From Fresh Graduate Trainee to Expert

This is my real story of getting extra-ordinary performance from ordinary people. A fresh graduate trainee was transformed to an expert in an (supposedly) difficult technology by reposing trust on the trainee and also by addressing his manager's fear of failure.


The company I had just joined was a multinational and had a large development centre in India and a small team in the US. Though most of the other business applications, which were based on web technology  were fully managed in India, the CTI (Computer Telephony Interface) applications were still managed from USA as the CTI skills were available only in the US. A manager in India was assigned the task of creating the CTI expertise in India so as to fully transfer the CTI development work to India and to further use the untapped potential of CTI. 

A BPO has huge dependence on telephones. The telephone system has valuable call data. It has software interface through which you can develop innovative applications. For example, you can control the full functioning of the telephone through commands in your software running on the computer. This is called Computer Telephony Interface (CTI). 

When I took charge, one attempt to create the CTI team in India had failed and the entire project was in limbo. The manager told me that a person of the level of team leader had been sent to USA office to get trained on CTI. He had spent six months in US office. He came back to India and was to do the team building and skill building for CTI in India under the overall leadership of the manager. But this team leader had quit the company after getting trained in US and the entire project had come to a screeching halt.

Scarce Skill

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As I was taking charge of the other active projects, I knew that the CTI project was on hold. I kept reminding the manager to re-initiate this activity, make a project plan. He enumerated several problems because of which he could not make the plan. He said he had to recruit a trained CTI senior level person (team lead level), and he was facing great difficulty in getting the right skills to recruit. The other team members in the CTI team too had to be well trained in C/C++ programming language, a skill which we did not have. As all our projects were using ASP/VB, we did not have any C/C++ trained staff, and my manager said he had to recruit fresh talent to create a new CTI team. The entire project was stuck due to non-availability of the right skills.

Whenever I reviewed the progress, the answer was that he was not able to get CTI trained team leader and C++ trained developers. He kept insisting that this was a very specialized skill and could not be started unless we got skilled and experienced people. I told him to pick up a few people internally and start training them. He was very skeptical about it all and said that he wanted at least a few people experienced in VC++/C++ and we only had MicroSoft ASP trained personnel. He insisted that if we did not get personnel trained in CTI, at least we needed good experienced people in C++.

All other active projects got higher priority and this one went to the back burner. However, I kept reminding the PM every time and the reply was "Not able to recruit CTI skilled people. Skills for CTI Programming are very difficult to find." 

We had a practice of recruiting a crop of fresh graduates as trainees. We gave them "on-the-job" training so that we could face the high turnover rate in Indian IT industry. This was a very cost effective way which gave me a lot of peace. There were no ripples felt when anyone said he wanted to leave, as we had a crop of trainees to join the team and at least partially compensate for the loss.

Best Alternative Solution

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So one day, fed up of listening to the same old story from my manager, I walked up along with him to the desks of his team members, particularly the fresh graduate trainees. I asked the manager what work they were doing. I picked up one of the fresh graduate trainees and told my manager to free this trainee and relieve him of his current assignment. I told my manager to give him a very simple CTI project providing very basic functionality. (We decided on a trial application to simply initiate and end a telephone call through software commands alone, without touching the phone buttons). I told the manager to give him that simple project, give him the CTI manual (it was pretty fat book!) and give him a timeframe to complete the project by reading the manual and any other means of self-study. I said, "Just trust him to read, experiment and find a solution". I told the manager to help wherever possible and to keep adding more and more simple functionality to this project once the previous was successfully delivered. In other words the strategy was to start with extremely simple project, and gradually learn to add new features and complexity once the trainee felt comfortable with (and very importantly, excited about) delivering and seeing results.

This is how my project to create an expertise in CTI started with the help of a fresh graduate trainee who had neither CTI knowledge, nor C++ nor even sound Microsoft ASP knowledge!

Of course the manager whole heartedly contributed in this experiment. He had to be assured, explicitly and subtly, that he need not be too worried about failure as no attempt would be made to find a scapegoat. I had to convey my trust that the best effort would be made more out of inherent motivation to do some technology innovation and something useful for the company.

In less than a year, the same trainee, with the help of the manager had developed a full-fledged CTI component which could be used with any application to fully interface with telephone and add telephone functionality to any application. In other words, the call centre executive could fully operate the telephone with all its complex features by clicking buttons on the computer screen without using telephone buttons. This could help improve the efficiency manyfold and also help exchange data easily from the telephone system to the computer program for useful performance reporting.

My trainee had become an expert in CTI. He helped me set up a team and create another set of experts. He worked with me for two years after which he left with an excellent offer on hand. I felt no shock waves when he left as he had delivered what he had to and deserved the new opportunity which he got. He had done my job and also created a team to carry his work forward.

Lessons learnt

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  Even a raw team can give excellent results given the right condition and motivation

  Ordinary people can do extraordinary things with the right freedom, trust and motivation.

  Even youngsters with low experience can do a good job. You only need to trust them and assign them a task.

  You do not need special people to do special things. 

  Nothing is so difficult to learn and achieve.

  Managers need to have the courage to take risk. Often it is not because the staff is not skilled, but because the managers are not capable to take the risk.

  At the same time the managers themselves need to be given the right environment to take risks. They need enough freedom, particularly while experimenting with new technology, otherwise they are over-cautious and unwilling to take risk. In this case, it was my responsibility (as the Department Head) to make my manager comfortable by giving him the space to experiment and take risk. If I had put too much pressure to succeed, my manager would not be ready to take the risk.

  Again, it was also my responsibility as the Department Head to give my Project Manager full confidence that he will not be made the scape-goat if he fails. My message was, "If we succeed, we all succeed and if we fail, we all fail". Not only I had to convey this message loud and clear, but I had to also ensure that I really meant it and that it was not just pep talk. The manager would take risks only when he/she felt very confident that I won't go witch hunting to find a scape-goat in case of failure.

  It is often due to manager's lack of risk taking ability that we do not get the best out of people (or people do not perform to their potential) and not because of the potential of the subordinates

  Managers can restrict the creativity of the subordinates because of their own fear that the team may fail.

  For new technology projects, stiff targets enforced on the team do not work. You need to give just the right freedom to the manager.

  Experts can be created. The problem is not of lack of talent but lack of trust on the part of the managers.

  Technology Managers need to do a balancing act between technology and strategy. If they get too engrossed in technology they will never do justice to the strategic work that they are required to do.

 In order to be able to concentrate on strategic issues and not get too bogged down by technology, I did two things. First, I created experts who I could bank on for technology deep dive whenever required. Secondly I was open to learn from these experts if required. Whenever there was a problem, I was comfortable to do a deep dive in technology with my technical experts, learn from them, together solve the problem and come out to keep my head above water, and eyes on strategic issues. A manager needs to be comfortable doing technology deep dive when required, and equally quick in coming out of 'water' to refocus on strategic issues.


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