Flat Pins. Round Sockets.

Any communication needs to have at least two ends – the origin and the destination. Most communication – at least the serious ones – are vectors. That is, they have a defined direction in which the information flow is intended. A whole stream of communication can be broken down into multiple vectors to study the communication pattern. However, no amount of communication can be successful if the origin and the destination do not follow an uniform communication protocol (that is why you won’t get far with your English in the city of Madrid). It is interesting to note how the origin and the destination respectively adjusts to arrive at either creating or at least translating to a common protocol (like I learn to say”¿Dónde está la estación?” in Madrid when I am lost near the train station).

Power plugs have always been a bane for travelers. A simple communication between a device and a power source had to be adjusted virtually for every continent and often for every country in a continent. The sheer magnitude of the problem created solutions that acted as translators – like universal power adapters. It took ages for either the origin (plugs) to arrive at a common standard or destinations (sockets) to be able to accommodate several. It is only recently that sockets in India can accept flat pins as well but no such luck at the origin end. Throw the matter of different voltages that go with powered devices and the situation becomes more complicated.

Software engineering is no different. The origin (product managers) have always struggled (and vice versa) to communicate effectively with the destination (engineers). Translators have emerged that try to engineer requirements from origin to a “destination friendly” language. UML for example. The translation layer added its own complexity since it was not natural to the communication process. This created another set of tool that helped in creating UML diagrams (translating the translation). And then engineers had to decode the UMLs (almost akin to modern historians dicepgering hieroglyphics). All because business and engineering could not establish a common communications protocol of stating and understanding what the other is saying.

So who should yield – the origin or the destination? The answer is, neither should have to, if the system is such set (remember – the ancient Egyptians did not have hieroglyphics to English translators because the system was setup such that everyone understood hieroglyphics). The lesson for the business is to keep product management and engineering as separate organizations but have them function joined absolutely at the hips. In my experience a requirement walk through that takes one day is far more effective than a five pound UML document that takes twenty to create and another ten to understand.

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Choosing a Leader

The qualities of a good leader are well known – ability to provide a vision, belief in himself and in the team, ability to reduce scatter and focus and above all excellent work ethics. There are others that are situation specific but you get the drift. I see a rather disturbing trend in the corporate sector – and this is not just in India – of creating a hierarchy that goes like this. A good performer can be made a good manager who in turn can be made into a good leader. It is undeniable that in some cases this sequential move can and possibly does make sense but making this a norm has dangerous consequences.

I keep a curious eye on companies that promote COOs to CEOs. A good majority of those companies fall into the leadership trap where they concentrate too much on internal workings (a COO’s forte) rather than leading the business externally with customers. Interestingly, many Investment Bank watchers look out for this cue (of COO’s made CEOs) as a sign that the Bank is in desparate need to clean up its house.

Team sports are even more interesting. While it is necessary for the team to have an on-field captain, the parameters that often dictate the choice is quite polar to the reason why a leader should be present in the first place. Selectors often play it safe by choosing a good performer because that ensures continuity, glossing over the potential absence of leadership qualities in the chosen one.

Americans display a different set a parameters while selecting their leader (the President, that is). Shashi Tharoor argues that often those parameters are quite not what the electorate in general posses yet they demand that their leader has them!

It is fascinating to observe the process by which different functions from different walks of life choose their leaders.

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Metaphor, The Power of

Why is software distributed on CDs and not on thumb drives? The question popped up in the recently introduced “LinkedIn Answers”. I chose to answer thus

Metaphors stick. And they continue well beyond their sell-by date. The “Save” icon in all MS Office Applications pictures a three-and-a-half-inch floppy drive, something that is a collector’s item today. But the metaphor stuck.

Software distribution is stuck with the CD metaphor. CDs are considered as “media” and hence – like what media should do – is used for propagation of content. Interestingly, a lot of companies give away thumb-drives containing publicity material and presentations during seminars, product launches and road-shows. It is quite likely that the same company is shipping its own software in CDs. Not that it is unaware of the channel – just that it is afraid of breaking away from the metaphor.

Any other thoughts?

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Why Does Your Company Exist?

The question should not be treated trivially, since the answer forms the bedrock of everything that a business does. It is entirely likely that the answer was thought of when the company was formed but unfortunately the answer evolves as does the business over a period of time. It stands to reason thus that the answer must be rethought periodically.

A lot of companies fall prey to vision hedging. That is, they define the vision of their business in long winding statements that leave scope for ambiguity. The businesses then hide behind this subjectivity and the business ends up driving the vision rather than the reverse. I encountered a fantastic vision statement in the 1999 Al Pacino, Russell Crowe starer The Insider. The evil CEO of the tobacco company espoused his mission statement as “We are in the nicotine delivery business”. For a moment shed the inhibition of this being a socially evil thing to do and concentrate on the pithy power of this seven-word statement. Nothing can be more clear than this. Once stated, adopting this around the company should not be a difficult matter.

I have seen Product Managers fall prey to vision hedging as well. Their products want to be many things to many people, sadly ending up as nothing to nobody. All products must have a vision statement that provides the purpose of building the product. Product Managers must then create themes for every release of the product and link them back to the vision. It is alright to change the vision but two rules apply

  1. Never change the vision frequently. Yes, we live in turbulent times but that should not be taken as excuse to create a volatile vision statement
  2. Keep it short and focused. Verbose vision statements that have more than four “and”s are an absolute no-no.

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Empty Business Class Seats, Why?

Empty seats in the economy class is not the airlines’ problem. Actually airlines suffer because of this phenomena, which squarely reflects economic softening. Nothing that the airlines can do about.

Empty seats in the Business and First Class is serious matter though. It beats me how airlines allow that to happen and not upgrade folks that are cramped in coach class. It is such a powerful gesture that is guaranteed to delight a customer. At the gate say “Sir, this is your new boarding pass. We upgraded you to Business. Complimentary. We hope you have a comfortable flight with us” if the airlines could sort out the bumless-seats upfront. If there still are empty seats, locate the person most uncomfortable in the lower class (someone single in a middle seat, someone right at the last row where the seats don’t incline completely) and make her day by guiding her to the higher class of comfort. When the marginal cost of upgrade is zero (okay, not completely zero but very close) then upgrade as many as possible. Make the switch experience dramatic for the user by skipping an intevening class if you can (take row 56E straight up the staircase to First Class). The simple gesture of costless upgrading buys a lifetime of loyalty for the airline. The airlines don’t get it.

The same thing applies to Product Marketing. If your product ladder has Base, Gold and Platinum versions then give away the lowest marginal cost difference items to some of your most irate customers.

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Wrlds Gng Fstr. Is It Any Good?

It stands to reason that the world is spinning quicker these days. Instant gratification is the new mantra of life and the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am way of existence has permeated through the fabric of life in every sphere. My boss wants e-mails to be Blackberry friendly (that is, amenable to be read on the handheld without exercising the scroll-thumb too much), Murdoch wants the WSJ to not carry forward stories from the first page and Twitter demands that your posts be kept to below 140 characters. It merits investigation if the demand for brevity is a manifestation of our increasing disability to hold concentration over longer periods.

It is difficult to not notice that the world around us has become chatty. From the languid letters to terse e-mails to omnipresent instant messaging to the alphabet soup of txt (sms) messages – our communication styles has pared down to our attention span. Or is it the other way around?

A cursory glance at our main media of communications would reveal that we are being pushed to multi-threaded thinking. E-mails have (a) a subject line (b) distribution list (both “To” and “Cc”) (c) possibly (multiple) attachments (d) the text body and (e) (possibly) hyperlinks in the text body. The reader of the message has to successfully process and decipher information coming in from these several dimensions. It is not easy to concentrate attention into one of these threads. With brain processing power not increasing proportionately to thread-multiplication, it surprises little that we demand communications to be brief. Goodbye to deep thinking.

The diabolical force of attention scatter is amplified by chatty systems that have become part of our existence. E-mails keep hitting our Inboxes incessantly and it is virtually impossible to abstain from opening them up as they happen. Each such digression scatters attention and the pattern soon creates multiple branches of thought, slowly removing the thinker from the original thread.

Then there is Google. We can search for virtually everything in there and it has provided us with the ubiquitous replacement of thought. Why think when you can google? A click here and a flirt with a hyperlink there give us what earlier used to take days of painstaking research. Google is supporting the degeneration of the mind (because someday Google will be the mind) and is indeed making us stupid.

Senior executives, who by the virtue of their exalted cerebral capabilities should have been immersed in deep thinking about tomorrow, spend most of their days “doing” e-mail. In other words, spreading intellectual capabilities thin all over the Inbox. At the other end of the spectrum, software developers probably would love to get specifications written in txt shorthand. A Use Case document is a much heavy for them to read as it would be virtually impossible for a Business Analyst to produce.

The world we live in was created by deep thinkers and even today we are either urged or urge others to “think through” a problem. It is not easy for us to do that if we succumb helplessly to this chatty world. Reclaim your mind – maybe just shut down Outlook for 4 hours each day.