Friday, February 20, 2009

Becoming a successful technical leader: 1-day workshop

Dr. Sreedharan was one of the recipients of the Economic Times awards for corporate excellence this year (2009). He said in his talk, “The hardest knock I received in my career spanning 50 years of professional life was the decision of Government of India to choose Broad Gauge for the Delhi Metro instead of the internationally favored Standard Gauge which I felt was the appropriate technology. At that time I even contemplated resigning as the managing director of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation since I felt I should not be party to what I believed was the wrong technical decision. However, I subsequently changed my mind since the completion of the Delhi Metro project was essential for the benefit of the city of Delhi. DMRC had to adopt a very positive outlook towards this decision of the Government and we were able to complete Phase-I of the project 2 years and 9 months ahead of the schedule and within projected cost. Subsequently, the decision on what gauge should be adopted by Metro Systems has been left to the decision of the respective state governments and today three of the Delhi Metro rail lines including the modern hi-speed Airport Metro connection will be on Standard Gauge. All other cities which are planning Metros like Chennai, Bangalore and Cochin are also adopting Standard Gauge.

This story depicts the essence of technical leadership and its 3 key attributes: (1) independent decision making (2) Influencing (3) Leading initiatives (what I refer to as 3-I model). Dr. Sreedharan had a strong view about the technical decision pertaining gauge. He had the ability to influence decisions on subsequent Metro rail projects and he lead the DMRC project successfully in spite of technical challenges. If you want to assess yourself as a technical leader, ask yourself (1) When was the last time I felt strongly about a technical decision? (2) Which key technical decisions am I influencing? (3) What technology initiative did I lead recently?

I have been facilitating a 1-day workshop on “Becoming a successful technical leader” for the past 2 years and the workshop is now 25+ sessions, 25+ organizations and 400+ participants old. During the workshop, we explore various aspects of technical leadership through case studies especially in the context of IT industry in India. At the end, participants prepare an action plan (what I call Systematic Investment Plan - SIP) for themselves. See the slides below.

I will be facilitating an open program on 25th March 2009 in Hotel Royal Orchid Park Plaza in Bangalore. You can download the registration form (yes, there is an early bird discount). You may want to see a consolidated list of my articles on technical leadership.


  1. I really want to work on my leadership skills and this might really help. Thank you for posting this.

  2. Well Vinay,

    Contrary to the fan following for Dr. Sreedharan, I have never quite appreciated his engineering decisions. His choice of standard gauge over broad gauge ostensibly because it is used the world over is specious to say the least. Such decisions should be governed by quantifiable parameters rather than such herd mentality. The points put forth by Mr. V. K. J. Rane, Ex-MD of IRCON in the following article have more engineering merit than Dr. Sreedharan's.

    Another case in point is the overground metro in Bangalore. ES claims that he built Delhi's metro overground based on his experience of the Kolkata metro where taking it underground has cost the exchequer more than double of what it would have cost had it been overground. What was forgotten was that the soil Kolkata is alluvial with lot of water retention. Hence the entire tunnel is double walled with the gap between the inner tunnel with vaulted roof and the outer retainer wall serving as the seepage alley with the water being continuously pumped out. It is true that Delhi had a similar soil conditions and hence the decision. But what about Bangalore? The soil here is hard and rocky. If they were to go say 150 to 200 ft. deep and simply bore through it, the roof would stand on its own. Just the way most tunnels on the Indian Railway stand. They do not have a vaulted roof beyond the initial few meters from either end. So your only cost is to excavate the earth with very little concrete work needed. You may still have a vaulted roof, but only to prevent loose debris from falling and not to take any load. Imagine so much of greenery in Bangalore would have been saved.

    I feel the man is more hyped than what his actual engineering abilities are. As for his managerial abilities, there can simply be no doubt. I am all ayes for it.

  3. Hi Ayonam,

    It is nice to hear from you after such a long time. Really appreciate you bringing the details of technical decisions related to standard vs broad gauge. I am sorry; I didn't know the technicalities of the decision. The link you provide gives more details.

    I agree that having a well-defined criteria for decision making helps especially in an organization context. It creates an opportunity for a dialogue and brings fairness to the process. However, good decisions can also be intuitive and the decision maker himself is sometimes unaware of the underlying logic. Ramanujam is a classic example. When Hardy, his mentor and collaborator asked him to explain the steps that lead to the proof, Ramanujam would struggle. When relied too much on intuition without any check, it can easily fool even experts. There were cases where Ramanujam's formulae were incorrect.

    Thanks for the note.