Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Ten Things Teachers Taught Me

Sep 5 is Teacher's Day in India. I've been reading Facebook posts about influential teachers all day. It's time for a blog post from me.

1. The making of a Grammar Nazi

My mother was perhaps my first teacher. I guess this is true for most people, but it was extra true for me for a couple of reasons. My mother was a trained teacher and had an M.Ed. degree in addition to her M.A. in English Literature, so when I was born, I became a sort of educational experiment for her. She began accelerating my learning from a very young age, using all kinds of teaching aids. I remember her teaching me Tamil, English and Hindi before I even started school.

She used to work as a schoolteacher when she was single, but took a break for a few years after she got married and when the kids (my younger sister and I) arrived. Once my sister started school, my mother resumed her teaching career. As it turned out, she joined the same school that I was enrolled in, and in short order became my English teacher.

There are very few kids who have had their mothers teaching in their schools, and it is not the most comfortable experience from a peer-social perspective, I can assure you. I was generally a good student and did well in all subjects, but one slightly embarrassing part of that was that I always stood first in English. Having my mother as my English teacher was mainly responsible for that, but not in the way some may have thought. I never peeked at her desk at home to see what questions she was setting for a test, and neither did she grade my papers charitably because I was her son. On the contrary, I received extra strict assessments, and that's what I want to talk about.

One day in class (this was in Year 5), she administered a spelling test. One of the ten words she dictated was "independence". I got this wrong. I spelled it "independance". I got 9 out of 10, and I think that was still the highest score in the class. There were a few others who got this word wrong, and even those who got this right made a couple of other mistakes, so I was on the whole reasonably pleased with myself.

Mum said nothing in class as she went around the room checking all our work and awarding us our marks, but when we got home, I was hauled before my dad and she delivered the biggest tongue-lashing I can remember.

I was indignant. Lots of other kids got that word wrong, I protested. My score was still the highest in the class!

She then said something to me that I have never forgotten.

"My son cannot make a mistake in English."

It had a more powerful effect on me than I then realised. My standards had suddenly been raised. A score of 9 out of 10 in an English spelling test was no longer creditable but something to be deeply ashamed of.

The years since then are a blur, but I now find myself correcting random people's English on the net and being generally obnoxious. Something must have happened to me that day.

I'm not just a Grammar Nazi; I'm also a Spelling and Punctuation Nazi.

2. When Geography came alive

There were (and probably still are) two unfailing truths about primary school education in India. It's mind-numbingly boring, and it's generally humourless. I'm going to risk life and limb here by making a sexist statement. Female teachers, especially married ones, are extremely sincere, but humour is entirely alien to them.

We had the most boring textbooks, and even the illustrations were line-drawn in black-and-white (Thank you, dear Board of Education, Government of Karnataka). The only relief from the monotony was the opportunity they provided for artistic embellishments. More than one historical character in our textbooks (and this includes some female ones) has sprouted an impressive moustache or beard thanks to our artistry.

When we entered high school, we left behind the cohort of sincere female teachers and experienced male pedagogy for the first time. Our first geography class was conducted by Mr SB Krishna Prasad, shortly to be known by the affectionate initials "SBK".

Our theme for the first term was Africa. To give you a taste of the spontaneous joy that an Indian geography textbook can evoke, here is the kind of illustration that greets a student as they start the chapter.

Yawn and double yawn.

There was a big map on a chart-stand in front of the class, and its biggest saving grace was that it was in colour.

Colour! Yay.

After Mr SBK had introduced himself, he asked a very strange question.

"How many of you read Tarzan comics?"

In primary school, staffed by grim-faced female teachers, this kind of question was usually posed in an accusatory tone, and often marked the start of an inquisition that would end with a student being marched to the front of the class to be shamed, with an incriminating piece of seized contraband, viz., a comic, waved contemptuously as a warning to the rest of the class. Comics were severely frowned upon in school, and the received wisdom about them was that "they spoil your English!" I think we were expected to read Dickens instead. I never had the guts to tell my teachers that all the advanced English words and phrases I learnt were from comics.

At any rate, there was a lot of uneasiness in the class, but the new man's smiling face encouraged some of us to hesitatingly put up our hands.

Mr SBK pounced eagerly at that show of hands.

"Aha! And where does Tarzan live?"

By now, some of us had put two and two together to guess the answer, since it was hanging out there in front of us with all the subtlety of a Zulu war cry.

"In Africa...?"

"Where in Africa?" he persisted.

"In the forest," we ventured.

"What is the name of that forest?" he pursued.

Faced with silence, he revealed a little-known fact about our comic-book hero.

"He lives in the Congo forest!"

And then he went on, with an enthusiastic expression and animated gestures, "You know, you see Tarzan swinging through the trees, swimming across rivers. This is where he lives!"

He pointed to a slightly dark green spot in the middle of Africa. The whole class craned forward to stare at that map, as if we could see that solitary figure swinging his way through the trees.

Oh, you mean this Africa!

All of a sudden, Africa wasn't boring anymore. We were learning about Tarzan!

Of course, it couldn't last. Mr SBK also settled into a more familiar drone as the days went by, but there were enough flashes of humour and levity during the term to humanise Geography for us. Somewhere along the way during my high school years, I developed the habit of spending hours flipping through my atlas, poring over the maps of countries. To this day, I can recognise the map of most countries from a fleeting glance at their outlines. I'm sure that has had something to do with the teacher who didn't think Tarzan was a bad influence.

3. When Civics came alive

The same teacher (SB Krishna Prasad) also taught us Civics. Now if Geography was a mild sedative, Civics was chloroform. Who in Year 8 wants to learn about the executive, the legislature and the judiciary being the three arms of the state, or about the rights and duties of a citizen?

Mr SBK began his lecture with reminiscences of British rule. He said we had it really easy in these post-independence days, because the British had often been quite harsh in imposing restrictions on Indians, especially during the Freedom Struggle.

He began by asking the class if we'd seen a popular movie that had just released. Many enthusiastically put up their hands, and a few minutes were pleasurably spent in discussing the movie.

Then Mr SBK conjured up a scenario. Taking examples from the class, he spoke about how one of us could have been walking back home after seeing the movie, when he or she saw another classmate. The two could have stood there at the street corner discussing the movie when they could have been joined by yet another classmate. They could have spent a lively half hour just standing there on the street and talking.

And yet, said Mr SBK, suddenly injecting a serious note into this convivial scene, this would not have been possible under the British during the freedom struggle. In his South Indian-accented English, he proceeded to deliver an impression of a Raj-era policeman: "What are you fellows doing here? You must be meeting to plot against the government! Come on, I'm taking you to jail."

Having driven home the unfairness of the situation, he then skilfully turned to the lesson at hand by saying, "That is why, when the leaders of our freedom struggle won independence, they decided that no one should be arrested just for standing on the street and discussing with their friends. That is why the Indian Constitution says all citizens have the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly!"

I must say that Mr SBK's hypothetical tale of three of our classmates being arrested for peaceful assembly was itself an arresting way to drive home the lesson about citizens' rights. I've never forgotten those rights, and I didn't have to study too hard to remember them for the exam either.

Sleeping powder or rivetting story? Context is everything.

In my later years, I have found Civics to be one of the most fascinating topics ever. The only downside of understanding these concepts is that I am quite irritated nowadays when I read the occasional news item that mistakenly refers to a Head of Government as a "Head of State".

4. A lesson in Physics, and more

It's a cultural aspect of Indian classrooms that students expect to be spoon-fed everything, and teachers expect no deviation from the exact words they use to teach. Even when they're given a problem to solve independently, students cannot resist asking questions about every aspect of it before they begin. Ambiguity is anathema to the Indian student.

When I was studying Physics in Years 11 and 12 (referred to in those days as Junior College or PUC - Pre-University Course), it was a given that someone or the other would demand to know what to assume as the value of 'g' (the acceleration due to gravity) before solving a problem in mechanics. And teachers would invariably oblige. Most of the time, we would be told to assume a value of 9.81 m/s2. In some rare cases, some textbooks would graciously allow us to assume a value of 10 m/s2 to simplify our calculations.

When I passed the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) and gained admission to one of the famed Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), I took that attitude with me - that of needing to be spoon-fed.

In my first semester at IIT Madras, we had a Physics professor called Dr Rangarajan. A youngish man with a thick Tamil brahmin accent, he had an earnest air and was quite friendly and approachable.

After a week of lectures, we had a tutorial session where we were given a sheet of problems to solve. Dr Rangarajan walked in a leisurely manner around the class, to be of assistance if required.

As it turned out, I hadn't really understood the gravity of this situation.

Sure enough, the character of the Indian student shortly made its appearance.

"Sir, what should we assume as the acceleration due to gravity?"

I fully expected Dr Rangarajan to respond with "9.81 m/s2" or even "10 m/s2", but what he said blew me away.

"Any reasonable value," he said with a smile. (To be precise, what he actually said in his Tam-brahm accent was, "Any reeesssonabLL value!")

Any reasonable value!

It was like a light bulb suddenly turned on inside my head! The actual value of 'g' didn't matter! He just wanted to see if we knew how to solve the problem. All of a sudden, I understood the purpose of education itself - not to provide a set of facts but to stimulate thinking.

In that instant, I had arrived at IIT.

5. Insight into Identity

Dr Indira Parikh at IIM Ahmedabad used to take a second-year MBA course called "Careers, Roles and Identity". I heard very good reports about the course when I was still in my first year there, so I registered for it when I got the chance.

A classroom at IIM-A

The first few lectures were spent on a challenge Dr Parikh issued. After admonishing us all about the need to respect the confidentiality of whatever might be revealed in the classroom during those sessions, she threw down the gauntlet. "Tell me three incidents from your life, and I'll tell you what kind of person you are!" Most people bristled at the audacity of the challenge. "How can you purport to tell us who we are based on just three incidents in our life?" was the indignant response.

She never bothered to explain herself, but only repeated the challenge. Soon enough, someone took her up on it, and opened up about themselves enough to reveal three personal incidents in their life. Dr Parikh then provided them with an assessment of their character and personality.

This went on for quite a few classes. The people who received such assessments seemed a bit taken aback by the perceptive feedback, and I noticed that none of them denied what they had been told. It was often quite confronting, but people took it well.

I didn't dare open up about myself. I just watched and listened.

Bit by bit, all of us understood the sound basis for Dr Parikh's challenge. She wasn't just picking up three random incidents from someone's life. She was relying on them to provide those incidents themselves. And each person chose to relate incidents that they somehow felt were significant events in their own lives. That choice said something about them. To a skilled practitioner like Dr. Parikh, three such self-reported significant incidents were enough to reveal the character and personality traits of a person.

Throughout this period, Dr Parikh would ask us at intervals, "What is Identity?" Lots of different answers would be provided, but she would just smile and say nothing in response.

Finally, about halfway through the course, she gave us the answer. At first, it didn't make any sense at all. But every time I look back and think about it, it makes more sense than ever.

"Your identity is the meaning you give to the situation in which you find yourself."

It was then that I really understood the truth of that old aphorism

Two men looked from prison bars.
One saw mud, the other stars.

Situations themselves have no meaning. We give situations meaning. And the meaning we give to situations makes us what we are. That's why no two individuals are alike.

That course ("Careers, Roles and Identity") clarified life itself for me. I learnt to engage with people in a much more meaningful and understanding way after that. I could not unsee the idea that everyone was defining themselves in terms of the meaning they gave to their own situation. One could reach across to a person very easily by acknowledging their view of the world.

In later sessions, Dr Parikh also talked about marriage, and she provided an equally insightful definition of that institution - "a space in which the other person has a chance to unfold".

Understanding the wisdom of that definition too has helped to enrich my personal life.

I've provided 5 examples of things I've been taught by my teachers and professors during my student years. But as they say, one can never stop learning, because life never stops teaching! So let me now talk about 5 things I was taught by my managers at work.

6. Trust and honesty

My first job was as a programmer at CMC Ltd in Bombay. This was a large government-owned software company. The idealist that I was then was powerfully inspired by its motto: "Information Technology to improve the quality of life for all"!

I liked the clean lines of CMC's logo too

My first manager was Mrs Lalitha Sanatkumar, and my first assignment was to maintain and run the company payroll. This was a huge batch application written in mainframe COBOL. During the day, the mainframe was in heavy use by customers, so in-house developers were encouraged to do a night shift instead. The payroll had been pretty badly maintained and patched before I inherited it, so my nights were quite "interesting" the first few months I ran it. The program would crash unexpectedly at every juncture, and it was a huge challenge to get it into shape. I got used to staying awake all night for a few nights every month.

CMC had a policy that anyone working late could claim their dinner bill, so after every monthly payroll run, I would turn up at Mrs Sanatkumar's desk with a claim form for her to sign, and some restaurant bills stapled to the back.

Now, with my only past experience with officialdom being with clerks in various government and semi-government offices, I expected a manager to scrutinise a submitted form, verify the dates on all bills, check the total, maybe ask a tough question or two of the need to work that many nights, etc. But Mrs Sanatkumar would just take the form from me and sign at the bottom without glancing at the amount I was claiming. That was it. She had no idea how much I was claiming. She just trusted me to be honest about it.

I remember feeling a rush of emotion over that. I would never have fudged a bill in any case, but my manager's demonstration of trust in me ensured that I would never betray that trust. I realised something very powerful that day.

If you want honesty, show trust.

7. A lesson in negotiation

After 8 years in the comfortable and fuzzily warm culture of CMC, I went overseas to work in what felt like "the real world", a more brusque and less understanding workplace. My new employer was the National Bank of Dubai, and my new boss was the head of the bank's IT department, a British expat named Henry George. Henry was a fair boss but very tough and demanding. It was a bit of a culture shock for me after years of experiencing the paternalistic managerial style of Indian bosses.

The National Bank of Dubai's distinctive building at the edge of Dubai creek

I managed to adjust to the new culture after a while. But I was still quite naive, I believe.

One of the projects I worked on involved issuing a tender for a set of computers. A few large computer vendors responded to the tender with proposals, and I had to perform the initial vetting and discussions.

I remember going to Henry's office with one of the vendor's proposals and telling him, "This is their best price."

Henry smiled at me almost pityingly and said, "Everything's negotiable."

He then took over the negotiations and brought the vendor's prices down by half.

It was an important life lesson for me not to take things at face value.

Everything's negotiable.

8. Finding my calling

When I migrated to Australia, I worked at a few places in IT design roles, then joined Westpac Bank as an architect. To be honest, I did not know the difference between an architect and a designer even then. Many companies don't make that distinction even today. To many, an architect is just a glorified term for a designer. It sounds more impressive on a business card.

Westpac had a very large IT division (a couple of thousand people, if I remember right). The architecture team itself had about thirty people in four or five smaller teams. The Head of Architecture was a man named Stephen Smith.

Stephen had monthly team meetings for the whole of Architecture, and at these meetings, he would usually reiterate what it meant to be an architect. Until then, I would have been hard pressed to explain the role or distinctive specialty of an architect. After listening to Stephen's presentation, I have never been clearer in my mind. Stephen's definition of the role of architecture required just eight words:

"To guide investment and design decisions around technology"

Let's break that apart. The role of architects is fundamentally to guide. It's not to issue orders, because it's not a line function. It's a staff or advisory function.

And the definition neatly shows that architects sit between the business and IT functions of an organisation, and that their role is to guide both.

Architects must advise business heads on how best to invest in technology to get the best return. And they must advise IT designers and developers on how best to build systems that meet business requirements. So architects are very different from designers after all. Designers are hardcore IT people. Architects sit between the business and IT, helping them both make better decisions in the area of technology - investment and design decisions.

When I heard Stephen Smith's definition and his further explanation, I felt myself settling more comfortably into my chair. I liked the idea of providing guidance to both business and IT functions. It played to my strengths of technology skills and interest in the bigger picture, and it also felt like the natural culmination of my degrees in Computer Science and Management.

I had found my calling.

This sketch I made for my book "Dependency-Oriented Thinking: Vol 2 - Governance and Management" explains it best.

9. A lesson in time management

Stephen Smith was Head of Architecture at Westpac, and he had four or five direct reports who headed up smaller teams. I was in the team headed by Geoff Ward, and our team dealt with Infrastructure and Utilities - shared IT services. Stephen was my boss's boss.

I was overworked and needed help. There was a hiring freeze on at the time, and it was hard to make the case for more people. Geoff tried to hire more people, but didn't succeed.

No matter how much I completed, there was always more to do

Stephen used to have one-on-one catch-ups with everyone in Architecture once every few months, so when it was my turn to meet him, Geoff suggested that I explain to Stephen first-hand why I needed another person to help me with my work.

So I sat down with Stephen and explained all the things I had to do, and the sheer impossibility of delivering all of those commitments even if I worked long hours. I was sure I had been able to make the case quite convincingly that the scope of my role simply couldn't be fulfilled by one person working alone. I asked him very frankly for his advice. I expected Stephen to either relent and agree to hire another architect, or to give me some tips on how to better approach my work so I could do more in less time.

Stephen's advice to me consisted of two words.

"Drop stuff."

I didn't think I heard him right. He shrugged, "Drop stuff".

Once he said it, it was the most obvious thing in the world. I was approaching it all wrong, thinking that the scope of work was absolutely non-negotiable. It wasn't. Something had to give, and it didn't have to be my free time. If this was all that the organisation was willing to invest on my role, this was all that the role could deliver. The rest of the stuff would be just...dropped.

It was a weight off my shoulders. I never expected a boss to tell me not to do work. And yet it was the most rational piece of advice.

Drop stuff. I do that guiltlessly now.

10. My Pygmalion moment

While I knew right at IIM that I belonged in the IT industry, and I realised at Westpac that I was most comfortable being an architect, I still suffered moments of diffidence. I didn't know my worth, and often doubted the value of what I could contribute.

After Geoff Ward moved to another role, I reported to Edward Chin, who took over the leadership of the Infrastructure and Utilities Architecture team. Later, Edward left Westpac Bank to join QBE Insurance as Head of Architecture himself, and he called me one day and invited me to join his team. It was a tremendous vote of confidence.

Edward gave me some fairly challenging assignments, and he once casually used a term when he asked me to look at a certain problem. He said that only I had the "intellectual horsepower" to come up with an architectural solution to that problem.

He said it very lightly, but hearing him use that phrase "intellectual horsepower" in connection with me made me swell up inside. It unleashed a confidence I had not allowed myself to feel until that point. It sounds vain to say this, but I knew it was true as soon as I heard it. I did have the intellectual horsepower to come up with architectural solutions to certain problems.

I later followed Edward's urging and wrote a book about one of my architectural innovations, "Identity Management On A Shoestring".

I'm flattered to discover that this book has since been cited in at least 3 academic papers in technical journals.

Edward gave me a knowing smile when I told him about the publication of this book. It was a vindication of his confidence in my "intellectual horsepower".

This entire experience reminded me of an episode in the Ramayana. The monkeys that are helping Rama search for Sita reach the southern shores of India, and realise that they have to jump across the sea to reach Lanka. They argue among themselves about who can jump the farthest. Hanuman sits quietly to a side. He doesn't believe he can jump across the ocean. At one point, the other monkeys stop arguing among themselves and look at Hanuman. They realise that he is the only person who can jump across the ocean in one leap. It takes them some time to convince him, but when Hanuman finds his confidence, he swells in size until he towers over all of them, then he leaps powerfully across the sea and flies all the way to Lanka.

There is an epilogue to this story that marks my coming of age. I had an idea for another couple of books, this time on Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA). It was counter-intuitive yet back-to-basics.

But long before the books came out, I emailed an early draft of my ideas to Edward. By this time, we were in different organisations and he was no longer my manager. I expected him to be encouraging as usual, but this time he was brutally frank in his opinion. He wrote back:

I read your paper up to the first case study and I must confess that by that time I was asking myself not whether you had been smoking pot but what kind of pot has Ganesh been smoking !!!

There was a time when such feedback would have been devastating to my self-confidence, but by this time, I had outgrown even the need for Edward's approval or encouragement. I didn't care anymore if the entire industry thought I was wrong. Nothing could stop me from completing the books. Hanuman was already flying halfway across the ocean.

[If you liked this post, you might like these other autobiographical pieces as well:
Ten Great Epiphanies Of My Life
Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Non-Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most
Ten Books Challenge - The Ten Fiction Books That Have Influenced Me Most]

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