How Math Related Soft Skills Propelled My Career
Math handed me undiluted friendship; boring ways to make money and more.
1. My First Hire
Once upon a time, I had the privilege of sitting across a gentleman with a freshly minted Ph. D.
That was my first opportunity to lead a team. I was doing interviews to make my first hire. It became crystal clear that I was sitting across a genius. I fell for his brain powers. Wanted to hire him, my boss also interviewed him. Cautioned me about his lightness on communication skills and yet encouraged me to make my own hiring decision.
I hired the physicist with the beautiful mind. We both understood English. The one challenge, he was picking up the language to speak.
As we spent time working together, one day, we naturally went to the whiteboard. He wrote and I interpreted. We nodded in agreement. We had cracked the code on how to communicate and collaborate.
If you zoomed back on the whiteboard, it was filled with equations — precise in the information, elegant in their compactness and above all a mutual handshake of thoughts.
I had a moment of epiphany.
Some call math murky, some call it abstract. From that day, I realized it was about “saying a lot while speaking very little”- a lazy way of writing a lot in short hand.
Math was a way of communication — poetry of its own.
Now, both of us have our shreds of white hair, both of us are still in touch. Both of us exchange notes about our kids — in English.
And our bonds of friendship were created over layers of communication on a whiteboard.
2. A dog’s tail and a simple interview question
When I was young I learned: You cannot straighten a dog’s tail.
Somewhere along the way, I believed I could win over people to my point of view with words and actions. The shape of the dog’s tail [people’s behavior in the normal course of the day] is not that important.
As I got older, my aha was: There is immense value in studying the dog’s tail. You may not be able to straighten it forever. However, the study of tails opens our eyes on what people are comfortable with — in their natural state. An observation I found worth the weight in gold in the world of influence without authority.
A simple interview question helped me understand them better.
I asked them to add two numbers say 1420 and 1273. I was not interested in the answer. I just watched how they approached it.
If they told me it is around 2600 or 2700 — that told me their comfort with ambiguity and significance. They are natural strategist. Top down works for them.
If they used the pen in front of them and added the numbers from right to left and wrote 3, then 9, then 6 and then 2 to get 2693 — I knew they were methodical in getting things done. You can count on them to be rigorous. Precise is a word they cherish.
If they first tell me the rough numbers and then follow through with pen and paper, I never forget them.
They are both bottom-up and top-down. They are like hour glass, rare in this world of digital clocks. In real world, like the hour glass, the bottleneck is in the middle — where the strategy in the sky meets the tactics in the ground.
One other thing, if they share that math is not their comfort wheelhouse; I do not bring this question up. The unspoken purpose of life is to celebrate people’s strength, not harp on discomfort.
3. Boring way to make money for your company
A head of sales saw something in me and offered me a lifetime opportunity to turnaround Texas sales — to bring it up by 25% .
I turned to this simple math:
$ goal = Number of deals in inventory * conversion rate * annual volume of each deal * term of deal * unit margin
In order to improve the sales bottom line, you can improve any one of the drivers by 25%. I chose to look for ways to increase each by 5%. Change is hard for all of us. Why make it harder by swinging on one for 25%? Added bonus is that the cummulative effect of 5% is more than 25%
For some, my top down approach may sound a good way to approach it. From ground up, this is the boring way.
On the ground, rejection is commonplace- you typically face rejection from 9 out 10 people you meet, give or take. When rejection is commonplace, the antidote is recognition for that one rare win.
In American football, one long run of 100 yards is a touchdown, so is 20 micro passes inching the way through each of 10 yards. The one long run of 100 yards is seared in memory- for the way, the win happened. For the 9 failed, that one long swing to the dashed line is a sweet memory and recognition. Great conversation material over beverages among contemporaries.
A win is a win is one way to look at it. How you approach the win matters for memory.
A large deal could give one leap jump more than the collection of small deals. I chose the way of small improvements of 5% as it fit my personality better.
I was thrilled when Elon Musk named one of his companies boring company. Clever play of words for a company that bores tunnels. Still, a great name for personal reasons.
Back to making money the boring way, yes we exceeded targets and had quiet fun doing it.
Math and career choices
For some, math is the pristine Fiji spring water. For some, it is the murky deep ocean with its own flora and fauna.
For me, it is like the beach waters of Hawaii where you have have choices.
You can snorkel and watch the eclectic kaleidoscopes of colors silhouetting the reefs. You can luxuriate on the beach with the breeze caressing your back. You can hop island to island, snap awesome pictures on your cell phone and share it on Instagram. How you experience the waters is your choice. For me, it is more intertwined with human psychology and a hidden career delight in plain sight.