Way To Hell

Date:   Saturday , September 30, 2006

Taking a dig is probably our favorite pastime. It’s a malaise that affects even the upper echelons of the corporate world. “After a stressful day at work, I definitely don’t want to watch serials in which a few people keep crying day in and day out,” says Rangan Devarajan, Vice President, Product Engineering Services, Perot Systems, the tear-jerking sitcoms at the center of his indignation.

Once though, he happened to be on the other side of the fence: the subject of a dig. Making a presentation to a customer while at HP, he had casually mentioned that there were 25 people reporting to him.

How does it matter, the customer had shot back. It had made him think hard. In a matter of seconds, he understood that what mattered to the customer most was not the size of the team, but the value delivered. It was a phase of changing focus: From the headcount of engineers under him to the value for clients. “The transition took years,” Devarajan recalls. Considering that, isn’t three months too a short time to make 300 services guys at the component engineering cell at Perot Systems think like the product personnel!

“I have taken it up as a challenge,” he retorts. Since joining the company in June, he has been spearheading efforts to enable his employees create products and offer them as services to small ISPs and product vendors.

Central to his philosophy of ‘living products’ is focus; not on the headcount of subordinates, but on the value one brings to the customer. Time-to-market, cost and technology addition play a very important role here, notes the technologist-turned-manager.

“That turnaround, from a techie to a manager was the toughest challenge of my life,” recalls Devarajan. Early on in his days as a tech-lead, when confronted with a debugging assignment, he would go ahead and write the entire solution himself. “I just forgot the fact that there were four other members in my team,” he says, till one day one of them came up to him and demanded: “Let me do it.”

Realization dawned and Devarajan started giving more and more responsibilities to his team-members. A sprint down that path made way for another pitfall. Soon, he was delegating everything, and had no control whatsoever over the goings-on. “If you don’t make the transition from a techie into a leader early on, you end up being a technologist at times, a manager at others,” he says. Experience taught him to strike a balance and understand when to delegate and when to take charge.

Focusing all faculties on the delegation aspect had other implications too. Devarajan failed to see the big picture: How the customer benefits from a solution, and more importantly, who the customer is. “There are two sets of customers: The first is the owner of the product, and the second is the ultimate end-user,” he says. More often than not, managers across verticals focus on the first customer; which brings forth its own set of problems.

Elucidates Devarajan: “A customer had come to us three months prior to its next release, and asked us to fix 50 defects in a period of 90 days.” A lot of meticulous planning followed, but there was no way all bugs could be removed. In desperation, Devarajan, and his peers traveled to the product-vendors, and started interacting with the final customers: the end-users.

The ensuing discussions helped them identify and fix the bugs that would have the greatest impact. Eventually, it all boiled down to 15 bugs. Then came the more difficult part: That of saying ‘No’ to the direct customer, the owner of the product.

“In such instances, it’s very important that you say no for the right reasons; it should be backed by sound logic and business sense, and not laden with emotion,” he notes. A ‘no’ could backfire though, as Devarajan learnt some time down the line.

A customer had come with a project plan. “We had many reservations, and we said no to many things they wanted,” he recalls. Eventually, the customer relented, since at that time, Devarajan’s company was the only service provider in that domain. The bouncer came later; as soon as opportunity arose, the customer roped in another service provider, causing loss to Devarajan’s organization.

“It’s not just about saying no, but the way it is said that matters,” he notes, adding, “Different people react in different manner to the same stimulus, so you need to adjust accordingly.”

That brings into focus the all-important issue of people management. “It’s an eternal challenge,” he says. Managing is an art of convincing people in a way that they look forward to going to hell, says Devarajan. “A good manager needs to know how to get the job done.”

“You need to follow the principle of sama, dana, bheda, danda. (patience, generosity, divison and punishment)” Some individuals respond to challenges, with others you need to be soft, he elucidates. Keeping that in mind, he divides his team into sub-groups, and believes in giving them space and time. He wasn’t like this always though.

In his first assignment as project manager at HP, he ‘pestered’ his team every half hour, inquiring about the progress. After a month, an irate employee confronted him. “He told me, if you pester us this way, you will not get the desired results.”

Rangan went into a one-on-one with the employee, and in the next one-month sat with every team member separately and worked out a reporting strategy: Daily intra-team meetings and weekly inter-team conferences. “I learnt that driving a consensus in the team is very important,” he recalls. As a leader, he tries to be available to his team-members all the time. “But you should not be afraid to take hard decisions if the situation so demands.”

The fact that he has taken the onus of shouldering responsibilities that were not defined as his has helped Devarajan learn many lessons. Achievements have followed. At Celstream, he doubled the revenue in fifteen months’ time and in HP, he brought the attrition rate down to five percent, apart from scaling up from a project manger to a Vice President in nine years.

“Don’t bother about promotions, just focus on making your customers successful,” he says by way of advice to techies. Is that the secret of his rise to the top of the corporate ladder? The avid badminton player has by now tossed the shuttle back to your court!