacking in the herd. I had few of these competent skills before starting my job but certainly learnt the others the hard way. I started corporate diary series to provide some anecdotes in case anyone may benefit from them.

Just before leaving for Japan, I was seen as an innovation spark in IBM and was leading a small team. I got invited to speak about IT Careers at Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Technological University, Lonere in 2006. I spoke about various opportunities the industry presented, and the skills students can acquire to be more employable. One of the personality traits I asked the students to develop was to be more versatile. It had helped me immensely during my career and couldn’t be more relevant today.

I started my corporate programming project in one language. However, depending on the need later in different companies or programs, I was flexible coding in different languages. Core programming principles don’t change and being a polyglot helped me understand wider ecosystem of the company. Much later when I was Director, I realized lot of programmers had self-imposed mental barrier. E.g. “I have always been in this language”. These were the same set of people who were not promoted for the longest and were wondering why. They unforunately never got the honest feedback. I had to push them to learn new age skills. Point to note here isn’t just for programmers and for that matter – not specific to IT either – Be willing to learn / re-learn / upskill constantly.

Curiosity helped me learn the problems software ecosystem was trying to solve. “Understanding Your Problem Is Half the Solution” as the saying goes. In my case, these were various issues in Investment Banking domain. By acquiring domain knowledge, I was able to converse better with business and often come up with solutions that improved revenue or reduced cost for the business. Naturally, better communication with business/clients meant improved career prospects.

In order to be more versatile, you will have to be more adaptable. It’s easier said than done because embracing change is not instinctive to everyone. It’s a skill that can certainly be sharpened though. Get out of your comfort zone. Be willing to make mistakes. Only those who try, make mistake so don’t be hard on yourself.

Below are the two slides from that original talk from 2006.

I don’t recall the source for percent and probability mentioned in slides above but numbers aside, I still believe this is relevant today as well. Only difference is “pi shaped”, “m shaped” or “comb shaped” skills are more popular terms now. Whatever you call them, rise of the versatilist in corporate world is visible.