The Fastest Two Years of My Life
February 25, 2017

This frame is from a video I made three years ago. It was for my MBA application, and watching it again reminds me of how eager and determined I was about going back to school. Which is funny because the vow I made to myself after finishing college, apart from getting a haircut, was to never set foot into a classroom again. I guess I was wrong.

The past two years as an MBA candidate have been quite enlightening in terms of self-discovery. I never knew I could enjoy learning as much. And I don’t think anyone else did, either. Credit to my parents for not laughing when I told them I wanted to pursue postgraduate studies. Maybe they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I had a better chance at winning Miss Malaysia, really.

Education is such a different process when it’s driven by personal motivation. Assignments become much less of a chore, and readings make more sense when you have some work experience. At the tender age of 33, I was re-discovering the joy of learning. And I am grateful for that -- better late than never, I suppose. Although I do wonder how life would have turned out if I had this much drive in college.

As an engineering undergraduate, I often question if I will ever need stuff like object-oriented programming in the future. This was compounded by the fact that I was never good with subjects that require the left side of my brain. (Or is it right?) At least in business school, you know some of the lessons can come in handy when you argue with the people from Finance at work someday. If you can’t beat them, confuse them.

In May, subject to outstanding library fines, I will be making my second walk as a graduate. These past two years have certainly been the fastest in my life. Everything seems to have been sped up, somehow. They say time flies when you’re having fun. Maybe I was having fun. That’s right… school is now fun. What have I become.

A Decade of Growth
February 03, 2017

Ten years ago today, I reported duty as an analyst in the Petrochemical Business Unit of our company. I was 23, eight months fresh out of college, and had absolutely no idea what to expect. I did have some experience working at the computer lab in college, but ‘business analyst’ sounded way bigger than ‘printer fixer’. I was sure the problems at the new job couldn’t be fixed by simply pressing the restart button.

As I try to reflect on that very first day of work, I realise how little of it I actually remember. I’ve always had this habit of not documenting milestones properly and in hindsight, I wish I had captured the day better. I would love to relive the thrill and romance of that maiden step into my working life. Not sleeping well the night before, arriving early into an empty office, addressing the lady boss as ‘sir’... I could vaguely remember any more than these first day jitters.

My poor recollection aside, the past decade at the Twin Towers have been full of wonderful memories. I’ve been lucky to have made friends with some of the nicest people, worked with some of the brightest minds, and visited some of the most interesting places in the country. I even met my wife here. It makes no premise for a record-breaking 7pm Malay drama, but Fattah Amin and Neelofa are more than welcome to play us on TV.

To commemorate my tenth year with the company, I’d collected my name cards over the years and (had my wife) arrange them nicely into an RM 9.90 Ikea frame. It’s nothing fancy, and this is about as creative as I go. But I do feel that it gives a nice snapshot of what I’ve done over the course of my career so far. I’d moved four times over the period, and I hope I’ve left a positive experience with each of my colleagues. (Except those who support Man United.)

I could only offer my humblest gratitude to PETRONAS for shaping my adult life. I am a second generation staff, and I was under the scholarship programme for my undergraduate studies. Therefore my relationship with the company began way before 2007. I’ve learned so much from being a part of the organisation, and I am keen to learn more. The late Yasmin Ahmad summed it best in a corporate video she made for us some time ago,

“Give me the wisdom not just to take, but also to give. With integrity, humility, and compassion.”

Death, Taxes, and the Final Project Report
December 02, 2016

In the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker who was wrongfully sentenced to life in prison for murdering his wife. The movie revolves around his life in incarceration, and ended with — spoiler alert — an incredible escape from the Shawshank State Penitentiary. Ask anyone who has watched the movie and many would cite the escape as the most iconic scene of the film, if not in the history of Hollywood.

Over 19 years of his life in prison, Andy had dug up a tunnel using only a rock hammer and, on a stormy evening, made his way through the tunnel into the sewage pipes to the river outside. He only had a Raquel Welch poster to cover up the hole on the wall. By the time the guards found out, it was already too late. Andy was already a free man, eager to unshackle himself from imprisonment and taste the liberty of the outside world.

Well that’s how I feel right now. I have just submitted my MBA Final Project report.

Unlike Andy Dufresne, however, I did not have Morgan Freeman to narrate my life in business school. It would be nice to have him chronicle the 15,000-word document, though. For every postgraduate student, the final project/dissertation/thesis is the raison d’etre. The final piece that culminates all that you have learned in your field of study. The final lap of the race that embodies the blood, sweat and tears that you have put in throughout the journey. And behind every submission, there is usually enough drama to fit a feature-length motion picture.

Mine was a laptop malfunction two weeks before the deadline. Granted, I’ve had the machine since Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister. After a few hours drenched in perspiration and fear, I finally managed to resuscitate the machine with some complex programming and furiously restarting the system like a madman. The files were all intact, but my heart function suffered in the process.

I did have the files backed up on Google Drive as I have been religiously saving every new version into cloud storage. But as fate would have it, my laptop died after an intense 3,000-word session — not much of which I could recall by heart. The thought of re-writing the entire lost sections had me shudder like a singing contestant on the set of Hell’s Kitchen.

The silver lining of the whole incident was a renewed spirit for me to complete the report ahead of the deadline. I was resolute on committing the coming week to the report and dedicating my full focus on finalising the findings of my analysis. Completing the report early would also eliminate any more technical mishaps. If technology can send us to the moon, it can surely wipe out my final draft.

I have to thank a few people, without whom I might not have reached the ‘Submit’ button to upload the report PDF. The Programme Management Team have been diligently guiding us from as early as December 2015, about a year ago, to make sure that everyone is on-track and no one is silly enough to write his report using a dying laptop.

My supervisor, Dr. Jonathan Pinto, has also been very patient and supportive in coaching me throughout the paper. He was like Mr. Miyagi, looking over the Karate Kid. Except that we are both probably more agile than them. (I hope he’s reading this.)

Like Andy Dufresne, the time has now come for me to kick back and enjoy some me time. Maybe it’s time to catch up with Shawshank Redemption as well. It has been a while. If you manage to grab a copy of the film, the cover of the DVD reads, “Fear Can Hold You Prisoner, Hope Can Set You Free”. I hope I pass this Final Project.

Hail to thee, Northwestern
June 17, 2016

Ten years ago today, the unthinkable happened: I graduated from college. After four gruelling years of battling Chicago winter and differential equations, I finally completed my engineering degree.

My mother cried as she hugged me tight outside Ryan Field, where the commencement ceremony took place. Whether it was tears of joy or relief is anyone's guess. She was usually the first to know my grades when the transcripts reached home by courier. So four years of receiving discouraging news by mail every semester had finally come to an end.

My father, too, couldn't stop smiling. I will never forget how proud he looked that day. It must have been quite a special moment to witness your firstborn graduate. Especially when you’re the guarantor to his scholarship.

It was a beautiful Friday morning in Evanston. The sun was bright and the breeze from Lake Michigan was mild. Our commencement speaker for the day was one Senator Barack Obama (D-IL). I make a point to watch his speech on YouTube on June 16th every year.

“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition,” he said, “It asks too little of yourself, and it will leave you unfulfilled.”

A decade has passed and his prose remains forever etched in the memories of members of the Class of 2006. Mr. Obama will end his second term as President of the United States later this year.

I spent four years at Northwestern University as an undergraduate, between 2002 - 2006. I was 18 when I first set foot on the lakeside campus, and couldn’t fully appreciate how privileged I was to call Evanston home for the next four years. Chicago was just 10 miles away, and we had a diverse range of cuisines around the campus town. From Chinese to Lebanese, Evanston was a haven of food I could not afford.

But age wasn’t the only reason I was unable to fully immerse myself in the beautiful surroundings. I didn’t have the time to do so. Northwestern is a competitive place full of smart people. And competitive and smart are two traits that I neither possess nor able to pretend to possess. So I had to play catch-up with my classmates for the majority of my time there.

Those who went to college with me would attest that I was never the sharpest tool in the shed. My struggle was compounded by the University’s quarter system. An unforgiving schedule of 10-week semesters where you will get a mid-term before your textbook could arrive from Amazon. I think we had a mid-term during orientation week.

Alas, maturity and academic rigour are merely excuses I am making today for my underperformance back then. I was young and stupid once, and now I am a little bit older.

I did lead a reasonably vibrant life outside the classroom. I was involved in several student groups, and worked part-time as a web designer for the University. Not to mention the odd gigs I performed at on campus, and a forgettable stint in our Southeast Asian intramural soccer team. What can you expect a Malaysian bring to the team anyway?

My time at Northwestern is an experience that I would never trade for the world. It was a period when I was just young enough to be foolish with my priorities, and old enough to not burn down the chemistry lab. I somehow survived, and learned some of life’s most invaluable lessons while studying there. These range from leading a student organisation to cooking ramen at room temperature. (1. Soak overnight 2. Eat for breakfast)

A few months from now, my little daughter will enrol into playschool. I am both nervous and excited for her. It might not have the intensity of an undergraduate education -- I never had ‘Naptime 101’ in college, at least not formally -- but she will find school extremely challenging if she inherits my genes more than her mother’s.

No matter what life throws at her, however, I do hope that she takes it with pride. Growing up is all about building resilience, and if she works hard enough, opportunities might just come knocking on her door. And if this opportunity comes in the form of a scholarship, I’m sure her mother would be more than happy to become guarantor.

My best wishes to all members of Northwestern University Class of 2006. Go Cats!

The Spy Who Taught Me
April 05, 2016

Today I received the news that one of the most revered faculty members during my four years at Northwestern is retiring.

On March 14, 2016, the McCormick School of Engineering announced the retirement of Professor Charles W. N. Thompson. The first line of the notice read, “World War II veteran. International spy. Criminal attorney.”

I had the pleasure of being in Professor Thompson’s class in Spring Quarter 2005. The course was ‘IEMS 340 – Field Project Methods’, and I’d be lying to say that I remember what the class was about.

What I do remember, though, is Professor Thompson’s passion in teaching the course. He was always deeply immersed in the subject, and even at times emotional in stressing the importance of the topic at hand.

I later learned that his passion stemmed from his pioneering works in the field. His research aimed at “improving organizations through observations and surveys in place of experiments.” An area that would definitely come in handy for me today, as opposed to 10 years ago when I was a bumbling 20-year-old undergraduate in his class. 

Those who went to college with me would know that I was never the sharpest tool in the shed. But I was not alone this time around. The bright pre-meds aside, there were several of us who had trouble fully understanding the more complex materials of the course.

Despite our visible lack of comprehension, there was never a moment that Professor Thompson appeared to have given up on us. He was always genial in addressing our concerns, and no question went unanswered. Whether we fully understood his explanation or otherwise, was another question. 

While he was reasonably approachable, Professor Thompson was never one to mince his words. I wrote a joint paper once with a few classmates who were unfortunately as clueless as I was. When we got the paper returned, adorned on top of the front page in 2B graphite were the following words, “This paper is cancerous.”

It was disheartening, but we knew he (possibly) meant it in the nicest way. This presumption was affirmed throughout the one hour we had spent at his office to listen to why he thought our paper could be better. We still don’t know why to this very day.

“I’m a storyteller,” he once said in an interview. And any of his students would concur. 

It’s hard to not be one when your CV is 28 pages long with credentials ranging from the Air Force to Harvard Law School. Professor Thompson is probably one of the most decorated and fascinating men I have ever had personally encountered with. And I’m sure this feeling is not mutual.

After 50 years of professorship in the engineering school, I’m sure he will be greatly missed by the university. I think he will be remembered around campus for his wisdom, candor, and sense of humor. 

He does have a one-page summary that accompanies his illustrious CV that lists his less commendable achievements. 

The list reads, “1. Got kicked out of kindergarten.”

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Book Review: Work Rules!
March 24, 2016

Today I bought three copies of the same book. Two were farewell gifts for a former boss and a colleague respectively, and one for a mentor. People who have been very supportive of me at work.

The book is 'Work Rules!' by Google VP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock. The title had just been restrocked at Kinokuniya after someone apparently cleared the rack and bought 40 copies home.

I too would buy the book for 40 other friends if could afford it. At RM70 for all 416 pages (17 sen/page), this is by far the most value for money book I had ever purchased. Every page is a joy to read, and filled with some of the most compelling ideas, anecdotes, and insights that are definitely worth way more than 17 sen.

The content aside, the most appealing factor of the book is the writer's tone, language, and economy in writing. None of the chapters are too short, or too long, and every paragraph serves a purpose.

One chapter that stands out from the book is about rewarding thoughtful failure -- 'thoughtful' being the key word here. In it, Laszlo recollected the unsuccessful launch of Google Wave. Some of us might still remember this behemoth of an app from 2009.

While the app did not meet expectations, the Wave team did toil for two years, and took a huge risk in undertaking the project. Such valiant effort must have counted for something. Plus 'reward' in this context is in the form of acknowledgement... instead of shares!

I might sound like I am overselling this book. Truth be told, I have always been skeptical of the many books out there that claim to delve 'inside Google'. And you should too. But the two that I have picked up so far have been absolute gems. (The other one is 'I'm Feeling Lucky' by Douglas Edwards.)

I've been meaning to review this book for the longest time, but never got around to doing it. So if you see these bright yellow covers the next time you're at the bookstore, do pick a random chapter and have a go before someone else grabs the last one (or 40) copies.

Can 'Total Football' work in organisations?
January 27, 2016

Football in the 70's shall forever be remembered for three things: tight shorts, hairy players, and Total Football.
The Dutch national football team, pioneering exponents of 'totaalvoetball', dominated the era and made it to two of the three World Cup finals that decade as back-to-back finalist in 1974 and 1978. Unfortunately, they lost both matches to West Germany and Argentina respectively, making them the most successful national side to never win the World Cup.
So what is Total Football? The football experts on Wikipedia define it as "an influential tactical theory of football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team". In layman terms, it is when everyone in the team is good enough to play anywhere on the pitch. In other words the exact opposite of how Manchester United are playing this season.
The concept is, on paper, an interesting prospect. And history has proven that it can work wonders. Ajax Amsterdam who were staunch believers of the system recorded 100% home wins throughout two seasons in 1971 - 1973. That's almost 50 wins over three years. More games than my beloved Malaysian national team have won in 30 years.
We don't hear much about Total Football these days. The game has evolved so much and the advent of technology has allowed teams to develop a wide variety of tactics to make themselves less predictable. We can still however see remnants of Total Football in modern football. Its possessive approach, for example, has laid the foundation for Barcelona’s infamous ‘tiki-taka’ football, which is basically Total Football with a lot of showboating.
But what made Total Football so effective in its heyday? One would only need to look just a little bit deeper into the philosophy behind it to find the answer. The elements required to successfully execute this tactic lead to three key attributes that are vital not only to football teams, but also organisations.
Just as the name suggests, Total Football requires everyone in the team to have full awareness of the game for the entire 90 minutes. This demands focus, concentration, and complete alignment to the team strategy, while adjusting to the flow of the game. There’s simply no room to slack off, and players need to strike a balance between sticking to the initial plan and adapting themselves to the dynamics of the match as it progresses.
The same type of decision-making happens at the workplace. Employees are often faced with situations where they are required to decide between driving results and adhering to the core values of the company. This is when organisational beliefs, vision and mission come in handy to ensure that decisions don’t steer too far away from the desired path. Which is also why these guidelines need to be easily understood across the organisation, and written in clear, plain, non-consultant English.
The hardest part of executing Total Football is the interchanging of positions and roles among the players. The goalkeeper aside, defenders, midfielders, and forwards are expected to not only play in each other’s position, but also excel in that function. As a result, players are forced to fully understand the expectations and challenges of every role, indirectly allowing them to have a better appreciation of what their teammates have to go through during each game.
In a workplace setting, this type of understanding promotes a culture of empathy, compassion, and teamwork within the members of a team. Which is also why in football, strikers who regularly track back into a defensive position are highly regarded. Interestingly, some of the biggest egos of the game are really good at this e.g. Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. These guys can really put in a shift, throw their personal glory out the window, and somehow magically love themselves a bit less when they’re on the pitch.
In the 1974 World Cup final, the Dutch national side scored the first goal of the game within two minutes, before any of the West German players could even touch the ball. The build-up to the goal was gradual, structured, and very meticulously played. It comprised of simple passes between the players and while this looked straightforward from the audience’s perspective, executing it requires patience. One mistimed pass and the tempo dies, and you need to rebuild the play all over again.
In avoiding this from happening, it is possible for different players to lead the team at different points of the game. There is one permanent captain of the team, but each player needs to be proactive and versatile enough to take over the orchestrating or playmaking role in creating chances. The result is a strong sense of ownership among the players, and resilience against tough opponents who are exceptionally good at either defending or counter-attacking. As it is with football, unless you are playing against a predictable side like our Malaysian Tigers, you’ll have no idea what’s going to come your way.
Even in its decline, the demise of Total Football in the 1980s provided a crucial lesson on the importance of succession planning in an organisation. Some of the system's most important figures and proponents went into retirement, and Total Football faded away together with the Dutch national team as a 5'5" Argentinian by the name of Diego Maradona took the world by storm.
The beauty of Total Football is in the way the players seemed to be able to read each other’s mind. And this level of chemistry can never be built overnight, although it can rapidly crumble without a plan to evolve with the times.
The science behind football tactics throughout history remains a fascinating field of study with much to be explored. There's the infamous Italian 'catenaccio' or 'padlock' strategy which emphasizes on defending. At the other extreme is the mesmerizing attacking football of Pele and the 1970 Brazilian World Cup team. The one that trumps them all, is the groundbreaking philosophy of legendary England forward and manager Kevin Keegan, "Score more goals than the opposition."

Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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