[These are my views and not my employer’s.]
Those were the first two words I read as I slumped to my bed.
I remember a feeling of numbness in my brain and a dull pain that seemed to crush everything inside me. I dreaded to read the rest of the message that my dad had sent –
‘Bad news. Cancer detected. Will fight it.’
I had heard about ageing years in a single moment — that was the moment when that happened to me. It was to define one of the hardest decisions in my life soon after, of moving further away from home, on the opposite side of the planet.
I usually do an annual write up, and this May 9th — completing three years at Microsoft, I sat staring at my computer, my brain a mush, words choking up, a feeling that if I was all positive, it wouldn’t be my authentic self. I stared into the night sky of Bellevue, wondering if I had made the right decision to move halfway across the world.
And I thought I should never speak out about it.
Till I read an article around Grief — https://hbr.org/2019/07/when-a-colleague-is-grieving . Thank you Gianpiero and Sally for writing this. It gave me a sense of calm and comfort.
That followed by a training today on understanding self in an organizational ecosystem, as a part of Microsoft Aspire — made me a little more comfortable sharing a year that had the highest emotional frequency and amplitude for me, and finally publish something that I wrote on Father’s day.
Rewinding a fair few years, I remember as a 5-year-old kid I wanted to become a doctor, watching the respect and adulation that people had for my dad.
I was probably 7 years old, when my Dad took me to what would be the first of many health camps that I have attended over the years in the state of Uttar Pradesh. I helped setup the medical consultation rooms on school campuses, temples, ruins of forts, whatever structure we could find and sanitize.
There are certain things that you grow up with — and giving back to the community, was exactly that. I had heard the stories of my Great Grandfather’s brother, who was a civil surgeon in the late 1800s who would give free consultations if you showed up to his house. My Grandfather gave up a role with the Reserve Bank to teach students, when he received a letter saying that the students and the college needed him. He would end up writing 10+ books to simplify the concepts of mathematics to be understood by the students who weren’t used to English being the medium of learning. The following generation turned out to be a majority of doctors.
I was supposed to become a doctor too. Till Computer Science came along. My first computer was a collection of parts that my cousin had put together. He is an orthopedic surgeon– who probably knows more about computers and programming than a fair few engineers. After hours I would be let into his clinic to play dangerous dave and learn this new language called GW Basic.
My dad didn’t understand technology, but he understood that it was something that excited me. As much as biology. While he couldn’t make sense of the 0’s and 1’s that I filled pages up with while trying to study Boolean arithmetic (and he definitely thought that I’d lost my ability to count beyond 1), he understood the emotion that I felt for the subject. He had given me the right platform to pursue medicine — and here I was leaving that world behind. Or so I thought at the time.
November 1999. I came back home to a cardboard box, with the words Compaq running down it’s side. Never have I loved anything more in my life, except perhaps my first car. My dad had bought me a new computer. [He still doesn’t own a computer]. All those dinner table conversations that I thought he was not paying attention to; he was taking notes of the models that I talked about!
He also gave me my first project, to build a Hospital Information Management System, which he used for a bit — but it was too expensive to run due to the hardware costs and frequent crashes of my computer due to me installing almost every software that I could find. That was my first learning that Dev and Production systems should be separate 😉
The only time he asked me something was to pick up biotechnology instead of computer science as my senior secondary optional subject. He promised to buy me the books for computer science, and we had a deal. I got to stay in a school that had one of the most empathetic Principal ever in Mrs. Veronica Carville — whose ideologies of social good, augmented the values that my family tried to instill.
‘If you obsess over your present strengths, and close yourself to experiencing new things due to the fear of failure, you might never unearth your other strengths.’
I did my undergrad in computer science, worked for a technology consulting company — which I learnt a lot from — and then one day called my dad and said I want to quit and use what I have learnt in improving value based outcomes for the health camps he ran.
Tathaastu was born. An idea that I had doodled during one of the classes in undergrad that I was supposed to be taking notes for, now was becoming a reality. I learnt that you can’t solve health outcomes only by treating symptoms. And I had learnt that the people who cared about the health of the entire family were the women of the families. We formed the SHE project — Social Health and Education. Health literacy forms a subset of a larger educational onus on social impact organizations, enabling people to understand why it’s important.
I was unable to raise funding, and was told ‘this machine prediction thing is going nowhere, focus on e-commerce’ or ‘you can’t achieve what you want to achieve as a startup [good advice at the time]’, or ‘join the UN’.
Unfortunately, I wanted to pursue preventive health that led to interventions, and UN didn’t want me. So, I did what would be the easiest path to raise money for my startup — I went to pursue my MBA. It just so happened, that the school I picked, INSEAD, believes in Business as a Force for Good. I had found my people and had access to people from one of the most diverse groups of people. I also learnt an important lesson in conversation with one of my professors — there are two things that usually drive entrepreneurs — passions or financial returns. If I wanted to have impact — I could do so while within a larger enterprise that aligned to my world view.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had worked in Uttar Pradesh. Extensively. Bill Gates had co-founded Microsoft. I had hoped that the company’s world view aligned with mine. It does. Our CEO embodies empathy. Our SLT believes in doing the right thing.
Three years later, I can safely say that Microsoft is a place where I feel if you look, you will find something that speaks to your passion. My undying passion has been to give back to the society and when I was joining Microsoft. The first role that I had was selling cloud. I questioned my choices, but I had an absolutely amazing manager. He knew what gave me energy — and connected me to other parts of Microsoft. Through a network of mentors, coaches and sponsors, I ended up working with Research and Engineering teams, working with external v-teams and groups trying to understand the impact and path for AI within the NHS (UK). It led to me being pulled to Redmond, or as I call it — the mothership. The timing was, let’s just say the universe trying to play games.
I had just received the message from my dad and received an email sharing that I had the role. The same day. The amplitude of emotions was crushing me. I didn’t respond for a few days — took the weekend, wondering how my dad might perceive me wanting to move even farther away. I had decided that I would decline the offer and continue working in London.
In about 15 seconds of my telling him about the role [ AI Marketing for Healthcare] — he told me that I should stop acting stupid and take the role immediately. I told him about the flight times. He told me about Skype. I told him about being in a different time zone, he told me that he knows I am a night owl. He said — ‘this is something that is step in what you want to do and help shape perspective for a very important company’.
One hour later, I had signed the offer.
There has been a conversation about cultural differences and what drives us. There is extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. For me this is an extrinsic validation from a few people [my family] that drives me intrinsically.
And a little over a week ago, I became a part of a newly formed team in AI Innovation and Marketing called AI for Society, where I shall look after Health and Responsible AI. I mean talk about something being right up my alley! It all connected together, and my worlds had aligned.
I have to thank the leadership and the teams I work with for the faith they showed in me and my crazy ideas. For providing a safe space. For allowing me to work with projects that I had never thought would be possible [ seriously, I can say I work with a team that catches mosquitoes at Microsoft ]. Thank you to the Aspire Team today for making me feel a part of paying it forward to the Aspirees.
It has been the hardest year ever — and I know 6 months ago I took a decision that took me far away from home, but it also took me a step closer to making a positive impact on the society. A step closer to making my dad proud. A step closer to fulfilling a Hippocratic Oath that always was there lurking. Thank you Microsoft, for allowing me to be me.