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December - 2006 - issue > Tricks of a Good Manager
Trust-His Moto
Aritra Bhattacharya
Friday, December 15, 2006
“What could it be?” thought Hareesh Ramanna. As project manager in Motorola, he was in London in 1995, overseeing the installation of the new paging system for London. The new system, would switch four hundred thousand subscribers from the existing system to the new one. It was slated to go live at midnight and the adrenaline rush among the engineers—they had developed the system entirely in Bangalore, under Ramanna’s watchful eyes—was palpable. Suddenly, despite numerous test-runs, two hours prior to the climax, the system gave way.

“It was chaotic,” he recalls. Suggestions flew in all directions, but Ramanna egged his team on to look at the basics. The bug, inadvertently, was out in ten minutes—a tripped wire!

It was a classic case of, as the Senior Director at Motorola Devices Software team puts it, ‘looking beyond the technicalities’. Ramanna cites a recent example where this approach helped. One of the engineering teams felt that the product roadmap they had formulated did not reflect the true picture.

“Simply because they did not have the external view,” he says. Technocrats tend to be engrossed in their own world, and lose track of the requirements in the outer world. Notwithstanding the regular visits to standard bodies, exhibitions and seminars—a must in his scheme of keeping his team in tune with the outer world, on this occasion, they could not foster the foresight and connect to customer needs. “We gave them the external view, the ‘looking beyond’ perspective, and the problem was addressed.”

It’s this approach, combined with a ‘seeing first’ mechanism that forms the backbone of Ramanna’s managerial faculties. As a Senior Director today, he is responsible for the delivery of Software platforms, features across GSM, 3G, CDMA and iDEN devices, and has under him a sizeable group of software engineers working in India, China, Italy, and Malaysia.

“People always talk about the perceived startling result, but it’s more important to focus on phased deliverables.” As such, he prods his team-members to not go in for the big-bang effect and thereby stand the risk of losing the frame completely, but focus on achieving a part of the task. Every little step should have at its end a visible, seeable (sic) result.

Accolades have followed the approach. Ramanna has steered his team to develop the first MMS prototype for Motorola, and more recently, in bringing an Internet experience on board the mobile. The team has been instrumental in developing 50 percent of the software on North American phones as well.

Says Ramanna, “I want to prove a point first by developing proof-of-concept. White papers and presentations can only follow the practical approach.” This reliance on smaller visible goals dates back to the days when he was working in the Indian Defense labs, on Development of Mission computer Software for fighter aircrafts. The specifications given were never complete—or that we never understood them, he says—and one had to de-scope and concentrate on seeables to see the project through. Eight years in defense ignited in Ramanna the passion for advanced technology, and initiated his thought process.

From merely cross-pollinating the best attributes of various foreign aircrafts then, today he prods his team to have a specific product roadmap, in other words foster creation. To that end, engineers under him are required to come up with a few innovations every year. Among them, those that are deliverable are developed into full-scale applications.

The eight years in defense labs also taught Ramanna the value of recognition. Having witnessed the ‘overbearing’ nature of awards and promotions there, he always makes it a point to regularly appreciate the efforts of his staff. “Though there is a screening committee, it’s much more flexible awarding employees here—be it promotions or awards,” he says.

Though he enjoyed the technical challenges in his previous engagement—the glint in his eye a reflection of the good times he had—Ramanna rues the hierarchy among managers and their reports there. Trust and delegation are the two most important aspects of management, he says.

The trust factor comes into play in cases where the project manager has lost direction and the senior manager has to steer the team in an appropriate direction. Often the two approaches are diametrically opposite, but trust alone helps not fuel ego issues in such situations. If one trusts a person, he will not question his judgment on every occasion.

“That also means that when I don’t know something, I admit it to my team,” says Ramanna. The white board in his office stands privy to the lessons he has received from ‘the last level of engineers’ in matters he is not conversant with. Despite being a manager, he feels the need for being acquainted with architecture, technology and deployment. “Management is not just about beating the hell out of your directs,” he quips. A manager has to get his hands dirty and contribute; he must know the project totally and address any issues the team might have.

For Ramanna, that means addressing issues across cultures as varied as Indian and Italian. “I hate e-mail conversations,” he says. “Why keep ping-ponging when all it takes is a simple call?”

Elucidating on cross-cultural challenges, he says that the Chinese construct sentences in their language and then translate them into English, resulting in use of inappropriate, and often harsh words. “You might think why the guy is so hottie, but when you meet him, you realize that he’s too soft to use such words, it was language that played truant there.” To ensure that cross-cultural issues are addressed, Ramanna encourages engineers across teams to meet. “Only that can build trust and iron out the problems,” he emphasizes.

As an example he cites an incident that occurred a year ago. A project that the U.S. and India teams were working on together was facing a major roadblock. While the project manager here was discussing the issues he was having with his U.S. counterpart, Ramanna discovered that through their one-year of working together, they had never met. The manager in question was sent off on the first flight to the U.S. and a few weeks down the line, customer satisfaction had soared.

There are instances though when repeated opportunities do not help in improving the performance of an employee. In such cases, he advocates a change in role, more suited to the talent set of the person. “I believe in giving them sufficient rope, but if there’s no improvement, they don’t stand a chance,” he says.

Fourteen years in Motorola have changed Ramanna’s hunger somewhat. “I want to grow here itself, but there’s also a part of me that’s desperate for a paradigm shift…Launch my own company maybe, or start a wine business…” Dreams adorn his eyes.

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