Holmes' second coming

Date:   Thursday , October 05, 2006

Sherlock Holmes has a new address. In his latest avatar as Manish Sinha, the master of disguise, has taken up residence in Bangalore. He leads a team of over 1500 engineers spanning the continents, and strives to alert them of the importance of symptoms in reaching a solution.

It’s a departure from the earlier incarnation, but that’s also true for the field and scale of operation. As the General Manager of Customer Service and Support (CSS) at Microsoft (MS) for the Asia-Pacific Region, his decisions affect not just those within the periphery of the above-mentioned geographic boundaries, but even those who reside down under.

Sinha was entrusted with the responsibility of keeping Microsoft’s Global Technical Support Center (GTSC) in Bangalore up and about in August 2004. It makes him responsible to administer a fair share of the one billion incidences (technology related problems) Microsoft CSS centers across the world handle in a year.

“In the event of an IT problem in any company, they’ll throw all their resources to fix it,” he says. Only when the tried and tested methods fail, people call up the GTSC. As a result, engineers under Sinha always need to be on their toes. The team has to understand the client’s environment, recreate it in the GTSC, experiment to reach a solution and hand it back to the customer.

The entire process has to wrapped up in a matter of minutes as it deals with mission-critical problems. A delay on their part could mean unending harassment for the client’s customers. To that end, gauging the symptoms is very important. “You need to be the Sherlock Holmes of Technology,” quips Sinha.
“Sometimes it takes 400-500 minutes to solve a problem,” he says.

The field demands not just technical know-how, but sound communication skills as well. “We support 40 different languages,” he says. The number of incidences soars in the event of a virus breakout, but the team has to keep going.

People Connect
For a man who deals with teams from countries as diverse as Korea and Australia, Sinha strikes an easy balance.

“Establishing a connection with your teams across the world is very important,” he says. To connect with his team members in India and Australia, cricket bridges the gap. Explains Sinha: Prior to taking over from his predecessor, he was to address the MS team in Australia. He had in place a presentation, but breaking away from practice, he initiated a discussion on cricket. “That helped to break the ice.” Even today, engineers under him often discuss cricket along with work. “Figuring out what the engineers like is very important,” he says.

Being a global leader Sinha works across different time zones. He works with the Australia team in the Indian mornings, and approaches Korea as the day progresses. He performs his duties as a family man during a break in the evening, before plunging to work in the night, interacting with the India and the US teams.

A global leader needs to understand the impact of decisions on a global level, he says. When changes need to be made, a small team of engineers like the one in Korea is chosen. Only after it’s tested the application starts across other centers. “Even then, there is a pressing need to have contingency plans in place, lest the formula backfires,” he notes.
Sinha scaled up the Indian operations from scratch. “All problems were growth related,” he recalls. The focus now has shifted to stabilization. There are no plans to grow Microsoft India in the near future-lest there is ‘breadth and no depth.’

A Learning Odyssey
Sinha joined Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS) from Oracle in 1994 as a Senior Consultant, and went on to pursue the executive MBA program in University of Oregon (1998). “It taught me to look at every problem as a business problem and not a technical issue,” he says. For example, when a manager asks for a global sales report, a technologist will rummage through the sales deals to provide a precision result; he will take into consideration the fluctuating currency rates and consult a plethora of databases before submitting a report. A business mind on the other hand will analyze the utility of the data. If it’s for a comparison of monthly results, an accurate-to-the-minute report will not be essential; neither will fluctuations in currency be taken into consideration.

In 2000, Sinha assumed a managerial role for the first time in his career. He started as the West Region Practice Manager for MS Services in California and soon graduated to lead the entire California practice.
He joined the Microsoft CSS team, Asia Pacific as General Manager in December 2003, and in August 2004, took charge of the Bangalore GTSC. He lists customer understanding, people management and operational basics as the vital prerequisites of his role. While nine years of consulting with MS Services equipped him with the first two, he was lacking in the third. “I let the operational guys under me take the crucial decisions related to their field,” he says. In close to seven months, he had mastered the skill himself, and then went about building the team.

No Alice in Wonderland
A ten-year aspiration is very important, says Sinha. “You need to know what role you want to play and where you want to see yourself ten years hence,” he says. But doesn’t that pose the problem of one becoming too self-centered, losing sight of the larger organizational goals? In reply, he sights an analogy from cricket.

A batsman has to keep an eye on the ball, and the other on the fielder. Failing to see the ball would mean not hitting it at all; failing to see the fielder would mean not scoring runs. Sinha likens the ball to the current job, and the fielders to the ten-year aspiration.

On his part, he was always clear about what he wanted to do. While the atmosphere around him in Motilal Nehru Regional Engineering College was rife with the excitement of his peers wanting to go to the US for post graduation, he resisted. “I had my plans etched out,” he says. He wanted to pursue higher studies, but only after he had got a taste of the real world, in terms of a few years of work experience.

The approach helped him gauge to focus on the right areas, while pursuing his MBA, based on his understanding of the work environment.
Throughout his journey, Sinha remembered the Alice in Wonderland anecdote: When Alice asked someone where a specific road led to, in return, she was asked about her destination. This left her speechless. Sinha has made sure he never faces such a situation. As the head of GTSC, he still has his plans chalked out. But like Holmes, he keeps his cards close to his chest.