Sunday, November 11, 2012

Selling 'solutions'

Sometime back, I tuned in to CNBC after many years. There were familiar and new faces talking about dimly familiar things like volatility of beta stocks and open interest positions, things which are now outside my complexity horizon. One of the last times I had listened to it, there were huge celebrations about the Sensex having crossed 20,000  and there were breathless discussions about how long it will take for the Sensex to reach 30,000 or maybe even 40,000. So it went to 10,000.

It was reminiscent of the title of a book that I have not read and prompts me to make a Hirohito comment: The expectations were a trifle optimistic! (When announcing Japan’s  surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage". I got that from a post  in Paul Krugman's blog.)

I wondered how much they really knew about what they were talking. Perhaps they were groping in the dark like I was when I was trying to sell computers. During the campus interview at IIMA, I got a job in sales in Wipro Infotech. My knowledge of the innards of a computer was not much more than that of the boss in Dilbert comics. (In one Dilbert comic strip, the boss was giving specifications about a computer to be purchased for his office. When he was asked, 'What about the RAM?', he replied, 'Make it red.' In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes:                                        
And then along came computers: fairy-free, fully exorcised hunks of metal that  could not be explained without the full lexicon of mentalistic taboo words. "Why isn't my computer printing?" Because the program doesn't know you replaced your dot-matrix printer with a laser printer. It still thinks it is talking to the dot-matrix printer and is trying to print the document by asking the printer to acknowledge its message.  But the printer doesn't understand the message; it's ignoring it because it expects its input to begin with '%!' The program refuses to give up control while it polls the printer, so you have to get the attention of the monitor so that it can wrest control back from the program. Once the programme learns what printer is connected to it, they can communicate ." The more complex the system and the more expert the users, the more their technical conversation sounds like the plot of a soap opera.
I was assured that all these problems will be sorted out during a training session in Bangalore. During training, I listened to the speeches of the great and the good, learned some useful trade lingo (eg. 'we sell solutions not boxes') and grappled with disk striping, RAID technology , handshaking protocols, superpiplining and other fearsome beasts. After this ego restructuring exercise, I was let loose on an unsuspecting Mumbai market. The man who has a quote for all occasions (a woman who knew nothing about Shakespeare went to see a production of Hamlet and came out at the interval saying, 'It is full of  quotations!') explains my predicament via Portia in The Merchant of Venice:
 If to do were as easy as to know what were good
 to do, chapels had been churches and poor men's
 cottages princes' palaces.
In The Periodic Table, Primo Levi writes of the the time when he had to do the work of Customers' Service (CS):
... When it falls to me to work in CS, at the office or traveling, I do it unwillingly, with hesitation, compunction, and little human warmth.  Worse: I tend to be brusque and impatient with customers who are impatient and brusque, and to be mild and yielding with suppliers who, being in their turn CSs, prove to be just that, yielding and mild.  In short, I am not a good CS, and I fear that by now it is too late for me to become one.
I was similarly like a fish out of water in the matter of conning (oops, convincing) people that I was selling them a fantastic product. (I also had to be careful not to be as convincing as Amitabh Bachchan.) Mark Twain said, 'All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.' I had the ignorance all right but I was lacking a bit in the confidence department.

I reached out to hard-nosed EDP managers and tried to convince them  that Wipro products were a bargain buy. I read various computer magazines and  vomited out the stuff in them. I used liberally the technical terms in them to, as George Orwell wrote, ' give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.' My sales talk would have been described by one of  my school teachers as 'a diarrhoea of words and a constipation of thoughts'. (I have conveniently forgotten whether the compliment was for my essay or someone else's.)

I was surprised that my attempts to imitate Gratiano of The Merchant of Venice in speaking 'an infinite deal of nothing' went largely unchallenged. This  was the time when it really sunk in that an IIMA degree has  significant social cachet. I  could rely on the halo effect to shield me from awkward questions. This was also the time when I had frequent episodes of the Imposter Syndrome. (I would have been more relaxed if I had known at that time that Darwin also had similar periods.)

It wasn't a surprise when I quit my job some months later and joined the financial services sector. This job was more up my alley - sitting in  an A/C room and manipulating numbers in an Excel spreadsheet. (I was not a Quant so the world economy was not in any danger.)

PS: Here is another type of quant. I suppose this is the kind of guy known as a datasexual.

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