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Oct 8, 2018

Chapter 1: The beginning (1998-2000)

Note: I need to fit the story of my installing 11i in my computer lab and the excitement of  remotely logging on to the application from a remote location. It was a 'Graham Bell' moment.

My career took a major turn for the better on my 35th birthday. On that day I joined ICFAI Business School, Bangalore. 
After graduating in Mechanical Engineering in the fall of 1986, I joined Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) at their Steel Plant at Durgapur (DSP) as a Management Trainee. In those days, it  was a very prestigious job for an engineering graduate. The pay and perks were excellent. 
I worked in SAIL from the summer of '87 to the fall of '98. In between I took sabbatical from SAIL (without pay) for two year to pursue MBA at IISWBM (Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management) affiliated to Kolkata University.
After completing MBA I rejoined SAIL. In 1998, I was working as a Deputy Manager in the company, earning about 600,000 per year, a princely salary in those days. Company also provided free accommodation, water, electricity and medical benefits. 
It should have been a happy situation, by any standards.
But I was not happy. I felt stifled in a monotonous job, working in an alien environment and culture, with no scope for any improvement to my station in life. I felt that I was working significantly below my potential.
What Mr.SK Das, our training manger told us during induction training was still vivid in my memory after all these years. "A few of you will do exceptionally well and become Managing Directors of steel plants. Some of you will retire as Executive Directors and a few of you will retire as General Managers. Most of you will retire as DGMs or AGMs", he told.
There it was. Our future for the next 30 years clearly laid out in front of our eyes. Looking from where I was in 1998, it was clear that I was destined to be in the 'Most of you' group.
I did not like it one bit. 
So when I got a fig leaf of an opportunity to leave SAIL and move back to Bangalore, I took it.
I resigned from SAIL and landed in Bangalore on 28th November, 1998.
On 1st December 1998, my 35th birthday, I joined ICFAI Business School as a faculty associate at a flat salary of Rupees 120000 per year, a far cry from about 600000 plus perks that I was earning in SAIL. Once in a while I used to wonder if I  had made the right decision, but most of the time, I was basking in the opportunity to learn new things. 
And learn I did. Since I was a mechanical engineer with experience in manufacturing industry, I was made owner of the subject 'Operations Management'. The subject discusses the management of manufacturing operations in a company. I  handled that subject for two years and three batches.
Teaching Operations Management (Ops as it was called) put things in perspective for me. My vision of manufacturing industry was narrow and my learning haphazard. Handling the course helped my organize my assorted work experience and structure it into a conceptual framework. The two key takeaways from teaching Operations was that I learned the theoretical underpinnings of MRP (Materials Requirements Planning) and Capacity planning. These two concepts, more than anything else helped me add value to manufacturing customers in later years.
The best outcome for me from my two year stint at ICFAI Business School was that it gave me a foot hold into the world of IT and ERP. In 1998, Oracle was trying to build its ERP ecosystem in the country. As a part of this Oracle University (OU) had tied up with various institutions to impart training to students on Oracle Applications. ICFAI Business School was one of the Organizations that OU had tied up with for the above purpose. Probably because I was an engineer, I was made in charge of the computer lab in the Institute that I worked at. My role was to coordinate the training sessions, find knowledgeable faculty (the toughest task at that time) assigning training schedules, oversee training sessions for quality etc.
Till November 30th of 1998, I had hardly worked on computers. In those days, I was even scared of starting a computer. I was worried that if I entered the wrong password, the computer would explode and burst into flames. I watched too many SciFi movies I suppose. And here I was, assigned the charge of a computer lab. Talk of divine purpose !!
I am curious by nature and a quick learner. For me, this opportunity to learn ERP was manna from heaven. I took to it enthusiastically. I read all the huger user manuals, worked on the application, explored and experimented rigorously. I attended almost all the training sessions that I coordinated.
I had a big advantage. I had worked on manufacturing domain and was teaching operations management. For me, Oracle manufacturing was a natural fit. I also had an MBA in Finance and had worked my ass out to learn accounting. Hence I was able to quickly understand the Oracle Financials applications also.
I did not know it at that time, but I was laying the foundation of what could become my USP in my ERP Career - my ability to understand and configure end to end business process flows including costing and accounting flows (technically called 'Record to Report' process flow). I think I am one of the very few consultants in the world with that depth of understanding of the process flows and who can configure it in Oracle. 
At the same time, I was also becoming painfully aware of the gaps in my knowledge. I had not learned any new technology, lets make it 'ANY' technology, I was aware that without having exposure to technology my career was not going to progress further. Unless I did something different, I was destined to be stuck in my low paying job.
I started looking around for courses in technology that would be of interest and of use to me. All I could see were courses in programming languages - C, C++, and a new programming language called Java. Programming languages did not interest me since they would not offer me any value differentiation for my manufacturing domain knowledge. In the job market, I wold be competing with young, fresh out of college coders. I was not comfortable with that.
At that time, my brother was also trying to get into the world of technology. We both were mechanical engineers who graduated in the late '80s and had spent the first 10 years of our work life in manufacturing industry. He told me about a certification program from Oracle, called Oracle Certified Professional (OCP), that was offering certification on the entire Oracle Developer Track. Endowed with much more grit than me, he patiently followed and got certified as an OCP in 2000. Immediately afterwards he joined Oracle as a Database Administrator (DBA).
His success motivated me to look at OCP. Fortunately for me providence had much better plan for me. 
Since I was working on Oracle ERP at that time, the opportunity to learn Oracle Technology sounded good. I started looking around for courses near my office. Here providence intervened second time. It offered me a much better and futuristic course at a training centre very close to my office !!
Let me briefly explain to you the new technology. 
Till the late '90s, the network technology available was called 'Client Server' technology. Also known as 'Two Tier' technology, here the application would be installed in a server of high capacity and the users will access the application on their computers, known as clients. Clients were physically connected to the servers using long network cables. In a typical office of that time, there were cables everywhere. They were lying around like inert thin snakes, cluttering the place and spoiling the aesthetics of the office.
As you can see, the main limitation of this technology was the need for physical proximity between the clients and the server machines. This limited the potential expansion of applications across geographically separated offices. Network technology limited the potential for enterprises wide remote expansion of applications.
By the late '90s, applications vendors were developing 'Web Enabled' applications to overcome the limitations of Two Tier technology. The process was spurred by the availability of higher band width and cheaper internet and the evolution of new 'Platform Independent' language, Java. 
Coming back to my story, by 1999, Oracle had started marketing its 11i series of Web enabled applications, 'i' standing for 'Internet', of course. Oracle University had designed an expensive, comprehensive and long duration (6 months instead of the prevalent training duration of 15 days) curriculum and was helping a few selected education partners to offer this program.
One of the partners was a company called 'System Logic', which was offering this program. Their office was about two minutes drive from my office. The program was being offed at a cost of 40000 rupees !. Compare it with the cost of a normal training program which was about 4000 to 6000 rupees. The expensive program cost about 4 months of my monthly salary !!
I am indecisive and procrastinating by nature, but at critical points in my life I have taken some quick and tough decisions hoping that I will be proven right eventually. One such decision was to join this program by paying the entire fees upfront. 
As I had mentioned earlier, the syllabus was comprehensive and covered a swathe of new Oracle technologies including SQL, PL/SQL, Forms Reports, Designer 2000, Oracle Web Application Server and Java programming language.
It was 'Paisa Vasool' as they say in India.
By the time program started, my life fell into a routine. My house was in North Bangalore and my office in South Bangalore. Every morning I will leave home at about 7.30 AM, to beat the morning traffic, drive down about 22 kilometres to reach my office. I will leave office at about 6.00 PM and attend training classes till about 9.00 PM. I will have dinner at 'Hotel Home Meals' in Jayanagar and leave for home at 9.45 PM and reach home at about 10.30 PM. 
(In one of the earlier days, I missed my way and spent almost two hours on Bangalore outskirts. I  had almost lost hope of reaching home before day break !!)
There were many memorable incidents that happened during these two years.
The schedule was gruelling, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
At 36 years, I was one of the oldest participants in that group. At a time when other people were trying to 'settle down' with their family and kids, I was struggling to learn new technologies, without any ultimate career goal in sight other than the 'pleasure of learning'. 
It was tiring and exhilarating at the same time. The excitement of learning something new has to be experienced, it cannot be explained. While learning PL / SQL (a programming language) I found that I had a flair for coding. Breaking up a complex problem into logical sequential elements was my strength. The moment I see a problem, a flow chart with logical sequence of its elements immediately pops up in my mind. Writing code was the ambrosia for my logic hungry mind. 
Another memorable incident that happened towards the end of the program remains etched in my mind.
One of the attendees in this program was a guy named Prasad. He was about 3 years junior to me and was working in a company about 30 miles away from the class. Every day he used to take the office bus, travel about 30 miles to attend the program. 
Since he was also working in a manufacturing company and was also a mechanical engineer and finally very close to my age, we became close during this program.
Towards the end of our program, our coordinator asked us to prepare our CVs. All of us were focused on CV preparation and sending the same to companies. There was excitement in the air as most of our CVs were getting rejected and we were modifying our CVs and targeting different companies (or different people in the same company).
All through this I found Prasad aloof. He was not interested in preparing his CV and he was not trying at all.
I knew that he was not happy about his present situation. That was why he was attending the program in the first place. He wanted a change. He needed a change.
"Why are you not preparing your CV and applying for companies like the rest of us?" I asked him one day while we were sipping our tea.
He didn't answer. I pressed the question.
"Look Ram", he finally responded, "I think I am too old to learn anything new. I think at my age I cannot learn anything."
Was he kidding? I was three years older to him and was optimistically trying to get into new opportunities. And here he was, deciding that he was old, and closing out any new opportunities that could come his way.
I left it there. May be that was why I was different. 
Being 36 years old and looking for a job in a new industry and new technology was not easy. The HR Systems had not yet moved to a paradigm of 'Knowledge first'. While the industry was rapidly changing, knowledge was becoming premium and scarce by the day, HR was still talking of 'Relevant experience', 'Role Fitment' etc.
I remember going for an interview for the role of 'Training Manager' at Wipro. Since I did not 'Fit the profile' (an HR Speak for 'You are old'), I was put through four rounds of gruelling interview, the final one by the General Manager himself. The GM was very happy with me.
But he could not give me a job since I did not have any Technology Certifications.
That happened towards the end of August 2000. I committed to him that I will be Java Certified in two months. In turn I wrangled a commitment from him hat he will offer me a job in Wipro if I met my commitment in 2 months...
It was a gentleman's agreement.
I went back and put my heart and soul into learning Java. I purchased (and read) many books, referred many websites dedicated to Java Certification, and cleared many mock tests both online and on paper. By end of October, I was reasonably confident that I will clear the certification exam.
In parallel, I also applied for the job of 'Consultant' at an IT company. The job was for a manufacturing domain expert to work as an ERP Consultant. That opportunity was also progressing satisfactorily.
In the first half of October 26, 2000 I officially cleared the Java Certification with 86% marks. Since it was online exam, I got the results as soon as I completed the test. As soon as I reached home, I called the Wipro GM and informed him that I had cleared my certification on time as committed.
"I have met my side of the commitments sir, no I expect you to honour yours", I told him.
He remembered his side of the commitment. He asked me to send a copy of the certificate which I did. Within two hours, the HR representative of Wipro called me to fix up an HR Interview. The interview was fixed for October 28th.
One October 29th I got an offer letter from Sonata Software for the post of ERP Consultant. On October 30, I got an offer letter from Wipro for the post of Manager Training. The salary in both offers were almost the same.
After discussing with a few people, I opted for the offer from Sonata Software. I submitted my resignation at ICFAI Business School on 01-Nov-2000 for initiating the one month notice period.
On Friday, 01-December 2000, on my 37th birthday, I joined Sonata Software Limited Bangalore as ERP Consultant.
My journey as an ERP Professional had begun.

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