The future doesn't need you: 8 pieces of advice to myself as a new graduate

A couple of weeks ago, the engineering college I graduated from invited me to join an industry panel to give the graduating batch some advice about careers and dealing with the real world.

Little of it, in my opinion, focussed on the single most important problem you need to solve in a modern career: The rapid pace at which your professional skills and your employer's business models are rendered obsolete.

This post is an expansion of that talk and is based largely on things I wish I'd done better myself as a fresh grad. None of this comes with a warranty - I'm wrong far too frequently for that.

The future doesn't need you


You as you define yourself today. You as a programmer. Or a driver, doctor or musician.

Don't let yourself feel it's safe to stagnate, now that you've graduated. The era of one skill-set lasting for your entire career is over.

On one side automation and expert systems are effectively replacing humans in a variety of roles. On the other, competition is crossing boundaries like never before, mostly because software is eating the world. Amazon kills traditional retail. Netflix kills BlockBuster.

So accept this: Your skills will be obsolete shortly. "Shortly" is maybe a 10 year period now, and is dropping steadily. Given most people work for ~40 years, that's a lot of churn to deal with.

Regularly updating your skills, and keeping a careful eye on market trends in your professional area is critically important or you could get a nasty surprise when you least expect it.

Draughtsmen, typists, file clerks, journalists, farmers, postal service employees, switchboard operators and photography film processors are just a few of the roles that have seen heavy reduction in openings due to automation filling the gap. Next up, all the drivers in the world thanks to Google's driverless vehicles.

In the IT industry, I'm personally seeing a decreasing need for QA and DBA roles. Technology and automation are reducing or removing significant portions of their workload, massively reducing the number of QAs or DBAs that are needed to successfully solve a problem. And that's just in my little section of the industry.

Change requires decisions. Making decisions is hard


Not just the big ones either: All decisions are hard. Many people find making decisions frequently fatiguing, even.

So you put off the decision. Big ones, small ones... you procrastinate.

However, there are other people in your organisation and community who aren't hesitating. Some of them will be successful, and will draw scarce resources toward themselves and away from you, narrowing your choices.

Don't wait endlessly for certainty to ease the fear and the doubt - by the time it comes, it's usually too late as all the choices have been taken out of your hands by circumstances. 

Seek to gather sufficient data to make an informed decision, then stop procrastinating and make the decision.

There is no "right" choice that guarantees a better career

"I'm an EC student. I'm only getting IT jobs. Is it better for my career to do my masters in an EC field or take up an IT job?"
This, or some close variant, was the most common question asked of the panel. The answer is: Nobody else can tell you. You are the only person who can define "better for my career."

What is "better"? More money? Flexible hours? A big designation? Social Impact?

Nobody else can tell you this. You are the only person who can decide what it is that you value, and what you're willing to give up to get it.

TANSTAAFL. To get something, you almost always have to compromise. Everyone hates compromise. It is human nature to want to wait until everything is perfect.

A good career needs to be defined by you, and you need to chase it. If it not a well understood, mainstream career, then you have to be willing to take risks and fail in order to get what you want.

Doing what most do leads to an average case outcome


If you decide to do what the majority does, that is the definition of average. 

If you expect to have an exceptional career, you need to be doing something different.

If you do something different, the likelihood of failure goes up substantially.

If you are unwilling to fail, then you are waiting for Perfect. This will slow you down enormously.

How much risk you are willing to take is up to you, but be rational in your analysis. Risk appetite is a deeply personal thing, and again is an area where you should make your own choices.

Doing what most say without verification is dangerous


Argumentum ad populum is a fallacy. Just because everyone says it's so doesn't mean it's true. Always fact-check any "wisdom of the crowds" type advice.

Here's a real life example.

For the last fifteen years, Electronics and Communications (EC) has been the preferred stream for aspiring engineers in the state of Karnataka. The top ranks prefer it. Paid seats are the most expensive. 

Given that most aspiring engineers aren't clear about what stream they have a taste for, they're mostly sorting by the quality of job opportunities. Parents would discuss how EC had excellent growth opportunities. CS was also good, but EC is better.

Reality, it turns out is quite different. While there are a few excellent EC jobs in India, most meaningful EC work requires a Masters degree and is outside the country. The vast majority of EC grads wind up in the large scale Indian IT services industry. Even if they have the capability to go after top consulting or product engineering roles, they tend to lose out to CS grads.

To add insult to injury, EC is arguably a much harder course than CS in Karnataka.

Arrogance slows you down


If you think you're better than the next person, you're likely to be filtering out valuable feedback that could help you improve enormously. Both from other people and from reality. 

Or, of course, you could simply be awesome! If you are, remember, be nice.

Don't be impatient


Montages are for movies. Any non-trivial undertaking will take time. Be willing to commit the necessary time before you make a decision, be patient and see it through to a meaningful conclusion after.

The people you hang out with makes a difference


The easiest way to go after a better career is to surround yourself with people in your profession who are constantly pushing boundaries, seeking to be better. Interesting, stimulating conversation is a great soft metric.

You're more likely to achieve an exceptional outcome if you're surrounded by exceptional people.


Die, Matrimonial PHP Scripts!

Our B2B beta is live at BureauBuilder! BureauBuilder is Shopify for online matrimony.

BureauBuilder provides a SaaS alternative to self-hosted PHP Scripts that are commonly used to set up online marriage bureaus or matchmaking websites.


Next up: making online matrimony more transparent

Update (15 Oct 2013): Our landing page is up! Welcome to TrustedRishta.com.

We've been fascinated by relationships and marriage in the Indian context for several years now. So when we decided to do a new product a couple of months ago, we started researching this space to understand if there were any major pain points that a startup could address.

Let me quickly summarize for you what we learned.

  • Indian weddings create an industry worth $38 Billion annually
  • Matrimony in India has four distinct verticals (the first two don't exist in the west to the best of my knowledge)
    1. Discovery: I need to find matches for my son/daughter (driven almost exclusively by parents)
    2. Verification: Is this a good match? (handled by the so called "aunty networks" and private detectives, with Facebook/LinkedIn research slowly on the rise)
    3. Retail: Where do I buy stuff for this wedding?
    4. Operations/Event Management: What do I need done for the event?
  • Only the discovery vertical has gone online in a big way (shaadi.com, bharatmatrimony.com), functions pretty much like any online classifieds service (no algorithm based matching etc.), has less than 20% market penetration, generates ~$100 Million in revenue and is growing at a phenomenal 30% year on year
  • Like almost any other similar space in India (like jobs), misrepresentation of facts is rife leading to a 30% year on year growth in matrimony focussed detective agencies and a substantial rise in divorce rates as reported by the BBC and the Economic Times.

So for us, the big, unaddressed need of the matrimony market lies in the verification stage. Indians depend on a family based trust network to achieve goals and make important decisions. Marriage, expensive purchases like real estate and cars, finding jobs, hiring - all this and more has traditionally depended on a close, tight knit network of family members.

As people migrate to the cities in incredible numbers, these networks are breaking down. We suspect that re-establishing these ties of family and friends and re-building the trust network using digital tools is the way forward.

If anyone can nail verification using such a network, they can easily expand out into discovery. But the reverse isn't necessarily true.

Personally, I think anyone contemplating marriage needs all the information about their prospective better halves they can get. The most effective approach to this is to spend time together. Lots of time. Years.

However, across the 60 or so people we polled, a few facts popped up consistently irrespective of community, caste or religion. All those we spoke to were middle/upper-middle class, most had masters degrees from top Universities, all used the internet and had Facebook accounts.

  • The discovery stage is driven entirely by parents
  • Facts available at this stage typically include a few carefully curated photos, age, community, caste, horoscope, and salary
  • Typical workflow followed by a family looking to find a match for a son/daughter:
    1. Generate a lead through offline/online matrimony bureaus or "aunty networks"
    2. Initial filtration based on community, caste, salary, height, address, skin colour (oh yeah, that happens), general appearance and horoscope (if available)
    3. Ask around to find out more about the family's financial health and general reputation; if possible, have a trusted friend or relative visit the address supplied with the lead and make enquires in the neighbourhood about the family
    4. The head of the families call one-another and chat; a meeting is set up
    5. The families meet; the man and woman that are the subject of the meeting get to talk to each other in private for a couple of hours
    6. Over the next couple of days, the two families separately decide if they'd like to proceed
    7. If it's a green signal from both families, the engagement is announced and the shopping begins
  • The people getting married restrict themselves to a veto on leads generated by parents that they find unattractive but otherwise prefer to stay uninvolved until they have to meet the other party
  • Communication between the prospective groom and bride before a formal engagement is prohibited (but encouraged after)
  • Average number of proposals considered seriously before a match is found : 4
  • Average time from discovery to meeting: 2 weeks
  • Average time after meeting for one family to give a yes/no answer to the other: 3 days (asking for a second meeting is rare)
  • Average time after a "yes" answer to a public commitment ceremony (like an engagement): 1 month
  • Average time from engagement to the wedding: 4 months

In other words, things move quickly. The people getting married don't have even days to get to know one another before making a commitment, leave alone months or years. This is an even greater pain point for the bride as the typical Indian couple moves into the groom's parents house, so the bride's family worry a great deal about not just the groom, but also the personality and background of the groom's parents.

A family in this situation has just two choices when it comes to verification: ask around, or (very rarely) hire a detective. Worse, they only have a few days to do this.

This is the problem we're going to take a stab at. We want to make "asking around" enormously powerful by building it on top of existing networks like Facebook (80M users in India) and LinkedIn (20M users in India). We want to make it quick, cheap and painless to find out how one family is connected to another through friends or relatives. We want to collate and organize the substantial amount of publicly available information so that families can make decisions quickly and effectively.

We should have an alpha out in a few weeks and start figuring out which of our hypotheses are correct and which aren't. With luck, we'll have a market and a real need we can build a product for.

If you or someone in your family is looking out for a match through traditional channels, please do consider helping us by signing up as an alpha customer. We'll be deeply grateful.

Find The Thing You're Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Weekdays And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life

The Onion just published a post that satirizes the desire to chase one's passion while being stuck doing something else for a living.

I've re-written a portion of it from the other side as an experiment, just to see how much greener the grass really is.

Turns out it doesn't read all that differently. See if you can spot the differences.

I have always been a big proponent of following your heart and doing exactly what you want to do. It sounds so simple, right? But there are people who spend years — decades, even — trying to find a true sense of purpose for themselves. My advice? Just find the thing you enjoy doing more than anything else, your one true passion, figure out how you can make a living from it and do it for the rest of your life, every day and even on nights and weekends, because making money from your passion is hard work. When you’re exhausted and cranky and just want to go to bed, you go back and work some more, because that's what it takes to keep your head above water.

It could be anything — music, writing, drawing, acting, teaching — it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that once you know what you want to do, you dive in a full 100 percent and set aside a small amount of your time for the luxury of self-pity because you know that without luck it’s unlikely to give you a steady income, allow you to buy a house, afford decent healthcare and send your kids to college.

Is there any other way to live?

I can’t stress this enough: Do what you love... in between family commitments, and commitments that tend to pop up and take immediate precedence over doing the thing you love, and things you may not enjoy but have to get good at so you can continue do what you love. Because the bottom line is that life is short, and you owe it to yourself to spend the majority of it giving yourself wholly and completely to something you absolutely love, doing what you feel you were put on this earth to do.