28 December 1992 is the day when I said no to my first and only job offer after 15 years of extremely expensive education. It was late evening on Chundrigar Road (our financial down town) with the December chill lurking around the corner making the world looking a little bit greyer than it really was. As I walked down the stairs, dejected, I thought to myself, there are other jobs and I will find them.
I had worked hard during the summer to make a good impression at this firm. And a few days earlier had survived the interview process half asleep after 36 straight hours of programming on my final year AI project. But a 21 year old has no real reason for dejection and no worries other than the relative size of his pay check compared to his peer group and finding a job at short notice looked like just another programming assignment that needed to be hacked.
Looking back the one thing that stands out is the number of choices that quickly became available once I re-hacked my job search process. In many ways I owed this privilege to a decade of mentoring and vigilance by my parents. When it came to studies we lived under strict dorm rules (in our home) with curfews kicking in at sunset, regulated quota of TV and movies approval via Ammi (my mom) and 600 pages of Athavales college algebra, courtesy of Abba (my father). For half a generation ago the choices that Abba was forced to make by circumstances set the ground rules for studies at our home and made sure that his kids came back home with decent grades and the right career choices. While I had struggled till my third semester balancing a full load of computer science and actuarial exams the last two years had seen my GPA rise.
Despite popular belief and timely parental intervention I really had no idea about what I wanted to do. Let me rephrase that. When the only place I had applied to made a disappointing offer, it triggered a search for other options. Not panicked or desperate but still a search that generated interesting choices. A three letter multinational technological behemoth that had just stumbled and was looking for fresh cannon fodder; an upcoming stock market broker that wanted to experiment and a new actuarial consulting practice that did thing other than being just consulting actuaries.
I picked consulting because I needed to experiment in a setting where experimentation was encouraged and not frowned upon. While I had partial skill sets for three separate professions in December 1992, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an actuary, a computer scientist or a consultant and picked the one role that allowed me to be all three at the same time.
I was lucky that my first pick give me a chance to explore. Explore the world, explore work and explore who I wanted to be as an individual. While the salary I earned was respectable for someone barely out of his teenage years, over the years the premium between jobs that allowed you to experiment and jobs that paid a steadily increasing paycheck kept on growing to a point where 4 years later the difference between the salary I took home and the offers I received could no longer be ignored. A client wrote an offer letter that was 3 times my take home salary in 1997 and while I turned it down, it made me pause and think about what I was doing.
Round about the same time I unconsciously started tracking a list of things that I didn’t want to do or like to do. I liked technology and experimenting with new “stuff”. Still do to some extent. I loved the chance to work with bright people, the brighter the better but disliked being paid a below market salary. I lived for living on the bleeding edge of technology but simmered when reminded that my team was not profitable. And there was nothing like the rush that being mostly in control of your destiny brought or the despairing crash brought about when a peer or a colleague that you had no control over drove your customers and your people by his arrogance, belief system or work ethic.
In 1997, a full five years after that evening as a fresh undergraduate with no active job offers I sent in my applications to Columbia Business School, Wharton and MIT Sloan. Ostensibly so that I could take the first step on the road to entrepreneurship, surreptitiously to get a six figure consulting or investment banking offer two years down the road. Truth be told I was tired of working killing hours and still not making enough money to keep people happy above (my boss) and below (my team members).
I thought before I became a world famous entrepreneur, it would help if my knees would stop shaking every time I knocked on the country partner’s door at our office in Karachi as well as figure out how do these firms out of the west really make more money selling the same, slightly better product for 10 times our price. Better pricing and higher margins would solve a lot of problems at the firm I worked at and school sounded like a good idea to dissect and answer these questions.