How Does it Benefit You?

Coincidence it most likely is. Or it could be that I carry a visible only to others sign of “underemployed” on my person. Because twice during the course of the past week I was asked this question – “Why do you write? How does it benefit you?”. I mumbled some explanation to the posers of the question – different answers each time, making up in bravado what they lacked in logic – and made a mental note that I should make it a bit more public the motivations (?) that make me put pen to paper fingers to keyboard

Someone who has illusions of emancipation from the dire bottom of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid yet not having scaled the pinnacle of self actualization would try to make economic benefits from most acts. That’s understood and is quite normal. I have always been, continue to be and will surely maintain the trait of being bit of a buffoon in such matters. I do not have any intent of monetizing my writing. This blog does not run any digital ads, I have written for other publications and have never asked for money. So I guess that question “How does it benefit you?” is perfectly in order and the reasons have got to be outside of monetary gains

I write to clear my mind. Ever since I started writing – in whatever form – I noticed that the act of stringing my thoughts together forced me to clear my mind of clutter and helped me focus. This starts from the time a writing idea germinates. And on the other side of the coin, the alternate hypothesis reinforces this feeling. I am able to  easily correlate my writer’s blocks with periods where my mind wanders too much around. Distraction is a bane to thinking. So writing helps me think clearly (thinking clearly is a good thing, I hope you will agree) and sweep out cobwebs of my mind. Hence I write

I write to inform. The pompous idiot that I am I almost wrote the earlier line as “I write to teach”. Bunkum. What do I know that I will teach? Wisdom has eluded me as judiciously as economic development has in the hinterlands of India’s North East. I have however in my quest to learn accumulated information – information from different fields – which sometimes I feel compelled to interpret in the context of a particular line of thinking. That is what I put down on paper – my interpretation of information. I put it up on a public platform so people could come and tell me what they think (like recently a commentator, calling himself Verbal Clint, called me Kobiyashi. Ha Ha – actually no, that happened in the movie Usual Suspects. Verbal on this blog was kinder. He read my piece and pronounced me a “sad idiot”)

I write to leave a legacy. There was a time some ten years back when I lost someone with who I had shared a room in my college hostel. Losing a close contemporary makes one aware of mortality. And the thought of mortality lead to thinking of legacy – how will the world remember me when I am no more? Again, who am I to tell people to judge me in a particular way? All I can do is dip my fingers in paint and leave my fingerprints on a wide canvas. These prints are my writing. Hopefully they will survive the ravages of time and people will find it worthwhile to read them long after I am gone (hey Google, just don’t indexing these pages, ok?)

That’s it. These are the only three reasons why I write

Incidentally, not all authors write for identical reasons. For example, here is the brilliantly honest George Orwell telling you why he writes

 “I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery

But then, if I were George Orwell I would have written Animal Farm, no?

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The small matter of Culture

The July 2012 issue of Forbes India puts Flipkart, the Indian ecommerce giant, on its cover. Not that Flipkart – or its promoters – are alien to magazine covers but this time around there was a strong case made that things are not right with India’s leading ecommerce business (at the time of writing, the cover story is not available digitally, but a podcast with the journalist who wrote the story is here). The story criticized Flipkart’s business model, the fact that it did not build deep moats around its business and even questioned accounting practices in the firm. But what got Sachin Bansal, CEO or Flipkart’s goat was the article questioning the culture at Flipkart. The article alleged that top and senior management of the company were an exclusive club of IIT-D grads and outsiders have little or no chance of breaking through that glass ceiling (the article actually goes down granular to a particular hostel in IIT-D). Sachin Bansal chose to write back to Forbes India on the story and rightly for a CEO, took pains to clear the air on the issue of culture than other points that the article raised (well, he did write about the others but mostly spend his efforts to clear the air on culture)

The matter of culture is of deep significance to any business – more so for a startup. A startup has little leverage in terms of ability to pay to attract talent. It exclusively relies on equity options and most importantly a free flowing culture that celebrates talent and success. A CEO needs to – rather must – respond when that bastion is attacked. However if one looks around, it is not altogether alien to find closely closeted top management in many companies – ranging from the size and scale of start-ups to large multi national behemoths

One example right around the corner is Infosys, that adopted a founder-member-will-become-CEO approach that led to a power struggle leading to a very capable administrator in Mohandas Pai leaving the firm in April 2011. The Top Management was the founder member team that guarded their turf against external intrusion. It is certainly not uncommon to come across companies that have a strong affinity for a particular business school because the CEO comes from that alma mater. VCs sometime propagate the problem when they want to push their people into portfolio companies and source them from a shallow pool of their engineering or business school networks. Some Indian companies have had coteries based on other demography – like regional origin, caste and so on, especially in family run businesses

A CEO of a startup I met recently made a compelling case for agency costs creeping in when professional managers are brought in to run the business, thus introducing tactical costs as well as building up to situations of adverse selections. Such situations lead up to the outcome that the principal builds his team that minimizes agency costs. Organizations understand this phenomenon and sometimes mandate diversity as targets in groups. Having considerations of agency cost on the one hand and bringing about a culture of diversity on the other is a tough one for a CEO to balance. Personally, I really do not care so long as a kickass team is working in a kickass environment of achievement and getting to kickass outcomes. The real culture of a company, especially a startup, has got to be “success”. The CEO and the team he puts together have got to walk that talk. Where I really have trouble is where defensive coteries get formed leading to echo chambers. And if peeling a layer back on the coterie it is revealed that the echo chamber participants all share a certain common demography (other than being brilliant in their respective areas of expertise) then problems become like what Sachin Bansal is having to face

Microsoft’s “Tablet”: Under the Surface

It is not often that the words “cool” and “microsoft” get uttered in the same sentence. Or even in the same breath. And quite never in the same context. It is thus not trivial that the tech crowd were a bit jolted out of their microsoft cynicism when Ballmer went on stage to unveil plans of a tablet device from microsoft– one in which both the hardware and software will be provided by the software giant

The ipad killer?

Notice the inherent contradiction in the last sentence. Yet that is what is setting this initiative apart. Till now the only instance when microsoft tried doing anything linked with hardware was the Zune, which was a spectacular failure. We set that aside for a moment though not totally ignoring the fact (I hold that microsoft tried to create a music storage-playback device and chased the puck where Apple had hit it. By the time it slid to the spot, the puck had shifted to entertainment ecosystems and microsoft had no clue how to navigate). “Surface”, is a tablet device – the intention of calling it a tablet is to create a red herring. It is not a tablet in its truest form – it is a ultra portable laptop. Unveiling the ipad, Steve Jobs had mentioned that he felt there was a space between laptops and smartphones, which is where tablets found their home. What microsoft intends to do is merge the distinction between a tablet and a laptop by doing two things. One, put enough I/O ports in the slim body of the device and two, design a clever keyboard that is not obtrusive (and users don’t think of it as a keyboard). So their answer was a cover for the device that becomes a keyboard when opened up

Think how easy it will be for Apple to design and offer a similar smart-cover-cum-keyboard with its iPads. Quite easy, right? So this battle – and I hope microsoft thinks the same way – is not about the coolness of the device. It is neither about distribution because microsoft does not have retail presence in the same way as Apple does. This device also disrupts the hardware partners microsoft works with for their OS business as pure-play device makers like Dell and Lenovo have their tablet ambitions. So what strategy is this?

To my mind this is a strategy – a radical first for microsoft – of experience unification. Microsoft tasted a small, but I daresay significant for itself, success with the Windows OS (Mango, a Windows 7.5 version) on Nokia Lumia, vital to give it confidence that it may have a phone OS play left yet. With Windows 8 microsoft will go all out to provide a consistent OS experience to users of the PC, the phone and to capture middle-earth it is placing Surface as the current gold standard where it aspires all its hardware partners to reach. This OS, Windows 8, will unify user experience across multiple devices in a manner that only Apple has till now (Google also will, once we know what their Chromebooks will look like). How will this strategy stack up against Apple?

  1. Followers: Apple is a cult, microsoft is not. I do not see microsoft becoming one as Apple has built serious moats around its fanbase. And do not forget Andriod too – once Google and its hardware partners start serious refresh of their chromebooks
  2. Ecosystem: A device is just a conduit to achieve certain ends. Providing hooks to those ends are important. Computation on middle-earth devices are not intensive like they are on desktops (you wouldn’t crunch serious numbers using excel v-lookups and use link-labyrinth spreadsheets on a tablet device). Information consumption is moving to apps and consumption of entertainment artifacts like video and music is moving to proprietary distribution platforms. Microsoft’s Achilles Heel is the ecosystem or the lack thereof. And it is not trivial to build one as the third incumbent
  3. Distribution & Alliances: Google is the only other player which, after acquisition of Motorola Mobility, has the capability of combining both hardware and software in its device strategy. But Google’s intent around that is yet unknown and unproven more so, though it has an advantage of being the second player in that integrated play. In Apple Stores, Apple has fantastic distribution capabilities including a super efficient supply chain and 3rd party accessories partners. These are aspects of business that takes years to build (Tim Cook, current CEO of Apple ran Apple’s supply chain while Jobs was still around – that is the importance of supply chains) and that is a big moat for microsoft to haul a drawbridge over
  4. Enterprise: This is where microsoft has a definite advantage, provided it can establish the middle-earth device as an acceptable accessory in the enterprise market. Microsoft can – and will possibly – bring to bear its enterprise relationships to push this device. Apple had to use its fanboys to help penetrate the enterprises, which even to this date are guarded by IT Procurement chaps, who microsoft should know quite well by now

Those who are calling this microsoft move to pave ways for a fascinating battle are probably getting a little ahead of themselves. Drama value aside, early adopters rushing (and gushing) aside, I will not hold my breath for this device to conquer the battle for consumer middle-earth

Pic courtesy Microsoft website

Appshakes

I installed – like a few thousand others – the LinkedIn app on my ipad a few weeks back. The first thing the app did after installation was grab data from the native contact and calendar app that exists on the device. Quite natural – LinkedIn is all about connections so it was normal for it to start chasing apps that provide productivity help on that social intent. But then, Mr. LinkedIn app, if you are so smart, why don’t you chase the Twitter app as well? Or for that matter the imessenger app?

Therein lies the accessibility hierarchy of apps. There are apps that come bundled with operating systems – these are nascent to the device and does not have much content until you start using them. These are tools. Browser, Email client, Contact management, phone/calls management are apps that most devices come with. That these are OS level programs, another app that runs on the same OS possibly has the hooks to start romantic relationships with these. But not so with other apps that are “outside” of the OS bundle (Funny that in the Indian context this might be looked upon as trying to forge a relationship outside one’s caste or religion – a matter that has received enormous attention of late). However there are apps that can enormously benefit from such associations. Imagine you have a market data app on your mobile device on which you consume news, monitor stock prices and capital markets movements (and I surely can recommend you the best in that category – MarketBoard. Full disclosure: I work for Thomson Reuters!). And on the other side, you have your colleagues, clients, prospects and a vast people-ecosystem sitting in your LinkedIn app. If these two apps could speak with each other then the market data app could automatically mark up those stories that are hot with your LinkedIn connections, making it easier for you to stay informed with relevant news. The social app would benefit from a crowd recommended information engine rather than merely show what my immediate connections are sharing

Making apps work with each other requires effort to create alliances and partnerships that go beyond just understanding of operating systems. Alliances are by nature unstable – they are political in nature and power shifts continually between the partners. But I suspect – rather hope – there will be a few pioneers who will come up with ideas, which if successful could make in-device-intra-app cooperation more natural than it currently is

By the way, I am sure there is a possibility to have Talking Tom integrate with your LinkedIn app and do naughty stuff with your boss, but I haven’t quite nailed the use cases as yet

The “Business” Side

This Techcrunch article has been doing the rounds recently – if the solitary founder of a startup cannot code, what does she do? The way the sentence is framed is immediately apparent that – cet par – the solitary founder of startup who can code should find herself at a significant advantage over one who cannot. This sounds reasonable as startups never execute on known business models – they are looking to find a business model. So what good is a business guy who will dip into his hat for known tricks. Rather have someone who can discover her way to the MVP and write mean code – and keep pivoting – all along the way. This truism however does not reflect in my experience of having a fair number of technology folks who walk up to seek career advice. “How can I come over to the business side”, they invariably ask me

So what’s so great about this business side? It is not entirely apparent if you don’t dig a little deeper. The main reason is not to come over and start running with sales targets or marketing campaigns but a much ingrained desire to work with customers and users. Work, as in continue with what they are doing but understand the customer context behind all that. And if there are trickles of customer context flowing in, how can that be bettered to put the customer or the user at the center of what their primary job functions are. Sadly – and I am writing this from an Indian standpoint – careers of technologists have become relegated to back office functions, pushing them to seek out. They see their current engineering functions as a cul-de-sac and want to take an exit to a different lane before it is too late. Not able to sometimes articulate their desires correctly or in their naivete of picking up whatever comes their way that smells of a customer, solid engineering talent can easily get wasted in filling up RFPs, running account plans or going around asking users to fill up surveys. What a colossal waste

So if you are an engineer and have this desire to work with customers, the first thing you must do is congratulate yourself. You are thinking in the right direction. But at this stage do not take the wrong turn to walk to the nearest “business” guy you know. The better approach is to look into your chain of command and those adjacent in the same function to identify who in that is working with – or has the chance of working with – customers (and please, ditch that definition of “internal customer”. A customer is only those who write checks for the firm you work with. All the rest are your partners). Now this guy you reach might not be your boss (in most cases he will not be your boss as in that case you would be working with customers and not have this issue to start with) but that should not worry you

As an engineer who wants to work more with customers (or users) you should leverage your strengths, which I am assuming is in building technology solutions to customer problems. Hit that sweet spot with all you have. That’s much better than walking across to the “business” side trying to figure out how much discount to give a customer so he will buy a substandard, poorly engineered product