I dreamed of a life of endless learning. I was always hungry to learn new things, pick up new skills, explore new places. So, I had to find an escape when boredom came knocking at my door in March 2017. I was desperate to move out of TATA Motors. So, I was looking for the next destination and remembered a previous failed attempt to get into Ather Energy. This time around, I didn’t just get in but spent three enriching years of my life. Those three years at Ather were some of the most transformative years of my life.
It’s not every day that you find companies that not only help you become a better professional but also a better person. My journey at Ather came to an end on 9th October 2020 and I wanted to write about it. I wanted to write this blog post primarily for 2 reasons. Firstly, I wanted to document the lessons I learnt along the way and to reference them in the future. But I could’ve done that in a diary and left it at that. The second reason is to share my perspectives and hear yours out. If not as thought-provoking, this might just help someone improve themselves.
Without any further delay, let’s start the ride on this exciting yet bumpy ride. A ride that gives you a glimpse of how to make decisions, picking yourself back up, on work-life balance.
How Did It All Start
I remember the frustrating days of March 2017 at TATA Motors. After an amazing project during the first six months, things started to become boring. Honestly, there was still a lot left to learn in such a huge organization. In fact, I had specific learning goals in my mind even before I joined TATA Motors full time. As a matter of fact, I did “threaten” to reject the offer if I didn’t join the Program Management team. Having built a fully functional automobile and a racing team from scratch back in BITS Pilani, I was curious to see how companies approached product development.
And luckily I ended up getting into the Program Management team. I got an opportunity to work under the guidance of Mr Girish Wagh who now heads the commercial vehicle business. But once that project was over, I started to get bored. Although there was a lot left to learn, I figured it would take me decades to learn.
Then I looked around and observed people who have actually spent 10 years at Tata Motors. I immediately decided to drop that idea. A lot of them were too complacent and satisfied in life. They simply didn’t have the drive to push themselves harder anymore.
Of course, you need to chill, but the major issue with complacency is that it is contagious. It just slowly compounds and before you know, you’re sitting on an organization that refuses to move. So I started looking out and wanted to approach Ather again as I was really excited about it. I applied for Ather previously during my final year at BITS Pilani and the HR said, I needed more experience.
Candid Chats AKA Interviews
Now that I had more experience, I decided to give it another shot. Added to that, I now had a good idea of how products are developed. So I brushed up some basics binge-watched openings on Ather’s career page. I stumbled upon the Relationship Manager for Hyderabad city in the Charging Infra team. It was a sales role which was as far a team could get from the product development process.
I thought I’ll just apply on the website and see where it goes. I figured if I get a chance to talk to someone, I can convey my intentions. Surprised, I not only got through the screening but finished a couple of interviews with the Charging Infra team.
I really loved the enthusiasm and the excitement in what they were doing, something I missed at TATA Motors. I then met Rohith at a hotel (Park Hotel?) in Pune as he was visiting for some work stuff. We chatted about the TATA Cars, love for travelling and why I applied for the relationship manager role at Ather.
I quickly admitted that I was looking to get into a Product development role at a later point in time. A few more chats later, he suggested that I was better suited for a product development role than a relationship manager role. he mentioned that he would check with the Program Management team about my profile. I thought it was just an empty promise and started losing hopes. But I followed up as if my whole life was hinged upon me getting into Ather.
The Uphill Climb
I had a few more interviews with the Program Management team, Product Management team and Tarun. Following the interviews, I was offered the Associate Program Manager role. I dropped my resignation the very next day. And exactly a month later i.e 16th August 2017, I got down the TATA Motors bus, one last time.
I was really excited about moving to Bangalore. Partly because it was a familiar place, unlike Pune. That was strange because I had spent 1.5 years in Pune compared to 3 days in Bangalore till then. Secondly, I heard so many stories from my friends who interned in Bangalore when I was interning in Pune. Stories about how Bangalore changes people turns them into something they never thought they’d become.
And even more alluring was the prospect of exploring all the beautiful places around Bangalore. It was also an opportunity to get my personal finances in shape as now I had more money at hand. It was altogether a beautiful and exciting fresh start.
On 28th August 2017, I walked into the office at Victoria Layout. People in shorts, bean bags in the office, the fancy cafeteria at the terrace top, foosball tables, no cubicles whatsoever. It all seemed alien to my White Shirt & Blue trouser formals uniform mind. But it was good.
I started working with the Product Management team. The bad part was, I didn’t know what a Product manager did. At TATA Motors, Program Management team did everything under the sun. From conceiving what a product looks and feels like to make it a reality we did it all. I mean If I spent 6 more years even I would’ve.
Breaking The Chains
I did some reading but I wasn’t clear on what exactly they did. I used to spend an awful lot of time with them and every single time I cursed myself for not knowing what they were talking about. Barring few words like features, value for money I couldn’t really understand anything. That’s when I learnt my first lesson, Let go of pride and stay humble.
The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute. The man who does not ask is a fool for lifeConfucius
It was a difficult lesson for me because I was so proud of my self-learning abilities. I mean I learned to build an automobile by reading up books and blogs. How difficult this could be. But it was difficult and I had to choose between being ignorant or to throw away that pride.
I chose the latter and am really glad I did. I continued the practice of asking questions to know more and more when I had doubts. It made a huge difference as it helped me pick up new things at a breathtaking speed.
Within the first month, my manager asked me to lead the efforts to organize the Planning Increment. Planning increment is a fancy term for “Let’s plan what we want to do for the next three months”. Mind you this is an organization level activity and I faced another roadblock. I was an introvert. Asking questions in itself was a huge ask from myself which I was just getting used to. Now I not only had to talk to a lot of people to arrange stuff, but people were going to ask me a lot of questions about the event.
I realized that a lot of my earlier qualities were holding me back. Be it the pride of self-learning or the introvertedness, they were getting in the way of me learning something new. And an event like this would be a good place to know about the organizational structure. So I broke the chains and wanted to sign up for everything that came my way.
Can You Code? Lead? And Bulk Upload?
The planning increment was successful and I was onto my new task of managing the planned activities on JIRA. JIRA was something new but again, I took help and learned. JIRA is an intuitive tool so I tinkered with it a lot. It wasn’t late before I was spending sleepless nights with Ranga cleaning up the JIRA tasks, links and stories. I learned so much about JIRA and owing to my prior-interest in coding, I became JIRA admin as well.
I then picked up the responsibility to deliver prototype testing vehicles. This was before we started the manufacturing line and didn’t have any SAP like system setup. I loved solving the problem of building a vehicle when there is no production line or a system to track parts.
“A Junction box has 60 parts.”– Tej told me when I enquired about it, thinking it was one box. I realized I wasn’t paying enough attention to the details. I was barely scratching the surface of the BOM items needed to build vehicles.
The weeks that followed, I spent an awful lot of time to understand different components of the vehicle. And how they all came together to make the vehicle. It was a steep climb. But again it was a chance to learn and see what’s on the other side of the wall of ignorance. Few weeks down the line I knew each and every component and it’s source.
The Ugly Side Of Being Responsible!
We then started building the vehicles but we were way too behind the schedule. I wasn’t aware of the ugly side of being responsible for something. If something happens on time, no one says anything. But god forbid, if there was a delay, then you’re at the centre of the wrath. Because I worked closely with the product team, I was aware of the tradeoffs they made. That day, I learned that more often a delay is not just about the timeline. It’s also about the quality of things you wanna do downstream.
This taught me an important lesson for how I approached life as well. I was responsible for my life and unlike the build management, I wasn’t dependent on anybody to meet the targets. Whether I met my life goals was purely a function of whether I cared enough about my goals or not. Not meeting, say a savings goal would mean a compromise on the quality of life after, say my retirement.
We then spent days and nights, weekdays and weekends to get the vehicles out one by one. Perhaps that was the most frustrating time. On multiple occasions, I came home at 5 AM and left for office at 8:30 AM. I think if it was any other place or any other set of people, I would’ve said bye then and there. But the people made all the difference. The tiring nights stretching well into dawn, the late-night snacks and biryanis, the joy of meeting the build targets set for that day(or night) induced energy that I last saw when I was building the BAJA All-terrain vehicle in 2014.
The Consolidation Phase
I had a lot of fun during the build phase. The guidance I received from the likes of Venki Padmanabhan (Ex-CEO Royal Enfield) helped me do the build management well. But in a strange way, the guidance also set a platform for the kind of program manager I became.
We also had the line set up at the factory in the meantime and rolled out the first vehicle. It was an ecstatic feeling. The joy and laughter across the factory when we powered ON the first vehicle was contagious.
It had a sense of belonging, a feeling of “We’re in this together”. Everyone was so hell-bent on bringing their A-game to whatever they did. Armed with an open mind and an eagerness to learn, I took up the product delivery of few chassis components. I started working with Aravind on Charging Infra delivery as well. Charging Infra was a beast to manage.
It was huge in the sense, the deadlines were really critical. Moreover, it was an IoT system comprising of electrical, electronics and SW components. I hated electrical and electronics subjects right from my Pre-University classes to date. But again, it was a trade-off between staying dumb or pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I later went onto become the Program Line manager, responsible for all the Charging Infra product development and delivery.
Baby Steps To People Management
My experience of leading the charging Infra taught me some of the most important lessons about team management and team building. Imagine a gear train with different gears meshing with each other. Each gear has a unique shape(skillset) and a unique mindset. Each person is important because of the skillset they bring to the table and as long as they work in their area of expertise, everything is alright.
However, more often than not, it’s not the individual expertise that matters but the collective effort of the team. So, it’s even more important that the mindsets of different people be managed well, sort of asking the people manager become the oil to reduce friction between the gears. And that was my biggest challenge. Like I mentioned earlier, “people make all the difference”. So far, I’ve been able to learn to put down fires whenever they appeared but I still have a long way to go before I empower seamless and frictionless functioning of team members.
While that was going on, by mid-2018, my schedule was restored to normalcy. Five day work weeks and predictable work timings meant I finally had the chance to explore Bengaluru and the places around. Added to that I was going through a bit of a rough patch on the relationship front. So I thought it was the perfect time to begin rebuilding myself.
The Making Of Inju
Being the head of a product line meant that I had to up my communication game, both verbal and written. While there was a ton of feedback from my mentors and managers, the feedback loop was slow and vague. I wasn’t much of a public speaker. So, I wanted to increase the pace of feedback and improve my thought process, so I resumed writing.
With the sole target of getting some time alone and to improve my communication skills, I started travelling alone, joined the Quora Bengaluru Chapter, A Bookclub and an art club. That was the moment when I lived the Bengaluru life I imagined when I moved to the city a year ago. I explored a number of places around Bengaluru, had a lot of fun in the clubs and met some amazing people.
By the end of 2018, I was back in the game. I was confidence not in the sense that I knew it all but in knowing that uncertainty is a part of life. Just like how the next kilometre of a road trip is always uncertain, the progress of a project is also uncertain. You can be paranoid about the entire journey or take it as it comes.
There are no mistakes, only lessons.
With this attitude, I no longer look at failures as failures but as feedback loops. There have been many setbacks, numerous delays, many more rants but I always looked to the next opportunity to not repeat the same mistake. Yes, a new mistake might happen and that’s totally possible but I know that I won’t repeat it the second time.
The Tail End
By the end of 2018, I couldn’t believe the confident person I turned into. I approached the 2019, with a new-found enthusiasm. I had set out reading, travel and financial goals to meet for that year. While the travel and financial goals raced past ahead, I didn’t spend as much time reading.
I took up freelancing work, leveraging all the writing I did in 2018. Managing a team at Ather was still a struggle. So, I wanted to improve my interpersonal skills and communication skills. So, I volunteered to be a trek lead with Plan The Unplanned. The trek leading and incessant travel took over the entire year.
A Trek Lead, Line Manager at Ather, a budding travel blogger. That was Inju at the end of 2019. While the incessant travel was tiring, it also taught me a valuable lesson. A lesson on trade-offs. See, everyone in life has only 24 hours. There may be a thousand things you want to do within those 24 hours but at most, you can do 10 including 3 major tasks.
So I chose the tasks I wanted to do and dumped everything else. The cycle of travel over the weekend and attending to work during the weekdays was so enriching. I think I actually peaked my performance during that time. I realized work-life balance is a myth.
Borrowing from Jeff Bezos’ analogy of a flywheel. A flywheel increases its speed due to the momentum. Similarly, one can increase their performance by remaining active ON and OFF work. Since I was really actively focusing on something different, it helped me declutter my mind and reenergize myself. With a decluttered and energized mind, I looked at the problems at Ather with a fresh eye and that made a lot of difference.
Drawing The Curtains
Sometime in early 2020, I got a feeling of Deja Vu. I was performing well, I knew in and out of Program management and the projects I was handling. The challenges varied but I always knew how to solve them. Knowing there was always a trade-off helped me accelerate decision making. It wasn’t long before I realized that the learning curve has flattened. Added to that, Ather was looking to scale up operations. If there is one thing I learned about scale-up, it is that the company can’t afford silly mistakes.
I presumed it wouldn’t be fair to put the burden of my learning needs on Ather at such a crucial juncture. Added to that, I was really intrigued by the role of supply chain management in everything I did at Ather. So following the newfound curiosity and to accelerate my journey into the supply chain management world, I am joining Zetwerk, a manufacturing services company.
Thanks for sparing your time reading it. Hope it was worth your time.
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This is post No. 22 of the weekend blog post series I started writing 5 months ago. If you’d like to check out the other posts, click here.
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