Seek new assignments for things you have not done before & develop deep expertise in one area – says Tathagat Varma, Head of Strategic Programs and Business Operations at Yahoo!

How did Tathagat Varma go from a project manager to Head of Strategic Programs and Business Operations at Yahoo India? Listen to his views on the future of project management and his thoughts on agile and career progression.

Like audio, listen to the interview here:

You have set up a number of operations and hired a number of folks throughout your career. When you hire project managers, what qualities do you look for in a project manager?

 Sure. Yeah, so actually in the last fifteen years that I’ve been involved with project management, first as a practicing manager myself and then subsequently in other roles, my own view about what are the right levels of skills for one to succeed have been changing. So when I see in the late 90s the focus was almost always on the project management skill and the reverse in terms of functional skills. How does one go about doing a WBS? How does one create a Gantt chart? How does one do a risk management and so on?

 When I see after that in the early 2000s when the CMM and the whole big organization process work was still pretty much growing and vibrant. The focus was on really how does one look to create their own project plans and stuff like that. But when I see now, especially because I come from a product development, the focus has completely changed now and we are really moving completely towards agile. What we are seeing is really, what I call, a democratization of management and democratization of the workplace. The whole notion of the project manager has changed completely.

 So it’s not really one person who is Mr. Know-All who has to know every single thing about how does one do the scheduling of the project? How does one go about identifying the latest bottlenecks and so on? It really is a very collaborative effort where one is really leading the entire team, pulling it all together.

 So today when I look at what will make it a more successful project manager is really a lot about their sub-skills, their ability to negotiate within a team, their ability to be a servant leader, their ability to really create, to be able to raise the potential of the entire team together and not just being one single source of knowledge while sitting in the ivory tower and telling the team, “Okay, you do this, you do that.” This is how I see the changes that have happened in the last fifteen years in project manager.


 You know, on the same line you also taught project management for some time, I see. Do you think in the future the project management discipline will stand on its own or do you think it will get rolled up into like executive MBA courses or general management courses?

 What we are seeing right now is, like I said, democratization of project management happening. Now what does that mean? In some of the industries what it means is the traditional one-person or two-people team who are really doing the project planning and the project management. Now the entire team is responsible for that.

 So if we go with the same theory, then it’s not really eliminating project management as a function, but then everyone needs to understand it because if you are a team member in a kind of an agile team or self-organized team and you really don’t understand the conceptual framework of the project management, then it will be very difficult for you to play a very active role in that.

 The more it gets democratized the more everyone needs to be aware of the conceptual framework. So I think executive MBA is one aspect of it. But what I saw was that, in my classes, there were students who were working professionals from all the industries. They were from bottled water, they were from photocopiers, and they were from all industries. And guess what, except the software industry, even now I see project management continues to be a fairly serious old way of doing things in most of the conventional industries.

 So I think that demand still will continue to have the traditional project managers, the PMP and the Prince2 and a more, what I call, is the ‘all season’ framework. An ‘all season’ framework being really a big monolith which very possibly can not go wrong. But it might not be very well suited for a ‘fair weather’ day. So you need to really tailor it down to like very specific kind of a problem, which something like a scrum might be able to address. I think the problems come in all shapes and sizes and exactly for the same reasons we need to have solution framework also in all shapes and sizes. That’s how I see this.


 When was it that you did you first agile project or when was agile introduced to you and how?

 I’ve been in it from roughly about ’98 time frame and I was at Phillips and we were starting to experiment with the spiral model. We did a couple of experiments with that. After that I was managing a project for embedded software for the interactive television.

 And in that software we actually did more of the incremental software. So there were no time boxing concepts but then we did, because of the uncertainty of the project. It was a completely new platform for us so we had no clue what it’s going to turn out.

 Then some time in 2003 time frame, I attended training by Tom Gilb where he talked about ‘Evo’ which was one of his original ideas of agile software with a weekly sprint cycle. I used later in my work during one of the groups I was leading at McAfee. Actually we went far ahead and created a ‘kanban’ style of work and, of course, we didn’t know what was ‘kanban’, it was just a natural thing for us to do that. So that’s how I really got started in this in that time frame.

 After that I’ve been experimenting with various shapes and forms of scrum and modified scrum and stuff like that. Today I lead the agile and scrum adoption at my current organization.


 One question that my audience often times asks is with this adoption of more up and agile approach. What should be a career path for someone like a Scrum Master?

 I think it’s a very relevant question. I would say a short answer is it’s too new right now in the day for us to figure out. But if you take it from a societal concept, especially in the Indian context, we are people who like to feel a sense of accomplishment as they grow their careers.

 Scrum Master seems like a great way for somebody to hone their skills, but is it a career progression? I wouldn’t be able to find a good answer for that yet. I haven’t seen the industry aging to such an extent that we have seen somebody who has been a scrum master for five, ten, eight years and then they have been able to, just because of being in that role by virtue of experiences they have learned, they’ve been able to accomplish a task of higher complexity.

 In my view, career progression is actually being able to take up a higher complex job. So just because I was a Scrum Master for multiple years I am able to now take up a more complex assignment. I haven’t seen many instances of that, and I would like to be proven wrong, I don’t have an opinion on that but I think that’s where I see it. Does it equip you to handle more complex problems which are really the notion and sense of career progression?


Talking of career progression, for the benefit of the audience, you went from sort of a computer scientist to software engineer, you were project manager to a head of a group, director of engineering, then country head and now you are senior director for business operations at Yahoo!  India R&D. It’s a very nice career growth in a short time, I would say. Project managers who are listening to this talk, I’m more interested in the transitions, you know. How were you able to make those transitions? Any advice to the people listening?

 So there are two things which I would like to talk about here. One is actually proactively embracing change. If you see my career profile I have voluntarily, I’ve been more of a trend seeker or a change seeker in a way. Where I’ve really gone out and sought the changes that have hit me. I’ve tried to look at some of the new learning opportunity. Every assignment that I’ve taken has been a new learning assignment. I have never done anything like that before. The aim was really not to do more of same. They were to look completely different. In that process you push the boundaries and say, “Well, can I do this?”

 So that was one of the things. In the last few years I support the concept of T-shaped careers. And let me just talk about T-shaped career for a moment. Now what used to happen is as a functional manager when we are going up, we continue to take on more and more vertical functional responsibilities. But then a point comes in the career where you have to be responsible for a department or a group or a site or a region or something like that, which is more a horizontal kind of a role there.

 But what happens is when you become a horizontal manager you become a generalist because your horizon is very wide, but you risk actually losing that depth. That actually is a cause for respect for you in the first place. But the problem is how do you really balance between the two?

 So this notion of T-shaped career is beautiful concept where you actually maintain a very wide horizon of things, but you think of one of the areas in which, so for example if you are the general manager of a plant, it could be sales or marketing or R&D or customer research or one of those areas where you actually maintain a functional responsibility right to the end of it you are with the teams.

 Or if you are in a software development context, let’s say your company works in front end and back end and databases and compilers and stuff like that you pick one of those areas and you continue to stay very strongly technically attached to that. Now this was in a way actually a bad lesson for me because I didn’t do that in my previous career. What I realized was I was not able to very gracefully transition in that from being a vertical manager to a horizontal manager. This has been a big learning for me that when we start growing into a senior role there is a higher value one can create for them by being a T-shaped manager.


 What area did you select to sort of go deep down in? Maybe one example?

 Right. So for example in the last 15 years I have been in a multiple high tech areas like digital video or Internet core routing and stuff like that, network management. Currently, I’m focusing on program management as one of the functional skills in which I’m growing myself and saying, okay, even though my role the horizontal breed of skills that is required for me to succeed is very wide I cannot specialize in each one of them. But program management is one area where I’m going to deeply specialize on that and continues to excel myself as an individual contributor. That’s how I’m going to pursue my T-shaped career.

  Okay. You said you seek thrill and as you made these career progression you sought out things that you have never done before and you wanted to do them.


 Most of the time people want to put you or peg you into roles that you’ve done in the past. I just want to clarify and dig a little bit into that. Are you saying when you made a shift from one company to the other did you apply this there or did you apply this when you were within an organization?

 No, I think it’s a great question and thanks for pointing it out. So in both the cases I have tried to take on roles where the qualification was not, that I’ve already been in that role. Now I know it sounds very difficult to convince your hiring manager that you should be hired, but you have never done this role.

 Because most of the people would like to have the comfort feeling that they’re making the right hire. So they want to see that you’ve already been in that role for two or three years and that’s why you are better qualified for that. But I have a little different take on that. My view is that if you’ve already done something for two or three years your eyes are probably already set on what you want to accomplish next in your career. So while you might be very good at doing certain things it might also bring a sense of monotony or a sense of being risk averse.

 Whereas somebody who’s new will be willing to actually learn more will be willing to actually put more effort, willing to ask questions and break some things and make some changes along the way. I think that’s good for us because we live in times where blind compliance is going to kill you and your business. But somebody who is willing to look at it, experiment things, learn from there and keep improving is probably a much better recipe for success.

 I’m a living proof. I’ve been able to convince people in that sense and it has worked well for me and it does work well for the places I work. So I think it’s doable.


 You’ve managed project managers. For those in the audience who are managers of project managers, what advice would you give them? Is there anything different that these people need to do or are PMs like any other employees?

 I think the project managers are actually the most important critical component of the entire chain. They are the ones between rock and the hard place. They are on one hand dealing with the challenges on the floor with their employees’ day in and day out with their teams. They have to deliver stuff. They are the ones who are most affected by the day to day motivation and morale issues within the team.

On the other hand they are the ones who are leading the fire from the front end and they are the ones who are expected by their managers that they go and do the policy deployment, they go and do the chain management, and they go and do the process improvement and so on. So definitely, that’s a most difficult thing for anybody to do that.

Functionally, they know their stuff. Domain-wise they know their skills. But what I’ve found is most of the project managers; we are not really trained to understand those challenges. I mean knowing soft skills is one part of it, but being able to apply that with finesse is what I’m really looking at. So my rule in many of the projects were more in terms of being a friend, being a mentor, being a guide to the project managers and really give them a shoulder when it was needed. Because many times they just wanted to, they have no ‘release valve’ actually they were really facing the pressure from both sides. All you had to do was just really talk to them and really understand and work with them a little bit.

So that was one part of it. Second part of it was functional skills in terms of how do they really do stuff, how do they do planning better, how do they do scheduling better or reporting better and stuff like that. And third was really in terms of how they really worked with their team members better. Because at the end of the day we are a people business we are a very, very strong people intensive industry. All your Gantt charts and all your project plans and all your release plans are useless if the people you work with you are not really harmonious with them.

So for me the large part has been really working with the project managers and saying, “Well, how do you really develop your own people? How do you really not feel threatened by the fact that some of the team members are smarter than you? How do you really prepare yourself for the fact that as a manager your job is to make yourself redundant?” Which essentially means you really grooming capabilities of people and you’re also creating room for taking on the next level of responsibility? So there is no such thing as a status quo in which you can sit on.

So these have been some of the things that I’ve found valuable in my conversations leading with the project managers.

One other question I had is and I don’t know how much you can talk about it, you mentioned you are leading an enterprise-wide agile at option at Yahoo.

Can you talk anything about that or, I was just wondering?

Yeah, sure. I can talk a little bit about that. So we are actually working on enterprise-wide agile adoption. Actually, I’ve been doing it for the last couple of years on and off but the cultural dimension is pretty vibrant and democratic too by itself. What I’ve seen is that some groups like using agile, but some groups feel that agile itself is a challenge and they have gone back to their own whatever the preferred style of the team.

Now here is my take on that. If we really go with the notion and the trust that we have in the team to be self organizing to be smart enough to figure things out for themselves then I think we should not even worry about which framework they use. Because if the team is smart enough why do you even want to impose scrum as a framework?

Let them figure out what is right for them, right. Because that is the highest level of empowerment a team can have.

So what we are doing, it’s a very different kind of a thing. We don’t believe in a top down mandate that it has to be only this version of agile or this flavor of Scrum, for example. What we are actually going into our mindset as we want result-orientation. What we want to align the team to have that this is the result orientation and when I say result, I’m not talking about doing things which are agile. For example, achieving a certain velocity measurement. Many make the mistake and say well you are doing velocity that means you are doing good.

My view of velocity is useless measure because you could be achieving a high velocity, but if it has no relation to your cash inflow your business, on your top line and it doesn’t mean anything that you are trading faster or you are releasing more valuable features into the field. So what we look at result is really your ability to top line results. So what we are figured out then that if we only measure people by the results and we leave off the how to do part of it they will figure out what is the right way of doing it.

So as a part of the enterprise adoption we have created a common metrics and measurement program and we are telling people this is how we are going to measure each one of the projects. We are not going to come in and prescribe you which process you want to follow there. That has worked very well because people are saying I have the individual freedom and creativity to figure out what is the right process for me, number one.

Number two, we are not saying that 100% compliance option is a goal. Though we would certainly like to have that option and we want to improve that option, but the way we are going to achieve that is not by a top down approach. One way essentially creating beach heads and say well this is a success story this is how a team really took a problem. This was the problem this was the solution they figured out and these were the results.

Now that should be an encouragement for others to go and follow it but again there is no pressure on people. They should feel motivated that, yes I want to solve problem in a similar way.

So establish a beach head don’t try to boil the ocean is the second thing. Third is we are helping people in terms of facilitating the entire change process. We are not really imposing the change process. We are not taking it over we’re still letting the people decide pace of the changes. We are only standing on the sides and telling them, “Well, this is how we can help you as you want to do the change process.”

There are a couple of other advance issues that we are going to also, you talked about one of them, In  terms of what is a career progression for a scrum master for example. Because it’s very easy to look at creating a brand new 10 or 15 20 people of organization and saying well we are not going to have managers here, we are going to have scrum masters.

But how do you do that for an existing 2,000, 5,000, 8,000, 15,000 people organization, where people have made their career choices to be a people manager. I mean you can’t just, in any organization you would see 8% to 10% of the people as first line managers, right. I mean, there would be a manager for an eight- to ten-people team, which means a 1,000 people organization would probably have at least 100 first line managers. Now you can’t simply go back to them and say from tomorrow onwards you don’t have a first line manager. I think we owe more to our people than that, right?

So the whole deal in my view is how can we bring the subtle change in a more harmonious manner? Because we are dealing with people we are not dealing with, it’s not like you throw away your old VCR and then say okay from tomorrow we are going to use an MP3 player. Maybe that works with things, but it doesn’t work with people.

So I think we have to help people really understand the new answers of change. Equip them to do that. Particularly, I’ve heard answers, for example, you let them become a product owner or you let them become scrum master. But the challenge is how do you really tell somebody what kind of a career they can choose at the end of it. It is not their fault that they have chosen to be a project manager. It is a byproduct of the industry in which they are working for which actually rewarded those skills and that’s the reason why they’re in the place that they are in.

So I don’t think we have a right to go away and just change it overnight. Especially without being able to tell them what is it that they will do in the new order of things? This is something we are learning. This is something we are learning through conversations and from experiences. I don’t think we have come a long way with that, but at this point in time I am being a sponge I am just soaking it up, learning it from inside the organization outside the organization and really analyzing what are some of the better ideas that are going to prevail as we go into this.


Yes, this approach that you guys are taking is so great because you know, it puts the trust in the PMs and it allows them to execute their projects as they see fit. No mandate of you has to use this methodology or that. I mean it just creates such a good feeling, I feel. I mean, that alone is a great deal.


I had one question here on my list to talk to you about way back in your career, your Antarctica trip.

Sure. Sure.

I’m sure it was cold. I live in Minneapolis and its cold, but that’s colder. What did you learn from that trip?

Sure. That’s the experience of my lifetime. I was actually lucky to be there. I used to be a computer scientist with the defense labs. I was in a city known as Pune and that lab where I was working actually had involvement in program to Antarctica and I was pretty young back in ’93 and I volunteered for that. Technical nature of work was we were doing actually radio communications between Antarctica and India. So we used to actually do data communication in those days. Today, we are so used to taking 10 or 20 or 50 MBPS at home. But those days we actually used to experiment with something as rudimentary as 1200 bauds or 300 bauds and stuff like that.

So those were the days.

But in terms of, I think my biggest take of it; biggest learning has really been as a person because I was the youngest member of the team. I was not even 25 at that time. Just being in those kind of situations where isolation, confinement and the environment, these are the three things that really impact you big time. That really plays a big impact on you as an individual.

Now we were a team of 25 men. We had a stay there for a period of 16 months. There is no human intervention possible. There is no ship, there are no supplies, and there are no letters that are coming there. You have to really be able to motivate yourself and your teammates for such an extended period of time to such an extended periods of cold and dark spells. We would have darkness for two months. So for two months there is no sunrise. So those kinds of things.

So I think psychologically it has made me better to deal with those kinds of adverse and timid conditions. Being able to appreciate that if it’s a sunny day today then it’s going to be a dark wintery night tomorrow and if it’s a dark wintery night it’s going to be a sunny day back again. It’s always cyclical.

And being able to rely on people as a team because in our team we had scientist, who were Ph.D. scientists and we had people who were just junior school dropout. It was extremely difficult to really bring them together on the same table and being able to create a plan so that we work together as team. So that was yet another part of it.

To be honest my own notion of understanding of program management actually took off there because conducting an expedition is a giant program. It involves probably more than hundreds of government labs and private vendors with the ship at the sea and stuff like that and you all have to work together on the program for a period of 16 months during the expedition and much before that really to plan the logistics. There are multiple ways in which you can fail because any one of them doesn’t happen you are technically failing. But to make it a success every single thing has to go through.

So that was my first exposure and first brush with program management. We never used to call it program back then. But then this is how I feel. This is how I say; I feel the program they are pulling it all together. Working with various people, being able to respect everyone’s autonomy on the competencies, but still being able to pull it together as a program manager.


Do you think this experience sort of defined your growth going forward? Because I was looking at a number of your recommendations on LinkedIn and a lot of people have said you are a great project manager or a great manager. That you share very openly and that you care about a lot. As I’m listening to you talk about the Antarctica experience, do you think that defined your experience moving forward?

Never thought of it this way for me, but you ask a very heavy question. I think it’s a very loaded question.

I know.

Maybe I need to think about it, but, yeah, definitely it did bring in a sense of empathy in me it did bring in a sense of how people are really putting their best foot forward, despite all the challenges they have back home. What is keeping them preoccupied and stuff like that? Earlier, I used to think at the end if you are not a winner then you are nothing kind of a thing. But then I think I became more sensitive and more appreciative and more respectful to people’s efforts that they are putting in. I think that probably improved my ability to work with people there. But, yes, I need to think more about it.


One last question I had is any other hobbies, interests you have? I know you must be busy with all the other work that you do, but when you do find time.

Yeah, so spending time with the family. I have a 14-year-old son. So making sure his teenage years are in the right direction. But apart from that I like to read a lot. I still have a lot of, probably a hundred odd books in my library that I have not read. I bought them, but they are just queued up for the reading. So, I like to read. I like to write on my blog and share what I know, learn.

I learn a lot from writing because if you are able to articulate your thoughts you actually learn better, that’s my view. So my way of learning is really by sharing stuff and talking about it. That’s why I was teaching in the college as well. Because for every hour of your classroom lecture, I was actually reading about ten hours in my home during the evening time just to get prepared for the lecture. So that’s how I like to spend my time.

Thank you. You have a good day.

Bye, you, too. Good night.

 Okay. Bye now.

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About Samir Penkar

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