East, West, & Aman Bhutani
The shackles of success…
It is intriguing to observe achievers. Sure, an outstanding competency must have fueled their professional triumph. But our curiosity is at a personal level. What are they like behind closed doors? Their routine, pastimes, hobbies, socializing, etc. What changed with success and what did not? Is there a pattern or is it subjective? Interesting enigmas, and perhaps that’s where comes the thrill from intruding a successful man’s privacy. This blog is a peep into the private space of one such extraordinary individual. Extraordinary not because he is a highflying executive of a global conglomerate. Extraordinary because… well, it’s too early to reveal the punch…
I first met Expedia’s SVP of Worldwide Engineering, Aman Bhutani, about a year ago. Our organizations had just forged a partnership. A Sikh professional—young, slim, and tall. The eyes sparkling with childlike enthusiasm; the demeanor reflecting the statesmanship of a four-digit worldwide team. It was a formal meeting. I still remember the minutes of the meeting. But the minutes are not relevant. What is relevant is the moment: “I write on my notepad every time I get angry, then I read it later”. “Why?” I asked. “Try it. You will know” he replied. “How thick is your notebook”, I jabbed. “Well, the new pages have continued to stay blank for months now.”
My second rendezvous with Aman was in New Delhi. He was visiting Expedia’s captive center. I wanted him to come to Pune. But he had no time. So I flew over and caught him right after his frenzied workshop. “What workshop?” I queried over a cup of coffee. “It’s my cultural connect with newcomers”. “How do you connect?” I asked. “Simple. I conduct regular interactive sessions. I learn from them, they learn from me.”
The two interactions had made me inquisitive. Why would a successful man feel the need to learn from juniors? And when you are spearheading Engineering of an explosive bellwether, how is it possible to always stay cool? His stance was not merely a public positioning, I knew that. Aman’s reputation preceded him. He was a walking case study that merited a deep dive.
The opportunity presented itself during my recent trip to Seattle. I dropped a note to Aman requesting the privilege to host a family dinner. “Only if it’s desi style”, he responded, “You are in my hometown, so I am the host.” As I walked into his favorite seafood hangout, I was startled by the volume of greeters: Aman and his wife, his brother and his wife, and three toddlers. Also senior Expedia executive, Michael Nixon and his son. Fortunately, I too had reinforcements: our CTO Jagat and my daughter Misha.
The next two hours were action packed. The wine, food, and information kept flowing as I subtly ‘interviewed’ Aman. I learned about his casual outlook in the growing years. His awakening moment when a recruiter mistreated him. His renewed focus during his MBA at Lancaster University. His migration to the US. His stint at JPMorgan Chase. His radical decision to join decelerating Expedia. And then the phenomenal rise as he facilitated Expedia’s takeoff. I listened attentively, it was an impressive story. Yet I couldn’t place my finger on anything compelling that could expound his feat. So I turned my attention to the ‘family-man’ Aman.
“Are you religious?” I asked. “Well, I still wear a turban unlike many new migrants. So I guess I do respect my roots.” I shifted my focus to his brother Amit, another success story at Amazon. What was he doing here? They were one family, I learned. Three generations—two brothers, their families, and parents—living in the same house, sharing the kitchen and beyond. The brothers were busy multitasking: rattling out their private lives, inspecting our emptying plates like hawks, circling around for instant food and wine top-ups, and rotationally indulging and pacifying the toddlers. Once I eavesdropped upon Aman’s apology to his wife for not rallying enough because of the ‘guests’. “Do you spend a lot of time with the kids”, I queried. “Well I did make sure they tag along tonight for dinner.” He continued with a smile, “The evenings are family time. Then once the kids crash out, I am back on my computer until late into the night.”
As I drove back, I couldn’t help but marvel at Aman’s wholesome accomplishment. Here is an achiever who has perfected the art of work and life choices. Usually, the go-getters remodel their identity to fuel their professional aspiration. But not Aman. Sure, he is a rock star of the new professional world, but then there are many migrants who have climbed dizzying heights. Sure, Aman’s personal life is embedded in the old traditional world, but then there are still a few who opt for a joint-family lifestyle. But what is amazingly unusual here is the coexistence of this work and life extreme! Aman’s story delivers a powerful learning in a few words: Don’t waste efforts on changing your core identity while pursuing ambitions.
The punchline makes for a great takeaway. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do justice to the hero of our story. The truth is, Aman has ‘worked’ incredibly hard to stay who he is. In the real world, the highfliers who don’t strive enough to retain their identity are the ones who gradually change without even realizing it. Often their success itself becomes a bane, as they transform into a closed being who is no longer able to differentiate between confidence and arrogance.
Only rare achievers are able to escape this ‘success’ trap. Aman has sustained his balanced temperament because of a disciplined approach to jot down every time he loses his cool. He carries his spark of learning because of his relentless commitment to engage with his teams. He has preserved his democratic approach by a forceful exposure to the presumed sensitivities of a joint family. He has retained his parity ideologies by investing time in treating vendors no different than customers. There were only so many glimpses I could capture in an evening. But those few peeks were enough to open my eyes: One who walks on thorns to stay true to self, turns the road to success into a bed of roses.