Raj Setty, the man who wrote the book – literally – on personal development for techno-geeks who need to get a life, is no stranger to the grinding overtime, panic-stricken searches for technical material, and boom-and-bust cycles of IT careers.
The author of Beyond Code: Learn to Distinguish Yourself in 9 Simple Steps, Setty speaks from his personal experiences over the past fifteen years of being swept along by the tides of IT from India to Malaysia to Hong Kong to France, only to wind up in Silicon Valley just as the dot-com bubble burst.
Today, the man who describes himself as an accidental entrepreneur and bootstrapper is the chairman and chief evangelist at Santa Clara, Calif.-based CIGNEX Technologies Inc., an open source consultancy he co-founded in 2000 and led as CEO for five years. “I am also the doorman in addition to chairman, since my office is right next to the entrance,” says Setty, tongue firmly in cheek. During his tenure as CEO of CIGNEX, Setty assembled a team of talented people who achieved an average year over year growth of 300 per cent.
Setty was inspired to write the book after observing the same phenomenon over and over again: IT professionals who become “stuck” in their careers, notwithstanding the slavish devotion and personal sacrifices they made chasing and acquiring “hot” IT skills. Many people are fooled, he says, because this strategy does appear to work – at first. “That’s the sad part,” he says. “After a few long years of this, suddenly you will feel you are stuck.”
Setty pondered the underlying reasons and assembled his insights to serve as a guide for people who want out of the trap. At the core is his observation that technology skills are quickly commoditized, so IT professionals need to find, develop and effectively use their non-technical skills to differentiate themselves from the masses of faceless technocrats. “This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart,” says Setty. “I have to say I was guilty of pursuing short-term IT skills multiple times myself. Millions of IT professionals out there are doing this. I don’t want them to go through what I went through.”
Another area that is near and dear to his heart is writing – a personal passion and the distinguishing skill that helped him out of the trap. Unlike most IT professionals, Setty’s first love is writing – he wrote his first novel at the tender age of nine, which was published later when he was 13. “When you are young, you don’t know the limitations adults perceive,” he says.
Although he worked as a journalist for a local newspaper for several years after graduating, the pay was dismal and Setty decided to pursue software engineering instead. While the two may not seem related, he points out that software development is a creative process similar to writing, with common terms such as “writing” code in a programming “language”. But his desire for real writing remained, even though it was impractical. “It is like a disease,” he says. Programming didn’t cure it.
A defining moment in his career came in 1992, he says, when he was offered a job as a business analyst for a construction group with multiple IT shops in Malaysia. As an ambitious and freshly-married young programmer in India, he was eager for the promotion. But after a few weeks on the job, things started going terribly wrong. A general manager who was supposed to lead the project didn’t wind up being hired.
Setty and other new hires tried to bumble through the system requirements definition phase, but it quickly became apparent they needed direction. He approached the CEO, and asked what they should do. “The CEO was already upset about the general manager, and said, ‘You know, it’s easy for you to come and ask me that, Why don’t you go find out, and come back to me with a proposal for an IT strategy that covers the next two years.'”
It was a do-or-die situation for Setty. But there was no Internet in those days, he says, and with the pressure on, he called friends and contacts for advice and help, in addition to reading umpteen books. “This was a work crisis that could easily have escalated into a personal crisis,” says Setty. “I had negative 40,000 rupees in my bank account, and I’d planned to have my wife join me later.”
He devoted vast quantities of time to developing an excellent proposal, and was rewarded with a promotion to general manager. Key insights he gleaned was that he had the inner resources to make up for lack of skills with hard work, and even more importantly, he learned the crucial role good relationships with people play in life, particularly during crises. “I know there is always help out there.”
A second watershed moment came in 2000 shortly after starting up CIGNEX with four partners, when recession abruptly descended on Silicon Valley. The venture capital tap for start-ups was turned off, and CIGNEX had no external investors. “We changed our business plan five times in the first six months, not because we wanted to but because we didn’t have a choice,” says Setty. “Forget about people not buying what we were offering – people were not buying anything from anyone.”
The company hired the right talent, but with little working capital, Setty realized they would have to play the game differently, quite simply because there was no money for marketing campaigns or sales staff. This is where Setty’s writing and creative skills saved the day. He worked with two of his open source experts to write a book called Plone Live, a practical Plone content management guide that filled a major gap in the market for open source reference works.
This helped place CIGNEX’s open source expertise on the map in a tangible way that press releases and marketing gimmicks would not have. “Without the book, we would have to prove ourselves as Plone experts to prospects,” says Setty. “With it, sales cycles are much shorter, because they’re not questioning our credibility.”
Setty realizes younger people in the early stages of their IT careers who have not lived through some of the cycles he’s seen may not even be aware there’s a problem. The typical indicators of success – a title, a pay increase, a bonus – tend to come easily at the early stages. But after a few years of being lulled into a false sense of security, a tsunami hits: a trend like outsourcing renders skills obsolete, or a major economic downturn occurs.
People become over- or under-qualified for the available jobs and are at a loss how to proceed, because they never spent time developing the inner resources or mentoring relationships they need to weather these crises. “They’ll look around and see 70-80 per cent of their peers are as stuck as they are,” says Setty. “And they’ll think, that’s life, this is the way it plays out. They will blame an external phenomenon like outsourcing or God or something else.”