Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The anatomy of a resignation

The time comes for you to move on to greener pastures. So when the green pastures send you their firm offer, you feel elated. There is a part of you that feels like Superman and there is another part of you that feels like a shylock, making you think, I'm so great but is it possible that I can get more out of these guys?

You are on an emotional high. You feel that you've got the recognition you've craved and you walk on air. You feel like kissing babies and patting stray dogs (or vice versa if you are an animal lover). Your boss calls you to review the month end figures and you have a wicked grin when you talk. You drop hints hoping that the guy would pick it up. He doesn't, ofcourse. He never did.

The moment comes; you decide to sock it to The Man (The Company). You think of calling the senior most guy, you see visions of him on the floor and on his knees begging you to stay back, telling you that the state of the company is in your hands. You dial the numbers; your hands sweat with anticipation, he picks up the call and you tell him straight off. He asks you why and righteous indignation flows out of your mouth. He listens awhile and asks you to stay, an idea which you reject. He says he will fly down to meet you the next week. You are filled with glee, you were hoping for this, not for him to convince you but for him to try.

The word spreads like wild fire. People look at you when you walk past, some come to you and ask straight off if it was true. You agree with a solemn face. You see happiness in people since you are leaving, you see happiness in people who are pleased at your growth and you see the vindictive bitch glare at you; the news had just upset her day. Your joy is complete.

They want to know what would be your role, what you would be paid, what perquisites you are eligible for, you answer, you evade. You like the attention, you wallow in it like a pig.

The HR head, the guy who never took the time to meet you calls you up. Wants to know the reason why, righteous indignation flows again. You start to feel a bit drained after it all.

The senior guy calls the next day, the chat was prolonged. In the end you figure out that he was more worried that you were going to take some customers away. You vow not to with your fingers crossed. He tells you what a great guy you are and you nod your head. He wants to meet you later that week in person; you know he has to do it as a duty not out of choice.

It's all set, two weeks notice as The Man says.

You walk in the next day, you see messages from friends telling you how much they'd miss you. You walk up to the coffee machine and bang it on the side to make it work. You feel a lump develop in your throat. You are going miss the people, the machine and all. You meet a few customers and they make you sadder. You've worked hard for 3 years to build this up after all.

By the end of the day, the smallest things increases the gloom. The tea shop outside your office, the gym in the fourth floor, they all feel important now. Your heart fills with apprehension about the new company. Will it be as good? Will I have a decent boss? Do I have the steam to pull it off one more time? Thoughts whiz past and you feel really old. You feel unhinged, nothing excites you, the month end rush leaves you cold and you write a post on your blog, watching the world around you.
You feel like an outsider in the world that was once yours.
(This was inspired by Mukta's post . Do read her blog, she is one awesome writer!)

Friday, August 26, 2005

Steinbeck for a Ciggy

I met this dude, after 10 years. We studied chemical engineering in the same college.

Catching up with friends is a great thing, all of a sudden 30 year old men start talking like teenagers, old nicknames surface and embarrassing moments are relived. That's what you do, when you meet an old college friend after 10 years.

During the course of the evening, he looked at me and asked 'Do you remember, East of Eden?'. I said, "The Steinbeck book? Yeah, I found it too boring". He replied "No, do you remember the time when you sold that book to me for a cigarette back in college?'. I had no recollection. I must have done it being the impulsive guy that I am. He still has that book, carefully bound sitting in a shelf at his home in Norway, a constant reminder of how someone sold him a work of art for a song.

This left me thinking, 'Why did I do it? Was I that desperate?' I was a bit angry with myself..

10 year old reminders in the form of cult fiction is worth atleast 3 or 4 cigarettes and I settled for 1. Short changed!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

It's about bloody time that I wrote something, isn't it?

I have the mother of all writer's block. I pick up a topic, start writing and then trash it after a point because, either its too boring or not funny enough or I've already writen about it. Thank God writing is about the only thing we regularly have blocks. Can you imagine walking up to your car and then saying 'Hmm..I don't think I can quite drive today, I seem to have forgotten how to'. Or inviting your girlfriend for dinner and then ... well, lets just say I've made a point.

Anyway, I have indeed had the pleasure of reading a fair number of things, stumbled on to some interesting blogs as well. Check out the blogger by the name Joe Pope (Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope), I am hoping that this really isn't the Pope in person. Whoever he is, this guy runs one funny blog!

I intend to start a photoblog one of these days (just as soon as I can get a lot of film developed). Will soon let you know how that goes. If you are interested in some amazing shots taken here in India, I strongly suggest that you visit Tom Pietrasik's website. Observe those pictures closely, look at their quality because then you will know what is missing in my photoblog when I do put it up.

And for all those who left unsavoury comments about my previous post on economics, I promise you another large dose of the same, very soon. Be good little children and read up, will you?

Monday, August 08, 2005


I just bumped into an interesting post in a pretty interesting blog today. You see economics is a favourite topic of mine for discussion. I can hear the in-drawn breaths, 'No way, and I thought he was such a nice guy too', you think. Well, we all have our dark secrets, mine is economics. It feels good to have finally got this off my chest.

Now Michael Higgins very eloquently puts up a case for competition being essential for quality to sustain. He is right. I can hear a few 'humpfs' there, why did you write this post then? you ask, well I've set my mind to play the devil's advocate in this deal and would like to highlight the pitfalls of competition.

We all I'm sure remember the time when we used to sweat it out in a line for over an hour to draw cash or take a demand draft in our neighbourhood bank. Or the time when we were very nice to the bank manager and wait for weeks so that he would give you a housing loan or a car loan. Now those days are gone. Modern competition is in. Cash can be drawn in an ATM under 10 minutes, DDs can be printed on the internet, any kind of a loan is available at your disposal. Now where is the problem?, you ask, the problem lies in the fact that the bank ceases to be a group of people you know and becomes a faceless system. It isn't such a big deal, you say, but when you consider that you are effectively reduced to an account number or a loan application number and cease to be a living breathing human being as far as the bank is concerned, you have to stop and think. You become a sales target for aggressive banks, more and more loans are poured your way and the number of credit cards that you carry in your wallet increase.

After a point you stop paying the entire amount due on your card to the bank and just keep servicing the outstanding by paying the interest. What follows is usually a default or two and the eventual blacklisting by all banks. You are a pariah, not just because you over spent, but because no one told you what a debt trap was. If it had been the old system, the bank manager would probably not have given you the loans (or credit cards) that you now have. You might have even saved a lot more money. Now imagine if an entire country does this. If you think that this is an extreme case, then do read about what happened in South Korea (you can read about it here too). This could very well happen in India as well, till the feeding frenzy of certain banks is held under control and the borrowers are educated. There certainly are some good banks that have a good system of credit appraisal that factors in issues like over spending on part of it's customers while processing loan applications but largely the process followed by most banks is shocking.

Small and profitable banks which quite frequently are able to offer more personalised services, have suffered due to intense competition and are being gobbled up by bigger banks who follow an acquisition route to growth as opposed to a more organic approach. So if you say that your bank is niche and different, the chances that it would soon be consolidated with something bigger is quiet high. For example well run banks like ANZ Grindlays and Times Bank were consolidated into much larger banks and in the end their customers suffered.
I am not going into stuff like phone banking and the machines that we speak to everyday when we call up our banks. These have become urban legends and are crosses that we bear in the name modernisation.

Now lets come to the other stuff. Do you remember the number of aerated drinks that were there before Coke or Pepsi came to India? Where have they all gone? Competition has wiped them out. They either have been bought over or have keeled under intense marketing pressure brought about by these two giants. So this effectively leaves these two biggies out in the middle to slug it out for market share. Like wise you can take a lot of examples in which the smaller players have been beaten out of the game by the larger players, eventually leaving 2-3 companies in serious competition.

This is a system called Oligopoly.

Oligopoly is a market form in which a small number of sellers dominate the market. In effect instead of one big fat company monopolising the market you have two or three big fat companies sharing the spread. Sure, they compete with each other but this competition is not a perfect competition (which a market where no producer or consumer has the power to influence the market and the market would broadly follow the laws of supply and demand). Sometimes, Oligopoly can easily lead to forming of cartels. It can also lead to a scenario where the buyer of goods not being very aware of the pricing mechanism or the quality of goods sold (Remember the contaminated ground water incident involving Coke and Pepsi, when these two giants came together for the first time). Oligopoly is even supported by the government in areas like telecom for reasons best known to them. Now, don't get me wrong, intense competition under Oligopoly means that the customers benefit but in the long term, this competition might have adverse impact on things like quality and product innovation. I can see a few economists shaking their heads to this but let me illustrate.

Now, lets take quality. Competition increases quality levels, yes. But to a point only. To compete, companies often have to cut costs. Cost cutting can come through a few things, increasing operational efficiency, cutting out unnecessary expenses, finding cheaper raw material and laying off staff. Now, there is a limit to how much a company can optimize, it would to a point, then it would study its product and find cheaper methods of producing this product. When they do, there is a good chance that these cheaper options may indeed affect quality. If you doubt that, then tell me how many times have you heard the words "they don't make them like they used to..". At times there is a collusion between companies in Oligopoly and reduction in quality ends up being universal. Even if that doesn't happen then in the least quality differences between brands is highly negligible, often advertising, brand recall and discount offers are reasons for purchase. 'Quality' is often a perception than a reality.

Many companies choose to increase their marketing budgets instead of increasing their infrastructure / product development expenditure as a way of fending off competition. So what you probably get is the same old stuff but in a glitz pack and a star studded ad campaign(eg The new and Improved XYZ detergent!). Companies, especially in the FMCG (or the Fast moving consumer goods) sector often would entirely outsource their product to a third party manufacturer and concentrate on advertising and brand building. This model as you maybe aware is actively followed by most American companies. It's not a bad model per se since it has given a big fillip to the Indian outsourcing and export industries which cater to these large brands. Unfortunately, the experience with these brands is that they loose their edge in product innovation as their primary focus is on marketing, packaging and delivery.

Now, so is competition bad? Not at all. Like I've said earlier competition is great, especially for the consumer, it gives more options often at cheaper cost. But I urge you to realise that competition in its true sense happens only when it beats out elements within that attack its very core.

How would this happen? It would happen if the consumer protection means wide spread consumer education and faster redressal of consumer grievances. It would happen if scenarios like oligopoly or monopoly are avoided and the government along with local authorities actively supports small companies in their growth and hence offering viable competition to the big bullies in the neighbourhood.

(I realise that this post leaves itself wide open for criticism and opposing views, this is by choice, I solicit your views. And my apologies to those I've thoroughly bored in this selfish endeavour. For those who don't know me, I'm a banker by profession and needless to say that these views are mine and not of any organisation )

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Air travel

Ever wonder what’s with all this fuss that surrounds air travel? If you travel by train or by bus, you buy a ticket, you get on and you’re off. But for Air travel, such simplicity would be too passé. If you buy an air ticket, then you need to reach one whole hour before the plane leaves. You walk in and you meet the first of many queues’ for the day, this one for the boarding pass. Then you trudge along to another queue get your luggage checked (and rechecked), they check you thoroughly in the process too and sometimes ask a few questions as to where you are from. Then finally you are put in a gloomy waiting area with a bunch of sleepy stiffs.

I remember the time right after 9/11, when they used to do a body check manually. Which means you raise your hands and stand in front of this guy who would then proceed to grope your body for half a minute and close to the time you feel incredibly violated he would let you go. This was discontinued after a while much to the chagrin of a few passengers who were beginning to look forward to them. Right now, they still do a physical check with a small metal detector, so you are back to raising your hands on the side and the guy would run the machine over you. I always feel sorry for this guy who gets to do this job, if you are wondering why? Think armpits. This has to be the second saddest job in the world, the saddest being that of a Proctologist.

A few seconds before you petrify in the waiting area, they announce that the flight is ready to be boarded and you stand in yet another line, they check your baggage again and take you to see the plane. Have you ever had the doo-doo problem when you get on the plane? I have it all the time. Well, this is my terminology for the feeling that you want to use the restroom the second the boarding announcement is done. Your mind grapples with two options, do you dash off to the restroom and get back? Which would mean that all the choice overhead luggage space would be lost. Or do you hold on till you get on the flight? Which would mean that you'd have to hold on for a good half an hour, till the flight has taken off and the seatbelt sign is switched off. I've never been able to perfect a technique to solve this one as yet.

After all this you find your seat and just as you start relaxing, they start doing the safety drill and your mind starts getting worked up and you start looking at this steel tube that you are sitting in and wondering if it was really worth it all.

Another thing that strikes me as complicated with air travel is all the questions that get thrown at you all the time, Window or Aisle? Front or back? Left or right? Vegetarian or Non vegetarian? South Indian vegetarian or north Indian vegetarian? Orange juice or lemonade? Coffee or tea? Sweets or cotton? Would you like a cold towel? Would you like a backrub? Hehe ok the last one was a figment of my imagination, wouldn't be a bad addition though.

I love flying, trust me I do. I like all kinds of journeys I thrive on them. My favourite moments in flying when the plane is above a sea of clouds, I can never stop to be amazed at the sheer beauty of it all. But there is a lot about flying that strikes me as funny and sometimes down right comical. I've always wondered why they wake up people who are sleeping to serve that stale airline food. Do they think people would think "Oh no..I wasted all my time sleeping when I could have had smelly omlette and weak coffee". It's also hilarious why people rush to grab their luggage and stand in an uncomfortable queue the seconds after the plane lands. What are they thinking? Is there some game like 'the-last-person-to-leave-the-plane-is-a-ninny' that I didn't know about? Talking about landings, don’t you just love the cell phone action that happens the minute the plane lands? Phones get switched on instantly; people look at their little cellphones and willing it to ring. Its a wicked thrill, to be the first person to get a call when you are standing on that cramped line in the aisle and then say "Halloo I've just landed.."

I think flying resembles prison life a lot too. Think about it, they check you to the point of being abused before you get inside. You are made to line up just about anytime they want you to. Your name ceases to be important you are merely alphanumeric character like, 23F. You are forced to strap on the seat belt securing you to the chair, you are not supposed to move till they tell you to move, you have to eat the food that they give and you can't sleep through the meal even if you want to. It's obvious that t
hey don't trust you one bit because, the even remind you in two languages that they have smoke detectors in the toilets. Well honestly they give you an escape hatch but at 30,000 feet, it's more like a dare. When you are finally set free, they give you back your belongings and send you on your way.

Everyone you meet on the way out tells you that they hope you'd fly with them again soon and all you can think of is the lovely smell of free air.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Month End

I walked into office fashionable late as usual, talking on the cell phone.

"F**K YOU!!" screamed a colleague, I cowered, only to realise that this choice epithet wasn't hurled at me but at some poor down the line sales guy on the phone. As I walked past the row of cubicles, I heard a once sweet voice yell "I want ten f**king files approved before lunch, I don't care what you do!", this was a free spirited sales head, who is a nice enough lady on normal days. Somewhere else a whiney voice yells “don’t tell me you guys had f**king rains in Cochin too, I tell you, you are an A*****e! Don't even dream of an incentive this month!”

In another corner a credit officer slams the phone down with a muted curse. Telephones ring everywhere.

As the day goes on, the temperature rises, blood pressures shoot up and the curses get more colourful.

Another normal day like any other during the month end.

People in most sales driven organisations exist from one month end to another. If the month end figures are good, then the review that happens post facto won't be so bad. If the month end figures are below par, then shame and ridicule are things that can be expected. Exceeding targets also comes with its own curse, the target for next month is sure to be revised higher thanks to the good performance. A classic catch-22 situation if ever there was one.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Across years, the screaming voices change but the messages remain the same.

What have we achieved? What have we created? What have we learnt? Seated in my workstation in the middle of all the chaos, I reflected deeply on these questions while I played with my toy cars.