Thursday, August 14, 2008

Letter to MBA Summer Interns - Five Things I Learned The Hard Way

I had dinner a few days ago with some very smart interns who are spent their summer at We talked about what they did, who they worked for and even caught up on some gossip.

As is my wont, after a few glasses of wine, I was off pontificating about life lessons. The interns pretended to be interested but I was sane enough to hold off on my spiel - I promised to write it up for them. So, dear MBA interns from Harvard, Stanford and Chicago GSB - here are the lessons that I have learned the hard way over nearly a decade of working at some of the most boring jobs and a few exciting projects.

Five Life Lessons
  • Don't Work for a Jerk: Actually, the first life lesson should have been - always start with the obvious truths when trying to persuade people. So, this is an obvious rule but you wouldn't believe me now (but will 10 years on) that most people when confronted with a jerk manager, freeze, loose confidence and start believing that they must be doing something wrong. You will too. Make sure you have friends, mentors and people that love you in your life to keep you from doing that. Also, you want to work for a company that has the "No Asshole Rule". (Hint: Update: Here is an excellent post by Guy Kawasaki on Jerk Bosses.
  • The +-2 Rule (Ignore the Ladder): Hopefully, your career will be a long, linear growth - may be even a nice hockey stick. But most likely, just like the generations before you, you will hit some rough spots where nothing will seem to happen and you feel left behind. When that happens, you can rely on my plus minus 2 rule: "Over time, most people are never more than 2 levels below or above their rightful role in the organization". Yes, we have all met the SVP that got promoted early and knows little or the individual contributor engineer who doesn't get enough credit. But when I really think hard about it, I have yet to meet someone who is 45 that should be an EVP (and wants to be one) that is still first line manager. I have met tons of directors that could easily be vice presidents, many engineers that could be managers/directors and so on. As "wrong" as this seems, in the long run (3-5 years), most of us return to our natural mean. Think of it this way - a stock price can be way higher or lower than its true "intrinsic" value but if you believe Warren Buffett is right, its best to ignore those variations as mere fluctuations - use them to your advantage to hire "low" and fire "high" but don't get upset.
  • Get A Speeding Ticket Every 2 Years: I have a nice (inexpensive) convertible and I like to drive it just above the speed limit. My rule of thumb is - if I don't get pulled over for speeding every few years, then I am clearly driving way too slow. In a similar way, most of you will end up with jobs where its easy to cruise at the posted organizational speed. Nothing spectacular will ever come out of that. Given that many of us are blessed to have a good education, you will never be really out of a job - your only risk in life is not taking one. Break the boundaries - but only once in a while. Just enough for you to feel that you could loose your job one of these days.
  • Use What They Taught You, Everywhere: Those case studies make for good life lessons, iff you apply them. We have all met doctors that smoke; spiritual gurus that flirt with women or eat too much; or even economists that got a PhD in Economics after learning that there are too many economics graduates and the demand-supply curve. Don't do that! I have met smart investment advisers that were not diversified during dot-com boom, or real-estate agents that bought property to "double down". They all had excuses. With an MBA from a top school, you won't have one! So, use what you have learned and not just in your job - but in understanding your motivations, risks associated with choices you confront, irrational aspects of your personality. Picking a job, life partner, city to live in - are all opportunities to apply your learned knowledge.
  • Question The Source of Life Lessons: I don't have a management degree and I am not uber successful. My path to life learnings has been a slow arduous one - making one mistake at a time. I have borrowed from life lessons taught by people I meet every day and from the internets (thanks, Bush), Warren Buffet's Letters to Shareholders, numerous books including some lame, self-help books and from watching the abject absurdity and stupidity of senior executives at some very successful companies. As I tell my friends, I feel optimistic and happy when I meet one of them - it makes it easier for us to beat them one day.
This is a candid, stream of consciousness blog post. A better, more honest and perhaps more interesting post would be - what have I failed to learn in last 10 years.

I guess that takes a certain higher level of self-awareness that I don't yet have. On to the next 10 years, to learn that.

PS: I encourage you to post your comments or shoot me an email at (replace dot by .)

Update: Looking for a primer on SaaS and software business models? Check out this excellent book by Tim Chou entitled Seven. Tim teaches at Stanford University and is a successful software industry executive veteran who created Oracle On-Demand. The book is, predictably, printed on-demand. More on this book later. Watch this blog.


Unknown said...

some pearls there in the post, mr. sharma! btw, its a different SaaS company that talks more about its 'no asshole rule'. but i'll buy that SFDC practises the same as well :)

Anonymous said...

Well written. Hope you practice what you preach.

For the "no asshole rule" to be successful - there shouldn't be any asses in the first place.

Looks like SFDC is keeping you busy - your rate of Blog posts has diminished.

Unknown said...

Mohit - Yes, does not own the no-assholes moniker. My intent was to simply point out that we like to hire, reward and keep good people.

Anonymous - I don't practice all that I preach. If I did, I would be near perfect. I do want to practice all that I preach. I hope I get better at it in the next 9 years. Or sooner.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anshu, I found the article & the existing -3- comments thereon as interesting.
Please, keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Now I need to break the speed limit... I wrote it down and put it on a 'post-it' near my laptop. lets see if i will make it.

i will keep the blog reader posted.

tnx for advice.

Anonymous said...

whats the average time you take to think and write a blog.

Unknown said...

Average time - the actual writing takes any where between 10 to 30 minutes at most. The thinking takes place sometimes in real-time as I am writing (stream of consciousness style) and for others - its an idea that I may be chewing over for days, weeks and even months. I might make a mental note of it, put down the topic in my To-Do list or just talk about it and run it by friends. The actual writing is 10-30 minutes at most.

BTW - I would appreciate you leaving your name or other info when commenting.

Anonymous said...

previously known as anonymous

Well the more time you find to write a blog, the more "ass" worthy you become ... which enables you to move higher.

The MBA interns will be sitting and watching as you rise up.

Remember the air is thin up there and you might need some support.

Keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

Hi Jamaican: I appreciate your words of encouragement - as also the words of caution.