By B.A. Krishna
The trouble with most managers,” declared Rajat as he sipped his drink, “is that they’re like monkeys. They are, in fact, positively simian. For all practical purposes, they are primates in dire need of training. And just when you’ve finished training them, they often get promoted, probably into a realm where they can only do minimal damage. So you end up with another monkey that needs to be trained all over again. The best ones quickly learn to leave you the hell alone – those are the ones that realize good engineers don’t need to be managed. You see, they just need to be babied. Their fragile, creative egos need to be nurtured, just like you do with precocious kids!”
Pausing briefly, Rajat plunged right back into his ill-advised monologue: “Watching someone rise through the ranks of management is like watching evolution running in reverse, a devolution! During the middle-management stage, there is diminished brain-activity, but they’re still capable of producing status reports in the form of finger paintings and cave drawings. But once they move into upper management, they lose interest in remaining erect, develop prehensile feet and are routinely bewildered by modern inventions like fire and the fax-machine. More than one board meeting has been aborted because executives chose to bare fangs and hurl bananas at each other. Oh, and they grunt, there’s a lot of grunting!”
“Once they’re that far gone, the only humans that can get through to them are women that resemble Jane Goodall.” As Rajat finally made eye-contact with his audience of one, it dimly dawned on him that the person he was talking to just might be a manager himself, and that his rigorous analysis might not be going down so well. Oops. To make matters worse, he suddenly realized that he was talking to his party host. Double oops. So Rajat decide to make himself scarce and wandered off in search of new victims.
“The average Manager is so inept,” said Rajat to his now imaginary audience, “that he shouldn’t even be trusted with a keyboard. Most of them barely have the motor skills required to use a mouse, which is about all they need to churn out Powerpoint(less) presentations. They can, after extensive training and with significant supervision, be taught to operate a foot-pedal, but barely. Every time I see a manager, I’m reminded that somewhere, there’s a cave missing its dweller.”
Rajat noticed a grumpy looking Bengali couple, keeping to themselves. He walked up to them and said, “Hi, I’m Rajat. What work do you do?” The Bengali guy continued to remain grim but out of the corner of his mouth, uttered a single word, “Computer,” and then proceeded to clam up. This irritated Rajat to no end. “Computer? Not even Computers? Why stick to the singular? Does he work on a single bloody computer and hence used the singular? Surely, considering his age, he must have worked on at least two Computers by now, over his illustrious career? What does he work on? The bloody ENIAC?”
“And what’s with self-imposed economy on words,” thought Rajat, to himself, “Is there a shortage that I need to know about? Should I be conserving my usage too?” It reminded him of an old joke. When Prince Phillip visited Kenya, he was introduced to the national volleyball team. The nervous team captain, on being introduced to His Royal Highness, blurted out, “I’m volleyball.” Without missing a beat, Price Phillip responded, “Oh, in that case, I’m polo.”
Unable to muster the energy required to prolong this conversation, Rajat walked away. “Why are people so disgruntled?” he wondered, “And by the way, if one isn’t disgruntled, can one declare one’s self chirpily gruntled? How are you? Oh, I’m perfectly gruntled, thank you! Somehow gruntle doesn’t sound like a very pleasant state. Note to self: Check if the word exists. Hopefully it doesn’t and I’ll make it a point to use it, just to screw with people. Now that’s a satisfying thought!”
Rajat then spotted another couple that he knew, sort of. It was Niraj, who was good company, but his wife, Nasreen, was nauseatingly cheerful. “Somewhere,” thought Rajat. “There’s a detergent commercial, sorely in need of her!” He remembered that there was an ongoing cold-war/spat going on between Nasreen and his wife. “It probably has to do with Facebook, the root of all evil,” he thought. “Perhaps my wife didn’t thumbs-up or poke promptly, in response to one of Nasreen’s numerous Facebook comments.” Consequently, a state of war had been declared, implicitly of course. With women, it’s always implicit. The rules of engagement were all very hazy. So understandably, Rajat wanting to avoid all latent land-mines, stayed away from the couple.
As he scoped out the crowd, he vaguely recognized Vivek whom he had met at another party years ago. Vivek was doing his best to not recognize Rajat, which was natural since Vivek’s company had gone IPO. In the Silicon Valley caste system, we all know that the IPO-caste reigns supreme. Post-IPO, people feel compelled to mingle only with other IPO-ed denizens. Scientific studies confirm that there’s a high risk of this newly gotten wealth leaching out of their bodies through a process of osmosis. It’s all very understandable. “Thankfully, most of these “made” men lack hobbies and continue to work themselves to death”, thought Rajat to himself. “Some don’t know any better. Others are forced to remain workaholics on account of their spouses – we don’t want your ass parked at home all day.”
The desi grapevine estimated Vivek’s wealth at $15 million or so. How would they know? Through a careful mix of diligent research, complex financial models and subtle third word questioning along the lines of: “Could we please have your home address so that we can look up the sale price on zillow.com?” It’s hard to talk your way out of answering that one.
“Let’s hope he has invested it all in one place, poorly!” Rajat thought to himself, crankily. Vivek, in an act of cheerful self-appreciation, had recently constructed (Vivek would rather think of it as his favorite and, hopefully, longest lasting erection) a hideous Greco-Roman mansion for himself recently, replete with fountains and Corinthian columns. “The only way this monstrosity could be made appealing,” Rajat once remarked, “is if he threw in some co-ed Greco-Roman wrestling. Now that’s a thought! Besides, surely there are good reasons why the Greeks themselves have stopped building that way?”
Vivek, at considerable expense, had fully grown palm trees shipped in and installed in his garden. Not quite content, he then detected a shortage of Indian cultural influence in his little Xanadu and proceeded to spend some more money on life-sized, hand-sculpted statues of voluptuous apsaras which are now placed at strategic points around his house and garden.
As luck would have it, a local newspaper, upon hearing of his house (which was described to them as a reincarnation of the notorious Hearst Castle) expressed a morbid interest in interviewing him. When asked how he would describe the architectural style of his house, Vivek thought for a while and then humbly responded; “Oh, it’s unique. I would simply describe it as Vivek-esque.” He then felt compelled to elaborate on the philosophy behind his creation: “You see, most people settle for a home-theater. As for me, I’d rather have an amphi-theater. That’s just how I swing!”
As Rajat curiously eyed Vivek’s wife, he suddenly had a revelation which cheered him up considerably: “Ah, the wife is clearly pre-IPO. I’m glad he’s stuck with her for now! That’s not an easy one to upgrade. And unlike software, you can’t simply do an uninstall either! Ha ha.”
Reassured by his own wit, Rajat then turned his attention to others in the pot-luck, hoping he might come across a border-line hot “Auntie” whom he could ogle at leisure. This option was a lot more attractive than having to run around his impossibly slippery, bratty sons who were magnetically attracted to all objects fragile and expensive. As any respectable Indian taxonomist can tell you, all women, post-adolescence, get classified as members of the ‘Auntie’ phylum which sits decidedly higher in the food chain than the ‘Uncle’ phylum.
This Indian prerogative to stretch the rigorous bounds of English even extends to fabricating new words on a need basis. For instance, take the word “prepone.” It was considered a made-up word by Oxford purists but Indians have been merrily using the word since Jurassic era. It suited them. The said purists could only hold out for so long. Recently, they were forced to make it mainstream and the word is now respectably listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. They could easily have preponed this decision and saved themselves some trouble. Ha ha!
Unfortunately for Rajat, most of the aunties around didn’t quite qualify as hot, border-line or otherwise. The party crowd was bunched up in groups, each debating such fascinating topics as “Did I tell you about my school district, which really is the Promised Land?”, or “Isn’t it terribly difficult to find good day-care these days?” What was even worse was to encounter a not-hot alpha auntie gloat over her latest find, an ultra-cheap nanny — a veritable Punjabi Mary Poppins, who effortlessly tended to the kids, cooked amazing parathas infused with love and kept the house in impeccable order. Rajat knew that such reports were greatly exaggerated but also knew that he would have to suffer through a “Why can’t we hire super-efficient help like others do?” lecture from his wife. If aural scarring was possible, he was sure to have it in spades.
While all of these conversations were of marginally practical value, they were hardly entertaining. So Rajat ploughed through the crowd, hoping to spy some of his more tolerable friends, those that might be receptive to his theorizing. There’s something vaguely satisfying about being listened to but his target audience sample space was rather small. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied his wife busily chatting with her current best friend. He was sure she would download a detailed (and annotated) report of the conversation later that evening, when, hopefully, he would be dazed enough to suffer through it relatively painlessly. If fortune favors him, there will be no trick questions asked during the download process.
He then ran into Mrs. Gupta’s husband. Rumor has it that no one really knew his actual name, not even Mr. Gupta himself. As a result, Mrs. Gupta’s husband, much like Caesar, refers to himself in the third person. Thrilled to have finally found himself a victim to bore, he then gleefully remarked, “Son, you’ve grown up so much. I still cherish memories of you as a kid in New Delhi, running around in diapers.” “Ah, that’s a tricky one,” Rajat thought to himself. “We both know that in India circa 1970, there were no diapers to be had. We toddlers were forced to exist al-fresco, so to speak.”
After exchanging a few words with Mrs. Gupta’s husband, Rajat excused himself and recognized someone he knew, his college buddy Ashok, who qualified as semi-decent company. Ashok, like Rajat, didn’t have much stomach for upward mobility and was equally irreverent. Both hadn’t much luck when it came to picking start-ups. Rajat equated his plight to “Being lactose intolerant in a land with rivers of milk and honey – what good is that?”
After exchanging the obligatory profanities and refreshing their drinks—thankfully the host was no skin-flint when it came to serious matters such as alcohol—Rajat slapped Ashok on the back and asked him what he had been up to, hoping he could derive some vicarious delight out of Ashok’s latest antics or out of his latest source of misery, either would do. Anything to inject some variety into the vacuous “formula” conversation mandated in most potlucks.
“Let’s go skiing sometime,” Ashok said. He knew that this was a hypothetical, since they both had infants and hadn’t acquired enough time off for good behavior. “Yes, of course Ashok, any time buddy,” said Rajat. “We both know it isn’t happening, ha ha.”
“Did I tell you how I got a raise?” exclaimed Ashok, dramatically. “Viagra?” thought Rajat to himself but didn’t have the heart to derail Ashok, who eased effortlessly into his customary lecture-mode and said, “We were all scheduled for a performance review, and I thought I’d try a new tactic. You see, most idiots, after their review/raise, walk around dejected, bitching and moaning. So I thought I’d do the reverse.”
“Typical Ashok,” thought Rajat to himself, partly envious but also eager to hear the full extent of Ashok’s stunt. “So,” said Ashok. “I thought to myself, self, how can we exploit this human tendency? I walked up to the VP and said ‘Give me a 15% raise. If you don’t, I’ll walk around with a smile on my face, exclaiming to one and all that I’ve got a 30% raise.’ That’s bound to piss everyone off. So just give me a 15% raise and I’ll walk around looking dejected just like the others. Small price to ensure that I’m disgruntled and yet preserve overall morale. Yes?”
Ashok went on. “That tactic scared the VP. He figured it would be more cost-effective to hush me than to have everyone else clamoring for a bigger raise.” Ashok sported the smug, self-satisfied smile that he had patented when he was a toddler. Rajat loved the idea and made a mental note to try this tactic out, but knew that he would falter in the execution. Even so, it is entertaining to consider an overpaid VP being intimidated by such a ploy. “I now have at least one under-hand, devious tidbit nugget of wisdom that I can try out later,” Rajat thought to himself, “Nothing like a nice, controlled experiment seasoned with a twinge of malice!”
Rajat recollected another nugget of wisdom Ashok had shared many moons ago. “If you get a terrible raise”, Ashok had said “don’t be dejected. Just focus on effective pay, that is, pay per hour. Just work slower and work less, staggering output just a little. Don’t make it obvious. Run around, look stressed but don’t actually work much. You don’t earn more, but you do get paid more per hour of effective work. The key is to not put in too many effective hours and you break even.” The principle had really appealed to Rajat and was even easily implementable with some practice.
He also recollected memories of when the two of them had worked together in a start-up. The offices consisted of a ware-house in which one of the conference rooms had an exit door. So as a joke, they made it a point to walk through the room, ignoring meetings that were in progress, and proceed to simply walk out of the exit. That raised a few eyebrows from the meeting participants, but many found it funny. So Ashok refined that mode-of-exit a little. “Let’s not just walk through the meeting and walk out of the exit,” said Ashok, “Let’s improve it. I’ll run through the room and exit. You come running in, chasing me, shouting ‘Have you seen him?’ and also exit.” That plan was executed flawlessly. The resultant skit almost got them fired, since it derailed a critical investor meeting, but, boy, was it oh so satisfying!
Ashok, having perfected the art of effortlessly context-switching so as not to lose control of the conversation, launched into his next topic (He usually has a predetermined list), “Oh, did I tell you about Sundar? He did something really cool, considering this downturn.” “What’s that?” asked Rajat. “He figured he’s going to be laid off anyway, and decided to relocate to Massachusetts,” said Ashok. “While most states pay your employment disability for just a year, Massachusetts pays you for two full years of unemployment! Ha ha.” Both Ashok and Rajat enjoyed a good chuckle over Sundar’s foresight. To relocate solely based on post-termination state benefits seemed like an act of sheer genius.
Rajat, eager to share an anecdote of his own, said, “Did I tell you about my sabbatical? I visited Southern Thailand. Coconuts are a big cash crop there. Farmers use trained monkeys to harvest coconuts for them. They even have Monkey training schools. Not all graduate. The few that do, especially those on the Dean’s list, can be relied upon to harvest coconuts on demand. On graduation day, smart farmers flock to hold campus interviews, to ensure they snare the best graduates. It isn’t uncommon to see a farmer riding on his motorcycle, along with his valedictorian monkey. Now there lies a solution to this outsourcing problem!” “So what happens to the monkeys that fail to graduate?” asked Ashok. “Do they join business school and move into upper-management? Ha ha.”
They then began to reminisce about the most-excellent technical work they had done together, while at the start-up. This collaboration had even yielded them a technical paper which they jointly presented at a marginal conference. Having secured such exalted credentials, both, as per Ashok’s suggestion, immediately (and cunningly) listed this solitary paper in their resume under the modest title: “Select Publications.”
Lost in conversation, both Rajat and Ashok headed over to the food. Thankfully they were the early ones. Since they were seasoned potluck professionals, both had learnt not to be tardy in matters of food and drink. As the old adage goes, “You snooze, you lose!”. After much thought and discussion over the years, they had refined their buffet strategy into five thoughtful pillars of wisdom: (1) Attack the food early (2) Avoid low-labor intensive dishes like salads (3) Load up on the high-demand items (4) Pre-fetch an extra plate or two & (5) Find yourself a quiet corner to chow down.
As they helped themselves generously, Rajat turned to Ashok and said, “I recently saw the movie `Julie & Julia’ which was about the life of legendary chef Julia Child.” Ashok, who was busy loading up his third plate of food, vaguely nodded in his direction. “The amazing thing about Julia Child,” resumed Rajat, “is one wonders how good her cooking will be once she’s Julia Adult! Ha ha ha.”
Feeling somewhat compelled to explain his appetite in geometric terms, Ashok said “You see, most people believe in three square meals. Me, I’d rather settle for one rather large rectangular meal, preferably at no expense to myself. And if you dare ask me why I’m eating so much, I shall simply quote the great George Mallory: ‘Because it is there.’ Of course, once I’m done, it will no longer be there, so to speak.”
Ashok’s last comment did them both in. Both their wives, who were within earshot, just couldn’t bear the thought of their husbands enjoying themselves and promptly began to berate them for being the negligent dads they already knew they were. “Great!” grumbled Rajat. “Just when I thought I was into the conversation, they pull me back out!”
As usual his two brats, one-dot-oh and two-dot-oh, were rumored to be acting up. After a frantic search, Rajat finally confronted one-dot-oh, which, having discovered the joys of spinning until dizzy atop a table, was now impersonating a highly motivated whirling dervish. Meanwhile, two-dot-oh, much to the delight of an an eager toddler audience, had unearthed a rather large matchbox, made itself comfortable in a pile of inflammables and was gleefully contemplating the next step in its ambitious pyrotechnic project.
An emergency exit was called for, but no, the seat cushions didn’t conveniently double as floatation devices that his family could use for their exit. The post-party baby relocation logistics meant that along with the still spinning one-dot-oh and an incendiary two-dot-oh, a mountain of baby crap needed to be transported to their Honda Odyssey baby-mobile, a Herculean task for which even Sherpas are prone to using the assistance of pack animals. “Ah, but the potluck wasn’t a total waste after all,” Rajat muttered to himself, half cheerfully, “Vivek’s pre-IPO wife made it all worthwhile.”
B. A. Krishna is an Indian American living in Silicon Valley. He designs computer chips for a living and has authored two technical publications in Formal Methods in Computer Aided Design and Lecture Notes in Computer Science. He has also authored an essay published in the Indian Review.