Where the Puck is Going…

A conversation with Gautam Ramdurai, Insights Lead at Google on randomness, rabbit holes and Justin Bieber

BEING ABLE TO PREDICT WHAT PEOPLE WANT is what helps the Mountain View Monolith be one of the biggest and most innovative companies today.

Helping to make sense of today and tomorrow is Insights Lead, Gautam Ramdurai. Gautam was gracious enough to take a few minutes to talk to GapJumpers about where the comms industry is heading… kinda.. (who the fux, knows.. really)

“Bet on hiring someone who is obviously competent but probably doesn’t fit into your ideal candidature”

Q: Gautam, in “hug the random” you mention inherited probability biases. How can the communications industry be more ‘random’ as to how it looks for talent, instead of preferring (inherited) biases such as the school where you studied (Oxbridge, MICA, VCU), level of education (MBA, PhD) or grade point average.

Gautam Ramdurai: I think institutions in general, not just the communications industry, could use some injection of randomness — especially in hiring. We spend way too much time defining the principles of our companies and the “criteria” for our new recruits.

This drives us deeper into a self-constraining pigeon hole that stops us from seeing and identifying new skills that we didn’t even know existed.

It happened when big marketing shops never thought of hiring good programmers in 2004 and is happening again now when the comms industry has a dearth of good data crunchers.

One way to get around this is by willing to accept “wildcard” entries. Bet on hiring someone who is obviously competent but probably doesn’t fit into your ideal candidature.

A lot of my friends who loosely fall under the label of “creative technologists” — UX designers, prototypers, HTML5 devs, visualization experts — were hired this way and have lent an entirely new skillset to their respective employers.

The game stays the same, the name only changes

Q: Somewhat related to your idea of being prepared to meet randomness and hedging against volatility, Mike Arauz of Undercurrent wrote that, “The typical ‘T-shaped’ team member is no longer adaptable enough to keep and maintain value in a market that evolves as quickly as today’s market does. The ideal evolving skill set for today’s digital strategy world is shaped more like an expanding square than a ‘T’.” Would you agree?

Gautam Ramdurai: 100% agree with Mike. There is a definite place in the world for laser-focused expertise — strategy is not one of them. Richness in thinking comes from diversity of exposure. You don’t come up with interesting new connections if you only read about one thing over and over. That was the fundamental flaw of all industries that got disrupted by some new app.

I have a long list of skills I want to pick up, topics I want to learn about, places I want to visit and movies I want to watch. And it’s not casually perusing these new topics and skills — but going deep. I love learning languages for the same reason — not to just learn how to say “where is the bathroom” nor to attain native fluency, but enough to have a coherent conversation at a party.

I absolutely love this statement in Satya Nadella’s first letter to Microsoft employees:

“Many who know me say I am also defined by my curiosity and thirst for learning. I buy more books than I can finish. I sign up for more online courses than I can complete. I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things. So family, curiosity and hunger for knowledge all define me.”

I read that and grinned wide because that pretty much sums up my life.

Q: What strategy do you employ to make sure that you are focussing on the right rabbit holes for your personal and professional development?

Gautam Ramdurai:
There are no such things as “right rabbit holes”.

There are skills that have a more direct connection to your job and life, but mostly I chase things that just seem super interesting. I start with what I’m rabidly curious about vs. what might look good on my resume (although it definitely doesn’t hurt to have those two be the same thing.) If you love what you do, you will inherently be curious about things in your own field.

For example, I’m currently curious about what programming language I should pick up next for data analysis because I am dissatisfied with what I am working with.

Gapjumpers: In the article Mike mentions some rabbit holes people should focus on. What rabbit holes are you focusing on?

Gautam Ramdurai:
Modular Origami.
Stephen Hawking’s new paper on Black Holes.
Learning basic Spanish.
The economics of fan fiction.
Ongoing social changes in India driven by mobile connectivity.
The concept of entropy and how it unfolds in our lives everyday.
Learning how to sketch comic book characters.

Q: What rabbit holes should students and graduates, looking to up their chances of breaking into the comms industry, focus on? Why?

GAUTAM RAMDURAI: THINK ABOUT 5 THINGS YOU’VE ALWAYS BEEN CURIOUS ABOUT. Doesn’t have to do anything with your job or college elective — or maybe it is specifically about that one chapter about Native American history or who coined the word “debugging”. Now go on an uncharted Wikipedia/YouTube journey.

Few minutes in you’ll find yourself in infinite tab heaven. Now think about how what you just learned applies to your day-to-day — does it help you look at your problems differently? Does it point out new skills you should be learning?

Now the second part of the question is about breaking into the industry — see how you express these new things you just learned about through your unique lens.

Back in grad school, I was very curious about the millions of Justin Bieber followers on twitter. What was driving this craze beyond the obvious fandom?

So I went about exploring as much as I could about the topic and came up with a few hypotheses. These became the most interesting topics to talk about during my job interviews — not the brand-related projects I’d done as part of the curriculum. That stuff is super important, but it’s the rabbit holes you choose that rounds of your candidature to be interesting.

Q: With the way that tech, design, comms and product development are merging, what would you advise a 20 year old Gautam , if he asked you where to work and in what location: advertising agency, client, tech startup, something different?

Gautam Ramdurai: At 20, I was studying software engineering, working on my artificial intelligence project but dreaming of becoming the college literary magazine’s editor-in-chief and resenting the fact that I didn’t go to a journalism school.

The only piece of advice I’d give myself would be to know that life happens when you’re busy planning.

That doesn’t mean you stop planning. It means you dream, plan and take one step at a time. But it also means that when your path starts veering from what you imagined, you embrace this new vector and know that your goal in life shouldn’t be about making “right” choices, but interesting ones.

Thank you Gautam.

“Where the puck is going” is GapJumpers jumping on the content bandwagon ;). We ask people we like and find super interesting to share thoughts, learnings and more. Whenever we find someone willing to answer our questions, we’ll feature them. Have someone you want to see featured? Add your comments alongside. If you’d like to stay updated on more stories, follow the collection, obvio...

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