Rajesh Setty broke status quo by attempting to become a published author at the age of ten. Since then, he has taken on life with open arms, and has sought to explore it to the fullest. Journalist, technology geek, and now chairman of CIGNEX, a company that promotes open source in business, Setty has given and taken with equal verve—helping people grow while learning from those very people he is helping. His book is Beyond Code: Learn to Distinguish Yourself in 9 Simple Steps.
Setty lives with his wife, Kavitha, and their son, Sumukh, in the Silicon Valley.
So Raj, who needs to read your book?
RS: The book is mainly written for IT professionals. They are the target of what I call massive commoditization. Technologies are changing so fast and the tendency for technology professionals is to go after those skills that are hard today. They will go after one that is very hard and then they'll say, "Wow, I want to become an expert in this." But by the time they become an expert, it's anywhere from three to five years later. Either the technology itself will become irrelevant or it becomes a commodity or it gets replaced by something else. So they start to tell me again that, "Oh, now I have to learn this new skill, latest skill, and I don't want to be left behind." You repeat the cycle a couple of times, you add families, kids and vacations, health and business—suddenly I think they get sort of stuck. What I've tried to do in this book is to resolve the dilemma and give some truth and insights so that they can distinguish themselves and get out of this "rat race."
So meaning that they get sort of stuck within the technology side of the workplace and they lose sight of what we might call the whatever, socio-cultural side of it?
RS: Exactly. What they do is focus too much on the technology, and I'm not saying that they should not focus on technology because that's like an entry ticket to the park. They have to be competent in what they are doing. If not, they won't have a job. But if they stop there, then they can't go to the next level. In fact, the analogy that I like to give is it's the classic difference between a marine and a very good soldier. Now, what happens is a marine is a different class and there are so many people in the army who are very good in the army, but they are not marines. That's because they lack some skills that will differentiate between a very good army person and a marine.
You mentioned you wrote a book when you were nine or ten, and that you struggled for three years or thereabouts and then actually got it published.
Now, what was that book about?
RS: I started reading very early, when I was four years old. By the time I was nine, I'd read about 700 books. Most of them were fiction. When you read that many books, what happens is you feel like—whenever you're reading a new book—you almost feel that you know what will happen in the end.
RS: When I was nine, I got the idea that I could write my own novel. I started writing one, and it took me about six months. I wrote a 200-page book. Before that time, I had never written a poem, short story, article, nothing. I just wrote this 200-page book. My parents thought that I was mentally ill. They didn't think that I'd actually written the book, but they didn't want to say anything. My friends thought I had just copied it from another book.
But the madness continued, because when you are nine and not mature, you have one advantage: you don't know what is not possible. So at that time, I said, "Okay, now I have to refine this." There were no computers. In fact, we didn't even have a phone at that time. This was in the 1970s.
I started to rewrite the whole thing. By the time I was ten, I had what I thought was a masterpiece. Then I thought, "Now, I have to get this published." My parents said, "You know, as long as you are doing well in your studies, we don't have a problem. But if the grades drop, then all this madness has to stop." I made sure that I did well in my studies, and I started pitching to publishers. I wrote the letters by hand pitching my story. For every ten letters, I would get one response saying, "Thank you very much, but we are not interested."
By the time I was 13, there was a well known publisher who finally actually liked my story more than the book, but they finally decided to publish my book.
Well, you were persistent starting at a young age. But I think you also mentioned, though, that you rewrote the book two or three or even four times, which I think is very interesting for somebody at that young age to realize the importance of rewriting. Generally I think of young kids writing a story, getting bored with it and then moving on to write another story. But they wouldn't consider going back and rewriting that first story.
RS: That's right. What happened was while I was rewriting, I was writing other novels, too. So by the time I got my first book published, I had four novels, three of them not published and one that would be published.
I think that's pretty remarkable. But anyway, now you're chairman of a company called CIGNEX, and what does CIGNEX do?
RS: At CIGNEX, what we do is we accelerate the adoption of Open Source in the enterprise. If any company wants to use Open Source in any of their business applications, we can start from strategy and help with design, implementation, maintenance, and the whole nine yards. Anything to do with Open Source business applications, I think we are very good at that.
So what kinds of companies are you working with?
RS: We have been in business for the last five years, and now some of our big clients include Eli Lilly, Cisco, Epson, Xerox, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, University of North Carolina, and there are many small and mid-size companies as well.
You've been a programmer, and then an entrepreneur. And now it seems, as the title of your book suggests, that you've moved beyond code. Are you more interested in what your book is about, the development of people, of individuals, of them reaching a greater potential?
RS: Yes. In fact, in my own story I have applied many of the principles that I have written in the book. I'm a storyteller, so I have a story for everything. I was a programmer. My first job was with Citibank in India. I was there only for 18 months, and I confused Citibank a lot. I was a programmer in the wholesale banking and foreign exchange division, but when I was asked to do a training program, I looked at the program and said, "Hey, this material will put people to sleep. I want to redo the training program." My bosses said, "But you are not a trainer." I said, "Don't worry, I will do something." I converted the training program to something very exciting, almost like a big party, with music and everything. And at the end, they said, "Do you want to train or do you want to program?" I said, "No, no, no, don't get confused. I want to program, but if I don't like something, I can't NOT do anything, I have to do something to change it."
I didn't last there long because they were really confused as to what I wanted to do. So I got a job in Malaysia as a business analyst. When I went to Malaysia, it was interesting. The whole group of companies were using only two software programs. One was WordStar, the other was Lotus 1-2-3. And I was thinking, what kind of business analysis can I do for these software programs? And I was supposed to report to a manager who would come in and actually define what the company should do.
The manager never did show up, and I went to the CEO and said, "You know, this person is not going to come, so what should I do?" The CEO was already very upset that the new person was not coming. He said, "Hey, rather than coming and asking me, 'what should I do,' why don't you come back to me with a plan and tell me what I should do." I'd been there 18 months working as a programmer. I had no experience in creating a plan. In fact, I didn't even know what a plan was. I started reading like crazy. That was the first time I started reading nonfiction. That's when I read Tom Peters and Michael Hammer and all those people because, you know, there was no other option. If I didn't go back to him with a plan, there would be no job, and then I would have to go back to India.
RS: Six weeks later, I went back to him with a plan that was 40 pages long. He said, "Oh, it's a big one. Why don't you give me a two-minute overview. And then if I like it, I will go through with the plan." That was my first experience giving an elevator pitch. I went to the white board and explained to him, "This is what my vision for the department is, and this is how I plan to move forward." He asked me if I wanted to present it to the executive team. I said, "Yeah, I can do anything." At the end of the executive team meeting, I was made the general manager for the division and that's when the entrepreneurship bug bit me. I had the writing bug, so now I had the entrepreneurship bug.
You seem to be a natural Brand You. You're willing to jump into the next thing and learn what you need two seconds before you need it, and then you're moving on again.
RS: I always go back to my experiences as a writer and the struggles that I went through to get my first book published. It's like a benchmark for me. I always think, you know, if I could do that when I was nine, ten years old, I definitely should be resourceful enough, because I have so much experience doing things.
The subtitle of your book is "Nine Simple Steps to Distinguish Yourself," so what's the first step for someone? Let's say there is a program or there's an IT professional you know, what's the first thing you would say to them once they realize they have to get beyond programming?
RS: Let me go back a bit. I split the book into two parts. One is called the Inner Game; the second one is called the Outer Game. The inner game is something that a person can learn by himself without the help of anybody else. The outer game is a contact sport, the person has to work with others. So let's pick something in the inner game. The first one I say is Learn. The concept of learn is very interesting. I think most of the learning happens after a person leaves college. What we learn in college is something that is based on past experience. The course material, everything is designed so that it's something that people saw working in the past and they teach students thinking that this will work in the future. Which in itself is a contradiction because there's no guarantee that what worked in the past will work in the future.
RS: I think people assume that going to a school and getting an MBA means that they're ready for the workplace. All I am saying is they're ready with the skills that would have worked in the past. So they have to not stop learning and continue to learn like crazy. In fact, they have to accelerate the level of learning that they would have to do in order to first survive, then succeed, and then thrive.
Well, that raises a lot of issues. Our current educational system is based on learning these facts and figures and then taking a test. And then everyone says, "Okay, now you know that, so now you move on." But that just doesn't fly anymore.
RS: I am not saying that learning at school is not important. Learning at school is very important, but nobody should be in the fantasy world that now that I've learned it, I'm ready for everything. So that's like the basic skill that is definitely required. That learning will provide that basic background. But that will not provide the necessary skills to leapfrog and succeed beyond dreams.
One of the things I ask people to learn is the art of building long-term relationships. That is not taught in school. But nothing happens by accident. If you want to build a long-term relationship, first of all, it takes a long time to build it. It does not happen automatically. It's an art that must be learned.
The second important thing is that people have to learn how to set the right expectations. Some people always exceed their expectations. But my concept is that if you don't set them right in the first place, you are already setting up for failure and you can't exceed them.
Learning to communicate well is another thing that I urge people to learn because you may think that you're doing a phenomenal job, but you don't know what the other people are thinking. You've got to learn to communicate well to master that art.
You talk about emails a couple of times in your book. You say make absolutely sure before you hit the send button that you're saying what you really mean. So I'm guessing you bring this up a couple times because you must see a lot of emails that aren't getting the right message across.
RS: I have a golden rule that nobody should surprise anyone in an email. The world has moved to a place where people have stopped discussing real, very deep issues in person. They feel comfortable going back to their home or to their room to write an email, and then send it, call up, and say, "Hey, did you read my email?" Which is a sad thing, because those are the things that should be discussed in person. A phone call is the next best option, but in person is the best option.
Maybe it's that we use email so much we don't value it, so we don't worry that much about what we're writing. The thinking seems to be that, well, "If they don't quite get it, I'll square it away in a phone call. Because it's not valued, people don't take the time to really be sure they're saying what they mean perhaps?
I'm quoting from your book now, "Whether you are writing, meeting face to face, talking on the phone, or delivering a training program, remember that the more you know about your audience, the more power you will have." Can you talk about that statement?
RS: One of the things that I learned from one of my mentors—he's one of the cool friends, Tim Sanders—is the power of relevance. Whatever you do, it has to be relevant to the other person. Otherwise, there is no interest from the other person. The more you know about your audience, the more you can tune the message so that you're delivering it to them so that you can hold their attention. If the message is not even relevant, you can't expect any result from that message. But if you want the message to be delivered, you better make sure that it is relevant to the person who is receiving the message.
Right, but you seem to be suggesting that you have to keep this in mind even in casual conversations. It's clear when you're talking to a large audience, you're being asked to speak publicly. Of course, you want to make sure the talk you're delivering bears some relevance to your audience. But you seem to be suggesting that even at the level of talking with someone around the water cooler, it's always important to keep that in mind?
RS: Yes. Whether you are talking to a very large audience or whether it's a very short conversation, only three minutes, if the message is not relevant, you actually lose your listener. While we both are talking right now, for example, I'm sure that we have some other thoughts that are zooming around inside our heads. If we lose relevance, we actually literally switch off and process some other thoughts that are coming into our mind.
You have exercises at the end of each chapter, which I like, and many of them require you to work with someone else. Why did you include these, and why do you think it's important for a reader of your book to do these exercises?
RS: I read about one book a week, and I try to make sure that I learn at least one or two things from a book. My thinking is that only when you take some action will the concepts really get deeper into your being. There is an important reason why I want someone else to be involved in this process. For instance, let's say I read a book and I take some notes and I think it's a cool idea and I want to do something about what I've learned. Now, after you think about this, there is no personal accountability most of the time, so you get sucked into so many things, especially if you are in the IT business. There's always more work than you planned for. And so your personal project will keep dropping in the priority list. And after some time, you actually even forget that you even promised something to yourself. A promise to yourself can be easily broken, because there is no one to ask about it. But if you enroll someone else and say, "You know what? I want to make myself better, can you help me with this exercise?" All you have to do is say, "I have made a promise to myself and if you can keep it in mind, and just call me at the end of this week and ask me about it?" You know, some phenomenal things will happen when you make such a promise, because you made the promise to yourself, but you have someone else who will check on you.
That's a good idea. You've got a companion blog for the book. What's going on there?
RS: A book denotes a sort of finality. That means when I read this book, it's complete. But there is no subject in this world where we can say, "You know, the treatment on the subject is complete." I want to continue to engage with the readers, with new things that I'm reading and new research that I'm doing on the topics. And maybe the future books that I'm going to write, I will start putting in some stuff there. So it's a way for me to continue where I left off in the book.
Are you getting good feedback from people there?
RS: I'm getting a lot of feedback, and interestingly, last month I got around 30,000 visitors. So I think blogs are great. As you know, even the Tom Peters blog, the blog on your site, I read it almost on a daily basis.
Excellent. We always love hearing that. Raj, I just want to thank you very much for your time today. It's been a pleasure speaking with you, and best of luck with your book.
RS: Thank you so much.
Book: Beyond Code: Learn to Distinguish Yourself in 9 Simple Steps
Blog: Life Beyond Code
Photo from theshutupshow.com