What’s lost? What’s gained? - Part I

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By Anurag Agrawal, Tech Leaders Fellow, Class of 2020


“People always look out for familiar faces to bond with — people with the same taste, same thoughts, and same mannerisms. Ironically the purpose of Plaksha Tech Leaders Fellowship is exactly the opposite. Its vision is to enable you to spend time with people who are not like you. Spending time with familiar faces means there would be no conflict, no challenges, and no alternative point of view. What would it lead you to become? A nicer, bigger version of who you already are? It would be a complete waste of your time if you walk out of this Fellowship with the same belief system that you had — a belief emanating from ignorance and not out of awareness.” These are not my words. Ankur Warikoo, Co-founder of Nearbuy said this during a Guest Session at the Plaksha Tech Leaders Fellowship.

As my peers and I listened to Mr. Warikoo, we got motivated to mend our ways. However, I did not anticipate the challenges of going down this path. All of us believe that our point of view is flawless. It is difficult to hold our horses in the face of a contrary perspective.

I want to share my story of dealing with challenges and of wading through uncharted waters, with a bunch of people who were not always in agreement. It is a story of how we dealt with it, how we fared and more importantly was it useful. This may prompt some of you to take Mr. Warikoo’s advice seriously.

10th December — The Genesis

“Man, oh man! You are dreadful with presentations,” smirked Vaibhav looking at me while we chatted away in my room at 2:00 am. An Architect, graphic designer, maker, and now a machine learning engineer Vaibhav Saxena has worn many hats. He is the only guy I feared at Plaksha because of his baloney detection kit. He introduced me to the world of design. I come from a mechanical engineering background and had, until then, found it difficult to design a deck that met graphic design principles. I had issues with text flooding, color discrepancy, alignment and so on. That night we discussed how people find it difficult to source icons consistent with the text, colors of text, appealing backgrounds and consistent layouts. The discussion went on until 8:00 am. We were both excited as if we had got a million-dollar idea.

The next day, we had a chat with Praveen Sridhar, a quintessential tech geek with whom one can discuss any idea. I had heard that humility emanates from knowledge and expertise, meeting him confirmed that. A mechanical engineer turned NLP expert, he has been an inspiration. Always on the lookout for the unheard voice, he runs a non-profit in Kerala to teach college students useful skills. Within hours he sent us a list of companies that were trying to solve design issues in presentations. The million-dollar idea was not one in million after all. We shrugged our shoulders and dropped the idea. The first thing that I realized that day was that no matter how novel you think your idea is, there is always someone who has already thought of it. A company creates value not with its idea but its implementation, especially in tech. So, never shy away from discussing your idea for the fear of theft.

20th Dec — The Challenge Lab

An announcement was made to form teams for Challenge Lab. Challenge Lab is a marquee event of the Fellowship where students have to form teams of five and work on their startup idea for three months under the expert guidance of people like Alok Mittal, David Law, Ritesh Malik, Pankaj Chaddah and many more. This was what had brought a lot of us to Plaksha and there was a buzz.

I discussed this with Vaibhav and Praveen. All of us were extremely skeptical of this idea. Our thoughts rarely matched when it came to decision making and we have had big arguments in the past as well. But we knew that the complementary skills that we all brought on the table could be a useful combination. Then, we had to decide our next two members. We approached a few of our peers but could not align. However, later two of our batchmates — Ribhu and Anshumaan — decided to join us. Ribhu is a graduate from UC San Diego who has done several courses in design, human psychology, and deep learning. He would walk around the campus in a round neck T-shirt, shorts with shoes and high ankle socks — giving the NRI vibe. Meticulous with his thinking, usually reticent but always brought new perspectives. Anshumaan, the computer vision expert of our batch, always considered the viability of delivering a tech solution within the stipulated time frame before committing. He knows his strengths and weaknesses and does not shy away from being a puppy shooter, besides being fond of old ghazals and a wonderful cook (never mention tensor flow to him though). Our team was built on a few basic principles — we wanted a mix of a hacker, hustler, hipster and people who could listen to each other’s ideas and disagree respectfully when presenting an alternate point of view. (In hindsight we should have defined respectfully).

Team formation at Plaksha had always been a circus to sit back and enjoy. The diversity of the batch meant that students were always visibly confused. There had been issues in the past relating to gender diversity, skills heterogeneity and lack of alignment amongst the team members. Challenge Lab team formation was no different. Everyone wanted to have the best people in the team, wanted to work on their idea, and were getting restless because ‘funding was on the line’.

I along with a batch mate Shray Arora added our sprinkle of stupidity on this already complex endeavor. Shray Arora — the serial entrepreneur, always collaborating for seemingly useless tasks like sports day and auctions, with an infectious enthusiasm for launching a start-up. I have had great conversations with him on product-market fit, MVP rollout and team building, and heated debates on whether or not to be politically correct.

“Double-double toil and trouble- fire burn and cauldron bubble”. Like the three witches in Macbeth brewing trouble, Shray and I would always collaborate with good intentions that resulted in havoc. This was one such time. We had decided that enough was enough and wanted to stand up to change the system — the way teams were formed.

We proposed to interview all 57 Fellows personally and document their personality with questions like — How do you handle stressful situations? What are soft skills? What industries do you want to work in? What is your idea, among a gamut of other details? The plan was to release the data so all students are aware of each other preferences. We also wanted to be a medium to connect students with similar interests and complementary skills in case they were not aware of it. And this would lead to teams that worked like well-oiled machines.

Noticing our excitement and eagerness to improve the mechanism of team formation, the program team announced that the two of us would be proposing a new methodology, which would be used for forming Challenge Lab teams. What ensued was chaos, and when I say chaos I compare it with an army whose general has been beheaded.

The issue was that I had been talking to Vaibhav and Praveen for more than a month to form a Challenge Lab team. Unknown to me, Shray had been doing the same. Thus, it felt weird that we had been preaching about changing the system but seemingly doing the opposite. This did not go down well with a lot of my peers and understandably so. I remember sitting with Shray on the staircase of our hostel reminiscing the pure intentions with which we had started this and now we just wanted to finish it off to take the load off our shoulders. We were just not sure how many people trusted us. So, we decided to confront this head-on. The next day at 1:00 pm we meekly entered the class. The professor had just left and around 40 students were in the class.

“Hey, all”! Shray said, “There has been a lot of talk regarding our initiative and its intentions. We are extremely sorry if our actions have hurt you but we want to convey that this was started by us with the best intentions in mind.”

“We do want to complete this project but will not continue if you all feel that the sanctity of the project is lost,” I said humbly. The one thing that stands out about our batch is the eagerness of peers to back each other when they are at their lowest. Nikita stood up and narrated her interview experience with us and how it felt.

“Guys! I have gone through what they have been trying to do and I can say that the experience was nice. Let us support them,” she requested. The others from the batch also gave their affirmation. Three others volunteered and within 4 hours we covered the entire batch and had a repository of answers that we felt could be extremely beneficial to all of us. Although we could not deliver on our initial of a new methodology for forming teams, we did share the database.

Some used the database, some didn’t. However, what I took away from the incident is the necessity of having transparency in the process. We should have taken the batch into confidence from the get-go.

The new term started, teams were formed and everyone started working on their Challenge Lab ideas. Want to know how that panned out? Read it in the second part of the post.

TLP Team

TLP Team