Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Book Review : That's I.T

Here's my book review of  a recent eBook, "That's I.T" by Ramesh Revuru

The book and narrative are easy to read. The author holds a mirror to readers – primarily those who have worked with offshoring IT service providers – drawing on his own experiences and empirical observations of the sourcing industry segment.

Those of us who have spent time in the trenches of offshoring can instantly relate to the anecdotes. I love the author’s chutzpah: trying to make a point about Indian English Vinglish with a hit-below-the-belt observation of Infosys former CEO’s “thick Kerala accent in his spoken English.” Ramesh goes on to narrate how Kris, the “CEO in his less than 30 minute speech used the words “(and) things like that” as many as 72 times. His body language and posturing too were showing how uncomfortable he was”

Ramesh uses humor to mask serious topics and observations on practical challenges faced by those working for offshoring service providers: he explores the topic of loyalty (chapter 9) with a moving anecdote of a software trainee from Pune. While trying to address the issue, Ramesh was frustrated that he was not empowered to request additional time at the company guest house for a deserving employee.

I guess the underlying message in the anecdote is the lack of maturity of HR processes. HR managers seek to manage with a process driven template, delegating much of the face-to-face interactions to line managers without actually empowering them. Line managers like Ramesh have a lot more operational issues on their plate than they can handle. Picking up an internal battle with HR on behalf of an employee is perhaps least of their priorities. In this case, Ramesh had to travel onsite the day after he discussed the issue with his direct report. Many readers who have worked with offshoring firms are sure to have similar anecdotes to narrate. Years ago, I fought an uphill battle when I found myself at the receiving end (ref: eBook : a Child lost in flight)

A highly readable narrative and writing style though at times the use of “we” left me wondering if there was a co-author or just the author’s use of English Vinglish (or perhaps it was a royal “we”?) Example “..intentionally, we have left out the below from this discussion. We decided not to consider Ads posted in newspapers for…” (chapter 4. Rocket Singh).  Note: The author later stopped by the blog with his explanation of this usage (comments)

Recommendation: Five stars for research and aggregation of topics. Four stars overall.  (Also cross-posted the review on Amazon)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tax time : big brother is watching with big data and analytics

It is tax-time in the US and most taxpayers fall into two camps: anxious that we will have to fork out a pretty penny to Uncle Sam or glad that we are getting a refund back. And of course it is not just Uncle Sam but his poorer cousins in states and counties that have an eye out for our tax returns. Most of us have a favorite tax-time story. Here is mine.

In my previous job, I was a technology-strategy consultant and for a few years, I opted to be road warrior rather than frequent relocator. I did this for a few reasons, one of which was to minimize my tax-filing burden. Mind you, minimizing my tax filing burden is not the same as minimizing tax burden; which meant I had a home and base in a single city, county and state. I mitigated the need to file my tax returns in multiple states and counties. Of there were other reasons for this move besides simplifying my tax filing status in a home base. I had a “home” to return to during weekends and between project engagements, a semblance of being grounded while being constantly mobile. For simplicity, let us call my home state StateA.

During my consulting days, I would travel to consult with clients located in multiple cities across states, traveling to more than half-dozen states in a year. This is not atypical for a road warrior consultant. And like many good citizen, I have been regular with my tax filings especially since much of my income comes from regular earnings where the employer withholds taxes payable to the feds and states. Some years I get the excess tax withheld as a refund. Therefore, I was really surprised when I received a letter in the mail from the attorney general’s office in StateB last week.

The letter started by saying I owed income tax payable to StateB. And the state’s attorney general had handed my case over to the official collections agency to come after my “unpaid state income tax”. I did a double take and re-read that letter. Sure enough it looked official, and had the last four of my social security number correctly marked. And curiously, it had been mailed directly to my new address in StateC where I now reside.

I called the state attorney general’s office who directed me to the collections agency. The nice lady at the collections bureau explained the reason for the call. I had filed my federal returns for 2009 with an address in StateB. This also confirmed my hunch. While on the road during 2010, I had a month long engagement in a large metro in StateB. During tax filing time, I made a simple mistake: I gave my temporary hotel address in StateB as the mailing address in my federal and StateA tax returns. No big deal; right?

That was in 2010 and forgotten as soon as I got my refund from the federal government and StateA. About 3 years later, StateB not only figures out my mistake but tracks my whereabouts and sends me a collection notice.

Though the taxpayer in me is not amused, the Enterprise Architect in me is fascinated: IRS is sharing tax filing data with State agencies (nothing new here. Apparently they have been doing it since the 1920s (link)) The fact that State revenue agencies are using data analytics to churn through the volumes of data from federal returns and identify people who have not filed returns in the state. And turning those details over to a collections agency hoping to generate revenue. Now, this is fascinating.

Designing complex systems that take disparate data sources – from federal and state tax filings - and analyze patterns, as in my case analyze discrepancy in filing address. Marking and reconciling them, gathering additional data, current address and whereabouts as in my case and generating collection bills. This is by no means a trivial task. Especially when you add Federal, State and local data privacy laws, regulations for data use and hundreds of other use cases to consider. Nett return, potential revenue from additional taxpayers being netted! The net may also catch a few taxpayers like me making “genuine” mistakes that can be reconciled; but that is the cost of doing business I guess.

My story had a happy ending. The nice lady at the collections agency asked me to fax over my 2010 StateA tax returns along with my W2 for the year and promised to forward them over to the state’s tax department to mark my account “closed”.  For me, it is fingers crossed, I guess.

I guess there is a lesson for others trying to beat the system: Beware, big brothers are watching, armed with Big Data and Analytics!

Friday, February 1, 2013

How will you measure your life ? book review

I just finished reading “How will you measure your life” co-authored by management guru Clayton Christensen. Here are my reactions on the book
The book makes for an interesting read because it does not promise to be yet another  mushy self-help book. Although the book has distinct biographical overtones, the author does not spend much time –thankfully – reflecting on his fight with Cancer or Ischemic stroke. In the book the authors creatively intersperse business case studies and anecdotes with life lessons.

The narrative speaks to business professionals’ comfortable reading case studies and business jargon. The self-help tips are too few and far between the narratives: just enough to get the reader to think of personal circumstances without sounding preachy.

A few sections that resonated with me:

What makes us tick: of course it’s not just money! Even though monetary benefits are certainly big motivators, finding the balance between other motivators and hygiene factors is the key. The section tries to make the reader ponder, without suggesting there are easy answers

Balance of calculation and serendipity: starts with an interesting case study of Honda’s entry into the US market. In the section on “When Wall street journal didn’t respond” Clayton also reflects on his road not taken. There are a few practical nuggets here. While taking on a new job, ask yourself “what are the assumptions that I have to prove true in order for me to be able to succeed in this assignment?” and “why do you think this is something you are going to enjoy?”

The section on “finding happiness in your relationship” emphasizes the need to find a work life balance. The section on the “risk of sequencing life investments” resonated with my own thinking. The flip side is when attempts to find work-life balance backfires on both fronts, but that is yet another risk one has to mitigate.

“What job did you hire that milkshake for?” starts with a case study of IKEA’s business model and another project researching milkshakes Christensen did for a “big fast food” restaurant chain. Astute consultants I have worked for have the ability to very quickly judge the exact nature of job they are hired to do, and more importantly seek the right resources to meet the need. The authors take the thinking to the next level by making readers reflect on understanding “your role in making people you love happy”

Section on “sailing your kids on Theseus's Ship" has some musings on the right and wrong kind of outsourcing. The author builds off from Dell’s sourcing to Asus that the vendor ultimately used to outsmart Dell. Tip: never outsource the future. Personal implication “many parents are doing to their children what dell did to its personal computing business, removing circumstances in which they can develop processes”

Section on “Schools of experience” should resonate with most professionals: who hasn’t experienced professional failure or a setback? But there again how many of us have learnt from these failures?

Read, refelct and enjoy.