“Can you prepare a document in two weeks’ time that maps our product offerings to the customer’s context?”. I didn’t understand why I was excited at this ask from the senior colleague. You see, in the past few years, I had been more assisting others to produce content – be it a solution proposal or a commercial document – as opposed to creating something on my own. Recent changes in the team meant I do a different role – one that requires me to prepare a collateral of innovation ideas, sales plays, case studies and customer stories.

A week later, the excitement turned into a bit of nervousness. Up early on that weekend, I was coming to terms with the reality: I actually don’t know anything about this customer. Equally bad, I am out touch with recent innovations and product offerings. The feeling soon turned into anxiety, as I realised I have just a week to go and I hadn’t gathered certain details about this customer that I had expected to receive from a colleague.

You can now imagine why I didn’t publish any blogs recently.

Finishing a cup of coffee at 5:30 am, a moment of serendipity ensued. I gazed around the bookshelf and spotted my project report from the post-graduation days. Bayesian Theory based Troubleshooting Tree. We didn’t call it Machine Learning back then. “I did create a lot of content back then”. Rewinding further to the under graduate days, the mind wandered around the times of second year engineering, particularly of those anxious days before the Computer Programming exam.

“Help me with Math and I teach you Computer Science”, a great deal offered by my class mate who was a computer nerd but (surprisingly) dreaded the mathematical elements of the Electro Magnetic Radiation course. He had some past experience in writing code, while here I was, having never touched a keyboard. I had to deal with this upcoming test on C, C++ and FORTRAN, while still confused by some basics of programming. For instance, I never got the difference between an “IF” and a “FOR” construct.

I duly followed my part of the deal. We spent couple of weekends before the exam working out many mathematical equations and more importantly, some techniques in constructing answers to impress, and pass, of course. He was elated.

When it was his turn to help me survive the programming test, however, he acted weird. Suddenly his PC went kaput. The subsequent weekend, his mom gave him an errand. Or he fell sick. I was left with facing a prospect of failing an exam for the first time in my life. I realised my class mate had ditched me. Prayers didn’t help either.

On the day of the exam, seated on the front row of the bus to college, I still had an hour to do something. My neighbour was next to me – who was not (yet) a friend but one who went to the same college – and was busy going over a rugged old book on computer programming. I wondered out loud, how learning a different programming language (BASIC, if you remember) will help him write exam on C language. He then lectured me on how programming is all about logic, common sense and algorithms, and that syntax is just a means to an end while semantics is all that was important. As the time was ticking by, he shared some techniques like drawing boxes and arrows to construct a flowchart, and alerted me to write English sentences in a pseudocode before writing complicated coding statements in C++.

All those things my bus friend taught me ended up saving my soul that day. I just had to translate what he said to the questions. I took quite a bit of creative liberties in answering that day. I wrote and wrote; didn’t finish until the last bell rang at 3 hours and 1 minute.

How do I do it again, 25 years later for a different test ? A second bout of caffeine infused a bit of hope. I told myself, i can prepare that document, if I just stick to those exact techniques from those college days.

I perhaps need more reminiscing from the past.

I remembered how I made my own version of subject notes, in those days before internet and google: by corralling content from the original Russian author who wrote complex stuff about electron devices, simplify the language and complement by adding notes borrowed from those always-diligent-girls in the first row of our class. And splattering the boring textual content with mathematical equations, electronic network diagrams and name-dropping of jargons here and there.

I also recall how a few class mates who had never interacted with me otherwise, would come up and say thanks. Little did I know that copies of my notes had reached far off places.

This wandering trip to the past was just the kick I needed to get started with the document. During the next three hours, I googled and found many interesting details about this customer and their goals, strategies and what not. I also searched for content from internal corporate sites. Eventually I came up with a decent package. It was much easier than I had thought. The moment I realised I was creating something that does not exist, I began feeling lighter. And like those engineering subject papers, I ended up producing a comprehensive document that I felt proud of: an appealing construct of words, images, ideas and proposals.

In the end, the deliverable was reasonably well received. While I still have apprehensions whether this is going to be greatly useful, it did serve a purpose: to make a start, a pitch and create something original, if I dare say that word.

Because, it is quite controversial these days to claim anything original. We are inundated with content created by millions of people past and present. The fonts, colours, words, ideas and possibilities – are all out there. You just need to make a new sentence. Create a new perspective by mixing up things. There are several techniques in Lateral Thinking and Design Thinking that justify, or even encourage this copying – or building upon ideas from others.

I sense what makes your copy original is the context that you bake in. Its a paradox, we all have our own signatures in our stories, creations – whether they are mails, documents, presentations, talks, even texts.

Remember, you are unique.

Just like everyone else in this world.

PS: the scores from the Computer Programming exam from 1996: The mysterious class mate made 88 out of a 100. I surprised him as well as myself: a cool 78. Unfortunately, the bus friend who helped me out, ended up with much less. Perhaps, he stuck to the truth while I wrote a novel. In the end, he turned out be a better coder than many of us and is quite successful in the silicon valley nowadays.