On Truth

Courage to speak the truth,
Strength to hear the truth,
Desire to seek the truth,
Nuance to see the changing truth. 

I scribbled this short stanza in my diary this morning. I often think about what is the truth? How do we tell truth and falsehood apart? We all have our lenses to look at the truth. Your truth and my truth are not the same. Truth often lies in understanding the context of the other. Falsehood stems from assuming the context of the world. To understand others' truths you need to understand their history and their hopes. For yourself, feel the present. That is your truth.

Starting things with others

Do you have a tough time starting new things? Do you fear failure? Starting new things is hard. Starting new things while working with other humans, even tougher. Starting new things well is a superpower worth cultivating.

 Starting things you consider hard can be overwhelming. Starting a company is one of them. If we are able to start things with a group, we can achieve things that we will never be able to achieve by ourselves. This is rewarding.  Do it well and teach it to others. It buys you lifelong access to people with who you can start new projects.

 Over the past fifteen years, I’ve studied in two universities and worked at five companies. The number of existing employees, when I've joined, have ranged from 0 to 2 million. I’ve had to start things with a variety of people and a range of prior art at an organization. I've been fortunate to do work spanning roles, technologies, people and cultures. I started a new job last week and was reflecting on how I’ve evolved my process of starting.

 Early in my career, if someone asked me to make an app, I would make an app. Write a Python script to do something, I’ll do it. I worked assuming my manager knew the priority of everything. I repeated this process for a couple of months. I started wanting a greater return on investment of my time. How do I get more impact with lesser input? Isn't that the whole point of technology and productivity? I started asking leaders and peers about my work. Why are we writing this app? What is the purpose of the script for the customer? How much is the customer paying for this? Every question led to a useful lesson. It taught me how to think about the situation from a different lens. Do things well first then ask questions.

 In my next job, I started getting things done. I learned that the focus of the company was to enable sales. This meant I started helping sales teams understand the technology. This helped us get new deals and made our existing customers happier. The size of the organization (~1500) meant that I had to stick to my technical focus and teach others about it. Learning the business context and teaching the technology put me on a growing path.

 I jumped into starting Explorer.ai (Shout out to my partner Rohini Vaze who supported me through it). I wanted to control my own destiny. A self-driving startup meant competing with multi-billion dollar investments. Problems of fund-raising, product and hiring blew up in my face. I lacked experience in every area. I had no clue how to make decisions. Things turned out okay. We made hard decisions based on our shared values. In retrospect our implicit shared values made things work out. We got acquired. It taught us that no one understands reality completely. We all need to do our best to make a difference. People put in their best based on the stories they tell each other. Stories emerge from the values we hold as a group. Shared values, though implicit, kept us together.

 My next job was at the acquiring company. Joining a new company after an exit is tough because of the difference in values. I found a lot of early success. This was due to my understanding of business reality.  I ran into a roadblock where many people in the company saw the reality with a different lens. As time progressed, it became harder to achieve a shared understanding of reality. I realized that my values will never align completely with that of my employer. Understanding values exhibited by a group takes some time. It takes time to understand the dynamics of a group. You need quite a few data points to understand the extent of disparity in values. Lack of collective action made me unhappy. It was a result of different values.

 "When we care for others our own strength to live increases. When we help people expand their state of life, our lives also expand. Actions to benefit others are not separate from actions to benefit oneself. Our lives and the lives of others are ultimately inseparable." - Daisaku Ikeda

I started a new job last week. A big part of my decision was the alignment of values between the people during the interview. I am spending time understanding the values of the team. It will help me drive action based on a shared understanding of reality.  I care about creating value with others. I resonate with Daisaku Ikeda's view of helping others. He shares, "When we care for others our own strength to live increases. When we help people expand their state of life, our lives also expand. Actions to benefit others are not separate from actions to benefit oneself. Our lives and the lives of others are ultimately inseparable."

 If you are part of an amazing team, appreciate them. If not, keep searching for that team and do great things. Life is too short to not do amazing things with other humans.

The Pitching Skill

What’s the secret to unlimited opportunities? Why do some people get more opportunities than you? We grow up learning that you need to work hard and smart. It will result in more time, money and freedom. We can then work on whatever we want. We undermine the role of pitching our ideas and ourselves.

I started my career working on custom boot and build systems.  I got the opportunity by sending out an email to a stranger on a mailing list. I sold them the idea through my profile that I may be able to solve systems problems. I demonstrated that I can solve a C programming problem and work through the solution. The reward for solving that problem was permanent employment with salary and benefits. My next goal in two years was to join a graduate program. This time I had to write a good essay to study computer science at university. I did not practice writing good essays for two years. I wondered, why I did not practice essay writing for years? I was not taught how to pitch myself.

Pitching became second nature when I started a company. If you pitch well, you can raise money and grow your company. Pitching teaches you a lot about yourself. A person we gave an offer to asked us, "Will you be able to support remote work?". I knew we lacked experience in managing a remote team member. I also lacked the ability to convince them otherwise. Every conversation felt like I had to convince someone else that our idea was worth it. A good pitch can give you access to an otherwise impossible opportunity.

The pitch-do-check loop will help you build credibility over time.

Pitching is to convince someone (yourself included) that your future work is valuable. Don't confuse pitching for doing the actual work. Doing the work makes your old pitch authentic. Your initial pitch will not get any takers, pitch anyways. Do the pitch and the work. Check your work and refine your pitch. The pitch-do-check loop will help you build credibility over time.

Do you have a rejected idea?  A pitch for your startup, book proposal, a new idea in your team. Start with any rejected idea. Do work towards it for a week. Refine your pitch. Share the new pitch with progress. Get feedback from another person. It takes time for your work to speak for itself. Pitching is a skill that helps you jump that queue. I was an outsider to computer vision. I spent a long time pitching and building products that use computer vision. The ability to pitch mixed with a lot of luck has helped me land great opportunities.

The important thing is to take that first step. Bravely overcoming one small fear gives you the courage to take on the next. - Daisaku Ikeda

A lot of individuals are never exposed to the benefits of pitching well. They've closed themselves to a large number of opportunities.   Daisaku Ikeda writes, "The important thing is to take that first step. Bravely overcoming one small fear gives you the courage to take on the next." Each one of us can take that first step. I would love to live in a world where each individual has access to the best opportunities. Pitching their grandest ideas and doing their best work.

Transparency in startups

Have you ever wondered why your manager hides certain information from you?

My experiments with transparency span being a founder and early-stage startup team member. The phrase I am tired of hearing during my working life is that information is “need to know basis”. This statement undermines the person asking you questions. I've documented the intersection of my values with an adaptation of my real life.

Imagine you are a founder of an early-stage startup. You run into a situation where you don't have enough cash to run payroll next month. As a leader, you can either share this information with your team members, not share till they ask or do nothing. Your team members put a lot on the line to join you and don’t share much of a financial upside if things do go well. You owe the transparency to them. Doing nothing is taking the path of least emotional resistance. It erodes trust in the leadership. I've met startup employees who would never work for a founder they worked with in the past. These are the consequences of being a bad leader.

Telling your team you don't have money to continue paying them can feel scary. To be able to share this with your team is hard, but a win-win proposition. It helps your team build confidence in leadership that shares hard truths. The emotional process you undergo will make sharing hard truths easier for you. A side effect of this is that your team will reshuffle. If someone believes in your company's mission, they will double down on your company. If they have doubts, they will leave. This helps cement the culture of openness and transparency in your founding team.

Let's say you decide to not share anything about the poor financial situation. You get lucky and you find that paying customer for closing your next round of funding. Everyone on your team is happy. Your team size doubles. In a few months, the same customer is unhappy with your product. What do you do? There were no consequences of not sharing important information last time. You don't share anything again, this time with double the team size. You have now cemented a culture of not sharing hard truths with the team. Looking up to you, your leadership team does the same thing with their teams. Over time no one in your organization is sharing hard truths with each other. Those who do, look like outsiders in your organization. The growing information gap about hard truths will lead to an ineffective organization. Everyone will be second-guessing their leadership, peers and managers.

You can’t develop genuine character and ability by sidestepping adversity and struggle." - Daisaku Ikeda

Transparency is about treating people right. Leadership is about decision-making under ambiguity. Values guide your thinking in ambiguous situations. The value of transparency helps people share their true opinions. Leading with transparency is not easy in a large number of organizations. Let's challenge ourselves to building organizations of greater transparency. Here's a quote that has served me well in my challenges with transparency. "Rise to the challenges that life presents you. You can’t develop genuine character and ability by sidestepping adversity and struggle." - Daisaku Ikeda. A culture of transparency is hard to build. Anyone can start creating a culture of transparency. A good starting point is to start writing down the decisions you make and how you made them. People will notice how you take the messy glue of human emotions and transform it into a great culture.

To Manage = To Empower

“Its (one-on-one) main purpose is mutual teaching and exchange of information.”   - Andy Grove [1]


I first ran into one-on-one meetings in the famed High Output Management by Andy Grove. It’s a meeting in which a manager meets with their direct report. If you are a knowledge worker, you have these meetings either as the direct report or as the manager. Running a good one-on-one meeting is the tangible thing you can do to grow as a leader in your organization.

 “In striving to help others grow, we grow too.”   - Daisaku Ikeda [2].

In my first job, I would always be waiting for my manager to reach out to me and ask me questions. It took me a few years to realize how limited in scope my one-on-one meetings were. I would talk about compensation and vacation, but I rarely spoke about my career and never about how I felt about the different situations.  My first management role was at my own company, Explorer.ai. There I started doing one-on-ones with an intent to understand what my team wants. We discussed their job, their career, their immigration challenges and many more topics. My role was to guide them on their journey. Helping my team and myself through one-on-ones was two birds with one stone.

“Someone can be extremely smart, knowledgeable, and a joy to be around, but if they don't deliver on time or to the standard expected, they'll lose trust quickly.” - Anne Raimondi [3].

To help your direct report the first step is to cultivate trust. To build trust one needs to work on credibility, reliability, authenticity and self-interest. The fastest way to build credibility is to ask questions in your one-on-one meetings. Simple things like being on time, not canceling meetings without reason and following up on promises help build reliability. Sharing relevant context and being direct with unpleasant information reflects authenticity. Self-interest shows up when you misrepresent your direct report. It happens outside your one-on-one and people are good at catching it. Start building trust in your next one-on-one.

When you go into your next one-on-one meeting, think about how you can grow trust.  It’s the bedrock of a healthy professional relationship. If something is uncomfortable for you, learn how to deal with it to benefit your direct report or team. One of my direct reports shared with me, “I was a little apprehensive about the regular one on ones. Now, I find them very insightful, to understand the direction and how our team fits into the bigger picture.” One-on-ones get easier the more you practice.  Building strong working relationships takes time. Enjoy the messy process of your team and your growth.

[1] Andy Grove, High Output Management

[2]  Daisaku Ikeda, New Human Revolution Vol. 8

[3] Anne Raimondi, Use This Equation to Determine, Diagnose, and Repair Trust