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IDinsider Talks: Episode 1 – Akash’s journey: building the ship while sailing it

In our first episode, alum Akash Pattanayak joins IDinsight Senior Associate Shreya More for a riveting conversation on how he helped build DataDelta from one project to a core IDinsight service. He shares how that experience catalysed growth in his career from Associate to Senior Manager and enabled him to develop leadership skills that still give him an edge today.

Full transcript of the interview:

Shreya More: Hi, everyone, welcome to IDinsider Talks a podcast series where we have conversations with IDinsight alumni. I’m Shreya More, a Senior Associate at our Delhi office in India. And our conversation today captures the dual story of our guest’s professional growth and his incredible contributions towards shaping a key IDinsight service. 

As most of you might know, At IDinsight our mission is to use data and evidence to help leaders worldwide fight poverty. And of course, the first natural step for that is to provide those leaders with insights from high-quality data. IDinsight’s Data on Demand now called DataDelta was established to do and deliver exactly the same and very few people, I think, have been witness to and part of the growth of DataDelta, as our guest today has been.

Welcome, Akash! Akash, was a Senior Manager and India Lead DataDelta. He spearheaded and led the building of a lot of systems and processes from scratch, and then oversaw that expansion across many projects and states in India. He has led multiple innovations in data collection methods, which are currently a part of the fabric of the DataDelta service. He has also worked with Governments and Foundations in India and helped kickstart operations in Kenya and Philippines for DataDelta projects. He is currently at the Harvard Kennedy School pursuing a graduate degree. 

Personally, I’m very excited that I get to have this conversation with Akash. For our listeners, Akash was my first IDinsight Manager and has been a great mentor to me throughout my time at IDinsight. So, extremely excited to have this conversation with you, Akash, welcome!

Akash Pattanayak: Thanks so much for the introduction, Shreya. It definitely feels great to be reconnecting with folks at IDinsight, and having this conversation – going back in time and thinking about the early days of DataDelta.

Shreya: As you know, we’ve rebranded! We are now DataDelta. We’re a much larger team and we’ve expanded to Kenya and the Philippines, which, you know, you were leading a lot of early aspects of. But prior to this, you were leading DataDelta projects across eight states in India, and it was in the early phases of DataDelta, but did you find during that time that you were growing professionally, as you were contributing immensely to growing that service and the capabilities of this new innovation that IDinsight has just started?

Akash:  That’s a great question! And I think that’s a strong yes. So, for context, I joined IDinsight in 2016, as an Associate straight out of undergrad and at that time, I had very limited skills in things like Stata and understanding how to design evaluations, implement them, and then take those to the client. But I think those first two years at IDinsight were foundational in building that skill set. And I think that was a great point for me to join DataDelta. 

So I joined DataDelta, essentially as a Senior Associate at IDinsight. Spent the first year really  – at that time it was called Data on Demand – we were both at an early stage. I was very early in my career and then Data on Demand team was not even really a team or an initiative within IDinsight. At its core it was one project. So, we were working with NITI Aayog, on setting up this infrastructure and running surveys across eight states. And at that time, my experience and IDinsight’s more broadly, was how do we run these really high-quality surveys, in one state with 1000 respondents or 1500 respondents, and then the jump required was to go to eight states with close to 40,000 households and that was the requirement. So, it was a big jump for both me professionally, as well as for Data on Demand, now DataDelta. And it was also particularly challenging because I was transitioning from this Associate/Senior Associate journey into my role as a Manager. 

The first project I “managed” as a Manager was a DataDelta project, which at that time was all DataDelta was. It was this project called the Aspirational Districts Program with NITI Aayog, which is a think tank of the Indian Central Government, and the mandate was to collect socio-economic indicators across 40,000 households. So, for me, it was first learning how do you really start thinking about strategy. That was something that I had never experienced before – strategic thinking – when you have these three big levers of speed, cost, and quality, how do you really find that balance between those? Because in the sector till that point, we either had players, which were really high speed, but then potentially compromising on quality. Or players, which were really expensive, and then providing quality services. So, that was a big strategic question – how do we find that optimal trade-off? And so we came up with different ideas that we wanted to test out. But then the next piece after strategy was this idea of Lean Innovation. How do we run these rapid pilots? How do we do these experiments? While on the project, how do we come up with these almost – the way I think about these  – like micro innovations, which can actually lead to improvements on the ground? So I think one of the things that I remember distinctly is that we were just thinking a lot about how do we optimise the way we assign targets to surveyors. 

So on the surface of it, it feels like something that would be very straightforward, and you do that, but in fact, this was not me, this was someone on our team and I think that was also something I had to learn as a manager is how do you give teammates a platform to express great ideas and then run with it. One of our teammates, Anirudha as well as a former DataDelta Lead, Abhilash came up with this idea of why don’t we try and do assignments in a way that we optimise the distance travelled by surveyors. At that time, my instinct as a Manager was, yeah, let’s go for it! And what we ended up doing is we collected data from all the surveyors on where they are based, we then combine that with information we had from previous survey rounds on the locations of the respondents, and then we built out an algorithm to actually match in a way that we reduce the distance travelled by surveyors. And we immediately saw an increase in productivity. I think in the previous round, we were doing maybe 1.4/1.5 households in a day, and we jumped up to doing 2 households in a day, which sounds small when you think about it, but it can actually lead to savings in the range of 10s of 1000s of dollars. So yeah, I think those were the first two big pieces of strategy and then being able to do this kind of Lean Innovation to implement that strategy on the ground. 

I think the third biggest piece, which is a severely underrated skill outside IDinsight in the broader social sector ecosystem, is just people management and operations. How to be a supportive manager, how to invest in people’s professional development, how to motivate them to be their best selves, to bring their best selves to work, and in fact, bring their whole selves to work. And for me, it was a really big benefit – having that Associate and Senior Associate experience to draw on. So, what I was able to think through is okay, I had these managers when I was an Associate/Senior Associate and they did multiple things that were really good. But then there were things that I thought could have been improved upon. I had a lot of ideas from that space, and I think where I was fortunate was that I was working with two of the Founding Partners of IDinsight, Andrew Fraker and Ronald Abraham, and they really gave me a free rein. They were in that mode of, “Hey, Akash, you have much more real and recent survey experience than both of us, you understand your team better than us, and we trust you to make these big decisions.” 

So, I think a lot of things like deciding what the culture of DataDelta will be, which I’m so glad to see still remains to this day, which is a space where it’s very flat, anyone can come up with big ideas, anyone can implement them, whether it’s things like setting up a DEI working group, experimenting with how do we bring in more females surveyors into the workforce, professional development, I think that was a big space that I had. And my takeaway from that whole experience was, it was beneficial for me to learn what type of manager I want to be. But I feel like both DataDelta and I had this like symbiotic growth at that point where I think DataDelta also grew from this one project, we being tethered to one project, but then growing into this team. I was fortunate that three to four months into my tenure on the DataDelta team as a Manager, we had Krishanu who joined, as at the time, the DataDelta Lead, and Andrew getting more involved, we had this amazing team of Field Managers, which became permanently assigned to DataDelta. 

Shreya:  Thanks so much for sharing, it was very interesting to hear. And, you know, I’m part of the DataDelta team currently. And we take a lot of the technical aspects, systems and processes and the softer aspects of culture for granted. So, it’s been interesting to see you reflect on the early days. 

You mentioned that you started off in 2016, which got me wondering that your journey was spread over six years at the organisation, which is a supremely long time! In fact, you were a part of that cohort, where all of you joined as Associates and made your way up to Managers/Senior Managers before you left to pursue graduate degrees. And you mentioned a lot about how your growth has been like, but now that you’re on the other side of the table, what learnings do you see yourself using from whatever you picked up at IDinsight and as part of DataDelta?

Akash: Great question! I actually feel very strongly positioned in my cohort at the Kennedy School, because of this experience that I had at IDinsight, especially when I compare it to other classmates who obviously bring their own experiences and skills, which are extremely valuable. And I’ve learned a lot from them. But, I feel that I don’t think I could have asked for a better preparation than this six-year period, both in terms of the positives that I just picked up, and also from the challenges that I think really helped me learn what to do and what not to do. 

The way I have structured the learnings are that at the first level is on the technical skills side. IDinsight is definitely on the cutting edge of the way research should be done specifically from a policy-relevant perspective in terms of designing interventions and innovations that can actually be implemented by stakeholders and policymakers in a cost-effective way. So, I think having that mindset where you can combine technical rigour with operational constraints and real implementation, feasibility or administrative feasibility, I think is a very rare skill that’s built into the DNA of IDinsight, but it’s also something that I think is extremely valuable in a public policy, public administration role. And then on the technical side, whether it was knowing how to design evaluations and then implementing those from the survey side or the field side, but also from the data cleaning, data analysis, visualisation, interpreting those insights, developing reports. So I think that was a unique skill set that we came in with, and I can speak for all the IDinsight alumni who have come into the MP/ID programme or other policy programmes or even business programmes, I think folks have felt that they are very well prepared to take on complex economics and statistics curriculum. 

The second piece is on the communications and slightly more soft skill side is, I think, within IDinsight, a lot of us, especially those who started as Associates and moved into management roles, were very fortunate to be able to learn things like client communication, do internal and external presentations. I think that’s a very underrated skill, often in highly technical, and econ-heavy settings. But, I think we were very well positioned where in if there was ever any kind of class project, or even during our internships or future work opportunities, just very well prepared to present our findings, answer difficult questions, and maintain our composure in those tricky settings. So, that’s the second big piece. 

And then the third one, definitely, for me is this ability to manage. I think, both yourself as well as teammates. So, whenever I’ve been in a group setting, post-IDinsight, I’ve felt very comfortable in terms of being very quick in terms of thinking, “Okay, what’s our timeline? What are our key deliverables? How do we divide workstreams?,” I think those are things that actually we take for granted within IDinsight because we have this great culture of team and project management. But I don’t think that’s something that a lot of folks actually come with, especially early career professionals. So, as someone who had just come out with an undergraduate degree to be trusted with team management, really set me up to carry forward that confidence of “okay, if I have this big project assigned to me, I can break that up into smaller tasks, assign it to teammates, knowing when to delegate versus when to take things on,” and I think those are the three big buckets – technical, communications and then and then management, that definitely stand out for me.

Shreya: I can definitely testify to the management skills! I’m very grateful that you chose to focus on all of those aspects for everybody that you were mentoring as well. And I’m sure these insights are super valuable for all early career professionals listening in, you know, anybody who’s probably choosing to get into the space or are settling into their roles. So thanks for sharing! 

You know, in your previous answer, you mentioned how your journey has been symbiotic with DataDelta’s growth. And of course, it has happened in tandem both, your professional growth as well as DataDelta’s current expansion. So, when you reflect back now, can you share like one of your fondest memories from during your time at DataDelta, you know, something that you reflect back now, And you’re like, “Oh! Like we were onto something,” or this was something that we were doing great at that point.

Akash: Yeah, for sure! I spent a lot of time thinking about this in terms of which memory to pick, and I ended up with two, so I’m going to share those. 

The first one is from when I just started off as a Manager on DataDelta. We had this team, and I’ll list out the folks on the team, we had Andrew Fraker, Ronald Abraham, we had a great team of Field Managers, Pramod Kumar, Girish Tripathi, Syed Maqbool, Debendra Nag, and Lipika Biswal and then we had three fantastic Associates in Abhilash Biswas, Mitali Mathur, and Anirudha Vaddadi, and finally, we had our Economist in Will Thompson. We started out that journey, wherein I had just taken on as a new Manager, we really wanted to get everything right in that round. So, we were just going at it with this perspective of let’s start very blue skies, let’s try and find the best ways to do everything and one of our biggest targets was, and it sounds super simplistic, is we wanted to make sure that there were no delays in our overall timeline. So, we decided that September 26th or some date like that, was the day that the survey had to start. And to think about it, I listed out the team and it sounds like a big team, but it was essentially just about 10 folks who are going to manage a network of over 1000 surveyors, who are then going to manage data collection over 40,000 households within the span of a month with a budget of, you know, a few $100,000. So, it was just a very big task that I feel like as someone who was just you know, three years out of undergrad with not the biggest team, I think it was definitely very daunting! And, yeah, we created our own culture and everything was going extremely well, until the last night, when we were just about to launch the survey during what we do during our survey’s is this bench testing. Wherein we’re testing out whether the survey form is working smoothly and we ended up finding this very minor error. And, anyone who’s done surveys would know that, oftentimes, you’ll even find errors, you know, a day into the survey, we bench tested so much that we were just not getting anything, and we just had this one very minor error. In that moment, to me, what stood out was just the attention to detail and the commitment that “Okay, we will not send out this form, either with an error or we will also not delay data collection, because we’ve just set this up so well.” And I remember the whole team got together. Actually, it just required maybe one or two of us to sit and work through it, but I remember the whole team got together, we ordered some biryani for the team sat on the fourth floor of the IDinsight Office, and everyone just got together and brainstormed ways to fix it. Eventually, we realised that it was actually not a mistake on our part, but it was a limitation of the survey platform we were using in which they were not allowing, the number of complicated loops and setups that we had. So, we were all brainstorming, how do we work around a software limitation which is our form is so complex that even service providers are just like, “Okay, we can handle this!”  I still remember an error that we got was an error on the system was “We give up!” which was the form saying that we can’t fix this. But yeah, I think for me, what stands out is Field Managers who had to start other tasks and weren’t even directly working on the form, everyone’s stayed and made sure that things are wrapped up and left when it was perfectly finalised. And I think what stood out to me was there was no stress. I don’t think anyone was panicking. Everyone had a smile on their face, everyone was enjoying just that camaraderie, that team spirit and I think at that point, it made me realise that if you have the right team, you can push through some very difficult situations without having anyone blaming each other or, you know, trying to find flaws and find mistakes. So I think that’s one that definitely stands out. 

The other one that I think really stands out to me is something that Shreya, I think you’re also  familiar with, is our work on trying to improve administrative data quality across districts in India. And I think within the span of a month and a half, we visited 10 different districts spoke to District Magistrates, to frontline workers, and the idea was really, for us to go ahead and understand what are the barriers to having high-data quality in districts. What are the things that are going on? And, what we ended up doing is, we were just travelling from district to district speaking to folks and what I really appreciated was that ability to just find out the source of a problem, which is a very complex problem and the commitment of everyone to just wear these multiple hats. There were people who were trying to source data sets, there were folks trying to source paper formats, and there were folks who are trying to piece together this puzzle of how does data go from a beneficiary to the district, to the state. Every day, I think without fail, we would have teammates across five or six different locations, jumping on Zoom calls, trying to break down how this happens, and almost like making this something that they are so deeply invested in that they want to solve the problem. I think that culture to me is so rare. And it was extremely difficult. I remember it was during the pandemic, travel was difficult, but everyone still went above and beyond to try and solve these problems. 

I think these two experiences really stand out in terms of how great of a team we had been able to assemble in terms of how much everyone supported each other and wanted to put out good work, but also just the commitment to impact and high quality.

Shreya: Yeah. 100%. The second story that you mentioned, was like great onboarding for me onto the sector and into IDinsight and into DataDelta, because like you said it exemplifies so much of what the team wants to solve for – remain honest and get work done. So, that was extremely encouraging to hear. 

Before I let you go, Akash, I do have one last question. You know, during your time here, we’ve had multiple conversations around evidence use and impact and policy and you know, I’ve always enjoyed and valued you’re honest perspective. So, on a closing note, what advice do you have for IDinsight and the DataDelta team of today?

Akash: I think this is something that, while I’ve reflected on a lot during my time in IDinsight and DataDelta, but I think even more after leaving IDinsight and starting graduate school. I think having a lot more time to think about different projects that we did, and different experiences that we had. And some of the big learnings that I think really stand out is that there are a lot of important questions that we need to ask ourselves before, during, and after a project, which I think are very critical to our ability to have impact. 

Just breaking it down from that lifecycle view. Before the project, I think it’s very important to ask what the timeline is, what the setup is for decision making, who are the key actors, who are the key stakeholders, what is their ability to actually impact a decision, and are we the best actor positioned to do that. The second piece during the project lifecycle at IDinsight that I think we should consider is, are there certain changes that come to a project. So for instance, especially when you’re working with the government, there are things that come out, which are out of our control, for instance, let’s say a bureaucrat gets transferred a political party changes, how is that going to impact our Theory of Change or our strategy. I think far too often, social sector actors, kind of go with the flow without really critically evaluating what’s going to happen. They don’t go through the effort of rebuilding buy-in, rebuilding relationships, in order to achieve the mission that was decided before the programme started. So, I think that’s a big, big key piece. 

And I think at the end of the project lifecycle, one of the biggest questions is a very honest assessment or evaluation of whether impact happened. I think it’s easy to think of impact in terms of millions of people, in terms of hundreds of thousands of people, but I think one thing that I have been reflecting a lot about is, you know, starting small, like actually trying to see does this even impact one person? And for that one person, what is the actual depth of impact, trying to get into those feedback loops in a much more detailed way where you understand, “Okay, we worked with this client, we provided this information, did this impact a decision? If yes, who did that decision actually impact,” then trying to speak to stakeholders in that domain to understand what the type of impact was, and I think then having a stronger feedback loop, which publishes those learnings to the broader sector because I think there is not enough learning across different players, I think there are organisations which are very strong and many capabilities, organisations with really strong sectoral capabilities, and then organisations have a much better administrative understanding or implementation understanding of how to actually get things done on the ground. But I think if we are able to get those learnings across to different stakeholders build better coalitions, build better collaboration, then I think we’re in a much better place to implement programmes and have impact. So I think that’s from that lifecycle view. 

A few overarching thoughts that I think at least I’ve had during my time, in the Kennedy School in particular is trying to integrate, I think with the word interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary has been overused so much without ever actually gaining the traction it deserves. So, things like having a lens of politics, development cannot be seen purely as a political or technocratic space, so, thinking about how are we positioned in this development ecosystem as people who have a lot of privilege, as people who have the mic, how can we make sure that the communities that we want to benefit have a voice in decision making. Making sure we are implementing programs that are actually demanded as opposed to being decided top-down. I think that’s one big element, and one the things that can be done to address that is making organisations more diverse. Making sure your team represents the type of communities you want to serve because if you don’t, you’ll always have a mismatch and you’ll always have the risk of this technocratic slightly paternalistic human development. So, that’s one big political piece. 

I think the other piece is really thinking about scale and here there are lots of things from the private sector, potentially the business world that are helpful in terms of how to reach scale. In DataDelta a lot of the initiatives that we brought on were actually learnings from the tech space, ideas like using IVR, using machine learning, and data science, especially with all the innovation that happening right now and thinking about how you can leverage that information for social sector impact. 

I think those two key elements are the overarching pieces that I would add on top is a) the political piece and the power dynamics at play, but b) also trying to bring in best practices from other sectors to have a truly multidisciplinary approach. And IDinsight has been doing a lot of that, especially on the innovation side, in bringing in the Data Science, Monitoring and Engineering Team that has been working on data systems, monitoring, data science innovations. So, that’s a super exciting growth that has been happening and on the other side, I know there is the Dignity Team, which has been thinking a lot about bringing in that dignity lens. Both of these are exciting pieces and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing them become more integrated in the work we do on a daily basis as opposed to being more siloed. All that’s to say that these are things that I would love to see. 

Shreya: Thanks for sharing those detailed and insightful frameworks which I’m sure are actionable, so thank you for reflecting on them and for sharing them. It’s also a great note for us to close on. 

I’ve always enjoyed our conversations, Akash, and I’m hoping this is equally inspiring for our listeners as well. So, thank you for joining us, and see you around soon! 

Akash: Thanks, Shreya! It’s been great to reflect on these things and articulate them, so thanks so much for the interview.