Archive for the ‘Start-up’ Category

The Great Analyst Series– The 9-pointers

What makes a great analyst? It’s a question that plagues every manager and every analyst who’s working in third party analytics organizations/teams. Less so in the case of captive teams, because the model works more on the lines of individual contributors rather than large managed teams, hence dramatically modifying the equations. Though some of these apply universally.

The adjectives I have heard fall in these categories –

  1. Keep it error free. The first and the biggest. This one’s a killer. An analyst falls from being great to not so great in that one short span where a client or the manager’s detects an error. Especially, if its a client. Akin it to your confidence in betting your salary on your analysis. An interesting practice would be – Keep aside 100 bucks for every time an error is found on a file or an email that leaves your inbox/machine. Even if you did not create the file. Two errors is 200 bucks. Even if they are on the same email/file attachment. At the end of the week/month, see how much you’ve put in the kitty. Donate that money to a charity. Or, if you’re not keen on social stuff, then order sandwiches and samosas for the office. If you’re a good tracker, you might see yourself make more mistakes at 5:30 in the evening to start with (because you sent out an analysis too close to a client call or to the end of the day).
  2. Plan and communicate. Managers struggle with the effort estimation done by their analysts. They’re never too sure if the buffer they’ve budgeted for is appropriate. So, it’s a trial and error process. You can make it easier for them and for yourself by planning, adding buffer, communicating the plan to the manager, and if you see a risk, communicating upfront about not just the delay, but also the reason for it and the planned remediation. It’s good to know that you’ve got it in control, even if there is a problem. My love for analysts with a solid personal project management method might be a bias, but I have always been wary of geniuses who do everything in their head. Maybe because I am not smart enough to reside in their head. But if I had to take a bet, I’d bet on most managers being as dumb as me.
  3. Engage. An analyst that takes a task as given, and comes back with the output against that task is not a bad analyst. After all, the baseline expectations are met. But, when you’re discussing the top tier analysts, you’re focusing on the “exceeds expectations” kinds. And they engage more. With the engagement, with the team, with the problem and with the analysis. They come back with a checklist of having delivered on the task, and some more, and a few questions or ideas to develop it further. Sometimes, they come back with questions and ideas about why the earlier discussions/paths were not the best.
  4. Question, but with a pause. Sometimes, you come across a glaring “situation”. And you want to question it. And you question it rightly. No problems. The point where it becomes a potential problem is when you question it too long. Sometimes, and rather most of the times, it’s a smarter move to demonstrate the problem you have with something tangible. So, if the analysis is flawed and the manager ain’t gettin’ it, then go ahead and do it the manager’s way first, show the reconciliation/ triangulation errors, propose an alternate, do it the alternate way, and show why your method is better. It’s a much easier conversation than telling the manager that they’ve got a few bolts missing. And you make your point, earn your brownie points (assuming you don’t offend the manager with your in-the-moment superiority complex). What definitely never works out (I have seen it true for at least some of the analysts I’ve worked with) is – I told you so!
  5. Be visually delightful. Don’t dance, please! An analyst that transcends the analysis and can communicate it effectively always gets more brownie points. So, if you have two analysts where one is a better thinker, and the other is a better presenter (assuming baseline attributes are not at risk), the chances of the better presented succeeding more often in their professional career is higher. And when I say communication – it’s all forms – the written, the oral and the visual. And the visual has two components again – the visual aesthetics of the output, and your own visual aesthetics. A shabby looking person with some irritable personal habits can find it difficult to be role model, despite their technical brilliance. I feel flimsy saying this, but sadly, this is true.
  6. Adapt. Be flexible. Managerial styles are different. There are micro-managers and there are delegators. And there are indifferents. I know it’s a lot to expect the youngest one in the team to be the most mature, but never hurts to know, right? So, monitor the manager carefully in the first couple of days of an engagement, and alter your style to have the most fruitful relationship. The best of the managers can teach you a lot. The worst of the managers can teach you how they became a manager in the first place (which might be a career goal of sorts)!
  7. Provide leverage! A good analyst provides good leverage to his/her manager. In common language, I translate it to the ability to preempt and take up several mundane tasks that your manager is spending time on, without compromising on the quality of the work you’re expected to be doing. Doing the manager’s job so that the manager can focus on their next set of priorities. It’s an attitude that I cannot over-emphasize the importance of.
  8. Don’t just earn your salary. Not everyday. When you look around, you will notice them. They are prone to saying – this much money means this much work, or “I can work harder if there is more money to be made”, or “whats the point, I am not going to make more because of that”, or “today was a productive day and I managed to get my work done”, or some version thereof. They think that “earning your salary” equivalents to being meaningfully busy for 8-9 hours a day. When you’re just trying to be meaningfully busy, you forget trying to be the best you can be. Make the system feel bad about paying you only your salary. Make the system think about how best it can value you. By better projects, better career, better opportunities, and in the process, hopefully, better salary.
  9. Read. A. Lot. I have experientially seen it to be true. I am not sure other managers are aligned with me on this one. In my view, a well-read analyst always finds more dimensions to analyze in a project than a walk-in-walk-out analyst. The well read could nerdy (e.g. reading about the cutting edge work like Watson or In-memory databases) or business savvy (e.g. mobile payments and NFCs) or socially aware (literary works that provide insight into how people and societies think and act). But it’s a strong hypotheses in my experiential learning that a good reader usually becomes a good thinker.

 

Why a 9 pointer? Because a perfect ten should be all this customized to your own inimitable style, as and when you find it.

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Nascence, Idling & Adolescence

One of the things I’ve always been scared about, in an organization, is the transition from Nascence to Adolescence. What I mean is a new/small/fresh/startup environment of the firm (NASCENCE), gradually maturing into the processes/culture/large company environment (ADOLESCENCE). However, the theme here is the transition process and my fear around Idling. Often, as we build delivery capacity, the lag between sales and delivery often leads to idle (delivery) time for the team.

Let me show a cycle of events, which I hope some of you will identify with –

  1. Company gets a project in a new space (analytics here)
  2. Company hires people to get it done
  3. Company views this as an opportunity to build its presence in the space
  4. Company starts building the business case. A core team is put together to convert the project into a vertical/business
  5. The wheels start rolling. Sales team is roped in for selling. Delivery capacity starts getting built. Everyone is busy. Everyone is enjoying the dirt on the track.
  6. New guys come in. Some start working on new projects. Some wait for projects.
  7. The unutilized team members are put on firm-development and intellectual capital development
  8. On the ground, there is an uncomfortable buzz. The seriousness required to complete these internal initiatives is often missing. The unrest begins!

I feel that the initial lot of people are usually overworked, because they came in after a project was sold, which, in high probability, led to the identification of opportunity. The IC and FD guys seem to be creating unrest. Why?

My guess is that the blame should be taken by the initial overworked guys like me, who end up believing that they are the ones doing the “real” work, all FD and IC is just a way of keeping guys busy.

The second group to take blame should be the leadership which is in charge of looking at the FD and IC initiatives. Its their responsibility to inculcate the sense of pride, responsibility and importance associated with these inward oriented projects.

The third group to be blamed, to the least extent, is the new group itself. A simple saying like Rome wasn’t built in a day goes a long a way in building organizational maturity. We all need to realize that everyday cannot be a perfect 9 hour work day. Just as there are bad days/weeks of 16 hours+ work per day, there are bad days/weeks of 0(ZERO) work per day. Just as you need the client work to generate revenue, you need FD and IC initiatives to build the backbone of a firm. The initial chaos of excitement needs to gradually mature into a process driven organization meant to meet the needs of a large number of people working together. The ad-hoc decision making needs to be replaced by structures that are ready to take the load of a large number of people demanding individual attention.

That said, I believe that it is how well we handle this stage of growth, that differentiates a great leadership from an average leadership. and yes, one of the ways of doing it is communication (clear, effective and copious)

What do you think?

Analytics Start-Up Series : 3 of Many

I have covered my first couple of posts on this topic here (1, 2)

Coming to the fourth pillar of Strategic Alignment – Organizational flexibility is the most important to have and most difficult to ascertain. Whether a business or a group of individuals are ready to do something that they have never done before, is a lot of introspections. No offence meant, but not every leader is Captain Kirk, nor every business USS Enterprise. At the same time, isn’t flexibility at the heart of entrepreneurialism?

Nevertheless, what did I see in my experience? High inertia to change (But we have been doing it this way, and it works!), traditional ways of thinking (been there, done that!), skepticism (will it work?) and arrogance (what can this new kid on the block tell me that I don’t already know about running a business?)

Inertia and traditionalism are vices that cannot be sorted out in the short term. I always felt the need to know what I am up against. A little better. Even with a small firm, I liked figuring out where the funding is coming from. If the money guy wants you to generate returns yesterday, then you are in a big soup. Very recently, I heard about this new start up (a few guys running off from a fairly known name) where the Money guys have given them a 3 year window on returns. I have my reservations about the exact terms & conditions. But nevertheless, that’s a flexibility that you need to pull it off.
One of the biggest vice and virtue of youth is the need to break the rules. And those who play by the existing rules are not the rainmakers. What used to really bug me off was a reminder to stick to the old rules to set up a new business. My usual retort (in my head) used to be – Ok! So you know how it works! Why don’t you just send us a 10-step guide to building a 1bn dollar business? That will help me save time on thinking! BECAUSE THERE IS ANYWAYS NO GODDAMN POINT OF THINKING! 😉
I learnt to think politely later on!  Waiting for crisis to drive a point home seemed to be the easiest way out! But then, business are not built on decisions taken during crisis!

Lesson: Look at who you’re going to work with, and under! Rule of thumb for start up – If you have too many guys who started off as the ground level guy and became Project Managers before becoming leaders, and have not taken a single weird decision in their life, are very unlikely to flexible. Almost every great leader CV has something zingoistic! Remedy for disaster – A “did my schooling from ABC (a known school” and “went to IIT and then IIM” and then worked for company A/B/C (all known brands) for x years (x>5). Whoops! You know that they have already lost their creativity!

Skepticism and Arrogance – Skepticism can be handled. Arrogance, cannot. Unless you are ready to fight fire with fire! Are you one of those people who, when pinned against the wall, can poke their nose into the poker’s eye before betting your life on why you think something is going to work! For skepticism, a thorough research is very important. That’s something that gets discounted when you are in a hurry. Young people like me always make the mistake of not having thought through all possible questions. We just find it too boring, and we ourselves are too arrogant. I know it. I can handle the questions. But vacuous answers increase the amount of skepticism.

Lessons learnt: Do your research well. And be ready to fight for it. Nothing comes easy. You have to be the bad guy at times!

Analytics Start-Up Series – 2 of Many

I will continue with part 2 of the start up series and focus on the third part of the element wheel – New Product Design (Air)

New Product Design

What? By the time I had joined the team, we were still defining what we want to do, and what we don’t want to do. Analytics has come to connote not just data mining and predictive analytics, but even research analytics, product based analytics, dashboards, etc. We wanted to focus more on the marketing analytics, and that’s why we were MCoE.
However, the problem/uniqueness of our positioning was that we were focusing on a process driven analytics approach, while 90% of the listeners with different levels of analytics’ understanding had thought largely of product driven approach only. Even “SAS-skills” were “SAS” skills.

For whom?
Moreover, we needed to decide which all verticals we will build our presence in. That’s tricky. Being small and new, you want to prove a point. You are ready for any project that comes your way. However, if you do your first project in healthcare with your key focus being FS, the next time you go to a client, you have a healthcare case study to talk about. If it’s an FS client, you neither want to own the case study, nor disown it. Boom!

Why? The bottomline for a sales guy remains – why would someone buy what you’re selling? Is there an identified need? Is it expressed? Would you need to educate the buyer? In the Indian market, for instance, Fractal Analytics, I think, has done a great job of educating the financial services sector about the need of and opportunities for analytics. There are similar examples elsewhere and in other industries too. Having said that, if we look at the analytics market today, the education is taken care of. The market does have an expressed need for analytics. If we take a closer look, the first industries to adopt analytics were financial services and telecom. And both these sectors loved keeping their data to themselves. They built strong in-house teams. However, things have changed in the last few years as firms have started engaging third party vendors (just as they adopted consulting/consultants as third party unbiased experts with a broader view) for analytics. But today, a lot of other sectors including Public Sector, Healthcare, etc. have emerged as buyers of analytics. Marketics, for instance, had more depth in FMCG than FS, given the ex-P&G background of its leadership team

Where? From a third party vendor point of view, almost everyone wants a piece of the US analytics market. The other markets have been slower to adopt analytics outsourcing. The other truth is the relatively crowded analytics vendor market in US. Net result, apart from some of the early movers like Fair Isaac, not a lot of vendors have been able to build a large scale. However, my MCoE stint taught me that there is a significant opportunity lying the Asian and European market as well, if you have the right connections, credibility and content.

Lessons learnt – Identify a market that you understand well, and where you have the credibility to sell. Sell only a bit, and understand it in depth, and avoid trying to be everything to everyone.

Analytics Start-Up Series – 1 of Many

Yesterday, I was talking to one of my friends who wanted to get my perspective on what did I learn or not learn about starting an analytics company (having been a part of multiple start-up environments). That’s when I thought tt might be a good idea to pen down my thoughts on this.
Disclaimer: This applies to my understanding of a company which is doing offshore analytics.

I always looked at my learning along four dimensions


This post is going to be the first in a series of posts where I will write about my experiences.

1. Strategic Alignment With Overall Business

I am drawing largely from my first company experience here, which was with a very large Indian IT firm thinking of setting up an analytics practice. When I joined the team, Gayatri Balaji was leading the initiative, and she had Dhiraj Narang helping her. Me and Shivani Sohal joined her as part of our third training stint. Apart from Gayatri, the three of us were raw with no analytics background/experience.

Analytics, or Marketing Center of Excellence (MCoE) was a prized initiative of the company at that point. It was an attempt to move up the value chain by doing “intelligent” work (in the Business Intelligence way, not that the company was not doing any intelligent work!).
However, that being said, what our small and inexperienced team (with the exception of Gayatri) soon realized is that its one thing to say that we want to do “this”, and another to align it to the overall business.

There are four set of challenges that we discovered –


A. Existing product portfolio

Context : The company already had a BI practice, a CRM practice, and a lot of analytics was already being done in different relationship pockets. To put it bluntly, every time a relationship needed someone with “SAS skills”, they hired one and put him/her on the relationship. No need to aggregate the “SAS skills”, (which is what analytics job postings have reduced the required analytics skill-sets to!). Additionally, tools like SAP and Oracle have their own analytically intelligent layers, and SAP and Oracle are separate practices within the organization. Imagine your plight when you’re talking to a client about analytics and she says – “Well! But that’s pretty similar to what you’re BI team talked about. They probably had a higher product focus, though!” And you start looking at the account manager, who has probably introduced every practice to the client (to grow the account). It was not our fault that we were the new baby on the block. Interestingly, the leadership had never thought of aggregating the knowledge lying here and there in the firm to have a solid ground from the beginning.

Lesson Learnt:
If you’re going to cannibalize your existing product line, you need to be sure on what you are offering, why you are offering, and how will you work with the existing product lines.

B. Stakeholder Alignment

Context:
In the organizational power play – strategic positioning can mean that you are the weakest (fresh out of the closet) player, or the strongest player (the whole company is looking at you). Usually, you are not stuck in the middle. If you are the strongest, the performance becomes extremely short term oriented. Stakeholders want to see quick wins, proof of concepts and a latent potential (as visible through a practice bursting at the seams!)

a) “Who’s with you?” – We realized pretty soon that very few important players have been sold the concept and its importance to the overall soon. The attitude towards the new practice ranged from “This is neat!” to “Oh! So we are wasting money on analytics this time”. To an extent, the varying levels of cynicism is expected in large organizations. The problem we faced where cynicism in the mind of decision makers/policy makers.
b) “Who gets the credit?” – Driving from my other experiences, analytics team can potentially be at direct conflict/synergy with another practice. For example, an offshore analytics center (analytics outsourcing) model can be a potential threat as well as support to analytics consulting. Analytics (platform independent) can be a threat to product driven analytics, but can be used to augment the nature of analytics as well.
c) “Who gets the money?” – Given that analytics is a horizontal solution and not specific to industry, revenue recognition is always a challenge. All the verticals stake claim to the analytics revenue, while analytics unit may have a separate revenue target. For instance, a 100MM target for Financial Services vertical will be achieved through products, services, analytics, implementation, etc. However, the 20MM analytics target will be achieved through a combination of work done across verticals- such as Financial Services, healthcare. Every dollar generated by analytics team will be claimed by the respective vertical. However, the effort devoted to sell analytics will be lower, because there is no specific FS-Analytics revenue target.

Lesson Learnt: If you’re an outsider roped in to run a new business initiative, make sure that you understand the powerplay and relative buy-in. Understand the weak and strong points of everyone you’re compulsorily going to deal with. Equally important is to understand the relative aspirations that help you share, transfer credit of the work done in a politically correct manner. Sales is a tricky issue that we will touch separately later

(…to be continued)

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