Monday, July 21, 2008

Dodgeball Education

Douglas Adams said,

"A learning experience is one of those things that say, 'You know that thing you just did?' Don't do that.'"

By that standard, all I have done in terms of formal education till now & to some extent am still doing can be called a "Learning Experience". Being a kid who wants to learn, I suppose, was a crime. I always couldn't figure things out & the school never encouraged. It took me ages to realize that it’s not enough to have a want to learn, but to learn to want more to learn. It’s a feedback loop, the more you learn makes you learn more.

I had the best time of my life in almost three months of my summer internship at PPFAS & I am not exaggerating. Jigar, who heads the research team, looks ditto like Archie from Archies Comic’s, ditto, minus the red hair. I still remember the first time when Jigar told me, 'I don't know what you have learned about this, but we will start from scratch.' That was a sharp thud to the back of my head, wiping the slate clean was never so much fun. I still don't claim to understand as much as Jigar wants me to understand, but it’s certainly an improvement. For the first time I felt as if I wasn't playing dodge-ball with my education.

I believe that the journey to the office isn’t much of a thing to talk about, but since in our Mumbai, everyday in the train is a new experience. I usually read on the train, not an ideal way to learn, but it sure does help you forget that you have lost your dignity in trying to stand in an overcrowded compartment & your own sweat holds a minority interest in your shirt. I loved waltzing around the crowd outside of CST station towards my match-box shaped bus # 111.

Then began the sector study, I started off with reading reports, stuffing information, ruminating & guzzling copious amounts of tea to keep that engine running. For the first few days it was like throwing coal on the hearth, then gradually a spark & then there was ember. Things started crystallizing, what we can call a business model, didn't seem as daunting a task as before to figure out. When things settled, concepts took identifiable shapes, and then came the companies. It was like a beauty contest for me; although I claimed to do almost any company Jigar would have told me to, I picked up those from the list which I felt or had heard of being any good. A company "Being Good" was such a loose concept for me, that by the time a few weeks had passed in learning about these companies, I realized how difficult it was to form an opinion about any business. In spite of doing exactly the same things, how these companies managed to scale up their business & yet differentiate amongst themselves & maintain their niche, is nothing less than outsourced magic.

IT sector always felt like housekeeping to me, except for a company here or there, they never seemed to own their own hotels, they were always the housekeeping staff (although some of them are the best housekeeping personnel you could find). They made the beds, cleaned the sheets, scrubbed the floors & made the room habitable for the client without making him feel awkward about the brand of cleaner used, or the washing powder used to wash the mattress, or even the vacuum cleaner used to dust the room. The analyst, I felt, always got the worst; he had to understand the brand of the cleaners, sometimes also its ingredients & all the details that he would need to judge the competence of the support staff. Now imagine; many hotels, many hotel rooms & different housekeeping staff to keep these rooms clean for various clients, various brands of cleaners, washing powders & vacuum cleaners. Furnished with all this jazz, the analyst has to build his own conception of how all these things matter, how they are interconnected & how the hell do all these things help the housekeeping staff make money.

I felt a pang when I saw so many companies, catering to clients, ranting about how innovative they are, how disciplined & efficient they are (although they are); it was unsettling for me to believe that none of them had something genuinely simple & effective that even a layman can understand. It was always outsourcing, not "creating" software, but just lines & lines of codes with superlative efficiency in implementing it on the client side. I think I was hoping for an Indian Silicon Valley, where companies with diverse ideas, products, software, hardware & sometimes just business models, would compete & kick some ass. But this turned out to be a beehive & IT cos the worker bees. Here no one had time to look at each other's asses; they all were busy tapping clients’ shoulders asking for servicing contracts. But on the other hand I also realized that this can be one of the best examples of taking advantage of a global situation. Settling into the globalization gap like water settles after eons into a massive crater made by a meteor collision.

Equity Research is basically an ornate type of pimping, you have a product (a research report), you know the client (Fund managers, et al), and you have a business (broking). All you do with the product is to use it as a USP for your broking business. In caveman logic - Fund manager likes your report, you get broking business. So the research is more or less a competition about opinions & expectations. How good is your opinion, how rational are your expectations, will determine the quality of your report. Although it’s not as easy as that. One of the important things I learnt from Jigar is, what he told me two weeks into the internship @ 7:55 PM in the eating area sipping on tea; 'Raunak, learn to form an opinion about the business, understand the company's business, where the money comes from where is it used, but don't slot the business into good or bad, because valuing a company is relative & highly subjective to your understanding. Do the business models, financials will be a breeze'. I think if I want to encapsulate my internship in one line, or maybe two for that matter, those lines would be it.

I got an informal & a very thoughtful performance review at the end of it all. It was more of a life choice review unfolding layers of me which I have always tried to grapple. I know my limitations; I know what I do not want to do which opens up a huge unused bandwidth of choices. To put my foot down on a thought, I need to grasp the concept of priority. Have a good grasp of how to effectively use mental masturbation. I need to realize the source of that fuck-off money or should I? He is right.

I made a lot of mistakes, lot of silly errors of non-logic. I should have known better, but in the excitement I used to wantonly screw things up & would run to Hiren or Jigar for clarification; only to realize it was always under my nose. Watching Jigar tally a balance sheet or clearing up my messed up cash flow statement was like watching Mozart play. It was then it dawned on me how much does experience & knowledge channelized in the right direction count! At this point you don’t do your job, you become your job. Like Nic Cage says in the Gone in Sixty Seconds to those lil 8 year old go-kart drivers, “You are the car, the car is you”.

Another jovial character I will always remember is Ridhim. The eclectic sales exec who loves to read & enjoys it as much as he likes to share it with others. I enjoyed conversations with Ridhim, they were short, precise & always about something interesting. One of the memorable chats we had was about leverage & how maintaining it is the real essence of keeping the system balanced. It was truer than we know.

During this time, I got a real glimpse of what’s possible in the field of Behavioral Finance. To get a chance to work on a project which no one else seems to work on is surely exciting. Deepa was a good guide who managed to give me a bird’s eye view of the project, this is what will occupy my Monday’s from now on.

I had heard of learning by doing, but in this case, I believe that I learned a lot more thru conversations & interactions, doubts & mistakes, tea & more tea. Like the management of HCL Tech likes to say, this was collaborative transformation, where we strategically aligned the service offerings with collaborating partners.

Wittgenstein says that every problem in philosophy is basically a problem of description, I have stumbled upon the same, and there are so many small incidents, so many people who have shaped up my internship experience, that to summarize it would be like deflating it.

In the end, the question always poses to me, why did I choose PPFAS? It’s just the thought that I might learn something here, which I won't anywhere else & that is all that matters.

Like Ayn Rand says in Atlas Shrugged,

The choice--the dedication to one's highest potential--is made by
accepting the fact that the noblest act you have ever performed is the
act of your mind in the process of grasping that two and two make four.

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