Sometime around Jun06, Subhayan came to my workstation and requested me if I could give a 2 page write-up on what is the work we do for Reliance. By this time, the Reliance systems had stabilized and we were getting new orders for providing upgrades for our system from Reliance. Subhayan was the Financial Controller for the Siemens IT Unit in Kolkata. This was a strange request as Subhayan was fully aware of what our involvement with Reliance was as he processed all the invoices for Reliance. Anyway, as is my habit, I did not question him and within about half an hour, I provided him a write-up on our work with Reliance. He was very appreciative and I felt very happy about it.
About 2 months passed, when one day again Subhayan returned with a request that I needed simplifying my write-up to remove all technical terms and explain the work in layman language so that any non-technical person could also understand the same. This time the exercise was difficult as I could not use terms like IN or Intelligent Networks, but had to explain that Reliance had acquired a new system using which they could decide in real-time what is the consumption by a user and connect or disconnect a call depending on current status of the user thereby reducing the exposure to Reliance. Siemens had developed and supplied support systems for charging and billing and customer relationship management, etc. to Reliance and was also supporting the same to make sure best operations of Reliance. After the first review, I was asked to drop all references to any work that sounded like we were providing any kind of service to Reliance. So I dropped all references to work done as part of Annual Maintenance Contract and stated them as Siemens provided warranty support for 1 year for all the supplied systems to Reliance. Subhayan was again very appreciative about the effort and I once again felt very happy to be able to satisfy his need.
After about a month, I received a long email from an unknown person who had signed as a Professor from Indian Statistical Institute (ISI). He had broken down my sentences and asked questions like “Please explain what is real-time”, “Please explain exposure”, etc. These days I was really busy as there were several new system developments in progress besides lot of support requirements from all the customers. Besides, the Performance and Quality (P&Q) Team, lead by Soma, was also engaged in obtaining CMMi Level 3 certification and I was roped in to streamline processes across our department as our department handled the largest projects in the unit besides had the largest number of projects earmarked in scope for the assessment. Besides I was provided training to be a member of the SCAMPI team, which would conduct the internal evaluation prior to the final evaluation and take part in the final assessment as a part of the evaluation team. I was not in favour of a cooked up evaluation and was in favour of each team member internalizing the essential processes and conducting the tasks naturally fully realising the importance of the same besides gaining from the same. However, the P&Q Team thought that my views were very utopian and could never be achieved within the timelines for the evaluation. I created an elaborate Project Plan document, which detailed the process model and the needed artefacts to be generated by the Project Team for Development of the products and for the support of the Products. The P&Q Department was very happy with the Project Plan documents and the associated Process documents. However, they discovered that many of the team members did not know the details in the document and did not understand the needful actions under different circumstances. Soma was a very diligent worker and an extremely patient lady who would never get flustered under any circumstances. Besides, I have never seen her give up on any person or any circumstance. She prepared questions and answers based on our process documentation and supplied them to each team member. She once again conducted a round of interview with the team members and was disappointed that the situation did not improve much. So, I prepared a poster, which contained all the formulae we would use for different calculations for the process measurement. From the measurement formulae, the team members could extrapolate what data needed capturing and from that they could extrapolate what artefacts needed creating for different activities. I pasted the poster on the workstation of the team member. On the next round of inspection by Soma, the situation did not improve much. So, I passed dictate within the team that Soma would supply a set of questions every Monday along with the answers. Each team member was to study the questions and answers besides refer to appropriate section of the process documents and sit for a written test every Friday. Soma would correct the answer sheets over the weekend and give the results on Monday. I further announced that the results of the test would be considered as a part of the annual appraisal. This technique did the trick, possibly because I linked appraisal to the same. Week after week, we saw improvement in test results of each team member besides there was real improvement in process compliance on the ground.
Please excuse for this digression and we come back to the Professor from ISI. I answered each of his question writing short paragraphs on each of the requested terms and phrases. However, now I was curious about what I was actually doing in preparing this write-up and answering all these questions. So, I asked Subhayan about the same. He explained that one Sales Tax Officer had filed a case against Siemens that we were paying 4% tax where we should have paid 12% tax. Now, I was real curious about why we were doing this. Subhayan explained that according to Government of India regulations, an organisation is required paying 4% tax for any product sold and supplied. Whereas the organisation is expected to pay 12% tax for all earnings from services rendered. Subhayan explained that we had to prove that we were always supplying products to Reliance and not providing any form of service to win the case.
I really liked the situation and decided that I would convert this into reality whether or not the case with IT Department existed. I was waiting for such a trigger for very long. As was the practice before I joined Siemens, we would station Engineers in Reliance Office to support them in using our systems. This was a huge waste for me as we lost precious man-hours for all our projects. Reliance expected this as well. They had actually managed to coax Siemens into setting up the Telecom Division in Kolkata just so that they could be provided co-located support. By grace of the Almighty, the systems were behaving appropriately and thus I first announced that Reliance should revoke all System Administration and Database Administration passwords for all Siemens staff. We would no longer take any responsibility for System/Database Administration and would only act as advisors on demand. We were to be provided essential System Administration access only in cases of system breakdown and/or new deployment. Reliance managers were very happy to receive this request as now they would have more control on the systems and could play with the Siemens Team Members when they needed access and/or system resources.
One of the requirements for system administration access was deployment of the license. During this period, Reliance was the peak of its growth and we received requests for license enhancement almost every quarter, sometimes every month. Reliance ordered very small quantities and this necessitated frequent upgrade. While this was vital for Reliance operations, the Reliance Managers behaved very funny when we went to their office for deployment of the license as they thought that we were going to get a huge cheque for the same and benefit individually from the same. They, most possibly, did not understand that our license deployment technology was very ancient and we had to send a huge team so that confidentiality of the same was not compromised. As a next measure, we developed system whereby we could generate a self-extracting executable, which could deploy the license without any of our staff being involved in the process. With this implementation, we removed another dependency to visit Reliance as we would send this executable by mail and Reliance could deploy the same at their own leisure. Once the executable completed the job on the system, it sent me a SMS with the latest license count deployed and current amount consumed.
The mission was helped by the System Administrators and Database Administrators at Reliance were gaining in confidence as I instructed my team to act foolish in this regard when they were requested for support. I explained to Reliance Management that the knowledge of our System Administrator and Database Administrators were more theoretical and less practical as they only worked in the labs and not in the real life operations. They agreed and equipped their own System Administrators and Database Administrators more and they started to assume more responsibilities. This resulted in drastic reduction in visits to Reliance for System Administration and Database Administration.
Next we started preparing a do-it-yourself manual so that Reliance Operations Team could solve various system situations by themselves. Each of the solution ended with a remark that they could contact Siemens Support Team as the last resort. We introduced an Error Page/Window in all our applications, which would appear when the system met any non-recoverable error. We tested this very thoroughly and it appeared in almost all circumstances of a breakdown. We added a very funny face to this Page/Window so that Reliance could have a good laugh at us when our system went down and could laugh at us and not abuse us. The Page/Window provided precise instructions for restarting the system so that operations could resume besides an instruction to send the screen shot to Siemens so that we could have the details of the reason for the breakdown.
We first tested the do-it-yourself manual at Bhutan Telecom. Testing it at Bhutan was useful due to 2 reasons. First reason was that connecting to systems at Bhutan was not easy and we faced frequent breakdowns in the available link. Besides the connectivity was always very slow and thus required huge amount of waiting time for our team members. Secondly, we were helped by the new Billing Manager at Bhutan Telecom, Penjor, was very enthusiastic to learn the systems and wanted to do more tasks locally. When Penjor became more involved in the systems, he began to understand the details and complexities. This education possibly enhanced Penjor’s dependence and trusts on our team; and he started placing most of the subsequent orders with our organisation. Once we were satisfied with the results with the do-it-yourself manual at Bhutan Telecom, we introduced the same at Reliance. Reliance, as usual, dismissed it as rubbish and informed us that they knew more about the system than us and did not need our manual for operating the system. This was ideal remark for me as I informed them that we would stop stationing people at Reliance in future and only send Engineers on demand after assessing the requirement. Within a period of about 6 months, we had reduced visits to Reliance Office by more than 80%. The irony is that during this period, we moved our office from Santi Pally to Salt Lake and now Reliance office and our office shared a common wall.
About a year passed and somewhere in around Sep07, Nirmalya came to my workstation. Nirmalya was part of Subhayan’s team. He requested that I should go with him to a lawyer’s office in regards to the tax case. He took me to a very shady place in Central Kolkata, where we entered a house, all in tatters. I climbed to the first floor and entered a very shabby office filled with papers and files. The lawyer and his assistant asked me to explain our work. By this time I had become an expert in explaining our work in layman language. Also, I could advocate the case to explain why we were selling a product and not providing a service. The lawyer grilled me for over 2 hours. In between, he offered me tea in bhaad (earthen pitcher). I explained using many metaphors as if we were actually selling potatoes and not software. Selling GPRS Billing System was like selling tomatoes.
After this meeting, I had forgotten about this whole affair. However, this experience was very good for me as I could walk through sales meetings with CxOs and Senior Executives and explain the concepts and systems without the use of any technical term. I was very pleased when I read the book “A Brief History of Time” by Dr. Stephen Hawking. I was absolutely thrilled when I read the foreword by Dr. Hawking that the publishers had instructed him to write the book without the use of any formula and he had only used one formula – E = mc2 (read as E is equal to M C squared) – in the book. In the second quarter of 2009, Ajay, the Lead Assessor from QAI, certified us as a CMMi Level 3 Company. Around Dec09, Subhayan met me in the Canteen one day to thank me for my part in the Tax Issue. Siemens had won the case and we had saved more than Rs. 3 crores.